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I Fought For Fidel
In the twilight of Castro’s regime, one of the soldiers who put him in power recalls what it was like to be a fidelista up in the hills four decades ago when a whole new, just, democratic world was there for the building
November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
Soldini swaggered into the office while we were talking. A voluble Staten Islander, he was about twenty years old, wiry and olive-skinned, with just the trace of a mustache. Everyone else was in shirt sleeves that warm, muggy night, but Soldini wore a sport coat and a fedora cocked at a rakish angle. He had been wounded in an attack on a batistiano outpost and had come to the States to get the bullet taken from his shoulder. It had stopped bothering him, however, so he’d decided against surgery; the bullet was still there. For the last couple of weeks he’d been making speeches for the movement in New York—and getting a lot of exposure in the Hispanic press—but now he wanted to go to Mexico City and join a fidelista expedition being assembled there. The movement was obligated to take care of Soldini, Ginés said, but his treasury didn’t have the funds to send him to Mexico.
Soldini and I left the office and repaired to a nearby tavern. There, over ten-cent draft beers, he proposed that I buy two bus tickets to Mexico City; together we could join the expedition, which ought to be ready to sail for Cuba in two or three months. That was too long a wait for me, even in a great town like Mexico City. I was afraid the war would be over before I got to the front. Instead, I offered to pay Soldini’s travel expenses to Mexico in return for underground contacts in Havana that would get me into the field. Soldini said he’d talk with Ginés and see what could be done.
In the meantime, he briefed me on the situation in Cuba. Rebel claims of recent victories in the Sierra Maestra were probably true, he said. Fidel was basically a politician, but he had some good fighters with him, like Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara. Soldini didn’t think much of RaUl Castro, who had once kicked him out of his camp for complaining about the lack of action. Fidel had sent his brother north in Oriente Province from the Sierra Maestra to the Sierra Cristal before the recent round of fighting. Other fidelista columns were marching west across Camaguey to link up with independent guerrillas in the Sierra del Escambray in Las Villas Province. The revolution had come a long way since Fidel and a dozen or so followers had survived a disastrous landing on the south coast of Oriente in December 1956 and made their way into the Sierra Maestra, where they were visited two months later by Herbert Matthews of The New York Times . Matthews’s dramatic interview disproved Batista’s claims that Fidel was dead and helped boost him to preeminence among Cuba’s revolutionaries.
Soldini confirmed that more recent reports in The New York Times by Ruby Hart Phillips, based in Havana, and in Time magazine—mostly from Jay Mallin—were basically accurate, though slanted toward the fidelistas . Also pro-Fidel was the Chicago Tribune ’s Jules Dubois, who hated Batista for suppressing freedom of the press in Cuba. Fidel’s image in the American press in mid-1958, however, was not as bright as it had been before his brother started kidnaping American citizens. Soldini didn’t know if Raul Castro was a Communist or not; as for himself, Soldini said he was just “a guy who likes a good fire fight.”
The next day Ginés accepted the deal. Soldini got $150 from me for his fare to Mexico, and I got a recommendation from the movement in New York that I be accepted into the rebel army. I was also given a name and password for getting in touch with the underground in Cuba.
When we were not on the run, we had plenty of food, all procured through Claudio’s supply network. Some of the troops were eating better than they ever had before in their lives.
My contact in Havana turned out to be a willowy brunette about my age, twenty-three, who had attended Harvard Business School. She spoke perfect English, but after a few days she handed me over to her sister, who knew only Spanish. It would be a long time before I heard English spoken again. Escorted by the sister, I moved from my hotel to the apartment of a disabled ex-waiter and his wife, a chambermaid at the Havana Hilton. Manolo, the husband, was a 26th of July labor organizer who had been put out of action by a submachine-gun-wielding policeman. He and I became fast friends. After I’d spent three days holed up in his apartment, sleeping on the kitchen floor, whatever doubts Manolo and his comrades had about me were dispelled, and he summoned an underground driver to take me to the hills. Later he told me that had I displayed any sign of untrustworthiness, they would have killed me.
My destination was the Sierra del Rosario, an extension of the Sierra de los Organos, which rises in Pinar del Rio Province less than fifty miles west of Havana. My driver deposited me at a safe house in the sugar-mill village of Mercedita just before sundown. After dark two armed men in civilian clothes took me in a jeep to the end of the country road and left me at a thatch-roofed hut, where I waited for a peasant guide, who appeared on horseback at midnight. We spent the rest of the night and most of the next morning riding and walking through sugarcane fields and, finally, along a forest trail to the guerrilla camp.