Huber Matos: The Real Hero of the Cuban Revolution

Huber Matos fought alongside Fidel and Che, but soon soured on Fidel when he reneged on promised elections.
Huber Matos (right) fought alongside Fidel and Che, but soon soured on Fidel when he reneged on promised elections.

Huber Matos: The Real Hero of the Cuban Revolution

With the death of Fidel Castro on November 25, the chorus of the Latin American left sang in unison, praising the iconic revolutionary leader for his nearly six decades as a global Communist ideologue. Bolivia’s Evo Morales argued that, “Fidel Castro left us a legacy of having fought for the integration of the world’s peoples” while Chile’s Michelle Bachelet lauded Fidel as “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba and Latin America.” Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro solemnly assured the Venezuelan people of his intention “to follow Fidel’s path.”

To the Latin American left, Fidel is a hero of biblical proportions. Hugo Chavez once famously said that his role models were Jesus Christ…and Fidel Castro. Yet, the left is strangely silent when it comes to the horrific legacy of human rights abuses, economic stagnation, and poverty left behind by nearly six decades of rule by the Castro brothers. They see no sense of irony in the fact that Castro who championed a free and independent Cuba in his speeches, was really little more than a puppet state, first propped up by its ideological benefactor the Soviet Union, and then by Venezuela.

I hope that all who care about the truth will remember the real hero of the Cuban Revolution. A man who risked his life to oppose the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, only to find that Fidel Castro had become an even worse strain of dictator. That man was Huber Matos.

Matos is forever immortalized in photographs, entering triumphantly into Havana on January 8th, 1959, at the side of Fidel Castro and fellow commander Camilo Cienfuegos. But his legacy speaks to the dark side of the Cuban Revolution: broken promises and shattered dreams; the exchange of one form of dictatorship for another. The story of Huber Matos is filled with intrigue, betrayal, excitement, and adventure: more than anything, it is the story of the curious and fateful overlap of Cuba, Costa Rica, and Florida, set against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Matos was a schoolteacher in southeastern Cuba who at a young age became involved in the movement against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, and joined the nationalist Ortodoxo Party, with which Fidel Castro was heavily involved. Batista was the democratically elected president of Cuba from 1940 to 1944, after which he left to live in the United States. Upon his return in 1952, he stood for reelection, but took power in a military coup when it became clear that his electoral defeat was certain. As Batista’s rule became increasingly authoritarian, the 26th of July Movement began a campaign of urban and guerrilla warfare, which ultimately culminated with the legendary landing of the 82 Cuban revolutionaries in southeastern Cuba aboard the yacht “Granma”.

Although Huber Matos was not aboard the Granma for the monumental landing, he was nonetheless actively involved in the revolution, both in Costa Rica, where he’d relocated, and in Cuba. The Cuban revolutionaries began with an unmitigated disaster: 70 of the 82 were killed within days. The surviving 12, however, regrouped, and rose from the ashes, gaining support of Cuban peasants and workers along the way. As the Cuban rebels pushed northward and westward through the Sierra Maestra towards Santiago and Habana, Huber Matos would play a pivotal role in their success. During his time in Costa Rica, Matos was actively involved in building support for the cause, even winning the support of Costa Rica president Jose Figueres. On March 31, 1958, he flew a clandestine 5 ton shipment of arms to the rebels, and joined their push for freedom through the mountains. Proving his mettle on the battlefield, he was soon awarded the rank of “comandante” by Fidel, and given his own army division.

He played an important role in the final battle of the Revolution, the attack on Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city. Following the rebel victory, Batista fled for the Dominican Republic, and the rebels rode triumphantly into Habana on January 8th, 1959. Matos was soon named military commander of central Camaguey province, but the relationship between Fidel and Matos soon soured, when it became clear that Cuba had exchanged one form of dictatorship for another.

Huber Matos soon became alarmed by the rampant rise of Communism within the leadership, especially spearheaded by Che Guevara and Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother. Disillusioned, he tendered his resignation as commander. On July 26th, 1959, he and Fidel met at the Hilton Hotel to discuss Matos’s concerns. Fidel is alleged to have admitted that Che and (current Cuban president) Raul were flirting with Communism, but Fidel reassured Matos that the government would be of a democratic and not Communist nature. He also urged Matos to remain in his current position and promised that he would have the opportunity to resign if the situation did not improve. However, Fidel reneged on his promise of democratic elections, and on October 19th, in a sternly worded letter, Matos tendered his resignation for a second time.

