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The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro
By Fidel Castro
Introduction by Ann Louise Bardach
Epilogue by Luis Conte Agüero
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by Ann Louise Bardach
In April of 1959, just months after a charismatic revolutionary named Fidel Castro seized the reigns of power in Cuba, a slim volume of his letters was published in Havana. Entitled Cartas del Presidio (Letters from Prison) a collection of Castro’s writings would become something of a Rosetta Stone for historians, biographers, and journalists seeking to understand the man who would become Cuba’s ruler for life.
The book held twenty-one letters—all addressed to Castro’s inner circle of supporters, including his wife, Mirta Díaz-Balart; his half-sister, Lidia; the renowned Cuban intellectual Jorge Mañach; a future mistress; his compañera Melba Hernández; the father of a fallen comrade; and nine missives to his devoted friend and political stalwart, Luis Conte Agüero, who published the letters.
With Castro’s approval, Conte Agüero collected the letters and wrote its original Preface, a passionate, fulsome tribute to the man he, and many of his countrymen, believed would be Cuba’s savior. The book was an instant success and went to press three times. But two years into Castro’s reign, most of Havana’s publishing houses had been closed, copyright law had been eviscerated, and Conte Agüero had fled the country.
Conte Agüero first met the imposing Castro in late 1945 when both were active in student politics at the University of Havana. Both would go on to become leaders of the Orthodox Party, the reform party led by Eddy Chibás, whom many Cubans regarded as the great white hope—and future president—of their country. In August, 1951, Chibás, humiliated by a political miscalculation, shot himself at the end of his live radio show. The death of Chibás plunged Cuba into national mourning: a million Cubans attended his funeral. More crucially, it left a huge political void, one that Castro believed was his destiny to fulfill.
Less than a year later, an army general and former president named Fulgencio Batista seized power in a coup d’etat after realizing he would lose the upcoming presidential election. The historian Hugh Thomas has likened the aftermath of Batista’s coup to that of a national nervous breakdown. Among the most afflicted was Fidel Castro, who had been a candidate for congressman in the canceled election.
The cover of the original Cartas del Presidio featured the mugshot of a clean-shaven twenty-six-year-old Fidel Castro, taken soon after his arrest for the assault on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.
Castro’s ill-fated attack at the Moncada has been variously described as audacious, suicidal, and hare brained. It cost the lives of seventy of his men, but Castro knew that such brazenness, however crazy, could make him a household name in Cuba, should he survive—which is exactly what happened.
But Castro’s sneak assault also irreparably wounded his wife’s family, the Díaz-Balarts, who were ministers in Batista’s cabinet. Castro was now directly at war with his brother-in-law, Rafael Díaz-Balart, who had introduced him to his future wife Mirta, when they were friends at the University of Havana.
A week before the assault, Castro stopped by Díaz-Balart’s office at the Ministry of Interior to suss out whether the police were wise to his plans. Castro left confident that word had not leaked out. Nevertheless his grand assault was doomed. Outnumbered ten to one by Batista’s soldiers, more than half of Castro’s 134 guerrillas were captured and killed, some brutally tortured. Fidel and his brother, Raúl escaped and would survive due to the influence of their father’s good friend, Archbishop Enrique Pérez Serantes, who negotiated Fidel’s surrender.
A lawyer by training, Castro would defend himself at his trial and transform a provincial judicial hearing into a national showcase for himself. His final argument would be a dazzling, rhetorical flourish, with an operatic closer: “Condemn me! It does not matter. History will absolve me.” Castro and his brother were sentenced to fifteen years in prison on the Isle of Pines.
Modeled on the federal prison in Joliet, Illinois, the Isle of Pines facility is separated from the mainland by sixty-two miles of shark-swirling waters. Visitors were obliged to take a three-hour ferry ride or a pricey airplane flight to reach it. For most prisoners, it was a dreaded hellhole—Cuba’s Devil’s Island. Some prisoners simply “disappeared” and torture was not uncommon.
But Castro—wealthy by birth and well-connected by marriage—had privileges unknown to other prisoners. He served much of his twenty-two-month stay in the reasonably comfortable infirmary. However, after organizing a prison protest during a visit by Batista, Castro was put in a solitary cell for more than four months. The prison is now a museum where visitors can peruse Castro’s lodgings and contrast them with the cramped, humid cells that housed his fellow inmates.
