Organizacion Autentica

Cuba During the Last Part of 1958

By Santiago de Juan

PART I of a Series

Cuba, in particular Havana, in the second half of the year 1958, was not a safe place to live. Havana University was closed due to the revolution and for some young people, especially if they were students, life was full of danger.

At the time, I was a member of the Directorio Revolucionario 13 de Marzo, a revolutionary movement, involved in the efforts to overthrow Dictator Fugencio Batista.

Our group was divided into two, one operating in the plains (cities) and the armed one at the Escambray Mountains. Even in the plains, there was a division separating those in charge of armed actions, and those in logistics. Logistics included the duties of raising money, that always present tool required in every war.

The second operating group was the 26 de Julio Movement, led by Fidel Castro at the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

The common enemy was the Dictator Fulgencio Batista but each group had a different agenda. Ours was simple: Overthrow the regime, reestablish the 1940 Constitution, and once our task was accomplished, return to our normal life. Fidel’s group had a different agenda, and a hidden one that would change the course of history. (That’s another story.)

As the hostilities escalated, so did the risks, which forced my group to either go into exile or become guerrilla fighters in the mountains. This meant less people to work in the plains and more supplies for those in the Escambray Mountains. The ones working in the cities took more risks. Batista’s police became meaner, and incremented the torture of those of our group captured. We constantly altered our places of meeting and mode of operations. It was a constant change to be one step ahead of being caught.

By the beginning of November 1958, I had overextended my stay in Havana. At any hour of the day or night I could be caught. I hardly slept.

It was much different than early in 1957, when we were planning the attack on the Presidential Palace to eliminate Batista and even after the attempt failed on March 13, 1957. That afternoon of March 13, Jose Antonio Echevarria and I left Radio Reloj together. I was going to my office a couple blocks away, while Echevarria went in another direction toward the University. He was killed just a few hundred feet before reaching his alma mater. I felt the excitement of what we did, but I was not scared.

Then on Thursday, November 13, 1957, I arrived at the office after 2 p.m. Thursday is my favorite day of the week and I am superstitious. My secretary told me she had received an alarming message for me. Alarming because it came from one of the most feared of Batista’s henchmen: Esteban Ventura Novo. Years later I found the reason for this warning which in a way, saved my life. (I had gone to bed at 10 a.m. that day as night was my preferred time to work and most appropriate for our activities.) I knew this man only by his infamous cruelty towards us.

The message was short and concise: “Tell Santiago to leave immediately as we are on our way to arrest him”. The fear for the last few weeks that had been growing in me reached a climax. I knew I had to leave. I barely gave a hug to my secretary and disappeared. Two days later, I arrived at Placetas, then at Guinia de Miranda and finally at El Pedrero, our headquarters at the Escambray Mountains.

In the safety of our headquarters, in a few days I regained my tranquility. Fear just faded away. I was able to sleep, even in a hammock, with the sky for a roof. However, there was not much I could do here. We talked a lot; we planned a lot. But the action was in the plains. Havana was completely out for me, but not Las Villas Province.

Radiotiempo had radio stations in Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spiritus and Sagua la Grande (my place of birth but dangerous for me too) and in the city of Matanzas. I was the General Manager of Radiotiempo, at the main office in Havana, which gave me the perfect excuse to move around without raising much suspicion from Batista’s soldiers. So I started to come down the mountain, do my job and when exhausted, return to the mountain and relax. I was doing exactly what I had being doing for over six years, and felt comfortable doing it. The risk was minimal.

But on December 2, 1958, there was a job to be done in Havana. I was the right person for that job. I volunteered for it. That mission was the most dangerous that I had ever undertaken and it was at the same time, so simple: Collect a large sum of money for the revolution. Next day, December 3, 1958, I celebrated my 24th birthday, by myself at a third class hotel in Havana.

On December 4, I contacted by telephone the person from whom I was to make the collection. We set an appointment for Friday morning. All he knew was my name. I knew a lot about him and his business. Going to his office to collect a huge sum of money in cash sounds simple.

But it was not.

