Huber Matos Benítez, Cuban revolutionary-turned-political prisoner, died on February 27th, aged 95
Mar 15th 2014 | From the print edition of the Economist
EVERY picture tells a story. The one above tells more than most. It shows Fidel Castro and Huber Matos entering Havana in an open truck, having toppled Fulgencio Batista, on January 8th 1959. Revolution had swept the dictator away; the people were on the streets in one huge, wild, tumultuous demonstration of joy. But Fidel was terrified. Sweat soaked his uniform. He thought he might be shot at any moment. So while he gladhanded the crowd, Mr Matos watched it for assassins, his pale blue eyes alert to anything that moved.
Looking out for Fidel had become a full-time job. Not so often for his life, as for his ideas, and which way they were tending. Mr Matos, a farmer’s son and teacher from poor Oriente, had joined the revolutionary movement to make Cuba free. He remembered vividly how the church bells had rung out across the fields when the dictator Machado fell in 1933. He had longed for democracy that never took root. Twenty-five years later, for liberty or death, he had organised shipments of weapons from Costa Rica to Fidel’s rebels in the Sierra Maestra and then fought there himself. At the age of 40 he had happily endured the night marches, the rain, the hunger, the sand-filled boots and flesh-burrowing parasites, to defend the rights of the Cuban people. But what did Fidel want?
It was hard to tell. At times he was all back-slapping hugs and euphoria, seizing the rifles Mr Matos brought him like a child at Christmas. “Now we’ll win the war!” he shouted, and fired the precious bullets into the air. In his delight, he made Mr Matos comandante of the ninth column and, in January 1959, appointed him military governor of rich Camagüey province. At other times, though, el jefe was foul-mouthed, cold and insulting. He would talk about social democracy, but act like a tyrant. His brother Raúl, more secretive, was worse.
The enemy within
Mr Matos had a habit of speaking his mind. His life had been tough. At the age of eight, he was digging irrigation ditches and hauling up water from the well every morning. Muscles bulged on his arms. There were constant fights with village boys, with fists and stones; his father taught him not to flinch. His strange name, Huber, was borrowed from a Swiss apiarist who had written a definitive study of bees in defiance of encroaching blindness. True to that name, he did not blink or retreat.
So when Fidel upbraided him in letters—for sloppiness in his brigade, or the loss of a machinegun, or some petty thing—he would instantly write back defending himself. Comrade to comrade, he demanded respect. And if he detected Marxism in words or deeds, he would go to the top to protest. Though he thought of himself as a man of the left, nurtured politically, like Fidel, in the progressive-nationalist Orthodox Party, he considered communism poison. He had even insisted, over Fidel’s perplexed objections, on naming his ninth column after a famous anti-communist, Antonio Guiteras.
It was wasted effort. Everyone else in the inner circle—smiling, bohemian Camilo Cienfuegos, charming, asthmatic Che, Fidel himself—waved his worries aside. Communists were not in key positions, said Fidel. You couldn’t call me a real Marxist, said Che. But Mr Matos saw the revolution fast swerving to the left. Marxism was not Fidel’s heartfelt ideology, he agreed. It was a way to hold on to power. That made it no less dangerous. “Don’t bury the revolution,” he warned his leader.
His protests proved costly. In the autumn of 1959 he resigned his posts, telling Fidel that he did not want to obstruct the revolution. He hoped to be allowed to go back to teaching. Instead he was arrested and put on trial before a tribunal picked by Fidel, with a ranting Fidel as chief prosecution witness, and sentenced to 20 years in prison for treason and sedition.
Had he been a traitor? Fidel connected him to the Americans and the CIA, but on no solid evidence. He was accused of selling out to the capitalist, landed interests of the cattle-ranchers of Camagüey, where he had made anti-communist speeches. But he said he knew nothing of subversion. In his letters of dissent and resignation he had still pledged his loyalty to Fidel. He accepted, despite his doubts, that the people of Cuba had placed their trust in this man—who, in 1961, declared that the revolution was communist after all.
Imprisonment, most of it on the Isle of Pines, was often in solitary confinement. He fell ill. Clouds of mosquitoes tormented him. He was tortured and beaten. At the end of the 20 years he was flown out to Costa Rica, to meet the four children whose childhoods he had missed. Some time afterwards he settled in Florida, where he set up foundations to promote democracy in Cuba and independent teaching in the schools. It was a way of carrying on the struggle to which he had committed himself, alone in the forest, on his first night in olive-green uniform in the Sierra Maestra. Half a century later, the real revolution had yet to arrive.
Many hard-right exiles in Miami still distrusted and disliked him. For them, he kept his bad-revolutionary spots as a man who had fought for Fidel. On that triumphant entry into Havana, he had toted an M-3 submachinegun to protect him. In Miami, he routinely packed a pistol into his waistband to look out for himself.