Manufacturing Crisis: Cuban Troops in Syria

Russian tanks parade on Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg during the Victory Day ceremony at on May 9, 2015. Russi
Russian tanks parade on Dvortsovaya (Palace) Square in St.Petersburg during the Victory Day ceremony at on May 9, 2015. Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 9 presided over a huge military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, brushing off a snub by Western leaders over Ukraine. In what is seen as punishment for Kremlin meddling in Ukraine, Western countries led by Russia's World War II allies boycotted the May 9 festivities, leaving Putin to mark the day in the company of the leaders of China, Cuba and other Moscow-friendly figures. AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA (Photo credit should read OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images)

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes," quipped humorist Mark Twain, repeating an old adage. The report that Cuban troops had deployed to Syria to drive Russian tanks in support of the Bashar al-Assad's government swept across conservative social media like a firestorm earlier this month after the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami posted it, citing no sources whatsoever. Fox News then picked it up, claiming the report had been confirmed by an unnamed "U.S. official" citing intelligence reports that Cuban "paramilitary and special forces units" were in Syria.

Within days, both Cuba and Syria denied the accusation categorically, and White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest shot it down, declaring, "We've seen no evidence to indicate that those reports are true."

In the heat of the moment, conservative commentators were quick to draw parallels to Cuba's past military adventures abroad in Syria (1973), Angola (1975) and Ethiopia (1978). But the better comparison turned out to be the phony crises manufactured by conservatives to derail President Jimmy Carter's attempt to normalize relations with Cuba.

As Peter Kornbluh and I document in our recent book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, Carter was the first president to explicitly decide to normalize relations. Progress stalled over Cuba's involvement in Ethiopia, but throughout 1978 and 1979, Washington and Havana kept up a secret dialogue trying to resolve their differences. Conservatives, convinced that Carter was soft on Cuba, did their best to build a political bulwark against progress. In 1978, intelligence reports leaked to the press revealed that the Soviet Union had provided Cuba with about a dozen MiG-23 fighter-bombers to replace its aging MiG-21s. In some configurations, the MiG-23 was capable of delivering nuclear weapons. When news of the delivery became public, conservatives tried to spin it as equivalent to the 1962 missile crisis, demanding tough action against Cuba- despite the fact that there was no evidence the Cuban MiG-23s were nuclear-capable or that there were any nuclear weapons in Cuba.

The following year, aerial reconnaissance spotted a Soviet military unit on maneuvers in Cuba. The intelligence report calling it a "Soviet combat brigade" was promptly leaked to the press. Despite the fact that the brigade posed no plausible threat to the United States, Republicans were quick to declare the brigade a new Soviet challenge. Again they invoked the specter the 1962 missile crisis. In fact, the Soviet troops had been in Cuba since 1962, a token of Soviet support for Cuba after Nikita Khrushchev withdrew the missiles to end the real crisis. It was this symbolic Soviet troop presence that Washington rediscovered in June 1979 and mistook for a new Soviet deployment.

While such phony crises are usually debunked before they can escalate into real confrontations, they are not inconsequential. They poison the atmosphere of relations, especially when the two sides have a history of animosity and distrust, and are quick to believe the worst about one another. In 1978 and 1979, for example, Fidel Castro was convinced that the MiG-23 and combat brigade incidents were intentionally manufactured by forces inside the U.S. government with aggressive intentions toward Cuba.

Spectacular stories about Cuban aggression are also headline grabbers. Many people will remember the initial accusation, but never hear the rebuttal. Fox News did not run a correction of the report that Cuban troops were fighting in Syria, nor did the Daily Beast, which also took the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

Stories like these leave a lingering miasma of negative feelings disconnected from the facts--a sense that Cuba is a dangerous enemy not to be trusted. Even members of Congress and U.S. officials who might support better relations are affected by a false story if it seems plausible at first-- if has what Stephen Colbert famously dubbed "truthiness." Even when the story turns out to be false, the initial headlines remind officials of the political risk they would face if such a story did turn out to be true.

Republicans are especially vulnerable to such fears, since most of them and their constituents are inclined toward skepticism about normalizing relations with Cuba anyway. Because achieving normal relations with Cuba will require an end to the U.S. embargo, and ending the embargo will require an act of Congress, Republican legislators have a pivotal role. If manufactured crises make them reluctant to step forward and support normalization, you can bet that the crisis of the ephemeral Cuban tank drivers in Syria won't be the last.

Just released: The new, updated paperback edition of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), with an epilogue on Obama's secret talks with Cuba that led to the December 17, 2014 announcement on normalizing relations.