Surviving Revolution

When I was 2 years old the Cuban Revolution was already underway. My father was the sort of lawyer people in trouble wanted. One who never billed clients and rarely walked away from a fight. In a landmark case that stunned the nation, 22 survivors of an armed invasion led by Fidel Castro were put on trial for trying to topple Cuba’s dictator. The event is referred to in Cuban history as the “Granma Invasion” (and the subsequent Granma Trial). He took the case pro bono.

Lucas and Dora Morán, Santiago de Cuba, 1955

As attorney for the defense, he admitted their guilt. And proclaimed their innocence. “Our Constitution,” he told the tribunal, “makes it every citizen’s duty to oppose tyranny. Precisely as these boys have done. Release them. Our government, not the defendants, should here stand trial.” Well! A unique and forceful defense, to say the least. The prosecutor walked the length of the court to stand beside him. He declared himself unwilling to seek punishment. That was a first. The president of the court voiced a similar opinion and voted to acquit. You can imagine the tumult in that place. The two remaining justices, cowed and fearful, voted to convict. It was our trial of the century.
When I was 3 dad went into hiding. He didn’t have much choice. The police were after him. Cuba’s dictator didn’t like his courtroom antics. He ordered his assassination. (It was commonplace then.) My father fled the city, joining Fidel Castro’s rebel army in the Sierra Maestra. Fidel gave him a rifle and commissioned him captain. Every once in a while he’d come down from the Sierra to see us kids. He’d dye his hair blonde, or grow a mustache. Always incognito. Because by the time I was 4 papa had analyzed Fidel. He didn’t like what he saw: an intelligent, deceitful sociopath of totalitarian pretensions.

Captain Lucas Morán and Comandante Raúl Castro, in the Sierra Cristal, 1958

Before long, Fidel opened a second front in the mountains of the Sierra Cristal. He put in command his younger brother Raúl, a cruel, despotic little man with distinct Napoleonic tendencies. (Fidel once warned the rebels: “You’d better hope no bullet gets me. Because if it does, you’re going to deal with him.” They shuddered at the thought.)

Things were looking up for the Revolution. Government soldiers were surrendering in droves, and one day Comandante Raúl found himself with more prisoners than he had men. He had no place to jail them and no guards to watch them. He and Che Guevara together informed Captain Morán they had to be shot. My father was enraged. “Murder!” is what he called it. The murder of unarmed men. “Your only humane recourse,” he told Raúl, “is to release them. They can be paroled to the Catholic church. Or to the Red Cross.” A complicated solution, and not without risk, but it was so done.

With the Army of Liberation in the Sierra Maestra, 1958

Papa then launched a revolution within and against the Revolution. He composed a legal writ. Rebel officers penned their names alongside his. (Raúl was not popular among them, what with a sadistic and unsavory reputation.) Papa’s writ is referred to in Cuban history as la ley de los capitanes — “the captains’ law.” It wasn’t at all complicated. It said, in essence: “We don’t trust you lot.” Sort of like a little Cuban Magna Carta, it was our first attempt to curb Castro’s tyranny.

A council of officers will examine all orders decreed by Comandante Castro. Said officers’ council will have the right to veto illegal and immoral commands. Extrajudicial punishment and trial by firing squad will end immediately. Defendants will be offered legal counsel, and be given opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses…

Cuba’s rural peasantry was then mired in poverty and illiteracy, a situation best described as feudalism. As the rebels freed vast tracts of the Sierra, land grants were made to sharecroppers in territorio libre de Cuba. A rural literacy campaign brought teacher-volunteers from the cities to teach mountain dwellers their abecedario. Papa saw literacy as a powerful tool against oppression. But he also knew liberation would be short lived, should Castro assume dictatorial powers. “He wants to herd us out of one pen,” he warned fellow officers, “only to cage us in another…”

Castro’s answer to “the captains’ law?” Capt. Morán was summoned before Raúl and Che Guevara for “a frank exchange of ideas.” It proved nothing of the sort. He was arrested. This is war, Che reminded. And in war, he said, we may send men to the firing squad as we see fit. Evidence? That is academic. Legal procedures are archaic bourgeois details. The Revolution must have absolute power to coerce and to punish. Raúl accused papa of conspiring against Fidel. “This is treason,” he accused. “Treachery, sedition, subversion, betrayal!” Crimes against the Revolution.
A trial was held in the mountains of the Sierra. He was court-martialed. Were it not for his role in the urban resistance, and his following among rebel ranks, he’d have been shot. Instead he was disarmed and sent back to the city. In disgrace, (so they said), there to face Batista’s wrath. Raúl’s operatives then tipped off the dictator’s police. “A fugitive from justice, the lawyer Lucas Morán, is in central Havana.” Wanted in the mountains as well as the cities, he faced more than one assassin. He was quick on his feet, and quick with his fists, always first to strike. He evaded several attempts on his life.

When I turned 5 Fidel won the Revolution. I remember the victory parades, army tanks in the street. At the School of Law where he’d once taught papa was tried in absentia. Chief witness for the prosecution was one of his former law students. The young man had served alongside him in Castro’s Army of Liberation. His name was Jorge Serguera. (…But his friends called him Papito.) Captain Lucas Morán’s little Magna Carta, and his refusal to take part in revolutionary trials (with death by firing squad) were judged “counter-revolutionary crimes.” Penalty was death by firing squad.

