Amid Cuba thaw, widow fights to bring yanqui comandante home

William Morgan and wife Olga  in the mountains during the Cuban revolution.
William Morgan and wife Olga in the mountains during the Cuban revolution. COURTESY THE MORGAN FAMILY

President Barack Obama’s move to thaw diplomatic relations with Cuba may be on the verge of showing its first concrete result: a successful conclusion to a five-decade campaign to retrieve the body of William Morgan, the controversial “yanqui comandante” who helped bring Fidel Castro to power and then was executed for plotting to overthrow him.

“Everything is looking good, finally, very good,” Morgan’s widow, Olga Goodwin, told the Miami Herald from her home in Toledo, Ohio. “My lawyer went to Rome and got a letter to Pope Francis, asking him to help, and it looks like the pope is going to do it.”

It was the Argentine-born Francis, the first pope from Latin America, whose intervention with Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro nearly two years ago kicked off negotiations that led to the December announcement that Washington and Havana would resume diplomatic relations broken in 1961.

Goodwin’s Ohio attorney, Gerardo Rollison, who has been working on the case for seven years, declined to discuss any details of his visit to Rome or even confirm that he took one. “But I will say that I’m more optimistic now than I’ve been ever been that we’re going to get this done,” he said.

If Morgan’s body is returned, it may touch off some tremors in Miami, where some families have spent years trying to recover the remains of loved ones killed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

Except for the daughter of an American bomber pilot flying for the CIA who was shot down during the fighting, none are known to have succeeded. Most haven’t even been able to learn where their relatives are buried.

“The Castros have kept it a big secret where the bodies were buried, or even if they were buried at all,” said Janet Ray, who bombarded Fidel Castro with thousands of letters and telegrams for more than 10 years before winning the release of the body of her pilot father, Pete. “It’s a very emotional thing.”

Even relatives of the Castro regime’s enemies who haven’t tried to recover their remains have sometimes discovered that the Cuban government uses them as macabre bargaining chips. The family of Howard Anderson, executed in 1962 after he was accused of being a U.S. spy, decided that he had loved Cuba so much that he should stay buried there.

But when his daughter Bonnie, then a reporter for the Miami Herald, wrote a long, poignant story about her first visit to his Havana grave in 1979, she was banned from the island for nearly two decades. When she finally was allowed back in as a CNN producer in 1998, she visited the grave again.

“It was just an empty hole in the ground,” Anderson said last week. “The caretaker, who I had met on my first visit, told me that after my story ran, somebody from the government ordered him to dig up the body and throw it away.”

Commander Morgan

William Morgan was a 29-year-old roustabout who had served in the U.S. Army and worked as a bar bouncer and a mob debt collector when he headed to Cuba in 1957 to join the guerrilla war being waged against dictator Fulgencio Batista.

His U.S. military experience proved invaluable to the anti-Batista forces, mostly students and peasants who knew little about weapons or tactics. He led rebel troops to victory in several key battles in the Escambray mountains, and though his Spanish was limited, he was promoted to the rank of commander.

As one of only a few Americans in the ranks of the rebels, Morgan was a popular interview for U.S. news media, and he inevitably assured reporters that Fidel Castro was no communist. Castro reciprocated the compliments, proclaiming Morgan “the kind of North American that Cuba needs.” Morgan’s activities attracted the interest of the CIA and the FBI, and his U.S. citizenship would eventually be revoked.

Morgan’s loyalty to Castro continued after the rebels drove Batista from power in the final days of 1958 and Castro declared himself prime minister. Morgan, who had married his fellow guerrilla Olga Rodriguez and settled down in Cuba to operate a frog farm, turned double agent to help Castro crush a coup attempt backed by Dominican Republic leader Rafael Trujillo.

And he kept insisting to journalists that, though Castro’s government was moving steadily left, it was not communist. But his interviews now sometimes included cautionary notes. “If something happens to me,” he told a Look magazine reporter, “then you know the commies have really taken over.”

By late 1960, Morgan concluded that they had, and began stockpiling arms for an uprising against the Cuban government. But Castro struck first, arresting Morgan in October 1960 and executing him five months later. Morgan’s death became the stuff of legend in Cuba after he refused the firing squad’s order to kneel and was shot first in the knees, then killed after he crumpled to the ground. According to official Cuban records, he was buried in Havana’s vast Colon Cemetery.

Morgan’s mother, Loretta, began a sporadic campaign to retrieve his body soon after his execution. His wife Olga — who was arrested shortly after Morgan was and served an 11-year prison term — joined in after fleeing Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and finding her way to Ohio. Olga continued even after she remarried in 1985 and after Loretta died in 1988.

Renewed effort

Her efforts turned more serious in 2008 when she retained Rollison to help. Though they were hampered by the unsympathetic administration of George W. Bush — which refused to grant Rollison the special permit needed for him to travel to Cuba to talk to the Castro government — their activities began generating publicity.

A lengthy account of Morgan’s life and death appeared in The New Yorker magazine, and actor George Clooney purchased an option on the movie rights. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Mitch Weiss and Michael Sallah (a Miami Herald reporter) just published a book about Morgan, The Yankee Comandante.

Former President Jimmy Carter lobbied the Cuban government, albeit unsuccessfully, to release the body. After Obama’s election, Rollison was able to get the Cuba travel permit. The best news yet for Morgan’s widow was the December announcement about the restoration of diplomatic relations.

“From congresspersons to senators to people in the Treasury and State Departments, our efforts have gotten a friendly hearing, and those efforts are still going on,” said Rollison. Though the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, which can be lifted only by Congress, is likely to remain in place even after diplomatic relations are restored, Rollison said his talks with officials lead him to believe that “within the confines of existing laws, there is a mechanism that would allow the repatriation of William Morgan’s remains.”

In the letter he conveyed to the Vatican, which was released by Morgan’s widow, Rollison said the return of Morgan’s remains “would be one more step in the resolution of humanitarian issues between Cuba and the United States.”

The Miami exile community has been largely sympathetic to Goodwin’s campaign (it even raised $2,300 to help defray expenses if Morgan’s body is shipped home), but some remain skeptical that it will end in success.

“My mother tried for a long time to get my father’s body returned, but the Cuban government wasn’t cooperating and the Red Cross couldn’t do anything,” said Maria Werlau, executive director of the Cuba Archive, whose father, Armando Cañizares, was killed at the Bay of Pigs when she was 18 months old.

“Personally, I have no interest in getting his body back. I’m not going to spend a penny on that regime. But it would be nice to know where he’s buried, to have a marked grave.”

Ray, who ultimately won her battle to recoup her father’s body, said her success probably will make it harder rather than easier for others. “It really backfired on them when they released my father,” she said. “They had kept him in cold-storage in a morgue all those years, as a kind of trophy for visiting leftists to see, and when the body got to the United States we were still able to have an autopsy done.

“It showed that he wasn’t killed in the plane crash, but was executed on the ground by a bullet fired point-blank into his head. So instead of getting credit for some big humanitarian act, Fidel Castro wound up looking really bad.”

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