Terror Under the Neon Lights

Terror Under the Neon Lights

The brutality of Fugencio Batista’s Cuban dictatorship, two years before Fidel Castro came to power,


Terror in the night, bombed homes and cafes, murders by army and police, flames in the cane-fields and wrecked trains, jails full of tortured prisoners, concentration camps, secret invasions on lonely beaches and insurgents in the hills — such is Cuba’s rhumba of violence. Such is the Hungary on our doorsteps.

But the blood-drenched Cuba of Dictator Fulgencio Batista, onetime army sergeant, is not merely a Pandora’s box of evil and tears, it is also a paradox of prosperity and gaiety. Never was business better, never were the night clubs and B-girl bars so crowded. Nor the flat-tire politicians so inflated with hope — “barking for their bone” as they express it in Cuba — with talk of possible elections next June. 

Against the lurid background of death and fear, a joint Congressional Electoral Commission has been discussing an election law acceptable to the opposition parties. Old names. Old faces. Here are representatives of Carlos Prio, whom President Batista overthrew by armed force in March, 1952; of former President Grau San Martin, a wily man, once a popular leader, and still with aspirations to return to power; that old orthodox warhorse of earlier paper-battles, Màrquez Sterling; men of a half-dozen factions — all seated with the leaders of Batista’s coalition parties, his Senators and cabinet ministers. Under the tarnished cupola of Dictator Machado’s Capitolio, built with Chase Bank funds in another era of misery and military abuse, the solons have been haggling like market-women, not over the welfare of Cuba, but for puerile legalisms and petty factional advantages in elections that in this swirl of violence may never be held, or if held, likely will be decided by the bayonets now pinning Cuban freedom to earth.

All morning I listened to that turgid oratory, phrased in the language of forgotten conflicts, worn out tinsel that decorated the Christmas trees of better years long ago. These puffing, pulling men had put on blinders against the air-lift to the Sierra Maestra; they had plugged their ears against the bombs down the street. Shadow boxing. The Cuban people were not here. Young Cuba was not here. Everybody in Cuba except the politicians knew it.

In the last ten years, a new voting population, nearly half that of Cuba, has come into being without ever having had a chance to vote in an honest election. Few have turned to the old parties and leaders. What they want, what they will do, no one knows or tries to find out. That some, shut off all these years from political and intellectual expression, have turned terrorists — that is sore- thumb plain. That some have gone to the Sierra Maestra to fight — that, too, is known.

In the end, Grau pulled the rug from under the Joint Electoral Commission, refusing longer to play Batista’s cat-mouse game, by withdrawing his Autenticos, the major opposition party, and the “retired politician,” the “fox of Mannao,” became the central figure of the non-violent opposition. A most disturbing one.  “Restore the rights and freedom of the people and there will be no problem.” Simple enough. Too simple. How simple is shown by Cuba’s latest police assassination last night.

(June 14). The head of Grau’s Autentico Party in Santiago was shot in the back by two Secret Service agents (so described by his wife). And two respectable leaders of opposition parties were framed by the secret police as leaders of terrorist bands.

Before the commission adjourned, a few voices rang out clearly, so clearly that the Minister of Gobernacion, Santiago Rey, slapped one speaker in the face, and pistols were drawn. But then, it was bad taste for the Senator to call the Minister a plunderer of public funds.

“There must be amnesty for political prisoners…How can we have an election when people are in concentration camps?…Why have not obnoxious cabinet ministers been removed as promised?…How can we have a free election when soldiers are breaking into private homes?…When our universities are c1osed?…When there is no free assemblage?…What about the police attack on Radio Mambi?…The newspapers that are still suppressed?”

In the grimy ancient Audiencia on Theodore Roosevelt Street in a special Urgency Court, in the tar-smell of these sweltering June days, special judges in black silk capes are trying presumed terrorists, mostly boys, and meting out ten-year sentences. Or they judge labor leaders and workers who have been trying to prevent their unions from being taken over by Batista stooges, or who have gathered in private homes to discuss union affairs, or who have handed out circulars. These are crimes in Batista’s Cuba.

The kangaroo-court judges are safe within blocked-off streets where, behind the barricades, swarm National police, secret police, soldiers, marines, armored cars, jeeps, machine-guns. From the hot courtroom, I look out the barred windows at the noble royal palms and the high gray walls across the harbor of Cabana fortress, built long ago by the Spaniards who did no worse things to Cuba than are being done today.

“Twenty years,” demands the prosecutor for seven railroad workers, accused on no other evidence than that of an army officer, of making explosives in railroad shops. They are men who opposed the destitution of their elected officers.  “Twenty years for an innocent man! That’s a crime!” shouts one prisoner.  “Remove him from the courtroom,” orders the judge.

In the Palace, where last March Batista had to hide under a bed during an armed attack by “the Youth Brigade,” the President now breathes fire and brimstone at the “criminals” on the streets and in the Sierras — and why does Cuba have so many “criminals” these days? He shouts that there will be no armistice for political prisoners. No olive branch to the enemy. He denies that there is censorship of the radio. (It is merely forbidden to mention current Cuban events and, a few days later, the police shut down Radio Reloj for twenty-four hours for having mentioned a battle in the Sierra.) False, said the government. Yet this week’s Bokemia gives versions by eyewitnesses.

