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Howard Hunt was an early operative for the CIA, playing a key role in "Operation PB Success," the U.S. plot that successfully overthrew the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Later, Hunt was involved in attempts to remove Fidel Castro from Cuba, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. After resigning from the CIA in 1970, he became covert operations chief for President Nixon's White House, where he directed the infamous, bungled burglary of the Democratic Party's headquarters at the Watergate office complex. Howard Hunt was interviewed for COLD WAR in September and October of 1997.
On U.S. plots to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala:
I always felt that in forming a task force to overthrow the communist government of Arbenz, that we did the right thing, but perhaps for the wrong reason: that reason being, I wanted it to be purely for our national security and to bolster and revere the Monroe Doctrine; whereas, when I was finally called up from Mexico City to confer with [General Walter] Bedell Smith and some of the other high-ranking members of our national security apparatus, it turned out that the reason that they were having a change of heart [in favor of intervention] was because Thomas Corcoran, who was the rather famous lobbyist working for the United Fruit Company, had persuaded Eisenhower and some other high dignitaries to take this matter under very close advisement and get going, do something about it.
So I felt a little bit betrayed when I learned that, because I thought, "Hey, you know, I'm working for the United States of America, I'm not a hireling for United Fruit." But I went ahead with my assigned tasks in any case, and if United Fruit benefited from it, that was part of the set game, I suppose you could say. ...
I was not part of the military planning for this operation; I was in charge of the political and the psychological warfare aspects. And the old slogan "You can't beat someone with no one" was very much at the front of my mind, and from various sources I was able to pull together a sort of a preferential panel, or group of three prominent Guatemalans who were outside Guatemala. We could only deal with those who were outside, because those who were inside were in tough shape thanks to Arbenz's secret police.
[The key figure was] Colonel Castillo Armas. ... I had his bio and his photographs and so forth: he was in refuge in Honduras at that time. I realized that "This has got to be our guy." He was an extraordinary fellow himself; he looked pure Mayan: he had the bronzed skin of the Central American Mayan or Aztec, and the hooked nose; a little, short, squat guy; very, very, durable individual. He'd been imprisoned by Arbenz for a long time, and had tunneled out of the prison with his bare hands, made his escape that way, and got into Honduras, where our chief of station contacted him and made his location available. ...
[So] we went with Castillo Armas, and he had of course adherents from the army who were in exile with him in Honduras. And so it was a relatively simple thing for him to draw more people to himself. Once he was assured of the United States backing -- and I didn't make that assurance to him; another member of the team did -- then he went all out and got this group together, and told us what we were going to need and what his suggestions were to make the operation work.
On the U.S.-directed 1954 Guatemalan coup:
I suppose the example that I can best turn to, although I rather hate to, is [that] what we wanted to do was to have a terror campaign: to terrify Arbenz particularly, terrify his troops, much as the German Stuka bombers terrified the population of Holland, Belgium and Poland at the onset of World War II and just rendered everybody paralyzed.
We had acquired some aircraft, and the Guatemalan propaganda team prepared leaflets, which were in several phases. You know: "Beware: the day is coming," and so forth. And then the next air drop would have a slightly different theme, but they were all focusing basically on the main situation, which was that Arbenz was a "baddie," that he was selling Guatemala to a foreign power, i.e. the Soviet Union, and that this should not be tolerated by the Guatemalan populace.
And when the D-day actually came, these P-47s made a couple of low-level, relatively harmless strafing runs over the city. We didn't want to kill civilians; they dropped a few smoke bombs and concussion bombs to frighten people so that they just stayed indoors. And actually, the Guatemalan army was confined to barracks.
When Arbenz tried to get a message out over his own transmitter, he found that his words were not being heard, because our [radio] station in Guatemala was telling all of Guatemala, and indeed all of Latin America ... that Arbenz had fled; Arbenz and his cabinet had fled and left the country naked, and that was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm by the locals. ...
Did it surprise me that they did not fight? Very much. We all anticipated an armed struggle -- not of great proportions or of long duration, but we did anticipate [resistance]. ... I found it hard to believe that there had been no bloodshed, no armed confrontation. Castillo Armas only had about 140 people working for him, a ragtag group if there ever was one. But then we had done the same thing in another part of the world a few years earlier. People don't have to be in spiffy uniforms, just so long as they can form a military presence and impress the population. ...
The great mistake that the United States made at the termination of the project, was that, as in so many other instances, having achieved objective "A," we turned our backs on Guatemala and went about other things that were of higher priority at that time to that Administration or succeeding Administration, and left this army colonel, Castillo Armas, in charge of a country without [giving] him any backing: we didn't send in advisers, we didn't do anything particularly financially for him.
I guess we figured that United Fruit would take care of him. Whether they did or not, I don't know. But by the time he was assassinated three years later, by a soldier and his bodyguard (who was an ardent listener to Radio Moscow), there was no fall-back position. ... Three years were insufficient for an untutored army colonel of questionable educational background to establish a kind of a democracy in Guatemala that we hoped would flourish and grow. But the United States has always done that: we settle for immediate objectives and, unlike the Soviets, did not have our eye on the distant future.
