The Academy of Hatred

Excerpt Eighteen of "Brothers from Time to Time"

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La Cabaña fortress: a side wall of the massive dungeon and a view of the execution ground from a footbridge.

{Emi Rivero’s recollections} 

La Cabaña fortress, Havana, 2 a.m., September 22, 1961. Summoned by a loud crash, most of the hundred men in Galera 16 crowded up to the double-barred window which looked out onto the execution ground 50 yards away.

The giant cell filled up with screams: “Monsters!” “Sons of whores!” “¡Viva Cuba libre!” Then we heard: “Aim!” “Fire!” Many of the executed died with the name of Christ on their lips. After a burst of fire and the coup de grace, we heard the sound of a truck leaving with a corpse and coming back for another one.

My trial had just ended. I had been in a group of 62 men and six women who had come before Revolutionary Tribunal Number One at La Cabaña fortress – Case Number 238 of 1961. Now in the wee hours, four people from Case 238 had been killed in the span of 30 minutes.

The proceedings had opened at 8 a.m. in one of the big meeting rooms of the fortress. Some 300 people crowded into the room: accused and their lawyers, judges and prosecutors, soldiers, journalists, defendants’ relatives, and members of the diplomatic corps –a young British businessman, Robert Morton Geddes, being among the accused.

A revolutionary mob was also on hand to provide a “spontaneous” demonstration against the accused if it should prove helpful.

In the crowd were my mother and my aunt Gloria. As I entered, they smiled at me to show confidence; but they were appalled by the grief of so many.

The tribunal was made up of its president, plus three Rebel Army men and a member of the militia. The president, Lieutenant Pelayo Fernández, was called “Pelayo Firing Wall.” The prosecutor, Fernando Flores, was nicknamed Charco de sangre, “Pool of Blood.”

The first to give evidence were G-2 agents who testified against the accused. One of those, introduced as Agent Idelfonso Canales, was the interrogator whose comment about the ballpoint pen had made a strong impression on me.

Agent Canales testified that I had been one of the first to conspire against the government and that I didn’t properly belong in this group, but in another that had come to trial some months before.

Following the agents’ testimonies the accused were questioned by the tribunal one at a time. Each defendant was asked, first of all, to declare guilty or not guilty.

Some of the accused disputed the charges against them; others gave vague answers. At times the president asked: “Do you ratify the statements you have already made under interrogation by State Security?” The defendant answered: “I do.” Those statements were not disclosed at the trial.

Among the accused was the man whose betrayal of the apartment in El Vedado had led to my arrest. His name was Pedro Cuéllar. After spending hours in his company on that day, I had encountered him again in one of the large cells where we had both been guests of State Security. Our hosts had evidently put the two of us there to observe our relationship and gather more evidence on us.

In Security Cuéllar had behaved unpleasantly to the other prisoners, bossing them around and saying he would soon become an official of the revolutionary government. He never mentioned that he was expecting this reward for having turned a snitch. It became clear only at the trial, when he testified against many other men to devastating effect.

About me, however, Cuéllar gave no testimony at all. By a stroke of fortune he had not remembered who I was. In the Security cell I had ignored him because to do anything else would have helped our captors, and would have put me in the very mess that Cuéllar was now making for others.

When the trial broke for lunch, visitors of the accused naturally tried to come near. Soldiers blocked their way with rude exclamations, but my mother just walked through them and got close to me.

“What do you think?” she said.

“I am going to be executed,” I told her.

“No! No!” she exclaimed. “Your brother says you should not speak a word.”

That was a piece of news. Maybe la vieja thought Adolfito was trying to help. I didn’t think so. I was pretty sure I was going to die, and pretty sure he knew it. But then he got concerned that I would make a scene in front of the judge and give him a bad name.

When my turn came to testify I stood before the tribunal. The president had been one of my fellow conspirators against Batista; friendship had existed between us. When he asked the ritual question of how I wanted to declare, I said: “I abstain.”

That day I was the only defendant to abstain. “You may return to your seat,” the president said. Within the constraints of his office, I felt he was treating me decently.

