On this date in 1812, the great Cuban revolutionary leader “Black” Jose Aponte was executed with eight comrades.
Like South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey, Aponte led a slave revolt but was not actually a slave himself. Instead, he was a free black woodworker, and a respected captain in Cuba’s black militia.
Aponte led a bold island-wide conspiracy of slaves and free blacks who aimed at liberating themselves by revolution.
A few hours’ sail off Cuba’s eastern coast lay Haiti, whose slaves had done just that only a few years before to the greater hope or terror — depending on which end of the lash one had — of slave societies allaround the region.*
There is some debate over the degree to which Aponte personally can be said to have led or coordinated the various planned (and in some cases, actual) rebellions around Cuba. He was certainly a leader of such a plot in the capital city and viewed by Spanish authorities as a figure of significance across the island, and so the whole movement has become known as the Aponte Conspiracy or Aponte Rebellions.
By any name they were an impressive undertaking, and the widespread collaboration of free black militiamen must have chilled the blood of plantation owners who banked on these forces to maintain order in Cuba. Five of those hanged with Aponte were, like him, freemen.
Sadly lost to history is a book of of Aponte’s drawings which are known only by the descriptions of interrogators who were alarmed by its depictions of, among other things, black armies defeating white ones** … and maps of the military fortifications around Havana.
This book and the movement it supported were betrayed to the Spanish with the familiar consequences. Aponte and his comrades hanged outside Havana’s Catillo San Salvador de la Punta on the morning of April 9, 1812. Then their heads were posthumously hewed off for public display around the city.
* Hilario Herrera, a principal organizer of the conspiracy in Oriente, was himself a veteran of the revolution on Saint-Domingue.
** Some of the subversive drawings depicted Aponte’s grandfather, Captain Joaquin Aponte, fighting the 1762 English invasion of Havana.
But when his body was laid out on a stretcher for disposal and the official witnesses were filing out of the death chamber, Rodrigues began showing signs of life.
It was “a defect in the garrote or due to careless adjustment of the metal band which fits about the victim’s neck to cause strangulation,” an Associated Press wire report ran.*
In present-day Iran, one of the most aggressive death penalty states going, a drug dealer managed to survive a hanging just weeks ago as I write this in 2013. That man got shipped to the hospital and placed on life support, with the justice minister eventually announcing that he wouldn’t be noosed again.
With nary a pause to await further instruction, the execution-chamber guards forcibly subdued Rodrigues, who had reanimated sufficiently to “put up a furious struggle.” They forced their thrashing victim back onto the garrote, double-checked the metal band this time,** and tightened it until it asphyxiated Rodrigues a second time … then left the now-actually-lifeless body on the machine a full 22 minutes to make good and certain of their work.
* Here quoted from the Oct. 30, 1927 Los Angeles Times. Also see the New York Times from the same date for a truncated paraphrase of the same report.
“An American kneels only to his God, and always faces his enemy,”* declared William Logan Crittenden, refusing to kneel before his executioners in Havana this date in 1851.
This well-bred** Kentuckian veteran of the Mexican-American War ditched a New Orleans customs-house gig when Narciso Lopez formed a private filibustering expedition to try to steal Cuba from the Spanish.
Placed at the head of one of Lopez’s three battalions, Crittenden’s force was cut off and overwhelmed by the Spanish. (The detailed progress of the campaign is described here.)
He and 50 of his command captured with him were all ordered for immediate execution, six at a time, as pirates, with just a few hours’ allowance to take down official statements and scribble their hasty goodbyes. With “not the heart to write to any of my family,” Crittenden sent one to a friend giving his farewells … then, just before the end, dashed off another addressed to the Attorney General of the United States — his uncle, John J. Crittenden.†
Dear Uncle: In a few moments some fifty of us will be shot. We came with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motive was a good one. I was deceived by Lopez — he, as well as the public press,‡ assured me tat the island was in a state of prosperous revolution.
I am commanded to finish writing at once.
I will die like a man
(Some other affecting last letters from Crittenden’s party can be perused here.)
All this scene, including a post-mortem mutilation by the enraged mob of onlookers, became a bloody banner for U.S. Southerners — since expanding the slave power was core to the entire filibustering project.
When word of the shootings reached New Orleans, a crowd sacked the Spanish consulate.