A celebrity prisoner, Castro used his time and his perks resourcefully. He read ceaselessly and wrote letters daily. A steady stream of visitors assisted him in plotting his political future and strategizing a prisoner amnesty campaign.
Rafael Díaz-Balart, as deputy Minister of the Interior (then called Governance), had oversight of Cuba’s prisons and was well positioned to meddle in Castro’s affairs. Conflicted by his ties with his only sister and his rage against his ungrateful brother-in-law, he got one measure of revenge when he switched one of Castro’s missives to a girlfriend with one intended for his wife.
The letters amply illustrate Fidel Castro’s many gifts: his formidable erudition, strategic thinking, and natural leadership. They also offer an early glimpse of his Machiavellian cunning and his genius for public relations and propaganda. But their most salient feature is Castro’s ability to inspire others—over and over—to do his will. Indeed, all of Castro’s correspondents appear to have centered their lives around him, attending to his needs and implementing his political strategies, believing that Castro would restore democracy to Cuba.
The letters are instructive as an early map of Castro’s political ambitions, along with his more quotidian concerns, such as his desire to have more visits with his son, Fidelito, or his favorite foods: “Bring me some grapefruit to refresh me,” he instructs his sister. They are also sprinkled with his evolving philosophy. There is admiration for Cato and musings on how Balzac might have thrived in prison.
Although Castro is rarely thought of as a man of easy sentiment, the letters are filled with passion and affection for those close to him. There is tenderness toward Haydée Santamaría—affectionately known as Yeyé, either out of empathy or guilt. “A big hug for you and for my dearest Yeyé,” he writes to Melba Hernández, who together with Santamaría were the only women who took part in Moncada. Both Santamaría’s fiancée and brother were captured and killed. The latter’s testicles were severed and the brother’s eyes gouged out and served to his sister while she was in prison. News of the barbarism spread quickly and further galvanized Cubans against Batista. In 1980, on the anniversary of Moncada, Santamaría would take her own life.
Castro’s resentments and rages are also dramatized in the letters as well as a casual homophobia toward those he dislikes. We learn that Castro was remorseless and unforgiving with his perceived enemies, a man for whom compromise was a mark of weakness. In matters large and small, he was a scorched-earth warrior. Indeed, his belligerent intractability was a point of honor for him. In one letter to his sister Lidia, he would boast, “I have a heart of steel and I will be stalwart till the last day of my life.”
Among the most fascinating letters are those dealing with his marriage, its breakup, and his divorce and custody battles. Castro’s long-suffering wife, Mirta, had broken with her own family to support her husband, only to be told her sacrifices were insufficient. Castro’s machista pride was such that when he discovered that Mirta’s brother had put her on a government payroll, he turned against her. Never mind that the imprisoned Castro had not been financially supporting his wife and young son: Mirta’s acceptance of a meager salary from her brother was interpreted by Castro as an irrevocable affront to his honor. “I am ready to challange my own brother-in-law to a duel at any time,” he writes to Conte Agüero. “It is the reputation of my wife and honor a a revolutionary that is at stake. Do not hesitate: strike back and have no mercy. I would rather be killed a thousand times over than helplessly suffer such an insult!”
In 1954, when Mirta left for the United States with five-year year-old Fidelito, Castro flew into a rage: “I resist even the thought of my son sleeping for one night under the same roof that shelters my most despicable enemies and receive on his innocent cheeks the kisses of those miserable Judases,” Castro wrote his older sister Lidia. Should the courts rule against his custody bid for his son, he vowed to fight until death.
Of course, Castro was hardly in a position to be issuing unprecedented custody demands while facing a fifteen-year prison stretch. But he did just that. Instructing his lawyers to seek sole custody of his son, he flatly refused his wife a divorce unless Fidelito was returned and enrolled in a school in Havana. “I presume they know that to rob me of that boy they will have to kill me. And not even then,” he told Lidia in another letter. “I lose my head when I think of these things. I will be free one day. They will have to return my son and my honor, even if the earth shall be destroyed [in the process].”
By year’s end, Castro had lost the first battle. Mirta got her divorce and retained custody. But Castro made it clear to his sister that he would never give up his claim. “If they think they can exhaust my patience, and that I am going to concede, they are going to find that I am wrapped in Buddhist tranquility and am prepared to reenact the famous Hundred Years War—and win it!” And he did just that, taking sole custody of their son in 1959, even as Mirta went into exile in Spain.
