[Oscar – Age – 80’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Lives with Wife and Extended Family; Occupation – Retired, Previously Revolutionary for Fidel Castro’s Movement]
Hola, Mi Amigo, Franklin:
It was a tremendous pleasure getting to know you during your trip to Cuba. I am sorry that our apartment, here in the heart of Centro Habana, is tiny, hot, and bare. I know it is not what you are accustomed to. But this is the life of Cubans. We do not regret it. We love our country. And it was nice to hear you say you love our country and our people as well. We enjoyed being able to share a Cuban coffee with you. Even though you know that our coffee beans are blended with other products to stretch it out until the next month in the ration book. Olivia and Yusimí send their regards and warm wishes as well.
You wanted me to describe what occurred at the inception of the Revolution here in Cuba. I was a student in the early 1950’s at the University of Havana. Fidel Castro was one of my classmates. There was much unrest at the time, as we were forced to endure the horrible Batista for a second time. We thought we were rid of him some years earlier, but somehow he managed to return to power. If you read newspapers of the day, you would see constant strikes, violence in the streets, beatings, killings, and so on. It was miserable. Students and other young people decried the horrible state of affairs. We would demonstrate on the huge marble steps of the University and the street outside, and riot police would come and beat us. There were a number of different communist, socialist and other anti-government groups, all over Havana and in other areas. Although separate, they were anarchists, revolutionaries, against the status quo. I was a member of such a group, all of whom were students at the University.
Talk began of an effort to stage a coup against the Batista government. We didn’t really have much interest in the details – we just wanted to be an active part of whatever would happen; we wanted to overthrow the government. We wanted a free Cuba. The plan kept popping up, over a several month period. We had meetings. The leaders of our group met with the leaders of other groups. We had more meetings. We would hear that such and such a group was in, and then that that group was out. Concepts and vague plans swirled like chocolate in a cup of milk. It was difficult to ascertain where one strain started and where it ended, before it mixed and changed texture.
But a master plan began to congeal. We began to learn that our group and many others would travel to Santiago de Cuba, far to the south and east of Havana, and that the coup would take place there. It was difficult to understand how the coup would occur in Santiago, since the capital and seat of the government, and Batista himself, were in Havana. But that was the plan.
On Friday, July 24, 1953, a day I’ll never forget, I showed up at the headquarters of our group, with a small bag of clothes and toiletries, knowing we were traveling to Santiago, but unsure of the rest of the plan. Everybody was jabbering, wild-eyed, moving to and fro. Some rifles were stacked on a table. Jaime was making a list of names, with information about whether they’d ever shot a gun or rifle, and clothing sizes. Strangers showed up, talked to the leaders, and left. Some of our group would leave, and return. I recall asking for input on what I should do, but there plan was mush; there was no cohesion.
Late in the evening, we were piling into cars. I got crammed into the middle of the back seat of a Ford. Rifles and provisions were stuck into the trunk. People lumbered with huge, dark-green duffel bags from car to car, and crammed one into our trunk.
As we left Havana and slowly moved along the poorly-paved highway towards the southeast, we passed other cars, each with four or five thin young men, some with scraggly beards. The ride was long and uncomfortable. We stopped from time to time, just to relieve ourselves, and switch drivers.
At seven in the morning, we arrived in Santiago. We’d passed broken down cars with men standing around looking forlorn. We’d picked up some provisions from some. We stopped the car across the street from the Hotel Rex, where a man stood on a corner and waved us down. He had a list of which men were in which car. He directed us to a house on a nearby street. We entered a house, jammed with thirty or so men, some sleeping on floors, some sitting and smoking, some whispering, discussing the apparent plan, some carrying canvas bags, and some checking sizes of musty, wrinkled military uniforms.
I was exhausted. So I went to sleep on the hard floor, in the corner of a room, for several hours. Somebody brought in ham, cheese, bread, pastries, and guava in the afternoon. We had a feast. A woman, I never did figure out who she was, was making multiple cups of sugary espresso. That woke us up.