But in the international relations game, the U.S. had disavowed filibustering and its raiders enjoyed no special diplomatic protection. When a number of the later prisoners were returned in chains to Spain, the Millard Fillmore administration asked their release, but had no grounds to demand it. It was a touchy diplomatic situation … one that our late Crittenden’s uncle, as a member of cabinet, was right in the middle of.
Fillmore eventually secured the captives’ release, atoning the insult to the European power’s agents by causing the Spanish colors to be saluted in New Orleans in honor of the birth of the Infanta Isabella.
All this mincing instead of brawling struck a certain variety of hothead as distinctly unmanful.
Our flag has been wantonly insulted in the Caribbean sea … captured citizens of our country [were] sent in a slave ship to the coast of Spain, fettered, according to the custom of that inhuman traffic, and released, not as an acknowledgement of wrong on demand of our government, but as a gracious boon accorded to a friendly suit … Whilst the dying words of Crittenden yet rung in the American ear, and the heart turned sickening away from the mutilated remains of his liberty-loving followers; whilst public indignation yet swelled at the torture which had been inflicted on our captive countrymen, even then we were called upon to witness a further manifestation of the truckling spirit of the administration …
William Crittenden’s brother Thomas Theodore Crittenden fought on the Union side of the Civil War, and became Governor of Missouri in 1881. He’s noteworthy for having issued the bounty on outlaw Jesse James that led to the latter’s assassination by Robert Ford.
† Family in the president’s cabinet was just no guarantee of preferential treatment, abroad or at home; just a few years before, a son of the sitting Secretary of War had been hanged at sea for mutiny.
‡ The Spanish press likewise excoriated American yellow journalism in terms that no few present-day scribes would also deserve.
New Orleans papers, there is your work! There is the result of your diragations, of your iniquitous falsehoods, of your placards with large black letters, and your detestable extras … This blood must flow, drop by drop, upon your heads — this blood will torment you in your sleep, for they have lost their lives when you were in security in your houses.
In the early morning hours this date in 1981, three young Jehovah’s Witnesses were hailed out of their cells at Havana’s La Cabaña Fortress, and apparently executed.
Cipriano, Eugenio and Ventura Garcia-Marin Thompson were three of eight Cuban Witnesses who attempted to claim asylum at the Vatican embassy in early December. After a few hours’ standoff, elite government anti-terrorism troops simply broke in and seized them.
(Rome still catches flak (Spanish link) for its failure to maintain a bigger diplomatic ruckus about this violation of its diplomatic prerogatives; the raid may in fact have been green-lighted by a Vatican embassy official.)
You’ll find this tale most commonly expounded on anti-Castro sites, such as this pdf from the Cuba Archive:
The three brothers were taken to Villa Marista headquarters and told by prosecutor Carlos Amat that they had been “tried and sentenced to death.” They were taken from their prison cells in early morning hours of January 2, 1981, and presumably executed, the others were sentenced to long prison terms.
An Interior Ministry official who defected in 1992 reported that their fate had been decided in “an extremely summary process.” The family was denied the remains of the three brothers for burial. The mother was sentenced to 20 years in prison for protesting the executions and served ten years after her mental health deteriorated.
Sources: Testimony of Margarita Marin Thompson (mother) in Ricardo Bofill, Diario Las Américas, September 9, 1997. Pablo Alfonso. El Nuevo Herald, 31 October 1997, p. 6A. Valladares, 1985, p. 416. Amnesty International Annual Report 1983, p. 130. Nuestra Cuba, 1998, p. 3. Reader’s Digest, October 1998, p. 83. Montaner, 1984, p. 267. Cuban American National Foundation, The Quilt of Fidel Castro’s Genocide, 1994. Reinaldo Bragado, 1998, p. 5. Instituto de la Memoria Histórica Cubana contra el Totalitarismo, 2002, p. 35. Fuentes 2002, p.s 102-104. Juan O. Tamayo, “Ex-Cuban prosecutor’s role in rights panel criticized,” The Miami Herald, April 16, 1998. Circuito Sur, July 2002, p. 35, and http://members.aol.com/aguadacuba/cs/datafusi/vaticano.htm.
