A Tyrant’s “Liberation”

Remembering the fall of Batista, and the 50 years of Cuban misery that have followed.

February 3, 2009

Ambassador Otto J. Reich

NEW Y EAR'S DAY marked the 50th anniversary of the Castro regime. The media noted it, Castro's apologists celebrated it, and survivors on three continents remembered the regime's victims and its destruction of a thriving society. Though I was only 13 years old, I will never forget the day it began.

Shortly after 7 A.M . on January 1, 1959, I walked out my front door in Havana to accompany my godmother to church. I intended to pray, as usual, for God to deliver us from the Batista dictatorship. I did not yet know that this habitual prayer had been answered, in a way, four hours earlier.

As I crossed the usually quiet street, I could hear the familiar, forbidden sound of Rebel Radio blaring from the open window of my neighbors' house across the street. I was startled. The radio could be heard on the entire street, and it was against the law to listen to Radio Rebelde--a severe beating was the minimum punishment. I was mindful of this fact because at nine each evening I crossed that same street to hear the rebels' shortwave broadcast from their jungle redoubts in the eastern mountains. In that house, from which the radio was now plainly audible, we would hide in a darkened interior room and turn the shortwave's volume up just enough to hear, our ears inclined toward the radio set.

We were terrified of being caught by the police, and I'm sure I was not the only one who imagined, with every scratch and rustle, that we had been discovered and that the police were breaking down the doors to beat and imprison us. But as we know from stories of prison camps in World War II, man's need for information leads him to do dangerous things. And other Cubans were risking much more to rid the country of the dictatorship: They were fighting in the hills and in the cities, and many were losing their lives. We needed to know what they were accomplishing; the censored media would not tell us.

We were frightened but optimistic: The United States had placed an arms embargo on the Batista regime a few months before, complaining of human-rights violations, so the government was finding it difficult to get arms and ammunition. The U.S. sanctions had encouraged anti-Batista forces.

On Radio Rebelde we would hear of the exploits of the rebels, who offered simple promises: an end to Batista's brutality and corruption, the restoration of constitutional rights, free elections, and the improvement of social and economic conditions. In the seconds it took to cross the street on New Y ear's Day, I learned why Radio Rebelde was in the open. My neighbor Eva came running toward me and shouted: "He's gone! He's gone!" She did not have to name the detested dictator. We all knew who "he" was.

The magic week that began on that New Y ear's Day with Batista's departure culminated on January 8 with the triumphant entry into Havana of the main force of the Rebel Army. Atop a tank leading a column of captured military vehicles, surrounded by his lieutenants, Fidel Castro tirelessly smiled and waved to the crowd along the route. No one in that crowd could have believed that the smiling young man had already inaugurated the firing squads that would kill more Cubans over the next 50 years than had died in all the wars for independence from Spain, or that just months later he would arrest or "disappear" several of the lieutenants who had brought him to power. Neither could we imagine that in less than three years he would invite the Soviets to launch missiles from Cuba into the United States or that his mismanagement would result in such food scarcity that the average size of a Cuban newborn would decline over the next five decades.

That afternoon of January 8, standing with my family along the Malecon, the broad seaside boulevard that borders Havana on the Caribbean Sea, all we could see were hundreds of thousands of delirious Cubans shouting, dancing, and otherwise showing their approval of the conquering heroes. Castro would quickly end the lives of many of those who welcomed him. More than 1 million, including my own family, would become refugees seeking freedom on foreign shores. Those who remained behind would face tyranny and indoctrination, enduring the biggest bloodbath in the violent history of all Latin America. No government in the Americas has been responsible for the death, imprisonment, or exile of so many as has Castro's. But at the time, we greeted them as liberators.

The emotion of being liberated from oppression is difficult to describe. Americans have the blessed and uncommon experience of always having lived in freedom, but many have seen the grainy black-and-white film of crowds wildly welcoming Allied soldiers to Paris in August of 1944. In those images, Parisians wipe tears from their faces and laugh at the same time as the horror of Nazi occupation comes to an end. There is no peacetime equivalent to the emotion that pervaded Havana in January 1959: a combination of the liberation of Paris and Carnival.

It was the happiest day in the life of most living Cubans. The future that the liberation foretold was as bright as the tropical sky on that sunny day. Henceforth there would be no more knocks on the door in the middle of the night, no screams of women or shouts of men as relatives were dragged to interrogation dungeons; no more tortured, bullet-riddled bodies appearing on the sidewalks of cities and towns; no more looting of public funds by corrupt officials at all levels; no more judicial corruption; no more social inequality in a country with so much natural wealth.

But something went terribly wrong in the 50 years that followed. Very quickly, Batista's coarse abuse of power was eclipsed by a system never before seen in this part of the world: a totalitarian dictatorship. Latin American dictators have followed the traditional authoritarian model: brutal, corrupt, and dishonest. Castro was all of that, but he was something more. He was well educated, having graduated from an exclusive Jesuit high school and then from the University of Havana's law school. He was self-centered and power-hungry, and, like many of his generation, he flirted with fascism--in his self-defense at a trial for rebellion in 1953, he plagiarized Adolf Hitler's speech from the Munich Beer Hall Putsch trial three decades earlier. (The speech caught the attention of my Austrian-born father.) Eventually, he calculated that Communism was the ideal national-socialist system to keep him in power indefinitely. His program combined a one-party ideology, fail-safe police-state tactics, and massive Soviet assistance to obscure the disintegration of Cuba's economy.

