The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 30           August 14, 2006  
Puerto Rican independentista Rafael Cancel Miranda speaks in Havana
‘I was expelled by Batista regime,
embraced by Cuban revolutionaries’
(feature article)
HAVANA—The following interview with Puerto Rican independence fighter Rafael Cancel Miranda appeared in the July 21 issue of the Cuban daily Granma. Cancel Miranda is one of five Puerto Rican Nationalist Party members who spent a quarter century in U.S. prisons following armed protests they carried out in Washington against colonial rule, including one in 1954 inside the Capitol building. Released in 1979 through an international defense campaign, he has remained a prominent leader of the independence movement.

At a July 7 ceremony in Havana, Cancel Miranda was awarded the José Martí Order, the highest honor issued by the Cuban government to non-Cuban leaders. The event was held at the Puerto Rican mission in Havana, a diplomatic office for the independence movement.

In bestowing the honor, Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, said his government was “fulfilling a duty, because you too have been a tireless defender of our country, in Puerto Rico as well as in prison. You have always stood with us and Cuba will always stand with the Puerto Rican fighters who continue to struggle.”

Alarcón added, “Though Puerto Rico is today a colony, for us it is and will always be a Latin American and Caribbean nation, which will one day achieve its full sovereignty and become an independent state.” The event was attended by nearly 100 Puerto Rican independentistas, visiting Cuba for the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Puerto Rican mission here.

The translation and bracketed material are by the Militant.

—Mary-Alice Waters


I went for a story and came back with two, which is not surprising since the subject of my interview is Rafael Cancel Miranda, the Puerto Rican patriot and emblem of the independence struggle.

We agreed to talk about his Cuban anecdotes, because he lived in Cuba and he was caught here by the 1952 coup [by U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista].

“I was in high school in Puerto Rico when I refused the U.S. draft. I was sentenced to two years and one day and sent to a prison in Tallahassee, Florida, where I remained from 1949 to 1951. I couldn’t get a reduced sentence because I threw some punches at an abusive cop. I got out when I was 20. When I arrived in Puerto Rico the Yankees wanted to jail me again for the same thing. My family and friends decided I should come to Cuba.”

Young Cancel Miranda landed in Santiago de Cuba using a different identity, Rafael Rodríguez, the second last name of his father, a fearless Nationalist leader. It was in the days of misrule by Carlos Prío Socarrás, which the Puerto Rican experienced firsthand.

“I arrived in Havana by bus. Through the son of [Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro] Albizu Campos, I was provided housing at the Civil Damages Office, which was on Obispo Street. It was headed by Aracelio Azcuy, a politician of those days. Those were the days of botellas [no-show patronage jobs] and garroteros [loansharks]. A fake job appeared under the name of Lázaro Babot, who never came to collect. I told Azcuy, ‘Give it to me—I’ll do the job.’ That’s how I started at the Public Works, using a pick and shovel on the streets.”

By then they called him Lázaro from Santiago, because of his accent, which sounded so much like that of eastern Cubans, and which he attributes to the constant exchange between the eastern part of the Largest of the Antilles and his island, of which [Cuban leaders] “José Ramón Balaguer and Pedro Ross are descendants.”

“There was a lot of poverty in Cuba. Saturnino, a Black man who worked with me, would tell me, ‘I see that all you eat is bread and bananas.’ Things are rough, I told him, and when he learned that I was staying at the Civil Damages Office, he told me to go to his house and that there he would ‘fix up a little room.’ I went there, and it was conditions of extreme hardship. I told him, thank you, brother, for sharing your poverty with me. From that moment on, his mom would send me, in the lunch bucket she prepared for Saturnino, a pisito with fried plantains and other things. It was a gesture I will never forget.”

Another no-show job, this one without a name, took him to work on the construction of the Línea Street Tunnel, which connects the two banks of the Almendares River. There, confronting “the exploiting and arrogant gringo,” he reciprocated the solidarity shown him by the Cubans.

