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March 2, 2007 6:48 pm
Mario Chanes de Armas, who has died in Miami at the age of 80, sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956 with Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara to launch the Cuban revolution. Two years after the revolution’s success, after criticising Castro’s lurch towards Moscow and communism, he was summarily jailed by his former comrade for 30 years.
Chanes de Armas served his full sentence, six years of it in solitary confinement in a windowless cell in which he could barely stand up, making him the longest-serving political prisoner in the western hemisphere at the time.
Well, almost his full sentence. In an effort to keep it quiet from the international media, Mr Castro released him the day before his 30-year term was completed.
The first thing Chanes did was to visit the grave of his only son Mario, who had been born soon after his father was jailed and who had died unexpectedly aged 22. Chanes had not been allowed to attend the funeral because he refused to sign up to to a “re-education” programme.
Chanes spent longer in jail than Nelson Mandela. Unlike Mandela, however, the stories of Chanes and his fellow Cuban political prisoners received little publicity outside the Cuban exile community in Miami. Although he had fought alongside Mr Castro at every stage of the revolution, Chanes’s name, and image, were personally stricken from Cuba’s history books by Mr Castro himself.
Mario Chanes de Armas was born in Havana in 1926. Following Batista’s 1952 military coup , he joined the pro-democracy underground and met Mr Castro, then a young, bearded law student who was impressed by Chanes’ leadership qualities.
In 1953 Fidel Castro, in the first of a convoy of cars – Chanes was in the third - launched a foolhardy attack on the barracks in Santiago. Half the attackers were killed or captured. Both men were arrested but released under an amnesty 20 months later.
In 1956 Castro, Chanes and Guevara sailed to Cuba aboard the overcrowded cabin cruiser Granma. Tipped off in advance, Batista’s forces largely decimated the group but Castro escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains and Chanes went underground.
Caught by Batista’s agents during a dynamite-smuggling run from the Florida Keys, he was jailed and was still in an underground dungeon in Havana when in 1959 Batista was forced to flee the country. Supporters freed Chanes and he was there to greet Castro when he and his guerrillas finally rumbled into the capital.
Chanes felt his mission was complete. He turned down a position as a comandante of the revolutionary forces and joined his family’s brewery business. It soon became clear, however, that democracy had not been restored. Castro had become increasingly pro-Communist, shattering the illusions of Chanes and many others who had supported him.
“His incendiary, nine-hour speeches had a vehement irrationality I wouldn’t have expected from my former comrade-in-arms,” he later wrote. “The democratic nature of our discussions was gone from his new harangues.”
In 1961, five months after Chanes was married, Castro’s agents accused him of plotting to assassinate the leader, and he was summarily jailed for 30 years - ironically, just as under Batista, for “subversion.” Chanes insisted all his life that the charges were trumped up because of his outspoken opposition.
Of his years in jail Chanes said: “I watched men get shot, point blank, beaten with bayonets, arbitrarily pulled out and punished. But we were alone. The world didn’t know.”
Even after his release in 1991, aged 64, Castro refused his former comrade permission to leave the country. It was only in 1993 that he was allowed to emigrate to Miami. The following month, he was invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton, who described him as “one of the heroes of our time, a living testimony to the unbending will to strive for liberty and dignity.”
Chanes never showed bitterness about his years in Castro’s jails, saying they had never crushed his spirit. “After my release, during my two years in Cuba, I realized that no-one on the island was free anyway. I don’t have feelings of hatred or vengeance. Vengeance is for cowards.”
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