By Tania Bhattacharya
[Dear Readers, Tania Bhattacharya’s final contribution for NewsGram is titled ‘SWORD OF DAMOCLES IN THE COLD WAR’. It will be hosted on the 6th of April ’20, and will feature in the ‘MORE FROM AUTHOR’ section, visible below this article. Thank You]
Revolutions Devour Their Own Children – Jacques Mallet du Pan
To most people familiar with the Cuban Revolution, there are two men who symbolize its leadership; Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. They believe that the revolution was orchestrated by them, and, its salient features were devised by their – referring to Castro and Guevara’s – genius. Had the militant lawyer, and intrepid Argentine revolutionary not been at the helm of navigating the anti-Batista rebels of the Sierra Maestra, all would have been lost. Such individuals would be rather intrigued, had they heard none other than Castro himself, state in the opening decade of the twenty first century, how Cuba’s revolutionary war, was masterminded not by him and Che, but by two unlikely figures, who have remained less known to the wider public outside of Cuba. The two in question are; Celia Sanchez and Frank Pais. The Cuban dictator’s forthright admission had only come when his rule over his people was all but over, and a change of guard was in order.
It had been very different during the anti-Fulgencio Batista movement, when Fidel Castro was planning to attack the Moncada army barracks. Contrary to popular notions, the revolution was not the handiwork of two men, but many participants, with the other notable figures being: Frank Pais, Celia Sanchez, Huber Matos, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Haydee Santamaria.
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When the movement was in full swing, one of the aforementioned, was brutally executed. After its success, two of the others, were quietly annihilated. The cover-ups have left generations of Cubans and those interested in the history of the country, confounded and pained. How and why, were such important figures of the Twenty Six July movement, removed? We shall examine below.
In the words of historian Pedro Alvarez Tabio, Fidel Castro had become a non-entity among those desiring an overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in the intervening years between 1953 and 1956. Instead, Celia Sanchez and Frank Pais, had sustained the anti-Batista movement through recruiting, funding, and training. Too embarrassed to admit that their musclemen had been defeated by a very young schoolteacher – Pais – and a woman – Sanchez – historians of post-revolution Cuba (for the most part funded by Batista supporters exiled to Miami, alongside the powerful Havana mafia, and the CIA); attempted to fabricate a record, that showed the enemy to be a pair of macho men in the form of Che and Fidel.
Frank Pais was a quiet and serious twenty-two year old instructor, who was essential in spearheading the Twenty Sixth of July Movement. So feared were Pais and his mentor Celia Sanchez, that Batista had unleashed the sinister murder syndicate MASFERRER TIGERS, at their heels, in the hopes of having them assassinated. Frank Pais underwent many sacrifices in his single-minded goal of having the dictator removed from power. His brother, then seventeen years of age, by the name of Josue Pais, was hunted down, tortured, and publicly executed by the regime’s secret police. Josue’s body was left on a Santiago de Cuba street in full public view, with the intention of serving as a warning to Frank, and others in the rebel fraternity. The name of the movement has been derived from the date, on which the older Castro brother – Fidel – and about one hundred and thirty trained rebels, had carried out their attack on the army barracks of Moncada. As a diversionary tactic, it had been left to Frank Pais, to simultaneously arrange for an assault on the adjoining city of Bayamo. The theatre of guerrilla activity now intensified through a two-pronged approach, had intimidated Batista’s men, bringing them heavy losses. Fidel Castro may have been captured after the ill-fated Moncada incident, but had it not been for Frank Pais, the military forces that met up with the band of a few dozen revolutionaries, would have been far greater, resulting in certain death for Fidel.
Author Jose Alvarez in his biography of Pais (available in English) named FRANK PAIS: ARCHITECT OF CUBA’S BETRAYED REVOLUTION takes the reader through neglected chapters of the Cuban Revolution’s history. What is relevant to the scope of this synopsis, are the ones on the last days of Pais’ life. He may have been a co-founder of the anti-Batista movement and played a leading role in its functioning along with the heroines Haydee Santamaria and Celia Sanchez, but Pais’ outlook on the future of Cuba had been vastly different from that of Fidel. This had resulted in bitter arguments between the two. Frank was a deeply religious man who took his Christianity very seriously. Had he survived, he may have wanted the Cubans to have a definite spiritual direction. This was quite unpalatable to his fellow revolutionary Fidel, who was a true Marxist.
