The Trial that Shook Cuba


Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, one of Cuba’s most distinguished generals and the former commander of the Cuban forces in Angola, was arrested last June 12 in Havana and shortly afterward accused of corruption and drug trafficking. He appeared before an honor tribunal only thirteen days later, and in his opening statement confessed to all charges against him. He said he thought the death sentence would be an appropriate punishment for the crimes he had committed.

Ochoa, in his light gray dress uniform with its rows of decorations, cut a dignified figure before the honor tribunal of forty-seven generals and admirals. Its proceedings, hastily convened on a Sunday, were recorded on videotape by the government, and lengthy portions were broadcast throughout Cuba on nighttime television after a two-day delay for editing. Ochoa’s words of self-accusation before the cameras were stunningly direct, although his demeanor was remote and reflective.

“While our [Communist] party was declaring that it had nothing to do with drug trafficking, I was involved in it,” Ochoa testified. Later he said, “I want to tell my comrades-at-arms that I believe I betrayed my country, and I say in all honesty, one pays for treason with one’s life.”

Ochoa said he had done “atrocious things” but he said little about what these things were. Instead, his confession was full of politically charged statements. Ochoa swore that all his actions were “the artifice of my [own] mind,” and that neither Cuban president Fidel Castro nor his brother Raúl, the defense minister, nor anyone else in the Communist party or government “ever had anything to do with it.” He sought to dispel rumors that he had tried to lead a revolt against Castro’s regime, saying “I have never been opposed to the revolution—quite the contrary.”

He closed his statement by declaring that if he faced execution, “My last thought will be of Fidel, and the great revolution he has given our people.”

After Ochoa’s confession, the tribunal decided not to question him, and the following day it stripped him of his honors and expelled him from the armed forces. After the tribunal, in which Ochoa was the only defendant, came the second phase of the Cuban prosecution, a summary court-martial, which began on June 30 and lasted only eight days. Thirteen other officers of the army and the Interior Ministry, the agency in charge of intelligence, national security, and the political police, were indicted along with Ochoa on charges of corruption and drug dealing. Ten of them were sentenced on July 7 to prison terms ranging from ten to thirty years. At dawn on July 13, four men convicted of high treason went before a firing squad: the fallen General Ochoa, his aide-de-camp, Captain Jorge Martínez Valdés, a high intelligence officer, Colonel Antonio de la Guardia Font, and his aide, Major Amado Padrón Trujillo.

It was the first time in the Cuban revolution’s thirty-year history in which sitting high-ranking members of the regime were publicly condemned and executed. In 1963 Fidel…

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