I needed transportation to take the money to a contact at Marianao, at least half an hour by car from Havana. I knew only one person who could help me. He was older than I was and I looked up to him as the father I never knew. He was a Professor at Escuela de Comercio de La Habana. He did not hesitate to take me. He knew the risk. If caught by the police carrying a sum of money that an honest man, working all his life could never earn, meant only one thing: Death. They will kill both of us, not because they knew of our activities and the destination of that money, but to keep it.

Friday morning we were on time at the Manzana de Gomez building. The building was built at the beginning of the 20th century. It occupied a whole city block at Paseo del Prado, with five stories. At the time, many corporate offices of business all over Cuba occupied it. I was to collect from the owners of Sugar Plantations in the Province of Las Villas. The assessed amount labeled as War Taxes was decided by others, taking into consideration the size of the business. The offices were on the third floor. My friend dropped me at the entrance and was supposed to drive around, but pass by the entrance at intervals not longer than five minutes. I was not expected to be there for more than half an hour.

When I arrived a secretary greeted me. I stated the name of the person I was to see and my name. I noticed her nervosity when she briefly made eye contact with me, her original smile was completely gone. She knew something and that was not good, I thought.

Within a couple of minutes, I was guided to an immense office. I glanced around the walls, all covered by rich varnished wood. The furniture was also impressive. There was a big desk where a well-dressed gentleman was seated, and two comfortable chairs in front of the desk. A lady, in her mid forties, was standing by the right side of the man. His expression was relaxed. In her I could see hate and anger. The man greeted me with a "good morning" which I returned. He pointed to one of the chairs and I sat down. I did not feel uncomfortable, maybe because the real risk I knew was to come after I left the building.

The gentleman lifted a briefcase that separated him from the lady standing at his side. While doing so, he told me the name of the lady and that she was his sister. I knew of her, as she was part owner of the business.

He opened the briefcase while on his desk and showed me stacks of bills, wrapped in groups of 10’s, 20’s and 100’s. He invited me to count them while telling me that every penny was there. I indicated with a gesture that it was not necessary, and while doing so, I pulled from inside my jacket a brown paper bag, intentionally doubled up and started to fill it with the money. He told me that I should take the briefcase along with the money, but it was not my intention, and he understood.

While filling the bag, I glanced at the lady. Her face was red. She could barely stay without saying something. I felt sorry. I felt dirty. It was as if I were stealing from them. They were extremely rich, but they worked hard for their money. The money was for a worthy cause, a noble cause, but still, it did not feel good. It was the first time I went on such a mission.

I felt compelled to explain to them, to her, and I started to do it. She interrupted, first insulting me, and then threatened to call the police. Her brother was now very nervous, trying to make her stop talking...afraid, not of me, but of the consequences should she go ahead with her threats. He maybe was not worried about my life, but he was very worried about his life and his family. I pleaded with him to let her talk. She kept talking for a little longer only, as the tears stopped her. I understood. I felt like crying, too.

Once all the money was in the bag, I looked at the gentleman’s eyes and extended my hand. He reached across the desk and shook my hand in a warm salute of "goodbye" to which he added “and good luck”. His sister continued crying as I walked away.

I went down the stairs and to the entrance without any problem. I was just one of many, men and women, young and old, doing business. I did not wait long for my friend and we drove off toward Malecon. At the end of Paseo del Prado, there is a sharp left turn into is a long sort of curb manned by a street light but also by a policeman at the center lane. He was blowing a whistle as if to command the traffic to continue, regardless of the color of the traffic signal. My friend entered the intersection as the policeman turned and whistled to stop, but he was way into the intersection to safely stop, so he continued. The whistle seemed to explode. It sounded now alarmed, like yelling at us.

Another policeman came out of his parked patrol car and signaled us to stop. My friend did. As the second policeman approached us, my friend started to yell at him. He was using real strong language to insult the other policeman who continued giving orders to the motorists through his whistle. I grabbed the right arm of my friend and begged him to keep quiet. I respected him too much to yell at him but the situation was getting out of hand. My friend was right in continuing to drive, but at that moment it was the wrong time to be right. The policeman was at our door, asking for my friend’s driving license. He kept yelling at him. I saw no other solution than to yell at my friend, siding with the policeman. He understood and once my friend shut up, he asked again for his driver’s license. It took him a few minutes to write up the ticket, which was a mere $5 traffic infraction.

