Eyewitnesses to History

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."  

An oil portrait of Orlandito, a subtle halo of white light surrounding his head, hangs prominently in the living room. Other reminders of their 35 years in Mexico are everywhere: Aztec and Mayan figurines and other Indian craftwork; Mexican pottery, a tortilla warmer, family snapshots. Their Cuban roots are evident in the golden bust of Jose Marti atop one of the many bookcases lining the living room walls. And a perusal of the book titles reveals a strikingly wide selection of writings about modern Cuban history, predominately about that part of history in which the de Cardenases participated. Their names appear in a few of the books, even if their roles were minor compared to some of the legendary personalities of the revolution. The titles include Dias del Combate and La Muerte de Che; The Unsuspected Revolution and Guerrilla Prince. "If we had to do it over again," de Cardenas says, "I think we would, because we wanted change in Cuba. But we were deceived. So many people were deceived."

As plentiful as books in the de Cardenas home are record albums -- old vinyl discs they brought from Mexico and which constitute an archive of Latin music from way back: Perez Prado, Tonya La Negra, Beny More, Orlando Vallejo, Fernando Albuerne, and Desi Arnaz, whom de Cardenas met soon after de Cardenas arrived in New York and was working as a dishwasher and busboy in a restaurant on New York's Upper East Side.

Arnaz had recently moved up from Miami and was playing with Xavier Cugat's band. "We were both Cubans and we both liked singing," de Cardenas says. "But once he got that RKO contract he forgot a lot of his friends in New York." Arnaz, of course, went on to hook up with Lucille Ball and became a star. De Cardenas likes to repeat what he remembers Ball confiding soon after she met Arnaz, an incorrigible ladies' man: "She used to tell me, 'I know it's a mistake to marry Desi, but all my life I've dreamed of a man like him, and I can't let him get away.'"

De Cardenas himself was slowly building the foundation of a respectable musical career -- singing nonprofessionally, teaching women to dance the conga (a novelty), and continuing to bus restaurant tables. In 1939, performing as the dashing "Orlando," he was hired to sing at a wedding reception in Manhattan. One of the guests, a secretary for an export company on 42nd Street, was smitten by the 21-year-old Orlando and by one of his original compositions, a romantic bolero titled "Lluvia (Rain)."

"She asked to meet the composer," remembers de Cardenas. His admirer was Marion Garrett, who now adds with a shy giggle, "As a young man he was quite handsome. For me it was love at first sight." They were married in May 1941 as his career was approaching its zenith.

For "two or three years" (no one can remember exactly), starting about 1940, de Cardenas sang with pianist Fausto Curbelo's orchestra. A 1941 stint at Detroit's Statler Hotel, in which Curbelo's "Night in Havana" shared the bill with Arnaz's act, received glowing reviews from local entertainment critics. Curbelo, a U.S. citizen born in Cuba, was one of the top band leaders of the day. He had worked with Arnaz in Cugat's band before forming his own ensemble. He lives in Hialeah now, and still plays the piano. "Orlando de Cardenas sang beautifully," Curbelo recalls. "In tune. Never out of tune or tempo. He had a beautiful melody to his voice and a terrific range, from bottom to top."

Curbelo's orchestra also had a long run at the famous Stork Club in New York, where de Cardenas recalls meeting stars such as Rudy Vallee, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. He says Charlie Chaplin paid him $800 to sing two songs at Chaplin's wedding to Oona O'Neill. Later de Cardenas's lyric tenor was broadcast on WOR daily in a program from Ben Marden's Riviera, and he became known as "the soul of Cuba on radio," according to an article in Hits Musicales, a Havana magazine that published song lyrics and interviews with stars and which featured de Cardenas on one cover.  

In 1942 de Cardenas was offered a contract to perform at Ciro's in Mexico City, a luxurious nightclub in the basement of the Hotel Reforma. Marion continued to work as a secretary, taking brief time off for the births of Dinorah in 1945 and Orlandito in 1947. By then her father, Burton Garrett, had been dead for about 30 years, and her mother, Maria Martinez Garrett, had made a name for herself as a film industry publicist and subsequently as a writer for Cuban and South American magazines.

