More than once since starting this blog, I have received inquiries like one I received the other day from a new online acquaintance:
The question I have for you actually comes via my mom - she's 92. When I mentioned your name she wanted to know if your family is THE Masferrer family, originally of Holguin.
You know this drill, right? If they did come from Holguin, we both get the 2nd half of the story.
Yes, I know the drill.
The second half of the story, I’m guessing, is about my great-uncle Rolando Masferrer.
Communist Party member.
Spanish Civil War veteran.
Expelled Communist Party member.
Enemy of Fidel Castro.
I’m sure some, including the folks in charge in Havana, have a few other choice ways to describe Rolando.
Of course, they could be confusing him with what they see in the mirror each morning.
I don’t recall ever meeting Rolando.
My first and only memory of him came 31 years ago on Tuesday, Halloween 1975.
That is the day he was killed in Miami by a bomb placed in his car.
He was 62.
I’ve never seen any record that the police ever caught his killer.
There was a lot of that sort of thing in Miami in the 1960s and 1970s, with rivalries in the Cuban exile community, perhaps stoked by the regime in Havana, frequently turning violent.
Rolando was very much a part of that milieu. Just a week before he was murdered, Rolando had written a newspaper editorial in which he called bombings an acceptable tactic.
His was a spectacular way to die.
But long before that day in front of his house in Miami, Rolando had left his mark on Cuban history.
Another inquiry about my relationship with Rolando came a couple months ago from a university professor in the Midwest. Once I confirmed my ties with Rolando, it was clear she had done her research about my uncle and the impact he had on the island’s politics and history.
His life was wrapped around so many of the 20th century's great conflicts: Spanish Civil War, Cold War, Cuban revolution. I agree he is worthy of tremendous respect both for being a pivotal figure in all of these events, as well as for his literary inclinations and journalism. Anybody can be a gangster. But to be a poet/gangster/revolutionary/senator is another thing altogether.
Rolando was a player in the Cuban politics of the 1940s and 1950s. After being expelled from the Communist Party, he formed his own party. He held elected positions as a representative and later a senator in the Cuban congress, but beyond that he was a power broker helping ensure the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
Rolando also was not afraid to use a gun to get his way. More than once, most famously at Cayo Confites in 1947, Rolando had a chance to rid the world of Fidel Castro before he could cause even more trouble.
Later, when the military lost the will the to fight Castro’s rebel army, Rolando’s Tigres — “tigers” — took up the fight.
Los Tigres de Masferrer, my uncle’s private army, could be brutal.
But they were fighting a brutal enemy.
However my maternal great-grandfather, my late grandmother used to say, always insisted that Rolando was worthy of respect. After all, he won a top prize while a law student at the University of Havana. (This was long before my parents would meet and marry, so my great-grandfather was not just being nice.)
The Tigers were not enough.
On New Year’s Eve 1958, Rolando was at his house in Havana when he got the call that Batista was leaving the country.
My father, then 15, was in the house, too.
Quickly, Rolando and his two brothers — Raimundo, my grandfather; and Rodolfo — made their way to the harbor, hopped on Rolando’s boat, a former U.S. Navy PT boat; and fled to Key West. Rolando asked if my father was coming along, too, but my grandfather said no, he had to stay to care for his mother and younger sister.
Upon arrival in Key West, the Masferrer brothers were arrested for illegal entry, the first of several run-ins Rolando had with the American law.
A lot of that had to do with plots, most of which were ill-conceived, to undermine and overthrow the new Castro regime in Havana. President Kennedy, one story goes, didn’t want Rolando anywhere near the Bay of Pigs invasion, so he ordered the FBI to detain him to keep him quiet.
Of course, Kennedy’s plan didn’t turn out so well, either.
Later, Rolando served time in federal prison for violating the Neutrality Act when he hatched a plot to invade Haiti.
Since starting this blog 11 months ago, I have frequently wondered how Rolando would use this technology to continue and nurture his struggle against Fidel Castro. I wonder what he would say about the coming transition. Would he again be smuggling arms and more back to the island the way he and my grandfather did in the early 1960s?
I’m thinking he would have his own blog to spread his message.
I don’t agree with all of the rhetoric or tactics Rolando used, but I’d like to think he would be proud of what I have tried to do with this site.
On Halloween 1975, the day Rolando was murdered in Miami, I was 8.
So all I know about him comes from what I have read in books and stories from family members. The judgment others make about him is mixed.
He was brilliant.
He was a sociopath.
He was a gangster.
He was a patriot.
I haven’t reached any of my own conclusions, except it is clear, as events show, he is important to understanding the history of Cuba.
And the history of my family, the Masferrers of Holguín.
For more on Rolando Masferrer, including several photographs, visit the Cuban Information Archives.