I was born and raised in Encrucijada, Cuba, a small town in the province of Las Villas. My childhood was happy and carefree, and the world of politics was unknown to me. However, when I moved to Havana as a young woman to continue my education, life in Cuba was changing, and so was I. Batista’s right-wing dictatorship had entrenched itself after the 1952 coup d’etat, in which he simply seized power after realizing that he would not win the presidential election. His corrupt, repressive government was creating widespread discontent among the Cuban people. At the University of Havana, where I was enrolled in the School of Philosophy and Letters, anti-Batista demonstrations were commonplace. An idealistic, charismatic student leader named José Antonio Echeverría, President of the Federation of University Students, whom I personally knew, helped to organize an attack on the Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957, to force Batista’s resignation. Unfortunately for the country, the siege was a complete failure, and Echeverría was one of its casualties, being shot dead by Batista’s police as he tried to re-enter the grounds of the University. That very night Batista’s police forces launched one of the bloodiest and most vicious waves of repression and political violence that Cuba had ever seen up to that time.
“When the Dolphins Cry” is perhaps Ortal-Miranda’s most engrossing work, although final judgment on that must be left to the reader. Her terse, narrative style creates a suspenseful momentum in the plot that effortlessly moves the story forward, occasionally weaving into the action poetic passages and images that accentuate the humanity of the book’s characters. The haunting memory of this book will linger long after the reader turns the last page.
– Dr. Julio Hernández Miyares
Those two events—the failure of the attack on the Presidential Palace, and its aftermath; and the death of José Antonio Echeverría—affected me deeply. I knew that Batista and his regime had to be removed but how, and by whom? Enter Fidel Castro, who, after being exiled by Batista in 1955, had returned to Cuba in December of the following year. He and his band of guerilla fighters had already established a base camp in the Sierra Maestra mountains, and Castro was positioning himself as the agent of change that Cuba needed. In spite of his shady reputation due to having been involved in gang activities during his student years, I had to admit that Castro might, indeed, be what our country was looking for. His words, his political program, his interviews, his radio broadcasts—all seemed to ring true. I felt hopeful as he and his guerilla army gained ground against the forces of Batista throughout 1957 and 1958. When the final battles were over, and Castro and his troops entered Havana in January of 1959, I felt an awakening of hope for the country.
Sadly, that hope was short-lived. Within days, Castro’s soldiers began executing any remaining Batista followers, both military and civilian. Raúl Castro himself presided over a mass execution of 70 Batista soldiers and sympathizers on January 12. On February 16, Fidel proclaimed himself Prime Minister of the country, with powers that exceeded those of the man he had proclaimed President just weeks before. Known communists and Castro family members were appointed to high governmental positions, which guaranteed the implementation of the reforms that would soon turn the country upside down. There was no tolerance of anyone who dared to express concern about the direction in which the country was being taken. The press and the media became tools of the Government. I was aghast at what was happening and the speed at which it was taking place:
–In April, Castro announced that the country was too unstable to hold elections, which, from the mountains, he had promised to make a reality within one year.
–In May, Castro unveiled the Agrarian Reform, which essentially removed the private ownership of large landholdings and transferred it to the Government.
–In June, Castro orchestrated the resignation of the President he had named in January (Manuel Urrutia), and replaced him the following month with a known, but weak, Communist, Osvaldo Dorticós Torrado, who would rubber stamp anything that Castro wanted to do.
–In October came the disappearance of Camilo Cienfuegos and the arrest of Huber Matos. Both men had been in Castro’s most intimate circle of support and leadership as the guerilla army marched toward Havana, but afterward, both became a threat to Castro, so both of them were neutralized.
–In the same month, there was an astounding denunciation of Castro by Díaz Lanz, the former Chief of the Revolutionary Air Force. Lanz, who had fled Cuba in June (after understanding what was happening to the country), secretly returned and flew over the city of Havana in a B-25, dropping thousands of flyers from an open bomb hatch that read, “Fidel is surreptitiously leading Cuba into communism.”
Lanz’s courageous act was a tipping point for me. I decided to join the “Movement for the Recovery of the Revolution” (MRR), a clandestine organization dedicated to overthrowing Castro and fulfilling the promises he made but never kept: to implement fair reforms of the country; to restore the Constitution of 1940; and to hold free and fair elections as soon as conditions would allow for them.
Many of my experiences in the MRR are dramatized in detail in my screenplay, “The Sleepwalkers’ Ballad: Memories of the Revolution.” The semi-ficticious character, María, a clandestine agent, is involved in several suspenseful situations that mirror what actually happened during assignments that I took on during the two years that I was an MRR member.
