Eyewitnesses to History

Marion and Orlando de Cardenas aided Fidel Castro when the Cuban revolution was still a daydream, not a bad dream

Veteran Cuban exile journalist Agustin Tamargo opens his talk show on Radio Mambi this Monday afternoon as usual, by introducing his guests, who are seated around a long table that takes up most of a small studio. First is Mario Chanes de Armas, a wiry, white-haired man who in 1993 emigrated to Miami after having spent 30 years as a political prisoner in Cuba. Then the formally dressed Tamargo glances across the table to Orlando de Cardenas, a Cuban who hasn't lived in his homeland since 1935, when at the age of seventeen he took a boat to Miami, fleeing retribution for his activities against the government of Fulgencio Batista. After some four decades in New York and Mexico, de Cardenas settled in Miami. Seated next to him are his daughter Dinorah Olalde and his wife of 55 years, Marion Garrett de Cardenas. Tamargo can't cover all of Orlando de Cardenas's past and present careers in a brief introduction, so he concludes by describing him as "a living chronicle of history."

Indeed, both Orlando and Marion de Cardenas have found their lives intertwined with a disparate succession of people and events that have influenced history. Their appearance this day at Radio Mambi is prompted by what is perhaps their most historically significant association. Forty years ago, in the predawn hours of November 25, 1956, the de Cardenases stood in a warm drizzle on a riverbank near the Gulf Coast of Mexico to bid farewell to Fidel Castro as he boarded a rickety wooden yacht bound for Cuba. The de Cardenases had arrived dockside in a taxi just before the boat's departure. Already onboard were most of the 82 young men who would make the voyage, including today's fellow talk-show guest Mario Chanes, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the scores of others who had played important roles in Castro's rebel cause but who were soon to die.

The departure from Tuxpan, Mexico, launched Castro's return to Cuba after a fifteen-month exile, and marked what is generally regarded as the start of the revolution that would sweep him to power in 1959. The boat, named the Granma, was purchased from a Yankee using funds Castro had obtained from another exile, deposed Cuban president Carlos Prio Socorras. The Granma became a famous revolutionary symbol despite its inauspicious beaching near the town of Niquero and the death of most of its occupants at the hands of Batista's troops in the following weeks.

On the 40th anniversary of the Granma's departure, de Cardenas and Chanes are recalling for Miami's exile community their days as friends and supporters of Fidel Castro and their subsequent disillusionment after his turn to communism. Despite Chanes's and de Cardenas's early renunciations of Castro (and Chanes's three decades in Castro's prisons), some listeners still begrudge them their relationship with the young revolutionary. "I can't understand how this bastardo, loco asesino continues in power," rants a woman caller after politely greeting Tamargo. "Anyone who helped such a diabolical bastard shouldn't be given any publicity by talking on programs like this."

Chanes and de Cardenas, speechless behind the black, foam-capped microphones sprouting from the table, can only smile faintly and shake their heads.

De Cardenas, a slightly disheveled man about five feet, six inches tall, with thinning, grayish-brown hair and mustache, rarely hears such invective these days. He stays away from overt political activism, as he has ever since the Fifties, when he and Marion were part of a clandestine network in Mexico committed to Castro and his idealistic quest to build a new egalitarian Cuban society. The de Cardenases have been lucky; most of the young revolutionaries they knew in Mexico are dead, and many others have been persecuted, imprisoned, or exiled.

In a sense the 78-year-old de Cardenas has come full circle from his early years in the U.S., when he established himself as a music performer. He now performs before television cameras as the host of WLRN's Sunday talk show Comentando, and he edits and contributes to two Spanish-language magazines covering la farandula (show biz). De Cardenas is also completing a book about his life, to be published next year by Mexico City-based Lasser Press. A caller to Tamargo's show blurts out, "I watch that guy on TV every week. To tell you the truth, I always thought he was just a bobito, not someone who had been involved in such dangerous things."

Orlando and Marion de Cardenas rent a small but airy house with a fenced yard in Little Havana. He drives around in an aged, complaining beige Chevette. Semiretired, he sometimes he swings back by the house after running errands and invites his wife to lunch at Denny's. Marion, an impeccably groomed 83-year-old woman given to wearing Mexican-style peasant dresses and jewelry, retired seven years ago from her job as a secretary at the Metro-Dade Police Department. Her face is soft and sweet. The couple moved to Miami from Mexico City in 1977. Their son Orlandito had died in 1972 at the age of 25, when the Saesa jetliner he was piloting was destroyed under mysterious circumstances. Mexico and much of the Western world at that time were beset with political unrest and violence; many people believed the incident was the work of terrorists. "We couldn't live in Mexico any more after that," Orlando de Cardenas says. "We came to Miami because it was close to Cuba, it was the place with the most Cuban atmosphere."

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