Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 117 in February, 2009.
Segundo Frente Nacional Del Escambray (SNFE)
The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom by Aran Shetterly
(Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2007)
Essay by Richard Cummings
Some might wonder why a book as great as The Americano has been so neglected. That is, unless one somehow has seen a CIA memo uncovered by a researcher, charging CIA intelligence officers to tell their “elite contacts” in the media to trash any book that is in any way critical of the Warren Commission Report. It was apparently enough for Shetterly to suggest that Gary Patrick Hemming – an ex-Marine involved with Fidel Castro and the Rebel cause who befriended William Morgan, the “Americano,” and who appears to have provided information to U.S. Intelligence – might have had something to do with the Kennedy assassination, because one way of trashing a book such as The Americano is simply to ignore it.
It is tempting to conflate the CIA’s covert role in American publishing with its role in Cuba, since it was Kennedy’s failure to supply air support during the CIA’s contrived Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that may have led to his assassination. The CIA’s objective was to overthrow Castro and to restore American business interests that he had either nationalized or closed down. Because corporate America’s interests in this objective coincided with that of the Mafia, the CIA enlisted the mob to get rid of Castro for them. In this regard, it must be remembered that it would have made no difference if the SNFE had prevailed over Castro with its format of reformist social democracy, because any serious reform represented a danger to American business interests. Arbenz in Guatemala was a social democrat and not a communist, but his reforms created serious problems for the United Fruit company – which was not prepared to give an inch and saw all reform as a threat to its interests – with the result that the CIA overthrew him and set up a military dictatorship in his place. By the CIA’s own calculations, this led to the deaths of some two million people in the violence that followed over the decades. And while the CIA is often described as the covert arm of the presidency, it is, in actuality, the covert arm of corporate America, which in its is avarice, has been prepared to wreck the regime of any country that refuses to do its bidding.
Castro understood that, whereas William Morgan did not. As the United States became increasingly hostile to the Castro regime – with Eisenhower cutting American purchase of Cuban sugar by fifty percent, and then cutting it to zero as he placed the embargo on Cuba that has lasted until the present – Castro could reach no other conclusion but that the Americans planned to get rid of him. His turn to the Soviet Union, which agreed to purchase enough Cuban sugar to make up the difference of what he had lost and to lend him a considerable amount of money, as well as his inclination to follow the lead both of his brother Raoul and Che Guevera, both of whom favored communism over social democracy, was the logical outgrowth of the dynamic of America’s reactionary and imperial foreign policy. But before these developments, the Cuban Rebels in the mountains, fighting the corrupt dictator General Fulgenzio Batista – who had seized power in a coup and cancelled the scheduled elections in which Castro had intended to take part under the old Cuban constitution – were regarded as heroes. The irony of this was that Castro’s family was white and from Spain, with his father amassing great wealth, while Batista was the first and only non-white leader of Cuba, coming as well from an impoverished family. But although Castro had received an excellent education and lived a privileged life, he was in fact, illegitimate, the son of the family cook, whose liaisons with Castro’s father produced five children. As a result, both Castro and Batista, who had previously been elected president, harbored grudges against their own society based on race and class respectively. In Batista’s case, it gave him the right to steal, or so he thought, while Castro’s resentment against the wealthy upper classes engendered the rage in him that turned him into a revolutionary against the corruption that Batista encouraged.
It was into this Cuba that William Morgan appeared at a time when it was fashionable to admire the handful of rough guerillas in the Cuban mountains, fighting, they said, to restore Cuban democracy against all odds. It was fair to say that the ones Morgan fell in with actually believed this as much as they hated communism. The SNFE was a band of anti-Batista rebels separate from Fidel’s 26th of July Movement (MJ-26-7), the revolutionary movement named for the date of his 1953 attack on Moncada barracks in Santiago. Founded by Elroy Gutierrez Menoya (“El Gallego”), who ran a café in Havana, SFNE broke away from the Directorio Revolucionario Esudiantil (DRE), a radical opposition group made up mostly of young students that had attempted to assassinate Batista. Menoya’s family came from Spain, where his father had opposed Franco during the Civil War.
