Wednesday, November 18, 2015

American Comandante: The William Morgan Story (PBS “American Experience,” 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Fidel Castro Tapes PBS showed a documentary on their American Experience series called American Comandante: The William Morgan Story — a Cuba-related tale that told the story of the revolution in a very different manner from the one we got in The Fidel Castro Tapes, and told it through the eyes of William Morgan, a ne’er-do-well from Toledo, Ohio who ran away from home at 14 to join the circus. His dad ran him down in Chicago and brought him back, but Morgan kept getting into trouble until he joined the Army immediately after World War II and participated in the occupation of Japan — until he got dishonorably discharged for stealing and selling guns from the armory. With a dishonorable discharge on his record he was virtually unable to find any other decent employment — not that he particularly seemed to want to; he joined the circus again and this time, since he was an adult, his parents couldn’t do anything about it. He married and had two kids, but got restive again and saw his main chance when he heard there was a revolution going on in Cuba and it needed fighters.

One point The William Morgan Story made was that Fidel Castro was not the only revolutionary who was making war against the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in the late 1950’s. Havana was in the northwest corner of Cuba; the Sierra Maestre mountains where Castro had his redoubt were in the southeast; and in the middle of the island there was another mountain range called the Escambray, where the dominant revolutionaries were a group called the Second National Front of the Escambray and their leader was Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo. Morgan’s original intent was to join Castro’s group, the 26th of July Movement (named after the date Castro and a small band of fighters had tried to raid the Cuban army base at Moncada in what was the equivalent in Castro’s career to the Beer Hall Putsch in Hitler’s; it failed and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, but after a lot of worldwide pressure on Batista to relax his treatment of political dissidents, he was part of a general pardon and was freed after just two years), but he couldn’t get all the way across the island from Havana without being apprehended by Batista’s troops, so he settled in the Escambray and joined Menoyo’s movement instead. Like Castro’s guerrillas, Menoyo’s won a key series of engagements against the better equipped but less motivated Batista regulars, and towards the end of 1958 as Batista’s fall looked imminent, Castro sent Ché Guevara to the Escambray with orders to negotiate with Menoyo and bring his force into the broader Cuban resistance as led by Castro. Menoyo’s response was to capture Ché and hold him at gunpoint, and though Menoyo more or less joined forces with Castro eventually, when the new Cuban government was organized Castro gave all the principal positions to his loyalists and relegated Menoyo’s to the second tier.

Later in 1959 William Morgan got a call from the Mafiosi who had occasionally employed him before he left for Cuba offering him a million dollars. “Who do I have to kill for it?” Menoyo said. The answer was Fidel Castro, whom the Mafia had marked for death because they had lost a lot of money in the elaborate casinos they had built in Cuba which the Cuban government had now closed. (The government later reopened the hotels as venues for international tourists — many of whom were Russians, since the Soviet government often used trips to Cuba as prizes for particularly hard workers or others they wanted to reward in some way — but kept the casinos closed.) It turned out there was an elaborate plot that had been worked out between the Mafia, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo (a nasty Right-wing creep who had taken Batista in after the Cubans had driven him out) that was to include the murder of Castro, an attack on the capital from the Batista supporters who had remained there, an anti-Castro uprising in the Escambray, and a massive invasion launched from the Dominican Republic to overthrow the Castro regime and ostensibly establish democracy in Cuba (but more likely just revert to the status quo ante and install a pliable dictator who would let the United Fruit Company and the Mafia alone to exploit the island). Morgan met with Castro and the two worked out a counter-plot that involved bugging Morgan’s entire house so every word uttered in it would be recorded somewhere and Castro would find out who the remaining Batistanos on the island were and be able to arrest and execute them en masse. The plotters were uncovered, but both J. Edgar Hoover and the State Department were so furious with Morgan they rescinded his American citizenship.

Then in 1960, as Cuba’s “tilt” to the Soviet Union increased and Castro announced his intention to make Cuba a socialist, and then a communist, country, Menoyo himself had had enough and he decided to launch a revolution of his own to overthrow Castro and start a new government loyal to the first principles of the revolution, including democracy and freedom of thought. Castro infiltrated two people into Menoyo’s security detail and was able to stop the plot before it really had a chance to start, and while Menoyo fled to Miami and eventually was allowed to return to Cuba (where he died in 2012), Morgan was captured and eventually executed under Castro’s orders after a sham “trial” before a military commission, two of whose five members slept through most of the proceedings. Morgan’s story is a fiction film waiting to be made, especially his progress from ne’er-do-well deserter to the world of circuses, carnivals and the Mafia and then to Cuba, where he married a Cuban woman and found a calling working for a revolution he helped to triumph and then opposed after he’d felt it had betrayed its original ideals. I couldn’t help but think this would be a great film for Tim Burton to direct and Johnny Depp to star! As things turned out for Morgan, not only did Castro have him executed, he worked overtime to erase him from Cuban history (as George Orwell would have put it, “He did not exist — he never existed”), and this film (and the book written by this film’s author and director, Aran Shetterly) only came about because he was in Cuba in 2001 and someone told him about Morgan’s story. A series of titles at the end mentions that Morgan’s wife (who was allowed by the Cuban government to leave, where she settled in the U.S. and apparently married another American, since she’s listed in the credits as “Olga Rodriguez Goodwin”) petitioned the U.S. government and got Morgan’s American citizenship restored posthumously in 2007, but his actual remains are still in Cuba.