Miami’s tightly knit and often contentious exile community is full of people whose paths crossed Fidel Castro’s. They knew him when he was a college student struggling for attention, when he was holed up in the Sierra Maestra mountains fighting Fulgencio Batista, when he browbeat and betrayed those who dared to think differently.
Here are short vignettes of prominent exiles who remember personal moments in Castro’s very public history. They include Max Lesnick, now a journalist in Miami, who hid a brash Fidel in his parents’ house, and Orlando Castro, who shared the first hopeful years of a united anti-Batista fight only to end up serving a long sentence as a political prisoner under the regime of his former comrade-in-arms. Here, too, is a recollection by the late Huber Matos, a revolutionary hero in his own right who learned early on that Castro could not abide dissension.
Some knew Fidel Castro intimately, others only in passing. But all were inexorably affected by the Cuban revolution.
Huber Matos was one of the few comandantes of the Cuban revolution who rode into Havana with Fidel Castro in January 1959. After breaking with Castro, he was imprisoned and served a 20-year sentence. In 1979 the former teacher moved to Miami, where he founded Cuba Independiente y Democrática. He died in February 2014 at the age of 95. This interview was conducted when he was 88.
“From the very beginning we had a clash of personalities. The first time we met was the 30th of March of 1958 right outside Cienaguilla, a plain at the foothills of the Sierra Maestra. I had arrived in Cuba with eight others on a flight from Costa Rica that had landed hours earlier about two kilometers away. On this plane we had transported five tons of weapons and ammunitions, which in turn we had trucked to a house that belonged to the son of Cresencio Perez, one of the peasant rebel leaders. It was a humble house typical of rural Cuba, with a thatched roof. We knew the rendezvous would be safe because we were in the rebel zone and it was far from any houses, buildings, and any Batista forces.
It was dusk and the family had prepared arroz con pollo. The table had been set very nicely with its silverware for 12 people, like it was a big event, and there was much anticipation and excitement for Castro’s arrival. We were dressed in civilian clothes, as one would dress those days to travel. He arrived with his own entourage of eight to 10 people, all in their olive green fatigues and black boots. He walked in very forcefully. You could hear him coming in. Thud, thud, thud.
“Which of you is Huber Matos?” he asked.
When I stepped forward, he extended his hand to give me a handshake, then threw his arms and instead embraced me. He was elated that we had arrived with the weapons that were so desperately needed.
Our mutual friend, Celia Sánchez, had told me that Castro did not believe we could bring in the arms we needed from Costa Rica. Celia responded, “I know Huber very well. If he says he will do it, it will get done.” So I think he was pleased but also surprised.
We sat down to eat, but a few minutes into the meal, he rushed outside without touching his plate. He began picking up one gun and firing it, then picking up another and firing it, then another. He repeated this for about 20 or 25 minutes. He shouted, “Now we will be victorious! Now we can defeat them!” He was euphoric, like a person beside himself with joy. Even Celia said to me, “He’s like a kid at Christmas.”
The rest of us just watched, but I was worried because those bullets he was using up had cost us in many ways, and I didn’t want to waste them. I approached him.
“I want you to return to get more of these,” he said, waving one of the guns.
I had no intention of leaving Cuba again, so I told him, “I and the others want to stay here in the mountains to fight.”
“This is not your business. I am the one who decides here.”
“I’m not questioning you,” I replied. “It’s a matter of conviction. We feel it’s our moral duty.”
From his face I could tell he thought I was defying him. Later, after thinking it over, he agreed, “You can stay, but I will give you one of my men to be your jefe here in the mountains.”
From the beginning he wanted to be the one with the first say and the last say.
Max Lesnick is a journalist who edited the Spanish-language Réplica magazine for about 20 years and then revived it again last year. He met Fidel Castro in the 1940s, when they were both attending law school at the University of Havana. They also belonged to the same government opposition party, Partido Ortodoxo. He now hosts a radio talk show and travels occasionally as a journalist to Cuba.