On this date in 1963, the Cuban government shot four of its citizens as “counterrevolutionaries” and CIA spies — capping a week that had seen 13 such executions in all at Havana’s Cabana Fortress.
This date’s batch consisted of (per the Nov. 15, 1963 New York Times) Argimiro Fonseca Fernandez, Wilfredo Alfonso Ibanez, Israel Rodriguez Lima and Erasmo Machin Garcia; they were supposed to have scouted spots around the island for a potential landing of invading exiles. For some reason, Cuba was paranoid about the possibility.
Four others — Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales, according to the Nov. 13 New York Times — had been shot on Nov. 12 for similar crimes; they had supposedly attempted to make an armed landing on a boat out of Florida. Five others (whose names I have not located) were reported executed on Nov. 8.
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.
He’d had an unsettled life, this Morgan. He’d been a convict, a circus sideshow, a wanderer. But he was about to make his name.
This strange gringo soon to be nicknamed “El Americano” walked into the Escambray Mountains and joined a group of anti-Batista rebels that was unaffiliated with Castro’s 26th of July Movement. Morgan won the respect of Cubans for his courage and his evidently un-mercenary commitment to the cause.
Fatally for him, that cause was a constitutional-democracy take on opposing the Batista dictatorship.
Those two men’s columns nearly exchanged shots when Guevara was dispatched by Castro to reach an understanding with Morgan. Morgan and Guevara came to terms that day — there was a revolution to be won, after all — but animosity would remain between these two impassioned freedom-fighters whose visions of freedom could never be reconciled.
They personify the competing choices before post-Batista Cuba, in those first years when Cuba kept to a tenuous hold on non-alignment.
Morgan supported that revolution; he even made the headlines for dramatically foiling a Dominican-backed plot to topple Castro in 1959.
But it was Guevara who was the future. More radical July 26th members won senior spots in the new administration, while outsiders like Morgan got assignments like frog-farming. Geopolitical events saw Cuba sliding into the Soviet camp.
He was caught in late 1960, held incommunicado for a period, then tried, convicted and condemned two days before his execution (along with fellow-traveler and -plotter Jesus Carreras Zayas (Spanish link)) after nightfall March 11, 1961.
Morgan’s execution was carried out by a fellow Yanqui, Herman Marks — himself destined to run afoul of the Castro regime down the road. (Marks fled back to the U.S.) The sympathetic account of el Americano‘s death is quite the flowery affair, with the Cubans kneecapping Morgan when he defiantly refuses to kneel.
Castro himself is sometimes said to be present, the shadowy observer issuing the fatal commands to which Morgan will not bow, like the insouciant silhouette of Stalin behind a screen at trials where his former henchmen were purged.
A poetic touch, though one would think a head of state might have more pressing business than personally orchestrating executions: and indeed, it seems that Fidel actually spent that evening at a diplomatic reception with Soviet and Chinese ambassadors. Two months later, Castro officially declared Cuba a socialist state.
And as with Morgan, so with many of his brethren-in-arms from the Escambray Mountains. It took Havana the better part of the 1960s to suppress anti-communist “bandits” in Morgan’s old stomping-grounds — Cuba’s (successful) War Against the Bandits.
* There’s more skullduggery in Morgan’s shadowy life than this post has space for, but theories exist that the Dominican plot he “foiled” was actually one he had been an earnest participant in before it was sniffed out by Cuban security, with the war hero Morgan forced to betray it.
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)
On this date in 1851, Venezuelan-born adventurer Narciso Lopez was garroted in Havana for his repeated expeditions to overturn Spanish dominion in Cuba.
Narciso Lopez had fought for the Spanish against Simon Bolivar, and migrated to Cuba when Bolivar carried the day.
Initially a loyal government functionary, Lopez gradually became sweet on the anti-Spanish cause, and fled Cuba for the United States (pursued by a death sentence in absentia) when a treasonable conspiracy of his was discovered.
Like MacArthur, he meant to return — and did.
Lopez crisscrossed the United States, drumming up support for filibustering raids on Cuba meant to detach it from Spain and make it an American slave state.
In this proposed enterprise, wedded alike to both national expansionism and southern sectionalism, Lopez rubbed shoulders with the likes of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, even helping precipitate criminal charges against a former U.S. Senator who backed him.
But the five expeditions went from bad to worse, until Lopez was captured in August 1851.