According to one reviewer, the distinguished Professor Emeritus Julio Hernández Miyares, “The Sleepwalkers’ Ballad” is “historically informative and true; it is, and will be in the future, an important and easily accessible resource that traces the trajectory of the first years of Fidel Castro’s Revolution and its economic and socio-political results in Cuba and in the lives of its citizens.” He adds, “it is a moving love story, filled with poetry and emotion, to be enjoyed equally as a book or, if it is made into a movie, as a screenplay.”
My first assignment in the MRR was to be the driver for an agent whose nom de guerre was Julio. He had just re-entered Cuba and because he didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, he needed to be brought to a rendezvous point, outside of Havana, where another agent was waiting for him. Julio instructed me to drive to a certain cemetery and park the car in front of a gravestone that a man would be cleaning. When we arrived at the appointed spot, we exited the car, as if we were visiting a relative’s grave. The contact spoke softly and briefly to Julio, saying that “the others are on board with the operation,” and that “it would take place at 3:00 a.m. on Monday.” With that, Julio and I returned to the car and he directed me to drive to another location. En route, Julio told me that the MRR had done a thorough background check on me, and the conclusion was that I could be a trusted part of the Movement. Pleased and grateful that I had “passed muster,” I asked Julio what “operation” the man in the cemetery was referring to. He answered me straightforwardly, saying that they were “going to blow up one of Castro’s supply depots outside of Havana.” His words shocked me into silence, because, even though I realized in the abstract that overthrowing the Castro regime would involve acts such as these, I also knew that I could never participate in a bombing, even for a noble cause. I finally found the words to tell him so, adding that I could probably be better used in the Intelligence branch of the MRR (which is where I ended up). He told me not to worry, and that he knew that everyone didn’t belong “on the front lines.” I continued driving, thinking about what was going to happen the next day…and it did.
The following episode is one I remember because of its risk and what could have happened if I had acted differently. A fellow MRR member, a young woman who had studied in Russia, approached me in the University library and asked if I could deliver some important photos and documents that had been taken out of the Russian Embassy to a person whose name and address she would give me right then. She added that, the previous day, while she was walking to the University, a car followed her, and because she thought that she might be under surveillance by the “G2” (Castro’s secret police), it would be better if someone else delivered the documents. I agreed to do so, realizing the risk when she warned me that if, for some reason, the G2 stopped me and found the documents in my possession, I would be arrested. Before we parted ways, she gave me the documents, along with the name, address and phone number of the contact, a “Dr. Padilla,” whom I happened to know. I left the University grounds, and, from a public phone, I called the doctor’s office. His wife usually answered the phone, but not on that day. A man’s voice told me that neither the doctor nor his wife was available at that moment, but if I gave him my name and phone number, he would ask them to call me. I instantly realized it was a trap, so I simply said (hoping that my voice wasn’t shaking) that I would call again at another time. A few hours later, with the documents still in my possession, I took my car and slowly passed in front of the building where Dr. Padilla’s office was located. What I saw was terrifying. Two men were escorting the doctor, who was in handcuffs, to a waiting car that immediately pulled away from the curb. Seconds later, Dr. Padilla’s wife was led out of the building and put into a second car that sped off in the same direction. Obviously, the G2 had discovered their involvement with the MRR. I never saw them again. As for the documents, the next day I brought them to one of my professors at the University, whom I knew was also a member of the underground, and he delivered them to where they needed to go.
Returning to the national events between 1959 and 1961 that fueled my decision to work in the underground, in October of 1960 the Government unveiled the Urban Reform. In essence, this law eliminated private ownership of properties in multi-unit buildings such as apartments and condominiums, as well as a large number of private homes. Property titles were transferred to the Government, which, in theory, took on the responsibility of providing housing to Cuba’s citizens. Like all the promises of the Castro brothers, their pledge to undertake “massive housing construction” was never fulfilled.
In April of 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. In a word, it was a total disaster for everyone except Fidel Castro, who capitalized on huge strategic and tactical errors made by the CIA and the Kennedy administration. As the invasion unfolded over a three-day period, the Cuban Government detained more than 500,000 Cuban citizens in schools, auditoriums, gymnasiums and stadiums, in inhumane conditions, to prevent anyone from joining the invaders in their doomed attempt to overthrow the Castro regime. When the detainees were freed, including my brother, who was not a member of the underground but was opposed to Castro, most were psychologically broken and terrified, having realized the true nature of the Revolution and the tactics that the Revolutionary Government would use to crush any opposition to it, either real or imagined. I knew then that I had to leave Cuba; any hope of overthrowing Castro had been suffocated in the massive round of detentions, and my name could be next on the list of those to be arrested or executed.
