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Raul Castro's 1958
Kidnaping of 50

[Ref: News Tribune, Fort Pierce/Port St. Lucie, Florida Friday, June 24, 1988. From the Tom Dunkin Papers]

Politically-inspired kidnaping an old story

By Tom Dunkin

Raul Castro's 1958 kidnaping of 50 American and Canadian military personnel and civilians in Cuba, 30 years ago this coming Sunday, June 26, gave the sputtering Castro rebellion the spark needed to explode into victory.

That example has been copied profitably by political dissidents in the ensuing three decades, including the Mideast, where U.S., British, West German, Indian, Italian and Irish citizens still are being held captive.

Release of three French citizens last month in Lebanon leaves "16 to 23" hostages still being held there, according to varying estimates.

And Cubans on the other side of the fence, exiles ruled "undesirable" by U.S. authorities, recently used hostages taken in prison rioting to gain reconsideration of plans to send them back to Fidel Castro's Cuba.

IN THAT instance, the contentious point was U.S. Cuban agreement announced last November to deport 2,746 "excludable" refugees.  Most were "Marielitos", exiles who swarmed to Florida in the 1980 exodus from the Cuban port of Mariel.

Some 7,000 more in detention as questionable immigrant or serving sentences for crimes committed after coming here, plus another 3,000 Marielitos who had been released to families or "halfway houses" were to be subject to deportation.

Resultant riots, and taking of more than 100 prison guards and employees hostage by Cuban prisoners, joined by some American inmates in two federal prisons, changed the schedule.
Casualties for the prison hostage venture were reported as one inmate shot to death and 30 persons injured.

The incidents at the Atlanta Penitentiary and a detention center at Oakdale, La. last November, won a moratorium on immediate deportation plans and an individual review for each potential deportee.

FOR THE 1958 Cuban incident, the major casualty was a broken collarbone.  Chicago Tribune Latin America correspondent Jules DuBois received that when his jeep overturned en route to the hills.

In Raul Castro's profitable use of hostages also is found a classic example of astute use of propaganda.  His venture in late June of 1958 helped to the war six months later.  Raul's caper once again focused world attention on the heroic underdog struggled of idealistic Cubans against a cruel dictatorship.

The kidnaping, considered a quixotic publicity ploy by many, including several jaundiced newsmen themselves held hostage by the U.S. Navy, was a valuable asset to the Castro cause.  Reporters who accepted the Navy's invitation to cover the kidnaping found the Navy required they do if from the Guantanamo Naval Base.

ELEVEN newsmen, however, either ignored the Navy's hospitality or rules of dutiful guests, and took to the hills.

The scene of action, much inactivity and a bit of tedium, was in the Sierra Cristal mountains, about 50 miles northeast of Fidel Castro's Sierra Maestra area of operations.  Raul Castro had marched from his brother Fidel's bailiwick three months earlier to establish this "Second Front of Frank Pais," named for a young Santiago martyr among the Castro followers.

Fidel said nothing, even in his nightly rebel radio broadcasts about the incident until almost two weeks after it happened.  Communications were poor between the command posts, and he ordered the captives' release at the earliest possible moment, Fidel later explained.  That took almost three weeks.

Most of the hostages were U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. (next page 3) enlisted men whose bus was hijacked while they were on liberty from the naval base.

OTHERS included mining engineers and other employees at U.S. business installations in northeastern Oriente Province.

The hostages and valuable equipment such as bulldozers, trucks and jeeps taken from mining and agricultural operators, mostly American and Canadian, were taken to two small villages 45 miles northwest of Guantanamo and its nearby U.S. Navy base.

Raul and his aide-de-camp Vilma Espin, who later became his wife, maintained a headquarters at Calabazas, which had a population of about 400 persons, and another small village, Pruriales, a short distance away.

Calabazas was the evacuation point for the hostages and headquarters for U.S. Consul Park Wollam Jr. and his principal aide, CIA agent Robert Wiecha who was operating in the public role of a vice consul.  Both had been based at Santiago de Cuba.

The publicity admittedly gave new impetus to Castro supporters whose renewed vigor in arms-smuggling gave the rebels a needed boost in material.

THE kidnaping also brought a two-week cease-fire which enabled the rebels to bring in badly needed weapons and supplies to their "Territorio Libre de Cuba", Free Cuba Zone, in easternmost Oriente Province.  Fear of injuring hostages caused the Batista government to halt all military operations against the rebels.  Raul Castro himself said the hostages' presence was as valuable as 50 millimeter anti-aircraft guns.

