1959: 71 after the Cuban Revolution

6 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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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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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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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,Piracy,Political Expedience,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Terrorists

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