Tuesday, August 22, 2006

32. The day the Coubre exploded is in all of our minds

32. The day the Coubre exploded is in all of our minds

(“March 4, 1960 Seventy five to 100 persons are dead in Cuba after a French freighter "La Couvre", loaded with ammunition exploded in Havana harbor today. Castro hinted that foul play was involved and implied…”)


It was early March 1960, March 4th to be exact, and I remember quite clearly the day we heard the ammunition ship the Coubre go off in Havana Harbor. My fellow students in the school of Agronomical Engineering (that is agricultural studies) at the University of Havana were standing outside talking between classes. We were a little west and north of the beautiful botanical gardens the love and joy of old Professor Antonio Ponce de León.

Dr. Ponce de León was descended from that ancient and famous family who arrived early in the Spanish conquest and is widely represented on this continent; thus in all probability he had some Native American ascendancy. The professor’s family was of great and lusty lineage, descended it was said from the famous explorer Juan Ponce de León and perhaps related to the heroic Havana pimp Alberto Yarini y Ponce de León. A friend tells me that in the middle part of the 20th century he had a class mate in one of the best schools in Havana, Taíno looking Juan Blasco y Ponce del León, related to the old Spanish nobility such as the Countess of Aguas Claras.

A certain Juan Antonio Ponce de León, who as recorded in 1699, had carnal relations with Ángela Gómez, a daughter of a Borrada India woman, apparently from what is now Colombia, who was the offspring of illicit affair with a certain Diego Flores, who was thus an uncle by blood of the prospective bride. There would be a José Barral Ponce de León in the heroes of the Bay of Pigs. Alberto Ponce de León Hernández had been an officer in the Cuban Airforce in 1920; on April 17th 1928, Alberto took of from Campo Columbia with Ensign Raul Perez Terrada and both, presumed crashed at sea, were lost forever.

The professor was the personification of dignity; he stood tall and straight under his white hair. If memory serves he usually dressed in a well tailored light weight white suit, but I do not recall him wearing, a Panama hat that would then so commonly complete the outfit of a person of dignity and prestige. In our youth we viewed him, with awe for his knowledge, aura of scientific shamanism and the mythic fountains of his ancient age. Sometimes he would proudly tell us of an International Botanical Meeting he had attended in the late 19th century.

Within these peaceful stone walled gardens, the Professor taught us to love the complexity of plant morphologies and the arcane lexicon of Latin nomenclatures and descriptions of the rich flora of Cuba. All the magical Latin plant names we memorized by the hundreds gave us the feeling that we were learning the secret life of plants and had gained entry to the wizardry of Science. Of all the old great handsome trees that grew in that place, the spreading smooth trunk, and cool shade of Ficus benjamina was my favorite, I savored the Latin name like an incantation, followed by a litany of its relatives.

Here, Profesor Ponce de León, held reign over a respectful flurry of white-coated assistants and graduate students in his domain of shaded gardens, pools and wood-walled laboratories. He would lead us through the gardens, and name and explain the plants. We respectfully followed, listen to his every, consulted our mimeo notes, and despaired of learning all the sacred names. As things changed and tyranny took hold again in Cuba, the professor would soon be expelled from his paradise, to suffer and die of sadness, when his son fled Cuba for freedom.

We were enjoying our class break among the tranquil beauty of the place which was called the Park of the Mills in Spanish “La Quinta de Los Molinos.” We stood and talked east of the squat two-story, gray, stone building which sheltered the library and was where most of the classes were held.

A hodgepodge of old structures, northwest and east, all at a respectful distance, half surrounded the classroom building. I recall the some of the structures, then storerooms, as painted yellow and covered with black roofs.

The storerooms were subdivided into seemingly endless, small, enclosed, stall-like, holding areas, each stall area separated from the outside by a wall and a door. It looked like a series of tiny bedroom stalls, of a decrepit old country roadhouse, of a rural posada, the Cuban vernacular for a hot sheet motel. These store rooms faced out east and south on to a common loading dock, narrow wooden supports holding up the roof, so that loading could be done shaded from the hot Cuban afternoon sun. The backs of the buildings were close to and below the vertical embankment of a raised street, the sweeping curve of La Zanja, the street built over the aqueduct that had once provided water for all Havana.

Máximo Gómez, “El Chino Viejo”, the “old Chinaman,” was the legendary deadly machete horse soldier, the great Dominican Independence fighter. He, General Gómez, had been leader of all the Mambí, and Great-grandfather’s only superior officer had camped here in 1898 with his victorous armies. Before that, in times when Cuba was a colony of Spain, it was understood that these storerooms had been some kind of cavalry barracks.