The events surrounding Frank Pais’ death, are the focus of this section. As mentioned previously, his efforts had been instrumental in galvanizing anti-Batista forces throughout the country on a massive scale, both in the cities and the interiors. The dictator was well-aware of the young man’s potential, and had placed a large bounty on the former’s head.
Raul Pujol and Eugenia San Miguel were friends of Pais, whose homes were treated as safe abodes by Pais and his confidantes. He was hiding there on the 28th of July 1957, when law enforcement came looking for him. According to the official account, Frank was betrayed by a squealer whom he had known since his days at grade school. He was then shoved into a government vehicle idling nearby, for interrogation. Like his dead brother Josue, Frank was tortured, but the attempts were futile. The young school teacher bore his adversity with defiance, and plenty of resolve. This was later attested to by his interrogators. His angered captors then executed him publicly, on a by-lane of Santiago de Cuba.
The only account we have of the events surrounding the death of Frank Pais, fellow revolutionary and arch rival of Fidel Castro within the July Twenty Sixth Movement, originates from a woman named Vilma Espin. She was a revered figure among the rebels, being an educated woman who came from a background of prestige and wealth. Her forefathers had been landlords in Batista’s Cuba, but she had fought against their wishes, joining the anti-Batista forces in order to end the island’s American-backed dictatorship. In the years following Pais’ assassination, her account changed several times, with new characters, locations and scenarios making their appearance, and sometimes an entire scrapping of a previous one, for an unheard-of setting.
But what interest would a fellow revolutionary who was a member of the rebel forces, and therefore in agreement with Frank Pais over the removal of Fulgencio Batista, have in providing conflicting eyewitness accounts of Pais’ death?
It so turns out, that Espin, despite being a comrade within the movement, was vying for the top spot in the organizational hierarchy of the revolutionary brigade, along with Pais. The two had shared an acrimonious rivalry. But Vilma Espin was not going to play second fiddle to Frank. She had the backing of Fidel Castro himself! Espin was the wife of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, and her position of influence within the Castro family, helped her case. Once the Cuban Revolution was successfully over, her brother-in-law would assign her to high posts within the country. It would have suited Vilma and Fidel well, to have joined hands and ‘taken care’ of Frank Pais, who was increasingly posing as an ideological rival to the two.
A number of unanswered questions remain pertaining to Pais’ assassination. Who was the squealer that ratted him out? Who had paid him to betray Frank? Is it possible that Frank Pais had been released post his interrogation, and been slayed by other shadowy interests? No subsequent findings have proven satisfactory enough.
Among the Cuban rebels, the one who wore his beard the longest, was Camilo. He was the son of immigrant parents from Spain to Cuba. In the words of his friends, Camilo epitomized the typical Cuban spirit of joie de vivre. He was a good-looking, outgoing fellow; a man who enjoyed his drinks, the company of women, was a jokester, and could dance the merengue like it was nobody’s business. Born to parents in the tailoring profession, who ran a small shop from their home to provide for the family, Cienfuegos – meaning a hundred fires – was enrolled in Art school of his own choice at fourteen. Soon he had to drop out from a lack of funds. Subsequently, he worked many odd jobs, and once, travelled to the United States on a month-long work visa, seeking to make a future for himself in the new country, through struggle. Long after his visa had expired, Camilo and the friend who had come along with him, continued to stay back in the US, with Cienfuegos once employed as a dishwasher at the Waldorf Astoria. This is mentioned in the book ‘A Hundred Fires In Cuba’ by John Thorndike. He made a further attempt at American citizenship, by marrying a Salvadorian nurse Isabel Blandon, who had become a legalized resident of that country. Months later, the marriage was over and so was Cienfuegos’ dream of a prolonged stay in the US, when the authorities deported him to Mexico. While there he had a chance encounter with members of the July twenty six movement. With only ten dollars in his pocket and freshly exiled from Los Angeles, directionless, when the rebels offered him the promise of food and shelter in pursuance of his efforts, Camilo readily agreed. Among the eighty people who were able to safely land when their boat, the GRANMA was attacked and sunk off the Cuban coast by Fulgencio Batista’s maritime guards, was Cienfuegos.