The letters begin in December of 1953 with Castro still deeply distraught over Moncada, penning a feverishly vivid account of the assault. “With the blood of my dead brothers, I write you this letter,” he wrote Conte Agüero. “They are the only motive that inspires me.” They end with a letter to his sister, Lidia, in May of 1955, just thirteen days before his release, with a lighthearted Castro ironing out his future housekeeping arrangements. “Regarding material comforts, if it were not essential to live with a minimum of material decency, believe me I would be happy living in a tenement and sleeping on a cot with a box in which to keep my clothes. I could eat a plate of malangas or potatoes and find it as exquisite as the manna of the Israelites.”
On May 15, 1955, a jubilant Fidel and Raúl Castro and their followers walked out of the gates of the prison on the Isle of Pines [which was later renamed the Isle of Youth when Cuba’s historic provinces were reconfigured and renamed by Castro]. Following his release, Castro went directly to Havana to resume his campaign to topple the Batista government. Although neither son had seen their father, Ángel, a self-made land tycoon, since before their incarceration, only Raúl went to visit their parents in Birán. Fidel kept his focus resolutely on his political grand plan, unencumbered by familial attachment despite the fact his father’s health was failing. Less than two months later, the brothers and other moncadistas fled to Mexico to escape Batista’s secret police. Castro would never see his father again. Ángel Castro died on October 21, 1956 at the age of eighty, exactly the age when Castro became gravely ill fifty years later.
Following his triumphant march into Havana on January 8, 1959, Castro enjoyed the goodwill of most Cubans. Support for the Cuban Revolution cut across all class and economic distinctions with most believing that the removal of the corrupt and repressive Batista regime could only auger better things for Cuba. Many came to believe they were betrayed.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect of these letters is that so many lauded by Castro as devoted friends or heroes, would irrevocably break from him when he assumed power. Many, like Jorge Mañach and Castro’s own sister Juanita, would flee into exile. Others were sentenced to prison or—¡al paredón!—to the firing squad. Heartbroken by the loss of the Cuba they had cherished, some, such as Miguel Ángel Quevedo, the gifted editor of Bohemia who proved so helpful to Castro, took their own lives.
The story of Gustavo Arcos, cited in these letters by Castro for his valor and eloquence, is not atypical. Among the bravest of Castro’s soldiers, Arcos was left partially paralyzed by his wounds during the Moncada attack. One of his brothers died in the Granma landing. However, in 1967, Arcos was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for “counter-revolutionary activity,” and served three years. In 1981, he and another of Arcos’ brothers, Sebastián, were charged with attempting to leave the country illegally, having been denied visas, and were imprisoned again. Seven years later, bowing to international pressure, Arcos was released from prison and continued his work for dissidents and human rights in Cuba until his death in August, 2006.
The case of Luis Conte Agüero is equally telling. Nine of these letters attest to Castro’s high regard and trust for Conte Agüero. For fifteen years, he was Castro’s devoted compañero, even breaking with his brother, Andres Rivero Agüero, the well-respected Minister of Education who initially opposed the political prisoner amnesty that freed Castro. But Conte Agüero’s hopes for a free and democratic Cuba were shattered before Castro’s first year in power ended.
In March of 1960, Conte Agüero read an open letter to Castro on the radio criticizing the prohibition of political parties and the Revolution’s increasing coziness with the Soviet Union. The following day, he was attacked by a mob led by Manuel Piñeiro, Castro’s legendary spymaster, known as “Red-beard,” and barely escaped with his life. On March 27th, Raúl Castro, Chief of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense, accused him of betraying the Revolution. “¡Al paredón!” chanted the listening crowd. “To the wall!”
The next day, Castro accused him in a televised speech of “conjuring up ghosts,” warning that “the enemies of the Revolution are very aware of the service that Luis Conte Agüero has rendered to them.” Certain that his life was in danger, Conte Agüero hid out in the homes of friends, before finding sanctuary at the Argentine Embassy.
In the early hours of April 5, 1960, Conte Agüero was driven to José Martí Airport in a black Cadillac belonging to the Argentine Embassy. He would never see his country again.