Only recently Batista told the world that the insurrectionists had been wiped out and Fidel Castro killed. But if Batista’s soldiers could not find him, the newspapers did. Presently other invaders came ashore near the American nickel mines on the North coast, and Castro’s guerrilleros swept down and captured Uvero and its barracks, only thirty miles from Santiago, and its thatched shacks made more news than Rome or Moscow.

Generals and colonels, called back from the front, rushed in and out of the Palace and Camp Colombia. The scorched-earth policy was announced. Crack Cuban outfits, American-trained and equipped with American arms given for hemisphere defense, were airlifted in Americangift planes to Santiago.

“If the French can use arms given them by the Americans to kill Algerians, if the British can use them to kill Cretans, then Cuba certainly has a right to use them to maintain order,” said one official cynically.

But before the soldiers set out bravely to catch the devils in the hills, they gun-butted and murdered Santiago citizens. One of the Army’s most brutal officers, Colonel José Maria Salas Canizares, took over the local police situation. Thirty-seven women marching out of the cathedral in prayer, carrying placards calling for peace, were dragged off to jail. Even bank inspectors sent by the National Bank on their regular inspection business were arrested and sent out of the city as suspicious characters. Houses were broken into and searched. Seven persons disappeared, one a lawyer who had dared defend a captured insurrecto. In the morning, the bodies of four young men, arrested by the secret police, were found, horribly mutilated, on the beach and among the weeds.

Next the soldiers herded the people down from their homes in the hills — men and women, the aged and children, pregnant women — to Santiago, Bayamo, Las Minas de Bueyecito and other peripheral centers. Six thousand, the forerunners of 24,000 to come. In some places, they outnumbered the existing inhabitants and there was no place to quarter them except in the open fields in the rain. They left their animals behind to starve, their corn and coffee crops to be lost, their mortgages unpaid. Some had already gone through the reckless indiscriminate bombing of the Sierra that had hit peaceful settlements but not the rebels. These innocent victims arrived soaked to the skin, their bloody feet smeared with mud, without food or possessions. Townspeople trying to help them with food and clothing were maltreated by the soldiery or arrested.

In Santiago I picked up a few of their stories: the woman who had borne a child en route alone in the rain. The widow with nine children — two months to fifteen years — obliged to sleep in the rain without food. One woman with a large brood said, “All we were able to bring with us was one chicken. I’ve sold that for a peso. Now we have nothing.” A rancher said, “I had to let my horses and cattle go.”

An ancient grandmother, barefoot, a white towel about her head, carrying her little dog in her arms, said, “I came from Los Lirios — there — far off, very far. Days I walked, my clothes are torn, my shoes gave out. For the first time in my life I have to sleep on the ground, even here. And my father fought for Cuba’s independence.”

“Bloody Weyler all over again!” The concentration camps and scorched-earth policy of 1898, more than anything else, aroused the American conscience in days before this nation had become so rich and powerful.

Now the consciences of nearly all Cuba have been aroused. From Santiago came protest after protest against the maltreatment of citizens, violations of homes, the torture and murder of the four boys, the brutality of the march of death. “Batista, stop this inhuman spectacle of families dislodged from their homes, stop the indiscriminate bombings, in the name of God, in the name of your own family, in the name of our civilization.” The protests were signed by every officer of every civic organization — bravery unparalleled for years under the dictatorship. Rotarians, Lions, Catholic Action, teachers’ federations, lyceums, the yacht club, sport clubs, the tennis club, fishing clubs, business clubs, ministers’ associations, Knights of Columbus, the bar association, engineers, architects, the League of Newspaper Men, the League Against Cancer, the Geographical and Historical Society.

The same protests came out of Bayamo, though civic groups there were not allowed to meet. A Rotarian in Bayamo does not have to face the facetious gibes of a Mencken, he has to face a machine-gun. “We want no more terrorism. We want no more mysterious assassinations. We want no more files of hungry homeless people through our streets.”

In Havana similar civic groups — though some were not permitted to meet, or their gatherings were broken up by the police and arrests made — backed up the protests. Of sixty-seven organizations, only two backed out, but even of these, individual members stepped forward and put their names down. Nearly every name on these lists has been interviewed by the secret police.

Protests rolled in from almost every community on the island. A third force had been born, a force of civic order and decency and peace in a country thought to be too corrupt and beaten down and frightened by the dictatorship, at a time when the official terror was never worse. It was a force that even a dictator with guns could not ignore — an avalanche.

One of the sad aspects of this nationwide protest was the absence, except in a few places, of protests by labor unions, which in other days would certainly have raised their voices. But they are complete captives of the dictatorship, the last vestiges of union independence having been wiped out except for a few federations centering in Havana.

