In the predawn hours this date in 1989, Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa was shot in a pasture at a West Havana military base along with Col. Antonio “Tony” de la Guardia and Captains Antonio Padrón and Jorge Martinez — all convicted of treason against the Cuban Revolution because of drug trafficking.
Before his abrupt fall just weeks before this date, Arnaldo Ochoa was one of the shining stars of Castro’s Cuba.
One of the Sierra Maestre guerrillas, Ochoa had fought with Che Guevara in the Battle of Santa Clara that toppled the Batista regime.
In the decades that followed, he rose to become one of the most powerful officers in Cuba, serving in Venezuela, Angola, Ethiopia.
But in early June 1989, and shortly after a Mikhail Gorbachev state visit to Cuba delivered the bad news that the crumbling Soviet Union would be withdrawing its subsidies to Havana, Ochoa and State Security officer Tony de la Guardia* were suddenly busted for running a drug-smuggling operation — essentially conspiring with the Colombian Medellion cartel to exploit Cuba’s position on the most direct routes to Florida, and corruptly skimming the proceeds in the process.
There seems to be little doubt among those in the know that they were doing exactly that, but endless speculation about what else they were up to — what the executions were really about.
There is the year, to begin with, which is why we’ve mentioned Gorbachev; Castro was hostile to the Soviet leader’s glasnost reforms, and could read well enough the dangerous direction of change in eastern Europe. He wanted Gorbachev to put the brakes on.
Ochoa was seen as a charismatic figure of a more liberal outlook and close to Russian officers to boot, and one school of thought has it that he therefore looked like the sort of man who might be able to mount a coup or serve as the KGB’s catspaw if it came to regime change.
Whether or not Ochoa was targeted on that basis, Castro surely did not regret during those dangerous transitional years as Russian patronage slipped away the salutary effect this day’s doings would have had on any other potential aspirants for his job.
That consideration, whether it was primary or tertiary, probably helps explain the purge’s old-school show trial vibe. On television, Ochoa confessed to it all, and assured the court,
If I receive this sentence, which might be execution … my last thought will be of Fidel, for the great revolution he has given our people.
(Although what that thought would have been is a different matter. After falling out with Ochoa over military operations in Angola, the Cuban dictator had bugged his general’s environs and thereby eavesdropped on numerous of caustic remarks about himself.)
The drug charges, too, point the way towards plausible hidden agendas.
Fidel and Raul generally took a cautious approach to the drug business — hardly virginal, but reputedly avoiding particularly egregious entanglements lest they gift-wrap the hostile Yankees a pretext for invading. (Given what happened to Panama later in this eventful year, that would have been a reasonable concern.)
At the same time, it’s all but inconceivable that they were taken completely unawares by “revelations” that their aides were up to something shady.
So the hypotheses in this area run the gamut from: Ochoa and de la Guardia taking an authorized but circumscribed covert operation and avariciously expanding it beyond any possible license; to, everyone at the top being up to his eyeballs and Ochoa and de la Guardia eliminated when it became expedient to bury their firsthand knowledge of Fidel’s firsthand knowledge. Timing, again, is suggestive; with the coming withdrawal of Soviet protection, this might have been seen in Havana a prudent moment to trim sails on narcotics transshipment.
Whatever Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia may have known or sensed about the wheels-within-wheels of Havana politics, they took it to their grave 21 years ago today. Perennial declarations of the Castros’ imminent fall have made the rounds ever since, but until that old stopped clock manages to tell the right time, it’s likely that the rest of us will have to content ourselves with guesswork.
On this date in 1916, the Austro-Hungarian empire executed Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi for treasonous Italian nationalism.
It was the multiethnic Habsburg state that was itself dying of its constituents’ national aspirations; in little more than two years, the state entity that carried out this day’s sentences would no longer exist at all.
