Subtitled video of the trial in the Ochoa case.
My mother, devoted to Fidel, sat in front of the television. A few days later her two daughters understood that a transcendental and irreversible change had come over that compulsive thirty-something. A former militant in the Young Communist Union, she had suffered a degree of ideological disillusionment in the late eighties, but the trial of General Arnaldo Ochoa was too much for her revolutionary illusions.
I remember seeing her sitting in that easy chair in front of the television thinking that her “Commander” was more than a father – much more than the nation itself – and observing, from my naïve adolescent perspective, her transformation. Her anger, her sadness, while the farce of the judicial process continued. Later I heard from my school friends that a similar metamorphoses occurred in many of their homes. “What have we come to,” seemed to spread among a good part of Fidel’s faithful followers.
Why, 23 years after that “reality show” televised throughout the country, is what is called “Case No. 1 of 1989” still considered a point of rupture? How did this moment become one of the dates marking the decline of the Cuban Revolution?
I do not think it was solely because of popular sympathy for the haughty and handsome man who was in the dock. Nor for the false note of the generals – chubby cheeked from the good life – blaming one of their colleagues for enjoying a luxury here, an extravagance there. Nor can it be said that it was just the evident contrast between the soldier who had led battles in Africa, and the Commander in Chief who played at war from afar, from the comfort of his office.
I think it all came together for many Cubans, in that moment, that the train of the political process had gone off the rails. But undoubtedly added to this was the desire to find a good excuse for a break, a sufficiently strong pretext to show the door to an ideology that had defrauded so many. We children saw this metamorphosis in our parents… there was no way we could emerge unscathed in the presence of such a mutation.
For four weeks, the small screens in every Cuban household were tuned to these courtroom images, where the great majority of those present wore olive green uniforms. We heard the witnesses testify, the accused shift from a tone of alarm to the stuttering of terror as many of them declared that the highest levels of the Cuban government were not aware of the drug trafficking.
Raúl Castro talked about how he had cried in front of his bathroom mirror, thinking about Ochoa’s children, but he still approved his execution, and that of three other defendants.
And all this happened before our eyes in the same year in which the Berlin Wall would fall and many Eastern European regimes would crumble like illusory castles in the sand. It wasn’t possible to separate what was happening outside our borders from that Military Tribunal that indicted Arnaldo Ochoa for “high treason against the country and the Revolution.” Difficult to separate the crisis of faith that the Cuban process was passing through at the moment of this public lesson broadcast to millions of TV viewers.
The authorities – intending to teach us a lesson – wanted to show that they were still capable of striking a blow against any ideas of a tropical Perestroika that might be lurking on the island. A self-inflicted wound in their own ranks was a very clear way of warning that there would be no mercy for those who crossed a certain line. Parallel to the official version of the trial ran a thousand and one popular rumors about the most decorated General in Cuba overshadowing Fidel Castro.
Many analysts argued that what was a really playing out was a rivalry for power. It was not surprising, therefore, that so much of the evidence presented in the trial ultimately did not convince the audience. “There’s something more going on here,” said the older people… “there’s something fishy,” they repeated, with the wisdom of those who had seen many others fall, be ousted.
At dawn on July 13, 1989 Arnaldo Ochoa, Antonio de la Guardia, Amado Padrón and Jorge Martinez were shot. My mother had turned off the television just as the sentence was announced. I never saw her look at the screen with rapture again; nor meekly consent when the figure of Fidel Castro appeared.
13 July 2012