Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Lives Grandfather Saved (or Tried to Save)

Grandfather Alberto was no less formidable as a friend than as an enemy: no man could desire a better friend nor fear a more relentless foe. But "true" enemies are not uncommon in the world: the maintenance of an enmity, even a lifelong one, requires only consistency of purpose and will not suffer by a certain (and almost necessary) detachment, whereas friendship, if it is to be lasting, demands our constant attention and cannot endure without the sacrifice at times of our own interests or even of our safety. An enemy may imperil our life; but it is only for the sake of a friend that we will willingly risk it. Such, at least, is the ideal of friendship, which as all ideals is rarely aspired to and more rarely attained. Yet grandfather, for all his life, exemplified that ideal. It did not cost him his life, which it very well could have done; but the results were not always those which he hoped for. Still, he always had the consolation that he had acted in accordance with his own highest expectations of himself. Not to defile our own self-image is a necessary condition of happiness in life. Grandfather, consequently, was never bitter or tormented by regrets, though his life was tragic in many respects, as any life that is deprived of its moorings precisely when the harbor is in sight. At the same time he was fortunate because his life was fully realized in his country, and even if he had been able to spend his last years there he would only have enjoyed the fruits of his accomplishments, but not added substantially to them.

Grandfather's political career spanned 40 years (1917-1958), or two-thirds the history of the Cuban Republic. He was known for undertaking daunting projects and succeeding consistently where others had failed repeatedly (such as in reviving the national railroads and thwarting the 1958 general strike). Besides his honesty which was so punctilious that it made him a byword for incorruptible in his day, the other constant in his years in government was his willingness to risk his neck to save the lives of both his politically-compromised friends and political opponents. An objection might be raised that a "relentless foe," as I have already said he was, does not go out of his way to save an enemy, especially one who fully deserves whatever is coming to him. A political opponent, however, may also have been a friend of one's youth, the friend of a friend, or at least a familiar contemporary. It is one thing to desire to see an enemy defeated and quite another to insist upon his utter annihilation. For grandfather, the greatest defeat an enemy could sustain was to seek his help in his greatest hour of need (something which he himself would never have done if put in his enemy's place and at his mercy). Magnanimity in such circumstances shows strength, not weakness, and is yet another way to assert one's superiority over the enemy. Fidel Castro, who has never forgiven a friend much less an enemy, represents the other extreme: magnanimity for him is a sign of weakness because he regards any instance of generosity to an enemy or rival as a capitulation. He is not preoccupied with assuming the superior moral ground because morality for him is simply what is in his own best interest.

It was in the wake of the 1933 Revolution — when Fidel was 7 years old and his worst enemy was still his father — that Grandfather Alberto assumed the role of the "Cuban Pimpernel." He was then in his mid-thirties and occupied the very coveted position of Director General of Cuba's 26 customs houses. No office in Cuba, perhaps not even the presidency itself, afforded greater scope for personal enrichment at public expense. But grandfather was an honest man and had been appointed to that office by President Gerardo Machado to combat the endemic corruption that threatened to undermine the country's credit and good name, which were essential for obtaining the loans from First National City Bank that financed the biggest public works programme ever undertaken and completed by any Cuban administration before or since. As Cuba's "Anti-Smuggling Czar," the greatest challenge he faced was from rum-runners during Prohibition, which pitted him against the head of that cartel and most notorious of foreign malefactors, Joseph P. Kennedy (obviously that office was hereditary in his family). But that chapter of grandfather's biography will wait for another day.

Before Castro outlawed them, revolutions in Cuba were largely encyclical and occurred every 25 years or so, marking the coming of age of each successive generation. There were always causes enough for revolution, though at any other time they would have been overlooked. The 1933 revolution was ostensibly precipitated by President Machado's ill-considered prolongation of his term of office from four to six years, accomplished by adopting a new Constitution which extended by two years the terms of all elected public officials. Why a man who won a fair election by the greatest plurality in Cuban history and was up to that time the most popular of our presidents would resort to such chicanery when, like FDR. he could have been re-elected indefinitely and died in office, remains one of the great chimeras of Cuban history, the first misstep that led us, inexorably, to the debacle of 1959, because it opened the way for many of the actors that would play a prominent role in the dissolution of the Republic. Grandfather saw it as a mistake from the first, and was one of the organizers of a projected mass rally by 100,000 of Machado's own supporters in the Liberal Party to plead with him not go through with his plans, when the assassination of Senate President Clemente Vázquez Bello, Machado's presumed successor, re-affirmed Machado in his determination to remain in office at any cost. The 1933 Revolution involved no battles between revolutionaries and the Army; but was conducted through acts of terrorism by the rebels (mostly university students) and bloody reprisals by the police. The violence on both sides was largely indiscriminate, but it was the government that was blamed by both the populace and the U.S. for it.