When Castro’s band landed in Cuba on December 2, 1956, only eighteen out of eighty two survived and headed for the Sierra Maestra, from where they launched the guerilla war made famous by New York Times reporter, Herbert Matthews, who broke the story that Castro was not dead, as Batista’s government had reported. It was less well known that Elroy Gutierrez Menoyo had formed a second guerilla front, the SFNE, in the Escambray Mountains of Central Cuba. It was late January of 1958 when the American, William Morgan, arrived at their camp and joined Menoyo’s rebel army.
Morgan, a strapping, somewhat pudgy, blond ex-Marine of thirty from Toledo, Ohio, explained that he had been a gun runner, smuggling arms inside Cuba, for which he was paid, but when one of his buddies was killed by Batista’s men, he decided to joint the Rebels. He spoke virtually no Spanish and had difficulty making himself understood. His real story, which he did not tell the SFNE, a rag tag group of young men with no military experience, few arms and no uniforms, was rather more complicated. He was a high school drop out from a well-to-do Catholic family who had joined the Merchant Marines at fourteen, and later joined the Marines, who court martialled him for going AWOL twice to be with his Japanese girlfriend, and sentenced him to two years in prison, giving him a Dishonorable Discharge. He had worked as a school janitor in Toledo, a job he did badly and then drifted to Miami, where he developed ties to the Mob and ran guns to Castro’s rebels, most likely on behalf of Meyer Lansky, the legendary Jewish Mafia kingpin. He left a wife and two children behind in Ohio when he left for Cuba.
No sooner had he turned up in the Escampray, than he began to train the young, inexperienced Rebels, turning them into an effective fighting force. Well-trained in hand-to-hand combat, he proved his worth, teaching the young men how to clean and shoot a rifle. He managed to secure decent weapons and uniforms and launched a series of assaults on Batista’s troops, driving them from the mountains. While staunchly anti-communist, the SFNE considered Castro to be the leader of the revolution, with Morgan insisting that Castro, himself, was not a Communist. In a letter to Herbert Matthews, he explained why he had joined the anti-Batista revolution.
Why do I fight here in this land so foreign to my own? Why did I come here from my home and family?... Is it because I seek adventure? No… I am here because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others.
His successes became legendary and he became accepted as though he were, in fact, a Cuban, developing a close relationship with Menoyo. Although they both fought to oust Batista, relations between the 26th of July Movement and SNFE were strained. Menoyo’s father Carlos was a fierce Social Democrat, opposed both to communism and unfettered capitalism. He had taken his family to Cuba because he could not live under Franco’s rule and instilled in his sons a belief in his political philosophy that became the ideology of SNFE. And while Castro continued to deny he was a communist, the anti-communist Morgan grew increasingly wary of Che Guevara, whom, he became convinced, was a communist. Likewise, Guevara became increasingly hostile to SFNE, considering them not to be authentic revolutionaries. He developed a particular dislike for Morgan, whom he considered to be an opportunist, not only with no serious ideological foundation, but because he was an American, (the “Americano” in fact, as he became known) was inherently suspect. What Che and Morgan did have in common is that they were the only foreigners amongst the Rebel armies to achieve the title, “Commandante,” which in itself engendered a certain rivalry.
As the fighting intensified, Menoyo sent an emissary to Castro pledging SFNE’s total support for him as the leader of the revolution, intending to diffuse the hostility between the two groups. Tragically, the emissary, out of fear of being captured by Batista’s troops, failed to deliver the message. Without warning, Che appeared with an entourage, at SFNE’s camp in the Escombray, arrogantly demanding that SFNE’s accept Fidel’s leadership. When he arrived, Che and Morgan had a stand off, with Morgan refusing to let him enter. Alfonso Chardy and Michael Sallah described the confrontation in a January 4, 2009 article for the Miami Herald:
With hands resting on their guns, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and William Morgan—two rebel leaders—glared at each other from across a desolate field in the central mountains of Cuba. For a tense moment on that fall day 50 years ago, each waited for the other to make a move—the Cuban revolution on the brink. They exchanged harsh words but in the end put down their weapons, agreeing to return to fighting their common enemy, the Fulgencio Batista regime. Both would lead their own units in the final weeks of the revolution. Both captured major cities. Both played pivotal roles in the conflict. But while Guevara has been long remembered, Morgan has largely been forgotten—an ex-paratrooper buried in an obscure grave in Havana’s largest cemetery
It is to Aran Shetterly’s great credit that he has told the story of William Morgan with such brilliance as to bring those compelling days back to life with an intensity that makes it virtually impossible to put his book down. It is positively riveting. One can well imagine oneself in the mountains, experiencing the hardships and the fighting, the characters coming alive. Fidel, Che, “the Americano,” are all here in the flesh, in a cinematic work of great poetry and passion. You simply can’t make this stuff up. Reading it, you feel you are reading a great novel, except its all true, right up to its tragic end.