• • •
Any reasonable reading of these letters would lead one to anticipate that Fidel Castro would have been an exceptional steward for his country. His anguish over injustice suggests that he would reform the judiciary; his laments about the cruelty of Batista’s secret police suggest that he would institute a system grounded on human rights. The letters even suggest that Castro was a man of unusual spiritual depth, perhaps owing to his Jesuit education. “Physical life is ephemeral, it passes inexorably,” he wrote consolingly to the father of a fallen comrade. “As have passed so many generations of men, soon each of us will pass as well. . . . God is the supreme idea of goodness and justice.”
Moreover, Castro’s outrage against Batista’s upending the 1952 national elections clearly indicated that he would promptly reinstate free and transparent elections in Cuba. Instead, he installed himself as Cuba’s ruler for life, serving, at best, as a movie star dictator with a paternalistic streak, and, at worst, as a cruel, unforgiving tyrant. When he was finally forced to face his own mortality in July 2006, he had one last opportunity to alter his legacy. Castro could have bequeathed a final gift to Cuba, a country that has not held a presidential election since 1948. But instead of calling for an election he appointed his brother Raúl—his relevo, or relief pitcher, as he called him, as if Cuba were a monarchy. Even as he confronted death, Fidel Castro, sought to maintain his grasp on his island fiefdom from the grave.
Rarely has one man been blessed with such an auspicious destiny. Few have been endowed with so many gifts, opportunity, and the good will of so many. That he squandered it so makes Cuba’s tragedy all the more wrenching.
Ann Louise Bardach
October 10, 2006
Isle of Pines, December 12, 1953
Dearest brother Luis Conte:
With the blood of my dead brothers, I write you this letter; they are the only motive that inspires me. More than liberty and life itself for us, we are calling for justice for them. Justice, at this instant, is neither a monument to the heroes and martyrs who fell in combat nor to those who were murdered after the battle. Justice is not even a tomb where they can rest in peace together with the bodily remains that are spread over the fields of Oriente1, and in places that, in many cases, are known only to their assassins. It is not possible to talk about peace for the dead in this oppressed land. Posterity, which is always more generous with good people, will preserve these symbols in memory and the generations of tomorrow will relive, in due time, the debt of tribute to those who saved the honor of La Patria [Homeland] in this moment of infinite shame.
Luis, why haven’t the atrocious tortures and barbaric and insane mass murders, which took the lives of seventy young prisoners on the 26, 27, 28, and 29 of July2 been valiantly denounced? Yes, this is certainly the inescapable duty of those who are here now, and not to fulfill it means a stain will never be erased. History has not seen a similar massacre, neither in the colony nor in the Republic. I understand that terror has paralyzed hearts for such a long time, but it is no longer possible to further endure the mantle of total silence of cowardice that has covered these horrifying crimes. These crimes were the reaction of a base and brutal hatred of an indescribable tyranny, which, in Cuba’s most pure, generous and idealistic flesh, satiated its vengeance against the rebellious and natural gesture of the enslaved sons of our heroic people. That is shameful complicity, as repugnant as the very crime, and it is fair to think that the tyrant will be smacking his lips from satisfaction at the fierceness of the executioners who defend him and the terror they provoke in his foes that fight him.
It would appear that the reestablishment of the [constitutional] guarantees and the end of censorship have been granted in exchange for silencing the facts; this is a pact between the oppressor and the spokesmen of public opinion. It is expressed or tacit; and it is infamous, abominable, irascible, repugnant.
The truth is being ignored, all Oriente [Santiago de Cuba] knows it; the entire population speaks it in a low voice. The people also know that the charges were completely false, the vile charges that were made against us about having been inhumane with the soldiers. At the court hearing, the government could not provide support for any of its accusations. There to testify were the twenty soldiers of the enemy that had been taken prisoners from the beginning and the other thirty wounded in combat. They did not receive so much as an offensive word. The forensic physicians, other experts, and even the witnesses for the prosecution destroyed the government’s versions of events. Some of them testified with admirable honesty. It was proven that the weapons had been acquired in Cuba, that there was no connection with the politicians of the past, that no one had been stabbed, and that in the military hospital there had been only one victim: a patient who appeared in the window. Even the prosecutor, incredibly, had to recognize “the honorable and humane conduct of the attackers” in his concluding statement.
