For Cuba—for Freedom!

An M-26-7 Leader Aiding the Castro Revolution from America, 1955–1961


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About the Book

Raul Villamia’s childhood in Cuba revolved around baseball and bloodshed. The violence that he witnessed led him to support Castro’s revolution, and his brother Mario introduced him to Castro’s 26th of July Movement (M267). Minor league baseball brought him to the United States, where he hoped to pursue a career in the majors, and left Villamia uniquely placed to aid Castro’s revolution from abroad.
From Tampa, New York City, Bridgeport, Union City, Miami, and Key West, the Villamias, Angel Perez-Vidal, Howard K. Davis and others supported Castro through fundraising, collecting supplies for the revolutionaries, propaganda campaigns, and arms smuggling. Raul rubbed elbows with Castro and his top men and with American gangsters who did business in Cuba. He was hounded by the FBI, and his brother Mario is mentioned in the Warren Commission Report. This memoir recalls Villamia’s experience as an advocate for Castro in the United States and tells the story of those in America whose efforts helped to oust Batista.

About the Author(s)

The late Raul Andres Villamia came from Cuba as a professional minor league baseball player in 1947. In 1955, his brother Mario asked him to help Castro establish a M267 branch in Tampa. Raul served as its secretary and president, and as Tampa’s first Cuban Consul under Castro. He retired from a 30-year career with the City of Tampa Traffic Department. He died on December 2, 2020, at the age of 95.

Rhonda J. Villamia was a production crew member for children’s/educational TV series, a teacher with the New York City Board of Education, and an interpreter for Hispanic marketing research focus groups. She has written articles for the Woodside Herald, La Gaceta, and Cigar City Magazine. She lives in Tampa, Florida.

Paul J. Guzzo is a filmmaker and journalist whose work includes the discovery of lost segregation-era Black cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area. He lives in Lutz, Florida.

Bibliographic Details

Raul Andres Villamia with Rhonda J. Villamia and Paul J. Guzzo
Format: softcover (6 x 9)
Pages: 316
Bibliographic Info: 73 photos, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2024
pISBN: 978-1-4766-9099-5
eISBN: 978-1-4766-4918-4
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Foreword by Emiliano E.J. Salcines 1
Preface 3
Introduction 9
1. I Once Supported Fidel Castro Ruz 11
2. Baseball and Bloodshed in Cuba 14
3. Ybor City 22
4. My Revolutionary Brother Mario 27
5. Revolutions in Tampa 48
6. Castro Comes to Tampa 57
7. Dark Forces 81
8. Meet Tampa’s M-26-7 86
9. The Media’s Role in the Revolution 104
10. The Radicals 115
11. New Leadership 127
12. Mario’s Missions 130
13. A Revolutionary Hero Leads Us 142
14. Gun Smuggling from Tampa 153
15. Victory 160
16. Fallout 172
17. My Return to a Free Cuba 180
18. Signs of Trouble 188
19. Visiting Santo Trafficante Jr. 204
20. New and Old Enemies 211
21. A Dead Revolutionary in Tampa 215
22. Who Freed the Gangster? 217
23. Creating José Martí Park 219
24. Battling the Consul 227
25. The End of Tampa’s M-26-7 244
26. The End to My Revolutionary Days 255
27. Saying Goodbye to Cuban Cigars 257
28. The Cuban Missile Crisis 259
29. The Assassination of JFK 261
30. My Brother Comes Home 264
31. Viva Cuba Libre 269
Chapter Notes 271
Bibliography 283
Index 289

Book Reviews & Awards

• A best Florida books of 2023—Creative Loafing Tampa Bay

For Cuba—for Freedom! represents a magnificent contribution to the history of Tampa and its entangled relationship with Cuba. Through family conversations, Spanish-language and English-language newspapers, and interviews, Rhonda Villamia and Paul Guzzo have written a book covering Ybor City and West Tampa, the role of Fidel Castro and sympathizers in Tampa, foiled revolutions and a revolution that is still unfolding.”—Gary R. Mormino, professor of history and co-author of The Immigrant World of Ybor City

