In A Nutshell
William Alexander Morgan’s life sounds like a story ripped out of the wildest movie imaginable. After roaming around the US, this guy from Ohio headed to Cuba where he joined Fidel Castro’s revolution. The American was eventually promoted to comandante and earned Castro’s respect, but things took a dark turn when the new government morphed into a dictatorship.
Note: In the photo above, Fidel Castro is on the far left, Che Guevara is left of center, and William Morgan is on the far right.
The Whole Bushel
Ever since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, Cuba has had a pretty antagonistic relationship with the US. Sure, Barack Obama and Raul Castro have recently started patching things up, but that’s after years of invasions, standoffs, and assassination attempts. With all these embargoes and restrictions, it might come as a surprise that one of the leading figures in the Cuban revolution was actually an American from Toledo, Ohio.
Born in 1928, William Alexander Morgan was a rambunctious runaway and high school dropout. The very definition of a free spirit, Morgan traveled across the country, working as a ranch hand, sailor, and elephant keeper, just to name a few of his jobs. He joined the Army at 18, got involved with a German-Japanese nightclub hostess, and was eventually arrested for going AWOL. After five years behind bars, he become a professional fire-eater, married a snake charmer, and was soon running errands for the Mafia.
Things got really crazy when Morgan started smuggling guns to Cuban rebels in the late 1950s. Hiding in the jungles of Sierra Maestra, the revolutionaries were aiming to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s incredibly brutal dictator. While there were several different rebel groups, the figurehead was Fidel Castro, a lawyer-turned-soldier who promised Cuba would become a democracy once Batista was out of the picture.
Inspired, Morgan headed to Cuba in 1957 and joined the Second National Front of the Escambray. At first, the Cubans were skeptical of this Yankee, but after he set up a successful ambush, they welcomed him into their group. In exchange, Morgan taught the rebels hand skills like bomb-making and judo. After he learned to speak Spanish, he rose through the ranks until he achieved the title ofcomandante.
Besides Che Guevara (who was Argentinian), Morgan was the only foreigner who achieved the rank of comandante. And no wonder. The “Americano” captured town after town and was such a legend that Batista put a $20,000 bounty on his head. Not only was Morgan a great leader, he was also incredibly courageous (or crazy). According to one story, Morgan once climbed onto a rooftop, readied his machine gun, and waved to an enemy plane, challenging it to a gunfight.
The pilot took off in the other direction.
Morgan was also a revolutionary Romeo. While fighting in the jungle, he fell in love with a rebel named Olga Rodriguez. They married in 1958, but since he couldn’t buy a ring, he fashioned one out of a rolled-up leaf. However, Morgan would get his chance to buy a proper piece of jewelry after Batista fled the country in 1959. Once he heard the news, Morgan ordered his men to take Havana. When the comandante rolled into town with a Cuban flag around his shoulders, people ran into the streets shouting, “Americano!”
Of course, things only got crazier once Castro came into power. Morgan was investigated by everyone from J. Edgar Hoover to Robert Kennedy, and the CIA tried to turn him into one of their moles. Things got really out of hand when a coalition of gangsters, teamsters, Batista supporters, and Dominican spies offered Morgan $1 million to lead a coup against Castro. Surprisingly, the American agreed.
The plan was for Morgan to clear the way for a Dominican strike force. As the counter-revolutionaries fought across Cuba, Morgan kept his clients up to date via radio transmissions. Whenever he delivered his status updates, the Dominicans heard explosions and gunfire in the background, not to mention the chants of angry Cubans eager to overthrow Castro. And once Morgan captured Trinidad, the Dominicans showed up ready to take Fidel out . . . only to discover Morgan had set them up.
Those gunshots and explosions were the sounds of a fake battle. And when the Dominicans arrived, they found themselves surrounded by Morgan, the Cubans, and Castro himself. This elaborate double-cross earned Morgan some major brownie points with el presidente, and Fidel publicly declared Morgan a Cuban citizen. However, this majorly ticked off US officials who hoped Morgan was really going to oust Castro. In retaliation, the State Department revoked Morgan’s US citizenship.
Morgan was incredibly hurt, but even worse, he suspected Castro wasn’t all about liberty and equality. A staunch anti-communist, Morgan worried Marxist-Leninists like Guevara and Fidel’s brother had too much influence, especially as the government took over the economy and cracked down on free speech. Worried Cuba was turning into yet another dictatorship, Morgan began smuggling weapons to a new group of rebels . . . but he was sold out by spies and arrested in 1961.
Prison life was hell for Morgan. He spent a month in solitary and often found glass in his food. Finally, he was sentenced to death on March 9, 1961. His request to see Castro was denied, and on March 11th, the American comandante was led in front of a firing squad. According to one story, someone shouted, “Kneel and beg for your life.” Morgan allegedly shouted back, “I kneel for no man.”
Then the firing squad slowly picked him apart.
As for Morgan’s wife, Olga was brutally tortured, but thanks to Morgan’s mom, Loretta, the Cuban government was eventually pressured into letting Olga go. She fled to the US in 1980 and dedicated her life to restoring her husband’s citizenship. After years of campaigning, the US government finally reversed its decision in 2007. Only Olga is still fighting for her husband today. She’s currently petitioning the Cuban government to hand over Morgan’s remains. With the recent warming of US-Cuban relations, hopefully Comandante Morgan can come home soon.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo via The Americano, by Aran Shetterly
NPR: An ‘Americano’ Revolutionary in Castro’s Cuba
The New Yorker: The Yankee Comandante
The Daily Beast: Will Cuba’s ‘Yankee Comandante’ Come Home?