Cuban revolutionary leader who defied Castro, married ‘Comandante Yankee,’ dies at 87

Olga Morgan Goodwin, a once fiery Cuban revolutionary who was imprisoned for attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro and later fled to the United States where she became a revered figure in the exile community and an outspoken critic of the communist regime, died at her home in Florida on Tuesday after suffering a stroke. She was 87.

One of the first female leaders of the revolution in her country in the 1950s, Ms. Goodwin’s exploits along with those of her famous American husband, William Alexander Morgan, who led his own rebel force, were chronicled in books, articles and a PBS feature documentary, “American Comandante.

After helping Castro rise to power, her husband was executed by a firing squad in 1961 when he broke with the regime over its ties to communism and she was arrested and sent to prison. There, she led hunger strikes and protests over the poor treatment of inmates.

“She was a generational leader,” said Manny Garcia, former editor of El Nuevo Herald and confidante of the former revolutionary. “She was part of the women’s resistance movement in Cuba who lost their freedom in their fight for a [country] free from communism.”

After her prison release, she left her native country in 1980 on a rickety boat during the Mariel boatlift and settled in Morgan’s hometown of Toledo, Ohio, where she waged a relentless campaign to bring his body back from Cuba for reburial.

Her efforts prompted a congressional trip to her native country by U.S. House members Marcy Kaptur and Charlie Rangel, who met with Castro in 2002 in an all-night session to convince the leader to release the remains.

The Cuban leader agreed to return the American’s body to the U.S., but to this day, it is still interred in a Havana cemetery.

William Morgan and wife Olga in the mountains during the Cuban revolution.
William Morgan and wife Olga in the mountains during the Cuban revolution.

Despite the setback, Ms. Goodwin continued to wage a letter-writing campaign to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as well as Pope Francis, pleading for them to pressure the Cuban government to allow her husband’s body to be returned.

“To me, William was an American — and belongs here,” she told the Miami Herald. “I can’t give up.”

In a series of interviews with the Toledo Blade, Ms. Goodwin broke her silence in 2002 about her efforts to overthrow Castro shortly after he took power in 1959, accusing the late leader of betraying the revolution by cancelling free elections and forging ties with the Soviet Union.

“We didn’t fight for this,” she later said. “We fought for democracy.”

During their years in Havana, the couple raised two daughters while Morgan cut a swashbuckling public figure who was sought out by reporters and became the center of attention of U.S. intelligence investigators and the Kennedy White House during a critical period of the Cold War.

The story of their life together was chronicled in an article by David Grann in 2012 in the New Yorker, which caught the attention of actor and director George Clooney. He eventually optioned the rights to her story for a movie, but it was never produced.

Enrique Encinosa, a Cuban historian and former Miami radio host, said journalists have long written about William Morgan, but while he was executed in 1961 by a firing squad, Olga survived and endured a decade in Castro’s prisons before her release in 1971.

“She went to prison, went into hiding and lived dangerously,” he said. “She wanted to keep fighting.”

Cuban leaders walk arm-in-arm at the head of the March 5, 1960 funeral procession for the victims of the La Coubre explosion, blamed by the Cuban government on a U.S. bomb attack on the Cuban ship La Coubre in the harbor of Havana. From left to right are Fidel Castro; the first president of post-Batista Cuba, Osvaldo Dortico; Ernesto “Che” Guevara; Defense Minister Augusto Martinez-Sanchez; ecology minister Antonio Nunez-Jimenez; American William Morgan from Toledo, Ohio; and Spaniard Eloy Guttierez Menoyo. Morgan became a Cuban sympathizer after a friend was reportedly killed by President Batista’s police. He was later executed in 1961, accused of being anti-Communist.

Born Olga Maria Rodriguez Farinas in the mountains of central Cuba in 1936, she was one of six children in a poor, working-class family that was opposed to the government of then Cuban president Fulgencio Batista.

As a student leader, she led protests against the government and eventually was forced to escape to the mountains, where she met her future husband, an American who had become a leader in the Segundo Frente, a rebel force.

Years later, after her release from prison and escape to Florida, she chose to move to Ohio to be near Morgan’s mother. In the ensuing years, Ms. Goodwin remarried and settled down, but she never stopped waging an effort to bring Morgan’s remains back home.

In support of her cause, the exile community in Miami took up a collection and raised $2,300 to help cover the costs of returning his body to the United States, where Ms. Goodwin had planned a funeral Mass and burial.

Last year, her husband of nearly three decades, James Goodwin, died and Ms. Goodwin moved to Florida to live with her daughter, Loretta, one of two children born to her and William Morgan in Havana.

Mitch Weiss, co-author of the book, Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba, said despite the tragedies Ms. Goodwin encountered, “she never lost faith, even after her husband was executed, even after being imprisoned for years, she kept going, fighting to keep her husband’s memory alive.”

Loretta Morgan, 64, said she will carry on her mother’s mission to bring her father’s remains back to the U.S with the help of their family lawyer, Gerardo Rollison. “My father died for a country that was not his country [and] I want to continue what she did.”

She said her mother, who suffered a stroke about 8 a.m. in the farm home they shared near Clewiston, was an example of someone who never wavered in her beliefs.

“Freedom,” she said. “She believed in freedom,” and in the end, “she did what was in her heart.”

Ms. Goodwin is survived by another daughter, Olguita of Toledo, Ohio; sisters, Irma Vasquez of Toledo, Ada Farinas of Canada, and a brother, Lazaro Rodriguez of Tampa, Florida; and nine grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Michael Sallah is a deputy managing editor for investigations of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and co-author of the book “Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba.”