Sunshine, Assassination & Secrecy: How the CIA Made Florida a Cold War Battleground (Chapter 4)

An even more blatant disregard for the laws in Florida came in the September 1968 attack of the Polish freighter ship Polanica.  The ship was fired upon in broad daylight from the MacArthur Causeway by Cuban exile and Miami pediatrician Orlando Bosch.  Bosch, using a homemade form of a rocket launcher, was arrested and jailed for his actions.  A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) report from the 1970s “reports on a plot to carry out terrorist attacks that will divert attention from the prosecution of Orlando Garcia Vazquez [also known as Bosch], a Cuban exile who was then head of the Venezuelan intelligence service.”[1]  This government report went on to state that this exile group, based out of Miami, was to carry out a “dramatic mission [that] should be a Naval operation against Cuban Shipping Enterprises, which should result in a maximum number of Cuban National killed.  The less dramatic action should be a bombing of a consulate, Embassy, or the like of any country having relations with Cuba.”[2]

Bosch, eventually released, largely due to the rising political influence of the exile community in South Florida, was again implicated in terrorist activities after a 1976 explosion of a Cuban airplane that killed 73 people.[3]  Although acting outside the U.S. government and CIA, this exile terror group, at one point or another was most likely in some form of contact with the CIA in South Florida.  Unfortunately, this contact, by the late 1960s and into the 1970s, was being used to carry out violent crimes in Florida.  Bosch in actuality has been considered by many in the exile community of South Florida to be a hero, not a terrorist.  In fact, in 1976 the Miami City Commission attempted to establish “Orlando Bosch Day” even though it was very likely he was guilty of these crimes.[4]

Even further claim of exile group criminal activities in Florida came in the words of Miami radio host Emilio Milian.  Milian stated that “it was enough simply to say that exiles in Miami should stop exploding bombs all over the city.”  A bomb (apparently planted by one of the militant exile groups) had blown off Mr. Milian’s legs in 1976.[5]  The case was eventually dropped in 1983 due to lack of evidence.  Two years earlier the offices of Miami based Replica Magazine were bombed by an exile group that did not agree with their policy that “everyone who wanted a chance to express his point of view” should have that right.  The publisher of this “Spanish-language” weekly magazine, Max Lesnik, exclaimed that in “exile in general there is a fever of intolerance which I have confronted and from which I have suffered all kinds of attacks.”[6]  Clearly, once the Cuban Missile Crisis and Cold War had somewhat cooled many of the CIA trained exile groups turned to violence and espionage and certainly impacted Florida’s rising crime rates.

Another very interesting and influential aspect of Florida society that was impacted during the Cold War was the often times friendly and helpful relationship that the CIA and military had with the local population.  When recently asked about his relationship with the local press in Miami, Manuel Chavez reported that “I had befriended a journalist named Hal [Harold] Hendricks, he gained confidence in me and I gained confidence in him.  He never asked me for any secrets or anything, what he knew he shared with us [the CIA], so he was very helpful, often times we were after the same information.”[7]  Clearly, according to this former CIA operative, the local press in South Florida seemed to help the CIA’s cause more than it hurt it.  Chavez continued to explain that the information given to the CIA by Mr. Hendricks was “absolutely accurate.”[8]  In this interview Mr. Chavez also made very clear that Miami Herald editor Don Bohning helped him and the CIA in general very much like Hal Hendricks had done.  Former Agent Chavez, in his publication The Berman Connection further stated that “The majority of the civilian population [in Florida] would support any Army (local) action against the communist dominated government [of Cuba].”[9]

Adding credence to the statements of Agent Chavez was Don Bohning himself in his 2005 work The Castro Obsession.  Bohning claimed that “it was not uncommon in those earlier days for reporters on certain beats involving foreign affairs to talk with CIA officers, much as one would talk to the political officer in a US embassy.”  Bohning added that The Herald’s executives were aware of the contacts.”[10]  Certainly, both Agent Chavez and Mr. Bohning believe that not only was the CIA relationship with the local press a good one, but this cooperation was also beneficial to both the press and the CIA.  The central reason for this mutual understanding appears to be the very real threat of war with Cuba and/or the Soviet Union.