In the crucial last few weeks of the fighting, Morgan and his men attacked a fortress that guarded the road to Cinefuegos, forcing the soldiers inside to surrender. The move not only allowed Morgan to capture the city, but also opened the area to the guerillas, marking the beginning of the end for Batista’s army. Three years later, the yanqui commandante met his own demise after defying a revolutionary government he helped put in power. Charged with running guns to Menoyo and the SFNE rebels who engaged in arm struggle back in the Escambray to overthrow Castro and his government he had fought to put in power, Morgan was tried and convicted. He was executed on March 11, 1961 by a firing squad and then buried in the massive Colon Cemetery.
Known to be light hearted and something of a jokester, Morgan faced death with bravery and aplomb. Shetterly writes:
There’s a version of Morgan’s last moments that one will hear told in hushed tones by old Rebels in both Cuba and Miami. As a commandante, he outranked the men who would shoot him and so was allowed to command the firing squad himself. After his embrace of the squad captain, he asked for a final cigarette. Shoot me, he told them, when I toss away the cigarette. One can imagine that final flick of thumb and middle finger, the arc of that butt, a small hot fire burning out.
Why had Morgan turned on Castro? Largely out of Che’s suspicions of the SNFE, Morgan was not given a post in the government. He ran a highly successful enterprise raising frogs, exporting the legs to restaurants abroad, and using the skins to create luxury shoes and handbags, an occupation he thoroughly enjoyed, as it provided hundreds of Cuban peasants with full time employment. After his American wife divorced him, he married a Cuban woman with whom he had two children and lived in a large, imposing house. He had rescued Castro from an attack by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, by agreeing to serve as a double agent once he learned of the plot, much to Castro’s amusement. And when his American citizenship was revoked, he was given the honor of being given Cuban citizenship “as a Cuban,” for his heroic role in the revolution. In the end, though, he became convinced that Castro had betrayed the revolution and agreed to assist Menoyo in overthrowing him, running guns to him in the Escambray, relying on shady sources, possibly with CIA ties to do it, as the CIA began its active support of the Rebels. But whereas Menoyo was sentenced to twenty years in prison, Morgan received the death penalty. After Morgan had thwarted Batista’s assault to overthrow Castro, Cuba and the Dominican Republic normalized relations, with Castro asking Batista to sell him rice at a cheap price. Still enraged at Morgan for having insulted and ridiculed him, Batista demanded, in exchange, Morgan’s death. That Castro was so perfidious to agree to this was evidence of his flawed character.
Five decades after Morgan’s death, his role in Cuban history resurfaced when his widow petitioned to have his citizenship restored and to have his remains returned to the United States, with former rebels in Miami pledging to raise the money to pay for the return of his remains. One of them, George Castellon, who raised $2,500, said, “For so long, people just remembered Che Guevara. It was Che this and Che that. But they forgot about Morgan.” And Enrique Encinosa, a Miami radio host who had written six books on Cuban history, observed, “ He was a soldier. He was tough. He was disciplined. He was able to teach people to fight who had never been taught before.”
Fidel is now old and feeble and has turned power over to his brother, Raoul, who has promised reforms. Menoyo, who, after completing his sentence, went to Miami, has returned to Cuba to work with the dissenters, believing he will have a place in the new Cuba. Perhaps if and when that happens, Morgan will finally be given his due. Both he and Fidel brought the stifling decade of the Fifties to an end. When Fidel spoke at Princeton after he had taken power, the students greeted him as a hero, chanting “Fidel, Fidel, Viva Cuba libre!” as they lined the street as he emerged from the black car, bearded and in fatigues, followed by his fellow guerillas, similarly bearded and attired, smoking cigars. Who would have imagined that the most conservative campus in America would greet a Latin American revolutionary this way, the privileged sons of the American establishment, in what began as a parody of exuberance, finally realizing how stunted their own existences had been and exploding in admiration for someone who had stood up to imperial America and triumphed?