In August, 1961, 10 weeks before I obtained papers to leave, the Cuban Government put the final nail in the coffin of its people; it enacted the Monetary Reform. The country was in chaos, the economy was in free fall, and banks had started to restrict access to monies in both business and personal accounts. Frightened, but with no means of protesting, people had begun to stockpile cash and either keep it “under the mattress” or try to get it out of Cuba and into offshore accounts. On August 9, Fidel Castro, in a brilliant but cynical “end run,” announced that the Cuban currency (which, at that time, had equal value with the U.S. dollar in world markets) was going to be replaced. All Cuban citizens, from rich to poor, would have one day to exchange any money that they had in their possession for the new “currency”—paper bills, printed in Czechoslovakia, worthless outside of Cuba, and cynically carrying the street-name signature of the ruthless Communist who was the brains behind the Monetary Reform: “Che.” Balances in existing bank accounts would be adjusted down to reflect their new value, and any withdrawals, of course, would be given to account holders in the new legal tender.
I will never forget that day, lined up at the bank with hundreds of others. The despicable red and yellow hammer-and-sickle flag of the communists was draped across the second-floor balcony of the beautiful, old building—a wordless, cynical reminder to us that Cuba was now a satellite of the USSR, and that our fate would be the same as all the countries behind the Iron Curtain. What was occurring on that day, in front of our very eyes, was nothing less than an armed robbery of the entire population, and no citizen could do anything to stop it. I was furious, and, by then, desperate to leave.
I finally obtained papers in October that allowed me to emigrate from Cuba. With a British visa in hand, I flew to Kingston, Jamaica, where the U.S. consulate processed my request to enter the United States. After arriving in Miami two weeks later, the Cuban Refugee Center began to help me search for jobs nationwide that would utilize my education. I was willing to teach anywhere, but I also realized that I would probably have to wait until the beginning of the next school year, as it was November when I arrived in the United States.
While waiting for a full-time job to surface, I did some “crazy” odd jobs, like offering food samples to grocery store customers, and selling absurd products door-to-door, to supplement the financial assistance that the U.S. government generously provided to refugees at that time. I lived in a small, but pleasant, room in a guest house, where a little corner of the refrigerator in the kitchen was reserved for my perishable food. Life was not easy, but I was free, and even though I have never again eaten Spam or Velveeta cheese, I look back on those days with fondness!
In the summer of 1962, when school districts across the country were hiring teachers for the coming school year, the Clarence, New York, School District contacted the Cuban Refugee Center in Miami. They were looking to hire a teacher of Spanish at Clarence Central High School, near Buffalo, knowing that not just one, but many, qualified candidates existed in Miami and would want to apply. To make a long story short, I and three other applicants were interviewed by the administrator who flew to Miami to do the hiring. I don’t recall the background of all the other candidates, but one was a lawyer. Each of us was very eager to be hired, but I was the one chosen! And the joy that I felt was indescribable! I spent two fabulous years in Clarence, where I had my first invitation to speak—in English!!—to a group of interested teachers about my beloved Cuba and its betrayal by Fidel Castro and his Revolution. Ever since that first speaking engagement, I have considered it to be my moral obligation to recount this story to anyone who will listen, and I have done so, for over 50 years, in various settings: universities, colleges, high schools, civic organizations, church groups, and on radio and television.
After two years in Clarence, a job opened up in Albany, New York, at the College of Saint Rose. I had always felt that my real calling was to teach at the college level, and I was thrilled, and profoundly grateful, when I was invited to join the Department of Foreign Languages. Over the years I rose from instructor to professor to Department Head, all the while finding professional fulfillment in seeing my students learn, grow, flourish, and succeed in life. They have been my joy.
I retired, finally, after 28 years, in order to dedicate my time and energy to writing—that other facet of myself which allows me to express, completely, who I am.
The gratitude and profound love that I feel for this country, where I have been able to be who I truly am, is beyond words. May God bless the United States, my home!
[titlebox title=’Literary and Professional Accomplishments’]
[img src=’http://www.yolandaortal.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Yolanda-Ortal-Author-e1404312617830.jpg’ href=’http://www.yolandaortal.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/Yolanda-Ortal-Author-e1404312617830.jpg’]
Yolanda loves nature and is a gardener by pure instinct!
