By Bruce Graham
This work was published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Lost Country. You may purchase a copy of this issue from us or, if you prefer, from Amazon.
You might have seen my picture. The photographer was Andy Lopez, and he was with United Press International. The photo was included in the book Moments, The Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs, by Tess Press in New York. He was sent to experience the first heady weeks of Fidel Castro’s overthrow of Batista and his friends in January, 1959, and to witness El Commandante’s so-called justice. He kept the picture by a trick, when he was told he couldn’t keep any photographs, he palmed the film and gave my jefe a roll of blank film.
The scene was soon after Fidel Castro and his barbudos, his bearded ones, had arrived in Havana and taken over the government of Cuba. In the swift aftermath the new government conducted a trial, of sorts, of Jose Roderiguez, who I heard was called Hot Pepe, an agent of the old government. He was immediately sentenced to death. The execution was to be carried out at once, and that was when Lopez took his picture.
Of course, I’m not Hot Pepe. In El Commandante’s regime, as I learned was common with similar set ups, appeals and delays did not trouble, as they do in democratic countries. It was only when I looked in the book recently that I even saw Lopez’s photograph, and there I was, forever twenty-four, forever staring through my sporty sunglasses, beret pushed back on my tousled hair, gripping my old Mauser rifle with both hands, legs spread, civilian pants dragging on the ground, cartridge belt at my slight hips.
The other members of the firing squad were gathered about, some of them also in the photograph, the bearded man in charge to my left, expression betraying an almost self-conscious desire to get on with it, the others behind us, two with blank looks, one smirking.
If you saw the picture you probably didn’t pay much attention to me or the others who were assigned to deal out El Commandante’s justice, or vengeance, or political cleansing, or terror, or whatever you care to call it. At the time I gave no thought to what Lopez was going to record with his camera. I may have preferred that my family, in the Havana suburbs, not see me in my assigned role that day. I had no beard, and was not one of the barbudos who had come out of the mountains with Castro or rushed to join him when he was taking over the capital. I was simply among those who stepped forward when offered work with the scratch military units being quickly put together by the new government, to keep order in the streets, round up people from the Batista regime, guard against an uprising in favor of the old government. I was instructed in marching and handling a rifle and placed on guard duty around The Castle. I happened to be with a couple of dozen like myself on the day of Hot Pepe’s trial and sentencing, and chosen by the grizzled man from the mountains to be in the firing squad for this execution. We were given single bullets for our rifles when Hot Pepe was brought into the courtyard.
I had no love for El Commandante or his followers, but no reason to dislike them either. They were giving me a job and pay and a certain status in the new Cuba. I had been out of work for almost a year and didn’t have any liking or hatred for the old regime either, things had been bad for a couple of years and didn’t look like they’d get any better. My father had worked at one of the capital area gambling and party places, and my mother clerked at one of the shops near where the cruise ships came in. I was a regular churchgoer until I took work at the sugar factory, and attended the religious school until eighth grade. But I drifted away from the Church and went with the wind, the money from the sugar plant was good. When I was twenty-one I took up with Estella Vargas, who I later found out had been passed from man to man for a couple of years until she latched onto me. A year later we had a baby, who got sick and died because I couldn’t afford medical care, it was becoming difficult to obtain during El Commandante’s insurrection. Estella left me, and I had trouble with the law trying to get her back. I spent a few months in jail, and lost my job at the sugar company. The only work I could find was with the city trash collection crew, and this paid a lot less than I was making before. After a year of that I was let go when I got to fighting with another worker. I was still out of work when I joined the militia, in the New Year euphoria after the old boss, Batista, and his closest cronies, fled the country. All this time my mother tried to talk me into moving home and my father berated me for a deadbeat and a shirker.
I tell you this to help you to understand the effect that the Hot Pepe situation had on me.
We were getting together to do the job on Hot Pepe, just waiting on the Prosecutor to come from inside The Castle to give us the word. I wasn’t feeling very good about what I was going to do, Hot Pepe was older than my father, frail and unkempt, face lined as if run over by a truck. He was in a simple shirt and trousers, and didn’t appear to be a villain and criminal, the way the official government newspaper—that was all that we had to read, when we took the time—described anybody who had worked for the old regime. He shuffled across the courtyard, looking around with a frantic expression on his face, I took it to be fear, pushed by a pair of bearded, men in fatigues and army caps, toward the wall assigned to those to be executed. My cartridge was in the rifle, ready to go on its way to the target.
