The Ochoa Case: A Point of Inflection / 14ymedio

IGNACIO VARONA, 14ymedio, Havana, Cuba | 13 July 2014 — The Cuban government’s support for the Soviet tank invasion of Czechoslovakia, the failure of the 10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest, the case of Heberto Padilla, the repudiation rallies of 1980, and Cuba’s Black Spring are chief among the breaking points for many who at one time backed the Cuban Revolution. A political process that at its beginnings more than a half century ago enjoyed strong approval inside and outside the island has become increasingly characterized by deception. This persistent flux from believing to not believing has made critics out of former sympathizers, and antagonists out of those who once gave ovations.

Inside Cuba, one instance of major fracture in the support for the revolution was the execution of General Arnaldo Ochoa. This event took place on July 13, 1989, exactly 25 years ago. Along with him were executed three high-level officials of the Ministry of Armed Forces (MINFAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT). A military court found them guilty of — and condemned them to death for — the crimes of drug trafficking and high treason.

Never will it be known the true extent of the disillusionment caused by this event in many communist militants as well as the rest of the population. The disappointment amongst the people that emanated from the so-called “Case Number 1″ of 1989 fed the decision of many individuals to take the step toward dissension. Numerous dissidents cite this judicial process and its extreme sentences as the moment when they broke with the party line.

The 1990s could not be understood without the precedent of a televised trial that riveted millions of Cubans to the small screen, as if to the most impelling soap opera. After long days of hearing allegations and accusations, a bond was established between the TV audience and the figure of Ochoa that nobody could have foreseen. This “connection” consisted of a combination of respect and pity, to which was added the silent hope that the sentences requested by the prosecutors would not actually be applied in their full severity.

“I sat in front of the television set believing in the system, and when I arose I no longer believed in anything”, said María López, who at that time belonged to the Young Communists League (UJC). A few months after “El Indio” (“The Indian”) — as Ochoa was popularly called by some — Maria turned in her UJC membership card. “I could not tolerate such cruelty, besides which it always seemed to me that what came out in that trial was not the full truth,” she concluded. Like her, an unpublicized number of other militants distanced themselves from the organization, severing their ties or assuming a less aggressive stance.

The “Balseros” (Rafters) Crisis that would occur five years later was comprised of individuals who, besides suffering the miseries of the Special Period, had lived through the trial. Part of the disillusionment that would manifest in fragile vessels crossing the Florida Straits emanated from that event. Although hunger and the lack of prospects where the primary goads toward the exodus, for many of those who launched themselves to the sea, the death of of Arnaldo Ochoa had contributed to severing their emotional ties to the system.

“It was the moment in which totalitarianism removed its mask”, noted Ezequiel Méndez, who is now based in Los Angeles, USA. On that July 13, Ezequiel had guard duty in the unit where he was serving his compulsory military service. He remembers seeing the “long faces of the officers, which gave us to understand that something was going on”. Within the army, the execution of these four military men was especially disturbing, but fear and silence were the major expressions of this emotion. “In the mess hall, when the TV set was turned on for the broadcast of the trial, nobody said a word…everyone was very, very quiet”, recalls Ezequiel about those days.

A quarter century after the effect of those executions, the disappointment has not diminished. Rather, other disappointments have been added to it. The government was never able to recapture lost sympathy, and the days are over when military feats produced heroes.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison