José Ramón Fernández
José Ramón Fernández (1923–2019) was born in Cuba in 1923. As a young military officer, he opposed the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista imposed on Cuba through a March 1952 coup. Together with other similarly inclined officers and men, Fernández worked in secrecy to depose the brutal regime. He was...
José Ramón Fernández (1923–2019) was born in Cuba in 1923. As a young military officer, he opposed the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista imposed on Cuba through a March 1952 coup. Together with other similarly inclined officers and men, Fernández worked in secrecy to depose the brutal regime. He was part of an unsuccessful revolt on April 4, 1956, by army officers who became popularly known as “los puros” (the pure ones). For his participation in that failed attempt, Fernández was arrested, court-martialed, and incarcerated by the Batista regime in the infamous penitentiary on the Isle of Pines. He remained in prison for almost three years.
On the Isle of Pines, Fernández came to know a number of revolutionary-minded fellow prisoners, including members and leaders of the July 26 Movement, and was won to their political perspective. For more than a year he acted as military instructor to these political prisoners, who organized their own battalion within the prison.
On January 1, 1959, news reached the prison of Batista’s flight from Cuba in face of the advancing Rebel Army backed by a general strike and growing revolutionary upsurge throughout the country.
The political prisoners demanded immediate release. Hasty consultations ensued between the military commander of the Isle of Pines and high-ranking officers in the capital who were scrambling to pull together a government to replace Batista’s in hopes of preventing the Rebel Army from seizing the Havana and Santiago de Cuba garrisons. A few hours later the commander, accompanied by a score of military officers who had been released from detention, flew off to Havana.
Fernández, who was working closely with imprisoned July 26 Movement leader Armando Hart, was among the officers released. He headed not for the airport but for the Isle of Pines garrison, where he ordered the soldiers to lay down their arms, assuring them there would be no persecution of those who had committed no crimes. They obeyed. Then, with four or five soldiers who had never displayed animosity toward the prisoners, Fernández headed to the cellblock. With a machine gun targeting the guard post in front of the entrance, Fernández ordered the gates immediately opened. They were. The July 26 Movement battalion he had trained lined up in disciplined formation and marched out of the prison.
Fernández and Hart, at the head of the battalion, quickly took control of the Isle of Pines, with Fernández its military commander. Forty-eight hours later, he was summoned to Havana.
Rebel Army commander in chief Fidel Castro asked Fernández to head up the school for cadets to train Cuba’s new revolutionary armed forces. Fernández replied that he’d already been offered a job as manager of a sugar mill. Asked how much the job paid, Fernández answered 1,000 pesos a month. Castro said the revolutionary government couldn’t pay that much.
Fernández argued he didn’t feel worthy of the assignment being offered him.
“I think you’re right,” said Castro, exasperated. “You go off to the sugar mill. I’ll go off to write a book. And let the revolution go to hell!”
That day Fernández accepted assignment as director of the school for cadets.
In April 1961, working directly under Castro, Fernández was the field commander at Playa Girón, where the popular militias and Revolutionary Armed Forces defeated the US-organized Bay of Pigs invasion force in seventy-two hours of combat.
For a decade beginning in 1972, Fernández served as Cuba’s minister of education.
Following his active duty, José Ramón Fernández was vice president of the executive committee of the Council of Ministers, and was president of the Cuban Olympic Committee. He was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, and a deputy to the National Assembly.