Bombing and staffing attacks by government air forces had killed some and disheartened many of the hill country residents in the coffee and sugar farming area of Raul Castro's "Second Front."  The primary defense was passive, refuge in dugout earth-and-coconut-log bomb shelters.
Raul's kidnapings took place from June 26 through July 1.  The last hostages were freed July 18.
THE three-week lull in combat activity greatly improved morale among Castro's insurgents and their often-indistinguishable "compesino" (farmer) on-the-scene supporters and renewed the faith of exile organizations in the U.S. and other foreign areas.

The rebels' methods were impressive to most of the guests, both voluntary and involuntary.  The best possible medical care was in evidence for both combatants and the men, women and children whose domiciles had been turned into a war zone.

An estimate of the rebel arms and troop strength would have been about as accurate as their reports on the same subject.  Not every potential combatant had a weapon, and a wide variety was found among firearms in evidence.  The more fortunate rebels had weaponry ranging from various small-caliber pistols and revolvers to highly-favored U.S.-military .45 caliber pistols, Thompson sub machineguns, U.S.-made d.30 caliber rifles and carbines and a few carbines produced in the Dominican Republic.  Food supplies appeared adequate for all, even though boiled green plantains decidedly were not appetizing.

ARMED bodyguards accompanied the reporters and cameramen everywhere, but the newsmen were free to go where they pleased.

The Robin Hood aspect of the hostage situation created a measure of sympathy among newsmen on the scene and among some hostages.  There were some skeptics among the reporters among them Miami-based freelance photographer George Skadding, who was in the hills for LIFE magazine.  "This war," Skadding erroneously observed, "will last just about as long as these (mostly battered) jeeps."

Among the hostages, one old hand in Cuban revolutions, 61-year-old George Sargent, a sugar mill official, was prudently noncommital.  "It's their country", Sargent said of the Cubans in Calabazas.  he later transferred his sugar production activity to Belle Glade, a victim of the Castro victory.
OTHERS were more demonstrative.  One sailor, Thomas Mosness from Iowa, sported a .45 caliber pistol while touring the rebel area.  After reading a letter from his wife, delivered by Navy helicopter used to ferry hostages out of and diplomats into the hills, Mosness gave the weapon back to his hosts and boarded the chopper for a return to domestic felicity and Navy tranquility.
One newsman, Robert Taber, a CBS television cameraman on his second tour of the Castro insurgency, six months later forsook newsmongering to become a propagandistic co-founder of the pro-Castro "Fair Play for Cuba Committee."

Hostage sympathy also was engendered with a tour of battle areas "to show you how American weapons are being used by Cubans to kill Cubans."

A WIDELY-published photograph showed U.S. made aircraft rocket warheads being delivered to Batista forces, after being flown from the U.S. to the Guantanamo Naval Air Base.

The diplomatic account was that the weaponry was replacement for defective arms delivered for mutual hemispheric defense before a cessation of arms to Batista was declared.  The photo reportedly was taken by a Castro sympathizer on the base in late March, after official Washington declarations had said no more weapons were being made available to Batista.

The rebels also complained that Batista's bombers were being refueled at the Guantanamo base for air strikes in rebel territory.

Raul termed the hostages "invited guests," who could leave at any time they so desired.  This was true of the 110 newsmen who went into the hills on their own, but not of the hostages.  They were released in dribbles during the three-week period.

EVEN the final liberation was a minor propaganda coup for Raul.  "We're sending them back because their country needs them," Raul declared when the last group was freed July 18.  That need, he pointed out, was due to President Dwight Eisenhower having sent 5,000 Marines ashore on a peace-keeping mission in Lebanon, where a two-months'-old rebellion was threatening President Camille Chamoun.

Another political innovation materialized from the Castro campaign three months later.  that innovation also has mushroomed in use over the ensuing 30 years--aerial hijacking by both pilots and airliner passengers.

Cubana Airlines pilot Carlos Villamar, who later went into a second exile after disillusion with Castro, was in the vanguard.  He flew his plane and unwitting passengers to Miami instead of Santiago in October, 1958.  A short time later, another Cubana airliner disappeared over Oriente Province, with all aboard -- rebel hijacking suspected.  Then four rebels commandeered a propjet airliner and forced the pilot to try to put it down on the too-small airport at Moa Bay, near Raul's headquarters.  There were few survivors, and the hijackers were not among them.

Freelance writer Tom Dunkin made a dozen trips to Cuba as a reporter covering Castro and anti-Castro revolutionary activities from 1957 through 1964.  The kidnap story was covered for the St. Petersburg Times, in 1958.
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