Cómo llegó la noche

When it was released in 2002, the extraordinary memoir Cómo llegó la noche (Tusquets Editores, 2005) by Huber Matos (Cuba, 1918) was awarded the XIV Premio Comillas in Spain. The book chronicles his experiences as a guerrilla commander in the Cuban revolution, offering a rich glimpse into a crucial moment in Latin American history. Moreover, the book stands as a document that outlines how within months of defeating the Batista dictatorship, the Cuban revolution degenerated into the obscene farce that continues today.

Matos was among the most important comandantes in the Sierra Maestra mountain range, whose famous battalion was responsible for several decisive victories against Batista in the final months of the dictatorship. In the late summer of 1958, three battalions departed from the Sierra Maestra as part of an eventually successful plan to defeat Batista’s weakening dictatorship. Along with Matos’s battalion, the other two were led by the comandantes Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. The first half of this book moves from Matos’s days as a teacher and political activist in Cuba's Oriente province to his incorporation with Fidel Castro’s 26 of July Movement in the Sierra Maestra and his quick ascension to the position of comandante. The second half recounts his show trial and subsequent 20-year sentence, during which he endured physical and psychological torture and an effort by the Cuban government to erase his contributions to the defeat of Batista.

Camilo Cienfuegos was a close friend of Matos and the fate of these two men would be tragically linked after the victory of the revolutionary forces. Cienfuegos and Matos were among the substantial democratic sectors within the revolutionary movement that began to notice the ascent of communist sectors. This communist tendency was impelled by the likes of Guevara, Raúl Castro and Camilo’s brother Osmani. Fidel himself always denied the revolution was communist until late in 1959. Matos describes various conversations he had with Fidel, where he expressed his disagreement with the machinations of the communist sectors.

In October 1959, Matos resigned from his position in the revolutionary government as a sign of protest against the communist turn that was becoming more explicit (the letter is included in an appendix to this memoir). Rather than accept his resignation, Fidel set up Matos under the false accusation of conspiring against the revolution and had him tried in one of the earliest instances of what would become common practice in Cuba, secret trials where dissidents are silenced by long jail terms or firing squad.

The popularity of Matos and Cienfuegos among the Cuban masses, as well as their skill and bravery as military tacticians, made them a threat to Fidel who was already becoming the autocratic dictator he would turn out to be. Fidel had Cienfuegos dispatched to arrest his friend Matos, in hopes that the two would either kill each other in a battle, or that Cienfuegos would be forced to stop dissenting from the incipient communist path of the revolution. (The above photograph shows Cienfuegos as he arrested Matos.) At one point during the process of arrest, Cienfuegos told Fidel that the whole incident was a mistake:

“Moments later, from the building of the Instituto Nacional de Reforma Agraria (INRA) in Camagüey, Fidel calls on the phone to speak with Camilo, who’s sitting in a chair in my office, just a few feet away from me. From what I can tell, Fidel asks him about the situation and Camilo responds:

“Everything’s fine in the garrison, but the officers are very upset. We’ve created a bad situation, starting with the radio campaign by Mendoza and Valera [against Matos]. There’s no conspiracy here, nor any sedition, or anything of the sort that’s being said. We should have handled this in a different way. The captains are concerned but calm; now they’re indignant and intend to resign. What we’ve done is a major blunder.”

Fidel probably interrupts him with some type of insolent reproach, because of the expression Camilo’s face, who once again mentions that the captains are upset, and adding:

“I just spoke with president Dorticós and he thinks we have to find a fair solution to this problem immediately.”

Evidently after a barrage of insults, Fidel orders him to continue following his orders without any deviation and denies him the right to offer his opinion, because a shaken and annoyed Camilo adds:

“I’ll do what you say, but what we’ve done here is a major blunder.”

Camilo remains with the phone in his hand. It seems to me that he’s risked a great deal by questioning Fidel’s disposition.” (346)

Within days of this incident, Matos would be tried and sentenced to 20 years in prison, while Camilo’s airplane would disappear and he was never seen again. Although the Cuban revolution went on to enshrine Camilo as one of its martyrs, the evidence Matos presents (along with speculation by other close associates of Camilo, such as Carlos Franqui) is that Fidel and Raúl had Camilo eliminated, because his anti-communist stance and his popularity among the masses were a threat to the consolidation of their grip on power.

Aside from the fluid and compelling quality of Matos’s prose, what most impressed me with the book was the glimpse it offers of how one person can survive two decades of torture, isolation and mental anguish, while never losing his democratic principles. Matos includes details about his fellow political prisoners during those two decades, men and women who contributed to the defeat of the Batista dictatorship only to be caught in the vice of an even worse regime. Cómo llegó la noche is also an eloquent testimony of the ability of literature to denounce the abuses of power and to sustain one’s soul during tribulations. Some of the most beautiful passages in the book recount how Matos was able to access all sorts of books (literature, history, science, mathematics) and the solace these text offered amidst the sufferings he endured.

On the day Matos was released from prison in 1979, he was given a few hours to say goodbye to some of his family in Havana, before he was placed on an airplane and sent to Costa Rica to be reunited with his wife and children. During the minutes he spends at his sister’s apartment, her home is inundated with visitors and phone calls, all of whom offer their happiness and solidarity with Matos upon his release. While the Cuban government tried to destroy Matos and make his legacy as a revolutionary disappear, they were unable to break him or eliminate the respect of the masses towards him. Matos describes the spontaneous and unbroken spirit of solidarity he receives from his fellow Cubans who are overjoyed by his release:

“María Elena’s house, a medium-size apartment among many others in this building of several stories, fills up with people as soon as we arrive. Family and friends, along with neighbors from the building, come to greet us ignoring or defying the neighborhood’s guard committee and the State Security agents, Castro’s political police, also known as the G-2, which is represented by a small group of officials.

The phone rings constantly. The news of my release from jail has spread despite the official silence. International radio stations, from what I’m told, are offering information about my situation. Isabel helps me remain attentive to those who’ve come to see me. Everyone treats me kindly even though I feel a bit awkward in this different world. María Elena is making lunch but I can’t stay here, because if more people keep arriving, the State Security can later take reprisals against them. Colonel Blanco Fernández, visibly annoyed, pressures us to leave. From the windows of a nearby building people are calling for me to come out. It’s everyday people who are expressing their sympathies in that way.

We go out into the street, but before I get into the car I have to slow down for a few seconds to greet those people with my hand held high, the ones who are expressing their joy for my freedom from various balconies. The colonel and his entourage look towards them with the eyes of spies which they then turn downwards so as to not digest the meaning of this scene. The masses don’t love them. That’s why they won’t allow me to visit my mother’s grave. They fear these spontaneous expressions of popular solidarity which are a tacit condemnation of the regime. We go to meet my father, and I go with my heart sustained by so many loving expressions of solidarity which reinforce the hope of a different future for Cuba.” (23-24)

Cómo llegó la noche has yet to be translated into English, although a French version has been published. It serves as a powerful document of how a genuine, popular revolution degenerated into yet another Latin American dictatorship. Matos’s book stands as an achievement that equals his accomplishments as a revolutionary in the fight against the Batista dictatorship. It also proves that he has remained true to his calling as a teacher, offering a lucid history and an example of his life-long struggle for the democratic right to dissent.

[All translations from the Spanish are my own.]

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