Gustavo Arcos

Castro's comrade turned dissident

Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, human rights activist: born Caibarien, Cuba 19 December 1926: twice married (one son); died Havana 8 August 2006.

Gustavo Arcos spent his twenties and thirties standing shoulder to shoulder with Fidel Castro during the Cuban revolution, and was wounded in the historic 1953 attack on the military dictator Fulgencio Batista's Moncada barracks. Quickly disillusioned with Castro's shift towards Communism and authoritarianism, however, he spent the rest of his life fighting for democracy and human rights in Cuba, spending almost 10 years in Castro's prisons for his trouble.

When he died, Arcos was the oldest and best-known of Cuba's small band of dissidents, heading the illegal but openly active Cuban Committee for Human Rights, a group highly respected by human rights organisations worldwide. He was considered by dissidents the "dean of the opposition" to the Communist leader, while Castro labelled him a "counter-revolutionary mercenary in the pay of the United States".

In an interview last year, Arcos said he was convinced democracy would come to his homeland but he doubted whether he would live to see it. Friends said last week's news that Castro had temporarily relinquished power, albeit to his brother Raúl, for the first time in nearly half a century, had brought Arcos hope.

Gustavo Arcos Bergnes was born, one of nine siblings, in the old fishing town of Caibarien, in what was then Santa Clara province (now Villa Clara) on Cuba's north coast, in 1926. He met Castro, who was four months older than him, in 1948 when both were studying Law at the University of Havana.

Strongly democratic and nationalist, like the young Castro, Arcos was quick to agree to clandestine revolutionary activity after the army chief Batista overthrew the elected government in a coup d'état on 10 March 1952. On 26 July 1953, Arcos, Castro and around 130 other young men and women, with outdated guns and rifles, attempted to storm the army's Moncada barracks outside the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.

Around 70 of the attackers were killed, the rest captured. Arcos was shot in the hip, a wound which partly paralysed his left leg and left him with a limp and in constant pain for life. He was jailed for 10 years but, along with Castro and the rest of the revolutionaries, freed in a general amnesty in 1955.

Castro and his nationalist dreamers, now joined by the Argentinian Ernesto "Ché" Guevara, gathered in Mexico City, called themselves the 26 July Movement and planned their next attack. Because of his disability, Arcos was unable to join the 82 who sailed to Cuba. He stayed behind, and learned that one of his brothers, Luís, had been killed in a gun battle in Cuba during the landing.

Using the nom de guerre "Ulises" (Ulysses), Arcos set up a clandestine radio station, Indio Apache (Apache Indian), in Mexico, broadcasting to Cuba and to sympathisers elsewhere in the region. He also travelled around Central and North America, including the US, to procure cash and arms, and arrange their shipment to Castro and his men and women fighting in the Sierra Maestra.

After the success of the revolution in the New Year of 1959, when Batista fled and Castro entered Havana, Arcos returned home and was named by Castro as Cuban ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, where he served until 1964. By then, however, he had been shocked by Castro's shift away from democratic ideals towards Marxist-Leninism. He declined the offer of a posting to Moscow, criticised Castro for the many executions of opponents, was labelled a counter-revolutionary and, along with his brother Sebastián, jailed for three years.

When they were freed, they were denied permission to leave Cuba. An illegal attempt to slip out led to a further jail term, from 1982 to 1988, during which time they set up the Cuban Committee for Human Rights from behind bars. Smuggling out leaflets to international organisations, the committee won notable concessions from Castro, including visits by human rights groups from abroad, and the release of some prisoners, who then spread the work in the streets of Havana and worldwide. That work regularly brought pro- Castro mobs to the Arcos brothers' homes, when insults were hurled and death threats made.

Gustavo Arcos was believed to have divorced his first wife during his first prison term, to enable her to leave Cuba with their son. He married again, to Teresa Rodriguez, around 1988.

Phil Davison

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