Unlike his Marxist comrades, Camilo was not ideologically groomed. He had lacked a formal education due to a blue-collar background, and was thus not inclined to textbook Communism as the other rebels may have liked. Despite the senior Cienfuegos’ being borderline Marxists, Camilo was more of a Libertarian Anarchist, who had wished to make a fortune for himself in the United States. He stood out among the revolutionaries precisely because of his lack of pedagogy. At first Fidel had refused him entry into the army, even though he had been informally recruited by some others. But after witnessing how adept Camilo could be with machine guns, he relented and allowed him to formally join the anti-Batista forces.
Author and childhood friend Jose Duarte and Cienfuegos biographer Carlos Franqui, have drawn attention to certain ominous events in the life of Camilo. Following the ouster of Batista, there had been a battle for succession within the rebel army’s top brass. Fidel picked Cienfuegos to assume the post of Commander of the Cuban army, by overlooking Che and his own brother Raul Castro. Soon though, Castro senior was regretting his decision. Consecutive reports of the army Commander not falling into line with Communist beliefs, was pouring in. The Christ of the Rhumba/Ghetto as Cienfuegos was referred to, was already hugely popular, trumping the others among the top brass with his natural charisma. Coupled with his non-conformism towards Communist doctrine, it made for a vexing combination; one, which Castro would have wanted out of his hair as soon as he could afford. Franqui recounts many instances of Camilo getting into heated arguments with Che and Raul. He was always concerned about the human angle of a problem, while his Marxist compatriots could care less, if it suited their purpose. Once, unaware that their argument was audible to Franqui standing outside the room, Raul and Che had expressed, that the best way to deal with the problem of the Constitutional forces abandoned by Batista, was to leave them to their own devices. That way they were likely to conspire amongst themselves, giving the new Cuban order the excuse to murder them. Camilo was vehemently against the idea suggesting instead, that such people be given jobs in the public projects of Cuba. After exiting the room and having sighted Franqui standing outside, Camilo had proceeded to state how his relationship with the Castro brothers and Che, was becoming complex. It was a frustrating experience for him to have two juniors, Raul and Guevara, disobey him resulting in issues of insubordination.
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It is notable that as revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra, Cienfuegos had opposed the murderous tactics of the Castro brothers and Che, who were in favour of executing political prisoners and deserters, without a fair trial. The trend had continued at the prison farms of La Cabana headed by Guevara, and Santiago De Cuba, overseen by the younger Castro. Humanism was a rare virtue among the bull-headed, blinkered rebel commanders. Camilo had been the exception. It was a quality, he would have to pay with his life for, in the end.
Commander of the Sierra Maestra rebel army and a former political prisoner Roberto Gonzalez had elaborated during an interview for a documentary on the life of Cienfuegos, that a fellow commander Felix Torres, who had turned out to be a Communist, had been expelled by him. Camilo had inquired upon the reason for the act, and once Gonzalez informed him that Torres’ Communist views had earned him his own expulsion, Cienfuegos had approved of the move.
So when it was reported by the state radio and television stations of Cuba on the 8th of October 1959, that the hugely popular Fidelista’s (a loyal follower of Fidel’s) Cessna 310 had gone missing, the news had been received by the wider public in disbelief. Camilo had been the youngest and the most charismatic among the revolutionaries. He was only twenty seven when the tragedy supposedly occurred. A search and rescue effort was promptly put into action which ensued for an entire week, before Castro the elder, had sadly declared to his people, that Cienfuegos was dead. Every year, since that day, children in Cuba commemorate Commandante Camilo, El Heroe de Yaguajay, by throwing flowers into the sea. Those still able to miss his presence, await for him to return.
