By Vicente Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES – On September 15, 1959, Fernando Pruna Bertot took on the war name Colonel Ponce, at just 23 years old. From one of the many caves in the Sierra de los Organos, near La Herradura, a small town in the Consolacion del Sur municipality, came his declaration:
“I’m Colonel Ponce, warlord. My plan to put my group of soldiers in the Pinar del Rio province has begun. We will gain access to the western mountains from our supporters in Havana. I’m ready to take up arms. I declare the first armed uprising against the Communist Revolution and Fidel Castro.”
Just a week before, the young rebel had spectacularly escaped from Castillo del Principe, having been locked behind bars after another escape attempt from the infamous La Cabaña fortress, where he will never forget Che Guevara’s voice giving the order, nor the cries of “Long Live Christ the King” from his executed companions.
Last Friday, his brother Andy, now living in Miami and a survivor of the Bay of Pigs invasion, told me that Fernando Pruna Bertot had passed away. I don’t believe it, I still remember him from that time we met at the Book Fair in 2018, where I discovered his beautiful Habana 505 autobiography, which has now been reedited as a bilingual trilogy, under the title “Before the After” or “Antes del Despues.”
Going back to 1959, not even vice-president Nixon was clear about the intentions of Fidel Castro, the charismatic guerrilla fighter, after his interview with the new revolutionary Prime Minister.
Only God knows how Pruna, Cuban playboy, who graduated from Columbia University in New York, rubbing elbows with Denise Darcel from Western Veracruz and Santos Traficante of the Sans Souci cabaret, ended up stamping his foot angrily in his apartment, a horizontal property in the luxury Someillan area in front of the Malecon, while violating the classical education of his teen years in New England, shouting to other conspirers:
A Communist revolution is like a plague that kills man’s individual freedom. This is the greatest disgrace of all the ones ahead of us. A totalitarian government that will abolish freedom in Cuba. Castro, you’re going to pay dearly. Neither your Revolution, nor your Communists are going to take away my freedom! No, Castro. You won’t take this from me! Arms are the only way forward! Let’s fight!
However, Pinar del Rio farmers had fallen for the fairytale of agrarian reform, property deeds of land and the history of “gangsters” that anyone who rose up against the new revolutionary government was tagged.
On September 22nd, after being accused, Fernando Pruna was caught along with a dozen fighters, including two US citizens, as well as Eudelia Cabrera Menendez, the dear and brave Nena, Pruna’s forever girlfriend and wife.
The 1959 Cause No. 1 was ruled, summarily condemning over a hundred dissidents to Castro’s budding Communist dictatorship. Leaders Fernando Pruna and US citizen Austin Young, received the Attorney-General’s request for the death penalty by firing squad. The US citizen served anti-imperialism propaganda well, accusing the US Government, via the CIA, of organizing and funding the new growing rebellion, who were really only people who were frustrated because they had believed in the democratic oath of “History will absolve me”, which Fidel Castro had perjured.
However, even though it wasn’t time for the revolutionary leader to make a clean break with the US, Pruna’s execution did in fact seem imminent, because Castro dealt with domestic affairs invoking “the enemy” according to the clause, “besieged fortress”.
A miracle then occurred from New York, where some students sent the following telegram to Havana:
“Doctor Fidel Castro, when you came to give your speech here at the Columbia University last April, we students – who have signed here below – admired you. Now, one of our friends is currently in your prisons, a former Columbia student, Fernando Pruna Bertot. He has been given the dealth penalty. We beg you to pardon his life, as well as the life of his fiancee. Don’t you see that by executing him you are also executing the hope of humanity? God bless you if you release him! God forgive you if you don’t! Signed by Paul Robinson. Peter Roome. William Frye. Paul Hammafstrom. Rudolph Wurlitzer. James Cahouet. William Lane.”
Meanwhile, the prisoner’s mother tugged at emotional strings, appealing to an uncle, a dental surgeon, who during the former dictatorship’s repression, had hidden Celia Sanchez – the eternal female figure, who became Fidel Castro’s personal secretary – at her home in Manzanillo.
Finally, Fernando Pruna’s death penalty was commuted for 30 years in prison and the US citizens – who had received the same sentence – were deported out of the country.
On January 18, 1980, the old Colonel Ponce who had fought for a Cuba free of Communism, left his Homeland for good, along with his beloved Nena, after 17 years behind bars. Nena had been released after seven years in prison.
The couple had sent dozens of tiny pellets of paper, wrapped up in plastic, under the protection of a diplomatic satchel, mocking Castro’s State Security, which were entrusted to them by Armando Valladares, a distinguished prison mate, who was later released. Valladares was able to pick them up in Miami, to write his book about Cuba’s new political prison, an exceptional work called “Contra toda esperanza” (Against all hope).
Fernando Pruna would go on to write his extraordinary autobiography, with electronic and paperback editions, with versions published in English, French and Spanish.
I agree with the last words in the original edition, Habana 505:
I came to this wonderful free land that is the United States of America at 44 years old, full of optimism and strength, health, vigor and the courage needed to succeed in whatever I set for myself to do. I’m alive, I’m strong, I’m healthy and God has blessed me.