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Yolanda founded Café Teatro at the College of Saint Rose, where, for over 20 years, she presented annual plays and musical programs in Spanish that were open to the community. Among the works that she directed and staged were the three tragedies of García Lorca, and her own plays.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Her play, …a dot lost in the distance, was a finalist in the University of Miami’s literary contest, Letras de Oro.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Her novella, In Moonless Nights, won first prize in the 1993 literary contest sponsored by ACCA (Association of Critics and Commentators of the Arts), in Miami, Florida. This work became Part I of her recent novel, When the Dolphins Cry.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Her essay, “The Element of Time in Three Novels of Alejo Carpentier,” won second prize in the literary contest sponsored by CEPI (Circle of Iberian Writers and Poets), in New York.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Her essay, “The Element of Death in Julián del Casal,” was published in the magazine, Papeles De Son Armadans, in Madrid and Palma de Mallorca, Spain.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Her collection of poems, “Footprints in Time, Anguish and Hope,” was a finalist in two literary contests: The Concurso Literario de la Ciudad de Barcelona, Spain, and the CEPI competition, in New York.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Various other poems by Yolanda are included in The Latest Cuban Poetry, an anthology edited by Orlando Rodríguez Sardiñas, Madrid, Spain; and in many international magazines, including Agora y Torre Tavira, Spain; Profils Poetiques des Pays Latins, France; Norte, Holland; and Et Caetera, Mexico.[/li]
[li type=’double-angle-right’]Yolanda is a proud member of the Miami chapter of PEN International, a network of published writers around the globe whose works have addressed human rights issues.[/li]
[tab title=’The Cuban Revolution’]
Castro’s Cuban Revolution began on July 26, 1953, with the failed rebel attack on the Moncada Barracks: the headquarters of the Cuban Army in the city of Santiago. Five and a half years later, it ended in triumph with the ousting of dictator Fulgencio Batista, who fled the country in the early morning hours of January 1, 1959.
The tremendous failure at Moncada resulted in the death or capture of most of the 125 rebels, whose cause from that day forward took the name “The 26th of July Movement”. As in many of the key battles of the Revolution, Castro himself did not fight; he took refuge in the residence of the Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, Enrique Pérez Serantes, who negotiated a deal with Batista for Castro to surrender and stand trial. While awaiting trial, Castro wrote his manifesto, which was later published as a book titled History Will Absolve Me. He was convicted of organizing the attack on the Moncada Barracks, and of being the leader of the 26th of July revolutionary movement. Under political pressure, Batista pardoned Castro after two years’ imprisonment, with the condition that Castro would leave the country and never return.
When released, Castro went to Mexico, where he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a radical, charismatic ideologue whose dream it was to eradicate the influence of the United States’ government in Latin America. Under the leadership of Castro and Guevara, The 26th of July Movement was re-established, and the 80 or so Cuban exiles who pledged themselves to the group began to train for a guerilla war against Batista.
On December 2, 1956, the rebel group landed in Cuba aboard a yacht named Granma. A storm had delayed their arrival by two days, which scuttled their planned rendezvous with a group of rebels who had remained in Cuba and were waiting for them on the coast. Consequently, Castro’s group disembarked alone and began to make their way to the Sierra Maestra mountains, a range in the southeastern part of the country. Three days into the trek, they were attacked by Batista’s army. Only 20 of the 82 survived, including Fidel Castro and his brother, Raúl; Che Guevara; and Camilo Cienfuegos, all of whom would remain the core leaders of the guerilla army. After the attack, the group of survivors went deeper into the mountains and established a base camp for the rebel army, whose numbers increased as the Batista government resorted to more and more violence and terror to suppress opposition and retain power.
The peasants rallied to the support of the rebels, providing food, arms, medical supplies, and money, which lead to Batista’s troops attacking not just individuals, but towns and villages. This, in turn, stirred up more support for Castro and his guerilla fighters throughout the rural areas of the country.
Anti-Batista sentiment began to grow in the cities as well. Frank País, whom Castro had left in charge while in exile, began to spearhead attacks on the Batista government in various ways in the province of Oriente and its capital, Santiago de Cuba, the second-largest city in Cuba after Havana. In Havana, a separate group of revolutionaries, including anti-Batista union workers and university students not associated with Castro’s rebels, simultaneously, but unsuccessfully, led an armed attack on the Presidential Palace on March 13, 1957. The president of the Federation of Students of the University of Havana (FEU), José Antonio Echevarría, was killed on that day after rallying, in a radio address, the citizens of Havana to rise up against Batista.
