The Autumn of the Matriarch

For decades Estrella Rubio has been a street-level general in el exilio's army. But her style of leadership, along with her health, is now fading fast.

The congressman survived and later went on to head the Cuban Senate. After the revolution in 1959, both would renew their friendship in exile, albeit platonically.

In the United States, Judge José de la Fuente Hernandez worked at the Fontainebleau Hotel. He died in 1988, a retired hotel houseman.

Take two: Rubio with local Republican party chair Mary Ellen Miller and state Rep. Marco Rubio
photo Courtesy estrella rubio
Take two: Rubio with local Republican party chair Mary Ellen Miller and state Rep. Marco Rubio
Rubio mugging with former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
photo Courtesy estrella rubio
Rubio mugging with former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Fidel Castro is an evil genius, observes Estrella Rubio. Some people call him a coward, she continues in her vibrant radio voice, but she doesn't see it that way. "Do you believe that a coward would enter [Cuba] with [81] men against an army of 40,000?" she asks rhetorically. "Here we are two million and what do we do? What do we do? We make money."

In Miami Cubans from the generation of '59 generally fall into two camps. There are those who supported Batista. Largely they worked in the government or were among the very wealthy. Most of them knew from the outset Fidel Castro meant trouble. Then there are those who formed part of a large social movement against the regime that helped propel Castro to power. They saw a successful revolution snatched away from them. Rubio falls among the latter.

In 1948 Cuba held presidential democratic elections for only the eighth time since 1902, and as fate would have it, the last to date. The new president belonged to the Authentic Party, to whose ranks Rubio belonged. Four years later, when the party seemed destined to win another election, Fulgencio Batista staged a bloodless coup d'état.

Although her husband had supported Batista in the past, Rubio remained true to her defeated Authentic Party. Opposition to the new dictator grew, particularly among students. Rubio claims to have hidden guns and literature to support the rebels.

On the morning of December 7, 1955, Judge de la Fuente dropped her off at Guanabacoa women's prison to visit friends jailed for their anti-Batista activities. The week before, clashes between students and police had rocked Havana. Rubio had come to visit some of those captured in the previous disturbances. A group of university students arrived for the same purpose. They planned to attend a demonstration later that day and persuaded Rubio to accompany them to Maceo Park. At the park hundreds of students were confronted by the police when they set off toward the university. "We didn't have guns or anything," Rubio points out. "We were screaming, “¡Viva la revolución! Down with Batista!'"

The police opened fire. Students fell wounded around her. Nineteen in total were injured that day. "I was screaming, “Let's get them to the hospital,'" she says.

The crowd ran toward the university, but before Rubio could escape she was captured and taken to the fifth precinct police station. She gave her mother's name instead of her own to forestall a police search of her house.

While in jail she met the notorious Esteban Ventura, future chief at the precinct. A lieutenant at the time, he would gain an ugly reputation for gunning down revolutionary students. Although there is no mention of him in two local media accounts of that day, Rubio is convinced Ventura gave the order to shoot.

In her story she stands up to the infamous thug. When he came by her cell, she accused him of murder. He denied it. She demanded to see his pistol to smell if the barrel had been fired. When he refused, Rubio swore to him she would never forget his face. "He said, “Don't forget my name either. They call me Ventura Sabrosón [really tasty]," she relates. To this she claims to have retorted, "More like Ventura Cabrón [asshole]."

Fortunately some of the policemen were friends of her husband. They had her transferred to Guanabacoa. After a few days in jail, she was released. In March 1956 Rubio says she went to Miami to link up with anti-Batista exiles to bring weapons and funds back to the island. The worsening situation back home, including escalating attacks on the opposition, convinced her to remain in Miami.

And so began the first exile of Estrella Rubio.

Rubio used her sojourn abroad well. She worked with groups opposed to Batista and brought money from the island to Miami. In 1957, while Fidel Castro and his men fought in the mountains, Rubio purchased her first Miami home.

By December 1959, with the revolution's victory imminent, Rubio and other exiled Authentic Party supporters traveled to Guatemala, where they hoped to take a boat to the island. The regime in Cuba quickly collapsed, and the Guatemalan president flew the Cuban contingent to Havana on January 3. "I came down the stairs [of the plane] with the Cuban flag, screaming, “¡Viva la revolución! We have triumphed!'"

Disillusionment set in quickly. While initially many of Rubio's acquaintances, including her ex-husband, worked in the new government, as Castro consolidated power they found themselves increasingly marginalized. Friends in the anti-Castro opposition asked Rubio to collect medicine to take to the mountains. She purchased about 2500 antibiotic pills from a clinic whose staff promptly turned her into the authorities.

Rubio describes her arrest with dramatic flourish. "I threw myself on the sofa," she says, pausing to place her hand on her head, "artistically." In a quavering voice full of exaggerated pathos, she recounts how she tried to pass herself off as a fellow revolutionary. "What's happening?' I said to them. `Oh, I thought it was Ventura who had come for me. I didn't realize it was compañeros in the struggle.'"

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