Meanwhile, where were our wounded? There were only five in all. Ninety dead3 and five wounded. Can anyone imagine such a ratio in any war? What about the others? Where were the fighters who were detained from the 26th to the 29th? Santiago de Cuba knows the answer. The wounded were removed from private hospitals, even from the operating tables, and killed immediately, in some cases on the premises. Two wounded prisoners who entered an elevator with their captors, alive, exited dead. Those interned in the Military Hospital had air and camphor injected into their veins. Pedro Miret,4 an engineering student, survived this deadly procedure and told the whole story. Only five lived, I repeat. Two, José Ponce and Gustavo Arcos,5 were protected by Dr. Posada, who refused to let them be taken away by the soldiers at the Spanish Colony Hospital. The other three owe their lives to Captain Tamayo, an army physician and worthy professional, who, in a courageous act, pistol in hand, transferred the wounded Pedro Miret, Abelardo Crespo, and Fidel Labrador from the Military Hospital to the Civil Hospital. Not even these five were meant to survive. The numbers speak with irrefutable eloquence.
As for the prisoners, the entrance to the Moncada Barracks could well have had the warning posted at the threshold of Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope.” Thirty were murdered the first night. The order arrived at 3:00 P.M. to General Martín Díaz Tamayo, who said, “it is an embarrassment for the army to have three times as many casualties in combat as the attackers, and there should be ten dead for each soldier.” This order came out of a meeting attended by Batista, Tabernilla, Ugalde Carrillo,6 and other officials. That same Sunday, to avoid legal difficulties, the Council of Ministers suspended Article 26 of the [Constitutional] Statutes, which establishes the responsibility of guards for the lives of detainees. The goal was achieved with horrible cruelty. When the dead were buried, they had no eyes, no teeth, and no testicles; their valuables were taken by the killers, who later showed them off shamelessly. The tortured exhibited scenes of indescribable courage. Two young women, our heroic comrades, Melba Hernández and Haydée Santamaría,7 were detained at the Civil Hospital, where they had been stationed as first aid nurses. A sergeant with bloody hands named Eulalio González, nicknamed “The Tiger,” showed Santamaría the eyes of her brother; he had gouged them out while she was stationed in the barracks at dusk. Later that night, they gave her the news that her fiancée, also a prisoner, had been killed. Full of indignation she faced the murderers, “he is not dead; to die for the Homeland is to live.”8 They were not murdered; the savages stopped before the woman. They are outstanding witnesses of what occurred in that hell.
On the outskirts of Santiago de Cuba, forces under the command of Major Pérez Chaumont murdered 21 combatants who were disarmed and dispersed. Many were forced to dig their own graves. One brave soldier turned his pickaxe and wounded one of the assassins in the face. There was no such combat in Siboney; those who still had weapons had gone with me to the mountains. The army made no contact with us until six days later when we were surprised, completely asleep and exhausted by fatigue and hunger. The killings had stopped in the face of the enormous outcry by the people. Even so, the only thing that saved us from being killed was the miracle that we were found by a decent officer and that I was not recognized until we were registered at hospital.
On the 27th at midnight at kilometer 39 of the Manzanillo-Bayamo Road, the captain in charge of the Manzanillo area had three young men, Pedro Félix, Hugo Camejo and Andrés García tied by their necks and dragged behind a jeep along the ground, leaving the three for dead. One of them, García, was able to recuperate hours later. Introduced later by Monsignor Pérez Serantes,9 García recounted the story.
In the early hours of the 28th, next to the Cauto River on the road to Palmas, Raúl de Aguiar, Andrés Valdés and another young man were slain by the Chief Lieutenant of the Alto-Cedro post, Sergeant Montés de Oca and Corporal Maceo. Then, they threw the bodies into a well by the river bank near a place known as Bananea. These young men had been in touch with friends of mine who had helped them; their fate became known later.
It is completely false that the identification of the corpses—so far less than half of the total—has been done by the Forensic Department. In every case, the victim’s name and personal information was recorded before he was killed—and then their names were released, one by one. The complete list was never released. Only some of those killed in combat were identified by their fingerprints; the rest remained unidentified. The suffering and uncertainty on the part of the family members by these procedures is indescribable.
We denounced these facts and others like them in every detail at a hearing in the presence of soldiers armed with machine guns and rifles. The soldiers filled the courtroom in an obvious attempt at coercion. They, too, were stunned when they heard what savageries had been committed.
I was kicked out of the third session of the trial for violating all rules of procedure, in order to prevent me, as an attorney, from clarifying the facts. The trial was a true scandal because other lawyers then took charge.
- On Sale
- Feb 9, 2007
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Bold Type Books