As I wrote earlier, Tuesday is the 31st anniversary of the murder of my great-uncle, the former Cuban senator Rolando Masferrer.
Recently, I received from a reader PDF copies of a couple of declassified U.S. government reports about Rolando from the 1950s.
Previously, I first wrote about Rolando in a newspaper column published in April 2004.
Cousin's film will tell 'El Tigre's' story
Marta Masferrer, like her third cousin, is a
storyteller. She doesn't use ink and newsprint, but
lights, cameras and action. Other than that, there is
not much different about what we do, although I
suspect the movies she makes are much more
I recently learned that Marta even existed when an
aunt forwarded to me some e-mails she had received
from a cousin in Miami. New York-based Marta, the
e-mails revealed, was seeking counsel and assistance
for her next project, a feature documentary on one of
the iconic characters in our family's history, Rolando
I don't remember ever meeting Rolando, a brother of
my grandfather. My first memory I have of hearing of
him is from the fall of 1975, when word reached us in
Dallas that he had been killed by a car bomb in Miami.
I was 8.
From stories I have picked up over the years, from
both those who knew him and mentions in books and Web
sites about Cuban history, Rolando was larger than
life, a renaissance man in a different sort of way.
A brilliant student, he won the top prize from the
law school at the University of Havana. He also was a
newspaper publisher, a communist and a veteran of the
Spanish Civil War, wounded while fighting with the
International Brigade against Franco's fascists. The
Communist Party later expelled him.
A contemporary of Rolando's, albeit about 10 years
younger, was another brilliant law student, Fidel
Rolando and Castro were bitter political enemies.
Rolando headed a political party called the Socialist
Revolutionary Movement; Castro was a member of a rival
group. More than once, they tried to kill each other.
The most dramatic of such incidents took place in
1947. Castro had joined with Rolando's group in a
Cuban government-backed group plot to invade the
Dominican Republic and overthrow the dictator Rafael
After the plot fizzled, so the tales go, Rolando and
Castro got into a fistfight on a boat. Depending on
which version of the story you believe, Castro either
was thrown overboard into shark-infested waters or he
jumped to save his life and swam to shore. Rolando
thought there was no way he could survive.
No such luck. Later, Castro used the story to help
build his cult of personality.
Eventually, Rolando, as a senator and power broker,
was a major backer of Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista.
Rolando even had a private army — some accounts
describe it as being more of a gang — called "Los
Tigres," or the Tigers. My father and others in the
family dispute this, but Los Tigres had a reputation
as being as vicious as the Castro-led rebels they were
On New Year's Eve 1958, as Batista's regime
collapsed, Rolando and his two brothers, Kiki and my
grandfather Raimundo, fled to Key West, Fla., in a old
U.S. Navy PT boat Rolando had acquired after rebels
burned his yacht.
Before leaving Havana, Rolando asked my grandfather
if his son, my father, would be joining them. No, he
would stay to take care of his mother and sister. They
later fled to Venezuela, with the help of the Vatican
At Key West, Rolando and his brothers were arrested
for illegal entry but released about a month later.
From then on, Rolando was involved in various
anti-Castro plots, of which there were many in Miami
in the 1960s and 1970s, but not the Bay of Pigs
invasion, which took place 43 years ago this weekend.
One story goes the FBI picked up him a few days before
in order to keep him quiet.
Rolando, as he had in Cuba, wrote for and published
newspapers in Miami, using them to spread his
anti-Castro message. The Cuban exile community during
that time was rife with divisions, as rival groups
used various tactics, including terrorism, to make
their point. It was an environment with which Rolando
was very familiar.
In an editorial published in his Libertad newspaper
on Oct. 24, 1975, after a bomb maker had been injured,
Rolando condoned bombing as a legitimate political
A week later, Rolando was killed by a bomb placed in
The killer or killers were never caught. Some in the
family will always suspect that Castro finally got his
Cousin Marta — we share the same
great-great-grandfather, Antonio Masferrer y Grave
Peralta, a captain in the Cuban guerrilla army that
fought the Spanish for independence in the late 1800s
— is calling her documentary, "El Tigre." On her Web
site, Marta writes that she "will explore her family's
both celebrated and notorious past and more
importantly the failure of political violence as a
tool to attain political change. It will ask the new
generation of Americans, in particular Cuban Americans
who face dealing with such a disjointed identity and
controversial history, in 30 years what have we
"Disjointed identity?" I'm not sure about that, but I
can't wait to see what she finds out.
