A Moderate in the Cuban Revolution
The case of Comandante Huber Matos, sentenced by Fidel Castro's regime to 20 years in prison for "acts of sedition and treason" only nine months after the rebel victory, signaled a breakdown in the revolutionary coalition and the demise of the "moderates" in Cuba's revolutionary government. "That is the moment when the radical allies say 'this is the way we are going and not even those who fought with us can say no,'" asserts Professor Bill Leogrande.
Huber Matos, a schoolteacher and rice grower from the town of Manzanillo, in Cuba's Oriente province, came from modest middle class beginnings. Like Fidel Castro, Matos was a member of a political party, Partido Ortodoxo, that was opposed to the government of Fulgencio Batista. Matos went on to become a member of the 26th of July Movement urban underground, and later joined Castro's rebel army in the Sierra Maestra. In the mountains, he earned the rank of comandante, and in January 1959, rode into Havana next to Castro atop a tank. That same year, on October 19, Matos wrote Castro a letter resigning his command, citing his concern with the growing influence of Communists in Cuba's revolutionary government.
In His Own Words
The story of Matos's political decisions is best told in his own words. When Batista usurped power in a coup d'etat on March 10, 1952, most Cubans initially reacted with indifference. Huber Matos was among the few who took to the streets in the immediate aftermath:
"Batista's coup was an insult... I saw it as a situation that required a response. The next day I joined students and workers in a demonstration -- in an effort to try to prevent Batista from consolidating power."
Moncada and Afterward
On July 26, 1953, Castro's guerrillas stormed a military base at the Moncada barracks. Batista's brutal response catapulted Castro to a role of leadership in the struggle against the government. Matos considered whether to join with the new rebel hero:
"Moncada had just happened. Fidel was already in prison, and I was involved in conspiracies against Batista. Celia Sánchez approached me. 'Listen,' she said, 'we have to strike an alliance with Fidel. He is the man, we have to forget all other conspiracies and join Fidel.' I, along with others in Santiago de Cuba, had some reservations. Fidel had led a daring assault, but he didn't go into Moncada, and he'd managed to save himself... But a lot of the young men who had joined the 26th of July had been my students, so on the one hand was Celia, on the other hand the boys... until the landing of the Granma when I decided to join the 26th of July Movement. From that moment on, I collaborated with the rebels in the Sierra ... sending arms, medicines, and fighters, while maintaining my cover as a teacher and as a businessman. But in April 1957 I was discovered and apprehended. I escaped miraculously, went underground, and then left for Costa Rica with the dream of obtaining weapons for the insurrection."
Arrival in the Sierra Maestra
After ten months in Costa Rica, Matos landed in the Sierra Maestra on March 31, 1958 with a planeload of weapons, obtained with the help of Costa Rican president José Figueres, a man committed to the promotion of democratic government in Latin America. Matos recalled:
"I landed on the Sierra with more than five tons of weapons and munitions. Fidel was jumping with joy -- literally. He fired into the night. Spent I don't know how many bullets firing all those weapons... like a child who wakes up on Christmas Day. 'Now we really won the war,' Fidel rejoiced. 'With these weapons we can finish them.'"
On August 8, 1958, Fidel Castro awarded Huber Matos the rank of comandante. Matos remembered Castro's remarks on that day:
"Once we finish this war, [Castro said], the military commanders cannot occupy political positions. We have to remain the moral guardians of the revolution. Our duty is to ensure that the promises to the people are kept."
"Our primary objective was to reestablish democracy, and I saw that the people, the young people who joined the rebel army, embodied this urge of all Cubans to return to democratic rule. But, at the same time, the revolution began to nurture itself with new ideas. In addition to reestablishing democracy, let's adopt economic and social reforms to benefit the Cuban people -- agrarian reform, urban reform, all within the rule of law."
"I'd noticed Fidel was a rash, very temperamental man with despotic tendencies. At night in my hammock I would ask myself, 'what will happen in the future?' But then I would see the captains, the other comandantes, obey Fidel and admire him so. I would ask myself, 'am I the only one who doubts?'"
On Victory Day in January 1959, Comandante Huber Matos entered Havana a hero, standing next to Fidel Castro:
"For the rebels, it came as a surprise. We didn't think we could defeat Batista's army so easily... we were euphoric, and felt the spiritual satisfaction of someone who has fulfilled his duty selflessly."