Grandfather Alberto's best friend happened to be the Chief of the National Police, Brigadier Antonio B. Ainciart, and it was by interceding with him that he was able to save the lives of seven of the most notorious bomb-throwers, one of whom would later become president of Cuba and another prime minister: Félix Lancís Sánchez (the prime minister); [José] "Pepín" Gutiérrez; [Juan] "Guancho" de Cárdenas; Arturo Nespereida; [X] San Miguel; and Carlos Prío Socarrás (the future president). If he had not intervened on their behalf, they surely would have been shot "in the act of escaping" after having been allowed, of course, to escape (the infamous ley de fuga). I do not recall exactly the reason that he sought clemency for the seven, since all were undoubtedly guilty of the crimes imputed to them. I am sure that any of the reasons already cited would have sufficed. Some degree of familiarity or even friendship is indeed suggested by the fact that he remembered two of the seven by their nicknames. Naturally, I was most inquisitive about Carlos Prío's case. Grandfather told me that his mother stormed his office one day and threw herself at his feet and would not be pulled away until he had promised to help save her fugitive son. Grandfather, who lost his own mother in childbirth, would have been especially susceptible to such an appeal. The woman probably stumbled on him by accident after having barged into other offices and grabbed unto other legs without gaining her objective. Grandfather took Prío under his custody to see Police Chief Ainciart, which guaranteed his life if not his freedom. With all the ingenuousness of youth, Prío declared that he was not responsible for the bombing for which he was being sought, but had in fact committed others. One can well imagine grandfather's reaction to such unexpected candor from one whom he was ready to vouch for. What no one could have imagined, however, was Ainciart's reaction: he chuckled. Then he took his personal card, signed it and handed it to Prío, and informed him that he had 24 hours to leave the country (grandfather saw to it that he did). What amused Ainciart was that never before had anyone voluntarily confessed to any bombing, not even those caught in the act of placing bombs.

The Revolution of 1933 triumphed exactly as Castro's Revolution did 25 years later: the U.S. ordered Machado to resign and quit the island under the threat of withdrawing its recognition of his government. It was then that the prey became the predators and the real violence began, and, one might even say, the real revolution. All former Machado officials were on the run for their lives, including grandfather. Naturally, not all were hunted down with the same avidity; in most cases the mob was content to loot their abandoned houses and burn them. It was a different story with the porristas (police and informants), for whom homelessness was not deemed a sufficient punishment. Former Chief of Police Ainciart was their principal quarry. It seemed like everybody in Havana was looking for him, not excluding children. There was no monetary bounty on his head, but it was understood that the biggest hero of the Revolution would be whoever fingered him. To allow his friend Ainciart to escape and go into hiding, Grandfather Alberto performed one of the noblest acts of friendship in unrecorded history. In Spanish, they would call what he did bizarro (reckless bravery). Those who don't understand the Spanish code of honor might be more inclined to favor its English acceptation (bizarre). Grandfather donned Ainciart's police chief's hat and had himself chauffeured around Havana in a patrol car for several hours. He lived to tell the story. Ainciart did not. His covert was located and he shot and killed himself just minutes before his pursuers could apply the ley de fuga to him. Poetic justice was not enough for his enemies, however. They mutilated his body and dragged it through the streets until it was "rescued" by the army. After it was buried, another mob stole his body from Colón Cemetery and strung it from a streetlamp in front of the University of Havana. When the corpse literally exploded under the tropical sun and came crashing to the pavement, it was doused with gasoline and set on fire. (Castro and his henchmen fear that a similar fate awaits their mortal remains and are now routinely cremated and then buried, a practice without precedent among Cubans; but in their case, a necessary precaution. It is well that it should be so since such a spectacle would be used to indict the victims rather than those who inspired such hatred).

The Revolution of 1933 was in many ways the precursor of Castro's Revolution except that most of its leading protagonists eventually grew up and rejected the ideologies of far right and left which they had once embraced out of ignorance rather than conviction, opting to become part of the political establishment rather than toppling a volatile republic in order to replace it with an institutionalized tyranny.

Grandfather returned to politics in 1936 when he was elected to Congress on the Liberal Party line. By then a General Amnesty had been promulgated for former Machado officials and all but Machado himself had returned safely from exile.

We also have a Cuban Prime Minister in our family, Grandfather Alberto's first cousin, Angel Solano y García, who served under President Ramón Grau San Martín; and are related more remotely to Major General Mario García Menocal, Cuba's third president.

1 comment:

  1. Manuel:

    You awed me with this historical account of our beleaguered republic, I remember my mother, though she was a child during the Machadato, telling me about how loved Machado was by the population, and how wicked it all became later, (she remembered people being dragged behind cars and their heads bobbing along) what horror!

    As for your grandfather all I can say is- Wow! What a man! I see where you get your convictions, you come from good and honest stock, a man of your word! I consider myself lucky to be your friend.

    Thank you my friend for all these postings of your ancestors, I must admit I have enjoyed them immensely.