Before that there had been a molino, a mill. What kind of mill it had been I then had no idea, for I could see no evidence of wind or water power. Perhaps, I thought it must have been a molino de sangre, a molino of blood, the only too descriptive Spanish name for a slave or animal driven mill. Now, I am fairly sure it was driven by the waters of the aqueduct of La Zanja.

To the east, attached to the storerooms, there was a two and a half storey building. This building, also painted yellow, held the microbiology and other laboratories. I still remember my wonder viewing those bacterial cultures. The bacteria grew in the infected, jagged, penetrating wound made by my transfer needle in the smooth gray sterilized culture agar slants at the bottom of large test tubes. The test tubes were covered, protected, and sealed by oversized tuffs of cotton wool that looked like vaudeville comics’ white wigs sat in rows in the wooden racks, waiting for the innoculated infections to grow.

Here in that yellow building, we learned of the fungi Candida albanicans, Fusarium oxysporium cubensis, Penicillium molds, the different bacteria, the lethal viruses, all those denizens of the powerful micro world. Here in Havana, as strongly as any place on earth, this micro world invisible to the naked eye had once scourged the city’s inhabitants with the terrible plagues, fevers and crop failure famines that follow war.

Here in La Quinta de los Molinos, the trees transpired and the ponds evaporated water to cooled, or even, chill the air. The chill air suggested this was an abode of the Jigüe, the Taíno water demon. Here in this seemingly unnatural cool refuge, amid the tropical heat of other parts of the city, it was as if the ghosts of the victims of plague, and war, executions, and starvation still gathered there.

In the Quinta de los Molinos memories of all the dead filled the place. There were the spirits of the Taínos sickened by mistreatment, starvation, and small pox. The Catholic Spanish conquistadores infected from their exuberant endless venery with the Taíno women had left their bones scarred by a suddenly aggressive form of syphilis nearby. Others conquistadors went on to the mainland Americas to conquer the empires of Aztecs and Inca’s and then back to European wars to spread this plague during the Siege of Naples. Their disease scarred skeletons are still unearthed by epidemiologists today.

Here, Protestant spirits of the courageous invading English and American colonial troops of the Earl of Albemarle seemed to float low in air, calm, but still confused at so much strangeness. These had mostly fallen after victory and far too brief sojourns with the women of Havana. For then the triumphant clouds of blood sucking female mosquitoes that had swarmed the place had carried fever plagues, of yellow fever dengue and malaria.

Here in this place, it was as if there were still presences of Africans thrown dead to the sharks from the slave ships at the mouth of the harbor seaward of Morro Castle, killed by the lash, or executed after desperate rebellions. There were memories of the hundreds of thousands of Cubans starved in la Reconcentración, or shot for rebellion or disrespect in the moats of the ancient castles surrounding the city.

Beautiful Havana was long a place of death. There were ghosts of heroic US Army medics who knowingly risked their lives, and too gullible new Spanish immigrants, paid human guinea pigs, dead in the Walter Reed yellow fever investigations. There were those killed violently during the Cuban Republic in the murderous break up of dastardly provoked too premature celebrations of the end of Machado’s tyranny. There were presences of the dead officers disarmed and gunned down at battle’s end at the Hotel Nacional. There were the spirits of brave Isleño Güajiro Blas Hernández and his men in their 1930s last stand at Atarés Castle, who died in ones and twos in the castle’s courtyard, blown apart by high arching shells from naval guns and field artillery --a severed head falling into the soup-- or were shot after surrender to Batista’s forces here.

There were ghosts of all those dead University of Havana students; their hot young blood spilled on the streets trying to make a better world. Then steadily adding to the hosts of ghosts were those still being executed by the Che Guevara in the fortress of the Cabaña on the other side of the bay. All these many ghosts still seemed to cling to the old buildings in that tranquil beautiful place.

Yet we university students were too educated to entirely fear the ghosts. We ignored the feel of their presence, for they could not bother us for we were young, and strong and immortal, and we loved that place. That day we had been standing in the deep cool shade of the great smooth gray trunks and high and spreading glosssy leaved canopy of the Ficus fig trees.

The trees stood just north of the steps of the building, on the north side of the graveled entrance from the iron barred gate that lead on to the wide avenue named for the long gone Spanish ruler, Emperor Carlos III. The Emperor’s street suddenly broadened after leaving the narrow pirate-trapping streets of old Havana.

The gardens and the entryway, the driveway, from the wide Carlos III Avenue to the south were enclosed by turned stone pillars, low stone walls supporting black iron railings. A day like today, but not this day, down that beautiful driveway a government directed mob of communist high school students from the Havana Institute, and various schools of fine arts and ballet came in fury and rage, bearing placards and shouting. They are trying unsuccessfully to expell some of us who opposed the government. We, University of Havana Agronomy students, older than they, many like me had fought Batista’s dictatorship find it laughable that these youngsters and the effete male ballet dancers are trying to intimidate us. We jeer, and laugh at them and do not give ground. I clutch above my belt, my hand holds the butt of my small and hidden Colt Cobra belly gun. The demonstrators back down and lose the day, but not the war.

