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Talking ‘Blowback’ Season 2 With Brendan James and Noah Kulwin

Today in 'What Now': the podcast hosts on their new season about the Cuban Revolution.


For this week’s What Now, I talked to Noah Kulwin and Brendan James of the very good podcast Blowback, which returned for a second season earlier this month. This time, the show is exploring the Cuban Revolution. So we talked about Cuba then and now, America’s failed attempts to stop the revolution, and how Men in Black helps explain the CIA.

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Paul Blest: In the second episode you quote Thomas Jefferson on how Cuba was “the most interesting addition that could be made to our system states.” And there was that Bill Kristol tweet from last month where he’s talking about how Cuba could be the 53rd state “once it becomes free.” Where does this desire to dominate Cuba come from?

Brendan James: American leaders and American elites have always liked the idea of Cuba becoming part of our empire, but the reasons change. Originally, there was a great interest to kick Spain out of our hemisphere. It was by no means a humanitarian mission to enter Cuba in the Spanish-American War, because what we immediately did was carry out a military occupation and then run Cuba as a neo-colony for several decades, basically until the Cuban Revolution in 1959. 

It’s been a humiliation to America that we weren’t able to knock off the revolution, to knock off its leadership, to negate the ongoing referendum of its people to run their country this way. And so, I think without psychoanalyzing anybody—least of all Bill Kristol, because we’ll be here all day—you could say that at the very least, it is adopted as a desire these days to finally put to bed this humiliating failure of the American empire to topple the government of this island.

Noah Kulwin: And I would also add that there are strong domestic political incentives to maintain the status quo—aggressive isolation of Cuba, up to and including outright sabotage. 

Paul Blest: It seems like the typical American view of the Cuban Revolution is this country that was sort of perfectly happy with its sugar and cigars until Castro came along and killed a bunch of people’s grandparents. So, first—what’s the actual story of the revolution? And second, why has the American view persisted beyond the fall of the Soviet Union and even Castro’s death?

Noah Kulwin: Owning up to what we did in Cuba would mean accounting for a hell of a lot of bad things. And secondly, there are people in power who still want to dislodge the Cuban revolutionary government.

When John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk announced the Cuban embargo, it was presented as a tactic to try to bring the Cuban revolutionary government to heel, and it stayed in place for 60 years. So we’ve just had long-term suffering in Cuba for decades because we still want to get rid of the government there. 

Brendan James: There’s no doubt that Castro is an incredibly important figure to the success of the revolution, before it is victorious and after. But I do think that it is an American narrative, one favored by certain elements of the CIA or politicians and movements opposed to the Cuban Revolution, to pretend as though this all rode on Fidel Castro and that the revolution would have died if he had died. 

This discounts the agency and the blood, sweat, and tears of not only the rest of the revolutionary leadership but the entire participation of the masses in Cuba from then up until today. And in fact, there is a CIA memo that concludes that even if we [were] successful in bumping off Castro and/or other elements of the leadership, that will not in and of itself probably get rid of this revolution.

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