When the unpleasantness broke out, though, he made a break for the peninsula where he agitated* (successfully) for Italian entry into the fray against Austria-Hungary. Irredentists had long coveted Habsburg properties with a heavy Italian population, like the Adriatic port of Trieste and Battisti’s own native Trento; the war offered an opportunity to swipe those territories, notwithstanding Italy’s putative prewar alliance with the Austrians.
Although already 40 years of age when Italy entered the war, the intrepid Battisti enlisted to fight. He was captured along with an otherwise obscure subaltern, Fabio Filzi, on the Alpine slope of Monte Corno (now known as Monte Corno Battisti) repelling the Austrian Strafexpedition.**
Austria did not stand on ceremony with these men; their capture took place on July 10, their trial on July 12, and their executions at the Castello del Buon Consiglio — an ironic Calvary, for a parliamentarian — later that same day. (To complete the scene, the strangulation-hanging was botched when Battisti’s first rope broke.)
The Austrian writer Karl Kraus would observe that “they thought they were hanging Italy, but it was really Austria on the gallows.”
Battisti leaving the courtroom en route to his execution.
Battisti approaches the scaffold.
Battisti waiting at the scaffold as the sentence is read.
The Austrian army offers a prayer and salute to the shrouded body of Cesare Battisti.
* As a socialist who broke against the internationalist position and in favor of violent nationalism, Battisti was an ally of Benito Mussolini. It was Battisti, actually, who pioneered the socialist-nationalist-newspaperman act upon which Mussolini would later raise is own star, to such an extent that Battisti’s paper, Il Popolo — the apparent inspiration behind Mussolini’s own subsequent paper, Il Popolo d’Italia — gave the still-obscure future Duce some of his earliest gigs.
A martyr’s death during World War I fortuitously spares Battisti’s legacy the unpleasant association with his friend’s postwar turn towards fascism, so there are many streets and plazas named for Battisti, as well as a memorial in Trento. He’s also honored by name in the 1918 patriotic tune La Leggenda del Piave (lyrics).
There are many people who will feel sorry for the victims, but who’ll tell you they can’t do anything about it. Let everyone scrape by as he can! What can he who lacks the necessities when he’s working do when he loses his job? He has only to let himself die of hunger. Then they’ll throw a few pious words on his corpse. This is what I wanted to leave to others. I preferred to make of myself a trafficker in contraband, a counterfeiter, a murderer and assassin. I could have begged, but it’s degrading and cowardly and even punished by your laws, which make poverty a crime. If all those in need, instead of waiting took, wherever and by whatever means, the self-satisfied would understand perhaps a bit more quickly that it’s dangerous to want to consecrate the existing social state, where worry is permanent and life threatened at every moment.
Personal want segued into political conviction for Ravachol, whose crimes were justified by the principle of reprise individuelle.
And the political led him to reprisals of a less individual nature, when French state violence against radicals caused him to dynamite several magistrates’ homes.
He was caught in a restaurant,** brought to trial, and let off with penal servitude for life. Then another jury, intimidated by public outcry, reversed the decision and sent him to the guillotine.
Anarchism, that revolutionary specter stalking fin-de-siecle Europe, burnt its fuse at both ends, but Ravachol’s falling head‡ left a legacy for his fellow-travelers. The next year, Auguste Vaillant tossed a bomb into the French Chamber of Deputies to avenge Ravachol. (Vaillant was himself guillotined, and himself avenged by Emile Henry and Sante Geronimo Caserio.)
Ravachol was also honored in a song, La Ravachole — set to the jauntily menacing tune of La Carmagnole, it cheers, “Long live the sound of the explosion!”
* This incendiary speech was cut off by the court.
We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished. We would begin again after the ‘tabula rasa’. At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.
‡ Ravachol was guillotined midway through a parting exclamation, “Vive la Re-“. Initial newspaper reports implausibly rendered this as the patriotic classic “Vive la Republique!” rather than a much more in-character word like, oh, “Revolution”.
