By Helene Zuber
The last day of 1958 flew by in a rush of fevered activity for Huber Matos. The commander of the ninth column had to limp with his foot in a cast from one insurgent unit to the next. He had to bring roughly 1,000 men into position. Fidel Castro, the leader of the rebel army, had ordered the comandante weeks earlier to take the city of Santiago de Cuba on the Caribbean Sea.
They had planned to capture this stronghold by the first of January. Taking the second-largest city on the eastern part of the island would seal the victory of the revolutionaries over the army of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Their struggle had begun two years earlier, when Castro and 81 comrades had sailed from Mexico on board the yacht Granma, landing 200 kilometers (124 miles) down the coast from Santiago.
50 years later, it is once again New Year's Eve and Matos, 90, the chief witness of Castro's rise to power -- and his abuse of power -- is preparing to celebrate with his wife and one of their daughters in the family's modest home in a middle-class suburb of Miami. But is there anything worth celebrating? "Yes, because Fidel is nothing more than a living corpse," says Matos, revealing his contempt for his former comrade in arms, who is eight years his junior.
The revolution, he says, ended for him and many others as an "appalling fraud." Three million Cubans are now spread across the world and the regime which Castro installed a half century ago continues to hold 11 million people captive to a communist dictatorship.
'A Free People Again'
Since July 2006, the ailing máximo líder has gradually transferred his public offices to his younger brother Raúl. Yet despite a serious illness, Castro remains the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba and his "reflections" appear almost every day in the party newspaper Granma. "My motivation in life is the same today as it was back then," says Matos, "helping to make the Cubans a free people again."
50 years ago, around 1:00 a.m. on New Year's day, an exhausted Matos, still dressed in his uniform, lay down to sleep next to his M3 machine gun.
Just a few hours before Matos fell asleep, Federico Lomnitz, 18, the son of German immigrants from Berlin, was getting ready for the New Year's Eve party at his parents' house in the capital, in the swanky neighborhood of Kohly, with a view of the Bay of Havana. The first-semester law student wanted to celebrate with his friends in the posh Biltmore Club. But it had become dangerous to go out. Batista's secret police were brutally cracking down on young people who they suspected of supporting the rebels. A number of his classmates had already been beaten up after a night of partying.
The guerrillas had acquired the habit of underscoring their political slogans by setting off bombs in Havana's banqueting halls and ballrooms. During the hasty evacuation of one bar not long before, Montaner had met Linda. He would ring in the New Year at her parents' house.
On New Year's Eve 50 years ago, the guerrilla Matos, the up-and-coming entrepreneur Lomnitz and the journalist's son Montaner did not know each other. All three of them celebrated the victory of the revolution as a triumph. Yet, like Castro's disillusioned former comandante Matos, Lomnitz, 68, and Montaner, 65, feel robbed of the bright future that appeared to be in store for Cuba at the time. When Fidel Castro dies, they plan to meet at last in Havana.
In Germany, standing among shelves filled with bags of gingerbread, bottles of beer and cans of sauerkraut, Lomnitz, now an exporter of German foodstuffs, says that he is waiting for the dictator's death. Afterwards, he would be happy to help get the island back on its feet after years of socialist deprivation.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in Miami, Montaner has long been seen as the leader of an exile government by many of his fellow Cubans -- and he is still waiting for "the day when Fidel is no longer there.
So too is the former rebel commander Matos. On a sunny December morning, Matos tells the story of how he joined the revolution. With a steady voice, the old man recounts how he sent his wife and four children into exile in Costa Rica and abandoned his career and rice plantation to pursue the patriotic dream that his mother and father had "stamped on his soul" since he was a little boy.
Matos had been an elementary school teacher in the small city of Manzanillo in Oriente Province and was a member of the liberal democratic Orthodox Party, whose candidates included Fidel Castro. In March 1952, shortly before the elections, the unpopular former President Batista staged a coup. "To defend democratic ideals," Matos says, "I became a rebel."
'Batista Has Fled'
In March 1958, Matos flew a planeload of arms from supporters in Costa Rica to Castro in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, south of Manzanillo, and joined the guerrillas. From there he headed out with 129 men in late August to fight his way to Santiago, 100 kilometers away. Since October, they had besieged the city, where 5,000 soldiers were stationed.
"Around 5:00 a.m. on New Year's Day 1959, my people woke me again. The government radio station had stopped broadcasting. Then we heard that Batista had stepped down."
At two o'clock in the morning, the dictator and his closest advisors boarded a plane that flew them to the Dominican Republic. The young Carlos Alberto Montaner had just returned home from the party with his girlfriend Linda when the phone rang in the family home. His father was informed: "Batista has fled."
Castro was a frequent visitor at the Montaners. Once he even stayed there with his wife Mirta and their baby Fidelito. Carlos Alberto was still a little boy at the time. He remembers Castro as a cigar-smoking giant who drank copious quantities of coffee with milk.
Not surprisingly, the 15-year-old felt elated on New Year's Day morning 1959. "It was a joy that I shared with my family, with the neighbors and with my friends," says Montaner. People hugged each other and cried on the streets. There was a general sense of euphoria, much like when the wall fell in Berlin. With the victory of the revolutionaries under the jovial Castro, the boy thought that his country was about to enter an era of exemplary justice. He was even plagued by pangs of "macho envy" of the older boys who were able to fight with "El Comandante," as Castro is still widely known in Cuba today.
In the early morning, he hopped into the car owned by the pharmaceutical lab that employed him as a part-time delivery boy. Together with his older brother and friends, they drove throughout the city. They slipped on red-and-black armbands with the lettering "M-26-7," which identified them as supporters of Castro's "Movimiento 26 de Julio" movement, and headed to the homes of supporters of the deposed dictator to confiscate weapons and thus prevent a counterrevolution.
"I was monstrously precocious" says Montaner during an interview in his elegant penthouse in Miami. However, he adds that his classmates were just as enthusiastic, which he attributes to the Caribbean climate and their youthful hormones. Only one year later, he was to marry Linda, who remains his companion and coworker to this day.
A Shiny Studebaker
It was a similar story in the Havana district of Kohly, where Federico Lomnitz's family was happy "that the whole corrupt mob had finally left."
In the office of his export business in Bad Homburg, today the entrepreneur reminisces on this exciting chapter in the history of his native town Havana. His father, who came from a family that supported the left-leaning Social Democrats, fled the Nazi regime in the late 1930s and emigrated to Cuba. On the island, the German agricultural engineer used modern European methods to build a plant to produce livestock feed, and he established a successful import-export business. The family prospered. In the summer of 1958, Federico graduated from the Belén Jesuit high school, Fidel Castro's old school. As a graduation present, he received a shiny Studebaker.
The business community "was totally fed up" with the corrupt methods of Batista's bureaucrats, says Lomnitz, as he describes the mood among the upper echelons of Cuban society on the eve of the revolution. Customs officials, government agencies and the police all had to be bribed or they would not issue papers or stamp official documents. "We welcomed the newcomers, we saw Fidel as a liberator." On New Year's Day 50 years ago, there was a carnival atmosphere in the otherwise highly posh neighborhood of Kohly.
On the other side of the island, events were rapidly unfolding. Comandante Matos managed to talk the officers in Batista's army into meeting with the revolutionary leader, Castro. He convinced them to stop shedding blood for the provisional junta and march into the city as a united front with the rebels. In Santiago people put aside their differences and joined hands as brothers. In the evening, Castro proclaimed the victory of the Cuban Revolution from a balcony at the town hall and said: "Never again will there be a dictatorship on Cuba!"
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