Leadership and Suspicions
By January 11, 1959, Matos had been named military governor of the province of Camagüey. The rebel cabinet included: president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó; prime minister, José Miró Cardona; president of the Central Bank, Felize Pazos; minister of construction, Manuel Ray; and other prominent Cubans who were not members of the rebel army. Fidel remained head of the rebel army. But real power resided with Fidel and a new powerful institution, the National Institute of Agrarian Reform, an arm of the rebel army. Within a month, on February 16, 1959, Fidel Castro became prime minister, violating his own mandate that none of the comandantes would assume political posts. In this Cold War era, Communism was extremely controversial, a belief system hated by many in the West. By March, Huber Matos was alarmed to see signs of Communist penetration in the Cuban armed forces:
"In late March and early April I found pro-Marxist propaganda in Verde Olivo, a magazine distributed to the armed forces... one, two, three articles. And we were seeing [Che Guevara circulating with the leadership of the Cuban Communist party, and Raúl [Castro, Fidel's brother] having meetings with them, naming some Communists to his general staff, and I told myself, 'There is a second plan being put in place here.' But every time I brought it up to Fidel, he would say, 'No, no, no, I will not betray my commitment to Cuban history.'"
Doubts and Treason
By July, Castro had accused President Urrutia of "actions bordering treason" and replaced him with Osvaldo Dorticós, an obscure lawyer who was blindly loyal to Fidel. Matos sent a letter of resignation to Castro, expressing his doubts about the course of the revolution. On July 26 -- the anniversary of Moncada -- more than a million people, including thousands of peasants, gathered in Havana to celebrate the proclamation of the Agrarian Reform Law. Matos recalled Castro's comments:
"Fidel received me at the Hilton Hotel. He was very affectionate. 'Your resignation is not acceptable at this point. We still have too much work to do,' he said. 'I admit that Raúl and Che are flirting with Marxism... but you have the situation under control... Forget about resigning... But if in a while you believe the situation is not changing, you have the right to resign.'"
In September 1959, Matos came to a decision. The moderate, democratic government he had hoped for and supported did not appear to be in Cuba's future. He wrote:
"Communist influence in the government has continued to grow. I have to leave power as soon as possible. I have to alert the Cuban people as to what is happening."
On October 19, 1959, Matos sent Castro a second letter of resignation, writing, "I don't want to become an obstacle to the revolution, and believe the honorable and revolutionary option is to step down." He would later say, "I did not want to provoke a conflict. I wanted to separate myself from power and to be left alone. I could foresee not only the coming of a dictatorship but one with Communist leanings. I believed that was obvious, and I couldn't betray my own convictions."
Fidel Castro publicly branded Huber Matos a traitor on October 21, 1959, and sent Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos, one of the Cuba's most popular leaders, to arrest Matos. That same day, Castro's former air force chief, Pedro Díaz Lanz, flew to Havana from Miami, dropping leaflets calling on Castro to eliminate the Communists from his regime. Five days later, at a massive demonstration "in support of the Revolution and against the traitors," Fidel asked for a show of hands in favor of the execution of Díaz Lanz, safely back in Miami, and Huber Matos, being held at La Cabaña. The response was a unanimous Paredón -- "to the wall." Then Castro called a government meeting to discuss Matos's fate. Raúl Castro and Che Guevara favored execution. Three key ministers, Manuel Ray, Faustino Pérez and Felipe Pazos, questioned Castro's version of events and were immediately replaced by men loyal to Castro. It signaled the end of the revolutionary coalition. The reins of power were firmly in Castro's hands. In a surprising turn, he decided not to execute Matos, saying, "I don't want to turn him into a martyr."
Trial and Sentence
On December 11, 1959, Matos' trial began. "The trial lasted five days, if we can call it a trial," he would remember. "It was more like a court martial. Late in the afternoon before the first day I was handed a pile of papers. That was when I first saw that I was being charged with 'Treason and Sedition.'" Within four days, Matos -- the rebel who had stood at Castro's side through the late 1950s -- had been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Most of those years would be served at the Isle of Pines, where Castro spent 22 months between 1953 and 1955. Matos' imprisonment was an ordeal:
"Prison was a long agony from which I emerged alive because of God's will. I had to go on hunger strikes, mount other types of protests. Terrible. On and off, I spent a total of sixteen years in solitary confinement, constantly being told that I was never going to get out alive, that I had been sentenced to die in prison. They were very cruel, to the fullest extent of the word... I was tortured on several occasions, [I] was subjected to all kinds of horrors, all kinds, including the puncturing of my genitals. Once during a hunger strike a prison guard tried to crush my stomach with his boot... Terrible things."
Huber Matos was released from prison, on October 21, 1979 — having served every day of his sentence. He joined his wife and his four children, who had left Cuba in 1963, in exile in Miami, where the family now resides.