Weeks of controversy ensued over some witnesses’ claims that the head post-severing had actually completed the word “-publique”, a notion of a piece with the idea that the severed head survives decapitation by a few seconds. Scienticians countered that obviously excited witnesses were maybe hearing air escaping from the headless trunk and filling in the rest of the scene in their heads.
On this date in 1976, three Britons and one American were shot in Angola by a military police squad for murders committed as mercenaries earlier during the year.
They were among 13 foreigners sentenced at the Luanda Trial, which occurred on the pivot of Angola’s transition from generation-long anti-colonial insurrection on towards generation(s)-long civil war. Between them, more than half a million Angolans died, but this date belonged to a couple of unrepresentative Anglos.
Long story short, the immediate aftermath of Angolan independence in late 1975 was a scramble for control among the several factions who had been fighting the Portuguese … along with a scramble among interested outside states to line up their allies in this resource-rich Cold War prize.
Thirteen foreign mercenaries who were captured by MPLA-supporting Cuban troops — the other nine drew long prison sentences — were charged in a show trial with war crimes for their conduct in the field in a case that made the western gun-for-hire an emblem of colonial depravity.
The most notorious of the bunch was Costas Georgiou. A Greek Cypriot emigre to Britain, he had gone to Angola as “Colonel Callan” and was wanted by Scotland Yard for there ordering a mass execution of other British mercenaries — an act he admitted at trial. Even the inevitable London Times editorial against the trial (June 29, 1976) agreed “the proceedings against Callan, if not the rigours of the sentence may be conceded.”
The others looked much less culpable, almost arbitrarily selected for death from among the ranks of unprepossessing, sometimes barely-there mercs. American Daniel Gearhart, a Vietnam veteran drowning in debt, had apparently been in the field for a mere three days and never so much as fired a shot; that he had advertised in Soldier of Fortune magazine was held to aggravate the charges against him, and in vain did the father of four insist that being tried for his life was enough to scare him straight out of the business.
Angolan defense attorneys, while also appealing against the legality of the trial on grounds of both international and domestic law, spoke that revolutionary language of decolonization in defending their charges. Georgiou, according to Maria Teresinha Lopes, was
“a colonized man … [treated in England as] a sub-human, just a Greek, just a ‘boy’.”
Another Angolan defense attorney argued against the death penalty because
“To condemn them to death while ignoring their social origin in terms of revolutionary justice would deny the theory which guided our revolution. My clients are an integral part of the exploited class.” (Both comments from London Times, June 19, 1976)
The era of decolonization was a time for idealism, but not the sort that would shrink from bloodshed.
In denying the doomed men clemency, Angola’s first independent president Agostinho Neto denounced
Mercenarism, instrument of the aggressive designs of imperialism … a scourge of the African continent and a grave threat to the peace, freedom and independence of the peoples …
It is imperative that the practice of mercenarism be banished once and for all from our planet. It is urgent that all states and peace-loving forces fight it most energetically.
We are applying justice in Angola not only in the name of our martyred people but also for the good of the brother peoples of Namibia, Zimbabwe and all the peoples of the world against whom imperialism is already getting ready to prepare new mercenary aggressions.
(Text dated July 9, and reprinted in the July 10 London Times)
You could just about substitute the word “terrorism” for “mercenarism” and read it on today’s campaign trail.
Juridically, Angola pursued these warriors as peoples who had fought unlawfully and could therefore be placed outside the protections conferred on soldiers by the Geneva Conventions — and subjected to the liberating power of revolutionary violence.
That this ad hoc concept of “mercenarism” could be exploited to license an outrage upon humanity was a notion relentlessly denounced by British and American officials,* who had not yet fully explored the utility of the “unlawful combatant” construct in extending the reach of their own security states.
As for all that peace-loving, brother-peoples stuff in the execution order?
What actually happened after the mercenaries were shot was that the two biggest former anti-colonial guerrilla movements in Angola morphed into Cold War proxies — the MPLA of the Warsaw Pact, supported by its control of the country’s oil; UNITA of NATO, supported by its control of the country’s diamonds — and bled the country dry in a horrific civil war.
