TAMPA — He came to the United States to pursue baseball.
Instead, the Cuban native became a revolutionary and part of Tampa history.
Raul Villamia was a founding member and later the president of the Tampa wing of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary army. He also served as Tampa’s first Cuban consul under Castro’s government.
Mr. Villamia ceased that support when Castro embraced Communism.
Decades later, he re-emerged as a vocal supporter of the United States normalizing relations with Cuba, believing that avenue could improve the lives of those residing on the island nation.
Mr. Villamia died on Dec. 2. He was 95.
“He lived life on his terms, giving and garnering respect, loving and providing for his family, sacrificing for the freedom of Cuba,” his daughter Rhonda Villamia said.
Mr. Villamia once told the Tampa Bay Times that his earliest memory was of bloodshed. He described the Cuba of his youth as a chaotic nation of presidents who kept people in line with intimidation and of residents who pushed back with force.
Raised in Havana, Mr. Villamia was 7 when he witnessed neighbors seeking revenge against a police officer suspected of murdering a man for speaking out against Cuban president Gerardo Machado.
A mob hunted the officer down on the streets and, as he pleaded for his life, shot him three times.
“It’s clear in my head,” Mr. Villamia told the Times. “But enough about that. Let’s talk baseball.”
The Washington Senators signed Mr. Villamia to a minor league pitching contract in 1947.
For the next seven years, the man teammates called “Chico” traveled the United States, playing for nine minor league teams. Mr. Villamia pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team in Miami in 1949, playing during spring training alongside future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges.
Still, the big leagues evaded him, so Mr. Villamia settled in Ybor City, married Nora Marie Rodriguez and started a family.
Soon after, Mr. Villamia was “drafted into Castro’s revolutionary movement by his brother,” his daughter said.
From New York, his brother Mario Villamia backed frontrunner Roberto Agramonte in Cuba’s presidential election in 1952.
Fulgencio Batista was predicted to finish third but, three months before the election, seized power through a coup. That led to the rise of Castro’s revolution to overthrow Batista, who was known to have those who spoke out against him tortured and killed.
In U.S. cities with large Cuban populations, Castro established wings of his army named the 26th of July Movement for the date in 1953 when his revolution began.
Castro visited Tampa in November 1955 and named Mr. Villamia secretary of the city’s 26th of July Movement charged with raising money and collecting medical supplies for the revolutionary troops in Cuba. Mr. Villamia also introduced Castro around the city and helped organize Castro’s public speech that doubled as a fundraiser.
“Almost every Cuban in Tampa supported Castro back then,” said La Gaceta newspaper publisher Patrick Manteiga, whose grandfather Victoriano Manteiga was the first president of Tampa’s 26th of July Movement. “Batista was a tyrant.”
Mr. Villamia once recalled to the Times that he was celebrated as a hero in Tampa when, on Jan. 1, 1959, Castro declared victory. He joined thousands of Cubans cheering in the streets of Ybor City and West Tampa, centers of the Cuban population, and formed an impromptu caravan of cars linking the two.
“Cars were beeping horns and playing music loudly,” Mr. Villamia said. “People were hanging out windows yelling happily.”
He was then named president of Tampa’s 26th of July Movement and the city’s new Cuban consul. Among his post-revolution contributions was fundraising for the statue of Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti that is still standing in Ybor City.
His brother — who helped smuggle arms to Castro during the revolution — became chief of security in Cuba’s Presidential Palace.
When Tampa mobster Santo Trafficante Jr. was arrested in 1959 in Cuba where he’d operated casinos prior to Castro banning gambling, Mr. Villamia, with the help of his brother, checked on his safety.
“We walked the yard for about 15 minutes and made small talk, mostly about Tampa, never broaching the topic of politics,” he once said. “Trafficante, however, did ask Mario if he could do anything to help him get back home to the U.S.”
Trafficante was released a few months later, but Mr. Villamia was unsure how large a role his brother had in that.
Mr. Villamia and his brother ceased supporting Castro when the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. But he once told the Times that they believed Castro partnered with the Soviet Union out of economic necessity because the United States refused to support the new Cuban government.
Mr. Villamia then worked with the City of Tampa Traffic Operations Section until retiring in 1988. In those years, he never spoke of his brush with history.
“He had devoted years of his life to helping put into power the man touted to be Cuba’s savior,” daughter Rhonda Villamia said. “He was disillusioned, so that part of his life was put to rest and left dormant for decades.”
But, 20 years ago, she convinced him to begin sharing his recollections, so his stories would not be a forgotten part of Tampa history.
“I was shocked to hear his stories,” said his daughter’s childhood friend Cythnia Fuente, now vice president of Arturo Fuente Companies, which produces the famed cigar line. “But I also wasn’t shocked. I could always tell he was a man of knowledge and had stories to tell.”
West Tampa historian Maura Barrios described Mr. Villamia as “one of the greatest” for what he added to Tampa history.
When President Barack Obama began normalizing relations with Cuba, Mr. Villamia appeared and was celebrated at events supporting that policy. He also advocated for Cuba to open a consulate in Tampa.
“He would grab my bicep, look me in eye and tell me that he was proud of me,” said Albert Fox, whose Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation organized those gatherings. “He was a good man.”
Born: Nov. 30, 1925
Died: Dec. 2, 2020
Survived by daughters Rhonda and Denise Villamia and grandsons Wynter and Javan Galindez. There is a service 11 a.m. Saturday at Garden of Memories, 4207 E Lake Ave. Due to COVID-19, the family is limiting attendance to one person per househould and no children. Only those who RSVP to RaulCelebrationOfLife2020@gmail.com can attend. Masks are mandatory. The service will be streamed on the Facebook page for Blount & Curry Funeral Home at Garden of Memories.