Skipping over the official account of the Fidelista’s disappearance, let us consider some unvisited elements of the tragedy, which have never tied in. Conspiracy theories about the Commandante having faked his own death so as to set up home in Miami can be refuted with ease due to a lack of evidence. However, some others cannot be brushed aside.
The flight route of Cienfuegos was between the Cuban cities of Camaguey and Havana. It was a daytime flight of around five hundred kilometres over land. No swamps, or undrained marshes were present along the flight path. Within hours of informing his people that the popular Fidelista had gone missing along with a handful of his men, Castro had declared him dead. Search missions tasked with locating the debris, never found any vestiges of the lost plane, or human remains. Most intriguing is the fact, that Castro would henceforth describe Cienfuegos’ disappearance as being ‘lost at sea’ – the reason Cuban children dedicate their floral tributes to the waters flanking their country – when maps of the flight path taken by the Commandante’s Cessna 310, clearly depict a short detour over land. This leaves us with the doozy: Was there a flight at all? Did the Cuban Revolution’s youngest and most charismatic Commander, a darling of his people, whose popularity was envied by the Castros, and Che, indeed get on a plane that fateful night?
Camilo’s older brother Osmany, who later came to hold many positions within Fidel Castro’s government, and the elderly Cienfuegos parents, were lied to by their dictator, when he promised to go and look for their son. Camilo had become a thorn to the first family of post-revolution Cuba, a long time ago. Weeks before his disappearance, he had been relieved of his post as the Army Commander, with the Defence Forces undergoing an overhaul, that eventually came to have Raul and Guevara, as their new leaders. Reporters Guillermo Cabrera and Jessy Fernandez, who were covering the investigation over the missing Cessna and its occupants, later said, that after involving himself with the rescue efforts, each evening Fidel would Go to Turiguano island nearby, and entertain himself by shooting stray cattle, which was then prepared for the evening’s dinner that he and his friends would share. This is pretty odd behaviour from someone supposedly mourning the disappearance of a close friend! The following day, Castro the Elder would make a television appearance wearing a sombre face which announced to the public; Camilo would never be found.
The most explosive account about the fate of Cienfuegos comes in the form of a testimony from none other than Jaime Costa Chavez. Costa had been a rebel in the Sierra Maestra along with the anti-Batista guerrillas. In the confession of Jaime Costa, he and Juan Almeida (a Black Cuban commander who remained with Fidel Castro’s government beginning with its anti-Batista days) were summoned on the 28th of October 1959, by Castro to Camaguey, where an idling Cessna 310 met their eye. Costa then inquired of Almeida as to the nature of the events. Almeida responded by saying that an anti-Castro conspiracy had been discovered. As instructed they had arrived at the local headquarters of Fidel, adjacent to which was a field with the resting Cessna. Approaching the large house, the two men could hear a heated argument in progress inside. It was Camilo Cienfuegos denying that he was part of any anti-Castro movement. Fidel though refused to believe him, demanding the names of his fellow conspirators, and shortly after, left the building, Raul in tow. It seems it was at that moment, that Cienfuegos asked Pancho, one of the insiders of the Castro circle, to shoot him in the testicles. Four or five shots then rang out, achieving their result. While relating this account, Jaime Costa had expressed regret that he was unable to intervene and save his friend, Camilo. Costa later migrated to Spain where he spent the remainder of his life.
Osmany Cienfuegos, the missed Commandante’s older brother, is still alive and well. It would be interesting to find out what he believes privately, on the question of Camilo’s disappearance.
Ernesto Rafael ‘Che’ Guevara doesn’t require an introduction. He was an Argentine-born Marxist who had joined the July Twenty Six Movement in Mexico, and fought in the Sierra Maestra, alongside the anti-Batista rebels. With the success of the revolution, came the task of government formation, in which Guevara was given the post of Minister of Industries. It seems Che wasn’t very good at economic upliftment, because he tried to obtain a blueprint of the Soviet economy for Cubans and failed miserably after it was implemented. Sugar production fell victim to collectivization, and the offer of work-without-incentives was not very appealing to the common man and woman. Apart from being a trained doctor and holding a ministerial rank in Castro’s cabinet, Guevara is also well-known as an author. One of his books titled Guerrilla Warfare, has been an international bestseller. But life failed to imitate art in his case. Out of the three ambush campaigns he lead and participated in, in his short lifespan, he could triumph in only one; the Cuban one, and that too with the aid of the other rebel commanders who made sizeable contributions themselves. During his days as a fighter in the Belgian Congo, he was almost killed and had to exit the scene in a hurry. Two years later, his insurgency plan inside the sovereign state of Bolivia, would result in his capture and execution by CIA trained operatives.