Above all, what most dazed Batista was the scandal over his concentration camps. Since when had the well-to-do and prosperous of Cuba concerned themselves with the fate of mere peasants from the hills? Though he set the police and soldiery on the protesting signers, he rushed two cabinet ministers to the scene with orders to provide the refugees with proper housing, food, clothing and medicine. Army cots were flown in.

But already the epidemics had begun, especially enteritis among smaller children. Sickness threatened every community. Not until then did the worried army officers lower the barriers to permit the good women of the towns to come into the stinking camps and help nurse and ladle out stew from the big “charity kettles.” There were no utensils for eating it. As sickness and death spread, the tragedy threatened to build into a scandal that would ring down through the years and brand the dictator with an infamy he could never escape.

And so, the Army was ordered to send them back to their homes at once. Within twenty-four hours they were on the march again, young and old, the pregnant and the sick. The dictator promised he would build them all homes with concrete floors, at least sanitary privies, and the schools they have never had. Maybe, just maybe, some day they will get some compensation for their ordeals.

Brushing reporters aside — they were asking many embarrassing questions — Batista turned to greet a large delegation of smiling businessmen from Jacksonville, Florida, looking for business opportunities. Fine, well-meaning, beaming emissaries, combining business with the pleasures of the Sans Souci and Tropicana navel dancers. But for Cubans who had known the terror of a city without light, the terror of police in their homes, the terror of the death march, these good folk seemed a bit like crows over a field of carrion.

But business really is good here. Nearly a billion dollars have come in from the United States during the five years of Batista’s rule, and he has run the public debt up to the tune of $700,000,000. There is much new industry to take up the slack of seasonal sugar-cane unemployment: textiles, shoes, glass, drugs, chemicals, wire, rubber, electrical goods, auto assembly plants, cement, added copper and nickel mining, oil refineries, fiber and sugar-cane-waste processing. Cuba, which a few years ago had to import nearly all its textiles, now exports rayon to twelve countries.

It is a real prosperity. True, wages in the cane fields are still a disgrace to a civilized people, but they are better than they ever have been and Havana workers make around sixty dollars a month; in public-utility enterprises, $300. Cost of living is about the same as in the United States.

Of course, the generals get the cream of everything. Favored congressmen (they are mostly a nuisance in a dictatorship) no longer receive their $5,000 graft from the national lottery. The cut is taken entirely by the army officers, and some even have concessions to run their own private lotteries. The First Lady, it is said, receives a monthly check of $70,000, no strings attached, for charity, Eva Peron style.

The tourist hotels rise higher and more air-cooled, and the night clubs, with hostesses that yesterday were street-walkers, provide a neon blaze three or four to the block in every street around the central plaza, off the Malecon sea-boulevard, in the fashionable Vedado; and the touts offering young girls, “exhibitions” and pornographic movies have multiplied like cockroaches.

There are fine gambling casinos, too, and the Las Vegas gamblers, already on the scene, have made a deal, it is said, with the dictator to bring all their paraphernalia from Las Vegas to Havana, where the tax-take will be far less. At the moment Herminia Portell-Vila, former cabinet minister and head of the Cuban-North-American Cultural Institute, faces a court for having attacked the Alcalde del Poza y del Puerto (Mayor of the Well and the Port) in an article describing “Illegal But Tolerated” gambling. It should be noted, however, that the mayor, at the cost of three millions, has also built a magnificent new hospital, dedicated this June 15.

With so much business prosperity, so much money to spend on public works, with so much expansive lid-off gaiety, it would seem that even a dictatorship, had it so much as three fingers of skill between eyes and hair-line, need not have brought things to such a dreadful impasse as prevails in Cuba at this hour.

Could it be that Cubans cherish political liberties as well as full stomachs? Machado went down in a year of economic misery and despair when wages in the cane fields had dropped to ten cents a day. This is something new, a revolution at the very peak of prosperity. But all the universities are closed, human liberty and dignity mean nothing, all intellectual life is stultified by censorship and military coercion.

The Cubans have never reconciled themselves to this government implanted by military force. It is in this atmosphere of darkened universities, intellectual sluggishness, cultural decline, super-business, super-vice and military graft, shameless blaring nightclubs, gambling and police brutality, that the youth of Cuba from twelve to thirty years of age have embarked upon a life of terrorism, of bombings and arson.

It is a sad thing for a country when its young feel they have to become terrorists instead of scientists and engineers, poets and lawyers. But will youths who have become so callous that they bomb schools and homes and businesses demonstrate any great consideration for those who differ with them should they ever gain power? Terrorism is merely the other ugly face of dictatorship, not a creative force, and it is shaking Cuban society to pieces.

“Not even during the colonial period,” declares the editor of Bohemia, Cuba’s leading weekly, “has Cuba passed through darker days.”

Who and why are the terrorists? What are their aims? Who and why Fidel Castro? What chance of success has the insurrection? What part is the Church playing? What is the role of labor? What chance is there for a peaceful solution that will bring some justice to the Cuban people? Are there healthy, intelligent forces which can take hold of the situation in the face of a brutalized army honeycombed with graft and privilege? Or will Cuba sink into blind disorder? There are no sure answers, but to some extent the forces and possibilities now existing can be measured.

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