All this time, I was talking to my friend about his wife, his son and daughter. This cooled him off. When the policeman handed him the ticket for him to sign, I apologized to him and he accepted the apology with a smile. He was older than my friend, and easily could have a son older than me. As my friend was signing, another police patrol car pulled in to offer assistance. I held my breath. But the first policeman signaled the driver that everything was okay. It took us another 25 minutes to reach our destination and make delivery of the money. Very few times in my life, I felt so much fear.

On Sunday night, I was back in Santa Clara. It was too late to continue my trip toward El Pedrero, so I decided to stay there. Besides, I learned that next day, in the morning, three of our men were to be taken before a Judge. The courthouse was in a building facing the west side of Parque Vidal. The Grand Hotel was at the side facing north. Facing the south was the building housing Radiotiempo among others and to the east the Instituto de Santa Clara. I knew the police had detained our comrades, but also knew that they were unaware as to how important those prisoners were in our group, so it was decided to rescue them before they found out. I had nothing to do with that mission but knew about it and decided to delay my departure.

At 8:50 am, on that Tuesday, December 9, 1958, a police patrol car, escorted by a Jeep occupied by four soldiers, arrived. As soon as our comrades started to walk toward the courthouse, about a dozen of our men, armed with rifles appeared in three vehicles and fully surprised the police and army. The policemen raised their arms and the soldiers dropped their rifles and raised their arms. I could see the fear in their faces but not in the faces of our men, who in fact, were smiling. The three prisoners went into one of our vehicles and they all drove away. Some spectators watched the whole operation in silence which lasted but a few minutes. As they drove away, some started to applaud.

The vehicles were about a block away on their way to El Pedrero, when one of the soldiers reacted. He bent down, reached for his Garand, aimed at the speeding vehicles and squeezed the trigger once. From my window at the fifth floor of the hotel I laughed at that reaction and in a way, I applauded, as that soldier had to save face.

Commanding the group of the rescuers, I recognized Captain “El Magnifico”. He was easy to be recognized as he was over 6’2”and athletic. I knew him by his real name but everyone called him El Magnifico. Every time he went on a mission (he always volunteered for any mission that involved action) and everything went according to plan, he commented: “me quedó magnifico” - it was executed as planned. He was always smiling and happy.

Late in the afternoon, I arrived at El Pedrero. From Santa Clara to Placetas is about 30 km and maybe 4-5 km to Guinia la Miranda, on a dirt road. From Guinia to El Pedrero one has to travel by horse or donkey as we are climbing El Pedrero. It is not a long distance but we must overcome a few obstacles. First, we have to wade through the River Falcon, halfway between Santa Clara and Placetas, as the bridge was blown up by us to slow down Batista’s army. Once in Placetas, we must sneak out, as the army knows it is the way toward our headquarters. We must wait for the right moment. Patience is a virtue that must be used. The climbing toward El Pedrero is easy, except when an Army Piper plane equipped with a couple .30 caliber machine guns spots us and wants to use us for target practice.

Once in El Pedrero, I asked for El Magnifico as I knew he loved to be praised after any successful action. I was told he was dead. I said it was not possible because I saw him in the morning, driving away after rescuing our comrades. I was sure I saw him. And it was him, indeed. But as they drove off, a bullet pierced the rear window of the vehicle where he was riding in the back seat and also went through his head. He died instantly.

I was in shock. We took many chances, great risks many times, but to die that way? It did not make any sense to me. We were used to losing our comrades, strangers that became like our own blood brothers and sisters. However, some losses affected us more than others and this was one of them.

I spent the next few days at El Pedrero. The place was like a retreat for us. The pressure from the plains did not exist here. We joked that we went there to rest. At least, we rest our minds. A week after El Magnfico was killed I went down into the plains again, on another mission. Again, to Havana. Again, to Manzana de Gomez building and again, to collect war taxes from another sugar plantation owner. It was deja vu. Nevertheless, this time, regardless of the experience, I felt less secure.

