Fact Check: UFC’s Jorge Masvidal shares misleading Cuban firing squad meme

On Dec. 12, UFC welterweight Jorge Masvidal tweeted out a meme claiming to show a Cuban farmer about to be executed by firing squad.…

By: Tim Bissell | 2 years ago
Fact Check: UFC’s Jorge Masvidal shares misleading Cuban firing squad meme
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

On Dec. 12, UFC welterweight Jorge Masvidal tweeted out a meme claiming to show a Cuban farmer about to be executed by firing squad. The meme claimed that the condemned man was being punished for refusing to work for the Castro regime.

The tweet, pictured below, featured the following caption: “This picture won the Pulitzer prize in 1960. It shows a priest giving the last rites to a Cuban farmer, owner of his land. He refused to work for the Castro regime. He died by firing squad after a “trial” by Che Guevara that lasted 4 minutes. You will never see this picture on a T shirt.”


Masvidal shared the image with his 670,000 followers, garnering over 3,000 retweets and 12,000 likes.

After a fact check Bloody Elbow has determined that, while the picture does show the prelude to an extrajudicial killing and a human rights abuse, the information Masvidal shared is false and misleading.

Below is a point-by-point analysis of the meme, accompanied by information that helped us reach our determination.

1. “This picture won the Pulitzer prize in 1960.”

This statement is correct. The image used for the meme is the 1960 Pulizer Prize Winner in Photography (per Pulitzer.org). The photograph was taken by Andrew Lopez of United Press International.

Below is a high-res version of Lopez’s photograph.

Photo by A. Lopez/Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images

2. “It shows a priest giving the last rites to a Cuban farmer, owner of his land.”

Multiple sources state that the man kneeling in the picture is a former member of the military that once belonged to Fulgencio Batista. The Batista regime was toppled by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement during the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959).

One source of this information is the official announcement from Pulitzer that declared Andrew Lopez and his picture as winners of the Pulitzer prize. The announcement reads as follows:

Andrew Lopez of United Press International: For his series of four photographs of a corporal, formerly of Dictator Batista’s army, who was executed by a Castro firing squad, the principal picture showing the condemned man receiving last rites.

The image currently belongs to the Bettmann Archive. The Bettmann Archive is administered by Getty Images and Corbis International. Getty Images provides an original caption for the photograph. It reads:

(Original Caption) 1/17/1959-Matanzas, Cuba – In this Pulitzer prize winning photo, Corporal Jose Cipriano Rodriguez holds a crucifix as he kneels before Father Domingo Lorenzo here Jan.17th, a short while before Rodriguez was executed. He was found guilty of the deaths of two brothers in trial by a military tribunal. BPA2# 990. (Photo by A. Lopez/Bettmann/Corbis via Getty Images)

More evidence that the man pictured kneeling in the photograph is Jose Rodriguez, a former member of the Batista regime, can be found in the May 3, 1960 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (see clipping a. & clipping b.).

That newspaper includes an interview with Lopez. It includes the following text:

New York, May 3 (UPI). ANDREW (ANDY) LOPEZ, veteran United Press International photographer, felt like crying when he took his Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs of a Cuban war criminal kneeling before a priest, with an impatient firing squad watching.

Lopez was awarded the prize for a series of four photographs of Cpl. Jose (Pepe Caliente) Rodriguez preparing to die.

“When you have a man kneeling, being given spiritual consolation by a priest who is holding a cross in his hand as the victim presses forward to kiss it, there’s no question,” Lopez said.

“It was packed with emotion, I felt like crying myself,” he said.

RODRIGUEZ WAS SENTENCED Jan. 17, 1959, after a two-hour trial in San Severino fortress near Matanzas, Cuba. The tribunal conferred for one minute before finding him guilty, Lopez said. Rodriguez was march from the trial room and taken down a flight of stairs to the courtyard.

“When I saw him marching down the stars I went in front of him and into this huge, open air, dungeon-like area,” Lopez said. “I started to make pictures.

“When Pepe Caliente fell to his knees as a priest held up a cross for him to kiss, the scene was one that will be hard to forget. I honestly felt like crying…

“While all this was going on the firing squad in the back-

ground impatiently was waiting for this scene to end so they could perform their duty.

ONE OF LOPEZ’S PHOTOGRAPHS shows Rodriguez, his hair dishevelled, his lined face tense, kneeling in civilian clothes before the black-robed priest. Grouped in the background are six Fidel Castro soldiers, holding their rifles. One of them is grinning.

The veins stand out on Rodriguez’s hands, and he is holding a crucifix. The priest is bending over him, with his hands clasped in prayer. Between them on the pavement of the courtyard lies a crumpled paper cup. The condemned man received a 24-hour stay just before sentence was to be carried out, but he was shot the next day.

Jose Rodriguez is also named as a corporal for the Batista regime in a November 22, 1962 edition of Spanish newspaper ABC. That newspaper article includes an eye witness account from the priest in the picture, father Domingo Lorenzo.

