Cuba was my father’s first assignment with the CIA. He was young, only 26, when he began working at the Board of Estimates. His job was to monitor the intelligence on missile deployment in Cuba. “I watched the whole thing,” he said to me once, “saw the entire build up.” He joined the agency of his own volition in 1962. He had been working within the city manager’s office in San Antonio when he decided to fly to D.C. to interview with different agencies. The Cold War terrified him. “I thought the days of the US were numbered,” he said, “I really did.”
I traveled to Cuba for the first time last spring. As I walked the streets of Havana, my father haunted me. It felt taboo to be inside the country he had for so long considered ‘the enemy.’ At the same time, being in Cuba made me feel close to him. I think many children of spies feel this way. We feel close to our parent when we’re in the countries and places they were once assigned. His work at the CIA was more a calling than a job, and as a father, he was more absent than present. It’s not strange for me then to think of him acutely when I travel. That’s when I most feel his energy, his presence.
But Cuba was a place he never traveled to and yet I felt him there. He was a 1950s sort of person, a man who wore Brooks Brothers suits and horn rimmed glasses. Cuba feels locked in the 50s too, a place where old Chevrolets roar down avenues, passing faded, Cold War slogans that span buildings and billboards.
They say that the older generation of Cubans mourns the passing of Castro more than the young. Some say he is the only leader they have ever known. I wonder how Dad would have felt, if it would be odd for him, after so long, to finally lose his ‘enemy.’ Would it have felt, on some level, even bewildering? Then again, Dad was a practical person, someone who adapted readily to change, and there is no denying that change has now come. The future relationship between the United States and Cuba stretches out before us, long and uncertain. To me, it’s an opportunity. I wonder if Dad would agree.
The Cuban flag now hangs at the newly re-opened Cuban embassy in Washington D.C. The Cold War freeze is thawing. But I wonder what Dad would have thought about these changes. He worked on the Cuban Missile Crisis after all, and growing up I remember hearing plenty of criticism of Castro and other totalitarian leaders. When I asked about this assignment, his first with the agency, he said it had been his job to watch the Soviet build up. “I read reports from all over the world. Watched the whole crisis.”
Reading his book was like meeting a different father.
Six years ago, he published a book about this experience, called Mind-Sets and Missiles: A first Hand Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In it, he described the crisis from his point of view. When it came out, I remember thinking I would find the dad I remembered from growing up – someone who always defended US foreign policy, and who rarely agreed with my criticisms of the US. But my politically conservative dad, the one who always championed US interests and seemed seldom critical, was in his book. In Mind-sets and Missiles, he criticized the way surveillance was conducted during the crisis and argued for changes to intelligence gathering. Reading his book was like meeting a different father.
We are all more complex than we seem.
In another conversation, when I asked how he ended up in the CIA in the first place, he told me something else I didn’t expect: it wasn’t the first organization or the only one he interviewed with. He interviewed with the FBI and AID. Even the Peace Corps. When he told me that, I almost fell out of my chair. The Peace Corps? Dad could have been building irrigation ditches or helping villages install clean drinking water instead of meeting with informants and telling cover stories? If he had signed on with the Peace Corps, maybe he would have been someone I understood more, someone whose beliefs were more like mine. To my mind-set, he had always only wanted to be a spy and would have never considered anything else.
But we are seldom who others think we are – especially spies.
If he had lived to see this day, I wonder what Dad would think about the current shift in US and Cuba relations. Maybe he would stay inside his Cold War mind-set and disapprove. Then again, maybe he would surprise me. Again.