• “The adage that everything global is local possesses a special resonance in For Cuba—for Freedom! Family history mixes with the stories of neighbors and neighborhood and joins with lore and legends, thereupon to re-mix with first-person reminiscences and oral history with Tampa as setting of the Cuban Revolution. A rich vein to mine for new insights in and added knowledge of the critical years of the 1950s, both in Tampa and Cuba.”—Louis A. Pérez, Jr., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

• “Jose Marti’s 1891 audience of cigar-workers in Tampa embraced his vision for an independent Cuba: ‘With All and For The Good of All.’ Decades later, they understood Fidel Castro’s call for a second independence movement to realize that vision. This book is an important work that contains much new information never before published or known. It is the hidden, taboo history that was silenced and forbidden for decades…which has answered many of the questions I have had for years! To have Raul Villamia’s spirit and voice telling the story…is the greatest gift…”—Maura Barrios, community historian of West Tampa, assistant director of Latin American & Caribbean Studies (retired), University of South Florida, Tampa

• “Raul Villamia’s memories, edited into a narrative book by his daughter Rhonda and journalist Paul Guzzo, brims with details about the founding and functions of the 26th of July Movement in Florida. As one of the men chosen to run the organization in Tampa by Fidel Castro himself, Villamia’s observations have the authority of an insider who was there. However one feels about Castro and his Communist regime, this is a story that needs to be told.”—Andrew Huse, curator of Florida Studies, University of South Florida Libraries, author of The Columbia Restaurant: Celebrating a Century of History, Culture and Cuisine

• “Just when you think you know all about the Cuban Revolution, here is a new book with the aroma of a Tampa cigar. Rhonda Villamía, a native tampeña, brings to life, in her father’s own words, Raúl Villamía’s experiences of his early role in support of Fidel Castro’s Revolution and subsequent disillusionment with it. She sums up not only local historical linkages to Cuba and the island’s political corruption as motivators for supporting the nascent M-26-7, but also includes accounts of others in different American cities who joined Castro’s struggle to unseat U.S. backed Fulgencio Batista. The book carries us from Cuba’s birth, through tumultuous years leading up to Batista’s coup, culminating in Castro’s rise to power, and ending with broken relations between our two nations. Rhonda and collaborator Paul Guzzo’s research fills a gap in the historical record by highlighting Tampa’s and other cities’ interactive role with the Cuban Revolution, only 90 miles away from our coast. Highly informative and original!”—Carlos J. Cano, Ph.D, associate professor of Spanish, Hispanic Culture, Film and Literature (retired), University of South Florida, Tampa

• “Ever since the end of the 19th century, Tampa’s Cuban community has been a hotbed for fostering ideas of freedom and democracy in Cuba. This work, For Cuba—for Freedom!, provides insight into the 1950s chapter of this ongoing story and Tampa’s role. It shows the conflicted effort to oust the Batista government by Tampeños. As all hoped for the repression and corruption to come to an end, some vocally took up the cause while others are quiet as they benefitted from the regime. This writing is a previously untold story of the support for Fidel Castro in Tampa and the hopes placed in his revolution. The story is now laid out and the truth is told. This well-written book by Rhonda Villamia and Paul Guzzo fills a gap in our history.”—Patrick Manteiga, third-generation publisher of La Gaceta Newspaper

• “This is an important and often overlooked chapter in the Tampa-Cuba story, and it adds another layer to Florida’s role in U.S.-Cuba relations during the 1950s and early 1960s. Raul’s recollections and those of his daughter, Rhonda, provide a unique perspective on the early days of the Castro revolution, and a snapshot of Tampa’s Cuban community during that tumultuous time.”—Manny Leto, former editor of Cigar City Magazine