* Henry Kissinger, then President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, complained that Angola’s decision
to ignore both the law and the facts … cannot help but affect adversely the development of relations between the United States and Angola.
So, small surprise that weeks after nicking the Duke of Alva’s glasses, Dutch rebels conquering other towns started making prisoners of Catholic clergy whose loyalties were suspiciously Habsburgish. Our day’s principals (here are their names; a batch of Franciscans taken are the largest contingent, to which various lay brothers, parish priests, and others were appended) were seized at and around Gorkum (Gorinchem).
The author of this intrepid iconoclastic incursion, William II de la Marck, was likewise the author of these Catholic martyrs’ doom once they had been removed back to Brielle. They were hanged without benefit of trial at an abandoned monastery.
Every sectarian propagandist of 16th century Europe made lurid heroes of his own side’s martyrs, and these were no exception to the pattern; we read in this Catholic source (perhaps while contemplating this devotional image) that
[i]t was on the 9th July 1572 when the execution of the pious sufferers began. On their side they had fully prepared themselves for it by confession and prayer. The executioner went so slowly to work that two hours had elapsed ere the last of the martyrs had taken his place on the gallows, and many of them still lived when morning broke. But the fury of the soldiers was not yet satisfied. They mutilated the dead bodies, cut off their noses and ears, and other limbs, and, alas, shame seems to touch the pen with which we write, bound them to their hats, and returned with these melancholy trophies in triumph into the city!
The location where this day’s unfortunates suffered became a pilgrimage destination, and they were formally enrolled in the minor leagues of Rome’s competitive hagiography circuit in the 19th century.
On this date in 1538, Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro was executed* at Cuzco by his vengeful rivals, the Pizarro brothers.
Conquistadoring with the rapacious Pizarros was a good way to get rich, get dead, or possibly both.
Almagro, a soldier, got to the New World in 1514 and soon fell in with alpha male Pizarro Francisco.** He’d become an adjunct to the latter’s conquest of the Incan Empire in the 1520s and 1530s; sent to capture the Incan city of Quito, Almagro found it razed by its defenders, and he sycophantically re-founded it as San Francisco de Quito.†
Things weren’t buddy-buddy for long.
The Iberian mothership divided Spain’s putative New World possessions north and south, putting Almagro in command of the southern cone. Great news … now all he had to do was actually take control of it.
Personally financing an expedition on the expectation of fabulous riches to be seized, Almagro instead foundered in Chile’s northern valleys in a frustrating environment of natives equally hostile and impecunious. After a couple years, he gave up and returned to Peru, angrier and poorer for his trouble — and there found that he could exploit the Spanish preoccupation with intransigent Incan chief Manco Inca to nick the capital city of Cuzco for himself.
Almagro actually had the lesser Pizarros — Gonzalo and Hernando — prisoner for a while, but he bartered them away to Francisco for a hill of beans (that is, a promise not to attack), and the Pizarros took their city back by routing Almagro at the Battle of Las Salinas.
The sentence of death against as august a personage as the appointed ruler of Nueva Toledo shocked many, and it was carried out against Almagro’s own entreaties for an appeal to the crown.
Detail view of a print of Almagro’s capture and execution. (Click for the full image.)
Francisco Pizarro would redeem his want of clemency towards his former partner in his own blood: in 1541, Almagro’s son, Diego de Almagro II or el Mozo, murdered Pizarro in an attempted coup d’etat. (Almagro the Younger, too, would be executed for his trouble.)
Although he was an important conquistador who spent most of his time at points further north, Almagro is best remembered today not in Peru but in Chile — for his abortive and disappointing expedition made him that land’s first European “discoverer”.
This myth of a past hero who sleeps out of sight, awaiting the opportune moment for return, has a wide cultural currency; King Arthur would be the readiest example for most Anglos.