A revolution that had the support of the vast majority of the people in January 1959 soon created the largest exodus of political refugees as a proportion of a nation's population in history. About 14 percent of Cubans have fled their homeland.

Batista's jails, odious though they were, never numbered more than a dozen. To house his prisoners, Castro would have to build 350 penitentiaries. At some points in the 1960s, Cuba led the world in the number of political prisoners per capita. And these are no ordinary jails--Cuba is the only country to refuse U.N. resolutions calling for international prison inspection. Castro, according to his own writings, lived comfortably in Batista's prisons, cooking his favorite dishes and reading liberally, but has refused any outside inspections, even by the Red Cross, of what are described as some of the most appalling penal complexes ever seen.

The hundreds dead under Batista's gestapo grew to thousands under Castro's--as many as 6,130 according to the Cuba Archive, a database of political deaths and imprisonment--and many thousands more died on the high seas in 50 years of attempts to escape.

The moral decay of the pre-Castro years, exemplified by the casinos of the American mafia, was replaced by a more sweeping immorality under Castro, including official involvement in drug trafficking. High-ranking Cuban officials, such as Castro's chief of naval operations and his ambassador to Colombia, have been indicted on narcotics charges, but Castro refuses to extradite those who might testify against him. Convicted Colombian drug lords such as Carlos Lehder have testified to the Castro brothers' complicity in the drug trade. Castro's pathological hatred of the U.S. is such that he justified his involvement in narcotics as just another way to "destroy the empire" from within.

Why do Cubans not rebel against the despot Castro as they did against Batista? Cubans know what outsiders don't: Castro's dictatorship is of a very different character. The freelance informants of the Batista era were supplanted by a national neighborhood-surveillance system that encompasses every block of every city and town in Cuba. Called the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and serving as the eyes and ears of the regime, they are the enforcers of revolutionary diktats, spying on every citizen and encouraging informants to turn on neighbors and relatives. They are empowered to knock on any door at any time to demand that a resident identify any visitor and explain the reason for the visit, or to demand an explanation of why the resident did not "voluntarily" attend the latest mass rally. Y ou'd better have a good answer, because the CDR have muscle.

To anyone familiar with the past 50 years of Cuban history, it is a little amusing, though disheartening, to see Western apologists for the Castro brothers point to the enormous crowds at mass rallies as a sign of Castro's popularity. The regime's technique for turning out the crowds is illuminating: First, on the day of the rally everyone with a job must present himself at the work-place, where the political commissar checks attendance. Those absent may be demoted or fired if their file indicates prior "counterrevolutionary tendencies." Workers are then transported on government vehicles to and from the "Plaza of the Revolution" or some similar venue. At the event, the people will march, chant, and applaud--enthusiastically, since they are surrounded by plainclothes police and informants looking for "counterrevolutionary behavior" to report in exchange for a promotion or household appliance. Those who do not have a place of work are expected to attend, too, and the local CDR make sure absences are not repeated.

The main coercive clout of the CDR comes from its power to distribute the ration card that every Cuban needs to purchase food. Miss a rally and your family may go hungry.

Few native-born Americans have any idea what it is to lose all freedom: to have no reliable source of information, no radio, television, or newspaper that would report any but the official news; to trust no neighbor, colleague, or family member because he may be a government informer; to live in a nationwide "company town" where the government is the only employer and the sole source of your family's food.

After 50 years, Cubans are convinced that the government surveillance system, Orwell's Big Brother put into practice, is so effective that it knows even what they are thinking. Though Orwell's books are banned in Cuba (they are far too close to reality for Castro's comfort), Cubans have another name for Big Brother. They call it "the policeman in the head," the most pernicious kind of mind control: self-censorship, the fear that leads to intellectual paralysis and prevents a citizen from even thinking thoughts that could be deemed counterrevolutionary, leading him to jail or worse.

My family left Cuba for the U.S. in July 1960, 18 months after Castro's arrival. From the first time that he had heard Fidel Castro speak, at that 1953 rebellion trial, it was obvious to my father, who had lived through the Nazi occupation of his homeland in 1938 and then fled to join the French Foreign Legion at the outset of World War II, that Castro was a dangerous demagogue who would be a brutal dictator. The rest of the family thought my father just didn't know Cuba. Perhaps he did not, but he did know dictators.

As I remember that hopeful first week of January 1959, it is obvious that the only things that have worked in Cuba in the past 50 years are the security forces and propaganda apparatus. Everything else was a lie: the freedom, the promised elections, the constitutional guarantees, the individual rights, the better life. Castro's contempt for his country was probably best demonstrated in the 1962 missile crisis, when he begged Nikita Khrushchev to attack the United States with nuclear missiles hidden in Cuba, "even if a counterattack destroys Cuba." In the end, Castro saw to that himself.


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