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Cuba: Year of the Firing Squad

4 minute read

The year 1961 was supposed to be “The Year of Education” in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Last week the slogan was enlarged. It is now also “The Year of the Firing Squad.” The announcement was made by Cuba’s Agrarian Reform Chief Antonio Núñez Jiménez in a speech to a crowd of gun-toting militiamen. Added the Reformer: “We will erect the most formidable execution wall in the history of humanity.”

Cuba’s Communists were bragging. As butchers go, they are still bush league. But Castro is trying hard. To the 587 listed and the many concealed killings over the past two years, the dictatorship last week added the lives of two more Cubans, both onetime armymen accused of rebellion. At week’s end six more men—American youths allegedly planning to join the growing rebellion—were tried with the death penalty demanded.

A Hanging for a Shooting. Castro’s rationale for the killings is the savage rebellion against him, now approaching the flash point of open civil war. To 1,100 graduating schoolteachers, Cuba’s dictator cried that the rebels in the hills hanged three captured Fidelistas (unconfirmed reports put the real figure at 20), including an 18-year-old schoolteacher. “The agents of imperialism killed him because he was young—a Negro—a teacher of the poor—because he carried a Communist card,” cried Castro. “Not a single one will escape,” he shouted, promising “tenacious, implacable persecution, the like of which they never imagined.”

The horror talk, intended to terrorize, only increased the tension across Cuba. In Havana, 40 black-clad women marched in silent funeral-like procession on the presidential palace carrying the Cuban flag and a banner reading CEASE EXECUTION OF OUR SONS. A mob gathered to shout insults at the marchers, but individual soldiers left the crowd to protect the women, permitted them to make their mute protest, then escorted them away to safety. The rebels in the hills were filtering down at night to capture militiamen on lonely guard duty, promising Castro an eye for an eye, a hanging for a shooting, each time an oppositionist was killed.

No Olive Branches. All the militiamen Castro has mustered so far—10,000 men with Soviet-bloc guns—have not been able to rout the rebels out of their rocky, cave-pitted hillsides in the Escambray mountains 170 miles east of Havana. The fighting is small-scale but so bitter that militia units are losing their taste for the chase. Castro, like Batista before him, has resorted to promising common criminals their freedom if they will fight. For the rebels, help from the outside increases: the Escambray has received much of the 40 tons of opposition arms airdropped into Cuba; small groups of well-trained, night-wise guerrillas have been landed to reinforce the original bands. More are coming.

The increasing possibility of full-scale civil war and all that it implies led foreign diplomats in Havana to meet last week to consider an international humanitarian appeal to Castro to call off his firing squads. No appeal to either Castro or his opposition is likely to succeed. The opposition wants a fight to the finish. And so, apparently, does Castro.

In the Year of the Firing Squad, there was one man the Cubans could have any time: Herman Marks, 39, Castro’s first Lord High Executioner who commanded the guns in 200 executions, more often than not personally delivering the pistol coup de grâce to each victim. Born in Milwaukee, Marks was arrested 32 times in the U.S., jailed in Wisconsin, Ohio and California (vagrancy, assault, draft dodging, theft, rape), joined Castro’s forces in December 1957 and was made a captain. The U.S. canceled his citizenship with alacrity, and eventually even the Cubans could not stomach the man they called “the butcher.” Last May, Marks fled Cuba in a boat, made it to Florida and disappeared into Mexico. Last week he was arrested in Manhattan, charged with illegally entering the U.S. on July 22 without a proper visa. Deportation proceedings are under way to send him back to Mexico—or Cuba.

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