Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Night Castro Came Calling

Photo: From her home in suburban Pennsylvania, Rosi Quintanal remarks: "It was a joke that turned real."

“It was a joke that turned real, nobody thought these guys were going to win. They would walk into the Catholic churches, trying to win over the clergy and end up genuflecting on the wrong knee. They marched into Havana wearing rosary beads and look at what they did.”

My mother was old enough to remember the early days of the revolution with vivid detail. On New Year’s Day, 1959, the family awoke at home in Miramar without the knowledge that Batista had fled. The prior evening, they had enjoyed a typical Cuban New Year’s Eve meal of pork, black beans and rice and the essential 12 grapes eaten typically by Spanish families at the stroke of midnight. The only difference this time was the uncertainty that pervaded the festivities. It was quieter than usual on that night. For months, the rag-tag group of bearded rebels, holed up in the mountains were considered nothing more than a farce by the island’s middle and upper class citizens. An upstart like Fidel Castro didn’t have a chance against a Cuban behemoth the likes of Fulgencio Batista. Corrupt or not, he was a powerhouse in those days, a man who had presided over the island nation’s most prosperous years and besides, everyone knew Fidel was a communist. The evidence went all the way back to the Bogotazo riots of 1948, when Castro, then 21, was part of a group of rioters that destroyed the Colombian capital following the assassination of liberal leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. The evidence was all there. Why on Earth would Cuba’s citizens allow a rabble-rousing Fidel to take hold of the reigns?

Early that morning, my grandmother Lola heard voices on the second floor of the house. Her brother Ernesto and father, Ramon were in the midst of a serious conversation when she snuck down the steps from her third floor bedroom and tip-toed barefoot to her father’s bedroom door. At the foot of his bed, Ramon Villalobos, one of Cuba’s most powerful industrialists, sat with a look of disbelief on his face. Running a hand through his disheveled hair, he listened as Ernesto told him the news. Batista had fled, providing Fidel with a de-facto win. The revolution was over. Ramon sat silently for a moment, gathered his composure and remarked. “Now begin the bad times.”

Photo: Lola (C) with daughter Rosi and son Gerardo at the
family residence in Miramar.

He wasn’t born into money. Those serving as apologists for the revolution often remark that Cuba’s middle and upper class population deserved what they got from the Castro machine. They were born into lives of privilege, never having worked a day in their lives. The revolution was for the downtrodden and if those of financial means were taken down as scapegoats in the process, so-be-it. Ramon Villalobos however, hadn’t come from a wealthy background. He was a penniless immigrant from the Mallorcan village of Estellences when he arrived in Havana at the age of 15. Mallorcans, like many of Spain’s inhabitants at the turn of the 20th century, were enamored by Cuba. An ironic fact considering that only seven years earlier, Spanish soldiers had a fought a bloody war against a Cuban insurgency backed by the United States in a bid for independence that would later seal Cuba’s fate as a pseudo-colony of her immense brother to the north.

Photo: Ramon Villalobos (2R) aboard a ship undergoing repairs in his Havana shipyrad. Circa 1955.

Villalobos had begged his father to allow him to make the lengthy journey alone. In April of 1905, his father, a Mallorcan tomato farmer, gave his oldest son his blessing. To ease the voyage for him, Atanasio Villalobos arranged for a prep cook on board the steamship to look after the boy. Half a century later, Ramon, by that time, a well-known Cuban industrialist, would return to his hometown with a family of his own in tow. While en-route to Mallorca aboard a cruise ship, his chauffer was busy washing one of the Chevrolets brought along for the trip when an elderly man approached, asking to whom the two shiny new vehicles belonged. Upon hearing the response, he replied that he would have to see Palmer at once. It was imperative.

Ramon was a man of formalities and etiquette, the spur-of-the-moment request was met with confusion and just a bit of disdain. Taking one of his sons with him, he set off from his private quarters for the ship's garage. There, seated beside a 1953 Chevrolet sat the aged prep cook. His face had wrinkled and creased with the passage of time but he was instantly recognized. Five decades later, he still worked aboard a trans-Atlantic ship. Sheer luck had brought the men together again. As a child, I was told of a lengthy embrace between the two men, a detail that flabbergasted my grandmother, as her father was known for his stoicism and not his outward expressions of emotion.

Fifty-four years after his arrival in Cuba, Ramon Villalobos would suffer a massive stroke as a result of the stress produced by the communist victory in Cuba. No, Fidel hadn’t yet declared himself a Marxist-Leninst in the Spring of ‘59, but many on the island already feared the worst, something that was confirmed when the reports of mass executions began to emerge from the dark corners of Cuban prisons the likes of Havana’s infamous La Cabaña fortress.


chumly said...

Thank you for that insightful story. I was 7 and living in the U.S. when that happened.

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