Losing it all in Cuba
When I was 2 years old, the Cuban Revolution was in full swing. My dad was a lawyer. Defending Fidel Castro and his rebels in court, he won a famous victory.
When I was 3 dad went into hiding. He didn’t have much choice, with the police coming after him. Cuba’s Dictator didn’t like courtroom antics and ordered dad’s assassination. (It was commonplace then.) My father fled the city, joining Fidel Castro’s rebel army in the Sierra Maestra. As a reward for his legal victories, Fidel commissioned him captain. Every once in a while, he’d come down from the mountains to see us kids. He’d dye his hair blonde, or wear a dark moustache. Always incognito.
Because by the time I was 4, dad switched sides. He’d analyzed Fidel and didn’t like what he saw. Trials by firing squad in particular. Dad decided someone had to lead a Revolution against the Revolution.
So in the middle of that war, dad composed a legal writ. Fellow officers put their name to it, alongside his. Sort of like a little Cuban Magna Carta, the writ was intended to curb dictatorship. It said (more or less) this:
"Comandante Fidel Castro is not our king. We are individuals, endowed with fundamental rights. A council of officers will henceforth judge all orders, and will veto any illegal or immoral commands Trials by firing squad will end at once."
Fidel and Raul Castro were not pleased. Dad was disarmed and court-martialed. They sent him back to the city. In disgrace, so they said. But that wasn’t all. Castro’s agents in Havana phoned the secret police. “Hello? You know that lawyer you’re looking for? Yeah? Well, here’s where he’s hiding…”
When I was 4 came the midnight knock at the door. The police had followed him home. As Mom delayed, dad climbed out a window and onto the roof. The police Colonel shouted, “Señora, if you don’t open we’ll break it down!” She opened the door. They came in, they turned the place upside down.But they didn’t go up on the roof. Dad got away.
When I turned 5 Fidel won the Revolution. I remember the victory parades, army tanks in the street. At the School of Law where he used to teach, my dad was tried in absentia. Chief witness for the prosecution was one of dad’s former law students. He’d served alongside my father in Castro's Army of Liberation. His name was Jorge Serguera. Dad’s little Magna Carta, and his refusal to take part in revolutionary trials was judged ‘Counter-revolutionary betrayal.’ Penalty was death by firing squad.
But dad made many friends during the revolution. He’d won many courtroom victories, saved a lot of lives. Those people remembered. They helped him flee the country. He made it out just in time. The CIA picked him up in New York. That’s when things really got interesting.
You might say dad led an unusual life. Parts of it are chronicled in histories of the period, including the book I wrote. In a nutshell, his is a story about a man who lost everything. While keeping the thing most precious to his heart.
Comandante Serguera was later rewarded with a government ministry. As President of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television, he went on to prosecute dissidents, intellectuals, and homosexuals. He also banned the Beatles from Cuban radio. I contacted him a few years ago. He expressed a desire, (through a mutual friend), to meet with me. “Your father was a fine man,” he offered. “My role in his sad affair is misunderstood.”
The Comandante died of cancer before our meeting took place.