Before proceeding further, readers must be made aware of a woman who was among the Cuban insurgents fighting in Bolivia. She was Haydee Tamara Bunke Bider, better known by her nom de guerre Tania. Tania was a polyglot and a Marxist, who, after being smitten by the success of the Cuban Revolution and the cult of Che, decided to make the island nation her home. Once there, she was recognized for her many talents, and received training in armed combat from one of Guevara’s trusted companions, Colonel Dariel Alarcon Ramirez, otherwise referred to as ‘Benigno’. Upon completion of training, she was sent on many missions to Bolivia, where she had been tasked to gather intelligence as a spy. After Bolivian authorities discovered her true identity, she escaped her apartment and joined Che and his band of Cuban insurgents, deep in the forests of the country.
Benigno has recounted an incident in his memoir Vie Et Mort de la Revolution, in which he says that Guerrilla Tania wished to be looked upon as an equal of the male fighters, refusing any special treatment due to her gender. Thus when Benigno told her that she should inform him when she was on her menstrual cycle, so that he could give her such days off, she had quipped acerbically “Why? Will the enemy spare me if they found out I was on my period?” The last favour he did for her was when Che divided up his team of guerrillas in the Bolivian interior, and placed the teacher (Benigno) and his student (Tania), in two different groups. Concerned about the lack of facilities, Benigno had shred his vest into strips so she could use them for sanitary protection during her monthlies. Instead of eyeing this bit of information as something dishy, the reader must estimate it with the maturity it requires. A comrade was helping out another, who for him, was just ‘one of the boys’ he had trained. It must have entailed a good deal of compassion to shred one’s own belonging and offer it up for use in order to meet the bodily need of a natural phenomenon, whose remedy was not available in the hostile thickets. Benigno also mentions how conscious Tania could be of her appearance, even as an insurgent alongside Che. She’d spent considerable time brushing her hair and examining her features, before turning around to ask her fellow mates, how she looked.
On the 31st of August in 1967, one and a half months before Che would be captured, Tania and her team of fighters, were ambushed in a river by Bolivian security personnel, and killed in the ensuing gun battle.
There were several women who entered the life of Guevara. Each impacted his mind significantly enough, so as to bring about a change in his course of action. Ranging from his first formal girlfriend Maria del Carmen Ferreira, to his wife Aleida March, and his mistress Tania the Guerrilla, Che’s life had navigational imprints from the women who stayed with him long enough. Even though he had left behind Aleida and his children in Havana, he found no dichotomy in embracing Tania as his new lover. Benigno Alarcon Ramirez has testified that the two shared alone time in their tents in the jungle, and were often found conversing with each-other at length.
Ramirez figures as an important source of Castro’s Cuba, where he held many high posts after his escape from Bolivia, following Che’s assassination. Having emigrated to Paris when he became disillusioned with the excesses of the Castros, he was to pen books about the Latin American island’s prison system, where 60,000 prisoners could be held without trial at any point. In an interview to The Independent a few years prior to his death, Benigno said that he had witnessed a guard force a hosepipe down a prisoner’s throat. The powerful jet of water had torn apart the victim’s stomach. His accounts are quite credible, given that he distanced himself from the rabidly Right Wing, Capitalist and oppressive Cuban exiles that call Miami, home.
