I Fought For Fidel

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Like a hurricane spawned in distant waters, the full force of the collapse of world Communism has finally reached the island of Cuba and seems poised to sweep away the last vestiges of the Marxist-Leninist structure erected there over the last three decades. The demise of Cuban Communism has been better foretold than its rise: in 1958 few Americans could have imagined the establishment, ninety miles off their shores, of a Soviet-allied state that within four years would bring the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. I certainly had no idea it could happen; America’s Cold War obsession with Communism at home and abroad seemed to ensure that nothing like that would happen. But as it turned out, I unwittingly participated in the making of one of history's great surprises.

Cuba was in the news in the summer of 1958. One of the biggest stories was the kidnaping of twenty-eight servicemen from the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay by Raúl Castro, brother of the Cuban rebel leader Fidel, in June. By the time I arrived in New York City—from Korea via Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where I had separated from the U.S. Army after a tour of duty in the Far East—it was August and Raul had released the hostages after publicly decrying the United States’s alleged support for the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Raúl’s stunt had not gone over well with the American public; it gave new credibility to old charges by Batista spokesmen that the Castro brothers were anti-American and pro-Communist. But I chose not to believe those charges. I was in New York to make contact with Fidel’s 26th of July Movement and volunteer for his army in Cuba—and to see an American girl I’d met in Mexico two years earlier.

 
By the end of the week, Nancy and I had married; we agreed that she would return to her parents, while I would go to Cuba and rise to power with the revolutionary forces.

Joining the Cuban Revolution seemed like a good idea. I’d followed its progress in Time magazine during my fifteen months in Korea. I had a history degree from The Citadel and two years in the infantry, and soldiering was the only job I’d been trained for. I was temperamentally unsuited for peacetime military service, though. For a while I thought about going to South America to look for lost trails and lost cities, but my application for a Fulbright grant to study archeology in Peru was rejected while I was in Asia. After halfheartedly considering law school, I returned to the States from Korea intent on joining the Cuban rebel army.

But first I met up with Nancy Copenhaver, who took a week off from her summer job in New Hampshire to see me in New York. By the end of that week we were married. This was a time in America when long-term commitments were more often made and kept than in succeeding decades, and by the standards of the 1950s, what Nancy and I did was not unusual: we agreed that she would return to her parents and to school at the University of Michigan, while I would go to Cuba and rise to power with the revolutionary forces. I assumed that the war would be over by the end of the semester, and by then I should have acquired a home and a livelihood.

 

I found the address of the New York office of the 26th of July Movement in the Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa. My reading knowledge of Spanish was good, but my command of the spoken language was only fair. I had no communication problem at the movement headquarters, though, because most of the people there spoke excellent English. The office was in an old brownstone building at 305 Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. A huge red and black banner, draped under the second-story windows, proclaimed in Spanish, 26TH OF JULY MOVEMENT, MILITANTS AND SYMPATHIZERS.

The place was staffed by clean-cut young men, some of whom had come to the United States to study after Batista had closed the University of Havana the year before. Others, like the office treasurer, Ginés Gorrin, had been students in the States much longer. They all were well-mannered, educated, and apparently devoted to the cause of Cuban liberty. Their job was to raise money and to counter batistiano propaganda by presenting the revolutionaries to the American people as democratic and anti-Communist.

Ginés gave me some pamphlets that highlighted Batista’s Communist connections (he ran for president on the Cuban Communist party ticket in 1940 and headed a popular-front government during World War II) and claimed that Raúl Castro had detained the American citizens merely in order to show them some of the damage the dictator’s forces were inflicting on the Cuban people with arms supplied by the United States. I didn’t need to be convinced, I told Ginés. I knew the revolution was not anti-American or pro-Communist; otherwise I wouldn’t be volunteering. But there was one problem: Ginés said the New York office was authorized to accept donations but not volunteers. American kids came all the time, trying to join Fidel’s army; some wanted to enlist only for the summer. Of course, I was different, Ginés admitted. He was impressed by my military credentials; still, he insisted his office could not accept volunteers. He suggested I talk with Donald Soldini, an American on medical leave from Raúl Castro’s forces.