The well-bloodied Castillo of El Principe, the Castle of the Prince, heavy stone, dry moats, crenellated embattlements, and high walls, stood as it still stands raised high on a grassy hill, to the south west. The castle looks down on a small grassy hill where that wide avenue heads towards it.

There, just as it approached the castle, as if in fear at that dread place -for it is a castle where the evil expediencies of Machiavelli’s princes still rule—the wide street of the dead emperor swings aside and goes around it. About three years before, Esteban Ventura Novo, the most famous Batista police colonel and killer, with his police lockup full, had had cousin MJ lodged and very severely beaten in stone cells of that very same castle. Ventura would die in Miami many years later to live on only as the fictional Capitan Segura in Graham Greene’s novel “Our man in Havana.”

That was the morning of March 4th 1960, was when a certain ammunition ship arrived in Havana Harbor. Somebody among us students had whispered that there was a secret ammunition ship in the harbor, and I had just said in conversation that it would probably blow up. My memory strongly suggests that devout Jesuit educated Rogelio González Corzo and some of the Catholic University group were there on or near the east steps of the School of Agronomy. Rogelio was a very devout Catholic, of the saintly kind that appears in that mix of sin and devotion that was Havana. The great Cuban patriot José Martí once described such a person as an incorruptible sycamore tree in a swamp.

Fearless Rogelio González was organizing resistance to Castro. It is my understanding from memory and inference that Mr. O’Malley, a reputed CIA agent and teacher at Saint George’s School in Havana, where he was a colleague of my father, was advising this resistance group.

It seemed that I in that garden was the only one there who worried about the ship. Knowing from reading or conversation that ammunition ships can and do explode. I said out loud that it could blow up. Then suddenly as we faced west towards the wide low steps of the much too grand entrance to the main building, the first explosion went off behind us. It was the afternoon about 3:10 in the afternoon.

The best image of Zanja Street that I can now recall was from prior days in which one of my fellow students, a woman I found beautiful, went hipswaying ahead of me going around the southern sidewalk by a mesh wire fence. I can still see her in my minds eye. She is walking fast, her buttocks dancing lust’s promise, as she turns gracefully beyond the curve, at a place where the fence becomes a stone wall. She disappears out of sight into the dense shade of heavy canopies of trees. My old memory still retains, from almost fifty years ago, the stirring liquid music of her movements.

That day when La Coubre blew, I and the others were inside that fence and that wall. Here the explosion was muffled because the Quinta de los Molinos is below grade. After that explosion all was quiet for awhile. Zanja Street, which curved absolutely flat, after all it had been an aqueduct was above us. At first there seemed not to be any traffic. The rise beyond Zanja was covered with university and city buildings, above the sky was blue and serene. In that momentary stillness I realized that my guess had turned prophetic, and dangerous. This successful prediction awarded me some fishy looks from my fellow students for a while and had attracted the attention of the authorities permanently.

I don’t recall whether we saw it clearly, but there was a cloud of smoke over the Bay to our northeast. Now we certainly heard the police, ambulance and fire sirens go off. We were all excited. Most friends, their rural roots in disarray, were much against the Castro government. We discussed our options; the braver ones in the anti-Castro resistance went to the port docks to try to pick up weapons.

Shaken by the success of my prediction, I decided not to go since, once it goes off, an ammunition ship, almost always, has secondary explosions. It just seemed too dangerous.

There on the wrecked ship and the low docks of the P & O (Peninsular and Orient or Occidental) where the rail ferries came and went to the US, was a ghost- like figure in white robes. It was Father John McKniff who with his nurse Gloria Azoy was moving about among the corpses and fragments of dead bodies, helping the wounded and giving last rites. Many of the dead were probably Abakuá, dock workers who followed this most secret and aggressive of Afro-Cuban religions. Father McKiff was from Pennsylvania and parish priest of Santo Cristo del Buen Viaje, a church in the old section of Habana Vieja, and he belonged to the order of Saint Augustin.

The second major explosion went off at 3:45 pm, releasing noxious gases Father McKniff and his nurse fell to the ground surrounded by clouds of white smoke. And then awaking amid surrealistic images of an urn dedicated to the Virgin Mary they continued their saintly work. The explosions had driven the ship forward out of the water and it was now riding on top of the low docks. Eight miles to the south west, in la Víbora (Santo Suárez) district the explosions, made the window blinds rattled and smoke could be seen over the docks. Apparently, explosions continued all afternoon because far away and sheltered as inside the Catholic Church on 5th Avenue in Miramar, the strongest of these explosions was heard around 5 pm. It was a Friday; and yet people were going to church.

