Politics & Policy

Ernesto de la Fé and the Trial of Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro in 1959 (Keystone/Getty)
From Day One, Castro’s Cuba was a prison state that ruthlessly persecuted its critics.

Editor’s Note: In the June 6, 1959, issue of National Review, John Leonard profiled the early Castro government’s arrest of Ernesto de la Fé, a Cuban journalist and one-time minister of information under the Batista regime. (He later resigned in protest against that government’s corruption and cruelty.) De la Fé’s principled anti-Communist views led to his being arrested by the revolutionary government under direct orders from Che Guevara. Castro denounced him as the “Goebbels of Cuba,” an ironic remark given that de la Fé had once provided a young Fidel refuge as he was fleeing assassination attempts. He remained a political prisoner in Cuba until 1981, and after his release traveled throughout the United States to speak about the evils of Communism.

While the Castro government would not officially become Communist for several years, de la Fé’s arrest and Leonard’s profile clearly show that the leftist totalitarian barbarism that would become a hallmark of the regime was in place from the outset.

I went to Havana with the specific intention of interviewing Ernesto de le Fé, premier inmate of Fidel Castro’s La Cabaña prison; and the general intention of learning something of the anti-Communist cause in Cuba. I went with the verbal assurance of the Cuban Embassy in Washington that there would be no difficulty in obtaining an interview with de la Fé, that there was “complete freedom of the press in Cuba,” and that the provisional government was anxious to cooperate with me, and had nothing to hide.

I did not see de la Fé, assurances notwithstanding. I was shunted from office to office, entwined in red tape of application forms and letters of explanation, accused of representing a “reactionary, anti-Castro magazine,” and asked to remain in my hotel room. I did have ample opportunity to talk with a number of Cuban journalists, businessmen, lawyers, members of the government, university students, and ordinary citizens. Most of them were eager to talk to me, although most of them requested that their names be withheld. It is from their testimony that this story has been pieced together, and it will be their goodwill and concern that rescues Cuba — if it can be rescued — from the tide of Communist infiltration.

I. THE MAN

On a winter night in 1948 the embryonic revolutionary, Fidel Castro, fled through the streets of Havana from gangsters on the payroll of a local racketeer named Rolando Masferrer. In desperation Castro sought and received refuge in the home of a Cuban journalist in Nicanor del Campo Marianao. The next evening that same journalist was shot at while bringing Castro’s sister to see him in hiding. Does the new Prime Minister remember the journalist who risked his life to help him eleven years ago? His name was Ernesto de la Fé.

Ernesto de la Fé is a short, dark, balding man in his late forties; one of five brothers; married, with two children; a journalist acknowledged throughout Latin America to be honest and compassionate; and incorruptibly anti-Communist.

This week Ernesto de la Fé enters his sixth month in Havana’s La Cabaña prison — a dilapidated fortress at the ocean end of the sea-wall, recently converted by Fidel Castro’s provisional government into a political prison which holds 1,000 unarraigned, untried prisoners incommunicado, most of whom sleep by necessity at night on the prison floor. De la Fé has not been formally accused of any crime. He has not seen his lawyer, his wife, his brothers, or any of his friends since his arrest on January 4, 1959, three days after Batista fled into exile. He does not know that his wife gave birth to a daughter two months ago. Letters and telegrams to him at La Cabana are either diverted or destroyed.

Political Mistakes

Ernesto de la Fé is singularly important in La Cabaña because of the esteem in which his colleagues hold him, all over Latin America, because of the rancor of his enemies, and because of the circumstances surrounding his arrest and imprisonment. Fidel Castro’s press secretary has charac­terized him as “a Fascist, a traitor, and a skunk”; Castro himself has called him the “Goebbels of Cuba.” And then he has been saluted by Mexico City’s El Universal as a “courageous journalist persecuted for the truth of what he says.” His plight has elicited hundreds of protests from newspapermen all over the hemisphere. Last week in Havana most Cuban journalists were predicting he would be shot.

Ernesto de la Fé has made political mistakes. He welcomed Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état of March 10, 1952. Along with others, including members of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, he believed that Batista would improve upon the impotent, corrupt, and disintegrating regime of Carlos Prío. Shortly after Batista’s bloodless revolution, de la Fé was appointed Minister of Information.

He served in the Batista cabinet for two years, identified primarily for the creation of El Movimiento de Integración Democrática Americana, an agency designed to combat Communist infiltration in the govemment; and his support of a new law protecting the interests of Cuban journalists. The law is still on the statute books — even though Castro’s government rules by decree. These two acts comprise the substance of de la Fé’s official political career. He was never charged with an act of terrorism, of brutality, or corruption.

