“Cuba shipped a million dollars’ worth of frogs’ legs to the US last year,” William Morgan, an American expat, declared shortly after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. “I’m going to double that.”
Morgan was an adventurous man with glowing blue eyes, blond hair, and a personality that engulfed him in a constant stream of trouble. He was “nomadic, egocentric, impulsive, and utterly irresponsible,” according to the file the CIA later made on him. In a word, he was bored — constantly and profoundly.
Two years earlier, Morgan had joined the rebels as a twenty-nine-year-old, only to fall out with them after the revolution succeeded. But with Fidel Castro’s new government pushing agrarian reform and eager to fund new enterprises, it got behind Morgan’s plans for a bullfrog hatchery. And then, in yet another twist, Morgan secretly began using the hatchery as a weapons depot for a CIA-backed coup.
The story of William Morgan is an eccentric tale of dead ends, abandonment, revolution, and counterrevolution. It’s also a story being used as ammunition in the media war against Cuba, a fable to help justify the United States’ deadly sanctions.
From the Circus to the Revolution
William Morgan was raised in Toledo, Ohio, in the upper-class neighborhood of West End. His teenage and young-adult years were a parade of mischief and nonconformity: he joined the circus at fourteen after being kicked out of two schools, worked as a small-timer in the mob, went AWOL in the army, and then married a snake charmer in Miami. Finally, tired of life as a convicted felon searching for honest work, he began running guns between the mob and Cuba, a country with a building revolution that Morgan’s adventurism sent him running toward at full speed.
To get in with the rebels, Morgan made up a vengeance story. He claimed that he wanted to fight Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, a brutal US-backed ruler who cooperated with the American Mafia and sold out the country to US and foreign businessmen — 70 percent of Cuban land was owned by Americans and other foreign landowners. Dreadfully out of shape, Morgan eventually found himself hiking to the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba, the stronghold of the Second Front, a militant group fighting separately from Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement. Members of the Second Front joked that Morgan was so overweight that he had to be CIA.
But after vigorous training, he earned respect from the militants. “The gringo was tough,” recalled the chief of intelligence, Roger Redondo, “and the armed men of the Escambray came to admire his persistence.” To the eye, Morgan had been transformed into the perfect mountainous guerrilla fighter — fit, broad-shouldered, and bearded, with an olive-green uniform and a machine gun in hand. If he retained the same rambunctious cocktail of circus-performer-turned-mobster, he now appeared committed to the revolution.
Morgan fought courageously, eventually attaining the esteemed position of comandante. He trained soldiers, fell in love, and made headlines across the globe as “the most interesting figure in the Sierra de Escambray,” “like a cowboy in an Ernest Hemingway adventure” (causing confusion inside the CIA, which didn’t know who Morgan was at the time).
“We were a small outfit, but we were mobile and hard-hitting,” Morgan said later. “We became known as the phantoms of the mountains.”
The rebel forces were an ideologically disparate bunch. The Revolutionary Directorate, the Popular Socialist Party, the Authentic Organization, Morgan’s Second Front — all were fighting in the Escambray Mountains. Dr Ernesto Guevara, a rising member of the 26th of July Movement, was given the difficult job of bringing the groups together.
The Second Front was the hardest to placate. Though they were skilled at guerrilla fighting — studying the region and learning tactics Morgan had picked up from his short-lived military career — the Second Front lacked a clear political program. Their single rallying cry was anti-communism. So when Guevara — who they knew only vaguely as a rumored Marxist — asked them to back land reform, the Second Front refused, siding with the landowners. They eventually agreed to a more limited military pact.
Meanwhile, William Morgan wedded his Cuban lover, Olga Rodríguez, both clad in their olive military garb. Morgan had abandoned his past wives and children, and he hoped to start anew with a marriage born from revolutionary struggle.
It was just in time for the final offensive on Batista. Now provisionally united, the rebel forces took key cities and towns and sent a scared Batista flying into exile. On January 1, 1959, the revolutionary forces claimed victory. They had successfully expelled the dictator.
And the Toledo boy was flung further into the media spotlight — a rebellious cowboy turned guerrilla fighter, a yanqui comandante.
A Double Agent
There was little time to celebrate. Morgan and the Second Front faced an uncertain future. While they maintained a fragile relationship with the new governing coalition, they remained stubbornly opposed to Castro, declining even to adopt the military uniforms of the Revolutionary Army.
Still, Morgan displayed some loyalty: he rebuffed a CIA agent that wanted to “activate” him as a recruit. He only answered questions, informing the agent that he believed in the government: “I am betting my life that the revolution succeeds.”
The ideology of the 26th of July Movement, meanwhile, became more refined as its agenda came into view: land reform for propertyless rural farmers, education for a largely illiterate population, vast investments in health care. The Second Front’s politics, however, remained abstract and uncertain. As Morgan put it, “I am here because I believe that the most important thing for free men to do is to protect the freedom of others.”
