Wednesday, November 16, 2011

1958: Cuba's Last Election Day

Cuba History Timeline Events
November 3, 1958

Carlos Márquez-Sterling heads to polls on Election Day 1958(L to R) Rodolfo Laucirica; Jose Hernandez Cata; Uva Hernandez Cata de Márquez-Sterling; Carlos Márquez-Sterling; Patricio Estevez; Osvaldo Ruiz Aguilera. Nov 3, 1958

On 3 Nov 1958 the most critical elections in Cuban history were held. The three major presidential candidates were: Carlos Márquez-Sterling for the Partido del Pueblo Libre; Ramón Grau San Martín for his faction of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano, Auténtico; and Andrés Rivero Agüero for a coalition of government parties. There was also a minor party candidate on the ballot, Alberto Salas Amaro for the Union Cubana party.

Campaign rallies of Batista's opponents were frequently sabotaged not by the Batista government, but by Castro and the revolutionaries. Under constant death threats by Castro forces the electoralist candidates were unable to visit many parts of the country. Their only practical recourse was effective use of radio, television and the printed word. As Time contemporaneously reported:
Where Batista's mailed gauntlet was absent, Castro's brass knuckles took over. [...]  In the backlands where rebel bands roam more or less at will, candidates were terrorized. They could not make campaign speeches, shake hands, or get before the people in any fashion, except from the safety of heavily guarded TV stations. A few were shot down. In Oriente province, balloting was virtually impossible. In a frenzy of rage, Castro laid ambushes along the major highways. Burnt-out cars and buses studded the roads, and Santiago, capital of Oriente, was virtually cut off. To make his point clear, Castro got on the rebel radio and warned: "The orders to the people for Nov. 3 are: Do not go outside. The people must show their rejection of the elections by remaining at home."

It was generally accepted that if the elections were conducted fairly and the votes counted honestly a Márquez-Sterling victory was assured. Surveys conducted by CMQ and the American Embassy predicted Márquez-Sterling would win by a landslide.

Castro and his rebels all through September and October had threatened to bomb polling places and machine gun the voters waiting in line. Since Castro thugs had already assassinated a number of candidates during the campaign, this threat kept many away from the polls. In the provinces of Pinar del Río, Havana, Matanzas, and Camaguey polling though light went on almost undisturbed. In Las Villas and Oriente, where vast zones were under Castro’s guerillas’ sway hardly any voting took place. First electoral reports indicated that in the provinces where voting was done without any major disturbances Márquez-Sterling had obtained a clear victory over the government candidate Dr. Andres Rivero Agüero, and the other major candidate, oppositionist Ramón Grau San Martín. In Las Villas and Oriente provinces the government took the absence of voters as an opportunity for ballot-stuffing on a large scale.

On election night after the poll closing, the results were announced. Márquez-Sterling had won the provinces of Havana, Camagüey, Matanzas and Pinar del Río. Batista’s candidate was arbitrarily declared the winner in Las Villas and Oriente and the government declared that he had in these two provinces more votes than Márquez-Sterling in the other four and so was the winner. This result was a travesty since in the provinces “won” by Rivero Agüero, Castro’s terrorists kept voters away from polling places. The government simply stuffed the empty ballot boxes with forged ballots, which had been previously printed and marked.

In a memoir published in 2009 Batista’s top military commander, Army Chief of Staff General Francisco Tabernilla, confirmed that military officers orchestrated a massive fraud to ensure that Batista’s candidate was declared the winner of the 1958 elections. In these declarations Tabernilla acknowledged that Márquez-Sterling won:
If the fraud had not been perpetrated, Dr. Carlos Márquez-Sterling would have been the winner. The political picture would have radically changed. Fidel Castro would have had no alternative but to negotiate or lay down arms and pursue political avenues if he aspired to be President.

One of Castro’s first acts after his victory in January 1st, was to order all ballots and electoral documentation from the November election destroyed. In 1959 Castro confided in the Argentinean ambassador at that time that had Batista recognized Márquez-Sterling’s victory, Castro would not have come to power. The US Ambassador arrived at the same conclusion and so declared in testimony before congressional committees.

Related post: 'Anybody but Batista' or The Politics of 'The End Justifies the Means, Cuba: 1957-1958

based on Manuel Márquez-Sterling's Cuba 1952-1959 and
Cuba 1952-1959 Interactive Timeline

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

1958: Castro M-26-7 Airliner Hijacking

Cuba History Timeline Events
November 1, 1958
In the Fall of 1958 Fidel Castro invented a terrorist tactic that would endure. Castro’s sinister advance in terrorism introduced the world to political hijackings of international commercial airliners. Unlike earlier commandeering of commercial aircraft as a means of travel for the desperate, or cash for criminals taking hostages and property to ransom, Castro’s rebels pioneered a new kind of hijacking aimed at obtaining publicity and political gains.

The most notorious of the 1958 hijackings took place on November 1, 1958: Cubana Flight 495 from Miami to Varadero, a Vickers Viscount 755D four-engine turboprop airplane. Minutes before landing, five passengers drew firearms announcing they were Castro rebels and were seizing the aircraft.