A huge gear from the drive of the ship flew in the air and landed, crushing a hole in the cobble stones. Apparently the same Swedish cobblestones that Tío Carlos had arranged to ship back to Cuba as ballast, when smuggling sugar into England during WWI. Soon Cuban Air force B-26 bombers were seen flying in the sky and the Cuban armed forces and police were on high alert.

Again, I had guessed correctly. These secondary explosions that followed caused perhaps a hundred dead. More numbers added to the ranks of ghosts, but my brave friends who had ignored my council for caution were safe for now.

These friends from the resistance, friends with more courage than I, had gone to the still exploding ship and brought back some handfuls of ammunition. The ammunition-.308 caliber did not fit anything that the anti-Castro resistance had. I recall talk telling that most of the weapons, the rifles (Belgian FAL the Spanish acronym for light automatic rifles, Fusil Automática Liviana) were destroyed. Perhaps, I saw a destroyed, heat twisted, rifle my memory is not clear on this.

Ernest “Che” Guevara dropped by the scene; apparently this was after the second major explosion because he was not injured there. Officially, his visit was an impromptu effort to organize the clean up. It is not clear to me what he did at the scene, however the famous Korda photograph of him was taken there or soon after in the massive official funeral. Perhaps history will judge this as a mere photo-op.

Friends still readily recall their memories in discontinuous images: “La Coubre didn't sink, (rather) the explosion moved the ship forward and it…went on top of the dock…it was terrible.” “The ambulances wailed all night.” “The newspapers showed a gigantic gear, from the La Coubre’s naval engines, imbedded in cobble stones of a street.”

Headlines screamed Sabotage! March 7, Fidel Castro gave a speech proclaiming dread external threats. It was quite clear now that tyranny was on its way, that freedom or democracy was not yet to return to Cuba. I think that was the night of that speech that Grandmother, that brave mambisa, that brave War of Independence insurgent, gave up her ghost and died.

Almost fifty years later, it is still not clear whether the explosion was sabotage by then anti-Castro activists William Alexander Morgan or his agents, the CIA, the Castro government or even in mistaken action the Algerian Rebels, or whether it was an accident. What is clear is that the ship never should have been tied up at that pier, but should have been unloaded, via transfer in special flatbottomed barges called lighters, while the ship remained in the middle of Havana Bay. The responsibility for this error is commonly attributed to Raul Castro.

The weaponry destroyed included: FAL, fully automatic Belgian FN rifles, .308 caliber ammunition. The Afro-Cuban dock workers were probably members of the secretive, feared and reputedly very violent Abakuá; they have fought and died for Cuban political causes at least since 1871. The Abakuá is the Cuban version of the Èfìk, far better known in fictional form in Edgar Rice Burrows stories as the cruel Leopard Men. The Abakuá are reliably reputed to be vengeful and resist Cuban government pressure, yet others say that this secret society admires Castro. However, the situation is muddied since the Cuban government maintains a special group of tame Abakuá (Buro Abakua, a State institution) and provides a special magical guard around Castro. It is probable that these dockworkers have an uneasy pact with Castro, as is so elegantly described by Jerome Du Bois (2004).

Some report that there were a large number of executions after the explosion others state that these dock worker were not qualified to unload explosives. “La Coubre'' was towed to a dry-dock in Havana harbor where it underwent extensive repairs. It returned to service and continued to be owned and operated by the French ''Compagnie Générale Transatlantique'' until 1972, when it was sold to Cyprus and re-named the ''Barbara.'' Curiously, Saint Barbara is patron of arsenals and in Spanish refers to a ship's weapon storage facility. Saint Barbara is also considered an Afro-Cuban deity as Santa Barbara-Changó, a god of thunder and explosions who is worshipped by the Abakuá among others. It is not known whether the new owners of the ship had these references in mind when they renamed it.

Father John McKniff was arrested during the massive round ups that preceded the Bay of Pigs Invasion as described in the next chapter, but stayed in Cuba as the only remaining of his 37 fellow Augustinians until 1968, when his health gave out and he had to return to the U.S. Denied re-entry back into Cuba he spent most of the last 22 years of his life in Chulucanas, in northern Perú. He is being considered for formal sainthood. Rogelio González Corzo was executed April 20th, 1961; he died shouting "¡Viva Cristo Rey! ¡Abajo el comunismo! ¡Viva la Agr...," he could not finish saying "…Agrupación Universitaria." Rogelio is being also being formally considered as a Catholic martyr.

This incident is one of many such explosions, most of which are considered accidental, yet Castro and his propagandists insist that the cause of the 1998 Maine explosion that precipitated the Spanish (Cuban) American War was accidental or unknown, yet they label the 1960 La Coubre incident deliberate. However, that is now and this was then. I then was on Castro’s growing secret police’s watch lists.