225. Despatch From the Consulate at Santiago de Cuba to the Department of State1

No. 77


  • Events in Oriente—Reaction (Jan. 6–14, 1959)

Revolutionary Justice

Following consolidation of the provisional government in Santiago the new authorities began an immediate roundup of persons believed to have been responsible for deaths and other crimes during the former regime. The names of nearly three hundred persons arrested have appeared in the newspapers and the total probably exceeds this although many have been released. Seventy were reported shot in Santiago (one of the 71 was supposedly freed). While rebels had long announced that they would take drastic action against “criminals”, the action has left some doubt in a few minds. Despite second thoughts and minor disapproval, the general public feels that those responsible for murders should be eliminated.

Those arrested seemed to have been classified into two groups besides the persons released fairly promptly for lack of evidence. The first group is composed of those who will be tried for lesser crimes by special civil courts. The second group is that which faced military court martial. Boards of 26th of July officers with occasional civilian participation were constituted to judge the grave offenders. It is understood that most local civilian lawyers declined to join in the proceedings. Boards as announced consist of a president, two associate judges or vocales, a prosecutor or fiscal, a defense attorney and a secretary. Some of the sessions have been public while others have been semiprivate, although it is understood that the findings and results will be made public. Trials are conducted under the “Revolutionary Code of Justice of the Second Front” (Raul Castro).

The fact that the courts were working was brought forcefully to the people of Santiago and the world when it was announced that seventy had been shot on January 12. Those executed were for the greatest part members of military organizations connected with repressive activities such as SIM, SIR, the personnel from radio patrol cars, and from the Masferrer group.

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There are stories that not all persons received a full dress court martial, and that in some cases the formalities were fairly much limited to sentencing. This was supposedly protested to President Urrutia by some members of the bar association. All of those executed were supposedly persons about whom there was “no doubt” as to guilt. It is generally stated that they were all participants in murders or tortures or responsible for them.

Announcements state that the cases were investigated between January 2 and 12. There are stories to the effect that not all of these persons received what might be called full-dress courts martial, and that some probably saw the court only long enough to receive sentence. There is a rumor to the effect that members of the local bar association have protested to the President because of this, but this is not verified.

This hurried “justice” and the possible slighting of judicial procedures is usually blamed on Raul Castro, who is the command figure here. As a result, possibly of local protests as well as the world attention, the trials and executions are reported to be suspended at least temporarily, pending new instructions.

Many of those executed were well-known to the populace as thugs and assassins of the worst type. There is little doubt but that a number would have faced the possibility of capital punishment in any state having this or war crimes trials under different circumstances. [sic] There were, however, names which brought suprise in some circles as did the large number executed with such rapidity.

These included Commandante Bonifacio Haza Grasso, local chief of the National Police, who presumably helped deliver the police over to the revolutionists, and who has always been considered a moderate if not a rebel sympathizer. Fidel Castro mentioned him gratefully in his January 2 address here. Rumor has it that Haza was accused by a SIM man, who was also executed, as well as by a civilian of ordering killings.

The verdicts presumably followed hurried investigation of many alleged killings and tortures by agents of the government. Details of crimes are being brought to light, and the bodies of persons long missing are supposedly being recovered from wells, sewers, military installations and isolated spots throughout the province. The newspapers have carried pictures of torture devices and the accounts of those admitting to have used them.

On January 13 Revolucion announced that the remaining prisoners would be turned over to special civil courts for trial. It is thought that this means revolutionary courts. The official organ also undertook to reassure the populace that innocent persons had nothing to fear, but that the course of justice would not be stayed. People are urged to denounce those guilty of crimes and bring in the evidence.

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While there are probably more that will receive the death sentence, it is thought that the main part of the retribution has been accomplished in this respect. Approximately seventeen persons have been executed at Guantanamo according to reports, as well as several at Manzanillo and Holguin. Numbers continue to be released. While a few are concerned for the processes, the majority solidly support the idea that the justice was warranted, although they may seem to have private reservations on some individuals. The startling quantity of people executed at once has undoubtedly left a bad taste with a few, but none will admit that there are not others who need to be treated the same.

Protests from the press of the United States and elsewhere seem to be disregarded with the rationalization that the United States took no notice whatsoever of the crimes and atrocities committed under the previous regime when there was not even a pretense of legal formalities. This applies also to the United Nations and Organization of American States which also failed to take interest in the protests of revolutionaries over previous alleged atrocities. Local people are also proud of the fact that the occupation of Santiago was accomplished with none of the frequent attributes of such upheavals. There were no lynchings, little or no sacking, and no mob justice of the type frequently seen, and they consider the action by the revolutionary tribunals as something completely different. A certain amount of “eye for an eye” justice has been forecast throughout the months, especially from the Second Front. The situation in general seems to bear out the estimate presented in the Consulate’s despatch no. 10 of August 22, 1958,2 in which the “culpability” of the United States as seen by many local people is described. As has previously been described, many local people can rationalize almost any action, and do so in rejecting press protests. It is thought, however, that they have been felt, and it is hoped that this coupled with other local and national reaction will temper future “justice”, despite strong desires for revenge on many sides. Santiago presumably had more oppressive tactics employed on it longer because of its long revolutionary history, and there is probably more resentment here than in some other sections.