In addition to the fairly good relations with the local press in South Florida it seems that the average local citizen in Florida was willing to help or at least accept the CIA and military presence in their back yards.  Bohning stated that the “tenor of the times and the threat next door [Cuba] contributed to a tolerant, and even cooperative, South Florida attitude toward JMWAVE activities.”  CIA boss Ted Shackley seemed to agree with Bohning and stated that “There was, first and foremost, a great deal of patriotism in South Florida.  When we needed things, we were dealing with people who had a memory of the Korean War and World War II.”[11]  Shackley continued to remark that “What’s important to understand is that it made it easy to work in that environment, a pro-government environment.  I can’t remember going to a businessman and asking him for cooperation who was not pleased to cooperate with the government and help.”[12]  Some of the businesses or enterprises in South Florida that either helped or assisted the CIA included: the Miami Herald, University of Miami, Florida Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Park, Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida politicians such as George Smathers and Farris Bryant, the Catholic Welfare Bureau of the Archdiocese of Miami, Pan American Airlines, Dade Collier Training Airport, LORAC Corporation, Homestead Marina, and numerous other businesses throughout South Florida.

The final major cultural impact linked to the Cold War in South Florida came through the field of politics.  Not only were state and local politics affected by the events of the Cold War, but national politics as well.  President Kennedy himself pushed heavily the newly formed American Space Program in order to be the first nation to reach the moon.  This alone heavily impacted the state of Florida and the nation overall.  Also, local politics in South Florida, becoming much more aware of the increasing Latin community, had to change their policies to cater, to a certain extent to this new, increasingly influential community.  The CIA, although losing its influence over the exile communities by the middle of the 1960’s was looked to by local politicians to help convince these exiles that their particular policies had their best interests in mind.  Although the CIA continued to attempt to influence the exile community and their political ideals it would not be long before the exile community came to influence the ideals of local politicians.  A 1983 Miami Herald article made this clear by claiming that “Political candidates, exile or otherwise, cannot win in Miami without paying homage to La Causa,” which is the term used by exile groups to refer to “the cause” against Castro and his regime.[13]

Although national and local politics were certainly impacted by the Cold War activities in South Florida, state politics were influenced most heavily.  For example, Florida Senator George Smathers, who had traveled with Senator Kennedy to Cuba in 1957, “argued that US neglect of Latin America and the refusal of the nation to fund development efforts there could lead to unrest and revolution.”[14]  Smathers, following the election of John F. Kennedy to the U.S. presidency in 1960 would become even more influential in Florida politics.  Documents show that Smathers helped the newly formed Kennedy administration “decide how to ‘best deal’ with the existence of Castro’s Cuba and prevent similar scenarios from developing elsewhere in Latin America.  Smathers spearheaded efforts to control the US sugar market and implement boycotts against Cuban products in order to deny Castro needed resources for Cuba and weaken his regime.”[15]  The actions and policies of Senator Smathers played a role not only in Florida politics of the 1950s and 1960s but also in the future, especially in policies toward the Latin population of Florida.

Even following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 Florida politicians, for the most part, continued to implement policies directly related to the Cold War in South Florida.  Influenced partly by the CIA and U.S. military forces in South Florida most Florida politicians came to believe by the early 1960s that the U.S. should not relax its Cold War policies in Florida.  Records show that Florida politicians during the early 1960s took several steps to make sure that their citizens were aware of the “dangers posed by communism and to protect the citizens of the state against the possibility of nuclear war.”[16]  Senator Smathers, since the late 1950s came to realize the importance of Latin America to Florida as well as its possible danger.  Smathers paved the way for future state policies directly related to the Cold War in Florida and was considered one of the most influential and important politicians of the period.  In fact, Smathers would become known as the “Senator from Latin America” because of his influence on American Cold War policies in Latin America and because he stressed the utmost importance of that region to Florida and American economic growth and trade efforts in general.[17]

Like Smathers, Florida Governor Farris Bryant also enacted state policies directly related to the Cold War in Florida.  Bryant, in office from 1961 through 1965 established mandatory classes for all state and local officials “in survival skills and civil defense procedures during the early 60s.”[18]  Many such “classes” were led by U.S. military and intelligence officers and seemed to show just how volatile the situation in South Florida was becoming.  Governor Bryant and the state of Florida also established “programs in Florida schools designed to make citizens more aware of the threat of communism and ensure that communists were unable to infiltrate Florida schools.”[19]  Bryant and his administration forced teachers throughout Florida to sign “loyalty oaths,” his administration also established new classes entitled “Americanism versus Communism,” in order to make known what he believed to be correct “American values”.  Bryant, after presenting many of his plans to the National Governor’s Conference, established Cold War and communist policies that would be implemented throughout the country.[20]  Bryant’s policies, established in the early 1960s would heavily influence Florida, as well as national Cold War policies, policies that would endure through the end of the Cold War in 1989.