Burton Garrett, who met Maria Martinez when he was a U.S. diplomat in Havana in the late 1800s, was a descendant of a drummer boy in the Revolutionary War. By the time Marion and her brother were born in Boston, their father had left the diplomatic corps and was traveling widely, promoting movies for a Hollywood film company. He died in 1915 when Marion was only two. Maria Garrett took her children back to Havana, where she found work as a secretary for a Cuban film company. Eventually Maria began to write news and interview pieces for a few Cuban magazines and then for other South American publications. Sometime around 1925, according to Marion's occasionally faltering memory, she and her mother moved to Hoboken, New Jersey, where she graduated from high school. Then it was on to the Eagan School of Business and a job in New York City. That was where she was working when she met Orlando de Cardenas.

Ciro's nightclub was a fabulous place, by de Cardenas's accounting, owned by colorful characters and frequented by the era's equivalent of the international jet set. Unfortunately his contract at the nightspot expired after two years, and he had no other offers that appealed to him. "I had become spoiled by performing in such an elegant club," he recalls. "After that I didn't want to sing in cheap places, so I retired from show business." He went to work as secretary to a wealthy Cuban businessman in Mexico, Pablo Machado, whose brother Manuel owned a printing firm and would later become a major financial supporter of the 26th of July movement and even print the organization's manifesto in 1957. A few years later, de Cardenas began working as sales manager for W.M. Jackson, Inc., a large publishing house also owned by a Cuban, Guillermo Menendez. He grew to enjoy his work with the publishing company, and life took on a comfortable routine for him, Marion, and their two children in their spacious two-story house on Avenida la Quemada -- until 1956, that is, when three men knocked on his door late one January night.

"Inside I've always been a revolutionary," de Cardenas confesses. He says he committed his first act of sedition in 1931, at the age of thirteen. "I left my house one day and as I passed the corner I saw a package of about 20 or 30 small newspapers. They were very subversive, against the ferocious dictatorship of [Gerardo] Machado. So I hurriedly passed by. But then I stopped and I went back. I gathered up a bunch and distributed them at markets and other shops -- the whole time trembling with fear." When Fulgencio Batista assumed power in 1934 after a military coup, de Cardenas joined an opposition group. His activities led to an arrest (for painting Abajo Batista signs) and threats by the police to keep him in jail much longer if he got caught again. That led to his flight to the U.S. in 1935.

Twenty years later de Cardenas's history of activism prompted someone in Cuba to pass along his name to Fidel Castro. The rebellious young lawyer had been released from prison in 1955 after serving a year and a half for his ill-conceived attack on Batista's Moncada army barracks near Santiago. (The assault took place on July 26, 1955, the date from which Castro later drew the name of his revolutionary movement.) He went into exile in Mexico with the express purpose of returning to Cuba, where, he would proclaim in a 1956 speech in New York, "we will be free or we will be martyrs." Some of his followers went into exile with him, others would join him later, and some, like Che Guevara, first encountered him in Mexico. Groups of Cuban revolutionaries aligned with Castro (and other Batista opponents) were scattered around Mexico City, as well as the U.S. and Latin American countries, and they didn't necessarily have contact with each other.

When de Cardenas answered his door that night in January 1956, he beheld Castro and two bodyguards. De Cardenas had heard about Castro, mostly unfavorable things about his "gangsterism" as a student activist at the University of Havana, and he wasn't inclined to help him. But Castro kept talking and eventually won him over. "It was very difficult to say no to him," de Cardenas remembers. "I became devoted to him. I truly believed he was well-intentioned, and his ideas were good. I risked my life three or four times in order to help him."  

De Cardenas aided Castro in the same practical ways as many other residents of Mexico: His house became a meeting place and sporadic residence for several of Castro's men, and a cottage in the back yard was used to stash smuggled weapons de Cardenas and others would pick up at various secret locations. De Cardenas recalls that after one seizure of weapons by Mexican police, Castro became worried that they'd find de Cardenas's cache, and so ordered him to find another storage space. After frantically calling several friends, de Cardenas received permission from prominent Castro supporter Teresa Casuso to take the rifles, bazookas, and ammunition to her house, several miles across town.