“Raymond Concrete Pipe Co. was in charge of building the tunnel. I began wielding a pick and shovel, then working as a pipe builder, and later as head of a crew of 12 or 15 men. I was there about eight months and made some good friends. I remember the loansharks would take deductions out of the workers’ wages. There were several fatal accidents, but those lives meant little to the owners of the company. Then the gringo supervisor, a big guy named Smith, started insulting the Cubans in English, which they didn’t understand. I’d already been in prison in Florida and knew the language pretty well. I dished back at the American all his swearwords, and a few more I knew from prison. That was the end of that job.”

Around the same time the events of March 10, 1952, took place. “We went to sleep with Prío and woke up with Batista,” Cancel recalls people saying at the time. The Puerto Rican even wanted to respond to the coup with arms, butů.

“Azcuy, that loudmouth politician of the Civil Damages Office, used to ask me to campaign for him, to write his speeches, but I would tell him no, because Puerto Rico had many friends in Cuba and I didn’t want to get mixed up in that horse trading. When the Batista coup happened, I slipped into his office, because Azcuy had a lot of light weapons, and I told him, ‘OK, now.’ But I had the bad luck of volunteering to the wrong person, because he chickened out. If I had hooked up with Fidel, the story would have been different and I might even have been involved in the attack on the Moncada [barracks on July 26, 1953].”  
Expelled by Batista
“In 1950 there was a Nationalist insurrection in Puerto Rico, in which my father, who was later captured, took part. Since then the FBI had been looking for me. In 1951 I published an article in a Havana paper to commemorate the first anniversary of that uprising. The Yankee embassy learned about it and demanded the Prío Socarrás government turn me over along with another Puerto Rican, Reynaldo Trilla, but the authorities ignored them. Our position was that we didn’t have to go to the embassy because it wasn’t ours. After the coup, Batista’s police arrested us. They locked me up in Tiscornia, where foreigners were jailed. Trilla and I were expelled in August 1952. Just think, what an honor: expelled by Batista and then embraced by Fidel.”

How did he learn of the January 1959 revolutionary victory?

“After the attack in the Capitol building in 1954, carried out with Lolita Lebrón, Andrés Figueroa, and Irvin Flores, they sent me to Alcatraz prison. Not even California newspapers got into that prison, but the magazine Carteles did circulate there, I don’t remember why. In one of its issues I received the first information that something had happened in Cuba, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. It had always been a game of ‘You get out so I can get in,’ and the last thing involved were the people. So I didn’t really know what was happening.”

By 1960 Cancel Miranda had been transferred to Leavenworth penitentiary in Kansas, leaving behind Alcatraz, which he had entered at the age of 24 and left at 30. In his new lockup, a photo from a local newspaper reminded him of one of his Cuban experiences, which allowed him to recognize that a genuine revolution was taking place in that country.

“When I was in Cuba, I had met a young woman who sold pastries at a little store on El Prado. I worked on the tunnel, and as I waited for the bus I always chatted with that attractive young Cuban woman. I would tell her, ‘You are like a flower in a swamp,’ because there was a huge amount of prostitution in that area, and she was very decent. In the Leavenworth prison, on a page of a Kansas newspaper, I saw in a picture a group of militia members with guns surrounding the U.S. embassy in Havana. And one of those militia members was that young woman, with her rifle. And I told myself, ‘If she is there, it must be good. And if the Marines, who used to consider all Cuban women prostitutes, go after them, I’m sure they’ll take ’em out, guns blazing.”

Rafael Cancel Miranda, recently awarded the José Martí Order, has many memories of Cuba. Among his favorite is the following:

“When I returned, after getting out of prison, a young Cuban Pioneer put her neck scarf on me. Years later I met her again. That girl was Adriana, the wife of Gerardo [Hernández], one of the Cuban Five jailed in the United States.”
Related articles:
Cubans celebrate 53rd anniversary of assault on Moncada garrison
New York meeting celebrates Cuban Revolution
Proclamation by Fidel Castro delegating responsibilities  
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