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American Experience | American Comandante

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When he was executed outside a Havana prison on March 11, 1961, the strange story of William Morgan seemed to vanish from the popular imagination as quickly as it had appeared. But recent scholarship, based on thousands of newly declassified government documents, has brought Morgan’s story back into the public eye. Like something out of a dime store novel or a Hollywood Cold War thriller, the story of William Alexander Morgan has it all — adventure and romance, mobsters and spies, and a cast of characters that includes J. Edgar Hoover, Chè Guevera, and Fidel Castro. Told through eyewitnesses, including Morgan’s widow and several Cubans who fought alongside him, as well as journalists and biographers, the film is a quintessential American story of a man who reinvented himself, transforming from a failure to a hero and celebrity. 

Morgan’s story had been lost in the classified archives of the Cold War and edited out of Cuban history by Fidel Castro’s retelling of the revolution as an epic tale of a handful of men fighting under his direct command at the exclusion of all others. But research by journalists including New Yorker writer David Grann and Michael Sallah, who first broke the story in Morgan’s hometown paper, the Toledo Blade, and Aran Shetterly, who accessed the Cuban archives, have helped restore Morgan to his rightful place as a key character in both Cold War and Cuban history. American Comandante features an unexpectedly rich visual record that includes 8-millimeter home movies of Morgan’s childhood and youth filmed by his father, never-before-seen photographs, and film shot during the revolution that had been given up for lost.

The larger-than-life story of William Morgan began in Toledo, Ohio, where — much to the consternation of his upper middle class Midwestern family — Billy was a wild, rambunctious kid who lusted after adventure. Before he had even reached high school, he’d run off with the circus and in quick succession became a merchant marine; an Army deserter and ex-con; a circus fire eater (married to a snake charmer); and a street soldier for the mob. In 1954, at age 26, Morgan settled in Miami, working as a clown and nightclub bouncer. It was there where he first heard rumblings of a revolt on the island of Cuba.

Two years earlier, the dictator General Fulgencio Batista had seized power on the eve of a presidential election; Miami became the center of opposition, which was beginning to crystalize around a charismatic young lawyer named Fidel Castro. Morgan was captivated by the idealistic fervor of the rebels and was soon helping to smuggle arms to the island. But what he really wanted was to join Castro and the rebels in the mountains as a soldier.

Abandoning his family, Morgan headed to Havana, planning to join Castro’s forces. Instead, Morgan’s Cuban contact connected him with the Second Front, a new guerrilla group forming in the Escambray Mountains led by the 23-year-old Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo. Initially suspicious of this strange gringo, Menoyo and his men soon became convinced of Morgan’s sincerity and, with his tactical army experience and unusual bravery, Morgan quickly proved invaluable.

In the mountains with the Second Front, Morgan found his place and his calling. Now a comandante, he was no longer a mobster or an ex-con but an honorable man, fighting for freedom and democracy against a vicious and repressive regime. He fell in love and married the beautiful and idealistic Olga Rodriguez, a student activist and young guerrilla fighter who had fled to the Escambray just ahead of Batista’s secret police.

Soon the Second Front had grown from a handful of guerrillas to an army of more than five hundred, controlling an expansive territory in Cuba’s strategic center. Morgan’s own company, the Tigers of the Jungle (los tigres de la espesura), had not lost a single fight. In the East, Castro’s guerrillas had secured their own territory. Castro asked Chè Guevara, his Argentinian second-in-command, to extend the war west and bring the Second Front under Castro’s control. It would take weeks for the two groups to reach a pact, but from then on, an uneasy relationship would exist between those loyal to Castro and those loyal to Menoyo.

By early January 1959, the revolutionaries had succeeded in driving Batista out of the country. A victorious Castro promised the Cuban people a return to democracy but, behind the scenes, he was working to consolidate his power around his closest confidants. Menoyo and his Second Front, including Morgan, were marginalized and excluded from positions of power.

Still loyal to the cause, Morgan soon helped Castro fend off a coup backed by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and Batista loyalists. In a spectacular double cross, Morgan and Castro set a trap for the conspirators, whom they then triumphantly exposed to the international media. Featured in publications around the world, the mysterious Americano had transformed himself into a hero and celebrity. But his newfound fame did not sit well with Fidel Castro, or with the American government, which stripped him of his citizenship.

Less than two years later, Morgan would be executed for treason for helping foment opposition to Castro, who he believed had betrayed the promises of the revolution. Olga would spend ten years in prison for helping her husband conspire against the Castro regime. In 1980, she resettled in Morgan’s hometown of Toledo and began the struggle of restoring his citizenship and bringing his remains home.

“As a child growing up in the Cuban Revolution, I knew about William Morgan as a hero. Among the women in my family, the handsome American who loved Cuba and fought for freedom was nearly worshipped. Doing this story was a chance for me to revisit those memories and to rescue a richness and diversity in the narrative of the revolution that had been forgotten,” says Producer Adriana Bosch.

“The story of William Morgan is one that both the U.S. and Cuban governments tried to suppress,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Mark Samels. “We were so fortunate to be able to make this film while many who fought alongside Morgan, including his wife Olga, were still alive and able to share his story. Morgan epitomizes that uniquely American desire for reinvention and second chances.”

“In his lifetime, Morgan had failed numerous times,” says Biographer Michael Sallah. “That failure drove him to Cuba, to the revolution, to his own heroism, and his own death. But there was a redemption in that because, in the end, William Morgan became the person that he wanted to be.”

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