Between the wide Gulf sky and the waters of Havana harbor, the Gothic Morro Castle’s high tabby walls gleamed in the Sunday morning light on September 1, 1851. Though it was barely seven o’clock, a noisy crowd of four thousand already had gathered in a public plaza just across the harbor from the Morro. The plaza spread below the walls of the Punta, a small citadel guarding the western side of Havana’s finger-shaped harbor. At the center of the crowd’s attention on the cloudless dawn was a ten-foot high wooden scaffold that rose from the plaza. At its top was a garrote, an iron chair with a pair of clasps on its back. The mechanics of this grim machine were simple: just below its clasps, designed to grip the condemned man’s head, was a metal collar for his throat. With a turn of the screw on the garrote’s back, the collar tightens, strangling the prisoner.
Lopez was brought out at seven o’clock. At age fifty-four, with his mustache, white hair, and dark piercing eyes, he remained a handsome man. Accompanied by a line of Spanish soldiers, he wore a long white gown and a white cap. His wrists were tied in front. Another rope, binding his elbows, was knotted from behind, its strands held by guards. With two friends who had been allowed to join him, Lopez climbed the steps of the wooden tower. At the top he knelt in prayer for a moment, then rose and faced the crowd. “Countrymen,” he said in a steady voice that observers would recall as one of remarkable composure, “I most solemnly, in this last awful moment of my life, ask your pardon for any injury I have caused you. It was not my wish to injure anyone, my object was your freedom and happiness.” When an officer interrupted, Lopez quickly concluded, “My intention was good, and my hope is in God.”
He bowed, took his seat in the iron chair, and eased his head back. The executioner, a black man, placed the iron clamps around Lopez’s throat. His feet were then tied to bolts on the sides of the chair. He exchanged a few words with his friends and kissed a small cross. Then, with a turn of a screw, Narciso Lopez’s three-year campaign to vanquish Spain’s dominion over Cuba came to an end.
This forbidding example put a real damper on American plans to annex Cuba (for a while), but hardly stanched the North American appetite for filibustering.
Despite the bad end of his own project, Lopez managed to bequeath the eventually independent Cuba the flag (Spanish link) which it still flies today.
On this date in 2003, three men who commandeered a Havana harbor ferry and made a bid for American waters were shot as Cuba cracked down hard on a wave of hijackings.
Things moved extremely quickly for Lorenzo Enrique Copello Castillo, Barbaro Leodan Sevilla Garcia and Jorge Luis Martinez Isaac, described as “the three principal, most active and brutal leaders” of a gang of about 10.* It had been less than two weeks before that they seized the Baragua and ordered it to head for Florida.
The ship ran out of fuel, and the Cuban Coast Guard towed it back to Mariel. There were no injuries reported among the 50 passengers.
In the context of a then three-year-old moratorium on executions on the island, this probably would not have been enough to cost the ringleaders their lives, save that Fidel Castro perceived the need for a salutary example.
Despite the Yankee’s post-9/11 reprobation of “terrorism,” its definition of the phenomenon retained the familiar geopolitical biases — who is and is not a terrorist when it comes to Cuba is driven by anti-Castro Cuban exiles’ outsized political weight in Florida.
So Havana had some alarm to observe a spate of hijackings: two passenger planes had been redirected to Key West in the previous two weeks, and the passengers therefore offered American residency.
Accusing the U.S. of abetting terrorism — Washington blamed Cuba’s airport security — the government sent its own message when the Baragua desperadoes made it three hijackings in a fortnight.**
The Cuban Council of State, including Castro himself, reviewed the charges directly and gave the go-ahead to the shootings.
Hijackings did indeed stop.
Still, such a severe reprisal so swiftly enacted drew sharp rebukes from human rights advocates and even Cuban allies abroad.
Whether chastened by the reaction or just because it was indeed an exceptional circumstance, Cuba subsequently reverted to its de facto moratorium, and has not executed anybody else since this date six years ago. In 2008, Raul Castro commuted most of the extant death sentences in Cuba, leaving only three people — condemned on terrorism charges — still potentially in danger of execution.
* Others drew prison sentences ranging from a few years to life.
** The Cuban government claimed to have prevented yet another attempted skyjacking the night before the execution.