He had to make three trips, his old car sagging under the weight of the weaponry, and he had to drive past Los Pinos, the Mexican presidential palace, which was bristling with military guards. On one trip, de Cardenas recalls, a tire blew out near the palace. Not only did his jack not work, he'd never changed a tire. At any moment, he feared, the presidential guards would become curious. He flagged down a taxi and begged the driver for help, shoving twenty pesos into his hand. The cabbie had a functioning jack, and the guns got to Casuso's house without arousing suspicion.

Daughter Dinorah remembers sneaking into the back-yard cottage with her brother and playing with the unloaded guns. "My parents didn't know we did that," she says today. The children chose not to ask their father about all those guns or why groups of strange men began hanging out in their living room.

De Cardenas also rented apartments for some of the men, who moved regularly in order to evade Batista's agents and Batista-bribed Mexican police. Using money donated by Castro's supporters in the U.S., Cuba, and other Latin American countries, he covered the rent for rebels whose identities he disguised with pseudonyms, mostly names of popular Cuban actors of the day. He still has a receipt dated August 22, 1956, noting 1900 pesos paid on behalf of "Sr. Rafael Llorena Diaz" for rent on Apartment 712, Calle Sierra Nevada.

From the moment he cast his lot with Fidel, de Cardenas spent increasingly less time at work, and the family relied more on support from Marion's secretarial job. "He took a lot of time from work," remembers Guillermo Menendez, Jr., son of the owner of W.M. Jackson and the man who is now publishing de Cardenas's memoirs. "But since my father was also Cuban, there was a relationship beyond boss-employee; there was also a social relationship. In those years I was going to college in the United States, so I wasn't involved, but I know his experiences are for real."

"The young men who followed Fidel were very, very nice," says Marion de Cardenas. "Some of them lived in my house. They wouldn't even open the refrigerator door to get a glass of milk if I wasn't there." She didn't socialize much with the revolutionaries ("At night when they gathered, I went upstairs") but still she speaks with genuine affection about some of the men: "Felix Elmusa, he was a great guy. He used to love our girl. I liked Juan Manuel Marquez. And Candido [Gonzalez]."

"Candido was from CamagYey," interjects de Cardenas. "He was tortured by the Mexican police when they arrested him one time. They put him in a tank of ice water and held him under until he almost drowned, then they'd pull him out by the hair and punch him in the stomach and kidneys. They were never hit in the face so you couldn't tell they'd been tortured unless they took their clothes off. After he was tortured he couldn't eat anything without vomiting blood." All three were killed by Batista's army just days after the landing of the Granma.

Camilo Cienfuegos, another Castro ally who would become a martyred hero of the revolution when his plane mysteriously disappeared in October 1959, was "a typical cubanazo -- he was extroverted, liked Cuban cigars, a good rumba dancer," de Cardenas says. "But I didn't like Raul." Fidel's younger brother wasn't particularly engaging. "He'd just sit there," says Marion. "At that time he didn't amount to anything."

De Cardenas recalls that Che Guevara, the young Argentine doctor who fell under Castro's spell after a chance meeting with Raul, was serious and reserved, and made no secret of his newly embraced leftist leanings. "He had no use for bourgeois formalities," de Cardenas recounts. "If he was writing a letter to someone he didn't know well or at all, he wouldn't start out with 'Dear ...' He'd just write, 'Mr. So and So.'"  

For several days in November 1956, de Cardenas recalls, the threat of a police raid on his house forced him to sleep on the floor of an apartment he'd rented several months before. Also at the apartment were Guevara and Cienfuegos. "You know how we Cubans are, we like to joke around," de Cardenas says. "Che, being Argentinian, used to drink mate." One night he, Cienfuegos, and Elmusa poured salt and instant coffee into Guevara's mate pot. "When he came in, it was dark and he picked up the pot as usual. Then he jumped up and was asking who had spoiled his mate. Camilo and I were covering our faces with sheets so he couldn't see us laughing, but he knew, and he wouldn't speak to us for days after that. He wasn't like the Cubans."

Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, a veteran of the Moncada attack and a dedicated 26th of July member, was frequently at the de Cardenas home and became close friends with Orlando, Marion, and their children. "During those days there were some small, pleasant, intimate moments," Arcos says from his home in Havana. "We would come over to the house at night, after our clandestine activities." Perhaps it was fortunate that Arcos couldn't make the trip on the Granma. He'd been wounded during the ill-fated Moncada assault and had trouble walking, so Castro refused to take him.

After the revolution Arcos served as ambassador to Belgium until 1964, when he stopped in Mexico City and visited the de Cardenas family before returning to Havana. He subsequently fell out of favor with Castro. Today he is one of Cuba's best-known dissidents, living under constant government surveillance. Almost every week a small group of Arcos's friends in Miami, among them Orlando and Marion de Cardenas, gather to call him on his tapped phone.

Of all the characters who gathered in Mexico City during the last half of the Fifties to foment a Cuban uprising, the one who remains most vivid in the de Cardenases' recollections is, not unexpectedly, Fidel Castro. They say they didn't know the merciless communist tyrant of later accounts; they found Castro to be considerate, dedicated, and honorable. He even sent his son Fidelito -- when the boy was visiting Fidel in Mexico -- to join the Boy Scouts along with Orlandito. De Cardenas likens the Castro who sat at his kitchen table to a coin: "We knew the good face of Fidel," he says.

"I was in the kitchen one time," Marion recalls, "and he came in and put his arm around me: 'Oh, you're so good. We have so much to thank you for.' I used to feel so good because I admired him. He was my hero. So many people believed in Fidel Castro. No one had any idea things would turn out the way they did."

"He was good to his men," adds de Cardenas. "He thought of them before himself. He'd get a package of fourteen Cuban cigars; he'd keep one and give the rest to them." On rare occasions, however, de Cardenas says he caught a glimpse of Castro's abusive temper, as in the time an arms pickup was not made by some of the men. "He got very mad and almost insulted them," he recounts. "He was yelling, 'Cono! Those cabrones didn't pick up the guns!'"

Some of his men, de Cardenas knew, frankly favored communism, among them Che and Raul. But Fidel seemed more pragmatic than doctrinaire. "I still think at that time he wasn't a communist," he insists. "The only thing that interested him was power." Among the de Cardenases' collection of photos, clippings, and mementoes from that time is one piece of evidence that Castro's interests included more than leftist ideology: a two-page receipt for nine books from the Zaplana bookstore in Mexico City. The August 17, 1956, receipt is made out, in pencil, to Dr. Fidel Castro. His selections included two volumes of Hitler's writings and works by Lenin, the pioneering leftist Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas, British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and Nazi general Erwin Rommel.

But the de Cardenases' conversations with Castro rarely ran to political philosophy or military strategies; their memories are of more mundane incidents, one of which they recount often because of its oddly ironic nature. Castro and a few other men had come to their house late one night and wanted coffee. There was no such thing as Cuban coffee in Mexico, nor a reliable source of coffee to brew. So they had instant coffee, a blasphemy for anyone hooked on the dense, sugary Cuban brew. Marion mixed up some of her instant and poured it into a demitasse for Fidel. He took a sip and grimaced. Marion narrates: "'What is this?' he asked with a very disgusted look. 'Nescafe,' I told him. And he said, 'Well, when I come to power, I'm going to have whoever invented Nescafe executed.' It was funny, but no one could have imagined all the people he really was going to execute."  

On one occasion Orlando de Cardenas figures he came close to being executed himself -- by Castro's enemies. He was driving his 1941 beige Buick in the central part of Mexico City; Fidel was his passenger. He doesn't remember where they were going or why, but a black car carrying several men appeared behind them. "It was very strange. They could have been Trujillo's pistoleros or Batista's." (Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic, had a long-standing enmity toward Castro and would later grant asylum to Batista.) "I've always been a bad driver, and I couldn't lose that car. I was getting scared. Then we found a police station. We got out of the car and walked into the station acting like we were visiting Cubans who got lost. We managed to stay in there for a half an hour asking directions. When we came out again, they were gone."