In September 1954, de la Fé resigned from the Batista cabinet with a violent denunciation of government corruption and cruelty. He charged Batista with a plan for election-rigging the following November, with vote-buying, illegal tax rebates, and broken promises to the Cuban people. In an article published in Bohemia magazine, a nationally-distributed monthly, he lambasted Batista for a secret deal with Cuba’s Communists, a mutual “non-aggression” agreement which permitted known Communist leaders to operate within the law — so long as they did not obstruct the Batista government.

#page#For two years Ernesto de la Fé campaigned in the public press for government reform. His exposés of Batista atrocities and his reports on Communist infiltration of the Sierra Maestra revolutionary army provided the best and most exciting journalism of an otherwise arid period in Cuban newspaper history. In January 1956, he wrote and published an article accusing Batista of a plot to murder his political opponents, among them Carlos Prío (busy supplying arms and advice to Castro), Dr. Pelayo Cuervo Navarro, and Dr. Rafael Garcia Bárcenas. Two days after publication of the article, Pelayo Cuervo was found mysteriously dead. Carloads of armed men circled the house of de la Fé’s mother, where he often stayed, and for several days and nights cruised about the neighborhood waiting for him to appear. He went into hiding until administrative wrath subsided.

In the February 15, 1956, issue of Bohemia, de la Fé told the story of those days of hiding, and of the armed men dispatched to intimidate him. That was the end of his journalistic career in Cuba. Batista forbade Bohemia ever to publish him again, and ordered every other Cuban newspaper and magazine to blacklist him. To enforce that order he commissioned Rolando Masferrer, the same Havana heavy of the Anastasia style who had chased Castro in 1948, to make regular rounds of the newspaper offices to drive the point home. From the winter of 1956 until Batista’s defeat by the revolutionary army, Ernesto de la Fé could find no publisher in his native Cuba. His articles continued to appear, however, in other countries, notably in El Universal, the staid but vigorous Mexico City daily.

He did more than write. An active member of Cuba’s National Association of Journalists, he protested bitterly when it nominated Batista as its honorary Member Number One. He devoted his energies to the Confederación Inter-Americana de Defensa del Continente (Inter-American Federation for the Defense of the Continent) — an organization of Latin-American journalists and labor leaders united to fight Communist infiltration and influence in their respective countries. He was elected Secretary-General of the organization in 1957.

He headed the Cuban delegation to the Third Congress Against Soviet Intervention, April 10–14, 1957, in Lima. He served as a symbol “to Latin America of intelligent, effective anti-Communism and incorruptible dedication to truth,” to use the words of Jorge Prieto Laurens, Mexican journalist and Vice President of the Federation for the Defense of the Continent.

This is the background of the man arrested and dragged into prison by a revolutionary movement which proclaims freedom of press and individual, and which triumphed in Cuba largely by convincing the people that it had as its aim the restoration of the dignity and human rights Batista had degraded, dismissed, and abused. Why? Three separate Cuban journalists, all pleading that their names be withheld, told me in Havana last week: “Because de la Fé is an anti-Communist.”

Ernesto de la Fé was arrested prior to Castro’s triumphal entry into Havana. Three men (Captains Fidel Domenech, Moisés Pérez, and Luís Fajardo Escalona — all members of the Cuban Communist party) broke into de la Fé’s office, ransacked his files, and destroyed everything they did not confiscate. They then burned his office, which served as Cuban headquarters for the Federation for the Defense of the Continent and the OIPAC (Inter-American Organization of Anti-Communist Journalists), to the ground, and marched off with their prisoner. They took with them data on Communist activities in Latin America, membership lists of local Communist organizations both overt and covert, and general information reports and financial estimates dealing with the Communist movement.

Che Guevara

Why was the office ransacked and destroyed? The three Communist soldiers acted under direct orders of Ernesto Che Guevara — Comandante in Castro’s army, presently in charge of La Cabaña prison and Revolutionary Director of Personnel, and one of Latin America’s key Communists. Che Guevara controls a third of the Cuban army, commands the loyalty of two Havana daily newspapers, operates a Cuban Cominform and three Marxist schools, and is in charge of military trials and executions. He is the only important figure in Castro’s government conceded to be a Communist by Jules DuBois, Chicago Tribune Latin-American correspondent and author of the recent bestselling whitewash of the revolution. Guevara left his native Argentina to bolster the Communist-dominated Arbenz regime in Guatemala, and was expelled in 1955 after Castillo Armas’s successful revolution. From Guatemala he went to Mexico to handle the public relations of the Institute of Russo-Mexican Culture. He is the principal liaison between the Cuban Communist Party, its agents in the Castro government, and the labor unions, and the Soviet international Comintern. He is a professional revolutionary agent, a veteran of Communist activities in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and a host of other South American nations. It is he who ordered Ernesto de la Fé arrested, who presides over La Cabaña where de la Fé is imprisoned, and who will officiate at de la Fé’s trial.

