By Miguel Arias Sanchez
HAVANA TIMES – I’m sitting in front of an old man who personally knew and served the group of young men who attacked the Moncada barracks in 1953. Most people don’t believe his story, but he doesn’t mind. With a serious, tired and very humble face, he tells the story of a part of his life to whoever wants to hear it.
Born in the Chorrera neighborhood, his parents decided to name him Jose Marti Martinez Rivero because he was born on January 28th (the day of Cuba’s National Hero’s birth). Today, now 78 years old, he is proud of his name.
HT: How did you end up at the “Modelo Prison” on the Isle of Pines?
Jose Marti Martinez Rivero: I used to run errands and I would take messages to people. One day, I was carrying a box and there was a Cuban flag and some proclamations from the 26th of July Movement inside that I had to deliver to a house in Central Havana. When I was approaching my destination, I saw some policemen and I got scared. I threw the box onto the ground and tried to run away but they caught me. They checked the box and then took me to the station, to the basement.
The next day, I was sitting in front of a man in white, who asked me lots of questions in a nice way, I would even say tenderly. He asked me lots of times who had given me the box and I always gave him the same answer, that it was a man I didn’t know and that he gave me some money. To be honest, I wasn’t so uninformed. I later learned that the man who had interrogated me was Esteban Ventura Novo. http://www.ecured.cu/index.php/Esteban_Ventura_Novo
HT: What did they do with you?
JMMR: They held a trial at a Court in Havana for me, they were asking for me to do a lot more time, but they left the sentence at two years in the end, which I had to serve at the Modelo Prison and, if I wasn’t accepted there, I would have to go to the Torrens prison for minors.
The charges were obvious: collaborating with 26th July Movement members.
When I arrived at the Modelo Prison, Captain Montesino told me that there were regular and political prisoners as well as hardened criminals. “You are going to be my messenger for the political prisoners,” and he gave me a small room with a bed and left me there.
HT: How did you meet the men involved in the Moncada attack?
JMMR: I was introduced to them over time. That one there is Fidel, that other one is Raul, etc. I ran errands for everyone. Fidel used to say good morning to me and I would answer: Dr. Castro, what do you want me to get? He used to ask for cigars and other things. He liked to cook in his cell, especially thick spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese. Raul was always by himself, he didn’t talk much. Almeida used to send me out to look for sweets, he used to sing a lot. And I would run errands for everyone, but now I don’t remember the specifics.
HT: Do you remember anything important that happened while you were there?
JMMR: Yes, General Batista came one afternoon to inaugurate the oil plant and suddenly you could hear those men singing the anthem of the July 26th Movement at the top of their lungs. Batista asked what was going on and Montesino replied: those are the rebels that attacked Moncada. The next day, the captain spoke to Dr. Castro about what had happened. I was really moved, I was young and the idea that they could be killed for doing that still accompanies me to this very day.
HT: Why were you called “el Polaquito”?
JMMR: I had a Polish uncle who used to sell on the street and he was locked up there because he ended up coming to blows with a policeman who confiscated his cart with fabrics and other things. That’s how I got the nickname.
HT: When the Moncada prisoners were given amnesty, what happened to you?
JMMR: Captain Montesino told me: I’m going to give you a letter so you can leave, but I won’t put you down as a political prisoner because if the police ever stop you out there, they can do you a lot of harm. I will put you down as an ordinary prisoner.
HT: And what happened?
JMMR: They took me back to Havana and I continued on with my life, clearing backyards and gardens, delivering messages, etc.
HT: When you grew up, did you join the revolutionary process?
JMMR: Well, I lived it. When I was 20 years old, I was summoned and they were going to give me the manager position at the Toyo bakery, which was very famous in Havana, but I didn’t accept. I told them that I didn’t want it and I have never asked for anything. Until today, I have supported myself with my honest work at schools, day-care centers, as a gardener always. I feel good about making schools look nice. I have now retired.
HT: Look, this is a very personal question: What did you feel when you found out that Fidel had died?
JMMR: A great sadness, I was depressed for a few days. The man who had brought about the Revolution in Cuba had died and I knew him personally, I had spoken to him and had served as his messenger. It really hit me hard.
HT: If you were ever to stand in front of that 23-year-old Raul you met in a cell, who is the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party and Army General today, what would you say to him?
JMMR: Look here, my friend, I am nearly 80 years old, I’m sick and have had a tough life; if that ever happened and my knees don’t give out or I pass out, I would give him a firm handshake and ask him: do you remember Polaquito?