I Fought For Fidel

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Escalona introduced me as “the American who is training the firing squad.” Fidel thought that was a great joke. “The American who is training the firing squad?” He threw back his head and roared with laughter. As I extended my hand, he grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a bear hug. Everybody was happy. Fidel kidded around with Escalona’s sister and the other girls present, mostly relatives of rebel officers who had been invited to the comandante’s home to meet the Maximum Leader.

After dinner Fidel went to the city plaza and delivered a two-hour speech to some thirty thousand people. With Escalona and about a dozen others I stood on the platform with the speaker, who made his usual pitch for discipline and self-sacrifice.

After the speech Fidel agreed to grant WNEW Radio in New York a telephone interview. He understood English fairly well but asked me to stand by as an interpreter. When questioned about the executions of “war criminals” that were proceeding, he appealed to the American people for understanding. Everyone, he said, was getting a fair trial.

Fidel sounded like a B-movie Latin revolutionist, and I doubted he was making a favorable impression on listeners in the United States. Even in Cuba he had to be seen to be appreciated; radio and the printed word conveyed little of his power. Television served him better, but it was primarily through personal contact that Fidel achieved his incredible rapport with the masses. The man was a born dictator; I had no doubt about that. I could only hope that he would be a benevolent one and loosen up—and that he wouldn’t turn Communist.

Among my final duties in the revolutionary army was to select, on the morning of January 21, six of my best marksmen for the firing squad to execute the batistiano “war criminals.” My men had done all right against a paper silhouette at twenty paces, but I was worried about the effect a live target would have on their aim. There was a definite possibility, I thought, that these first executions in Pinar del Río might be badly bungled. To guard against this I decided to join the firing squad. We shot eleven men that day, and my squad’s performance convinced me that my presence at the executions was no longer necessary.

After my release from the revolutionary army in March, I asked Fidel for a grant of land, where I could plant tomatoes for export to the United States. I got sixty-six fertile acres on the central highway near San Cristobal, plus unlimited credit from the National Institute of Agrarian Reform. For living quarters I was given the confiscated country home of a batistiano big shot, and my wife and new baby joined me there in July. We brought in a good crop in the winter of 1959-60, and the proceeds from our export sales were deposited directly into our account at the First National Bank of Miami.

With my business prospering I ignored the ominous developments around me. Fidel, not content with his monopoly on armed force in Cuba, proceeded to take all political power into his own hands. He declared himself prime minister, replaced a conservative former judge as puppet president with a small-time lawyer long associated with Communists, and, by November 1959, had dismissed most of the anti-Communists in his cabinet. More ominous still, Fidel obliterated all traces of an independent judiciary. When one of the few independent-minded comandantes of the revolutionary army, Huber Matos, resigned his commission to protest Communist influence in the government, he was subjected to a farcical trial—dominated by the prime minister’s longwinded “testimony”—convicted of treason, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. I found it increasingly difficult to swallow the official line that Cuban anti-Communism was simply a facade concealing revanchist batistianos. By the end of 1959 Che Guevara was pushing his leftist agenda from his new position as president of Cuba’s National Bank, and friends of mine in Pinar del Río began speaking of the need to create a new “collectivist mentality.”

The last time I saw Fidel was at the Los Pinos collective, next to my private farm, in February 1960, when he invited me and my wife to meet the Soviet deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan. Shortly afterward Fidel launched a full-scale campaign against “Yankee imperialism.” No one threatened me, but a decree by Che Guevara giving the government an export monopoly meant that I wouldn’t get any more American dollars for produce sold in the United States. Cuban newspapers that dared criticize the regime’s economic measures were taken over by fidelista unions. My hopes that Fidel would moderate his policies were dashed that spring as Cuba took its irreversible turn toward totalitarianism. Government-controlled mobs—once called into the streets and plazas to demand the execution of batistiano war criminals or to denounce foreign intervention in the island’s affairs—were now directed against Cuban businessmen. It was like a page out of the history of Nazi Germany. The fact that the Cuban masses were as firmly behind Fidel as the Germans had been behind Hitler was no comfort. For those who valued freedom the situation was intolerable. In July Nancy and I abandoned our Cuban homestead and joined the exodus to Miami.