Flying the Coop – Part II of IV

Photo: Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos in 1959.
Of course, most individuals with a cursory knowledge of Cuban history are well acquainted with the tale of Huber Matos – his days as a comandante, his eventual disillusionment with the revolution and his subsequent arrest and imprisonment. The details of the escape of Matos’ adjutants some 47 years ago however, are much more murky and less known. Thus, I offer Bablusians a bit of insight into a jailbreak that “played out more like a cloak and dagger paperback thriller than true-life intrigue,” according to journalist, Gabriel Diaz-Torres. Upon chatting with him this past weekend, I though it might be interesting to dust off one of his older pieces. That said, I’ll be offering it in four parts, every morning for the next three days. With that, I offer you: “Flying the Coop” (Part II of IV). Note that some names and/or locations have been changed in a bid to safeguard the anonymity of certain individuals.
Flying the Coop – Part II of IV
When Camilo Cienfuegos eventually arrived in October of 1959, the two men retired to Matos’ private residence for a long discussion over steaming cups of Cuban coffee. Cienfuegos, whose close relationship with Matos had been born in the Sierra Maestra mountains during the fight to depose Batista, spoke with trepidation, confirming Matos’ fears of arrest. “You realize they sent you here to die, right?,” Matos asked his young comrade. Throughout the revolution, Castro had proven himself a brilliant tactician and propagandist with a foresight that bordered on paranoia. When the New York Times sent veteran journalist Herbert Matthews into the Cuban jungle to interview the young revolutionary, Castro ordered his small band of fighters to walk past the two men, issuing fictitious orders between one another and double-back, minutes later to give the illusion of a far larger force than was actually present in the Sierras. Castro realized the loyalty Matos had won from his men could mean an armed confrontation when the young Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos arrived to arrest their commander. Today, some theorize that Cienfuegos, a popular icon of the revolution in its early years, had become too beloved by the Cuban people for Castro’s taste. As such, he created a situation that could both eliminate the perceived threat to his hold over the country’s loyalty while setting up Matos to become a traitor as he’d been accused. No such revolt would occur however, owing to Matos’ strict orders and his soldiers’ allegiance. That very same day, Matos and several of his leading adjutants, including Napoleon Bequer, Raul Barandela and Dionisio Suarez, began the trip back to Havana under heavy guard. Bequer, incidentally, was included in the roundup after having rebuffed Castro’s overtures to replace Matos in Camaguey.
Today, a wrinkled man of 87, Matos describes his subsequent trial as a “kangaroo court” where witnesses were prevented from testifying and Matos’ own defense statements were cut short by the five-man military tribunal hand-picked by Castro. After only four days, Matos and his men were convicted and sentenced to varying prison terms, with Matos receiving twenty years. “With that, we were transferred to El Morro,” the old Spanish fortress that has guarded the entrance to Havana harbor for centuries.
Shortly thereafter, the life off Eugenio Villalobos and the legend of Huber Matos would become intertwined as a result of a somewhat failed rescue attempt that wouldn’t come to Matos’ attention until after his 1979 release.
Photo: “It wasn’t vengeance that motivated me.” -Juan Eugenio Villalobos
In June of 1960, on a trip to Miami, Villalobos met with an old friend, Henry Fernandez Silva. Before his exile, Silva had been the president of a leading insurance company that had enjoyed close business ties with the Villalobos Shipyards. During a discussion one evening, he approached Villalobos with a plan to spring Matos from prison. A small group of prominent exiles, led by Silva, had made contact with four prison guards at Morro Castle who would assist in ferrying Matos and his adjutants from their cells, down to a rocky area below the fortress under cover of darkness. Disenchanted with the direction of the revolutionary government, they had agreed to the plan as long as they were permitted to come along for the ride. Once entrenched in the craggy shoreline, the group of men would use a high-powered flashlight to alert a small Coast Guard cutter stationed just outside Cuban waters. If all went well, a small recovery raft would be dispatched to transport the men back to the cutter and spirit them off to the safety of south Florida, after which, they would presumably be used in the impending Bay of Pigs invasion. As one of the chief commanders during the revolution, Matos’ knowledge of Castro’s tactics and fighting methods would be invaluable to the group of U.S.-trained exiles who intended to liberate the island. Solutions for every conceivable mishap were worked out before hand, one of them being the decision to flee the prison complex along with several stolen army uniforms. In the end, the theft of the uniforms would serve as the group’s salvation. Villalobos’ role would be the enlistment of volunteers from a U.S. Coast Guard facility located off the MacArthur Causeway in Miami. In addition, he would function as one of the point-men in Havana if anything were to go wrong.
Silva’s plan was somewhat flawed from the beginning, however. Although Matos had originally been interned at Morro Castle, he had been transferred to a prison complex on Cuba’s Isle of Pines, months earlier. The operation would go on as planned, however, since Matos’ direct subordinates were still serving their sentences at the old Spanish fort back in Havana.
Part III of IV will appear tomorrow, August 2nd.