Suddenly a figure moved from the doorway into the Castle toward Hot Pepe. The man was clean shaven, hair neatly in place, all in black, except for a streak of white on each side of his neck, onto his breast. He wore a long coat, familiar to me as I had seen its sort often. He moved rapidly, with firm step, and with authority, as if with a spirit of command.
For a moment I expected that the man would shout out orders. Instead, he went to where Hot Pepe stood, and spoke softly to him. Hot Pepe fell to his knees toward the man. The anxious look of a few minutes before left him. A trace of a smile appeared on his face.
The stranger was a priest, his gown was what they usually wore, but I couldn’t think of its name. The gadget around his neck was what they wore when they heard confessions, I knew that from the time of my First Communion, but I couldn’t recall its name either.
The priest joined his hands and held them out to Hot Pepe, who was saying something. He went on for a minute. The priest nodded and whispered in reply.
Our squad leader snorted and muttered an obscenity.
Hot Pepe didn’t seem to notice. He nodded toward the priest and stopped speaking.
The priest lifted his right hand as he continued to speak, pressed his fingers to Hot Pepe’s forehead, and made the sign of the cross, then rejoined his hands.
Hot Pepe reached out and touched the priest’s hands.
A man behind me, the one smirking in the photograph, made a vulgar comment.
The priest held out a crucifix and Hot Pepe kissed it.
“Get on with it,” came another voice from behind me.
It must have been about this time that Lopez took his photograph, because the Prosecutor appeared in the doorway and shouted, “No pictures.”
The priest spoke louder, something about remembering Hot Pepe in his masses, and straightened up. He turned toward us.
I had the feeling that he peered at each of us in turn. And I felt that he stared steadily at me for a few seconds. He then spun on his heels and went toward the doorway, with a firm stride. The Prosecutor stepped aside, then moved to Lopez.
Lopez was standing with his camera in front of him.
“No pictures,” said the Prosecutor. “I could take your camera.”
“I’ll give you the film,” said Lopez.
The Prosecutor held out his open hand toward Lopez.
Hot Pepe struggled to his feet and licked his lips.
Lopez fumbled with the camera and placed a roll of film in the Prosecutor’s open hand. I know now it was a blank roll, in place of the one he took from the camera.
The Prosecutor closed his hand on the film. “Now, out. You men,” said the Prosecutor, pointing toward us. “Go away. I need higher authority’s word to execute this man. You, Cold Pepe, will go to a cell.”
Lopez sauntered into The Castle. Two regular barbudos moved to Hot Pepe. They seized him by the arms and disappeared with him into the Castle. I couldn’t help noticing that his face no longer was fearful, but seemed almost peaceful.
We milled about, and within a few moments I had stacked my rifle with the others inside the doorway and was headed toward the barracks.
The memory of what I had seen, however, remained with me. The next day we were called to the court yard, where Hot Pepe was brought by two guards from The Castle. His clothes, his disheveled look, were the same. The frantic expression of the day before was gone. He was pushed against the wall. At our leader’s command we raised our rifles, took aim and fired.
From the way the old man dropped and our group leader’s nod of satisfaction I knew that enough slugs had struck the prisoner to send him into the next world. But not every bullet fired hit home. My aim was off. I know, because I couldn’t bring myself to aim at the withered frame of the old man staring at us. My shot struck the padding on the wall a few inches above his right shoulder.
My thoughts were confused when we marched from the court yard, while a crew dragged away the lifeless frame of Hot Pepe, who the Prosecutor had referred to as Cold Pepe. The man had been a corporal in the Batista army, but he seemed much too old for active service. And I could not bring myself to understand what he could have done to deserve this fate.
One day, many years earlier, the man had probably been as I, new to a unit, trained, armed, and drawn into serving what was then a new regime, that had taken over a few years before I had been born. Perhaps, as I, he had few ideals, few ambitions beyond survival, few roots to direct him to avoid Batista and his henchmen. Had he at first gone along and remained silent, then fallen into the ways of his superiors, then adjusted to the comfort, the privileges, the money that came his way from association with the government? Had he extorted from the vulnerable, mistreated the weak, lorded it over the powerless, forced his manhood against the will of women and girls, even murdered?
