Posted on Sun, Apr. 23, 2006
The revolution’s toll
A project to list each person killed for and against the Cuban
revolution by name and date is underway, but it struggles to garner the
funding it needs to complete its mission.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
At night when their children slept, Armando Hernández and his
brother-in-law Ramón Toledo Lugo painted anti-Castro slogans on bed
sheets, slipping out before dawn to hang them in the streets of Havana.
It was a family affair that landed virtually all 20 members of the
extended family in jail, and worse.
Falsely accused of poisoning the water supply and vandalizing car tires
by spewing nails in the streets, the law was hard on Hernández, 29, and
Toledo, 39. They were executed by firing squad Oct. 2, 1982. Their wives
and Toledo’s parents went to prison for eight years each.
The two men’s names are now on the Cuba Archive, a labor of love by two
Cuban Americans who have vowed — at great personal costs — to record
the history of those killed fighting for and against the Cuban
revolution. It is a tedious task being undertaken by Dr. Armando Lago, a
66-year-old half-paralyzed economist, and Maria C. Werlau, 46, who gave
up her consulting business to focus on documenting the dead.
The two seek to list, by name and with at least two sources, those who
lost their lives fighting against or alongside Fidel Castro. Theirs is
believed to be the first such systematic and well-sourced list of the
names, which have been mounted on white Styrofoam crosses displayed each
year at the Cuban Memorial in Tamiami Park.
Although the project is struggling financially, Werlau and Lago hope to
create a searchable database that would be accessible at their
organization’s existing website, www.cubaarchive.org. A simple name
search would show the fate of the victims. (Meanwhile, while Werlau and
Lago work on the database, an extensive list of Castro’s victims is now
posted on The Cuba Memorial’s Web site: www.memorialcubano.org .)
”I think this project is going to impact people, because it’s about
things that happened in the past and things that are happening now,”
said Armando A. Hernández, the son of the man executed 23 years ago.
“I’ve never talked about what happened to my father. I am doing it now,
because if you don’t tell, no one will ever know.”
Werlau and Lago have made the somewhat controversial decision to begin
their count in 1952 — and include those killed by dictator Fulgencio
Batista’s forces in the fight against Castro’s guerrillas. The list also
mentions peasants executed by Castro’s rebels before they seized power,
those executed by the Castro government after the 1959 revolution and
prisoners who died through neglect or suicides.
At 31,173, the tally of documented cases keeps growing, and includes:
• 5,728 killed by Castro firing squads
• 1,207 extrajudicial killings after Castro took power
• 1,216 deaths in prison.
”Things are now coming to light that no one knew, and they are showing
it with proof,” said Hernández’ daughter Oraykys. “You start feeling
the deaths weren’t in vain.”
There have been other attempts to catalog the Cuban deaths. A Miami
organization, Circuito Sur, has a similar effort, but no sources are
cited. Cuban-American historian Esteban Beruvides has published a series
of almanacs that list — among other things — each day’s execution. He
also has a book titled Cuba and Its Martyrs, but it does not cover as
many types of killings or such a lengthy period of time.
Other efforts on the Internet are often riddled with error and offer no
clue to who the victims were.
Werlau said the idea of creating a more rigorous list of the dead came
to her in 1997. Having been raised in Puerto Rico and studied in Chile,
she was amazed that Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s ill deeds were well-known —
his dictatorship has been blamed for 3,000 deaths — while Cuba’s weren’t.
”This was important. There should be accountability,” she said.
“People think of Guatemala, El Salvador, but never Cuba.”
A former second vice president at Chase Manhattan Bank with a master’s
in international relations from the University of Chile, she wanted a
serious scholarly approach, so she joined forces with Lago, who had
already published a 1991 book about torture at Cuban psychiatric facilities.
But Werlau’s self-imposed mission has had its consequences.
Werlau, a business consultant who owns Orbis Consult, found herself
spending more time on her project than on paying clients. In 2003, she
put the business on hold to dedicate herself to the Cuba Archive. Her
three children are out of the home, so she rented out her New Jersey
house and moved into a condo her mother helped buy so she could live
cheaply. She is president of the Free Society Project, a New
Jersey-based nonprofit group, and executive director of its chief
program, Cuba Archive. She works full time, with no salary.
”And here I am in 2006, still struggling,” she said.
Among the names on the list: Armando Cañizares, her father. He
participated in the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion; his body was never
recovered. She was 1 ½ years old when he died.
