WASHINGTON – They were a respected couple with memberships at the yacht club and country club in Havana. They had a house, two children and a third on the way. The husband, Alberto Piedra, who was working on his doctorate, had a job lined up in Fidel Castro’s Ministry of Commerce. It seemed they were set for a beautiful life in Cuba. But Alberto knew they had to escape.
Piedra believes that if Castro were living in Germany during World War II, he would have been a Nazi. His allegiance was not to communism, but to power. The power to send enemies to the firing squad. The power to control.
Castro, who died in November 2016 at age 90, seized control through three major offices: the ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Education. Within three months of overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, Castro had nationalized the education system, ordering the government to ignore degrees from a private institution in Havana as it clashed with his agenda.
Piedra did not want his children matriculating through a system of brainwashing. In a communist regime, he said, the youth’s loyalty is not to parents but to the state. He disagreed with the direction of Cuba, and feared the possibility that his children would one day turn him over to the regime.
“What is the greatest gift God has given man?” the 91-year-old Piedra asked Thursday while speaking at the Institute of World Politics. “Freedom. We can use that freedom for good, but we can also use it for evil. It depends on our will. We can decide. … Government should be at the service of man, not the other way around.”
When Piedra was asked to serve in the Ministry of Commerce, he sought the opinion of a priest, who told him to accept the position as it would allow him to make a difference in Cuba.
“You’re wrong,” Piedra told the priest. “They’re using me.”
Piedra believed the regime would use him as a puppet in international negotiations, pointing to him as evidence that Cuba was not entirely made up of radical communists. Piedra also knew that turning down the offer would be dangerous, that if he denied the regime and walked away it would arouse suspicion.
“How do you abandon a communist regime without being accused of plotting a counter-revolution?” Piedra asked. “In a communist regime, you have to be very careful about such things.”
Piedra would serve three months as director general of exports and imports at the Ministry of Commerce, but he eventually made his escape. He approached Castro’s brother Raúl in an attempt to convince the regime that he would be more useful to Cuba if he finished his doctorate at Georgetown University in D.C. Piedra suspects that Raúl knew exactly what was happening, but he gave Piedra his blessing.
“That’s why I will always be grateful [to Raúl],” Piedra said. “Not only did he give me permission to leave, but with a diplomatic passport, which opened the doors to Europe.”
With credit from the University of Havana, Piedra would complete his doctoral studies at the University of Madrid and Georgetown, eventually settling his family in the D.C. area. He would land a job at Catholic University and later serve as U.S. ambassador to Guatemala in the 1980s.
Piedra said he first noticed Fidel Castro’s hypocrisy when they worked together at the University of Havana. Castro knocked on Piedra’s door one day, embraced his friend and asked for his support in a political race.
“He said, ‘You know what Alberto? You and I think the same way. We were both brought up in a Jesuit school, and I think you know that I’m running for president of the student association at the university. And you know we share many values. So I was wondering if you would be interested in voting for me,’” Piedra recalled. “That’s the first indication I had of the hypocrisy because I knew very well that what he was saying was not true, was completely false, but he pretended, and that’s a typical characteristic of Fidel Castro – saying one thing in one area and doing the exact opposite in another area.”
Piedra claims that Castro took this approach in murdering Camilo Cienfuegos, a Castro loyalist and key figure in the 1956 insurgency against Batista, who was adored by Cubans. Cienfuegos died in October 1959, when his plane crashed during a flight from Camagüey to Havana. He was returning to the capital after having arrested Huber Matos, a military leader based in Camagüey who was embroiled with Castro.
According to El Nuevo Herald, key witnesses disappeared or were killed shortly after the incident, including the pilot who followed Cienfuegos in a separate plane and a mechanic who claimed the aircraft’s machine guns had been spent. Che Guevara, who led the guerilla offensive against Batista, claimed that Castro had nothing to do with Cienfuegos’ death.
“If Fidel were here right now, and he wanted to get rid of my good friend Michael here,” Piedra said, pointing to a staff member at the school, “he would come here and say, ‘Michael, how are you?’ Blah blah blah blah, and then he would go talk to his henchmen, and when you left, they would assassinate you. Afterwards, he would be going to your family to say, ‘I’m sorry about it.’ This is how he operates. That’s how he has fooled so many people.”
Piedra said Guevara exhibited the same ruthless qualities as Castro, though Guevara was a “hard, hard” communist, not an opportunist like Castro. Piedra told a story of a Cuban priest who pleaded with Guevara to save a man’s life from the firing squad, a man the priest claimed was innocent.
“Che Guevara looked at him and said, ‘Father, you’re right. We must have made a mistake. Don’t worry, go home, and he’ll be eliminated from the list of those who are going to be shot tomorrow,’” Piedra said.
The priest thanked El Comandante and left, returning a week later to find that the man had been killed.
“You know what Che Guevara told him: ‘My father – are you not aware that I was wearing a mask? That was not Che Guevara that you were talking to. It was somebody else. We are communists. He’s a counter to the revolution and should be shot,’” Piedra said.
Piedra explained that there are endless stories like this from the revolution.