“(…) the charge that, as head of the revolutionary government, I am serving the interests of a specific political party, that’s something I cannot accept from anyone.” – Fidel Castro during the trial of Huber Matos.
HAVANA TIMES — I’ve been worked up these days. What got me into this rather unusual state isn’t the collapse of the Pekin stock market or the rising cost of living in Cuba. It’s the book How Night Fell (Como llego la noche).
If you’re Cuban and don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t be too shocked. They’ve made great efforts – and ultimately managed – to keep Huber Matos’ harrowing testimony from reaching our hands.
In 1958, a young teacher from Manzanillo joined Cuba’s rebels. In view of the courage and the intelligence he showed in combat, he was promoted up the ranks of the army and earned the reputation, not only of a good soldier, but also (and more importantly) of a just, honorable and noble man.
He and Fidel Castro had run-ins from the very beginning because of the disrespectful and humiliating manner in which the great leader treated his inferiors, and because of the impulsive madness with which he handled war-related issues (brining about loss of life and resources). Despite these constant and bitter tensions, the two tried to get along while the war was still raging.
During the war, Big Brother had insisted, through all means possible, that the aim of the struggle was to restore the rule of law and democracy, among other aspects of the social order. Once in power, however, the Castro brothers quickly went down the communist and dictatorial road.
Before the legendary year of 1959 had come to an end, Huber Matos was in a jail cell, convicted to 20 years in prison, accused of treason, conspiracy and sedition.
I don’t want to go into details about the book, but I would love to share a number of ideas that came to me while reading it.
- The passage that describes people’s reactions to Batista’s coup caught my eye. Huber complains about their apathy, but, compared to the present, I see extremely high levels of civic culture and passion. Over a century later, after decades of dictatorship, next to nothing of that enthusiasm remains. One need only compare the typical protests against Fulgencio Batista with the reprisals against dissidents the current government organizes.
- In the official account, the chapter devoted to the struggle in the Sierra Maestra is triumphalist rubbish devoid of subtleties and totally lacking in political reflection. I hadn’t felt so much admiration for and curiosity with respect to the revolutionary initiative since coming across Matos’ entertaining and well-written version of events. It was the first time in years I felt something reminiscent of love for the homeland.
- Let’s stir things up a bit: Matos doesn’t say it directly, but he suggests Fidel Castro barely even took part in combat. Could this be true? The image the official press sells us is quite the opposite. Some doubts have arisen in this connection. I know that, on the day of the attack on the Moncada garrison, there was a car that got lost and didn’t get to the combat site in time, or arrived too late. Does anyone know if, by chance, Fidel Castro was in this tardy vehicle?
- Today, we hear much talk of the many people that communist leader Ernesto Che Guevara executed in times of peace and without legal guarantees, but there’s hardly any talk of those executed, under similar conditions, by the other communist leader who is the current president of the country. Matos mentions this macabre issue in passing and I would like to delve more deeply in it.
Another “interesting” passage describes how, after the war is over, Matos asks Fidel Castro about the distribution of company profits among workers, which was one of the working class demands the Moncada manifesto had addressed. The commander in chief is said to have replied: “If we make it possible for workers to have economic independence, this will lead to political independence in practice.” We’ll never be able to prove whether this conversation actually took place or whether Matos made it up. The unquestionable fact of the matter is that the promise was never fulfilled.
- Do you know who Matos’ prosecutor was in the trial Castro contrived? None other than “Papito” Serguera. I knew him only as a culture official responsible for the development of national “standards,” I wasn’t aware of this other part of his curriculum.
- Thanks to Matos, I found out that the period of time with the worst torture and abuse of political prisoners took place when Ramiro Valdés, a Sierra Maestra combatant, was Minister of the Interior. When such practices began to tarnish Cuba’s image abroad, they relocated Ramiro, and he continues to be high official within the Cuban government.
Out of basic precaution, I won’t say that everything in this book is true. For me, it is a credible and coherent introduction to questions I knew little about and will continue to look into. Those interested in understanding Cuban history and a lesson in human dignity should definitely take a look. Read the book, you won’t regret it – but have your heart examined before you do.
I would like to end this post with two excerpts from the book. The first is part of a speech delivered by Huber Matos, condemning Batista’s coup. The second requires no introduction.
“We are a republic founded on blood and many sacrifices (…) As citizens, we are forever duty-bound to defend our liberties, to say “no” to all ambitious men who seek to become the nation’s masters, no matter what the cost!”
“In that diabolical ritual, where they tortured me to their heart’s content, believing I would never be able to tell this story, I wondered why they felt so happy carrying out the repulsive mission of heartlessly tormenting a dying man.”