My first concern was who will I use this time to drive me. I could not use the same person, not because what happened the first time, but because of the risk. Things were getting worse by the hour. He was a family man, with two children under ten to take care of. I did not want to use any of the men in the underground either, as I didn’t want them to know that I was in Havana. I decided to call a brother-in-law of mine who worked as a mechanic and asked him to lend me a vehicle. Should anything happen the company could report it as stolen. He lent me a 1952 Chevrolet. The car was almost new and owned by an elderly lady who barely drove it but took good care of it. Perfect.

But it was too dangerous for me to drive by myself. I decided to call Claudia, an associate. The collection date was set to be on the morning of Thursday, December 18, 1958. I was to pick her up at 7:30 am at Wakamba Cafeteria, just two blocks from her house, have breakfast with her, and from there to Old Havana was a 10-minute drive. Besides, it was a while since I saw Claudia and that added some spice to the mission. I knew the risk but I also knew that Claudia was a true patriot.

Claudia dropped me a few minutes before 10 am at the entrance of the Manzana de Gomez building. This time, I went to the fourth floor. Same approach as before but something felt wrong. When I met the payers, this time three gentlemen, two in their forties and one older, after a cordial salutation, I was informed that they were unable to raise that large amount of cash. I protested. They sounded truthful when they told me that they must draw the money from different banks, as Batista’s police knew the reason for those large withdrawals. One of the gentlemen joked by saying that they did not have any problem at all giving me a check. I laughed, for after all, it was a good joke; at least, the timing was perfect. We all laughed. Then, I was told that they would be able to have the money by next day.

I did not accept that. After a short conference, they told me the money would be ready by 6 pm that day. I thought for a moment. My mind raced back and forth. I evaluated the risk. It went up almost a hundred percent. Maybe they changed their mind and decided to set me up. I could abort the mission, but promptly I discarded that option. I knew those people were paying because they were scared for themselves and their loved ones. So, I removed my dark thoughts and boldly felt that no matter how much they appreciated money, their lives were more valuable.

I told them I will be back at 6 pm but needed to use their telephone. I called my brother-in-law and told him that I could not return the car to him as planned that day, as I had to return to Manzana de Gomez building that afternoon to close my business. Doing so, I killed two birds with one stone. My brother-in-law would not be waiting for the car that day and these gentlemen would know that if something happened to me, someone knew why and who to come after.

As I came down, Claudia was about to wait for me. We followed the same route that I used before and I warned her to watch the signals of the police. We went through the intersection without any problem this time. I wanted to be with her for the rest of the day, but it was too dangerous. We decided to drive for a while, have lunch and drop her at the Wakamba Cafeteria. At 5:30 pm I would return there for her.

It was already dark when Claudia dropped me off at the entrance of the Manzana de Gomez building. Christmas lights were adorning businesses. Many people were walking at the Paseo del Prado, others buying presents for the Dia de los Reyes Magos. The atmosphere felt festive and safe. The surroundings looked normal.

As I came into the office, right on time, the secretary was already gone. One of the younger gentlemen that I met earlier was the one who received me. He was smiling when he told me they had all the money. We walked together into the office and they handed me a bag, like the one used by doctors when they make house calls, but this one was full of money. The brown paper bags were full this time as the denominations were smaller. The amount collected was barely larger than before.

The two younger gentlemen were the ones handling the deal. The old man had remained silent all the time, watching once in a while the transaction, other times looking out into the city through a picture window of a panoramic view of Havana, a beautiful city, especially at night, and at Christmas all lit up. As I was leaving the old man came towards me and extended his hand. I looked into his tired eyes while shaking his hand. He did not let my hand go, instead he looked deep into my eyes. I don’t know if he saw into my soul and could see my apology for what I was doing and the reason why, but after a brief moment, he embraced me in a tight hug and whispered: Que Dios te proteja - God be with you - and let me go. I left, a little confused, but the fear was gone.

