TAMPA — In early January 1959, 55 years ago this month, Fidel Castro’s army had just driven President Fulgencio Batista from power and many Tampa Cubans traveled to the island to join in the celebration and get a firsthand look at the new nation.
Victoriano Manteiga had the best view of all.
An opinion-leader in Florida as founder of La Gaceta newspaper in Ybor City, Manteiga had coffee with Camilo Cienfuegos, a revolutionary as revered as Che Guevara.
He spent an evening with Gen. Alberto Bayo, called the guerilla-warfare mentor of Castro and Guevara.
He was granted personal meetings with Castro to discuss his plans for Cuba and was trusted as the Cuban leader’s translator during meetings with American agricultural representatives.
Five decades after the revolution, Manteiga’s grandson, Patrick Manteiga, who still runs La Gaceta, marvels at the influence his grandfather wielded from Tampa — Florida’s link with Latin America in a time before the rise of Miami.
Victoriano Manteiga had worked as a factory lector, reading to the workers who rolled cigars in Ybor, then used his status to urge that they stand up against the owners. The FBI and a federal court labeled him an agitator and a Communist — but he would reject Castro after the Cuban leader moved his nation in that direction.
“He was a tall man and he was certainly a proud man,” Patrick Manteiga said. “I think those two things and a lot of Cuban blood probably made him a formidable person.”
Patrick Manteiga learned firsthand how wide a swath his grandfather had cut. Ten years ago, the grandson visited with the aging Castro in Cuba.
“He has met countless people and historic figures in his lifetime,” Patrick Manteiga said. “Yet he recognized my grandfather’s name.”
Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa History Museum, said it’s difficult to overstate Manteiga’s stature at the time.
“Being a lector and a newspaper publisher are significant on their own,” Kite-Powell said, “but he was that and so much more. He ran in some pretty exclusive and historic circles. You don’t earn that type of company unless you are someone of great importance.”
Manteiga made a name for himself as a leader in Tampa’s Latin American community shortly after he arrived in Ybor City from Cuba in 1914 and began work as a lector. He alternated his readings of popular novels and the daily newspapers with literature on the rights of workers. He told those toiling in the factory that they deserved better pay, fewer hours and more humane working conditions.
In 1920, the cigar workers went on strike and the owners blamed Manteiga and other lectors who followed his lead. Seeking revenge, they called Manteiga a Communist, a popular smear label of the time. Yet the 100-page file on Manteiga collected by the FBI, released to a reporter under the Freedom of Information Act, also noted that he was listed as an a enemy of the Communist party in Tampa for reading anti-communist literature to the cigar workers.
When the strike ended, the lectors were banned from the factories. Manteiga, however, would not be silenced.
He spent two years in Cuba and returned to Tampa to found La Gaceta, then a Spanish-only newspaper that he used as a vehicle to help right what he saw as wrongs in Tampa.
He continued to rally against the cigar factory owners, demanded that the state do more to protect minorities against the Ku Klux Klan, and printed the location of moonshining operations so crooked cops couldn’t claim they didn’t exist.
Standing a slim 5 feet 11 inches tall with salt-and-pepper hair, thick spectacles, and dressed in a three-piece suit, Manteiga looked the part of a university professor, a man who would prefer to stick his nose in a book than a fight.
But those who threatened him learned he was just as willing to use a sword as he was a pen.
Patrick Manteiga relayed a story about the time his grandfather’s home was sprayed with bullets by angry moonshiners. In response, Manteiga put together an armed posse and paid the bootleggers a visit. No shots were fired, but he showed he was willing to fight. They never bothered Manteiga again.
Through his actions and words, said Cuba historian Maura Barrios, Manteiga became “a cultural god.”
“He was the most respected member of Tampa’s Latin community,” Barrios said.
This stature made him a powerful force throughout Latin America.
“Tampa was the hub of Latin American activity in the United States at the time,” Kite-Powell said. “If someone needed financial assistance from its U.S population, they visited Tampa.”
And if they wanted Tampa’s support, they went through Manteiga.
It began with his support of loyalists attempting to prevent Gen. Francisco Franco from taking over the Spanish government by military coup. According to Manteiga’s FBI file, he solicited funds through editorials and by meeting with Tampa’s wealthier families — and he took part in clandestine missions to ship arms and explosives.
The loyalists lost the war, but Manteiga cemented his status as a revolutionary who could get the job done.
For the next two decades, he hosted Latin American revolutionaries and political candidates visiting Ybor City.
Regular Cuban visitors included Grau San Martin, Raul Roa, Eduardo Chibas and Roberto Agramonte, all household names in Cuba.
“Intellectuals, writers and politicians from Latin America knew and corresponded with Victoriano,” Barrios said. “Sometimes they came to Tampa just to meet him.”
He also made enemies.
An informant told an FBI agent that Manteiga was “the most dangerous man in the Spanish-speaking community.”
“He is very radical,” an agent wrote in the file. “He has kept the Latin community in a turmoil for the past few years.”
In 1955, Castro was in Mexico planning his revolution. It was there that Gen. Bayo, who was teaching Castro guerilla warfare tactics, suggested Castro tour United States cities with large Cuban populations that could help finance his efforts.
Bayo told Castro to reach out to Manteiga in Tampa.
Castro came to Tampa in November 1955 and Manteiga played the same role he did with other revolutionaries who visited the city.
And he agreed to become president of the Tampa’s “26th of July” movement, the name of Castro’s revolutionary army. Tampa’s chapter was charged with raising money and supplies while spreading Castro’s propaganda. According to Manteiga’s FBI file, his editorials in La Gaceta often made it onto the desk of President Batista, whose secret police were ordered to arrest Manteiga if he ever visited the island.
With Castro’s victory, Manteiga was able to regularly travel to Cuba safely. Whenever he did, he met with Castro.
“Castro had not yet embraced Communism,” Patrick Manteiga said.
During his meetings with Castro, Manteiga witnessed the growing influence of the Communist Party in Cuba.
Upon his return from the island nation in 1960, Manteiga was detained by the FBI and questioned about Castro. He lamented that it was only a matter of time before the Cuban government walked arm in arm with the Soviet Union.
When Castro did announce Cuba would be a communist nation, Cubans in Tampa scorned Manteiga and all those who supported a revolutionary who had changed his stripes from democracy to Communism.
La Gaceta was on the verge of collapse as advertisers boycotted what they considered a “communist” publication.
Manteiga initially fought back through the paper, declaring he was not a communist and reminding the public his son, Roland, was a decorated veteran who fought in World War II. But he soon realized his words were falling on deaf ears.
“It was easier to be silent than continue to argue,” Patrick Manteiga said. “They wanted to believe he was communist and he was not going to change their minds no matter how wrong they were.”
He stopped traveling to Cuba and, while he continued to write editorials on injustices throughout Latin America, he stopped his involvement with revolutionary causes.
As the years went by and Manteiga’s contemporaries passed on, that part of his life faded. He would be remembered as a Tampa intellectual, not as a committed compatriot of famous revolutionaries.
“He should be forever remembered as hero to Tampa’s Latin Americans,” said Cuban historian Barrios. “He deserves that honor.”