By Rafael De Cardenas
Rafael (Ralph) H. De Cardenas II comes from a long line of prominent families in Cuba. His paternal great-grandfather was a Major General of the War of Independence against Spain and Justice of the Supreme Court. Dr. Humberto De Cardenas, his paternal grandfather served as Attorney General of Havana. Ralph came to the United States through “Operation Peter Pan” where thousands of Cuban parents saved their children from communism.
Fidel Castro took over Cuba. He visited the United States and received a hero’s welcome that included a ticker tape parade in New York and numerous television appearances including national talk shows. The Jack Parr show being one of them.
Upon his return to Cuba, Fidel Castro’s new plan for government was implemented. After the takeover of private industry and the nationalization of all foreign property, he proceeded to commit his first wave of crimes. All the casinos, hotels and other sites were looted.
American citizens residing in Cuba were persecuted. Some were taken to the firing squads, some were sent to prison, and others had to abandon everything and leave the country. Castro then started persecuting anyone that would not agree with his new policies and also persons who did nothing to oppose him.
An example of this was what happened to my father’s brother, Orlando. Bowling Green University is one of the top schools in the country to learn accounting. Orlando graduated with degrees in accounting and business. He was also fluent in speech and had mastered five languages. He assumed a position with The Standard Fruit Company located in Havana, after ten years with the company he attained the status of First Vice-President of Cuban Operations. All of this, according to Castro’s law made him an agent of American imperialism and for that he was condemned to prison for thirty years.
An economic embargo was imposed against Cuba. Relations between the United States and Cuba were broken leaving the business affairs of the U.S. to be handled by the Swiss embassy located in Havana.
At the same time, a group of loyal Castro Supporters, who had fought with him from the beginning in the Sierra Maestra mountains, began to question his ideas. Camilo Cienfuegos, who was Castro’s right-hand man, had flown to the province of Camaguey in a private plane. He went to warn Huber Matos, a friend and also one of the original rebels, whom Castro intended to imprison for disagreeing with some of his decisions. On the trip home, it seems that the plane mysteriously disappeared. A relative of mine, Roberto De Cardenas, who was made Chief of The Air Force by Castro, relates in his book “YO ACUSO A FIDEL” (I ACCUSE FIDEL) that an investigation was conducted by himself, and others on his staff. Roberto states that he found the plane intact and hidden in bushes on a ranch about 30 miles outside of Camaguey City. He also states that upon further investigation he learned that Camilo Cienfuegos was taken to the Presidential Palace in Havana where a confrontation ensued between Camilo and Fidel. Camilo was shot to death by Fidel’s brother Raul who is the “henchman of the revolution” and has dozens of deaths to his name. Huber Matos was then sent to prison for treason to the communist revolution. There are countless stories about Castro’s rebels seeking asylum in neutral embassies to escape Fidel’s persecution. Even Castro’s own sister fled Cuba and to this day resides in Miami, Florida where she owns and operates a drugstore.
Anyone who has ever read The Communist Manifesto would presume the philosophy therein to promote a Utopia. I can tell you first hand that the way it is applied is alarmingly different than the written word.
My family, my friends and I were outraged by the cruelty and the atrocities we were witnessing. We immediately joined The Counter Revolution, an underground organization to work against and defeat Fidel Castro. You must remember that Castro had made us register our guns and by that time he had confiscated them all. Many people fought bravely and valiantly against insurmountable odds with only their wits and crude makeshift weaponry to wield against Castro’s well armed militia. Unfortunately, many brave citizens of Cuba lost their lives.
Whenever Monsignor Boza Masvidal spoke out against communism and Fidel Castro’s regime a number of underground members were usually in attendance. On one occasion shortly after the Monsignor began to speak, the militia showed up to heckle the speaker and disband the group. A heated confrontation ensued. My father received word that there was going to be trouble, and before I could be critically wounded or killed, he along with several of my friends parents showed up and forced us to leave. The others who stayed on were either killed or thrown into prison and to my knowledge may still be there.
I have often related to some young friends in my speeches they should be very grateful for their freedoms and youth. At the age of sixteen I had to become a man and bypass all the carefree fun that a teenager would normally enjoy. Instead of participating in teenage social activities and going to dances at the country clubs, I was participating in gun battles and going on sabotage missions. I was witnessing lifelong friends being mutilated and gunned down before my very eyes by Fidel Castro’s assassins. All in the name of socialism.
Two weeks went by and a family friend who was also a member of the militia came to our home to inform me that he had orders to arrest me the next day. Being young and full of determination, I was going to disregard his warnings. After all it was my country and a just and noble cause that I was fighting for. I proceeded to the meeting place of my underground group and upon my arrival I was informed that they also had learned of my impending arrest and that it would be in everyone’s best interest if I went into hiding. Later that afternoon I returned home to find that my father had been told of my imminent arrest and that my suitcase as well as those of the rest of the family were packed and waiting by the door. We let it be known to the neighbors that we were leaving on a trip to Havana to visit relatives and that we would be returning in a matter of time. Actually we proceeded to Varadero Beach, a quiet little resort community about a hundred miles east of Havana and the last place anyone would be looking for us, we hoped. I heard later that the militia had gone to see our relatives in Havana looking for us and that they had indeed showed up at our house the next day.