As soon as the testimonies had ended, the prosecutor made his argument. He demanded the death sentence for six of the accused. Wives, relatives and friends of those men began to wail. The president repeatedly slammed his gavel, ordering silence. The commotion went on for several minutes.

Surprisingly the prosecutor did not ask the death penalty for me but rather a 30-year prison term. Geddes, the British defendant, got the same sentence.

But for the stool-pigeon Cuéllar the prosecutor demanded death.

With all the sentences announced, the president asked if any of the accused had anything to add to their statements. Cuéllar stepped forward. He was arrogant and mean as usual but his voice now had a very wide tremolo, full of fear. He said the prosecutor should not have asked the death penalty for him since his was a special case.

The president bluntly replied that the prosecutor knew what he was doing.

Cuéllar, it seemed, was one of the few not to realize that the proceeding had been a mock trial – a mise-en-scène with everything scripted in advance. Accusation, verdict and sentencing had all come from the same place.

The very thing against which we had rebelled – a sovereign state in which only one opinion counts – was the thing that now held us in its grip. If the state wanted us to go to prison, we were going to prison. If the state wanted us to die, we were going to die.

From the courtroom, soldiers and militia escorted us to the yard inside the fortress. All the while, the revolutionary mob hurled insults at us.

Most disturbing of all were the crowds of small children, mimicking the cries of the adults and carrying toy submachine-guns. They were beginners in the Academy of Hatred.

We were halted in the middle of the courtyard and six names were called – those of the men condemned to die.

It was a very hard moment for all of us. The six climbed onto the bed of an army truck; they were being driven off to the cells where they would await execution. As the truck pulled away, one of the condemned men – Juan Rojas Castellanos, a former Rebel Army captain who had become my friend in prison – yelled, “Rivero.”

It was a one-word goodbye. I raised my arm in response.

On its way to the execution grounds, the truck stopped near a bridge where spectators from the public had gathered to watch the shootings. In that group were two young women. One of them said she wanted to leave but her friend told her: “Stay, stupid! It’s going to start any minute.”

That exchange was audible to the men in the truck. One of the men cried out: “Don’t go away, miss! We’ll give you a good show!”

The young women lowered their heads.

One of the condemned men, Rafael García Rubio, had his sentence commuted at the last instant to 30 years. It was he who told us the story.

I got back to Galera 16 at about 10:30 p.m. In spite of silence having been ordered as usual at 9 p.m., many inmates were still awake. I had been the only one in the galera who had gone to trial that day. The others had stayed up to wait for my return.

Though knowing I was not religious, they had recited the rosary for me. When I came in, some of the men simply asked: “Would you like a hot chocolate?” It was quickly prepared.

Most of the prisoners in Galera 16 had been military men in Batista’s army or persons of high rank in his regime – esbirros, as they were scornfully called. For seven years I had risked my life trying to overthrow a government that those men served and defended.

When I was transferred to Galera 16 I made a point of trying to befriend them. What was past was past. Now we had before us an even more terrible enemy.

The men had responded to my overtures. Even those who didn’t become my friends were gracious with me. On the night of my trial many of them had prayed for my life; and I was moved by their concern.

After the executions had ended, many of us stayed awake in silence. Unavoidably perhaps, I looked back over my life and at the choices I had made: to fight against Batista’s regime and then to oppose the revolution when Castro turned it into an instrument of his personal power.

Even if my efforts on behalf of the revolution had misled me, I felt my choices added up to a coherent path, an intelligent life. And I was sure about the allies I had chosen in the latest phase of the struggle. To my mind it was inconceivable that the Americans would abandon or betray us.

The complete book is being published by Pureplay Press. The book, including all material therein, is copyright © 2020 by David Landau.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from now through early October, the Impunity Observer will publish excerpts from Landau’s book. All in all, more than one-third of Brothers will be presented. Stay tuned.

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David Landau

David Landau

David Landau, the Impunity Observer's contributing editor, is the author of Brothers from Time to Time, a history of the Cuban revolution.

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