Thursday, February 01, 2007

Flying the Coop
Part IV of IV

Photo: The waters off the Havana suburb of Santa Fe served as the setting-off point for Matos' adjutants in 1960.

For two more nights, Matos’ adjutants remained hidden in their lavish hideaway. A block away, Villalobos’ brother, Balle had a clear view to the back side of the house. Every evening, he watched for the pre-established signal – the flip of a light switch – that all was well. Although the gunfire of the first night had gone unnoticed, worry continued to grip the household. The jailbreak had rocked the revolutionary government and become the primary source of gossip throughout Havana’s café’s and bars. Finally, on October 14, 1960, Barandela, Bequer, Suarez and the others were transported to the nearby beach town of Santa Fe, just west of Havana. It was from there, in the light of day, that the men took leave of Cuba in a small motorboat. Running out of fuel near a U.S. Navy bombing range off Marquesas Key the following day, the men were recovered by a Coast Guard vessel that towed them to safety and were eventually transported to Miami. Aside from the initial Coast Guard mishap at Morro Castle and Matos’ unexpected transfer, the plan had been executed flawlessly, with no one the wiser of Villalobos’s involvement. He returned to his normal routine for several days until Rene Suarez, an official with Castro’s G-2 military police unit paid him an unexpected visit. Handing him an arrest warrant detailing the actions he’d undertaken, Suarez asked him for a reply regarding the accusations. In a brief fit of anger and condescension, Villalobos replied that the allegations were all true, “Where do you want me to sign?” Surprised, Suarez pulled back to chat with another officer that had come along to make the arrest. After a few tense moments he returned to Villalobos, confessing that in the days before the revolution, he’d worked for a commercial fishing supply house that had dealings with the Villalobos shipyards. Suarez went on to admit that he too had experienced a change of heart regarding the revolution after having taken notice of the political purges and arbitrary imprisonments that were becoming all too common on the island. Ultimately, he revealed his plans to flee Cuba and told Villalobos he would report to his superiors that he was nowhere to be found. At the very least, this would buy him some time to arrange for a seat on the 9 a.m. Pan-American flight to Miami.

“In those days, the Pan-Am flights were booked 3 or 4 months in advance,” says Villalobos. Owing to the high demand for seats by those fleeing the new government, the idea of securing a ticket within 48-hours must have seemed ludicrous. Never-the-less, he approached Laurriano Fernandez, president of Havana’s Dussaq and Torral travel agency. An old friend who had received a great deal of business from the Villalobos family over the years, Fernandez replied that a it would be impossible to book a ticket on such short notice.

Photo: A 1950s-era Dussaq and Torral ticket envelope.

Villalobos describes what happened several hours later as a “miracle from God.” After imploring Fernandez to do anything possible, he waited anxiously with his brother in a rear office until a seat was finally procured. The fact that a booking was finally arranged – under a fictitious name – seemed impossible however. “I was terrified that this was a trap they had set for me to get me in the airport and arrest me in a big publicity stunt.”

At 8:45 in the morning, Eugenio Villalobos stepped into a Pan-American airplane at Jose Marti International Airport. He would never touch Cuban soil again. About two hours later he rang the doorbell of 7820 Collins Avenue, Miami, Florida. A squat woman with kind eyes answered the door. Surprised and happy to see him, she asked how long he’d be staying. Embracing her, he replied ,“Forever, mother, forever.”

Photo: The Villalobos residence in 1957 and again in more recent years.

Today the house on Fifth Avenue that saw so much drama in the autumn of 1960 is no longer a private residence. Run by the Cuban Ministry of Education as a hotel for visiting foreign students, the topiary bushes that were once kept immaculately trimmed have long-since grown up and over the property’s wrought iron gates. The marble staircase that Barandela, Bequer and Suarez climbed on that fateful evening has long since lost its lustrous polish. In a twist of irony, the hotel was named Villa Eulalia, owing to that designation having been incorporated into the main gate by Ramon Villalobos in homage to his wife, Eulalia Roca. In 2001, the American descendants of Ramon Villalobos - myself included - visited the home that they’d grown up hearing so much about for the very first time. As I sat listening to a hotel employee’s account of having heard the ghostly footsteps of my great-grandfather while standing in what was once my grandparents’ bedroom, a knowing smile ran across my face when I looked up toward the rear wall of the room. A small pock-mark scarred the old plaster and I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not it was a bullet hole.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello there,

Wonderful article. I found the ending to be an interesting twist. This ran in one of the news mags?



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