Jose Antonio Zapata’s book on the relationship between Che and Tania, ‘Tania: The Woman Che Guevara Loved’, had a lawsuit thrown at it from none other than members of Tania the Guerrilla’s family, beginning with her mother. The book however, is not some scurrilous tome without materiality. It is a blow by blow account of the camaraderie and love that grew between its two lead characters over time. Another source for the secret relationship could – if allowed – have been the diaries of Che. But his version of the events – he was a pretty forthright man about all that he encountered, experienced and witnessed – will never be available to us. Guevara’s Bolivian Diary, was trimmed of all its significant, deeply personal jottings, before being sent to the publishing houses. Aleida March – his widow – wanted to make sure that the public received only a sanitized and cookie cut version of the events, depriving us all, an intimate view into his personal relationship with Tania.
Female combatants of the Cuban Revolution – which was before the time Che and Tania met – were relegated to the sidelines. They often complained of not being taken seriously and being given domestic tasks such as washing, cooking, and mending the uniforms of the rebels. By contrast, Tania was a full-fledged insurgent in the jungles of Bolivia, where she partook in guerrilla incursions wholeheartedly.
During the Bolivian campaign, the code word for Havana was ‘Manila’. However, Che was unable to make contact with the Castros no matter how hard he tried, writes Cuban journalist Alberto Muller. But surely, his long-time friend and dear Commander Fidel, would have rushed aid to his side, and would have been keeping an eye out for Che’s safety? Both men had been comrades-in-arm in the Sierra Maestra, with Che leading a major military victory with his assault over Batista’s troops during the Battle of Santa Clara. Both were devoted to Classical Marxism, and had ganged up on their common opponents inside the rebel army post 1959. Che had been made Minister of Industries and had toured the globe to establish diplomatic ties on behalf of the busy Fidel.
The two men though differed in their personalities with Castro the Elder seeming more of a realist. During his trip to the Soviet Union Guevara had thundered that the planet’s rich North, was in a conspiracy to collectively oppress its South. Helen Yaffe, the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, has elaborated on certain points that the Commandante had put into practice, that had alarmed his chief, Fidel. In favour of using technology that was bereft of capitalist venture, he had wanted to reject Soviet help in the economic development of Cuba. This was unthinkable to the Castros! Heavily dependent on Soviet donations for running their economy, they had no intention of alienating the leader of the Eastern Bloc. When Che returned from his trip to the USSR, he could barely face his chief. Video footage show the two men uncomfortably shaking each-other’s hand, without being able to make eye contact. Soon, Guevara was whisked off to a safe house in Havana, where he was kept in solitary confinement until Fidel had extracted a promise from him, that the former would henceforth refrain from attacking the Soviet Union in any manner. Had the Commandante had his way, it is plausible that a form of domestic and local Marxism would have emerged in the island nation. With the Castros around, this was not to be.
The Cuban President was quick to realize, that having Guevara around would result in more embarrassment for him and his country. It could even frighten away the Russians from aiding Cuba any further. So he devised a plan – interestingly with the support of Guevara – that would accomplish two tasks at once. Guevara would no longer be required to remain in his adopted homeland and bring bad luck to his friend; simultaneously, he would be able to indulge in guerrilla warfare elsewhere, something that was very close to his heart. In reality, all Fidel wanted, was to keep his troublesome, uber-idealistic amigo, as far away as possible from the theatre of Cuban politics.
Following his defeat in the Belgian Congo, from where he barely escaped with his life, Che remained for about two months in Tanzania and then Prague, preparing for his incursions into Bolivia. It would be the fatal mistake of his life.
The group of Cuban Marxist rebels – including long time aide Benigno – who accompanied Guevara to the jungles of Bolivia, were meant to receive updated intelligence from back home. They were also promised full support from the Castros, who had packed them off with weapons, money, and food rations, aside from adequate training.
Most historians place the blame on Che’s faulty handling of his Bolivian campaign, while summing up his capture and death. The truth of such assertions cannot be denied. When Tania the Guerrilla abandoned her car to join Che deep in the forests, Bolivian secret service agents following her, discovered her forgotten diary in the vehicle, which bore the names of her fellow conspirators. When the group of insurgents decided to conceal themselves higher up in the rugged terrain of the Bolivian landscape, they erroneously left behind photos they had taken at the base camp, which was to become the starting point of their undoing. By breaking up the group into divisions and sending each party away on a different mission, the Argentine-born Commandante further weakened his chances of combat. One of those divisions led by Tania, was ambushed and killed in the Rio Grande river on the 31st of August that year (1967).