In Germany from the 13th century, a similar myth attached to Emperor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, who had suddenly drowned during the Third Crusade in 1190 after reigning as Holy Roman Emperor for nearly 40 years. It’s a myth with enough resonance for this poem by 19th century German romantic Friedrich Rückert:
The ancient Barbarossa,
Frederich, the Kaiser great,
Within the castle-cavern
Sits in enchanted state.
He did not die; but ever
Waits in the chamber deep,
Where hidden under the castle
He sat himself to sleep.
The splendor of the Empire
He took with him away,
And back to earth will bring it
When dawns the promised day.
The chair is ivory purest
Whereof he makes his bed;
The table is of marble
Whereon he props his head.
His beard, not flax, but burning
With fierce and fiery glow
Right through the marble table
Beneath his chair does grow.
He nods in dreams and winketh
With dull, half-open eyes,
And once an age he beckons
A page that standeth by.
He bids the boy in slumber:
“O dwarf, go up this hour,
And see if still the ravens
Are flying round the tower.
“And if the ancient ravens
Still wheel above us here,
Then must I sleep enchanted
For many a hundred year.”
(To say nothing of the resonance for the Nazis who codenamed their invasion of the Soviet Union Barbarossa.)
Anyway, by the time we lay our scene late in the 13th century, when the Hohenstaufen line has tragically vanished, a version of this myth — the “Emperor of Peace” (German link) — has attached itself to Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II. Like Frederick I, he was a great and long-lived consolidator of the Empire; unfortunately, he’s been dead since 1250. Or has he?!
Tile Kolup appears in 1284 claiming to be this Frederick, who would have been going on 90 years old at this time. The good citizens of Cologne are his first audience, and he totally bombs with them; only their conviction that he’s more madman than usurper gets him run out of town with only a taunting.
But he finds a more receptive crowd in Neuss, and for a time keeps a court there and issues documents on Frederick II’s authority. Rudolph I, King of the Romans and butt of reindeer jokes, eventually nabs him in nearby Wetzlar and tortures him into admitting his imposture.
There are some succinct German biographies of this falsche Friedrichhere and here.
* “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” -Voltaire. (And the coffee talk lady.)
He studied literature, philosophy, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, mineralogy, botany; he served in the Spanish military and traveled in Europe; he returned to his native New Granada, where he became drawn into the liberal ferment with a celebration of the emerging bourgeoisie obviously contextualized by his scientific education.
Money, like the blood of a body, gives life and shares with each and every one proportionally the movement and robustness that it needs to freely comply with the action that it must complete as a member of society … This inistrumental motive of wealth can not be hushed, if it is to produce an effect … in the manner of electric flow [it] passes through bodies, leaving them with a glowing heat, also enlivens the arms and hands through which it passes… (Studies in the History of Latin American Economic Thought)
As a member of the constituent assembly, he helped draft an 1811 constitution that acknowledged the authority of the Spanish crown, but not of its viceroy, creating (so its signers thought) a new commonwealth state. Lozano thereupon became the first President of Cundinamarca, essentially the forerunner to the present-day Colombian presidency.
Since Lozano turned out to be a better botanist than executive, he resigned the office after a few months.
Only after Europe had sorted out the Napoleonic wars did the Spanish free up the resources for a brutal reconquista of their errant provinces. But when it came, under a general with the macho nickname El Pacificador, it had intellectuals just like Lozano right in its sights.
Even though he’d been back at lower-profile scribbling since his stint at the top, Jorge Tadeo was just the sort of guy Pablo Morillo targeted for demonstrative executions over the second half of 1816.
Thus perished the persons of the greatest wisdom, the most virtuous and wealthy, in New-Granada. The object which Morillo had in view, was to extinguish intelligence, remove men of influence, and destroy property, so that, in future, there should be none capable of originating or directing another revolution. (Source)
Thus perished Lozano this date, along with another intellectual, Miguel Pombo (Spanish link) among a whole train of patriotic martyrs over the months of Morillo’s rule.
