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1959: 71 after the Cuban Revolution

January 12th, 2010 Headsman

From the dark pre-dawn hours through to the middle of the day this date in 1959, Cuba’s fledgling revolutionary government shot over 70* “police officials, soldiers, and others described as spies and informers”** into a pit near Santiago de Cuba.

Enrique Despaigne is the gentleman shown being shot from 1:02 to 1:09 of this period newsreel.

Just days past their New Year’s triumph over the Batista dictatorship, the Sierra Maestra guerrillas were indulging a little out-with-the-old bloodletting. Well, more than a little.

Others had already been shot, and (many) others would follow that fate in the time to come, but this day’s mass execution was the largest and eventually most emblematic of those days. It was ordered by present-day Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

The biographies of the day’s (nearly literal) hecatomb were largely eclipsed by their deaths as theater, as symbolism, as diplomacy. The man most individually distinctive to many observers was Lt. Enrique Despaigne, whose fusillade for killing 53 people was delayed three hours (pdf) at the camera crew’s behest for the better dawn lighting.

This day’s sentences specifically and the post-revolution executions generally were widely deplored abroad. Liberal Oregon Senator Wayne Morse called it a “bloodbath” on the Senate floor, and implored the Cubans to “withhold executions until emotions cool.”

Cuba rejected the criticism.

One could say that, like Lenin, Castro had taken warning from the Paris Commune‘s self-defeating example of excess leniency.

But the case for that interpretation looks much stronger in retrospect than it did to those living the actual events.† Foreign criticism for Cuba’s 1959 execution binge, though strong, was also strongly colored by an expectation that western powers would soon come to an arrangement with Castro — an anti-imperialist, but not yet a publicly committed Communist.

So the purge of Batista elements generally played as an ugly but fundamentally unworrisome effusion of popular vengeance an unsettled political situation.

As the London Times mildly editorialized, “youthful excesses” notwithstanding, “much of what is being said in Cuba can be put down to the exaltation of victory. When the provisional Government settles down, more realistic appraisals are likely.” (Jan. 13, 1959)

* 71 is the figure most generally reported, and the number given by the contemporary Associated Press reports, but slightly different numbers around that total are sometimes cited (the New York Times reported 75 on Jan. 13, 1959). Whatever their number, some of their names are given here and here; this Spanish-language forum page has victims of the revolution on this date and throughout the month, sourced to the stridently anti-Revolutionary Cuban American National Foundation.

** Quote from the A.P. report as published in the London Times Jan. 13, 1959.

† Castro defended the executions in terms of Nazis, not Communards. Many of those condemned either to death or imprisonment by the revolutionary government were (show) tried for war crimes.

And not without reason:

Santiagans say the series of decrees by former President Fulgencio Batista suspending constitutional guarantees and civil liberties covered a reign of terror in which 500 to 1,000 persons were murdered in Santiago alone. To Santiagans, the firing squads represent justice. (New York Times, Jan. 21, 1959)

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,War Crimes,Wrongful Executions

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6 thoughts on “1959: 71 after the Cuban Revolution”

  1. Michael Hernan says:

    As a young boy I was familiar wikth the atom bomb attacks on Japan. Putting it all together I hjave never felt remorse, nor have I felt that the bomg attacks were cruel acts, or constituted as war crimes.The Japanese started it, as far as I was concerned and it was certainly better they suffer than myself.

    I look at the matter as if the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki simply had a bad day.. Why suffer nowv from real orimagined pangs of guilt as a perpetrator, ar as a victim of the explosions.

    That war is over- The USA won – The Japs lost…
    The Cuban revolution is complete, the Cuban people won, the monster Batista .lost.

    Viva Che’, Viva la Revolution, Viva las gente de Cuba.

    Respectivo,
    Michael Hernan

  2. Meaghan says:

    Michael Herman, your argument about the attacks on Japan would sound much better if you didn’t refer to them as “Japs.”

  3. lawguy says:

    Well Mark Twain defended the Terror to a degree. These executions happen all at once when the people take over after centuries of executions by the ruling class.

    In the end these were a drop in the bucket compared to what had gone on for centuries in Cuba.

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