MATANZAS, Cuba — Since he was a boy, Senator Ted Cruz has said, all he wanted to do was “fight for liberty” — a yearning that he says was first kindled when he heard his father’s tales of fighting as a rebel leader in Cuba in the 1950s, throwing firebombs, running guns and surviving torture.
Those stories, retold by Mr. Cruz and by his father, Rafael, have hooked Republican audiences and given emotional power to the message that the Texas senator is pushing as a contender for the party’s presidential nomination. In their telling, the father’s experience in Cuba — when the country was swept up by the charismatic young Fidel Castro, only to see him become a repressive Communist dictator — becomes a parable for the son’s nightmarish vision of government overreach under President Obama.
But the family narrative that has provided such inspirational fire to Mr. Cruz’s speeches, debate performances and a recently published memoir is, his father’s Cuban contemporaries say, an embroidered one.
The elder Mr. Cruz, 76, recalls a vivid moment at a watershed 1956 battle in Santiago de Cuba, when he was with a hero of the revolution, Frank País, just hours before he was killed in combat.
In fact, Mr. País was killed seven months later and in a different place and manner.
In interviews, Rafael Cruz’s former comrades and friends disputed his description of his role in the Cuban resistance. He was a teenager who wrote on walls and marched in the streets, they said — not a rebel leader running guns or blowing up buildings.
Leonor Arestuche, 79, a student leader in the ’50s whom the Castro government later hired to verify the supposed exploits of revolutionary veterans, said a term existed for people like Mr. Cruz — “ojalateros,” or wishful thinkers. “People wishing and praying that Batista would fall,” she said, “but not doing much to act on it.”
There is no question that Rafael Cruz, who is now a pastor and his son’s most effective and popular campaign surrogate, was beaten in 1957 at the hands of agents for Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator.Photo
An old neighbor remembers soldiers bloodying the 18-year-old Mr. Cruz’s face and driving off with him that summer. Mr. Cruz gives a harrowing account of soldiers beating him over three or four days, stomping on the back of his head and breaking his teeth. A mug shot in his son’s book shows him with a bruised nose, and a 1959 article in The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, which he attended after fleeing to the United States, reported he had lost “half of his upper denture” in the beatings.
The reason Mr. Cruz was arrested, however, is less clear, and he has offered different explanations. In an interview alongside his son in March, Mr. Cruz said he had sought to recruit to the revolutionary cause someone who turned out to be an informant working for Batista’s regime. The 1959 account, though, did not mention any informant; Rafael Cruz said then that the authorities were alerted to his involvement in the resistance by another man, who gave up only Mr. Cruz’s name after Batista’s forces beat it out of him and left him bleeding in the same cell as Mr. Cruz.
Mario Martínez, who Mr. Cruz confirmed was part of his small revolutionary cell, said he did not recall Mr. Cruz’s being apprehended for trying to recruit someone and said he believed that the cause of his old comrade’s detainment was possession of a revolver — one that Mr. Cruz had never used.
Mr. Martínez declined to be directly interviewed and relayed answers to questions posed by The New York Times about Mr. Cruz through Ms. Arestuche. According to Mr. Martínez’s account, he and Mr. Cruz had belonged to the youth brigade of Mr. Castro’s 26th of July Movement in their hometown, Matanzas, but had done little besides join in protest marches. They never turned to violence, he said.
The fog of almost 60 years can cloud even the clearest of memories, and it is possible that witnesses who can back up Mr. Cruz’s account might exist and come forward. But none of the Cuban historians, former comrades of Mr. Cruz in his hometown or veterans of the Santiago battle reached by The Times could corroborate his story.
Approached in Marietta, Ohio, on Oct. 13, between wooing campaign donors and headlining a Republican dinner, Mr. Cruz was unable to provide the name of any participant from the Santiago assault. “I mean, we were scattered,” he said, adding, “I was with one other guy at a little coffee place or something like that, and I don’t remember his name.”
Unlike some other American presidential candidates, Ted Cruz remains largely unknown in Cuba, and most of the people interviewed for this article had never heard of him. But the Cruz campaign rejected those who disputed Rafael Cruz’s version of events as politically motivated.Photo
“To repeat statements from Communist officials in Castro’s Cuba regarding events from nearly 60 years ago as truth is irresponsible reporting and simply has no basis in truth,” Catherine Frazier, a campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. “For the Batista soldiers who tortured and imprisoned Pastor Rafael Cruz, there was no such confusion.”
A Misplaced Memory
Ted Cruz’s origin story begins in Matanzas, a quiet seaside town where his father grew up along a dirt road shaded with plantain trees, and fished with a line that carved notches into his fingers.
The son of a salesman and a teacher, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz y Díaz wore parted hair and round tortoiseshell glasses at the Arturo Echemendia primary school, an exclusive school in Matanzas with 15-foot wooden doors. At 12, he placed into the town’s private high school. He earned good grades, except in Cuban history, with which he struggled.
Instead, he says, he lived it.
His schoolmates had nicknamed him El Flaco — the skinny one. But his comrades gave him a code name: Cuatro Ojos. Four Eyes. Within two or three years of the 1952 coup that brought Batista, a former president, back to power, Mr. Cruz says, he was participating in street protests and marches against the dictatorship — “which were normally met with billy clubs.”Continue reading the main story