Castro was eventually arrested by the Mexican police and, along with several followers, was thrown into prison in June 1956. They were charged with violating immigration laws and of illegal weapons possession. The Mexican media gave Castro and the arrests intense publicity; the Cubans were released after less than a month, largely owing to the intervention of former president Cardenas. Castro would set out for Cuba just a few months later.

The day the Granma was to set off from its mooring on the Tuxpan River, Orlando and Marion de Cardenas took a bus from Mexico City to a town near Tuxpan, Poza Rica, and from there a taxi to the dock. About a half-dozen well-wishers were there that misty November night. "Fidel said he wanted me to be there," de Cardenas says, "and Marion wanted to go. He put his arm on my shoulder and told us to keep together, to hide, to be quiet. We all hid until ten days later, when we knew they'd arrived. We slept in real cheap hotels, because we knew the police would figure we would stay at good hotels. When we got back to Mexico City, we stayed at Orquidea's house for a while. Then we went back to our everyday life." (Orquidea Pino and her husband Alfonso Gutierrez were prominent Castro supporters.)

When Castro came to power three years later, the de Cardenases, exhilarated, flew to Havana. It had been more than twenty years since Orlando had set foot on Cuban soil. They called Castro's suite at the Havana Hilton, a symbol of U.S. capitalism that had been converted to ad hoc government headquarters, intending to congratulate him. "We weren't looking for a job or anything, we just wanted to celebrate," Marion recalls. "Celia Sanchez answered the phone -- she was handling everything in those days, I guess -- and we left a message with her. But we never heard from him. We figured after all we'd done he'd be glad to hear from us."

They stayed in Havana about a week and, after a brief encounter with Camilo Cienfuegos in the Hilton lobby ("He was euphoric," de Cardenas recalls, "but he looked a little worried"), finally flew back to Mexico. "I was very angry," de Cardenas says. "I couldn't believe after risking my life for him he wouldn't even talk to me. But now I'm glad he didn't." Any remaining feelings of solidarity were extinguished, de Cardenas says, by the 1959 arrest, show trial, and imprisonment of Haber Matos, a provincial commander in the rebel army who had publicly criticized the government's growing communist tendencies. They didn't know Matos, de Cardenas explains, but they, like other observers, were offended by Matos's spectacle of a trial, the lack of due process, and his severe twenty-year sentence, which he served in full. (Matos now lives in Miami and operates a shortwave radio station that broadcasts to Cuba.)

Back at Radio Mambi, an AM station whose signal can be heard clearly on the island, Mario Chanes and Orlando de Cardenas continue to recollect their different roles in the revolution and the contrasting turns their lives took after the Granma began its labored journey for Cuba. "What was the atmosphere like on the Granma as you were leaving? Was there a spirit of adventure?" moderator Tamargo asks Chanes, who had been closely allied with Castro since the Moncada attack.  

"Not really," Chanes replies. "There was strong discipline. Several of the men had been at Moncada, and we were all conscious that this was going to be a pretty difficult undertaking, a hard struggle." Chanes goes on to describe the overcrowding on the 64-foot boat that was built to accommodate 8 instead of 82 -- how everyone was seasick and vomiting, the late and off-target landing that left the crew at the mercy of the army and the elements. "That seems like suicide on Fidel's part," Tamargo observes.

Chanes cocks his head and levels his eyes. After spending almost half his life in prison, he still carries himself like a soldier. "Unfortunately," he says, "many times being a revolutionary is suicidal."

A few minutes later, de Cardenas responds to a caller's admiring remark about his courage in submitting himself to "extreme danger" for a cause -- "but a mistaken cause."

"Yes, I recognize I was wrong," de Cardenas says. "But the only real wrong one can do is to do nothing.

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