Throughout 1957 and 1958, rebel forces achieved some important victories. Guerillas commanded by Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Huber Matos took on army units many times their size. Batista’s forces, trained in conventional warfare, were unprepared for the guerilla style and scope of combat, which caught them off guard in battle after battle. As the rebel forces gained ground, desertion and surrender became common occurrences among Batista´s troops.
In the autumn of 1958, Castro gave orders for the rebels to launch a massive east-to-west offensive campaign. As usual, he and his brother, Raúl, evaded combat, with Fidel remaining in the Sierra Maestra mountains and Raúl positioning himself in the Sierra Cristál. Commanders Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Huber Matos led the rebel forces across the length of the island, eventually arriving at Santa Clara in Las Villas Province in late December, where the most decisive battle of the Revolution was fought. After three days of fierce fighting amid mounting losses of government troops, the last of Batista’s forces in Santa Clara surrendered on December 31, 1958. The following day, Che and his troops continued on to Havana to secure Columbia, Batista’s military headquarters, while Fidel negotiated the surrender of Batista’s forces in the city of Santiago de Cuba and declared victory for the Revolution from a balcony of Santiago de Cuba’s City Hall.
Terrified of what would happen to him, Batista and his family fled the country before dawn on January 1, 1959, initially finding refuge in the Dominican Republic, and later in Spain, where the $300 million he had amassed for himself through his corrupt dealings allowed him to live in the luxury he had become accustomed to throughout his dictatorship.
A week later, after a triumphant victory march from Santiago de Cuba, and in no danger to himself, Castro, leading a caravan of jeeps, tanks, trucks and military transport vehicles, entered Havana like an emperor, flanked by Commanders Camilo Cienfuegos and Huber Matos. Within months, Castro, with his usual cunning and hate, would neutralize both of them.
Huber Matos, who enjoyed tremendous popular support, decried the undisguised communist influence on the Revolution; this infuriated Castro, who was already facing questions about that very issue from the international community. In October, 1959, Matos was arrested, found guilty of treason and sedition, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Camilo Cienfuegos had leadership qualities, courage and charisma, all of which made him extremely popular among the people as well as Castro’s army. His public support and admiration were troubling to Fidel and Raúl Castro, who craved total and absolute power and devotion. On October, 28, 1959, Cienfuegos was returning to Havana from Camagüey in a Cessna 310. Minutes after takeoff, eyewitnesses saw one of Castro’s Sea Fury fighter planes taking off in the same direction as the Cessna, which was followed by the Cessna exploding over the Bay of Casilda, near Trinidad. The next day, Castro regretfully announced that Cienfuegos’ plane had mysteriously disappeared, and that a search was underway to find out what had happened to one of the greatest heroes of the Revolution. No trace of the plane was ever found.
Cuba’s communist Revolution, unfettered by the elimination of two of its pillars, could now play out in the way Castro had envisioned it from the very beginning.
[tab title=’Timeline of Events’]
1940 – 1944: Fulgencio Batista was the elected President of Cuba. After serving out his term, he moved to the United States, but returned to Cuba in 1952 to run again for President.
1952: When it became clear that Batista would not win the presidential election, he seized power through a military coup d’etat and established a dictatorship. His corrupt and repressive government spawned discontent among the populace, creating an environment for anti-Batista demonstrations and student riots. Fidel Castro, a charismatic young lawyer with a less than pristine reputation due to his involvement with gang activity, emerged as a strong anti-Batista leader. He initially tried to use the legal system and the courts to oust Batista, but because the rule of law was not recognized by the regime, Castro began to organize and train a group of rebels who would work clandestinely and stage attacks against the government.
July 26, 1953: An unsuccessful assault was mounted by Castro supporters on the Moncada Barracks, the headquarters of Batista’s army in the city of Santiago de Cuba. From that day forward, to commemorate those who died and to inspire those who would follow, Castro’s organization took the name, “The 26th of July Movement.”
July, 1953 – May, 1955: After the Moncada attack, Fidel Castro was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. After serving just two years, Castro was released by Batista in a political deal that included Castro being permanently exiled from the country.
May, 1955 – December, 1956: Castro moved to Mexico, where he met Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The 26th of July Movement was re-established, and the 80 or so Cubans who were exiled before Castro’s arrival began to prepare for a guerilla war against Batista, under the leadership of Fidel, his brother, Raúl, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos.
December 2, 1956: The rebel group, aboard a yacht named Granma, landed on the southeast coast of Cuba. After three days of making their way inland, they were attacked by Batista’s troops, with 60 of the 82 rebels being killed. The survivors, including all of the group’s leaders, eventually reached the Sierra Maestra mountains and established a base camp from which to mount their operations.
