January 1, 1959: The Beginning of a Betrayal? (Part 2)



José M. Presol

Part 1 enunciated what I consider to be the four main points of the “Manifesto to the People of Cuba,” but there are many more. Let’s recall these four points and take a look at what actually happened.

1. Restoration of the 1940 constitution.

Technically speaking, it was reinstated on January 1. But a little more one month later, on February 7, the Fundamental Law of 1959 replaced it by decree, as happened years earlier after a coup d’état led by Batista. Parts of the constitution were adopted, though with some fundamental changes. Among them were the dissolution of Congress and concentration of both legislative and executive power in the Council of Ministers. The law was revised and modified on multiple occasions, most notably to allow for appropriation and confiscation of property as well as to legalize the death penalty.

2. Free and democratic elections after a year of provisional government.

As it happened, Fidel could not forget that as a member of the University Student Federation (FEU) he had never been able to secure enough votes for anything. And in the 1952 elections he had to falsify internal documents of the Orthodox Party in order to get his name on the ballot. With these experiences in mind, he began coming up with excuses to postpone the elections. In April 1959 he claimed, “First we must tackle unemployment and illiteracy.” Other setbacks came later. On May 24 the Humanist Workers’ Front defeated the communists for control of the Worker’s Central Union. Afterwards, Fidel was forced to work behind the scenes to remove Pedro Luis Boitel, who was backed by the 26th of July Movement (and who later died in prison during a hunger strike), from the FEU presidency and to replace him with Rolando Cubela (who later was exiled to Spain). By May of 1960 a significant proportion of those who opposed Fidel were dead, in exile or in prison. Only then did he pose the famous question, “Elections. What for?” The same reply we get today.

3. Freedom for all political prisoners.

Slowly but surely the jails began filling up with a new batch of prisoners, many of whom were not Batista supporters. One former prisoner, who had been released, later returned. Strange accidents also began to occur, like the plane crash that killed Camilo Cienfuegos. There were strange suicides, like that of Commander Félix Pena. Others fled into exile, like the commanders Luis Díaz Lanz and Raúl Chibás Ribas. Among those imprisoned, Commander Huber Matos comes to mind, and we certaily cannot forget Mario Chanés de Armas.

Chanés de Armas was a revolutionary through and through. He was born in Havana, where he was a labor union leader. He knew Abel Santamaría and joined a group “organized” by Fidel. He participated in the assault on the Moncada Barracks and was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines (now the Isle of Youth). He was released, along with Fidel, as part of the general amnesty (though his image was airbrushed out of the release photo until 2015). He took part in the Granma expedition and survived the battle at Alegría de Pío. He got to Havana on his own initiative and joined the clandestine groups that made up the 26th of July Movement. He was taken prisoner and on January 1 he was in jail. For a time he held a position of responsibility but resigned in protest because he did not like where the revolution was heading. He was arrested and accused of conspiracy. Is spite of there being no evidence, he was sentenced to thirty years in prison, though he served longer. He was naked or dressed only in underwear for almost his entire captivity because he refused to wear the uniform of a common criminal. (As we know, in Cuba “there are no political prisoners.”) He founded the movement of the plantados,* constantly organizing strikes and protests over prison uniforms and the conditions of their incarceration. Eventually, he was released and allowed to leave the country. For the rest of his life, he continued to denounce Fidel Castro, encourage peaceful opposition and promote Cuban reconciliation. But I was forgetting a small detail: Chanés de Armas was the 20th century’s longest serving political prisoner, serving a longer sentence than even Nelson Mandela.

4. Absolute freedom of the press.

Again, yes, true in theory. The examples below are from print media, but there are similar examples from radio and television. Now, you be the judge.

Because of their ties to the Batista regime, Tiempo en Cuba and Alert y Ataja ceased publication immediately. Mañana and Luz y Pueblo disappeared in 1959 but Alerta, Revolución, Combate, Verde Olivo, Adelante, La Calle and others were born (though most no longer exist). The assumption was that these new publications would be “loyal” but that turned out not to always be the case. La Calle was “refounded” as La Tarde and re-refounded as Juventud RebeldeRevolución and Lunes de Revolución, edited by Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, have since disappeared.

Bohemia, under the directorship of Miguel Ángel Quevedo, supported Fidel, going so far as to concoct a story that 20,000 were killed under the Batista regime. It never provided any proof; it could only come up with a list of 700 names. It also initially boasted of 1,000,000 people being set free on January 1 itself. A year later Quevedo went into exile and committed suicide in 1969 after confessing his remorse.

To gain control over privately owned media, advertising was banned and a system of subscription by raffle was invented. Deprived of funding, publications began to close and their owners to emigrate. Those who resisted were forced to add a “tagline,” which authorized the communist-controlled unions to add commentary attacking articles, photos, jokes and other items that were not to their liking. By 1961 there was no media outlet in Cuba that was not controlled by the state, at which point publications were no longer required to publish a tagline.

One might say the death certificate of the free press was signed on May 11, 1960, the day Diario de la Marina was shut down. Founded in 1844, the newspaper was considered the dean of the Cuban press. Its facilities were attacked and destroyed, and it was symbolically interred in a “celebration” at the University of Havana.

This discussion only addresses the four promises I have highlighted. I urge you to read the manifesto yourselves and draw your own conclusions about the rest.


*Translator’s note: Los plantados, or the planted, were prisoners who were confined to cells so small there was only room to stand upright, like trees.

Comments with Facebook