How Britain plotted to spread homophobia in Cuba

The Foreign Office launched covert operations against Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba after it took power in a popular revolution in 1959, newly released files show.

Fidel and Raúl Castro (Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP via Getty)
Fidel and Raúl Castro (Photo: Adalberto Roque / AFP via Getty)

After the US cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961, the British embassy in Havana functioned as a proxy for US covert action and intelligence gathering against Castro’s government.

British operations, undertaken by the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department (IRD), were designed to delegitimise Cuba’s promotion of wealth distribution and to support US attempts to overthrow Castro.  

The IRD, a cold war propaganda unit, sought to censure key Cuban officials and even plotted to spread homophobic rumours about Fidel’s second in command and brother, Raúl Castro.

Newly-released British files also show that during the 1970s, the IRD produced forged documents in an attempt to attack Cuba’s anti-apartheid campaigns in Africa.

Mongoose and Northwoods

Cuba was a focal point of East-West tensions during the cold war. The emergence of a revolutionary government just 90 miles off the coast of Florida was intolerable for US planners, and the CIA responded by launching a series of covert operations designed to topple it.

In 1961, the CIA instigated a military incursion into Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. When this failed, the US initiated Operation Mongoose, a secret programme designed to remove Castro by any means necessary, including plots to assassinate him and his closest advisors.

The following year, the US even made a plan to commit terrorist attacks on US soil to provide a pretext for invading Cuba. Codenamed Operation Northwoods, the plot was described by its own author as perhaps “the most corrupt plan ever created by the US government”.

The US also embarked on a wide-ranging propaganda offensive against Cuba, setting up clandestine radio stations and a psychological warfare group.

Promoting homophobia

While the US effort to overthrow Castro is infamous, very little is known about British operations in Cuba. 

In August 1962, Leslie Boas, Britain’s regional information officer for Latin America based in Caracas, Venezuela, circulated a report on the leading political personalities in Cuba. “Having read the report”, Boas noted, “it has occurred to me that we could make effective use of some of the information it contains for propaganda purposes”.

He continued: “We could put out, in a completely unattributable fashion, a leaflet entitled ‘Personalities of the Cuban Revolution’ in which the more dubious aspects of the leading figures in the Cuban scene would be highlighted”. 

The IRD was asked to “do some research” in order to produce additional “ammunition” on Castro’s aides.

To this end, senior IRD official Rosemary Allott suggested the unit “might include suitable stories circulating in Cuba (I heard one in Havana – since forgotten – on Raul Castro as a homosexual). In fact we might ask Havana for other purposes to send us all counter-revolutionary jokes and stories”.

 “Raul Castro’s homosexuality… would be suitable for inclusion”

On 18 September, another IRD official, Geoffrey McWilliam, wrote to the British ambassador in Havana that “Raul Castro’s homosexuality… would be suitable for inclusion” in the leaflet.

Britain’s promotion of homophobia in Cuba is revealing given Castro’s depiction in the British media as a uniquely or especially homophobic political leader.

After Castro died in 2016, for instance, BBC News presenter Maxine Mawhinney questioned academic Dr Denise Baden about the Cuban leader’s legacy. “But he did carry out human rights abuses”, Mawhinney stated. “Look, let’s just take one section. Gay people and those with Aids – completely persecuted”.

Baden responded by explaining that “I think when you look back at the time at which the revolution was considered to be a little bit homophobic, which was in the 60s, I’m not sure many countries could hold their heads up high and say that they were as open as they should be”.

Castro apologised in 2010 for Cuba’s discrimination against homosexuals during the 1960s and 1970s. Britain’s apology for fanning the flames of homophobia in Cuba remains to be heard. 

Helping ‘our friends’ in Washington

In March 1962, shortly after the US initiated Operation Mongoose, a British embassy official in Washington wrote to the Foreign Office in London about a meeting with the US State Department and “our Friends”, a reference to the CIA.

“They would… be very grateful for facts on what is going on in Cuba which they can use in their propaganda and any suggestions the Embassy in Havana may have on useful topics and themes”, the British embassy official noted.

In a document marked Top Secret, Foreign Office official Robert Marrett noted that: “It seems to me to be a sound idea that our Embassy in Cuba should also assist the Americans discreetly by supplying anti-Castro material”.

By June 1962, an operation to send “useful items to the Americans for propaganda purposes” had been “approved by the Foreign Office”.

Discussions about “supplying Washington with material to help United States broadcasts” were still ongoing on 18 October, in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The US also proposed setting up a television relay in Barbados, which was until 1961 a British colony, to direct propaganda towards Cuba. “This defeated us technically”, noted a British official, adding that the Foreign Office “will look into it”.

Meanwhile, US officials requested reports on whether broadcasts by Voice of America (VOA) could be heard loud and clear in Cuba.  VOA, a US-funded broadcaster, functioned as a central node of Washington’s propaganda machine. 

The British embassy in Havana was happy to oblige, though the Foreign Office privately griped that VOA was “too solid and stodgy”. The IRD should therefore “be able to help the Voice of America to improve their programmes”.

Although Britain covertly supported Washington’s propaganda operations in Cuba, overtly it pursued a different policy, maintaining diplomatic and commercial relations with the Castro government in spite of US pressure.

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Forging documents 

Castro survived the US- and British-sponsored destabilisation efforts during the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, Cuba was sending tens of thousands of troops to Angola in support of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), led by António Agostinho Neto. 

Resource-rich Angola was then being destabilised by apartheid South Africa and its proxies in the country. IRD officials sought to attack Cuba’s support for the MPLA by presenting the situation as being due to neo-colonialism by the Soviet Union.

In 1976, the IRD produced a forged booklet – supposedly emanating from an organisation named the ‘African Union’ – entitled “Neo-colonialism by proxy”. The booklet accused Cuba of a gradual occupation of Angola and argued that Cuba’s anti-racism was insincere and self-interested.

“Cuba’s claim for an equal society is false”, the booklet noted. “Cuba is a white colony, where very few Black people or mulattos are allowed to hold high-power positions”. 

It added: “These actions can in no way be called non-aligned! It will be Soviet so-called ‘internationalism’ which will win in the end if the Cubans are allowed to go unchecked!”.

The booklet was sent to several African nations, with the goal of influencing discussions at the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in August 1976. 

“The tone of the folder will strike the more sophisticated South Asians as pretty simple stuff”, South Asian Department official R.J. O’Neill wrote. “That is, however, an inevitable feature of a publication which is intended to sound authentically African”.

The IRD produced an accompanying illustration depicting Cuba as a staging post for Soviet influence across Africa. One IRD official observed that “this short graphic approach would, we feel, be more effective than a larger booklet dealing in greater detail with the Cuban approach to individual countries”.

Dr Helen Yaffe, a specialist and author on Cuba, commented on these revelations:

“It is easy to point to the economic incentives for the US establishment to pursue regime change in revolutionary Cuba, in an effort to restore the domination by US interests over the island. However, Britain’s collaboration in these efforts shows the ideological nature of the threat that a socialist Cuba represented to the imperialist countries, particularly in the midst of the Cold War.”

She added: “The Cuban Revolution of 1959 preceded the independence of Caribbean nations under British rule. Successful results from Cuba’s adoption of a socialist development path and the alliance with the socialist bloc threatened to inspire its Caribbean neighbours, obstructing Britain’s strategy for incorporating the ‘independent’ Caribbean countries into the British Commonwealth”.

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