You’d think that was it for dad, right? You’re saying, “He’ll never get out of this one alive!” Well, you’d be wrong. He was resourceful. He’d made friends during the Revolution. He’d won many courtroom victories, saved a lot of lives. And he’d always done his work at no charge, pro bono publico. Those people remembered, and they were grateful. They sheltered him. Then they helped him flee the country. He made it out of Cuba just in time. The CIA picked him up in New York. As with many Cuban exiles, the agency took a professional interest. They would soon need volunteers for their Bay of Pigs Invasion. But that’s another story for another time.

Comandante Jorge “Papito” Serguera at one of his televised show trials, Havana, 1959

His accuser Serguera was rewarded with a government ministry. As President of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television he went on to prosecute, imprison, or execute the usual suspects: intellectuals, poets, writers, musicians, long-hairs, dissidents, and homosexuals. As if that weren’t enough, he banned the Beatles from Cuba’s airwaves. He found their music disquieting. For his opinion of the Beatles’ hairstyles, see “homosexuals,” above. Those four boys were everything the Revolution needed to avoid.

I tried to contact Papito a few years back. He expressed a desire, through a mutual friend, to meet me. “Your father was a fine man,” he offered, “A brave man. My role in his affair has been completely misunderstood!” He died of cancer before our meeting could take place.

My father was not an easy man to categorize. Eager to take down bullies a notch or two, a brawler and street-fighter by nature, he also despised cruelty of any stripe. He could not tolerate bloodshed. He had a soft spot in his heart for animals of every sort, song-birds in particular. He admired a mother wren’s courage as she defended her hatchlings from the raven’s assault. “Look at that,” he’d proudly instruct, pointing at the tree. “Look at that tiny bird, fighting off a giant! Let that be a lesson to you!”

He was raised to a code unknown today. It derived from Spanish chivalry. Honor stood above all else. A man who witnessed a woman assaulted and abused, but took no action, was no longer a man. He was something less. Not all followed the precept, of course. But those who did knew where they stood.

The Cuban nation, (he was further taught), was female. Like the Virgin herself, Cuba was a woman, beautiful and green, warm and nurturing. She was irreplaceable. An affront to her was an affront to all. And any man who failed to rise in her defense? Well, sad to say, he was no longer a man. He was something far less. There was no deeper shame.

You might say, that’s just a metaphor. You’d be wrong. It was much more than that. Our traditions explain (in part) why so many abandoned home and family to join a revolution that paid nothing, and promised nothing, save the possibility of, at best, capture and imprisonment. And at worst, injury and death. Honor and justice were principal reasons the revolution was fought at all.

When the rebels entered Havana at the close of 1958, Che Guevara set up headquarters in the ancient Spanish fortress of La Cabaña. Every day for five months he oversaw executions by firing squad. He enjoyed his work. The dictator’s army had by then become Fidel’s army. The dictator’s police were now Fidel’s police.

And those men and women who’d fought and won the Revolution for him? When they realized they’d installed a new dictator, they too were found guilty of “counter-revolutionary crimes.” The lucky ones got twenty years. The rest got something worse.

Modern-day writers like to paint the Cuban Revolution in heroic terms. That’s their choice, and they’re free to inhabit that myth, should it profit them. But they must also know that in Cuba, those who condone oppression for the rest, while demanding rights and privileges for themselves, are not considered men, in the traditional sense. They are less than men, cowards perhaps, children no doubt, enjoying freedoms they never fought for, never bled for, and certainly never won.

“Never idolize leaders,” he once told me, “whatever their legacy. Worship is the conceit of angels. Not of men.” Be a skeptic, he said. It’s the only way to survive a revolution with your life, and your principles, reasonably intact.

Now, I’ll be first to admit, my dad’s story is one of loss. He lost his home, his family, his livelihood, his fortune, his native land, his native tongue, his revolution, his counter-revolution, his freedom, and (very nearly), his life. But he kept the things he valued most: his principles. His story started in Cuba and nearly ended there. But he survived and thrived on American soil, as many good things do.

As Castro was banning the Beatles and Rolling Stones from Cuban airwaves, I was growing up in US exile. I remember talking papa to the local music store, telling him about a new singer I’d heard on the radio. “I think he’s a genius!” I gushed excitedly. He was skeptical of my claim, coming as it did from a ten-year old boy. (And not a very clever ten-year old at that.) But he was also willing to listen. At my request, the store clerk placed the record on a turntable and carefully lowered the stylus. The disc spinning at 33–1/3 was by a revolutionary new artist named Bob Dylan. The title alone was enough to give Fidel Castro a sudden heart attack: Subterranean Homesick Blues.

…Keep a clean nose
Watch the plainclothes
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.
Don’t follow leaders
Watch the parking meters…

“Well. He’s no Frank Sinatra,” papa harrumphed as the record spun to a close. “But I must admit, his lyrics offer good, practical advice!” On that basis, if no other, he bought me the album. Bob Dylan was my introduction to freedom.

Addendum: This related article explains how my father’s notorious activities are still remembered in Cuba.