As Fidel Castro first slipped his grip on power following intestinal surgery in 2006, 88-year-old Huber Matos remembered the day he met the bearded revolutionary chief nearly half a century ago, on March 31, 1958.
Matos had made it to Cuba's Sierra Maestra mountains with a stash of weapons from Costa Rica, and Castro hugged him and showed his delight until Matos said he wanted to stop his gun-running and stay in Cuba. Then Castro said sternly, "Look, I am the boss."
That's what Castro demanded to be throughout his dictatorship-until Feb. 19 when he issued a letter of resignation, becoming the last of the old-guard communist revolutionaries to step down from office.
Castro cited his "critical health condition"-what experts believe may be complications from diverticulitis, a digestive disease of the large intestine-as prompting him to make permanent a temporary transfer of power to 76-year-old Raul Castro that was made 18 months ago. As the 82-year-old dictator ceded power to his younger brother, who officially became Cuba's president on Feb. 24, WORLD spoke with his two most famous allies-turned-critics, Matos and Armando Valladares.
Matos, a former social studies teacher and rice farmer, joined Castro's rebels in 1957 to overthrow right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista. Within four months of meeting Castro, Matos rose to comandante, or commander, the same rank as Che Guevara-and Castro reminded him it was a singular honor.
Matos soon saw "despotic tendencies" in Castro that made him doubt the revered leader. Despite early successes, Castro once publicly called him a "weak commander"-something to make Matos "lower my head," he recalled, to the great hero. On another occasion, as Matos marched on the city of Santiago de Cuba with rebel fighters, Castro falsely accused him of stealing machine guns. He commanded Matos to return and be detained, but Matos said, "I will not leave."
For a while Matos' victories at Santiago and elsewhere led Castro to set aside such defiance. Castro praised his comandante in a radio address and rode with him into Havana atop a U.S-made Sherman tank on Jan. 8, 1959.
Castro commanded the crowds who idolized him, Matos recalls, while seeming humble and hopeful. He promised Cubans they would never see another dictatorship and made Matos a provincial military governor.
Only two months later, though, Matos noticed pro-Marxist articles in a newspaper distributed to the military. He joined the revolution to restore the constitution and democracy that had withered under Batista, so he complained to Castro, he said, who responded: "I'm the chief of the revolution and we'll keep it on a democratic course."
Seeing no changes by July, Matos resigned, only to have a conciliatory Castro urge him to stay. By October, Matos saw communism creeping through the revolutionary government, and he resigned again. The second time, Castro was vengeful and charged Matos with treason: ironically, for saying the government had turned Communist.
At a rally to condemn traitors five days later, Castro asked the crowds if he should execute Matos and his former Air Force chief. "To the firing squad!" the people cried.
Later Castro changed his mind, not wanting to turn Matos into a martyr. Matos got a 20-year prison sentence instead.
While Matos was behind bars, two military officials visited him with an offer: Accept the charges against you and don't cause trouble, they said, and you can go home.
"Did Fidel send you?" Matos asked.
"Yes," the men replied.
"Tell Fidel after the way he has treated me, he'd have to kill me a hundred times over with a firing squad."
That could have been arranged in Castro's brutal prisons, where guards sometimes used inmates for target practice. Instead, Matos went on hunger strikes and suffered torture many times: Once guards even punctured his genitals. When Castro finally released him Oct. 21, 1979-exactly 20 years later-he joined his exiled wife and four children in Miami.
Cuba's most famous prisoner of conscience, Armando Valladares, spent 22 years in prison for refusing to put a placard on his desk that read, "If Fidel is a communist, then put me on the list. He's got the right idea." When he moved to the United States after his 1982 release, President Ronald Reagan appointed him ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission.
He recalls the guards confining him naked to a punishment cell, with several untreated fractures in his leg from beatings. Through the open, steel mesh roof, guards hurled buckets of urine and feces over him while he slept. Tasting them was worse than the beatings, he told the UN in 1988: "What can inflict more damage to human dignity, the urine and excrements thrown all over your face or a bayonet's blow?"
Both men once believed the cross-wearing Castro could salvage Cuba, but in prison, they clung to God. Valladares described his prison term as "8,000 days" of testing his religious beliefs and battling the desire to hate his jailers.
Matos, who was raised in a Baptist home, says he survived only because "it was God's will." Defying Castro was not particularly courageous, he says. Having understood truth and justice while teaching in the Cuban countryside, he knew "what type of life is worth living."
Valladares, who is now chairman of the New York--based Human Rights Foundation, says Cubans might re-think life after Castro. "In Romania 400,000 people cheered [Nicolae] Ceausescu and the Communist Party, yet nobody would suspect that the very same people could, minutes later, be chanting slogans decrying Communism and condemning Ceausescu," he said. "And it was at that moment that the Romanian dictatorship fell. Who can guarantee that this will not happen in Cuba?"
Matos still remembers how Castro wooed his troops and Havana's crowds. He says an alcoholic Raul cannot match his brother's magnetism. Raul may carry the fading cause for now, but the real boss is gone.