In 1949, armed student gangs were a big problem in Havana and Carlos Prio’s government was trying to control them in whatever way they could. The gangs were fighting to control the university because that was the center of the opposition. But one of the ways to control these gangs — and the protests — was to offer members what we call a botella, which is pay for a government job when, in reality, these guys were not working at all. It bought loyalty.
A committee of student leaders had been formed to assess the unsafe situation and come up with solutions. We met at the university that November in an assembly that included about 150 student leaders. Each president from the 13 colleges was represented. I was one of the leaders because I headed the student chapter of the Partido Ortodoxo, founded in 1947 by Eduardo Chibás in response to government corruption. Fidel was also an active member of the party and we had known each other for a while.
While those present at this assembly had come unarmed — that was a requirement — outside the campus there were armed gangs casing the university. It was not a safe situation.
Fidel asked to speak. He produced a paper and began denouncing by name all the student leaders who had these bogus jobs with the government. At first there was stunned silence in the auditorium, then the students began to whisper. How was Fidel going to leave the auditorium and head off campus without being killed? Surely the gangs would want to exact revenge.
Two well-known student leaders, Alfredo “el Chino” Esquivel and Alfredo Guevara told me they were worried the gangs would want to exact revenge the minute he stepped outside. I seemed to be the natural choice to get him out. Chibás was an untouchable hero, and that immunity extended to me, as the student representative of his party. Not even the gangs would harm a Chibás representative.
So when he finished reading the names off his list, I led him out of the auditorium and to my car, a 1947 red Pontiac that was parked only a few meters away. We slipped past the gangs and drove down San Lázaro Street to my house, about 15 minutes away. Neither of us said a word during the ride. He stayed with my family for 10 or 12 days, until we could get him safely to Oriente.
That was the moment when the image of what Fidel Castro wanted to be was forever engraved in my mind. By denouncing corruption to the very people who were corrupt, he was taking a risk but he was also getting attention. I told myself, This is a man who will get what he wants or perish doing so.
Orlando Castro was one of the rebel leaders who organized the 1953 attack against two military barracks that launched Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement. He eventually broke with Castro and ended up serving 17 years as a political prisoner. In Miami since 1979, he worked as an accountant for Miami-Dade County government until he retired.
After our attacks on the Moncada and Bayamo garrisons failed, some rebels were killed and others fled into exile. Fidel Castro and a couple of others were jailed. In May 1955, however, they were freed under a general amnesty law and the rest of us returned from abroad.
We agreed to reunite in an apartment a few blocks from the University of Havana. From the outset, Fidel began to talk about returning to the Sierra Maestra. He did all the talking and it was clear that he had his own ideas and was not interested in anything the rest of us had to offer.
This concerned me because he was fashioning himself in the tradition of the Latin American caudillo. It also worried others, so we decided to present him with a few ideas, namely a declaration that would include a mission statement explaining to the people of Cuba who we were and what we were fighting for. We wanted to appoint a board of directors, too.
I wrote the memorandum as a suggestion to democratize the movement. Several of the leaders signed it, but we didn’t seek everybody’s signatures because we didn’t want him to think this was a direct affront. On three different occasions we talked about that memo.
On May 26, I was at the maternity clinic in Vedado waiting for my son to be born when Raúl Castro came to visit. During the conversation Raúl told me that Fidel considered all the rebels equal and that we were in the fight against Batista together. Though we had not yet given Fidel the memo, I suspected he had already seen it somehow and sent his brother to appease us.
A couple of weeks later Fidel himself showed up at my apartment with the pretext he wanted to see my newborn son. The baby latched on to Fidel’s finger, which prompted him to say, “He will be a soldier of the revolution.”
“No, he will be a citizen of the revolution,” I replied.
He then mentioned he knew about a memo being circulated as if he had not read it, though I knew he had. I reiterated what I had told his brother: We had a responsibility to tell the Cuban people what we stood for.
By the third time we talked about the memo, several nights later, he was much more confrontational. He accused me of running an unnecessary risk because the document could fall in the hands of Batista’s secret police. I countered that I thought it was much more important the Cuban people know what we stood for.
I broke from the movement in June. I realized he was only interested in himself, in his image, not in the people of Cuba. He believed only his ideas had validity.
