in the Presidential Palace, Havana, Cuba Jan. 1959
photo by Joseph Scherschel, LIFE
photo by Joseph Scherschel, LIFE
Contrary to myth and the official “triumphalism” of the Castro regime and its apologists, not all Cubans were out on the streets celebrating Fidel Castro’s victory in January 1959. There were also hundreds of thousands who decided to stay home. Many of these Cubans—like my family—had opposed Batista all along, but had also adamantly rejected Castro and his thugs as a solution to the political crisis provoked by Batista’s coup seven years before. And these Cubans were painfully aware that an endless night of horror was now descending over our country.
I remember very well the warning my father repeated in so many of his campaign speeches and public appearances, that “Castro’s victory would signify tyranny and totalitarianism for Cuba and Cubans.” But still, human nature being what it is, during those first days of 1959, overlooking hundreds of executions, people herded like cattle, kangaroo courts, arbitrary incarcerations and property confiscations, I still hoped against all hope that somehow my father’s predictions would be wrong. In search for a flicker of reassurance that the revolutionary turmoil would abate, and peace and fraternity would return to Cubans, I listened to hundreds of fiery revolutionary speeches on radio, and for hours watched the chaotic events unfolding on TV. My search was in vain. My father’s prophecies were materializing on an hourly basis as brutal truth.
Although these events were horrible and bloody enough to extinguish any remaining hopes, I vividly remember when the last faint hopes were finally dashed and my worst fears finally confirmed: seeing the photo at the top of this post. In a blinding flash, seeing it illuminated both my heart and intellect.
The image captured what the photographer and father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, called “the decisive moment”. The photo was taken at the Presidential Palace (Cuba’s official presidential residence) by a LIFE magazine photographer, probably on January 8, 1959— the day of Castro’s Roman Consular style arrival in Havana.
There’s truth in the faux Chinese proverb that “a picture is worth a thousand words”. I would add that, like beauty, such revelation depends on the eye of the beholder: to extract the treasure the observer must know how and what to look for in the picture.
This photograph encompasses a whole history lesson. The barbudo is Camilo Cienfuegos, not the worst specimen of the barbudo gang, wearing combat boots stained with the blood of those executed by “Revolutionary Justice” in the Sierra Maestra. Camilo is on the phone, unmindful that he’s stepping on a portrait of Marta Fernández de Batista ripped out from its frame, or that his boot is serving as the stand-in for the Revolution’s jackboot crushing all that came before and does not fit its design for change.
Had it been Batista’s portrait under the bloody boot, one could understand it. But unleashing destructiveness on innocent wives and families who are not responsible for the actions and deeds of their husbands or fathers sent me a powerful message. The message was “we are here, and beware- the revolution makes no distinctions between innocent and guilty, they all belong to a damned past. And we intend to stamp out that past and its patrimony.”
That portrait, even though of Batista’s wife at the time, already belonged to the Cuban people’s cultural and historic patrimony. It should have been taken down and sent to the National Historical Museum, or at least put aside in a corner of the building. But there it was, vandalized and discarded, a subliminal message of what Cuba had to expect from these revolutionary thugs, who for 50 years have sold the cultural patrimony of Cuba to the highest bidder. There it was, the history of the future, emerging from under the jackboot. Looking at that picture I finally realized that the old Republic that had served its people well, if for a brief and shining moment, was not long for this world. The old Republic was the true victim that day and would be sacrificed along with everything and everyone in it.
This incident is linked in my memory to another story about a revolutionary mob and a painting. In the chaos of the revolution that overthrew dictator Gerardo Machado in 1933 (and the coup that first made Batista a public and political figure), a mob vandalized and burnt the offices El Heraldo de Cuba, a newspaper that had become the official voice of Machado’s dictatorship. Years before, El Heraldo had belonged to my grandfather, Don Manuel Márquez-Sterling, who had been its Director and Editor in Chief. When he sold the paper, the new owners honored him by commissioning the distinguished artist Esteban Valderrama to paint a portrait of him to be hung in their conference room. When the mob ransacked the El Heraldo building they threw all its furniture and contents into the street and burned them.
Years later, when my father was Cuba’s Speaker of the House, a mysterious man who would not give his name showed up at my father’s office. He told my father that he had been part of the mob that sacked El Heraldo, and that ever since he had been ashamed of what the mob and he had done, particularly the destruction of so many objects that belonged to the national patrimony. He added that seeing Don Manuel’s portrait just before all the contents of the building were set ablaze, he took it and left. The mysterious man carried a tube under his arm which he gave to my father. It contained the rescued portrait. Without asking for anything in return, the remorseful mystery man left never to be heard from again.
Camilo and the Mystery Man provide us a striking contrast: The barbudo with his boot on Marta Fernandez de Batista revealing that the revolution had come to indiscriminately destroy all vestiges of the past; and the Mystery Man who had come to restore, ashamed of what a mob had done to destroy the patrimony of someone who had nothing to do with Machado’s dictatorship, and who in fact represented so many noble achievements of our republic’s history. Small wonder the generation whose revolution overthrew Machado restored the old republic and revitalized it with reforms and new laws that made the new Cuban republic one of the most advanced and prosperous in the Western Hemisphere. By the same token, small wonder that the companions of the barbudo standing in the halls that formerly represented the executive majesty of the nation, with his boot on a ripped out painting canvas, have brought Cuba to a dead end of misery, despair, and hatred, and her “twenty fifth hour.”
There are some photographs of the mob sacking El Heraldo. They do not capture that even in that dark moment a glimmer of light and decency was to be found. And even less evident was that the same darkness carried the seeds of another revolution that 26 years later would not be content with destroying a Valderrama painting of Don Manuel but would seek to eradicate all traces of his legacy. But amidst the horrors of that latter day mob’s 50 year reign of terror there are glimmers of light. It would greatly please my grandfather that despite Castro’s effort to erase Cuba’s past and his closure of the Manuel Márquez-Sterling National School of Journalism, enough of Don Manuel’s legacy endures that in 2001 a band of brave journalists named their professional society and school after him (Sociedad de Periodistas Manuel Márquez Sterling). Don Manuel would be very pleased to see his name associated with, and used to rally the work of these champions of liberty and truth who’ve paid so dearly and sacrificed so much to fight for freedom of the press in Castro’s Cuba.
Much as King Canute learned that the power of rulers could not hold back the tide, Castro and his followers will discover, with less piety, that the tidal wave of history will overtake them and historical truth will eventually wash over the island of Cuba.