In 1991 the state of Florida published a report indicating that the Defense Industry in Florida “accounted for $15.4 billion” dollars of the state’s overall economy in 1990.”[21]  Making up over 20% of the state’s entire industry as well as transferring military type jobs to the commercial sector, the Florida defense industry remained and integral part of Florida’s economy up through the 1990s and today.[22]  This defense industry build-up, which began largely following World War II was directly caused by Cold War activities in South Florida between 1950 and 1969.  This Florida government report went on to claim that the military in Florida has: given jobs in Florida to Floridians, increased productivity in Florida while decreasing unemployment, increased capital investment in Florida business, improved the educational foundation in order to further economic growth, encouraged stability and long-range planning, and helped to promote local business communities to take the initiative in networking and venture capital development.[23]

In addition to the long term effects on Florida’s economy, the Cold War influence of the CIA and military in Florida also helped to make the state one of the most ethnically diverse in the nation and in the process helped Florida become an international market in trade, banking, and other businesses.  On the other hand, the CIA and military presence in Florida between 1950 and 1969 also helped lead to higher crimes rates, Fascist government policies, and environmental destruction of Florida’s precious ecosystems.  Furthermore, the CIA and military actions in Florida during this period seemed to influence the state of mind of Florida citizens in a way that led to much less trust and interpersonal communication between the average citizens.  Helping to, in addition to the large population increase, give Florida an image of a place to go in order to escape and/or to blend in with a population that seemingly stays to themselves.  Steve Hach seems to sum up this feeling very clearly in his publication for the U.S. Department of the Interior.  The report mentions that Miami was a great place for CIA Cold War operations because of: easy access to Cuba, Florida’s less than strict gun laws, which made in easy to get a hold of almost any type of weapons, the fact that the Miami area and its tourist destinations were the playgrounds of mobsters, movie stars, and other “high class” members of American society in the 1950s and 1960s, and activities which surely would have drawn attention in almost every city often went unnoticed or unreported.[24]

The overall significance of CIA operations in Florida is no doubt still under debate by historians and government officials alike.  But what is clear is that these CIA and U.S. military operations, based out of Florida certainly played a role in shaping the Florida of today.  These operations impacted the state economically, demographically, politically, historically and even helped to form the image of the state.   With the release of more and more classified documents and the introduction of more scholarship, the literature concerning the CIA in Florida will become much more clear and consistent.  Also, to gain a truly objective view on the subject, the countries affected by these CIA operations need to be more aggressive in producing works of their own in order to construct a fair and accurate account of these matters.  Such works would certainly help expand the knowledge of these events in American and on the international level as well.  If and when this occurs, historians should have all the resources necessary to understand just how extensive the CIA and military impact was on the state of Florida.

Chapter four was the final chapter for this essay.  We sincerely hope you learned something from this piece.  As usual please leave any comments, questions, or suggestions you may have.  More essays and articles will be posted soon.  Please view the images below.

Bosch-1962 Cuban Mercenary and Pedatrician Miami
Orlando Bosch Cuban Mercenary and Pediatrician 1962 Miami
CIA office or base FL Keys
Possible CIA Cover Company in the Florida Keys
Civil Air Transport CIA pilot Robert Dutch Brongersma
Civil Air Transport CIA Pilot Robert “Dutch” Brongersma
Military Bases in Florida
Known Military Bases in Florida

[1] “Orlando Bosch And Anti-Castro Terrorist Organizations, Document 12: FBI, January 24, 1977, Secret Report, Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU) Neutrality Matters- Cuba- (Anti-Castro),” The National Security Archives.  (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office), 1.

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] Silva & Gugliotta, n.p.

[4] Ibid, n.p.

[5] Ibid, n.p.

[6] Ibid, n.p.

[7] Chavez interview.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Chavez, 198.

[10] Bohning, ix.

[11] Ibid, 130.

[12] Ibid, 130.

[13] Ibid, n.p.

[14] Hach, 14.

[15] Ibid, 14.

[16] Ibid, 25.

[17] Ibid, 14.

[18] Ibid, 25.

[19] Ibid, 25.

[20] Ibid, 25.

[21] Dr. William C. Oelfke, “Report On Military In transition In The State Of Florida,” Florida High Technology and Industry Council.  (Tallahassee, FL: Government Printing Press, 1991), 3.

[22] Ibid, 3.

[23] Ibid, 14.

[24] Hach, 58-59.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s