The Second Front was left out of the new government. Morgan had been demoted for lack of discipline, and he became upset that another Second Front member was in jail for drunkenly killing a sergeant. Both of them felt slighted out of top military positions. Things escalated during a meeting with Fidel Castro that ended with guns drawn.
Seeking to leverage Morgan’s uncertainty, Dominick Bartone, a mobster from Cleveland, approached Morgan in a hotel lobby. The mob, along with the US-backed dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, not only wanted the casinos to stay open but wanted Castro dead. A drunken Morgan spoke of turning against the revolution for the million dollars he was being offered. He yelled that he would be happy to “bounce Fidel Castro from power.”
But after a few meetings, unsure of whether the million dollars was worth the risk and fearing he’d be caught, Morgan decided to tell Castro about the plan. His decision, though hesitant, foiled what became a scheme by the mob and Trujillo to execute a full-scale invasion of Cuba, green-lit by the CIA in 1959, known as the the Trujillo Conspiracy.
The intricate plan and ultimate exposition of the invasion attempt pitted Morgan against the CIA and put him on Castro’s side. He was, in the view of the US government, a traitor. They revoked his citizenship.
Stuck between Castro, whom he hated, and the United States, which he’d fled, Morgan tried to create a bubble with what little he could. He started the frog hatchery.
By the summer of 1960, Morgan was receiving a government salary from Cuba to run the thriving bullfrog nursery in the Ariguanabo River. He worked laboriously every day, digging trenches, expanding the business, and researching the intricacies of the trade. The hatchery employed hundreds of rural Cuban workers, exporting the desirable skins and coveted meat.
Morgan had seemingly found his calling.
As the US continued to try to undermine Fidel Castro and decimate Cuba’s economy, the country was pushed toward political relations with the USSR. Between 1960 and 1965, the CIA launched at least eight assassination attempts on Castro and imposed an embargo in response to land reform that wrested property from plantation owners.
“It was not that Castro came to Havana as a Communist, but it was that the wretched resistance of the owners — whether in Cuba or in the United States — made him into a Communist,” Vijay Prashad explains.
“The people were in the streets and they were conducting,” the longtime labor activist Beatrice Lumpkin told me, remembering her visit to Havana months after the revolution. “They were highly conscious and overwhelmingly pro-revolution.”
William Morgan didn’t see it that way. To him, the only way to help the masses was to establish a presidential voting system, even if the candidates were the instruments of the mob and US companies. He decided to switch sides.
By that time, members of the Second Front had become disenchanted with Castro’s socialist leanings and begun plotting to forcibly oust him. Morgan started stockpiling CIA-provided weapons in his hatchery and transporting them to the Escambray, where a CIA-backed counterrevolution had been launched against the government. (The counterrevolutionary attacks would last until 1965, resulting in thousands of deaths on both sides.)
But Morgan’s time spent running away, something he did throughout his life, was coming to an end. He was caught transporting weapons, arrested, charged, and executed in March 1961. It was a bleak ending to an impossibly rowdy life. Morgan had gone from raising hell in Toledo to leading a unit of guerrilla fighters and raising a family of frogs — and then, when the revolution advanced past guerrilla warfare and into the realm of politics, when he was faced with a choice between the revolution and the CIA, he embraced the CIA.
The Myth of Morgan
The story of William Morgan has made a resurgence in the past fifteen years. Writers and historians have attempted to resuscitate that media-friendly Morgan, that personable nonconformist who fought with Fidel to overthrow the Batista dictatorship. The New Yorker published a story about Morgan in 2012, multiple books have been written about him, and a movie starring Adam Driver is in the works.
But in many of these tellings, Morgan’s revolutionary spirit persists after January 1, 1959, even after his counterrevolutionary turn. Morgan is seen not as a traitor to the revolution, joining the likes of the CIA and former Batista soldiers, but as the true defender of the revolution: it is only the American cowboy who can save Cuba from Batista and Castro. The 26th of July Movement, it appears, was driven not by the anti-imperialism learned from the brutality of CIA coups in Latin America or by the anti-capitalism grasped from the inequality generated by foreign-owned corporations — no, instead we’re told it was just unfounded “anti-Americanism.”
There’s something tragic, almost funny, about this portrayal of Morgan. But it is a pernicious thing, not a harmless myth. As the island continues to be hit by a brutal US embargo, depicting Morgan as an unwavering freedom fighter serves to justify these deadly sanctions. He becomes a harmless, idealistic revolutionary, purged by a capricious anti-American dictator.
It’s an easy story to tell. But it’s a story as farcical as a coup attempt sparked by a circus performer in a frog hatchery.