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Caribbean Cold War: Drinking Beer with the CIA

By Gary Oswald

Fidel Castro and his men in the Sierra Maestra

The Caribbean, and in particular the lesser Antilles, are mostly known in the west as peaceful tourist traps, where everyone spends lazy days drinking rum on the beach, a stereotype this article is going to shamelessly reinforce. The French-British TV series Death in Paradise, about a police force in a fictional Caribbean Island, relies on that perception, it is the contrast between the violence of the crimes and the peaceful nature of the setting that makes it work. But any truth behind that claim is only very recent.

For centuries the Caribbean was one of the most violent, blood-soaked places in the world. It had witnessed brutal wars between different Native American polities prior to European invasion and then far more brutal wars of extermination against those polities by Europeans. It had also witnessed the death of millions of African slaves dragged to the islands by European traders to work to death in sugar fields and then the bloody slave rebellions against that injustice in places like Haiti, something I have covered elsewhere on this blog. Moreover because of the value of those sugar islands, they became targets of other Europeans, not only in terms of the Caribbean becoming the centre of global piracy and the bases of the likes of Blackbeard but it also becoming the main targets of inter European wars. Naval battle after naval battle was fought over ownership of these prizes. As an example, Saint Lucia changed hands between various European powers no fewer than 14 times, earning it the nickname the 'Helen of the West Indies' as it was the Island who launched, and indeed sunk, a thousand ships. During major wars between the UK and France, far more ships were sent to fight in the Caribbean than to other theatres. For most of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, thousands of European and American soldiers and sailors were fighting and dying in the Caribbean, either against each other or against Slave rebellions.

1815 however bought about the end of the Napoleonic wars and the beginning of the concert of Europe. This saw the end of this violence, as the colonial powers in the region, Spain, France, UK, Netherlands and Denmark would not go to war against each other ever again and abolition would slowly be enforced reducing the island's value as prizes. The Pirates would likewise be hunted down now they had no chaos of war to hide in. But the 19th century was still not entirely peaceful in the region, emancipation only happened as a result of slave revolts in Jamaica led by men like Samuel Sharp in the 1831 Baptist War and Hispaniola saw repeated wars between the Haitian government and various rebels within both modern Haiti and what would later become the Dominican Republic. Both countries have a very unpeaceful recent history marred by civil war, crime, massacres by dictators and, in particular, occupation by the USA. As of me writing this article there is currently talk of US soldiers being sent to Haiti to protect the unpopular ruler there against a feared uprising, something that in terms of American interest dates back to the mid 19th century. The 19th century also saw Cuba finally win its independence from Spain after a long and bloody rebellion.

These two trends, a USA firmly flexing its muscles in the Caribbean, and a newly independent Cuba would define the main conflict in the Caribbean within the 20th century, the Cold War. Independent Cuba was originally an American puppet state, whose government had been installed by American soldiers during the Spanish-American War. In particular US backed dictator Fulgencio Batista held his position firmly by American support and slowly sold control of the Cuban economy to American businesses. By the late 1950s, U.S. financial interests owned 90% of Cuban mines, 80% of its public utilities, 50% of its railways, 40% of its sugar production and 25% of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total. With the doors open American crime families, like the mafia, also used Cuba as a base, they funnelled dirty money into Cuba to build casinos and hotels, hoping to create a criminal empire outside the United States where they had influence over local politics but could not be affected by U.S. law enforcement.

This environment, where in an oppressive brutal dictator armed with US guns was selling his country's economy to American criminals, led inevitably to backlash. From 1953 to 1959, Batista would find himself opposed by Fidel Castro's socialist 26th of July Movement, who would eventually overthrow him in the Cuban Revolution, setting up instead a Communist dictatorship. Castro would also nationalise the Cuban economy and end the dream of the Cuban Mafia empire. Thus there was fears of two new forces that could emerge in the Caribbean to challenge US hegemony, an increasingly outward looking Communist Cuban government, which would sent military aid to socialist regimes across the region, and a recently chastened criminal empire. And this was during the time in which British decolonisation was happening giving them an increasing amount of potential new real estate to fight over.

Flag of West Indies

Cries for decolonisation in the British Caribbean was mostly led by the members of their largest colonies, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago, but, with Whitehall terrified of being stuck with poor black majority countries like Barbados or St. Lucia who might vote for an unwanted integration, would involve the islands of the lesser Antilles too. The original British hope was that this would happen in a federation, thus making the smaller Islands Kingston's problem. Integration of the Antilles was sold to Jamaica on the idea that each island could not fund itself so needed union. They were told that industrialisation could only happen with a Caribbean customs union. And the UK joining the EEC, which Whitehall hoped to do, was in many ways the death knell of that customs union happening within the Empire. French Martinique and Guadeloupe had moved away from an economic model of agricultural exports but the likes of Barbados or Nevis hadn't. Without special protections, the end of imperial preference would be horrific for them unless they could replace it with trade with their neighbours.

The West Indies Federation existed for four years between 1958 and 1962 but only as a colony of the UK and delays over full independence, combined with Jamaican discontent with the Capital being in Trinidad meant it ultimately collapsed. The islands would instead earn their independence during the 1960s to 1980s as nine separate countries. This was a big worry back in London, on the basis that these Islands tended to be controlled by local 'big men' leaders who they were scared would end up much like Batista, by either inviting in the Mafia or being overthrown by Cuban backed communists.