March 13, 1957: A separate group of anti-Batista revolutionaries, composed of university students and union workers, stormed the Presidential Palace in Havana in an attempt to force Batista to resign. The attack was a complete failure, and Batista escaped unharmed. The casualties included the well-known activist president of the Federation of University Students (FEU), José Antonio Echeverría, who took over the popular radio station, Radio-Reloj, on that day to address the Cuban people and urge them to rise up against Batista, force him to resign, and demand honest elections. After the broadcast, which was heard all over the country, while he and his group tried to make their way back to the safety of the University (the grounds were off limits to the government at that time), Echeverría was shot dead by Batista’s police. Immediately following the attack, Batista’s police and security services began to round up anyone they suspected of being against the regime, raiding private homes, apartments, and businesses at any time of the day or night and using torture and execution to make it clear that no one had the right to question or protest what was happening to their country.
February, 1958: Castro’s rebels, who had continued to stage “hit and run” attacks on Batista’s army throughout 1957, set up a clandestine radio station, Radio Rebelde, to directly communicate with the Cuban people. The station played a key role in informing the public at large about the 26th of July Movement and its aim of overthrowing the Batista regime and establishing a government in which there would be free, just and democratic elections, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression. Broadcasts were made nightly to apprise Cubans of the rebels’ activities and victories as well as to convince the public, through interviews with Castro, that the 26th of July Movement was worthy of their support.
June, 1958: Because Castro’s rebel group was gaining in strength and numbers, and also in international recognition, the Batista government decided to launch a major military offensive that would wipe out the small rebel army. The campaign, Operation Verano, was an utter failure, as the government troops used conventional war techniques that were ineffective in the mountains, and because some key strategic mistakes were made by the commander of the operation, General Eulogio Cantillo. By mid-August, 1958, the campaign was over, and Batista’s troops had been soundly defeated. The rebels had won decisively, making the government look impotent, foolish, and weak. The resulting impact on the morale of the Batista armed forces was profound, spawning many desertions to the 26th of July Movement, and creating a massive sense of unease among those who remained. Batista was suddenly vulnerable.
September – December, 1958: Calling for a “total war” against Batista, Castro ordered his troops to mount their own offensive campaign. With new weaponry captured from the Batista forces during Operation Verano, along with armaments that had been smuggled into the country, the rebels descended from the Sierra Maestra mountains and launched attacks on four fronts, moving from east-to-west across the country between September and December. Batista’s forces fell or surrendered in town after town, with the most important battle occurring December 28-31, 1958, in the city of Santa Clara, in Las Villas Province. This battle is described in detail in my book, The Sleepwalkers’ Ballad. After the city surrendered to the rebel army, Che Guevara, one of the commanders of the battle of Santa Clara, continued on to Havana with his troops to neutralize any remaining opposition forces and to secure Columbia, Batista’s military headquarters. Terrified of what was to come, Batista and his family fled the country, taking with them $300 million dollars that they had amassed through the machinations of Batista’s corrupt regime.
January 1, 1959: Fidel Castro, after negotiating the surrender of Santiago de Cuba, the capital city of Oriente Province, declared victory for the Revolution and began to make his way to Havana.
January 7, 1959: The new Cuban government was officially recognized by the United States.
January 8, 1959: Fidel Castro and his troops triumphantly entered Havana.
January 12, 1959: Raúl Castro, who had already executed 30 Batista supporters during the guerilla war, presided over the mass execution of 70 prisoners being held at Boniato Prison in San Juan Valley, Oriente Province. The group, comprised of Batista soldiers and sympathizers, was taken by bus before dawn to the Campo de Tiro firing range, where a bulldozer had dug a trench 40 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 10 feet deep. Two by two, the prisoners were led to the edge of trench and faced a six-man firing squad. By noon, all 70 had been executed. The event was filmed and broadcast on Cuban television.
February 16, 1959: After proclaiming Manuel Urrutia provisional president of Cuba in early January and using him in a “hand in glove” manner to implement revolutionary policies, Fidel Castro named himself Prime Minister, an office that gave him tremendous power and the ability to essentially govern by decree. His new position enabled him to “legitimately” implement the Agrarian, Monetary and Urban Reforms of 1959 and 1960, which essentially used Marxist principles to restructure the country and establish a communist state.
April, 1959: Castro announced to the Cuban people that the country was too unstable to hold elections.
June, 1959: In a move orchestrated by Fidel and Raúl Castro, Manuel Urrutia was forced to resign as President of Cuba after making a public statement that decried the increasingly communist overtones of the government. He immigrated to the United States shortly thereafter.