In the late afternoon, we piled back into cars, with some of the same provisions, and other provisions, and headed in a caravan through the upper part of the city and out the Siboney Highway, towards the coast. We passed colorfully-dressed teenaged girls and women, heading down to the lower part of town for the Carnival, an annual street party of drinking and dancing. We saw government soldiers, in uniform, but looking a bit unkempt.
The cars rumbled and bounced on the bumps and gulleys in the beat-up, dirt highway. Clouds of dust and dirt filled the air and roared into the open windows. Rifles stuck out the rear window of the car in front of us. I couldn’t take a breath without dirt infiltrating my nose. The phlegm in my throat was heavy and thick. When I tried to clear it, my throat stung.
The cars slowed, and veered into the dirt yard of a small farmhouse followed and swallowed by even larger clouds of dirt. Everybody piled out, grabbed the canvas bags, boxes, guns, and so on and carried them into the house.
Inside the house, the turmoil was wilder than in the house where we had arrived in the city, mostly because the rooms were completely packed. I walked straight through and out the back door, hoping to find some relief from the tension. But the back yard was packed with men as well. Everywhere, people carried stacks of uniforms, rifles, and other supplies. Three men kneeled over a cistern in the side yard, and pulled up a bucket, which held rifles. Several men came out with guns pointed at other men, and ushered them to a wooden structure where cars were parked. They ordered the men to climb a ladder to what I supposed was a loft area for prisoners.
The insanity continued all evening. Finally, we were all given or told to find uniforms and rifles. Since I didn’t rush to the front of the line, I, along with many others, received a crumpled, musty, stained, uniform, the pant legs of which made it to my mid-calves. I couldn’t buckle them, so I just held them up with my belt. I got a rusty, small caliber rifle, which didn’t matter much, because I’d never shot any type of weapon in my life.
Then Fidel Castro gave a non-inspiring speech in the driveway, and we were all back in cars, heading into town. The car I was in stopped on the street between the Moncada and the officers’ dwellings. We started running towards the parade ground, but somebody with apparent authority, said, “No, you guys go to the hospital, across the street.” We turned and ran back towards the main street, and then bounded up the steps and into the hospital. At least one other group was already in there. We had no idea what we were to do. Some of the men pointed their rifles at medical staff and ordered them into a small area. I ran with another man through the halls gathering whomever we found and pushing them into rooms.
[Photo from Franklin Marquez – Taken from Wall Depiction at Siboney Farmhouse – Shows parade ground (Poligono) outside Moncada, officers’ quarters, (Casas de Allistodores) hospital and courthouse (palacio de justicias. This is the courthouse where the trial was held.]
After some time, solders rushed into the hospital. I grabbed a hospital patient gown from a table, slid into a room, and climbed into an empty bed, where I feigned sleep. Little by little, while concealed under the sheets, I removed my uniform pants. As I tried to remove my uniform shirt, a soldier rushed into room room, ran to me, pushed me with the muzzle of the gun, pulled down the sheet, pulled the neck of the gown out so he could see the uniform, and arrested me.
Along with over a hundred others, I was a defendant in the trial, which went on for weeks. Fidel Castro, representing himself, tried to turn it into an attack on Batista’s government. He gave his speech – “History will Absolve me” at the end of the trial. But almost all of us were convicted, and sent to the Isle of Pines, to the “Model Prison.” I had to put up with Castro’s speeches in there for almost a year before being released.
When we were all out of prison, I decided that Castro was still the best choice to lead the country. I became a follower again. After the Revolution, I went to work for the government. I know you expect me to criticize the government, Franklin, but I cannot, and I will not. We Cubans have what we need. Our government is making strides daily to improve our situation. I am convinced that our situation is the result of the U.S. Embargo and Russia’s abandoning us. I’ll tell you more about current life in Cuba in another letter.
Un abrazo fuerte. Su amigo, Oscar.