Ana Lazara Rodriguez
Ana Lazara Rodriguez was a 23-year-old medical student at the University of Havana when she was arrested by Cuban security police in 1961. She served 19 years as a political prisoner in various jails for aiding a counterrevolutionary group. When she was released in 1980, she was one of the last three female plantadas — those who refused the indoctrination of the government — to leave prison. In 1995 the story of her imprisonment, written with Miami Herald reporter Glenn Garvin, “Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women’s Prison,” was published by St. Martin’s Press. She now works in health education for the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center.
When I escaped from prison in 1965 for the first time, I walked the streets of Havana for about three months as if I were a ghost. I felt like I was floating, invisible, a nonentity — but that permitted me to truly observe what was going on around me. The sounds were incredible. The smells were incredible. Actually, everything was incredible. I could not believe what had happened to my country in the four years I had been locked away.
One day I was walking along the Malecon and a couple of police cars drove slowly by. I should’ve been afraid because I was on the lam, but I wasn’t. It was another experience for me. I noticed how people reacted to these patrulleros. It was with fear, with incredible fear. This reaction was typical under Batista, of course, but by 1965 there was something different. There was no anger or defiance or resentment in the fear. There was nothing but fear, and I asked myself, What has happened to this country? What has happened to the Cuban people?
I felt like I was the only person in the city who was not afraid. More than that I had this terrible realization that our country had been stolen from us.
When I was freed in 1980, I spent about 45 days in Havana before leaving the country, and I noticed the same thing. The people continued to live with this fear, and they thought that this was normal. When they waited hours upon hours for these auto-taxis, nobody thought to voice a complaint or think that this was not right. They accepted it. There was a complacency that had desensitized the whole population.
I realized I had been freed to a world turned upside down. In trying to create this collective society, what Fidel Castro did instead was to create a society where the individual cared only for his own self-centered interests. It was a society of fierce individuality where all virtue and loyalty had been lost. The sense of justice and morality had been lost, too. Yet I was never more sure of my own ideals of democracy and freedom for Cuba.
Georgina Cid Castro
Georgina Cid Castro served 17 years as a political prisoner and was released in 1978, when she married Orlando Castro. She moved to Miami in 1979. A business administration student in Cuba, she conspired in the underground against both Fulgencio Batista and Fidel Castro. One brother was shot dead by Batista police after he had been granted asylum in Havana’s Haitian Embassy. Another was executed by Castro in 1968. Her father also died while in custody in 1967.
I didn’t belong to a specific group conspiring against Batista, but I would help whenever needed. If I had to hide someone or drive someone or transport weapons, I was ready. So I had many good friends in various organizations.
One of them was a young man who later became a successful economist in Venezuela when he fled Cuba after Castro. He was very smart, very driven, and he wanted to do something for his country. He decided he wanted to meet Fidel in person to offer his services. This was late 1957 or the beginning of 1958.
I did not go with him, but my friend made a clandestined trip to the Sierra Maestra mountains with others. When he came back, he was bewitched. That’s the best way to describe it because he was totally taken by Fidel. He basically deified this figure hidden in the mountains. He told me that Fidel was exactly what Cuba needed and he loved the ideas they had discussed.
I wasn’t won over. First, it was hard for me to understand how my friend could be so sure that this was the leader our country needed. Second, I was disturbed by the requirements imposed by Fidel, who had told my friend his group needed to find weapons and uniforms if it wanted to join the fight in La Sierra. In addition, Fidel required my friend and his group to either place a bomb or organize an assassination attempt to prove their commitment to the cause.
I didn’t like this at all. Why couldn’t these people simply join Fidel’s forces and fight Batista? Why did they have to bomb and put innocent people’s lives in jeopardy? In hindsight, that was a defining moment for me because I realized that well-educated, intelligent people could still be blinded by Fidel.
I did drive twice to Santiago de Cuba, carrying weapons and munitions in my vehicle. I wanted to help out. By 1960, though, when I saw how he was turning everything around, I no longer wanted to be part of Fidel’s farce.