After 20 Years in Cuban Jails, Fidel's Ex-Comrade-in-Arms Joins the Anti-Castro Forces in Miami
Matos had been a social science instructor when he joined with Castro's rebel forces in the Sierra Maestra in 1958. Rising quickly through the ranks, he was one of Fidel's most trusted officers when the 26th of July Movement seized power. Ten months later, however, he wrote Castro to warn against the new government's drift toward Communism. Fidel, labeling his comrade "a traitor to the revolution," answered by personally leading the troops that seized Matos' provincial headquarters and took him prisoner.
Matos' 20-year sentence for treason took him through nine prisons and an ordeal he often thought he would not survive. "My treatment was cruel and implacable," he says. "Once I went 13 months without visitors, another time seven years. In El Morro I was allowed out to see the sun only once in 10 weeks. In the Isle of Pines I spent a year in a concrete box with one of my men. We never saw the jailer's face. He left the food in a slot in the door." Ordered to exchange the khakis of a political prisoner for the blue garb of a common criminal, Matos chose to go naked for two years. Resistance was his only ally; Matos fought his captors with six hunger strikes.
Four days before his sentence was up, he was dragged from the prison and taken to the political police HQ. "I had been told that I would never leave jail alive," he says. "I thought they were going to kill me." He was beaten—"the worst time of all"—but almost precisely at the hour his 20-year term ended he was handed over to a delegation of Costa Rican officials who had come to arrange his departure. Flown out of Cuba, Matos was reunited that night in Costa Rica with wife Maria Luisa, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1963 to raise their four children, supporting herself as a seamstress. With her was their daughter Carmen, whom Matos hadn't seen since she was 11 months old. A dozen or so old army comrades greeted him too. The next morning he spent with his 10 grandchildren, who were born during his captivity. At first he couldn't stop talking. "You rest, let me talk," his wife begged. "No," Matos replied. "I have so much to tell you."
Though more accustomed to his freedom now, Matos still keeps a handgun cinched at his waist, and has a bodyguard with him at all times. He denies any ambition to lead the Cuban exile movement. "I have no pretensions," he says. But last week he was scheduled to address the AFL-CIO convention in Washington, the first stop on a tour to include New York, London, Caracas and San Juan. He approaches such new responsibilities with no sign of reticence. "I know I have a duty toward Cuba now and in the future," he says. "My mission is to be a standard-bearer of liberty."