All given, where was the help that was meant to arrive from Havana at the hour of need? Why was every effort made at contacting Cuban officials fruitless? Why did Cuba’s secret service not inform Che and his team, that Bolivia had already undergone significant reforms in earlier years, which had redistributed land to its peasants? When the guerrillas tried to enrol the local campesinos in their plans for an internal uprising, none joined. They had already received their fair share of land from their rulers in recent years and were indifferent to the preaching of the Cuban mercenaries. On the contrary, some locals were angered enough to enlist in the security forces of Bolivia in order to help flush out the Cuban Communist insurgents on their sovereign land. Che’s foco theory had fallen flat on its face.
But it was not till Che and his men made the discovery, that their walkie talkies, meant to be used for secret communication with their supreme commander in Havana, were not working; that they understood the conspiracy that was afoot. It was only then that they realized that they had been abandoned, and left to their fate, in a hostile nation. Fidel had played his cards right. He had known full well, that his friend and his team, stood no chance in a US controlled state, with its CIA trained agents, and content peasantry. Walkie Talkies that were redundant were all that were needed to seal the fate of the guerrillas. Now all he needed to do, was wait for news of his friend’s capture and execution. He had got his martyr.
Thus when Felix Rodriguez – who stole Che’s prized watches after his execution – the CIA trained operative and Che-hunter asked the bound and cornered Commandante what his message to Havana would be, Guevara had replied with a sardonic smile “Tell Fidel…that the struggle shall continue…with or without his support”.
Huber Matos decided to partake of the Cuban Revolution, when he witnessed Fulgencio Batista overthrow President Carlos Socarras, in a military coup. The rebels of the Sierra Maestra had enlisted him as a fellow compadre in their armed insurrection against the ruling dictator. One of the tasks Matos had to undertake, was to procure weapons for the rebel fighters, something which brought him to Costa Rica. According to a Los Angeles Times report published in 2014, Matos had stated that he was initially among Castro’s inner circle, which the latter had demonstrated, by placing him third in the pecking order, after himself and his younger brother, Raul. This had occurred, despite the many differences in outlook the two men had.
The same report revealed Matos as saying, that Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, had been placed fifth in the line of succession, as drawn up by the future ruler. Black and White photography of the rebels making their triumphant entry into Havana, on the first of January 1959, has the presence of Huber Matos Benitez, either beside Fidel, or in the vicinity. He was made a local governor for his contribution to the struggle for democracy. Disappointment had filled the hopeful fighter later, when he realized that Castro was steering toward a one-man rule, and was in no mood to hold free and fair elections.
A Marxist agenda was quite unpalatable to this particular Cuban rebel leader. But instead of keeping his ideas to himself, he openly expressed discontent over the Communization of his homeland. As expected, Prime Minister Castro accused him of sedition and had him arrested.
Matos was one of the Cuban exiles living abroad, who had alleged that Celia Sanchez and Fidel Castro had been lovers. A BBC Radio 3 episode on Cuba, broadcast in the December of 2011 and available on the website of the news company, confirms this. There have been others who have corroborated Matos’ revelations about the two. One of them has been a researcher into Latin American Affairs at the University of Miami, Dr. Andy Gomez, who believes, that Sanchez was a Fidelista to a point, where she was unwilling to have any other man share power with him, or supersede him.
So what happened to Huber Matos Benitez? How indeed, did he escape Castro’s wrath, when his other compadres – Pais, Cienfuegos, and Guevara – had been made to bite the dust in the most undeserving manner?
“Divide And Rule” had been a much favoured idiom by the Castro clan’s powerful members. In their minds, potential rivals were best dealt with by finagling. Bringing forth false charges against them, and driving them against each-other, were the preferred methods.
