What drives US foreign policy?
By Ian Aitken, the Guardian (London), 9 March 1999
Long years ago, when Fidel Castro had just taken over Cuba from the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, I learned an early lesson in what it is which drives US policy in Latin America.
It came to mind this weekend, when reading about America's determination to ruin Scottish cashmere knitters in defence of US banana companies in central America.
As a foreign correspondent in Havana, I heard that westerners, headed by an American adventurer, had been captured in the mountains and were accused of engaging in counter-revolutionary activities against the Castro regime.
So off I went to Pinar del Rio in western Cuba, to visit the American. I found him in a sort of barred cage inside the military barracks, along with several other Cuban prisoners. Their cell was decorated with a rather garish shrine to the Virgin Mary, complete with candles, propped up against the outside wall.
The American told me he was having a hard time, the food was lousy, and the only way he could survive was by bribing the guards - could I give him some dollars? I gave him $50 or $60, and left to file my story.
However, I got back to Havana in time to learn that my American 'friend' had escaped. It turned out that the 'shrine' had been concealing a hole the prisoners had dug in the wall.
Then he was recaptured in the hotel room of the Miami Herald correspondent, and the Fidelistas called a press conference in Havana to display their trophy.
I attended the press conference. But when the prisoner walked into the room, he immediately saw me and strode across to shake my hand and thank me for my help.
It was like the Judas kiss: a few hours later I was arrested and conducted to the Fidelista's security headquarters - the same building as had been used by Batista's much nastier security men.
Out at the back was a row of open cells, with bars for the front wall. Quite a lot of people were packed into these not-very-cosy dwellings. I was bunged into one of them, someone threw me a rather smelly blanket, and I was invited to go to sleep on the concrete floor.
After a while I became aware that one of the other prisoners was my ex-pal, the American adventurer himself. Towards dawn we rose up and stood by the bars. He was full of apologies for landing me in this trouble - an apology I accepted for the sake of companionship. But for reasons I shall never understand, it did not occur to me that my unjust imprisonment by the Castro regime (of which I thoroughly approved) would last long.
So I was thinking about the story I would write when I was - as I assumed I would be - released. To that end, I repeated a question I had put when I had originally seen my enforced companion in Pinar del Rio - who, I wanted to know, had been funding his operation in the hills outside the town?
At first he was hesitant. Then, quite suddenly, be burst out: 'Hell, why should I protect them? - they didn't deliver the guns when they said they would. It was United Fruit!'
It was a revelation. Everyone knew that United Fruit and its ally and rival, Standard Fruit, engaged in nefarious activities to destabilise Latin American regimes which seemed to threaten their commercial interests. But it had seemed like a piece of leftist legend. Here I was being told by a genuine American gunrunner and gunman that it was all true.
A couple of days later, I was indeed released, after a perfunctory interrogation by a young man in a floppy felt hat who had clearly learned how to behave in such circumstances by watching Hollywood B-movies. I have no doubt they had already learned what they wanted to know. I shouldn't think it was an accident that I was put in the same cell as the American.
My information was duly conveyed to the British Ambassador in Havana - a man who was wrestling with the problem that British jet fighter planes were actually being unloaded in Havana harbour for delivery to the Batista air force when Castro arrived in the town. I don't suppose my news came as a great surprise to him, or to his masters back home in the Foreign Office. They knew it perfectly well already.
But it confirmed what I was to re-learn again and again in my stint in Latin America - namely, that American policy in the region is dictated largely by the requirements of these great US fruit-producing conglomerates, and that anyone who stands in their way faces rather more than diplomatic pressure.
In those days it was often a landing by the US Marine Corps, or a discreet guerrilla operation such as the one my cell-mate was running.
But we are more sophisticated now. These days it is a trade ban on cashmere jerseys knitted in the Scottish Borders. In the end, though, it amounts to the same thing: naked imperialism.