1960: Tony Zarba, anti-Castro raider

Add comment October 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1960, American adventurer Anthony “Tony” Zarba was shot after his capture in an ill-fated raid on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The Somerville, Mass. native had been shaken like many U.S. citizens by the recent Cuban Revolution; antagonism toward Castro featured prominently in the tight Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign that was nearing its climax during the events of this post, the backdrop for the world’s coming brush with nuclear apocalypse. Confrontation of some kind seemed a foregone conclusion, and in a tradition as old as filibustering, a private clique formed in the U.S. with the intention of hastening the day.

“Today I leave for the Cuban hills. I am going to fight against communism that has come so close to our American shores,” Zarba wrote a friend before launching in a PT boat from Miami with three other Americans, 22 Cuban exiles, and a stockpile of black market weapons that September of 1960.

All this could have been prevented by our government. Now the time has come when all this can be fixed only one way — fighting.

When my country is daily insulted and abused by the Commies of Cuba, I think that this is the opportunity I missed when I could not qualify physically as a U. S. soldier because of my asthma.

But where my generation is falling for its lack of political maturity and comprehension, I am going to do my duty regardless of any foolish considerations about legality, neutrality and other technicalities of which the diabolic Communist takes so much advantage …

I have confidence that God would give me the necessary strength and courage to die with honor and pride if this were necessary in the hills or in front of a Red firing squad.

I am sure many others will follow in my steps.

The intent of this operation was to rally anti-Castro disaffection believed to be burgeoning in Cuba and escape to the Sierra Maestra to build a guerrilla movement like Castro and Che had done in their own day.

But they were surprised by government soldiers shortly after their landing at Nibujon and shattered the foray right there on the beach, a preview of the more (in)famous Washington-backed Bay of Pigs disaster six months hence. Zabra was captured on the beach with a number of Cubans, still wet with sea salt from wading their ammunition ashore. Two other Americans, Allen Dale Thompson and Robert Fuller, escaped for the moment but would also be captured within days; they followed Zabra to the firing posts on Oct. 15. (Some others, including the fourth American, were aboard a fishing launch when the Cubans arrived and fled to open seas.)

Boats and guns don’t quite grow on trees even in Florida, so fiascos like this require moneymen to orchestrate the junction of enthusiasts and their Red firing squads. This particular operation was underwritten by former Communist turned Batista henchman Rolando Masferrer, a prominent mafioso whose 1960s pastime was extorting fellow Cuban exiles and plotting Castro’s assassination. (Castro put a price on Masferrer’s head in return.)

An associate of Santo Trafficante, Masferrer enjoys bit roles in some John F. Kennedy assassination theories. His underworld murder in 1975 has done nothing to abate them.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA

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1934: Augusto Cesar Sandino, national hero

1 comment February 21st, 2012 Headsman

“The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”

-Sandino

On this date in 1934, the first name in Nicaraguan anti-colonial resistance was abducted and summarily executed by the Nicaraguan National Guard.

From 1927 until his death, Sandino led an armed peasant insurgency from the Nicaraguan mountains against the Yankee imperialists and the domestic dictatorship they backed.

Washington had had its nose (and its marines) in Managua’s business for decades, continuously occupying the Central American country since 1912. The Marine Corps saw this country’s people as

Densely ignorant … little interested in principles … naturally brave and inured to hardships, of phlegmatic temperament, tough, capable of being aroused to acts of extreme violence, they have fought for one party or the other without considering causes since time immemorial … a state of war is to them a normal condition.*

All this was the time of Sandino’s own coming-of-age. The son of a wealthy landowner and his domestic servant, Sandino grew up with the unprivileged and the working classes, eventually asorbing an eclectic mix of that period’s revolutionary ideologies.

From 1927 he took to the Segovia and began writing the playbook for the 20th century guerrilla: mobile infantry irregulars, striking from familiar-to-them forest cover, melting away among sympathetic campesinos.

The “Colossus of the North” — Sandino made no bones about his foe; his personal seal showed an American marine being killed — invariably described him as a “bandit” because he also raided towns to commandeer food, clothing, and medicine.

“Washington is called the father of his country; the same may be said of Bolivar and Hidalgo; but I am only a bandit, according to the yardstick by which the strong and the weak are measured.”

-Sandino

The strong, in this case, found little public appetite for the steady attrition of servicemen, and the U.S. employed a familiar strategy of its own: “Nicaraguanizing” the conflict by building up a National Guard to do the dirty work domestically.

That Guard’s head was headed by Anastasio Somoza — the very son of a bitch of whom FDR said, “but he’s our son of a bitch.”