It needs to be mentioned, that Huber Matos was quite close to Camilo Cienfuegos. The two had remained good friends even after the success of the revolution, and the allocating of ministries and duties to the top brass among the rebels. The elder Castro was experiencing dissent from both these men in his new government. He was aware that both were strangers to Marxism and quite hostile to its mode of implementation. Huber Matos was even more so, as he was educated, and had been a school-teacher before he joined the revolution against Batista. Now, this former instructor, was openly expressing his unhappiness with the way Fidel was governing Cuba. Something needed to be done. Killing two birds with a single stone must have seemed befitting, given the circumstances.
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In various interviews down the years, Commander Matos has related how he had handed over his resignation to Castro the Elder, and how the latter had inferred it to be an act of treason against him, the ruler of the island state. But it is here, that the reader discovers the proverbial ‘twist in the tale’. If Matos was required to be arrested for betraying Fidel, why was not Raul sent instead? Or for that matter, Guevara, or even Juan Almeida Bosque? Why involve Camilo Cienfuegos, who Fidel had come to be suspicious of? Was there a larger plan?
Castro knew, that Matos was guarded by a band of faithful soldiers whose circle needed to be penetrated before one could reach their target. It was an open secret, that whoever succeeded in reaching Commander Huber Matos in order to arrest him, would face certain death, due to the safety net he was ensconced in. There could not have been a better opportunity for disposing off two political opponents simultaneously. Cienfuegos would most certainly have been murdered by the bodyguards and loyalists of Huber Matos; while the events would give the Castros a chance to indict Matos over murder charges, declaring him to be an enemy of the state.
Fortunately, the affable relationship shared by the two men – Castro’s targets of Cienfuegos and Matos – prevented any calamity from resulting on the scene. Cienfuegos went in to have a word with his friend and informed him that he had been instructed to arrest him. It was perhaps the most difficult thing Cienfuegos was forced to undertake, as a government servant. The matter was sorted out, amicably. On his part, Matos assured Camilo that he would ease his dilemma, by surrendering on his own. Fidel Castro’s plan had bombed. He would have to find a new way of taking care of Camilo Cienfuegos. Unsurprisingly enough, Cienfuegos ‘disappeared’ a month later.
After his farcical trial, Commander Huber Matos was sentenced to solitary confinement, a state in which he remained for the next 20 years, while Human Rights Organizations rallied for his release. Eventually, the Castro regime relented and he was allowed to leave Cuba. As a political asylum seeker living abroad, Huber Matos teamed up with the former spy Dr. J Anthony D’Marmol, for forming their own organization – CID – with the intention of returning true democracy to Cuba.
Over the decades, few other anti-Castro political activists such as Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, have managed to escape Cuba and live elsewhere, where they highlight the muzzling of democratic norms that have been a regular feature of life back home.
One cannot help but wonder, what shape and form, post-Batista politics in Cuba, would have assumed, had Frank Pais, Camilo Cienfuegos and Huber Matos, survived and thrived on the island. Conversely, it excites the imagination to think of Cuban Leftist politics, removed from the totalitarianism of the Castro Gang of Three: Fidel, Raul, and Vilma Espin, to be driven by the more nationalistic idealism of Che.
Whatever the lost alternatives may have produced, it remains a hard fact, that within a few decades, Fidel Castro had become Cuba’s most powerful individual; amassing a fortune on the side which has often been objected upon. While we must applaud that the world’s top crime organization, the CIA, attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro 638 times, more or less, and made a fool of themselves in the process; we must not turn away from the uncomfortable truths of Cuban internal matters. Any impartial analysis of that is hampered by the general goodwill the two countries of India and Cuba share. Tons of Indian bread had been shipped to Havana in the early nineties, to mitigate the hunger of that island nation, after an economic embargo had caused its people to starve. Of late, a post-Castro Cuba, has been willingly outsourcing to us; inviting Indian construction outfits to help its tourism industry, through varied projects. Indian workers are admired for their professionalism and tend to earn more than their Cuban counterparts in this matter.
Initially the anti-Batista movement had followed the ideals epitomized by the country’s national poet, Jose Marti. But power play and inveigling by members of one family, was to derail the goal of a true people’s movement, as Marti had envisioned.
All said and done, the question still remains: How different would a Cuba influenced by the enlightened democratic blueprints of Pais, Cienfuegos, and Matos, have turned up to be?
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