A Cuban Hero Leaves Us, but His Home Left Him First

By David Landau

EspañolNations almost always outlive their sons and daughters. That’s not the case with E.A. Rivero, who is one of Cuba’s unsung heroes.

A few days ago, at age 87, the former doctor of law, residing in Washington, DC, took an accidental fall and struck his head. But his lonely death on a Washington street was not his real misfortune. His misfortune was to outlive the nation that was first in his heart.

The Cuba that welcomed E.A. Rivero into life in 1928 was a society teeming with promise and discontent. By the early 1930s, when Cuban politics approached a boiling point, E.A.’s father had surmounted his modest origins and was a rising journalist.

Having come along during the family’s years of struggle, E.A. grew up as a direct and domineering personality. His brother Adolfo, seven years younger, entered a prospering family and became a prince.

The brothers’ common trait was an impassioned devotion to the res publica. But their zealous natures brought them into conflict.

Like nearly all young people, E.A. and Adolfo, as well as Fidel Castro, despised Fulgencio Batista and fought against Batista’s illicit regime. E.A., having been Castro’s classmate at Havana University, admired Castro’s abilities, but remained skeptical of the man. As for Adolfo, he entered the university and fell hard for the siren-song of communism.

Castro himself had come up not as a communist but as an opportunist. He would have turned himself into a Buddhist or a Zionist, if either of those doctrines had shown him the way to power. But in Batista’s Cuba, the smart move was toward communism, and Castro made an alliance with the communists.

When Castro’s forces took power in 1959, Adolfo became a loyal cadre of the regime; while E.A. came to feel that Castro’s rule would be a disaster for the country and turned with equal energy against it.

E.A. joined the clandestine forces that were fighting against Castro inside Cuba. In 1960, E.A. walked straight into the CIA with an urgent request for help in opposing Castro’s regime, which was being openly backed by the Soviet Union.

The CIA egged him on, but did not give more than token support. For their part, the Americans preferred to work with anti-Castro Cubans in Florida who would be subservient to them, which the experienced fighters in Cuba would not.

Then came the disaster at the Bay of Pigs. A little-known effect of the fiasco was that it delivered the Cuban underground to Castro’s police. In April 1961, E.A. was arrested in the enormous dragnet carried out by Castro’s security forces.

Dr. E.A. Rivero, at right, with his brother Adolfo in Havana, May 1960. (David Landau)
Dr. E.A. Rivero, at right, with his brother Adolfo in Havana, May 1960. (David Landau)

With E.A. in captivity, the Castro regime put Adolfo to the test. In his offices at the communist youth, Adolfo got a surprise visit from two state security agents. After some preliminary talk about E.A., the senior agent asked Adolfo: “In your opinion, what should we do?”

Adolfo replied without missing a beat. “I believe you should put him before a firing squad. With my brother, there is no deal. There never will be one.”

The statement was so unflinching that, as Adolfo later wrote, even the security officer “couldn’t meet my gaze.”

By a spectacular irony, the recommendation actually saved E.A.’s life. Had Adolfo pleaded for E.A., the Castro people would have executed him in order to discipline their cadre. E.A.’s mother, who came from Florida to attend the trial, was sure her son would get the firing squad. Execution was foreordained — until Adolfo requested it.

Instead of being shot, E.A. received a 30-year prison term. He was 33 years old.

In October 1979, eighteen-and-a-half years after his capture, the Castros released E.A. and sent him into exile. For every day of those 18-plus years, prison authorities had tried to extort information from him. Right up to his last day, they wanted the names of other people with whom he had worked in the underground.

They shut him up in solitary; they brought him close to starvation; they pretended they would shoot him; they put prison “stoolies” in contact with him to get him to talk. All of it failed. At last, Castro’s people released him as a supposed goodwill gesture, with a curt statement that Cuba had “no further use for the prisoner.”

When E.A. left prison, he had an ally in his brother. Adolfo, who in his way was just as truculent and independent, had been purged from the Communist Party and was suffering confinement in the “big prison” — Cuba itself.

E.A. fought for his brother’s release from Cuba. In 1988, when Adolfo received an exit visa and took a plane bound for Paris. E.A. was at Orly airport to meet him.

From then on, until Adolfo’s death in 2011, the brothers lived in the United States — one in Washington, one in Miami — their connection indestructible.

They were modest men; respected by those who had known them in Cuba, but unknown to the broader society that did not care about their experience or knowledge.

Whatever the disappointments of their exile, they were living in a real country, while the people of Cuba were not.

In July 1989, the second man of Cuba, Raúl Castro, gave a notable prescription. As reported by the July 6 issue of Granma, he said: “It is preferable that Cuba sink into the ocean, like Atlantis, before the corrupting forces of capitalism prevail.”

The Castros took power in January 1959. More than 47 years later, Fidel Castro was able to leave office in the manner of an elderly professor going into retirement.

A few years from now, the Republic of Cuba will not even be a memory. The country long ago ceased to be what E.A. Rivero, or any former citizen of the republic, would have recognized as his or her own.

No worries, Doctor Rivero — it’s not on you. You did your part. You did it well. And you’ve won your piece of eternity.

David Landau has been a recognized writer since his early 20’s, when his first book, Kissinger: The Uses of Power, appeared. He lives in San Francisco, where he’s a radio news co-anchor, editor, and publisher. His imprint, Pureplay Press, has published a dozen books about Cuba. Follow @pureplayed.

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