The policy of killing these men to deprive New Granada of revolutionary potential was, however, an abject failure: just three years after these men were shot as traitors to that distant European line, Simon Bolivar detached Colombia from Spain at the Battle of Boyaca.
This date in 1533 saw John Frith and Andrew Hewet burned to ashes at Smithfield for Protestantism … just a week before Henry VIII himself was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.
A Cambridge man who’d picked up some heresy in Lutheran Germany, Frith was a friend of William Tyndale and did a couple of turns in English prisons for his various transgressions of orthodoxy.
He was finally nabbed by a warrant of then-Chancellor Thomas More before he could escape to the continent, and hailed before a doctrinal court for sacramentarianism.
During his examination by the bishops, Frith stated that he could not agree with them that it was an article of faith that he must believe, under pain of damnation, that when a priest prayed during the mass, the substance of the bread and wine were changed into the actual body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ, even though their appearance remained the same. And even if this was so, which he did not believe it was, it should not be an article of faith.
(This, uh, hypothesis remains Catholic doctrine to this day, but at least it’s no longer worth your life to dispute it.)
All the pieces were in place for this radical theology to become orthodoxy over the succeeding generation. The newly-designated Archbishop of Canterbury — still for the moment within the Catholic fold — was reformer Thomas Cranmer. Despite his sympathy for a shared evangelical cause, Cranmer passed a guilty verdict after trying to talk Frith out of his belief. In the event, however, it was the Inquisitor who was converted: Cranmer over the course of the 1530s adopted Frith’s own view. He would eventually enshrine it in the Book of Common Prayer.
All of which, of course, was made possible by Henry’s insistence on ditching his first wife in favor of Anne Boleyn, and Cranmer’s support for that action. On July 11, both the king and his pliant prelate were excommunicated by Pope Clement VII.
Still, it must be allowed that this fact scarcely gave carte blanche to Protestant reformers in England. Maybe Frith was made for the flames regardless: as timing goes, the 1530s were great for religious martyrdom.
Andrew Hewet, our poor footnote, had no part in these august affairs save the victim’s. Hewet was a tailor’s apprentice who was just caught up with an anti-heretical accusation at the wrong time. In prison, he too refused to acknowledge transubstantiation — saying, “I believe as John Frith believes.” For so believing, he burned as Frith burned.
On this date in 1972, Somali Generals Muhammad Ainanshe Gulaid and Salad Gaveir, along with Col. Abdulkadir bin Abdulla,* were publicly shot in Mogadishu by a 90-man** (!) firing detail for attempting a coup the previous year.
Muhammad Ainanshe Guleid had been Barre’s second vice-president (the first was also arrested for another supposed plot, though not executed), so the alleged conspiracy would have been treason at the very highest level. It’s obscure at this point to what extent the arrests might be attributed to an actual intended coup as against internecine politics within the ruling Supreme Revolutionary Council, or even whether those categories were wholly distinct.
The Soviet-backed Barre had plenty of problems over the next two decades, but actually managed to hold the tumultuous country until 1991. Then rebels finally deposed the dictatorship. Neither those rebels nor anyone else, however, was able to establish an effective central government — leaving Somalia to become the anarchy/libertarian paradise it’s famous as today.
(Juxtapose: the Barre regime’s attempts (pdf) at establishing a more conventional tourist profile.)
* Each of these names have several possible transliterations. Actually, later this same year, Barre would announce an official choice of Latin script for the heretofore unwritten Somali language; schoolchildren at this time had to learn English, Italian, Arabic, and Somali.
** The source for the 90-man firing squad figure is I.M. Lewis, “The Politics of the 1969 Somali Coup” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Oct., 1972). As the title indicates, our day’s principals are not the author’s chief concern, but he adds apropos of Barre’s doomed efforts to shift loyalties away from tribes and towards the state that the massive fusillade party “was anti-tribal in composition, and that the Government would see to the funeral arrangements — traditionally a lineage responsibility.”