This would prove a gross underestimation of the stability of these new countries, which largely did become the peaceful tourist traps of stereotype but it was not entirely baseless. The remaining three articles in this series will cover three major crisis points within the lesser Antilles during and after decolonisation, the British invasion of Anguilla in 1969 when the federation of Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla collapsed into civil war due to the unpopularity of Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw, the American led invasion of Grenada in 1983 after a Cuban backed communist revolution had overthrown the government of Eric Gairy and the 1981 plot by ousted leader Patrick John to overthrow the new Dominican Government with the help of American criminal and white supremacist organisation such as the Ku Klux Klan.

This article, however, will focus on a lesser-known incident, one involving the CIA. The CIA was active in the British Caribbean, it almost certainly funded and protected the Cuban exile terrorist organisation CORU which bombed a series of targets in Barbados during 1976 to protest the newly formed Barbadian government ties with Cuba, culminating in the death of 73 people when a bomb was planted in the Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 while it was docked in Bridgetown. But the CIA was primarily involved in Latin America.

And in particular it was active in the Swan Islands. The Swan Islands are now part of modern-day Honduras, as they lay around 153 kilometres off their coast and are inhabited by a Honduran Naval base. But in 1856 the US Congress passed the Guano Islands Act, which allowed any US citizen to take possession of any uninhabited island containing guano, or seabird excrement, which was desired as a fertilizer. From 1857 onwards various US companies claimed the Island, including the United Fruit Company which claimed most of Central America, the Atlantic and Pacific Guano Company and the Swan Island Commercial Company which provided hurricane monitoring data to the U.S. Weather Bureau and who used the Island as an animal quarantine station for the transport of cows. In May 1960, the Island was bought by the Gibraltar Steamship Company, which was a shell company owned by the CIA.

NASA Satellite image of Swan Islands, Honduras

On Great Swan Island, the CIA built Radio Swan, a pirate radio station which posed as a regular commercial broadcaster but increasingly began sending out anti-Castro propaganda in Spanish, despite Cuban attempts to block it. In early 1961 it switched to all news setting, with reports on Cuban atrocities intermingled only with coded messages to anti-Castro Cuban groups organising their movements. This was laying the groundwork for what would become known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, an April 1961 invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles supported by the USA based on the successful CIA orchestrated coup in Guatemala in 1954. The invasion was a famous failure which boosted the popularity of the Cuban government, discredited the USA and drove Castro further in the arms of the Soviets leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Andy Cooke has covered previously as being the point where the world came closest to Nuclear War.

But the entire invasion could have been called off earlier, because Radio Swan was almost captured by accident in 1960.

Honduran Patriots had wished to capture the Swan Islands since 1923, when their country had first claimed them. They viewed the continued occupation of these Islands by American companies as a humiliation and in March 1960 they were particularly outraged when a US census found that 23 cattle farmers had moved there from the Bahamas and were farming on, what they thought was, rightful Honduran land. 13 or 17, depending on the source, Honduran youths, mostly University students, armed with guns arrived on the Island in July 1960 to plant the Honduran flag and sing the national anthem.

The CIA worried that this would lead to them finding the Swan Radio station and possible damaging it, prior to it being able to organise the attack on Cuba. The agents on Swan Island messaged their headquarters for orders and were told 'Give them plenty of beer and protect the family jewels [i.e. the radio station]'.

The men on the island reported on the ongoing situation in the following messages to Langley, late decrypted and released by the CIA.

Swan to HQ: honduran ship on horizon. beer on ice.

Swan to HQ: talked to students. they confabing [sic]. have accepted beer.

Swan to HQ: students mixing cement in which they intend to write “this island belongs to honduras.” one group malingering, listening to eartha kitt records and drinking fifth beer.

Swan to HQ: students have just raised honduran flag. i saluted.

Swan to HQ: beer supplies are running low. now breaking out the rum. these kids are great.

Swan to HQ: students have embarked for honduras. liquor supply exhausted. family jewels intact.

By the cunning use of beer the agents, posing as employers of a weather station, had defused the situation and the student invasion became an annual tradition and party until 1971 where the US agreed for Honduras to take control of the Islands, presumably to save on liquor costs, and Swan Radio was moved to Vietnam. The situation had become so well known that in 1965, Texan police stopped a bunch of youths with guns who were aiming to fly out to Honduras to join the next invasion of Great Swan Island.

But things could have been far darker as the agents and students were not the only people on the Island in 1960. A contingent of marines had been stationed at the radio station and they were ordered to be on guard and protect the crown jewels with force if the beer didn’t work. It is entirely possible that had things gone worse, a firefight could have developed and some of the students could have been killed. It would hardly be the only time the CIA would kill Latin American civilians and it might go as un-noted as the rest but it also might not.

Ramón Villeda Morales, the President of Honduras in 1960 was relatively friendly to the US government and was more worried about being deposed by his reactionary military, which would eventually happen in 1963, but the death of some of his citizens by US marines, if leaked, might put pressure on him to respond publicly. Given, then Presidential Candidate, John F. Kennedy's desire to reset American relations with Latin America (Kennedy would propose the Alliance for Progress as a way for the US to fund economic development in its neighbours which Morales was a keen supporter of) then it is likely any public scandal becomes a part of the ongoing 1960 US election campaign. If so that almost certainly sees the end of Swan Radio and possibly even the shelving of the Bay of Pigs plans altogether, which changes the complexion of Cuban-American relations and possibly prevents the Cuban Missile Crisis and so the installation of the nuclear hotline. The world could have been very different if those handful of Honduran students had instead been teetotallers.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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