Two days later, Fidel sent Camilo Cienfuegos to arrest Huber Matos and his staff. Matos was quickly subjected to a state trial, where he was found guilty of sedition and treason. While more hardline elements, including Che and Raul, were in favor of a death sentence, Fidel ultimately decided upon a twenty year prison sentence, famously declaring that he didn’t want to turn Matos into a martyr. Many have also speculated that, despite their differences, Fidel was hesitant to execute someone who had been so pivotal to the success of the revolution.

Matos served every single day of his sentence, despite longstanding protests from international humans rights groups who deemed him a political prisoner. Sixteen of those years were spent in solitary confinement, and Matos was frequently subjected to brutal torture by prison guards. One such torture session resulted in the partial paralyzation of his left arm.

Matos’s friends and family fled to Costa Rica during his imprisonment. Many wondered if the Cuban regime would release Matos. But, twenty years to the day later, on October 21st, 1979, Matos was released and reunited with his wife and family in Costa Rica. They later relocated to Miami, the epicenter of the Cuban world.

Matos had a complicated relationship with the Cuban exile community. Indeed, many had such an odious view of the Cuban Revolution that they blamed Matos for his original involvement, despite his subsequent courageous stand against Castro’s dictatorship. Yet Matos pressed on, as a prominent critic of the Cuban Communist Party and the Castro brothers. He and his family founded the Huber Matos Foundation for Democracy, with the mission of fostering “democratic rule, human rights, social justice and education in Latin America.”

Many forget that the Cuban Revolution was not originally Communist in nature. Castro even enjoyed a rather benign relationship with the United States, at least in the beginning, and some Americans even joined the revolution. In fact, Che Guevara himself admitted that the general sentiment among his own forces was anti-Communist, according to John Lee Anderson, author of the semi-offical biography Che: A Revolutionary Life. It was not immediately apparent to the international community that the revolution would take a Communist turn. And in fact, a quick look at the life of Fidel Castro reveals that many of his close associates, alarmed at the increasing radicalization and tyrranical nature of the revolution, abandoned the cause and Fidel from the 1960s on.

The problem with Communism in the world in general and Cuba in particular is that it has consistently engendered autocratic, cult-of-personality, larger-than-life figures who, once they get a taste of power, only want more. Such has been the case with Fidel and Raul Castro…Cuba’s dictators for life. Many idealistic young Cubans gave their lives for the revolution, outraged at the corruption and tyranny of Batista. But they were ultimately betrayed: after a brief transitional period of relative political moderation, Cuba quickly transformed into one of the world’s most repressive states, a one party state devoid of economic, social, and political freedom. Democratic elections never happened.

As many have frequently noted, it is rather ironic that Che Guevara, one of the world’s most famous Communists, has become a first-rate capitalist commodity; his image emblazoned on shirts, hats, posters, mugs, and a host of other things. Many young people probably do not realize what they are truly supporting with their Che Guevara t-shirts. Yes, Che was brave, honest, and idealistic. But he was also a vigorous opponent of democracy, freedom of speech and the press, and civil liberties, who brutally executed countless Cuban dissidents, sometimes under flimsy pretenses. In one case, the Cuban government ordered the execution of several members of a Catholic students group. The charge? Handing out pamphlets critical of Communism. For those who doubt the dark side of Che, read John Lee Anderson’s Che: A Revolutionary Life.

It is sad that while the whole world knows the story of Che Guevara, Huber Matos, outside of the Cuban exile community, is a little known figure. Let us not forget the real hero of the Cuban Revolution. A man who risked his life, twice, to defend his beliefs. And as revolutions sweep the world in our modern age of Twitter and Facebook, from Egypt to Thailand, and Ukraine to Venezuela, we must all remember that freedom is not free. It never has been and never will be. Cheers to the martyrs who stand up to the tyrants.

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