When looking at Havana’s skyline today, the Capitol building is one of its most eye-catching sights.
Its symbolic dome has been covered by scaffolding since 2012, when the Cuban government began its restoration. Since March it has once again housed Cuba’s legislative branch, which, since 1976, has functioned as the Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular.
Today, many see the new U.S.-Cuba relationship as a positive step toward a better Cuba. They seem to forget and purposefully ignore that there was a Cuba before 1959 that, although imperfect, was on the road to progress. Most people forget that, prior to 1959, Cuba’s government was divided into three branches.
The Capitol housed the Cuban Congress, a bicameral body with a Senate and a House of Representatives. Within its chambers, Cuban senators and congressmen debated legislation as the Cuban people’s democratically and freely elected representatives. These men and women echoed the diversity of the Cuban people. Among its ranks were lawyers, doctors, labor leaders, and even a shoemaker.
It was in the Capitol where Cuba’s progressive 1940 Constitution was debated, drafted and enacted. In 1939, voters elected delegates to form a Constitutional Assembly. For months, delegates from different political parties debated key issues, and the new Constitution was proclaimed on the Capitol steps.
Of the many men and women who walked the halls of the Cuban Congress, one in particular was renowned for his honesty, dignity and patriotism. Dr. Emilio “Millo” Ochoa was a dentist by trade, a “guajirito,” or hillbilly, as he referred to himself, from Holguín in Cuba’s Oriente Province.
Ochoa participated in the student-led opposition movement that toppled President Gerardo Machado’s government in 1933. A founder of the Auténtico Party, Ochoa soon became one of its most respected and trusted leaders. In 1939, he was elected a delegate to the Constitutional Assembly, serving alongside former presidents and Independence War veterans.
Ochoa was elected to the Senate twice, in 1940 and 1944. But the Auténtico Party’s image was soon tarnished by corruption scandals, and Ochoa led a group of dissident Auténtico leaders that eventually left the party and founded the Ortodoxo Party in 1946.
Ochoa was elected to the Cuban House of Representatives in 1950, and in 1952 he was the Ortodoxo Party’s candidate for vice president for the elections scheduled for June 1 of that year. Those elections were never held, and he and the other members of Congress abruptly lost their positions on March 10 when Gen. Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar led a coup d’etat and dissolved Congress.
Soon Ochoa found himself heavily involved in the anti-Batista struggle, first through violent, and later through peaceful and electoral means. He was arrested and released several times for openly expressing his views, but never ceased in his attacks on the Batista government.
On Jan. 1, 1959, Ochoa and his family were exiled in Miami Beach when they found out about Batista’s departure. The anti-Batista “revolution” had triumphed, but while much of the Cuban population rejoiced, Ochoa was also opposed to Fidel Castro’s methods and tactics. When revolutionary leaders called him personally to ask him to join the new leadership, Ochoa refused, stating: “I will return to Cuba when I cannot be tied with that revolution because I know Fidel Castro and I know that if he needs to order his mother killed to justify his purpose, he would do so; and that is not the type of leader that I want for my homeland.” Ochoa did return to Cuba, where he worked against the new dictatorship.
Eventually he left Cuba, living in Venezuela for a few years and later settling for good in Miami-Dade, where he earned his living as a humble taxi driver and did some work as a dentist.
Ochoa passed away in 2007, one week shy of his 100th birthday. Known by many as “el último Constituyente,” the last surviving delegate of the 1940 Constitution, he never returned to his beloved Cuba.
Within the Capitol’s chambers, Ochoa attempted a better vision for Cuba. Today, Cuba is again at a crossroads, but are the lessons of the past at risk of being swept aside in the interest of profit and personal gain?
Daniel I. Pedreira has a master’s degree in peace operations from George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in international studies from the University of Miami. He is the author of El Último Constituyente: El desarrollo político de Emilio “Millo” Ochoa.