About a month later, I wrote a second column, about how distant family members responded to what I wrote.
'El Tigre' inspires a family reunion
The Internet makes the world, and families, smaller.
With a few keystrokes and mouse clicks, it is possible
to learn so much about people and places that formerly
seemed so distant.
I learned that this week, after I began hearing from
distant cousins who had read online my recent column
on my late great-uncle Rolando "El Tigre" Masferrer. I
wrote the column after I got word that New York
filmmaker Marta Masferrer, a third-cousin I never had
heard of, was working on a documentary about Rolando,
a colorful and controversial figure in 20th century
Cuban history, and in our family.
Earlier this week, I received an voice mail message
from Marta, who said that she had read the column and
was excited to know that I approved of her project.
Soon afterward, I had a pleasant telephone
conversation with her father, Eduardo.
Others I heard from via e-mail included cousins
Marta D. Masferrer, Alejandro "Alex" Masferrer and
Rolando P. "Rolandito" Masferrer.
They were not all complete strangers before I wrote
my column. Rolandito who is a few years younger than
my father, is the son of Rodolfo "Kiki" Masferrer,
brother to my grandfather Raimundo and my great-uncle,
El Tigre — which no one in the family ever called him.
Rolandito referred to him as "RM."
Cousin Alex, about a year younger than me, is the son
of Rolandito's sister, Tamara. From childhood, I have
memories of hearing these names and even a few
scattered reminiscences of actually meeting them.
Rolandito confirmed that.
"I met you on one of your trips to Miami when you
were much younger, Raimundo took you over to our
Later, I remember, we caught up with each other when
we went to Miami for my grandfather's funeral in 1990.
Rolandito, who for years has studied the history of
our family in Cuba and Spain — he said he and I are
part of the "warrior" branch of the family — offered
comments about my original column, including a few
corrections of the record. For example, he disputed my
description of Fidel Castro, a political rival of RM's
during the 1940s, as a "brilliant student" at the
University of Havana.
"He was an avid reader but not brilliant student.
Fidel led the Bonchistas group whose sole purpose was
to coerce and threaten the lives of the faculty
members," Rolandito wrote.
Rolandito's most revealing comments were about my
grandfather Raimundo, who I called "Abaray," one of
the kindest, most generous men I have ever known. I
never imagined him doing some of the things Rolandito
described. Abaray, he wrote, was as involved in
fighting Castro as his better-known brother.
During Castro's revolution, RM, a member of the Cuban
Senate, lead a private militia called Los Tigres, or
"the tigers," who, Rolandito wrote, took up the fight
against Castro as the army lost interest.
"Your grandfather was also a Tigre and fought
courageously against Castro."
The night the government collapsed, New Year's Eve
1958, my grandfather and his two brothers left Havana
on Rolando's boat, the Olukum II, for Key West, Fla.
(The Olukum I had been burned by Castro's men.)
Later, Rolando and my grandfather caused trouble for
Castro's Cuba, but they did not take part in the
failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 because of
political differences with the fellow exiles leading
"Your grandfather, who was very much experienced in
navigation and knew engines like the back of his palm,
made several trips to Cuba aboard the Olukum to
deliver weapons and fighters. In 1960 a group led by
Armentino Feria and Robert “Bobby" Fuller landed in
Cuba. Raimundo was the Olukum captain. The Olukum hit
a reef ... and sank eight miles out from the Cuban
coast. Raimundo was rescued by a second boat," my
I did not know that story.
My only memory of RM, the man who made this virtual
family reunion possible, is from 1975, when we learned
in Dallas that he had been killed in Miami by a bomb
placed in his car. I was 8.
Rolandito shared an anecdote from when he was about
the same age back in Cuba.
One day, Rolandito was riding in a Jeep with his
"A group of three rebels were planning to assassinate
RM. They saw the Jeep coming and blew a couple of
dynamite sticks. Luckily nothing happen to me, just a
hate for (Castro) that has gotten the best of me over
all this years."
Rolandito suggested that the disparate branches of
the Masferrer family gather soon for a real reunion. I
hope our recent contacts via telephone and e-mail help
bring that about — maybe we can all be at the premier
of cousin Marta's film — because in these few
exchanges with relatives who were formerly strangers,
I have learned that we really aren't that different.
We have spouses, careers and outside interests, but
most importantly, we share a common and proud history
that time, distance and a tyrant in Havana can never