”I am sure it impacted me, but am I aware of it? No,” Werlau said. “I
am aware of the tremendous abuse showered on the Cuban people.”
For Lago, documenting the dead has become a reason to live. Hit by two
strokes, he is paralyzed on one side and gets dialysis three times a
week. He works about 40 hours a week typing on a 1990s-era computer with
his one good hand.
Lago does the painstaking research, combing books, yellowing newspaper
clippings and microfiches to document each person killed with at least
two sources. He does not use the Internet, fearing viruses unleashed by
enemies in Cuba.
The economist, a former professor at Catholic University of America who
has a Ph.D from Harvard University, lived in Washington after leaving
Cuba in 1960. He moved to Miami 1 ½ years ago because the warmer weather
was kinder to his ailing body.
Lago said his physician has advised him to find a new endeavor. But he’s
sticking with it.
”The sheer immensity of the tragedy surprised me,” Lago said. “I
wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t prepared for thinking my countrymen
are savages, or trigger-happy or blood-thirsty. I like to think of
myself as educated and cultured, yet in my genes I have all this blood.
His list includes 20 people he knew, including a beloved law school
classmate, Virgilio Campanería, executed in 1961. Lago still chokes up
when he talks about him.
Meanwhile, Lago has also come up with a mathematical formula to estimate
the number of rafters who perished at sea — a number he estimates at
Juan Carlos Espinosa, who helped Lago with the research just after
finishing graduate school at the University of Mi
ami, describes Lago’s
He holds a magnifying glass in one hand, to better see the small print
in scores of books and news articles. When he finds a name, he puts down
the magnifying glass and uses that hand to type it into his computer.
Lago says the standards to make his list are tough. It would undermine
the credibility of the entire project if a single incorrect name slipped
through, he said.
People have tried to send him phony entries, he said. But if Lago can’t
document them, they don’t go in.
”They talk about 100,000 dead in Iraq with no proof, and everyone
believes it,” said Renato Gómez, who heads the Cuban Memorial project,
which displays the Cuba Archive names on the Styrofoam crosses each
year. “Dr. Lago is proving it, documenting thousands.”
Lago is about to complete a book on his efforts called Cuba: The Human
Cost of the Social Revolution, but has yet to find a publisher.
But even as the names keep rolling in, donations to finance the project
have been few. Werlau and Lago are outsiders to South Florida’s Cuban
American community; while respected as Cuba researchers, they haven’t
been publicly active in the area’s anti-Castro groups.
”Maria doesn’t belong to anybody,” said Holly Ackerman, Amnesty
International’s Cuba specialist. “And unless you do, you don’t get the
Lago believes that Miami Cubans are not funding the project in large
enough numbers because he’s including the 2,070 deaths blamed on the
Batista forces prior to Castro taking power.
Werlau, the chief fundraiser for the project, said she recently got a
pledge of a $10,000 donation by a prominent Cuban American in Miami and
has had good talks with another potential donor. But for the project to
thrive with a web-based and searchable database, it would need a
$100,000 start-up, she says. A request for funding from the U.S. Agency
for International Development was denied.
Elizardo Sánchez, head of Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights
and National Reconciliation, a dissident group that tracks abuses on the
island, said that if the revolution ever collapses, the Cuba Archive can
serve as a basis for a ”truth commission” — like the ones established
in Peru and Guatemala after the end of brutal governments there.
”That subject is a Pandora’s box opened when governments end,” he
said. “We can be sure when that box is opened in Cuba, there will be
Former political prisoner Ricardo Bofill said Lago’s work is
particularly difficult because paperwork is hard to come by in Cuba.
Some executions were carried out after summary trials. Some dissidents
who spent long stretches in prison were never officially sentenced. And
there is no central penal system registry that lists executions, he said.
”I have no criminal record in Cuba,” said Bofill, who spent 15 years
Espinosa, now a Miami Dade College administrator, says he has only
admiration for Lago and Werlau.
”Here was one man, helped by a grad student, and a woman whose life was
shaped by the loss of her father in the Bay of Pigs,” he said. “People
took for granted that this had been done before, and it hadn’t.”
He calls it a ”work in progress for next 20 or 30 years” if there is
interest. And he is not so sure there is.
”This project is about the past, and most people are concerned about
the future,” Espinosa said. “Most academic groups are looking forward,
not backward. Armando is looking backward. Armando believes you must
understand the past so we can build a better future.”