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.
Some, both Cuban and American, knew Fidel Castro intimately, others only in passing. But all were inexorably affected by the Cuban revolution.
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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 that 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 Malecón 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 movement 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 clandestine 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.
Orestes Lorenzo was a Cuban Air Force Major when he defected in his MiG in 1991. Months later, risking certain imprisonment and possibly death, Lorenzo borrowed a single engine plane, flew to Cuba without detection by American or Cuban radar to rescue his wife Victoria and their two sons. He now lives in Orlando, where he owns a construction company. A third son, 22, was born here and he now has a grandson and a granddaughter.
I was not happy about Fidel Castro’s death. Why? Because nothing has changed. But what we will see now are more requests for the Cuban people to sacrifice, more demands of loyalty to the government. I think that is already happening. When the Cuban people can live without fear, taking their masks off, I’ll celebrate, but now there is nothing to celebrate. What lacks most in Cuba, truly, is sincerity. People there live and act with fear. They do no not know any other way.
Undoubtedly, Fidel Castro was instrumental in creating the conditions that exist in Cuba, and what is happening on the island is that it is a private property owned by one family. There is no separation of government, no balance of power. It is all concentrated and controlled by one family. A private enterprise.
They will not turn over power. It will have to be taken from them through civil disobedience in the future. I do not think it’s in the near future though, not during my lifetime. Let’s say I live another 25 years, I don’t think I’ll see a change. It’s very difficult and sad for me to say, but I believe this. The fight in Cuba is not political. It’s one of human decency.
That is why I consider this my country now. It’s no longer Cuba. My interests are here, my family is here. This is where I’ve been given dignity and the opportunity to develop as a human being, which is the right of all. I’m glad to say I’ve accomplished that.
Olga Morgan Goodwin
Olga Morgan Goodwin is the widow of William Morgan, a Cuban revolutionary hero who was known as the Yanqui comandante for leading a rival rebel force to more than a dozen victories during the revolution. Morgan’s group, Segundo Frente Nacional del Escambray, had always held striking differences with the 26th of July Movement, but after the revolution, tensions grew even worse. Morgan would eventually be arrested in October 1960 and executed the following March. Olga, who also fought in the Cuban mountains, served almost 11 years in prison and now lives in Ohio. This anecdote, which marks the beginning of the end of the Castro-Morgan friendship, is taken from her memoir and interviews with Miami Herald reporter Michael Sallah.
One evening [sometime in late 1959 or early 1960] Morgan and I were watching TV in our pajamas in our El Vedado apartment. I could tell he was getting increasingly angry hearing what Fidel Castro was saying. He was already angry over the arrest of Huber Matos [another revolutionary hero Fidel Castro imprisoned] and the cancellation of elections.
Castro was talking on TV and … suddenly, I noticed that he started talking bad things about the U.S. people, saying unpleasant things about this country, and the public started chanting: ‘Cuba si, yanquis no’ (Cuba yes, Yankees no). William told me: ‘Change your clothes in a hurry. We are going to that program.’
Some of his bodyguards, who lived in our home, went with us. When we arrived at the TV station, William was in a bad mood and with his hand on his waist. I thought that something bad would happen. When he entered the studio [at the TV station] he, without paying any attention to anybody, went before the TV cameras, very close to Castro. The cameras were focusing on both, and people in attendance there started applauding William.
Castro changed his expression, started chewing his cigar. To this day, I don’t know what was said, but I remember that Castro was noticeably miffed about the unplanned visit by a comandante from the Second Front. Of course, Castro is very diplomatic but also very astute. Upon talking to William, his attitude changed, as well as his harangue to the people regarding the U.S. But this he did only as one more instance of his duplicity. As William turned around and left the set, I looked over at Castro and his eyes were like flames of hate. When we went out, William, his bodyguards and I commented that we were in bad shape and it was sure that Castro would soon retaliate against us.
Hector Toledo stowed away in the Greek cargo ship Aegis Fame in 1977. His case became a cause celebre in Miami when he was told he would be dumped in then-Communist Yugoslavia because it was the ship’s first port of call. But with the help of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who was then a radio broadcaster, Toledo was able to reunite with his family in Miami, including his four brothers and mother. Now 73 and retired, he married and raised a family here.
My brothers and I had tried to escape Cuba several times and by any means possible. The last time we had tried leaving by boat, the fisherman denounced us and we ended up serving time in prison (almost two years) because that’s what happened back then (in the 1960s) to people who wanted to leave. By the mid-1970s all my brothers had been able to leave, including my youngest brother who had stowed away in a ship headed for the Panama Canal. When the opportunity came, I knew I had to take it.