In short, was Hot Pepe so different, at the beginning, from me, and would my later years be so different from his?
Even more to the point, would my years in general be so different from his; was my present way of life so different from his?
Would I one day be facing a firing squad of young men not yet born, but fated to work their will on the society, that would no longer have a place for me?
Would I be allowed the last chance that the mysterious priest provided Hot Pepe?
How many others would be afforded the final rites at the end?
For a few days these thoughts swirled about me, until I was granted leave and returned to my home. My family knew of my service in what was spoken of as the “people’s militia,” but I said nothing of my assignment to an execution. My father was tolerant of my position, but expressed discontent over what he called the “lawless actions of the new bosses.” He challenged me to say how El Commandante was any different from the exiled Batista. One of his points was particularly telling: “His men will meet the same end as the ones abandoned by Batista.”
His comment caused me to think. Hot Pepe had made a career of working for his jefe, who served his superior, who followed the orders of his boss, and so on up the line. In the end, the few who could escape did so, leaving everybody down the line to face the music alone. They had no more safety from above.
My mother urged me to attend mass on Sunday, which I did without argument, to her surprise. I felt out of place, however. She was understanding when I avoided receiving communion. I remembered the admonition of the nuns and priests that to take the Body of Christ while not in a state of grace was a great sin, a sacrilege. I was aware of my poor relationship with the Church, but could not explain to myself why I should avoid what the clergy called a sin, when I ignored Church doctrine in so many other ways.
One part of the mass hit home with me. During his sermon—what is now called the homily—the priest stated, “Put not your faith in princes,” supposedly from the Bible. Many around me may have thought that this was a reference to the effect of the old regime’s perfidy in absconding so suddenly. I, indeed, remembered the pathetic figure of Hot Pepe, old and facing death when the masters that he had served so well deserted him. I, however, also took it as a reminder of my vulnerability when one day another uprising came along.
My service in the militia soon came to an end with the organization of a new military force. My group leader’s earlier compliments on my attitude turned to a thinly disguised warning that my future was dim outside of the regime. A few weeks at home, and odd jobs, with my father goading me to “do something,” and my mother’s obvious joy at my regular attendance at mass were accompanied by serious thought of what lay ahead. To the amazement of both of my parents, and my brother and sisters, I expressed resentment at the new regime’s negative attitude toward the Church.
To make a long story short, if possible, I entered the seminary, to my father’s puzzlement, and my mother’s amazement. The way was not easy, but with disdain, rather than hostility, the communist regime allowed ecclesiastical institutions to survive, under sometimes strict, usually simply nettlesome, scrutiny, so that the Church struggled along with respectable visibility. Now, almost fifty years later, I look back on my career with gratification, having done everything that I was able, reaching believers, and, most important, the imprisoned, the ill, those who, like Hot Pepe, were under a sentence of death, for one cause or another. More than one of those were erstwhile adherents to El Commandante’s regime, even a couple that I knew during my brief tenure at The Castle. In my fancies I wonder if, in what appear to be his last days of mortal life, when he has released his grasp of power, and is isolated, debilitated, and not able to dominate even the Cuban public arena, watching history march on without him, the old worshiper at the shrine of Lenin thinks back to his days as a student in Catholic schools and under the Jesuits, and the precepts of the Church about which he heard so much. Does he think of asking for what once was known as the Last Rites, now the Anointing of the Sick, as a way to at least have some chance to enter the gates of Heaven? Has he pondered the saying, posted in my humble parish church, Tempus fugit, memento mori? Would he have the courage, or the opportunity, to seek what Hot Pepe sought and received two generations ago?
I will not have my photograph in a picture book, as a priest, only as a sort of revolutionary, a role I am not proud of, and have not followed since. I do not know whether to be thankful or regret being where my photograph showed me as one of El Commandante’s assassins. If I had not been where I could see the wretched man, and the determined priest, I would never have been taught the lesson that brought me into the arms of the Church.
Thank you, Andy Lopez. You do not know the gift you have given. Or perhaps you do know, your gift to me.