Holding the passengers and cabin crew at gunpoint, Castro’s hijackers pulled up the aircraft carpet and opened a hatch to retrieve 26th of July Movement uniforms and military gear stowed in a sub-floor compartment. In full view of the passengers, the rebels stripped to their underwear and donned olive green rebel uniforms complete with M-26-7 black and red armbands. Two of them broke into the cockpit and ordered Captain Ruskin Medrano Portuondo and First Officer José Combarro to take the plane to a small airstrip near the Sierra Cristal. There was a row in the cockpit; when Captain Medrano argued a Viscount could not land at a small airstrip, he was pistol-whipped. There have been conflicting accounts about who flew the airplane after that. Some claimed a hijacker with flight training, Edmundo Ponce de León, seized the controls. However divers who recovered passenger remains reported Capt. Medrano’s body was recovered from the pilot’s seat, indicating he was at the controls at end of the flight.

The rebels were smuggling a shipment of arms, grenades, and military supplies for delivery to Raúl Castro’s headquarters in the Sierra Cristal. The bold rebel plan was ill-conceived. Among the weaknesses of the plan was the landing area chosen. In addition to selecting an airstrip where it was impossible to land a Viscount, there were no nearby airports suitable for a plane of its weight and speed.  Even the largest airport nearby, the paved but short runway at Preston (a United Fruit Company sugar mill) could not accommodate aircraft larger than a DC-3. Under the best of circumstances, a Viscount forced landing at Preston would have been a controlled crash resulting in significant damage and injuries. These circumstances were far from the best: low on fuel, no radio contact, and night operations in darkness (the airfield at Preston had neither radio communications nor runway lighting).

After apparently making a number of aborted landing approaches in the Mayari area, the Viscount attempted to land at Preston. On approach to Preston a hijacker exited the cockpit and taking a seat at the back told the passengers to brace for a crash because they were out of fuel. Instants later the Viscount crashed into the dark waters of Nipe Bay, at about 9:00 PM.

The Director of Preston Hospital, Dr. Octavio Ortiz Padró, rapidly set up emergency facilities for victims of the disaster. But only three survivors were rescued: Osiris Martinez (whose American wife and their three infant children perished in the crash), Omara González and her young cousin Luis Sosa (both traveling with their grandfather, who did not survive). Ten passengers (seven of them Americans) and the entire crew of four perished. 

Though contemporaneous news accounts indicated there had been 17 fatalities, it was subsequently discovered that three of the hijackers never found and presumed dead were actually rescued by Castro’s rebels, two quickly ascending through the ranks. Edmundo Ponce de León was promoted to Lieutenant and two months later was assigned to a police station as second in command. The other, Manuel Fernández Falcon, rose to become Chief of the Counterintelligence Directorate at the Interior Ministry.

Remarkably, in 1994 hijacker Ponce de León sought and was granted admission to the US as a naturalized citizen. In a strange twist of fate, he lived near the two surviving passengers of the Viscount crash until his death in October of 2011.

Cubana Airlines pilot Captain Armando Piedra was thrice touched in three weeks by Castro’s pioneering air terror campaign. The week before the Viscount hijacking he had been the pilot of a Cubana Airlines DC-3 hijacked by Castro’s rebels at gunpoint. An experienced scuba diver, Piedra volunteered to assist search and recovery operations in the shark-infested waters of Nipe Bay where the Cubana Viscount hull finally came to rest. He had the burdensome task of unharnessing and removing the body of his friend and colleague Capt. Medrano from the pilot’s seat. A few days later he would be the pilot in command of yet another Cubana DC-3 hijacked by armed rebels. The hijacked DC-3 passengers and crew were taken hostage and used as bargaining chips to force compliance with Castro’s financial and political demands. One of the hostage passengers was the son of General Eulogio Cantillo, commander of Batista forces fighting rebel strongholds in Oriente. The rebels appropriated the two aircraft which they deployed in support of their insurgency operations.

Cubana Vickers Viscount CU-T603 Flight 495Preston Hospital
Cubana Airlines Vickers Viscount, CU-T603 hijacked as Flight 495 (photo: Peter Upton Collection/Vickers Viscount Network)Preston Hospital, Oriente Province, Cuba  (photo: Ortiz-Del Campo Family collection)

Cubana Vickers Viscount Disaster Medical TeamPreston Hospital Temporary Morgue
Cubana Viscount Disaster Medical Team: [L-R standing] Dr. Harold Murray, Dr. Manuel Salas Vidal, Dr. Pedro Hernandez, and [seated] Dr. Octavio Ortiz Padró (Director, Preston Hospital) interviewed by Gente reporter [R dark suit]. (photo: Gente)Temporary Morgue Preston Hospital, Oriente Province, Cuba  (photo: Ortiz-Del Campo Family collection)

based on Manuel Márquez-Sterling's Cuba 1952-1959 and
Cuba 1952-1959 Interactive Timeline

Sunday, November 13, 2011

1958: Death to candidates and voters

Cuba History Timeline Events
October 10, 1958
On October 10th Castro decreed Revolutionary Law Number 2 from the Sierra Maestra, ordering the boycott of the elections and serving a death sentence or ten years prison term for all who participated in the elections in any way, including voters, campaign workers or candidates. It was not an idle threat. Carlos Márquez-Sterling barely survived an attempt on his life. Others were less fortunate, including Anibal Vega (Free Peoples Party) and Nicolás Rivero Agüero (brother of the Government party Presidential candidate) who were both assassinated. Castro further announced his orders that citizens in line at polling places should be machine gunned to death.

Contemporaneous news reports of these developments included New York Times stories about Revolutionary Law #2 and Castro's war on elections which noted that

It is reported that Señor Castro has issued orders to his insurgents and to groups of youthful militia throughout the island to prevent the Nov. 3 elections at any cost.

based on Manuel Márquez-Sterling's Cuba 1952-1959 and
Cuba 1952-1959 Interactive Timeline