February, 1960: Invited by Castro, Soviet Foreign Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba. They signed mutually-beneficial oil and sugar deals, the first of many over the next three decades.
June, 1960: All oil companies owned by the United States in Cuba were expropriated by the Cuban government after they refused to process Soviet oil. All other American companies faced the same fate during the following four months, which enriched the Cuban treasury by $850 million dollars.
September, 1960: Castro announced the creation of “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution”—neighborhood vigilance groups whose purpose was to be the eyes and ears of the government at the grassroots level. Committee members were tasked with reporting counter-revolutionary activity wherever and whenever it was seen. Anyone who aroused even the slightest suspicion was to be reported.
October, 1960: The U.S. government banned all exports to Cuba, with the exception of food and medicine.
January 3, 1961: The United States terminated diplomatic relations with Cuba.
April, 1961: A CIA-sponsored paramilitary group of Cuban exiles, known as Brigade 2506, invaded Cuba in an attempt to overthrow Castro. The invasion took its name from the location where the invaders disembarked from their boats: the Bay of Pigs, on the southern coast of Cuba. The operation dated back to March, 1960, when U.S. President Eisenhower, who didn’t trust Castro and was concerned by the cozy relationship between Cuba and the USSR, allocated $13.1 million dollars to the CIA to develop a plan to overthrow Castro. Secret training camps and airfields were soon set up in Guatemala, where 1,400 Cuban exiles underwent extensive preparation for a land and sea invasion of their native land. While it was meant to be a covert operation, word of it spread throughout the exile community in Miami, and even Castro’s intelligence services were aware that an invasion was being planned, so the element of surprise was gone long before the operation took place.
On April 15, 1961, the Bay of Pigs Invasion began, but the land assault was effectively doomed from the start for a variety of reasons, including the site of the operation, which was swampy in some parts and rocky in others, making it difficult for the invaders’ vessels to get close enough to shore in order to discharge the land troops. The air assault, too, which preceded the land assault, was a fiasco, in large part due to the broken promises of the CIA and President Kennedy, who, at the last minute, withdrew his authorization for U.S. military fighter jets to provide covert air cover for the operation. As a result, there was no protection for the obsolete World War II B-26 bombers that the CIA had foolishly decided to use for the exiles’ attack on Cuban airfields. Most of Castro’s fighter planes remained intact and played a key role on April 17 (the day the land assault began), when Castro’s air force strafed the exile troops that were coming ashore at the Bay of Pigs; sank two escort ships in the Bay; and shot down half of the exiles’ remaining planes.
Over the next 24 hours, Castro’s forces ruled not only the air but also the land. 20,000 Cuban troops arrived at the Bay of Pigs, where the invasion was quickly crushed. Most of the invaders, around 1,200, surrendered. 114 were killed in action, and around 30 escaped into the sea and were rescued by U.S. support vessels. The 1,200 “Brigadistas” were tried for treason and spent 20 months in prison while the United States, derided by Castro for proving itself to be an imperialist nation, negotiated their release.
Following the debacle, which was a huge embarrassment to the Kennedy administration, CIA Director Allen Dulles, CIA Deputy Director Charles Cabell, and CIA Deputy Director for Plans Richard Bissell were forced to resign.
May 1, 1961: Castro announced that Cuba was a “socialist state.”
March, 1962: Food rationing began in Cuba.
August 30, 1962: Manolín Guillot, Chief of Intelligence for the MRR, the largest underground movement against Castro, was executed in Havana. I had the honor of knowing him personally and working with him in the underground. His death was a significant blow to the MRR, and essentially weakened the entire underground movement.
October, 1962: President Kennedy blockaded Cuba in order to force the Soviets to remove the nuclear-armed missiles that the USSR had placed in Cuba to deter any future attempts by the United States to overthrow the Castro regime. The crisis ended after 13 days when the Soviets agreed to dismantle their Cuba-based missiles and return them to the USSR, in exchange for a public declaration and commitment by the U.S. that it would never invade Cuba.
December, 1962: Castro agreed to free all the Bay of Pigs prisoners in exchange for $53 million dollars’ worth of baby food and medicine. President Kennedy met with the surviving members of Brigade 2506 on December 29, 1962, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, where he was presented with the Brigade’s flag. He responded, “I can assure you that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.” Years later, the flag was found in the basement of the White House.
1963 – 1966: The Revolution continued to destroy Cuba. Living conditions worsened. Poverty was rampant. Opposition to the regime was met with arrests, imprisonments, and executions.