While it’s hardly the only country to have been favored with an American son of a bitch, you could say that Nicaragua has been the American empire’s very own heart of darkness. Washington’s initial interest in the place after the Spanish-American War concerned preventing a canal project to compete with Panama. It invented dive-bombing to hunt Sandino. And it ranged around the world and outside the law to battle Sandino’s successors under the aegis of a modern imperial presidency.

Small wonder that an official anthem of the movement denounces “The Yankee / The enemy of all humankind.”

In the immediate aftermath of the American departure in January 1933, Sandino began coming to terms with the the country’s new president: the Sandinistas disarmed in exchange for amnesty and land. But Somoza, who at this point was “only” the head of the National Guard, was building up his own power … and he meant to have done with this inconvenient insurgent.

After Sandino left a presidential meeting on this date, at which the erstwhile rebel negotiated for his continuing demand to disband Somoza’s Guardia, Sandino was stopped at the gates by Guardsmen. They took Sandino, his brother, and two of his generals and marched them off to be shot. Then the Guard forcibly broke up the Sandinista remnants. Somoza soon seized official power for himself; his family ruled, and plundered, Nicaragua until 1979. Washington never called them bandits.

While Sandino vanished (the whereabouts of his remains are unknown), his revolutionary vision and praxis also persist down to the present day.

Sandinismo (aging much better than Somocismo) would influence Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution.

And in 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front finally succeeded in overthrowing the last loathsome scion of the Somoza dictatorship.

The United States, of course, went right back to war against its long-dead “bandit” foe.

* From Julian C Smith’s officially commissioned History of the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (1933), as quoted in Michael J. Schroeder’s “Bandits and Blanket Thieves, Communists and Terrorists: The Politics of Naming Sandinistasin Nicaragua, 1927-36 and 1979-90,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005).

Schroeder runs the definitive English-language website on Sandino and the original Sandinistas, with a truly vast collection of documents and resources.

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1989: Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia

2 comments July 13th, 2010 Headsman

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 PadrĂ³n 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.

* De la Guardia was a friend of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In this very year, Marquez dedicated The General in his Labyrinth to the soon-to-be-disgraced colonel.

Speaking of de la Guardia literary connections: Tony’s daughter, Ileana, has also published a book.

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1961: William Morgan, the Americano

6 comments March 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1961, American William Morgan — once an anti-Batista rebel — was shot in Havana’s La Cabana fortress for counter-revolutionary activity against the Castro government.

The high school dropout and army washout went to Cuba around late 1957 or early 1958.

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.

Morgan was stridently anti-Communist and not shy about saying so.

“There isn’t anyone in Cuba who doesn’t know where I stand-Fidel, Raul, or anyone. I am anticommunist. I don’t like them.”

That attitude would put him on a collision course with the only other foreigner to hold a comandante rank among the anti-Batista guerrillas: Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

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.

Disenchanted, Morgan started plotting for real.* It didn’t work.

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.

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1959: 71 after the Cuban Revolution

7 comments 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)

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2003: Three ferry hijackers

Add comment April 11th, 2009 Headsman

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.

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1967: Ernesto “Che” Guevara

24 comments October 9th, 2008 Headsman

As of 1:10 p.m. Bolivia time this date in 1967, Ernesto “Che” Guevara was no longer a man: he was only a god.

The Argentinian-born doctor turned Cuban revolutionary icon and the man who wrote the book on guerrilla warfare had put abroad to foment insurgency. His efforts in the Congo foundered; his bid to replicate the Cuban revolution in Bolivia was doing likewise when he was captured.

After holding him overnight, the government sent a coded order to execute him in the field. Che had done the same thing with his own hands to several who betrayed the Sierra Maestra guerrillas.

Soldier Mario Teran drew the short straw for a footnote to destiny; when he hesitated, Che chastised him with the legendary parting words “that someone invented or reported”:

“Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man.”

Maybe so, but the man looked Christ-like when they put his body on display for the press. As certain as they made his death, still Che lives.

CIA asset (and George Bush Sr. confidante) Felix Rodriguez took his watch as a trophy. The rest of Che Guevara belongs to the world.*

This site could hardly attempt a definitive rendering of such a towering and controversial figure, a task fit for two, three, many biographies.

Lengthy video documentaries are here and here. Many of Che’s own words are collected here. Declassified U.S. National Security Archive documents relating to his capture and death are here.

And highly recommended is SovMusic.ru’s huge library of Che Guevara mp3 files — like this Francesco Guccini song:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

“We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless we are willing to die for it.”

-Che Guevara

* Especially, of course, its marketers.

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