Victims of Fidel’s firing squads

A guest post by Asombra:

Victims of Fidel’s Firing Squads

1959. Antonio Chao Flores. Oil on canvas, 27 x 35 cms
Antonio Chao Flores

Cuban exile writer and artist Juan Abreu , who lives in Spain, was a friend of Reinaldo Arenas and, like Arenas, left Cuba in 1980. He has undertaken a very ambitious memorial project for those executed by Fidel Castro’s firing squads, consisting of a large series of painted portraits based on old photos of those killed (obtained from the limited available sources, which obviously do not include the Castro government). I’ve been following his progress on his blog, and the project has been covered in Miami’s El Nuevo Herald and more recently in the Spanish press. There’s also a YouTube video.
Ramón Toledo Lugo

Abreu, who’s been working on this over a year, wants to rescue these virtually unknown and forgotten victims of the “revolution” from obscurity and, in a sense, from death itself. He wants to make them live again through art and to remain alive long after Fidel’s own death. This is not merely a documentary or history project for Abreu; he sees it as a pictorial narrative, a work of art. The drab old photos, of variable and sometimes very poor quality, have been transformed by energetic brushstrokes and vivid, even wild color. Abreu didn’t want a dirge in grays and blacks; he wanted the dead to be vibrantly alive, to triumph over their tragedy and the evil that snuffed them out in their prime.

The exact number of these executions is uncertain, but over 3500 have been documented by the Cuba Archive project, and the actual number is bound to be significantly higher, possibly around six to seven thousand (the best source of information, the Castro regime, naturally has zero interest in providing such data, which may well have been destroyed). Perhaps many of those executed will not get painted due to lack of suitable photographs to work from, but Abreu has already done nearly 200 portraits, and he knows their stories. One in particular stands out and serves as a telling example of the Castro terror:

Antonio Chao Flores was a teenager with an angelic face, dubbed “the little American” because of his blond hair and green eyes. He joined the fight against Batista, becoming a lieutenant in the rebel army, and given his youth and courage, he was initially used as a kind of poster boy for the victorious revolution. His picture in military garb appeared on the cover of “Bohemia,” a leading Cuban magazine, but he soon realized his ideals had been betrayed. In early 1961, he joined the anti-Castro insurgency, losing a leg in the fighting, and wound up in the notorious La Cabaña prison in Havana. He was sentenced to death at the age of 19, but before taking him to the firing squad, his jailers took away his crutches and made him crawl to the site of execution while they insulted and laughed at him. It is reported that he remained serene and at the end managed to stand up by himself to face his executioners. They fired, three times, ending his brave young life.

I hope that Abreu’s admirable project will have the success it merits. As he has noted, if he were a Chilean doing this for the far more fashionable victims of Pinochet, he’d have media types beating down his door for stories. There are Cubans, however, with the means to promote this work who should do that, so it can have the greatest possible impact. It should certainly be picked up in the Miami area, where it could be featured in any number of venues, ideally one of the local art museums. If nothing else, all those young men deserve what Abreu wants for them, to be brought back from the darkness and oblivion to which the Castro horror cruelly consigned them, thus robbing Cuba of some of her best children. May they all rest in peace, but they should never be forgotten.

10 thoughts on “Victims of Fidel’s firing squads”

  1. When Fidel Castro took power, the existing Cuban constitution (which he had promised to respect and uphold) did not allow capital punishment (which had helped save his guilty ass after the bloody Moncada attack in 1953). Obviously, he ignored the constitution, since his plans required killing a lot of people—not just to punish or eliminate them, but to sow generalized fear, as in “You oppose me, you die.”

  2. The last known official firing squad executions in Cuba took place in 2003. About a dozen young Cubans hijacked a passenger boat to get to Florida but ran out of fuel at sea, and they were caught by Castro authorities. Although no passengers had been harmed, they were imprisoned, and after summary trials, three men (Enrique Copello, Bárbaro Sevilla and Jorge Luis Martínez) received death sentences and were shot a few days later. Five others got life sentences, and the women in the group got between 2 and 5 years in prison. Those condemned to death were all men of color, although the group included white men—Massah Castro is always much harder on rogue slaves when they’re black.

    In an attempt at damage control after foreign “friends of the revolution” publicly criticized the killings, a now-infamous public letter supporting the regime’s actions was quickly issued, signed by many prominent Cuban figures like Alicia Alonso, Eusebio Leal and Silvio Rodríguez, as well some black ones like Omara Portuondo and Chucho Valdés. However, the regime apparently learned its lesson as far as PR was concerned, and since then it has avoided official executions and adopted covert ones, such as those involving opposition figures Laura Pollán and Oswaldo Payá. Same murderous dog, different collar.

  3. One thing I really like about this project is that it exemplifies the concept of doing what CAN be done with the particular means or talents available to the individual. We are all different, and we all have different capabilities and limitations, meaning we can do some things but not others, but we can all do SOMETHING, and that’s the point–to do what IS doable for each of us. Abreu is an artist, so he’s using his artistic talents in a wonderful, creative, striking way because he CAN. He’s shining light and bringing color to darkness; he’s bringing beauty to horrible deaths that never should have happened, and if he can pull this thing off (which he can’t do by himself), it could be fantastic: a kind of resurrection for so many victims who TOTALLY deserve that. I hope and pray it will happen, in the biggest possible way, if only for the sake of the dead and their loved ones, not to mention the sake of justice.

  4. Juan Abreu has posted the following on his “Emanaciones” blog:

    “Whoever has photos of those executed by a Castro firing squad, please send them to me. My goal is to paint them all to construct an immense pictorial installation (retablo) of those assassinated (makes no difference if the photos come from private or public archives, family albums, books or magazines). And I say assassinated because since 1959, so-called justice on the island has been at the service of the dictatorship, so any trial held there must be considered illegal and fraudulent. So far, the photos in my possession make up only a small portion of those killed. I need help, which I hereby solicit.”

    Note: Photos and related information may be sent to

  5. Juan Abreu reports that María Werlau, who heads the Cuba Archive project, sent him the photo Julio Fernández Riquer, executed by the Castro regime in 1959, so that Abreu could paint his portrait. The kicker is that Julio actually died of a heart attack in his prison cell, but since he’d been condemned to be shot, the Castro people dragged his corpse to where the executions were performed, tied the body to a chair, and let the firing squad have at it as if he’d still been alive. Couldn’t possibly let death of more or less natural causes get in the way or “revolutionary justice,” now could they? I’m sure his loved ones appreciated such dedication to form, even if it wound up disfiguring the body for funeral purposes. ASCO.

  6. The latest Juan Abreu portrait of one of the victims of Castro, Inc., a 3-year-old boy drowned in the deliberate sinking of the tugboat “13 de Marzo,” in which his parents were trying to get out of the hellhole Cuba became:

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