A few days ago I received a picture through social media of a man about to be executed by firing squad, in the early days of the Castro Communist Revolution of 1959. The picture was so shocking to me I shared it with my friends and family and put a short comment on it. Within a few hours I received comment(s) regarding this man, who he was and information that made the picture that much more shocking to me. It turns out I already knew of him, but not the whole story. I started asking questions within the family and doing some research.
Jose Rodriguez (Pepe Caliente) was from my native province of Matanzas. He was a soldier in the pre-Castro government and was known for his sense of duty and his temper, this earned him the nickname “Pepe Caliente”. He was not the sort of man who put up with anyone’s nonsense. For years I heard the mention of Pepe Caliente and his temper, but I had not heard the whole story and his significance in Cuban History. Jose Rodriguez was one of the first men to be executed in front of a firing squad by the new government of Cuba in 1959.
His indictment, trial, sentence and execution happened all at once (less than 1 minute) as was the method of the day. “Due Process” and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” were not present and are still not present on the island of Cuba.
In the picture(s) that were taken, Jose Rodriguez is shown kneeling before a Catholic Priest receiving absolution and later is shown at the wall. These pictures were smuggled out of Cuba by an American newsman (UPI staff photographer Andrew Lopez) who was present. There were several newsmen present that day, however once the Rebel Commander realized the significance of such photographs he ordered all film be taken away from the newsmen. As the soldiers proceeded to remove the film, Mr. Lopez managed to evade the soldiers and get these pictures out. His series of pictures were awarded a Pulitzer circa 1960.
During my research I located a letter published in Spain (in various newspapers) in 1962. The letter is from the priest in the picture (Rev. Domingo Lorenzo). In the letter Father Lorenzo gives an account of that day, how he came to be at the prison at that particular moment. He was later expelled from Cuba by the Communists because of his assistance, both physical and spiritual, to the men who were being executed and the families who were left behind. The Castro government took power on January 1st, 1959 and Father Lorenzo was expelled on April 5th, 1959. During that short three month period Father Lorenzo saw 58 of his friends’ executed. (this comes from his letter)
His account of the execution of Jose Rodriguez (Pepe Caliente) seems particularly personal to him. In it he mentions he knew Jose Rodriguez and also knew his family. Jose Rodriguez came from a humble family in a small town of the province Matanzas, Cuba. A family who produced men of faith, courage and work ethic. One of those men was my uncle Efrain who passed away earlier this year. Jose Rodriguez was his uncle and he cheerfully mentioned “Pepe Caliente” many times, but he never spoke to me about the execution or the picture. I just confirmed with family members he saw the picture for the first time in 1980 (the 20th anniversary of the Pulitzer) while casually browsing through a Sunday newspaper. I can’t imagine the pain he felt to see his beloved uncle on his knees minutes before his execution.
In Father Lorenzo’s letter he mentions how Jose Rodriguez came to be before him in the courtyard of the prison. He fell to his knees asking him for his blessing, mentioning “you are the only friend” I have here and proclaiming his Catholic Faith. He later refused to wear a handkerchief around his eyes offered to him by Father Lorenzo. I don’t know what “his crimes” were and what would bring a new government to execute a man who had the rank of corporal (certainly not an important figure in any army). Perhaps it was his lack of fear; for in all dictatorships and socialists regimes fear is an essential component of control. Jose Rodriguez was used to instill fear in the population and above all control.
“Pepe Caliente” died with his eyes open facing evil and proclaiming his faith in Our Lord. Men like that cannot be allowed to survive in a totalitarian system regardless of their rank.
The letter sent by Father Lorenzo to the Spanish newspapers in 1962 is lengthy and written in Spanish. I have attached a copy of it here in PDF format for those who are interested in reading it.
There is an interesting twist to the whole event. After the rebel commander realized the prison courtyard was filled with newsmen and many others including women, he screamed out to stop the execution "we'll execute him tomorrow". So they placed him back in his cell removed everyone from the courtyard, and he was executed the next day, alone. (this is part of Father Lorenzo's account).