November, 1966: President Lyndon Johnson signed the Cuban Adjustment Act, which, in essence, granted permanent residency status to Cubans who had come to the U.S. after January 1, 1959, (the date that Castro assumed power) and had lived in the U.S. for at least a year and a day.
1970: In spite of Soviet aid, and in an attempt to quell public discontent, Castro admitted in a speech that his economic policies had not resulted in a decent standard of living for most people. Even so, he announced that the sugar harvest for that year would have to be increased to 10 million tons. Extra workers were sent to the People’s Farms—a source of free labor for Castro—to help harvest the sugar cane, but the campaign came up short, with only 8.5 million tons of sugar being produced by the end of the year.
1970 – 1979: Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet bloc increased as Castro fashioned the country into a satellite of the USSR. But in spite of generous subsidies from Moscow, the economy continued to decline. Corruption spread. Living conditions worsened, but criticism of the regime was not tolerated.
April, 1980: As a means of dealing with growing discontent in the country amidst a severe shortage of housing, jobs and food, Castro announced that the port of Mariel would be open to anybody who wanted to leave Cuba. In the following six months, a quarter of a million Cubans (who became known as “Marielitos”) fled their native land, including over a thousand criminals that Castro simply allowed to leave, and several hundred people with mental illness. The exodus came to an end in October, 1980, when the U.S. and Cuban governments reached an agreement, which politically benefitted both sides, to stop the flow of refugees.
1991: Following the collapse and break-up of the USSR, Cuba found itself in a huge economic crisis, as the trade and aid it depended on from the Soviet bloc simply stopped. Cuba entered a time called the Special Period, which brought even more hardship and scarcity to the people, who had to learn how to survive with even less than they had before, when the Soviets were propping up the Cuban economy. Persistent hunger and malnutrition became widespread. Power outages up to 16 hours at a time were commonplace. With the country’s supply of petroleum (from the USSR) having suddenly dried up, the only gasoline that was available was used to fuel mass transit vehicles. It was not unusual to have to wait for a bus for three hours. More and more people became desperate to escape, and thousands began to leave Cuba by sea in anything that would float.
May, 1991: The humanitarian organization, Brothers to the Rescue, was established in Miami by an idealistic, brave Cuban exile, Jose Basulto, and his friend, William “Billy” Schuss. Comprised of volunteer pilots flying Cessna aircraft, its aim was to assist and rescue refugees in the Florida Straits who had fled Cuba by raft or boat. In the ensuing 12 years, Brothers to the Rescue managed to save over 4,200 Cubans from certain death.
1995: The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act was modified in a change that became known as the “wet foot/dry foot” policy. Instead of giving permanent residency to all Cubans who arrived in the United States, the policy made a distinction between Cubans intercepted at sea between the two countries (i.e., having “wet feet”) and those who managed to literally set foot on U.S. soil (i.e., having “dry feet”). The former group would be returned to Cuba, while the latter would be allowed to stay.
February 24, 1996: Castro’s MiGs intentionally shot down two well-marked Brothers to the Rescue Cessnas over international waters, resulting in the deaths of four members of the organization.
1996 – present: Castro’s communist regime continues to destroy a nation that, before the Revolution, had the highest standard of living among all Latin American countries. Not a single one of Castro’s promises made in his “Manifesto from the Sierra Maestra mountains” in July, 1957, in which he pledged to respect individual human rights, establish justice, guarantee freedom of the press, and hold free, democratic and impartial elections within one year, has been kept. The country is in ruins, from all perspectives, and even though Fidel ceded power to his brother, Raúl, in 2008, Cuba continues its downward path, existing in the 21st century only because its people are terrified, demoralized, and without hope. While the country that he destroyed suffers, Fidel Castro, whose personal worth has been estimated to be $900 million dollars, lives in the lap of luxury, just like his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista.
Castro flanked by two of his highest commanders, Camilo Cienfuegos (left) and Huber Matos (right). Cienfuegos had massive popular support, which Castro feared could lead to Cienfuegos becoming more powerful than he. In October 1959 – 10 months into the Revolution – a plane carrying Cienfuegos back to Havana “disappeared” by orders of Fidel and Raúl. The plane was never found. When Matos repudiated the communist influence in the government and resigned his position in October 1959, he was arrested, found guilty of “treason and sedition” in December 1959, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
La Cabaña Prison, where thousands of anti-Castro conspirators, including Manolín Guillot, were held, tortured and executed. It has continued to be a place of imprisonment, torture and executions right up to the present. Commander Huber Matos served his 20-year sentence here.