Five Decades of Revolution Waiting for a New Dawn in Havana

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Part 2: 'I Won't Return to Havana'


Together with a number of comrades, Matos strolled through the city where he had completed his teacher training. "I would have gladly died at that moment," confesses the old man today. His hopes appeared to have been fulfilled. After all, Castro had promised: "There will be no more farmers without land." Huber and Castro's brother Raúl had even promised the rebel leader to carry on with the revolution if something were to happen to him.

The pledge was important to Castro. The man who is still celebrated as the hero in the fight against the despots was terribly afraid of death, Matos says. Fidel Castro, he says, only participated in fights as an observer from afar. Matos accuses him of deep cowardice.

Finally, on Jan. 8, the convoy of bearded rebels headed into the capital. Castro stood on the back of a truck. He placed Camilo Cienfuegos to his right. To his left he positioned Matos -- with a machine gun at the ready. His job was to spot and eliminate possible assassins among the crowds on the streets and the cheering people on the balconies and the roofs. "Today is my day, today they're going to kill me," Castro repeated nervously, "obsessed, half out of his mind with panic," recalls Matos.

The images were broadcast around the world: Castro waving to the crowds, Cienfuegos smiling from under his cowboy hat and a muscular, wary Matos with his weapon ready to fire. For three hours the procession slowly made its way through the thronging multitude.

The teacher from Manzanillo was wearing a cap with the emblem of the 26th of July Movement and golden insignia that friends in Santiago had given him. "Victory, victory!" Castro shouted and accidentally knocked the cap off his head with an expansive gesture.

'Fidel Asked Me To'

He should have recognized this seemingly harmless incident as a bad omen, says Matos today. While Castro ran up to the stage and called to a million people, "we have won the peace," and El Comandante's female companion, Celia Sánchez, had a trained white dove fly onto his shoulder, Matos sat off to the side in the car. "My head ached, I was tense, and I didn't want to speak to the people, although Fidel had asked me to."

Sure enough, the euphoria of victory did not last long. The hopes for a democratic, open and just society where soon dashed.

Montaner, the high school student, witnessed how a people's tribunal sentenced his school principal to 10 years in prison, although he had committed no crime. Throughout the country there were summary executions. The increasing authoritarianism shocked the idealistic schoolboy.

In back issues of Bohemia, his father's newspaper, Montaner read about how the Soviet Union had brutally cracked down on the uprising in Hungary three years earlier. When the Cuban Revolution began to turn toward Marxism, he decided to break with the movement. This time Montaner didn't want to sit at home. He joined the clandestine Revolutionary Recovery Movement (MRR), which was founded at the law school in Havana and supported by Washington. It was also an organization that aided anti-Castro guerrillas in the mountains.

Montaner and his friends could do very little. They were exposed in late 1960 and the 17-year-old was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He had the good fortune to be placed in a prison for minors, though, making it relatively easy to escape and hide for half a year in the Venezuelan embassy. On Sept. 8, 1961, he was flown out. "I sang the national anthem and was sure that I would quickly return to a free Cuba." Montaner, today a successful writer, is still waiting for that day.

Promise of Free Elections

Fidel ordered Matos to administer the sugar-producing province of Camagüey, but the newly-appointed military governor couldn't accept that communists like Che Guevara and Raúl Castro had won the upper hand. To make matters worse, Fidel made it clear to his comrade that he did not intend to keep his promise of free elections.

Matos wrote a letter to the self proclaimed máximo líder in October 1959, asking to be relieved of this post. He said that he wanted to return home as a civilian and work as a teacher. He admonished his former friend that "the revolution would only triumph if it could rely on a united people." In order for this to happen, he said that Castro would have to meet the needs of the Cubans.

Raúl, who had been appointed minister of defense, demanded thereafter that Matos be summarily shot, and suggested that Cienfuegos take his place. Cienfuegos defended Matos, and in late October, the most popular of all the comandantes disappeared without a trace. Matos believes Cienfuegos was murdered.

In December, Matos was sentenced to 20 years in prison in the first show trial of the Castro regime. El Comandante himself appeared as the main witness and accused the hero of Santiago of treason, counterrevolutionary activities and sabotage of the agrarian reform. Matos served his sentence, right up to the very last day, under physical and psychological torture. In October, 1979, with the help of the Costa Rican government, he was finally able to travel to Miami where his family was living in exile.

Lomnitz's departure from Cuba was far less dramatic. When Cuba began to introduce the agrarian reform in May 1959, his father was fully in agreement with the government's plan to buy up unused land and cultivate it. But that never happened. The agricultural machinery donated by the Lomnitz company and other firms stood idle and rusting. Federico even accompanied his father to see Che Guevara and submit an application for investment.

'A Farewell Forever'

However, by the mid-1960s the regime had nationalized all US companies, followed by foreign banks. "The money that we had deposited there, and the stocks, was all lost," says Lomnitz. Personal assets were limited, and all of their real estate, with the exception of their apartment, was expropriated.

Federico was sent to the university in Bonn, Germany in the hope that he could return home once the chaos in Havana had subsided. "I was fortunate," says Lomnitz, considering that many of his childhood friends were recruited shortly afterwards by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs operation in April 1961, a poorly organized invasion of Cuban exiles that was quelled within 48 hours. "I probably would have been there."

His parents left the country shortly thereafter with nothing more than 12 suitcases full of clothing. Their house in Kohly was confiscated along with all of its furnishings. Today, the businessman has a cardboard box where he keeps the documents pertaining to his father's ruined life's work. His claims against Cuba amount to €6 million ($8.5 million) -- the only German compensation case. "It wasn't a farewell forever," says Lomnitz. He swallows and gazes for a long time at his snow-covered garden in Bad Homburg. "But I won't return to Havana as long as those men are still alive."

By contrast, Montaner hopes to spend his final days together with his wife in Cuba. In 1990, he founded in Miami the Unión Liberal Cubana, a political party which he hopes will contribute to a peaceful transition in his homeland. He says this is just around the corner. After Castro's death, the author believes that the Cubans, disappointed by their political leaders, will start to question communism. He says it will then be necessary to prove to the population that democratization has its advantages.

Socialism brought economic catastrophe to Latin America's third most prosperous country. But Montaner has faith in the good education that young people receive on Cuba. "With the right system, the country can quickly recover."

Huber Matos believes that, following the transition, it will take a decade before Cuba experiences an economic upswing. Unbroken by his long years in prison, the old man is convinced that he will outlive "that wimp" Fidel who has transformed the revolution into a "prostitute." He says that Castro's subjects are forced, out of constant fear of ubiquitous informers, to pretend that they support the system. But he maintains that the "end of tyranny" is drawing near. Then the old man wants to return to the island and spread the word to his fellow Cubans once again about the "moral values of the republic."

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