On the Bay of Pigs:
Things were getting desperate [in Cuba]; and then suddenly Batista fled, and Castro was in. So I was yanked back from [where I was stationed in] Montevideo, where I would have been content to spend the rest of my life, and told: "What we're doing is reassembling the PB Success' team" -- that is, the Guatemala operational team -- "to take care of Castro, as we did before."
Well, of course, this was a much different situation: a much larger body of land, an entrenched, well-trained, devoted communist group of followers of Castro -- and the kind of psychological warfare we were able to run against Castro was insignificant in the long run. Castro was secure, and he was beloved by millions in Cuba, and it was a different situation than Guatemala. So, instead of our having a problem such as we had in Guatemala, of using less than 200 locals to overthrow a government, we were faced with a Cuban army, a Cuban militia, a loyal population -- loyal to Castro, that is. He had his own air force, and really his own navy. None of these things obtained in the Guatemala situation.
So ... it just grew and grew and grew. My role was very similar to what it had been in the Guatemalan project; I was located down here in Miami, in Coconut Grove; I was equipped with a safe house. And by that time, several hundred thousand Cuban exiles had come over here and made their home here. I was told to go over to Havana undercover, and give a personal assessment of the situation. The main object that I was to consider while I was there was the strength of Castro's popularity on the street: in short, if there is an opposition invasion of Cuba, will the populace take up arms against Castro, or will they stay loyal to him? I stayed three or four days in Havana at that time, got out on the street, talked with a lot of people -- taxi drivers, naturally, and men and women who ran these small lunch stands down at the waterfront -- and all I could find was a lot of enthusiasm for Fidel Castro.
When I came back, I wrote a top secret report, and I had five recommendations, one of which was the one that's always been [attributed to] me: that during or slightly antecedent to an invasion, Castro would have to be neutralized -- and we all know what that meant, although I didn't want to say so in a memorandum with my name on it.
Another [recommendation] was that a landing had to be made at such a point in Cuba, presumably by airborne troops, that would quarter the nation; and that was the Trinidad project: cut the communications east to west, and there would be confusion. None of that took place. Once, when I came back from Coconut Grove and said, "Is anybody going after Castro? Are you going to get rid of him?" "It's in good hands," was the answer I got, which was a great bureaucratic answer. But the long and the short of it was that no attempt that I ever heard of was made against Castro's life specifically.
President Ydigoras Fuentes of Guatemala was good enough to give our Cuban exiles a training area in two training areas in his country, one in the mountains, and then at Roberto Alejos' [plantation] we had an unused airstrip that he gave over to us, which we put into first-class condition for our fighter aircraft and our supply aircraft, and we trained Cuban paratroopers there. And the brigade never numbered more than about 1,500, which was 10 times more than Castillo Armas commanded. ...
I was instructed by Eisenhower's Office to tell the exile leadership that I dealt with every day that the United States would cover the landing groups, the landing brigade, and that there would be no hostile air [power]. That was a definite commitment made by the Administration to me, and a commitment that I made to the Cuban exiles. So there was no reason to think that anything was going to fail. ...
Then, in the midst of all that, there was a [U.S.] national election here in November, and the Administration changed. And things were static for a matter of weeks, and our natives there were getting very restless in their training camps, and I was summoned down on one occasion to, quote, "put down a mutiny," unquote, which was a rather hysterical appreciation of the situation that just simply meant that these men had been told that they were going to be able to get moving soon, and that hadn't happened.
So it was really after Christmas that year before Kennedy's group gave what turned out to be a limited approval, and Dean Rusk insisted on a change in the original plan: he said that an airborne landing at Trinidad, quartering the country, would be too obviously American and it would result in a "big bang" -- and he wanted something with a smaller bang. And so despite all of these difficulties and changes and everything, the brigades set off from Nicaragua and from Guatemalan ports headed for southern Cuba. And we had our own fighter aircraft go in and strafe the Cuban airfield, to suppress any hostile air. But as it turned out, they didn't get all of the aircraft; they came back to Miami and to -- I'm sorry -- to Honduras and Nicaragua to rearm.
And at that point, they were told to stand down. Meanwhile, our ships are heading for the Cuban coast, and by then Castro, of course, was alarmed -- the planes having gone in and strafed Havana, for Lord's sake -- so he was on a high alert and our ships were unprotected. Finally, we got a semi-okay to arm the aircraft and get them moving. By that time, the Cuban air force, [though it] only had I think six aircraft left, could fight for awhile and then land, refuel and take off -- just the way the Brits did in World War II. It was their home, [but] we had to fly 1,000 miles -- so that was very difficult for our pilots, many of which were shot down.
So the reason that the Bay of Pigs failed was that the original promise made by Eisenhower was not kept by the subsequent administration. It allowed hostile air to wipe out the approaching invasion force.
Fidel Castro | John Negroponte | Daniel Ortega
Howard Hunt | Ana Guadalupe Martinez | Oscar Sobalvarro