Spokesmen for the Castro government told me that the predicted charges against de la Fé are two: first (treason) that he had been a minister in Batista’s cabinet — sufficient, they said, to assure his execution; second, that he had plotted to assassinate Prime Minister Castro — after he had been thrown into La Cabaña.

The second charge can be dismissed as ludicrous. A man cut off from the outside world, under tacit sentence of death, unable to see even his own lawyer or wife, let alone interview political assassins, is scarcely in a position to engineer an assassination attempt. As for the first charge: it ignores de la Fé’s public repudiation of Bastista, his courageous campaign against the dictator, and the persecution he suffered as a result of that campaign over a period of two years. Has everyone who was ever a minister under Batista been given such treatment? No. Some ex-ministers were permitted to flee into exile. Some were sentenced to ritual penances, and quietly released. And some, e.g., Raul Lorenzo (former Minister of Commerce) and Miguel Suárez Fernández (former Minister without Portfolio), walk the streets of Havana today as free men. What is it about de la Feé? He is being punished, everyone in Havana seems to agree exclusively for his anti-Communist activities.

#page#II. THE DEFENSE

Ernesto de la Fé’s defense will be conducted by a lawyer who is also a member of Castro’s government, working for the Ministry of the Interior. He accepted the case only because he is a personal friend of the defendant, and will conduct it on strictly professional grounds. The Communist issue will not figure in the trial. He refused to let me use his name, or to discuss the question in the anti-Communist context. He has been informed that he will be permitted to see de la Fé, for the first time, 24 hours before the trial. The date of the trial, often postponed, has been set for this week. Despite Fidel Castro’s edict ordering civil trials for civilian prisoners, de la Fé will receive a military trial under the unsympathetic auspices of Che Guevara.

Neither lawyer nor client has been told what witnesses will be called for the prosecution, nor will there be a confrontation between witnesses and the accused. The reluctance on the part of de la Fé’s friends and fellow journalists to speak out in his behalf is understandable; for those who have done so have been dealt with severely. On January 6, two days after de la Fé’s arrest, Raúl Granja, a Cuban journalist who had worked actively for the revolution, protested to the new government the treatment of his friend. Granja, who had just returned from an American jumket to gather arms and materiel for Castro, was promptly clapped into jail — and kept there for 41 days before his friends la the government succeeded in prying him out. Even then, he lost his job and has not been able to find work since. He is nonetheless willing to talk to anyone in Havana interested in the de la Fé case, and works constantly in behalf of his friend.

The Journalists

Ramiro de la Fé, Ernesto’s brother, is also a journalist, and also out of a job (along with, it should be added, 50 percent of the Cuban labor force). He is the most active and outspoken of Ernesto’s defenders. He was the only man I met in Havana who had the courage to tell me: “Use my name whenever you want, as often as you like. I cannot stand by with my arms folded.” He is, he told me, determined to “fight the Western war, the war against Communism. It is the really important war.”

Also in de la Fé’s camp, with very limited influence, are a great many Cuban journalists, many of them newspapermen whom he helped while serving as Minister of Information. They are ready to tell anyone, off the record, of de la Fé’s victimization. They will not be quoted, and they will not write the story for their own newspapers. “Castro,” said one, “says there is freedom of the press. But he adds that he reserves the right to answer his critics ‘with the people.’ That can mean anything from boycotting to mob violence. That we cannot risk.” The popular humor magazine Zigzag recently lampooned the revolutionary government. That is your right, Castro commented, but it is also the right of the people to let you know how they feel about ridiculing so sacred a thing as their revolution. The people caught on: and imposed a boycott that almost bankrupted the magazine; which promptly made amends. It is now sanguinely satisfied with things as they are.

These newsmen also failed Ernesto de la Fé when he most needed them — when they had the opportunity to reflect, in their actions, some small measure of the courage of their colleague. They voted, instead, to expel him from the National Association of Journalists — the same sycophantic organization that had named Batista its Member Number One. “Perhaps,” wrote Ernesto de la Fé in the last communication he succeeded in passing out of La Cabaña, on learning of their repudiation of him, “they are mistaken in thinking they will please Fidel. Julius Caesar never forgave that eunuch, Potinus . . . for beheading General Pompey . . . The brave do not like cowardly acts.”