In this connection it is rumored that a segment still feels some sympathy for General Eulogio Cantillo on the basis that under his command here there were few of the former types of treatment, and that the guilty ones were usually caught and turned over to the courts.

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Evidences of Anti-Americanism

As has been otherwise reported, there are many persons who are now openly criticizing the United States for “aiding” the Batista government and the pronouncements of Fidel Castro on the subject of the military mission as well as on revolutionary justice have fanned this a bit. His statements in turn echo majority sentiment. Members of the Consulate have received a number of comments, although they have not been violent nor unfriendly on a personal basis. More of this can be expected.

It was with some suprise, therefore, that on January 9 a request was received from an underground militant officer for USIS films to be shown at the Hunting Club where some 300 troops have been quartered. The request was granted and preparations were made to show the sport and travel pictures selected. At the last moment a soldier, who appeared to have been well educated, rose and harangued the crowd on United States oppression of the Cuban people. He was joined by a few others and they worked the group into stopping the showing. There was no violence and they assisted the USIS employee to pack up and leave.

The following day the militant officer apologized for the incident, and reported that four “communist agitators” had been arrested and others investigated for causing the disorder. It is not confirmed that this action was actually taken.


This is probably typical of the problems that USIS will have in renewing its programs. This may also be true in the small communities where there has been bombing with what has been described as “U.S.” equipment. It will be necessary to proceed slowly and cautiously in order not to cause reverse effects.

Communist Activities

Communists of the PSP are now considered to constitute a legal party according to newsaper interpretation of statements of Fidel Castro. The old PSP newspaper Hoy reappeared promptly in Santiago with a small one page edition. Most of the issues have been devoted to celebrating the revolutionary victory and it is now trying to claim credit for the communists.

[less than 1 line not declassified] a communist meeting with an attendance of three hundred was held in the dock area on January 10, and a PSP office has now been set up there.

Several persons with PSP backgrounds of varying degrees, [less than 1 line not declassified] have been appointed to public offices under the new administration. These include a Dr. Miguel A. d’Alessandro [Page 361] who has been put in charge of the reorganization of public hospitals in Oriente. He has also been Raul Castro’s doctor, according to reports. They also include a Castro assistant by the name of Cot Lesmus, and Miguel Angel Betancourt, who is listed as Secretario de Actas of the Executive Commission of the Comite Regional Campesino del Segundo Frente, Frank Pais, an agricultural organization. There are presumably others of a similar stripe in public office.

The Consulate does not yet know the pattern of Communist activity with the revolutionary government or the extent of the movement. It is not known if the present local authorities know of the communist affiliations alleged, or if they care, or if they are encouraged. To date, the proportion would not seem very large, although the key positions mentioned would appear to give considerable influence in some segments.

Changes in Administration

Comandante Huber Matos formerly of the Third Front has been sent to take command of the 26th of July military forces in Camaguey Province. He has been replaced in Santiago by Comandante Belarmino Castilla, better known as “Anibal”.

This makes Santiago almost entirely “Second Front” in aspect. Raul Castro and his principal officers and advisors from the Second Front have control of all important posts in the city. There is some discussion that Raul Castro is taking little if any advice from the civic leaders of the resistance movement, and that he keeps them waiting on his word, [less than 1 line not declassified].

So far there has been very good order in the city and the shooting incidents have almost completely stopped, although the hunt is still on for certain “chivatos” who have escaped detention so far. Up until now there has seemed to have been a considerable difference between the Second Front and other areas of the movement. Santiago will be a proving ground to see if these differences were real or fancied.

Spirit of Optimism

Despite the events of the past week, there is still a considerable spirit of optimism concerning the future. Many former residents are returning and the atmosphere is generally more relaxed than it was a few weeks ago. Business men are also optimistic. One banker informed Vice Consul Eberhardt that he had approved ninety credit applications in one week whereas the former monthly average was about one hundred.

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American business men share the optimism generally. The latter anticipate new demands on the part of labor during the coming months and possibly renegotiations on any contracts with the government. They feel, however, that business prospects are bright in Oriente.

Park F. Wollam
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/1–1459. Confidential; Air Priority; Urgent. Drafted by Wollam.
  2. In despatch 10, the Consulate analyzed the effect in Oriente province of Cuban Army and police excesses. It concluded that, “while the cases can not be assumed to be the rule, instances of brutality and the negative propaganda resulting from them are an important factor in the bitterness and intransigence of the opposition in Oriente.” (ibid., 738.00/8–2258)