That newspaper article states that Rodriguez’s trial featured no witnesses, no defence and that a Commander WIlliam Galvez, chief of the rebel army in Matanzas, handed down the death sentence. In his letter Lorenzo stated that Galvez wanted to execute Rodriguez at the moment the picture was taken, but he delayed the killing after noticing how many photographers were in attendance. Lorenzo claimed that, after issuing a 24-hour stay of execution, Galvez confiscated the photographers’ film and that only “one American” avoided giving over his materials.

3. “He refused to work for the Castro regime.”

If this part of the meme is claiming that the man in the photograph was killed because he refused to work for the Castro regime, this is unproven and, given what other sources state, likely incorrect.

The above sources state that Rodriguez was sentenced to be executed for the “deaths of two brothers” (original caption) and “war crimes” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch Louis).

Further context regarding the charges made against Rodriguez can be found on Archivo Cuba, a free society project established in 2001 with the goal of promoting “the understanding, recognition, and observance of human rights through research and information”.

Archivo Cuba maintains a database of deaths and disappearances attributed to the Cuban Revolution from 1952 to the present day.

That database includes an entry on José Rodríguez Luzbel aka Pepe Caliente (Hot Pepe).

Rodriguez’s entry includes the following case description:

Member of the Armed Forces during the Batista regime executed on charges of torture and assassinations.

Archivo Cuba states that U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Dispatch No. 751 from January 20, 1959 states that Rodriguez was executed by firing squad after he was accused of the assassination of the Almeida brothers in Jovellanos, province of Matanzas.

The archive recognizes a conflict in the sources, citing Havana-based Spanish language magazine Bohemia. That source reported that Jose Rodriguez was a 56-year-old farm manager and overseer living in Colonia La Junta, Niguero, province of Oriente.

This entry might explain why the meme creator identified Rodriguez as a “farmer”.

Despite what was written in Bohemia Archivo Cuba’s researchers have agreed that the Jose Rodriguez pictured in Andrew Lopez’s photograph is a former member of the Batista regime was sentenced to death over the extrajudicial killings of two young men.

Archivo Cuba also has entries for two brothers with the surname Almeida. Their entries include the following case description:

Young anti-Batista revolutionary shot and killed, together with his brother, by Corporal José Rodríguez Luzbel (alias Pepe Caliente), who was later executed by firing squad in the city of Matanzas in 1959.

The source of that information is given as U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Dispatch No. 751, 20 January 1959, p. 1..

4. “He died by firing squad after a “trial” by Che Guevara that lasted 4 minutes.”

The previous sources state that Rodriguez was killed by firing squad the day after this picture was taken.

Snopes, whose own fact check determined that this meme’s caption was misleading, state that Andrew Lopez reported that Rodriguez’s trial lasted two hours and that the jury deliberated for one minute before finding him guilty.

There is no evidence that Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was present at Rodriguez’s trial. However, in his 1999 book Guevara, Also Known as Che Spanish-Mexican writer Paco Igancio Taibo II wrote that Guevara was responsible for organizing Cuba’s firing squads.

In his 1997 biography Che Guevara: a revolutionary life Jon Lee Anderson included a letter written by Guevara and dated February 5, 1959. The letter read: “The executions by firing squads are not only a necessity for the people of Cuba, but also an imposition of the people.”

When being interviewed by PBS about his book Anderson spoke specifically about Guevara and executions. “While Che did indeed execute people [an episode I have gone into at length in my book] I have yet to find a single credible source pointing to a case where Che executed ‘an innocent’. Those persons executed by Guevara or on his orders were condemned for the usual crimes punishable by death at times of war or in its aftermath: desertion, treason or crimes such as rape, torture or murder. I should add that my research spanned five years, and included anti-Castro Cubans among the Cuban-American exile community in Miami and elsewhere.”

There are conflicting sources regarding the number of political executions committed in Cuba by the Castro regime. In 2016 Archivo Cuba told the BBC that they had documented 7,062 deaths and disappearances “attributed to the Castro regime” since 1959. Among those deaths are 3,116 executions by firing squad.

Amnesty International reports that in present-day Cuba, “authorities continued to employ long-standing mechanisms of control to silence critical voices.” Amnesty further claimed that authorities continue to arbitrarily detain and imprison members of the political opposition. Amnesty has identified six current prisoners of conscience in Cuba who are being detained solely for the “peaceful expression of their opinions or beliefs.”

According to Cornell Law School’s Death Penalty Worldwide Cuba’s legal system still includes the death penalty and that death by firing squad remains an available method of execution. Crimes that carry a possible death sentence in Cuba include aggravated murder, terrorism, rape, robbery, drug trafficking, treason, espionage and war crimes.

The last known execution to take place in Cuba was in 2003.

Why did we fact check this?

Given the rise in misinformation and the large platforms of individuals in the MMA space, Bloody Elbow feels it is necessary to — when possible — provide a counterbalance to claims that appear to be false. Bloody Elbow will continue to identify comments, and social media posts, from prevalent members of the combat sports community and investigate their validity.

If you see something you believe requires a similar fact check to what you have read above contact Bloody Elbow using this form.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

Email me at tim@bloodyelbow.com. Nice messages will get a response.

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