It was 1958, and he was a schoolteacher and a small rice grower near the Sierra Maestra mountains in Cuba’s easternmost province. Unhappy with Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship, he carried rifles to the rebels amid the produce of his farm.
Alerted that Batista’s police were after him, he went into exile in Costa Rica. He returned on a small aircraft bringing in weapons. The aircraft landed at Cienaguilla in the foothills of the mountains. He joined the guerrilla war and rose to the rank of Comandante, the highest rank in the Rebel Army. Two years later he broke with Fidel Castro over the issue of communism.
Condemned to 20 years by a kangaroo court, he served his sentence, became a symbol of the Cuban opposition to totalitarianism and went into exile. His name was Huber Matos, and he died in Miami on Thursday at the age of 95.
The revolution came to power in January 1959 after Batista fled. In a triumphant march into Havana, surrounded by thousands of cheering, adoring Cubans, was Fidel Castro. At his side, on top of a tank, stood Matos. After Matos parted ways with the L íder M áximo, his image promptly disappeared whenever that photograph was used by Cuba’s media, but elsewhere the original remains as proof of historical truth.
As time went by, just like under Josef Stalin, the history of the revolution was rewritten on a regular basis, and names and provocative photographs disappeared from the public record. Besides Matos, the first hand-picked president of the Revolutionary Government (exiled), minister of agriculture (executed), chief of the Revolutionary Air Force (exiled), and several comandantes were executed over the issue of communism. Some, realizing how many of their friends had died in vain, committed suicide.
After the 1959 victory, Fidel Castro named Matos military governor of Camaguey province. Raúl Castro was named governor of Oriente province and Comandante William Gálvez, later executed for opposing communism, governor of Matanzas.
Shortly after Fidel named his brother Raúl head of the Cuban Armed Forces, Matos, concerned about the growing infiltration of the rebel army by communists, resigned his army commission. In a private letter to Fidel Castro, he wrote: “I don’t want to become an obstacle to the Revolution and I believe that, facing the option of adapting myself or to resign to prevent greater misfortunes, the honest and ‘revolutionary’ thing to do is to leave,” he wrote, adding: “If after my dedication to the country, I were to be ambitious or to conspire, this could be a motive for me to regret not being one of the many comrades who died in the struggle.”
If Matos still harbored hopes that Fidel Castro was not fully cognizant of what was happening, they were quickly dashed when Fidel publicly denounced him for slandering the revolution and ordered the takeover of the city of Camaguey by the armed forces.
Matos had gone home, where, despite urging from his military officers to fight back, he waited patiently for his arrest.
Commander Camilo Cienfuegos, head of the Rebel Army, arrived in Camaguey and met with Matos. After appraising the situation in the military base, he told Matos that he would explain to Fidel that there was no conspiracy and everything was peaceful and normal in the city. Cienfuegos took off in a small aircraft but disappeared on an overland flight and was never found.
Fourteen of Matos’ officers resigned. One committed suicide. Matos and others were eventually tried by a military court, with Fidel Castro as the main accuser. He claimed Matos had committed treason by lying about the revolution. The implication was that by raising the issue of communism, which at the time Castro had been denying, Matos was providing fodder for the revolution’s critics, including the United States, which had early on objected to the Revolutionary Tribunals and executions.
The National Leadership of Fidel Castro’s 26 of July Movement resigned, and Matos was sentenced to 20 years in prison, together with other officers. He served his sentence, went into exile, and founded Independent and Democratic Cuba, his political movement. He wrote his memoirs, How Night Fell.
With his passing, another of the iconic figures of the Cuban insurrection has died. Sadly, many of Matos’ generation believed in Fidel Castro and died on behalf of a democratic revolution that never was.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, based in Washington, D.C.