I belong to what we call the ‘frustrated generation.’ In other words, I was pro-Western and I wanted to be able to say what I thought. In Cuba there were no possibilities of advancement if you were not part of the government or pro-government, and you could not express a single thought that dissented. I had no future, no liberty and no hope because I didn’t want to be part of the system. I knew I had to take the risk.
I spent 13 days next to the engine room, with all that noise. It affected my hearing and I have hearing aids now, but I don’t regret it. Unless you’ve lived through it, you don’t understand that there is no greater treasure than freedom. Here, people take that for granted.
I don’t think Fidel Castro’s death is going to change anything. The transfer of power has already been done and the people he placed want to hold onto power. This is a different dog with the same collar. Except for the dissidents and the human rights groups, Cubans simply want to resolve their situation. They either leave the country or resign themselves.
I want the liberation of Cuba and the best for Cubans of course. It’s a very difficult, terrible situation. I feel for them, but I have no interest in returning. For me, my country is where I can be free, where I can be a human being with a chance to express myself. I can do that in the United States. No se me ha perdido nada en Cuba. I have not lost anything in Cuba.
Juan Antonio Blanco
Juan Antonio Blanco, a former senior analyst with the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee, now serves as executive director of the Miami-based Fundación para Derechos Humanos en Cuba (Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba), an organization dedicated to helping human rights activists on the island. After defecting 20 years ago, Blanco served as director of an international NGO in Ottawa and also worked at Florida International University and Miami Dade College.
Fidel Castro was an actor, so histrionic. He could’ve won an Oscar for lifetime performance. His special power turned out to be lying and swindling a population.
[As part of my job in Cuba], we always prepared a dossier of any visiting dignitaries. The file would be prepared first by the embassy in the country of origin, with any personal details about interests, families, hobbies, children, anything. With that information we would organize the program of the visit according to those interests, so it looked like something happened by chance but it was all well-planned.
Say the visitor had an autistic child or the wife had an interest, we would make sure that dignitary visited a special center without them asking for this. That, in turn, would prompt a conversation and it would give an opportunity for Fidel to, just by coincidence, talk about the topic and what Cuba was doing. Of course the visitor would be impressed.
He would delay his meeting with these visitors, too, until he could decide whether he wanted to or needed to meet with them, depending on how the visit was going. He always left his appearance for last for most effect, like the Virgin of Fatima appearing.
He also used another tactic. He would allow the visiting dignitary to ask the first question. If it was a difficult question, he would talk and talk and talk, without giving a chance for anyone to follow up with another question. Nobody interrupted out of respect and politeness.
Fidel was a master of public relations. I’ve always said that he could sell a refrigerator to a penguin.
James Cason, longtime U.S. diplomat and now Coral Gables Mayor, served as the principal officer at the U.S Interests Section in Havana from 2002 to 2005. During his tenure on the island, he said he made it a point to never shake Fidel Castro’s hand and if they ended up in the same room, Cason would slip out. In April 2003, Castro ordered the arrest of 75 dissidents, some of whom had met with Cason. All were convicted during one-day trials and sentenced to long prison terms.
My role at the time was to call attention to the human rights violations that were happening in Cuba and I looked for a graphic way of doing this, of highlighting 75, the number of political prisoners. The first time, I was able to bring in a Statue of Liberty and put 75 on the flame. Well, of course the press asked about it and I told them what it represented. It was a way of drawing attention to their cases. Even when handing our visas [U.S. grants 20,000 annually] I made sure it was 20,075.
For Christmas  I ordered 75 meters of rope light. As you know Christmas is not celebrated in Cuba, but we had all the trimmings, the lights, Santa Claus, everything on the lawn. And then I had a lighted sign [about 3 feet in diameter] that was a 75. They called me to the Foreign Ministry and told me I had to take it down. I told them that there were so many decorations and we had diplomatic immunity.
They kept calling me in and telling me I had to take the decorations down. When I asked which one, they wouldn’t say the 75 sign specifically because that would be an admission. We didn’t take the signs down, but the Cuban government put on a march of 3 or 4 million down the Malecón [the seaside road in front of the Interests Section] in protest. It was really getting under their skin, all these Christmas decorations, but it was a way of supporting the dissidents. It was a way of provoking the international community about these human rights violations and highlighting the myths of the revolution.