My father had decided long before the exodus of people from Cuba first began, that we would stay and fight from within. While living at Varadero Beach we were careful to maintain a low profile and we were able to stay for close to a year. During that time, the house we were living in became a safe haven for members of my underground group as well as people seeking an escape route from Cuba. My family helped dozens of people by taking them in and my father was helping the fight by assisting people to find political asylum in neutral embassies and still others to find a means to escape in boats in the middle of the night by sea. I have had several individuals tell me after coming to America that they owe their life or the life of a relative and all their new-found freedom to “you and your family”.
On April 14, 1961 at about 5:00 a.m. the militia knocked on our door. They searched our house and my father and I were transported to a baseball stadium which had been turned into a makeshift concentration camp. There were 50-50 machine guns at every gate and the living conditions were intolerable. We were imprisoned with 5,000 other men and we got to sleep on the bleachers if we were lucky. We had only one set of restrooms that were allowed for use by the entire camp. Our only food was what was brought by a family member once a week in a small basket. Well over half a million people were imprisoned in makeshift concentration camps during this time.
Fidel Castro and his men began to mobilize. Two days after our confinement on April 17,1961 a group of Cubans backed by the C.I.A. and with President Kennedy’s approval, landed in Cuba. This was the beginning of what has come to be known as The Bay of Pigs. These patriots were poorly armed and trained but their mission was only to establish a beachhead and a provisional government. Then they would be in a position to ask The Organization of American States to aid in the overthrow of the communist dictatorship. Castro had prior knowledge of the invasion and his soldiers were ready and waiting. The underground and the resistance were paralyzed. The patriots fought valiantly for two days unaided because the air support that was promised never came. I had a very dear Uncle and thirty five friends who fought in that invasion and they later told me about the ongoing radio communications telling them help was on the way. Finally two American Air Force jets did fly over and Castro’s air force immediately retreated. They soon realized that the American jets were only taking reconnaissance pictures of the battle. They returned to pelt the patriots with continuing air strikes.
In later years, I was introduced by General Clyde Watts to the Air Force General who was in charge of The Bay of Pigs Operation for the C.I.A. He rendered years later I was introduced to a gentleman here in Oklahoma City who was retired General from the US Air Force ( (I wish I could recall his name) he extended an apology to me. He said he had been in charge of the air operation during the Bay of Pigs that if he had known what was happening at the time and could foresee the end result, he would have seriously entertained the possibility of being court martialed for countermanding the order that came directly from Washington, D.C. The order being NOT to send the planes. He proceeded to tell me that shortly thereafter he gave up his command and took early retirement.
After two weeks of confinement and with the fighting over, we were released, from prison. The known leaders of the underground were kept in prison or shot by firing squad. How Fidel Castro knew about the invasion and who the leaders of the underground were is still a mystery to me and also I am sure to many Cubans. Especially the ones who are still imprisoned. All the invaders were taken to The Palace of Sports in Havana and on national television Fidel Castro proceeded to ridicule and make a mockery of them. My father and I both openly wept as we viewed my friends and classmates defeated and being humiliated.
The Bay of Pigs operation was over as well as our hopes for a counter-revolution and the end result being to bring down the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. Up until that time we had entertained the idea that with the work of the underground and our friends in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S.S.R. would never have been allowed to establish a base on our homeland just 90 miles from Key West, Florida.
Our family decided that it was time to leave. We felt that we would be lucky to get out of Cuba with our lives and that we should try to implement plans to escape to the United States. During the time from April 1961 to when Castro completely closed off any and all travel to the U.S., more Cubans left the country than at any other time. Over one million citizens left Cuba. These were attorneys, doctors, engineers, educators, executives and professionals who feared persecution, imprisonment or death because they were too intelligent to follow communist rule. In order to leave Cuba we had to procure a visa via a friend or relative residing in the United States. They in turn had to purchase a round trip ticket on Pan American airlines which was still permitted to land in Cuba. After you secured the documents and your passport, you had to present them to The Cuban Customs Department and wait to be informed if and when you would be allowed to leave. Meanwhile, the militia would come to your house and take the rotors or some other vital part of their automobiles, the philosophy being “if they keep them let them have fun fixing them.” There was no way that they could import American car parts.
The visas were for my younger sister and myself. And you can imagine we did not want to leave our parents. However, our parents wanted us safe and out of the country so the matter was non-negotiable. On December 4, 1961 we had to be at the Havana airport at 4:00 a.m. for a flight at 12:00 noon. My sister and I were escorted to a glass enclosed room which we called “the fish bowl.” Once we entered that room we could only see or wave to our parents through the wall of glass.
We were taken to the airport militia’s office to be thoroughly searched. We were returned to the glass room with our only suitcase which contained three changes of clothes. This, together with what we were wearing was all we were allowed to take out of Cuba. Any and all childhood left our sight for all the hours prior to our being taken aboard the plane.
Every human emotion imaginable was being felt aboard that flight. People began to sing, a few danced in the aisles, many others began to cry and some were laughing hysterically. When we arrived at Miami International Airport the people departing the plane would kneel at the end of the ramp and kiss the ground. My own joy of arriving in a land free of communism was overshadowed by the reality that not only had I left the land of my birth behind, but I had also left my beloved parents.
End of Part Two