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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
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Doomed revolutionary had Tampa connection


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Did a gun from Tampa help inspire Fidel Castro's revolution?

If so, it was in the hands of a Cuban revolutionary named Eduardo Chibas, who in 1929 took part in a failed coup against President Gerardo Machado.

Chibas was exiled for his crime and, looking to follow in the footsteps of the famous Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti, he made a pilgrimage to Ybor City, hoping to get support from Tampa's Latino population. He was not disappointed.

When Machado was toppled in 1933 by other forces, Chibas was allowed to return to Cuba. But he felt the new government was as corrupt as Machado's, and his struggle continued.

In 1947, he founded El Partido Ortodoxo (The Orthodox Party), a political party that recruited the nation's youth to stand up to what Chibas declared was an oppressive form of government. Among his early followers was a young Fidel Castro.

In 1948, Chibas finished third in Cuba's presidential election, but his party won four seats in the House of Representatives. In the mid-term elections of 1950, his party won nine more seats. His movement was picking up steam.

Chibas returned to Ybor City in late-September that year to rally emotional and financial support for his growing army of youthful freedom fighters, who were taking back their country through the political process. More than 100 supporters were waiting for him at the airfield when he landed and he was hailed as a hero. He was treated to a feast at the Columbia Restaurant, was the guest of honor at numerous private parties and spoke publicly at venues throughout the city.

On Oct. 2, Chibas was to speak at an Ybor City cigar workers' meeting at Cuscaden Park's baseball field. Prior to the engagement, he met with members of the O'Halloran family, one of the city's earliest cigar factory-owning clans, whose ancestors knew Marti. The family presented Chibas with items that had belonged to the famous revolutionary, including a pistol he carried for protection while in Tampa.

During his speech later that day, Chibas held up the gun and proclaimed, "If I fail to reconstruct the political morals of Cuba, then I expect the noble lady who owns the precious memento of Martí to send me the pistol to punish myself for not keeping a sacred promise to the people of Cuba."

In the summer of 1951, back in Cuba, Chibas announced that anonymous Cuban congressmen were providing him with evidence that the nation's education minister was embezzling government money - further confirmation of his claims that the administration was corrupt. Chibas boasted that on the evening of Aug. 5, he would unveil the evidence on live radio.

When he took to the airwaves, though, he never mentioned the education minister; instead, he warned listeners that former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista was planning a coup. He then made a farewell statement and shot himself in the stomach. A few days later, he died.

The definitive reason behind Chibas' suicide has never been established. The popular theory has been that the anonymous congressmen got cold feet and never gave Chibas the promised evidence. Chibas thought his good name would be forever tarnished by the embarrassment of not being able to fulfill his promise and could not live with the shame. But before he took his own life, he wanted to warn the Cuban people about Batista, a man he considered his homeland's greatest threat.

In 1952, Orthodox Party presidential candidate Roberto Agramonte was the favorite to win the presidential election. Polls ranked Batista third. But before the election could be held, Batista took control of the Cuban government through a military coup, just as Chibas had warned.

A short time later, Castro began planning his revolution.

Chibas' influence on Castro's political views has been well documented, and many historians believe that his suicide inspired Castro. When his fallen idol's political party was kept from the presidency due to Batista's military takeover, Castro picked up the mantle for Chibas.

I have spoken to a handful of Cuban historians over the years who have wondered if Chibas' suicide was a fulfillment of the proclamation he made on Oct. 2, 1950, in Tampa. The circumstantial evidence adds up: He promised to take his own life if he failed to return morals to Cuba. He could not deliver proof of government impropriety because the congressmen were afraid to do the right thing. He then committed suicide with a gun.

Perhaps Chibas did not return the historic pistol to the O'Halloran family and it was Marti's gun that he used. Or perhaps he borrowed it again, the family unaware of his intent.

Unfortunately, there is no way to know. There are no photos in the United States of the pistol Chibas used to take his life - at least none of which I am aware.

A photo of the suicide scene may exist in Cuba. It seems doubtful, however, as Chibas was firmly against Communism and thus has not received the respect he deserves.

Or maybe a surviving member of the O'Halloran family knows the answer. If so, I would love nothing more than for said member to contact me.

Otherwise, this is yet another of Tampa's historical mysteries that will forever be unsolved.

Paul Guzzo is a freelance journalist who specializes in Tampa history. He wrote the documentary on Tampa gangster Charlie Wall and the book "The Dark Side of Sunshine," which chronicles some of the city's most infamous people and events of the past century.

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