Journalists outside Cuba, on the other hand, have been outspoken. Newspapers throughout Latin America have taken up his cause. Telegrams of protest have flooded the offices of the Prime Minister and the provisional government. Enrique Castro Sarias, a Mexican newspaper col­umnist, has issued a “Call to Free Men”: “I send a call to all truly democratic consciences from the Rio Grande to the cold lands of the North to stop this injustice, to raise their voices and ask — nay, demand — the freedom of this courageous anti-Communist fighter.” Jorge Prieto Laurens has written letters to newspapers and interested individuals all over the hemisphere on de la Fé’s behalf. Every communication received by the Cuban government requesting information on de la Fé is answered as in the letter reproduced below from Dr, Juan Orta, Director General of the Premier’s staff, to Mr. Marvin Liebman. The rhetoric is dis­tinctly Communist: Ernesto is a Fascist, a traitor, an informer, and a counter-revolutionary; and anyone who undertakes to defend him is suspect.

#page#III. THE MEANING

Emesto de la Fé is entitled to be the object of the humanitarian impulses of the free world for the simple rea­son that he is a human being who made his mistake, worked mightily to overcome it, squared off bravely to the greatest danger of our time, and now has been ruthlessly victimized. But his fate is something more than personal, and there is little his friends can do about it, much as they would like to withdraw him from the limelight. The trial of Ernesto de la Fé is also the trial of Fidel Castro. The treatment of de la Fé will throw considerable light, more light indeed than any other specific decision, on how fares Castro’s struggle against the Communists for preeminence in Cuban affairs.

That Castro is ringed by Communists is a dogged fact, documented fully by Stuart Novins in his cele­brated CBS telecast, by the special New York Times report, by U.S. News & World Report, by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, even by Cuban newspapermen themselves, however circumspect their language. It is a fact visible to anyone who has an eye for political reality. But it is not yet established, by any means, that Castro, should he will to do it, could not rise above the Communists, cast them out, and survive. It is not established that Castro himself is a Communist, or that he is prepared to subordinate his mystical evangelism to the hard and devious demands of the Communist party line. Two weeks ago Castro’s 26 of July Party delivered a resonant drubbing to the Communists in a number of labor-union elections. In the past ten days, Revolución, Castro’s official revolutionary newspaper, went after Bias Roca and the Communist party, accusing them of making divisive attacks on national unity, of profiteering from a Cuba in distress. Last week Castro decreed that civilian political prisoners will be tried by civil courts instead of military courts-martial, a move that diminishes the authority over the trials of the bloodthirsty Che Guevara. It has been weeks since the last execution in Cuba. In spite of Castro’s lunatic economic measures of the past weeks — e.g., expropriation of sugar plantations at just the moment when his survival depends on the seduction of foreign capital — he shows signs of slowing down, of tempering. He has dismissed the feasibility of Cuban neutrality in a war between East and West. He has discovered that the serious problems of governing a nation are more difficult, more tedious, less theatrical, than the frenzied bloodletting and demagogic blitzkriegs which characterized his government during the first months.

Castro does not view himself as an agent of the Communist revolutionary ideal, and his people do not see him in that light. He is their embodiment; the embodiment of a depressed Cuba of mutilated little streets and starving dogs and fat women leaning from windows, listening to strange music; of pimps and shoeshine boys and taxicab drivers and barroom Bacardi perennials. Throughout the bazaar streets of Havana the banners, blouses, and bric-a-brac of his Revolution are on display. In him the people have vested their romantic hopes — that a man with a machine gun and a knapsack full of ideals can wrest them from poverty and degradation.

So long as Cuba is embodied in a single person, that person is indispensable to the Communists as the instrument of their policy. A showdown will have to come. It will not come over economics — socialist Castro and the Communists move in concert in economic policy. Their politics diverge where other things are concerned, principally foreign policy. It is in foreign policy, in education and religion, that the clash could come; and in the treatment of anti-Communist newspapermen.

Whence the crucial role of Ernesto de la Fé. Fidel Castro cannot succeed in persuading himself that de la Fé has a residual debt to pay for his sometime alliance with Batista: not after so spectacular a record of penitence. It will be clear, no matter how successfully the Communists ring the court with their special bombast, that de la Fé is the first clear test of the degree of Castro’s reliance on the Communists. Let him set the man free, and he has taken a large step forward toward independence of them. Should he free de la Fé, he would also perform a symbolic act not easily lost upon the Latin American consciousness.

— John Leonard was a literary and cultural critic. This article is adapted from one that ran in the June 6, 1959, issue of National Review.

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