Claudia picked me up and we drove, again, to our dropping off site in Marianao. This time it was a different place. The old one was too hot. The new place was a house by the ocean. Well, it was a mansion. We were introduced only by first names. Mine was not my own and probably theirs were also not real. We were invited to dinner but I declined. I could not afford to stay too long at one specific place, especially a private house, so we left.

Claudia asked me to have dinner and, if possible, walk by the ocean or maybe, maybe watch a movie. We always went to different missions before but never fraternized. For all I knew, maybe her name was not even Claudia. I do not know why, but the phrase Que Dios te proteja kept ringing in my ears. I felt the words were like a shield protecting me. I did something I was not supposed to do. I told Claudia that we would have dinner, then go to Sala Atelier, one of the most warm and friendly nightclubs I had ever been to in Havana. The place was semi-dark so we could be sort of invisible there, while drinking at the Piano Bar, singing and dancing, not much different from any of the young couples in that place. After all, it is what young people do. What they ought to be doing, instead of...well.

It was not until about 5:30 am, a full 12 hours after I picked her up that day, before I dropped Claudia, at her apartment at Humboldt 7. We were used to saying goodbye, so this time was not much different than anytime before. A simple adios, a wave of the hand and a brief look into each other’s eyes, said it all.

As I left Claudia, I drove past my office, at that hour it was still dark and the building was quiet. A couple of blocks west, I drove by 23rd and Colima, where a few months ago, on March 13, ….. Manzanita lay dead in the street.

A few minutes later, I passed by Castillo del Principe, a fortress-castle built by the Spaniards centuries ago, a place that became a symbol of torture and death. Not too far, on Avenida de Rancho Boyeros, almost across from Plaza de la Republica and the statue of Jose Marti, was the Bus Terminal.

I parked the car in the parking lot at the terminal for my brother-in-law to collect. I checked at the terminal counter for the departure time for the bus to Santa Clara (a 300km ride), then back to El Pedrero. The bus to Santa Clara would leave in a few hours. Hanging around a bus terminal is not exactly the smart thing to do, especially if one is traveling light. My experience in underground work had sharpened my instincts. One is always be aware of the surroundings, especially the exit doors, the people around you and what they are doing. You do not look, but sense the obvious no matter how disguised they may appear. Therefore, I sat close to the counter of the Omnibus Santiago-Habana Lines, the one that would take me to my destination.

I waited for about half an hour, reading the newspaper but observing those purchasing tickets. Finally, a woman with two boys went to the counter and bought three tickets to Ciego de Avila, in Camaguey. Ciego de Avila was about 130km beyond Santa Clara, so I found the perfect cover. The two boys were about four and five years old. I went to a small gift shop and bought a deck of cards, came back and sat about 15 feet from where the mother and kids were but not for long. A few minutes later, the kids started to play and chase each other, regardless of their mother’s warning to stay put. I began to play solitaire knowing that sooner or later, the boys’ curiosity would bring them around to me.

I knew a few card tricks to intrigue them, so my invitation to play cards was accepted. At the beginning, the mother told them to leave me alone, not because she cared about me, but I was a stranger and kids were not allowed to fraternize with strangers. But whatever kept those boys quiet was acceptable at the time. Within the next few minutes, I managed to get closer to the mother and when the terminal started to get busy, anyone looking at us would be seeing a family. We boarded the bus and I sat close enough to look like a family. During the trip, the bus stopped at designated towns to pick up and drop passengers as well as mail. But what really slowed us down were the roadblocks.

While traveling on the Carretera Central, in between towns, out of nowhere, the bus slowed down to a crawl, as all kinds of vehicles were stopped by the army and searched. As we stopped at the designated area, everyone was ordered by well-armed soldiers to step out and form a single line facing a group of soldiers. There, we were asked to show some identification and were questioned. I always managed to stay close to my adopted family, most of the time next to the boys instead of the mother. Six times we were searched and interrogated. Finally, the bus stopped in Santa Clara. The stay there was 45 minutes to give passengers time to eat something. It was my destination but I begged the family to accept an invitation for dinner. My convincing note was that, we will probably never see each other again and I want to express my appreciation for the good time spent during the journey. She accepted. I was right, I never saw them again.



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