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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
The group I joined was commanded by Rogelio Payret, whose nom de guerre was Captain Claudio. The twenty-one-year-old son of a foreman at the Mercedita sugar mill, Claudio had gotten his start as a guerrilla chief five months earlier, when he and two companions disarmed a batistiano jeep patrol and took to the hills with an automatic carbine and two submachine guns. By the time I arrived, Claudio’s band had grown to about twenty; its size was limited by a requirement that new members bring their own weapons, except in special cases like mine. They welcomed me with open arms— abrazos —and gave me an M-1 carbine.
Almost all Claudio’s men were from working-class families. Their prerevolutionary occupations included sugar-mill worker, stevedore, bus driver, gardener, hospital orderly, barber, and day laborer. Few had been to high school, and only Claudio had attended, briefly, the tuition-free University of Havana. Some were illiterate. About a quarter of them were black or mulatto; one was part Chinese. Only one regular member of the outfit was a guajiro (peasant). Claudio, like other fidelista commanders, felt that the peasants of the sierra served the revolution best by living at home, where they could gather vital intelligence and facilitate the shipment of food and other supplies to the guerrillas.
Conspicuously absent among the guerrillas were young people from the urban middle class. Intellectual revolutionaries like Ginés served in exile posts or in the underground in Cuban cities but rarely joined the armed struggle in the countryside. In fact, most anti-Batista university students in Cuba did not belong to Castro’s 26th of July Movement; they were members of the rival Revolutionary Directorate. Those who did take to the hills were more likely to join the small Revolutionary Directorate contingent in the Sierra del Escambray of Las Villas Province than the fidelista forces in Oriente or Pinar del Rio. Freedom-loving Cuban intellectuals had good reason to distrust Fidel Castro, as I would belatedly learn.
By the time I joined the rebels in the hills, in September 1958, the struggle for control of the insurgency was over, and Fidel had won. The urban underground had been all but put out of action by Batista’s security forces after an abortive general strike in April; through the spring and summer the number of incidents of revolutionary sabotage or terrorism in the cities dwindled as key resistance figures were killed, captured, or forced into exile. (Manolo, my host in Havana, was picked up by the police shortly after I left his apartment.)
Leaders of the various urban-based, democratically oriented organizations now conceded that the fidelista guerrilla campaign in the countryside was the only hope for overthrowing the dictatorship. In August they swallowed their misgivings and accepted a “unity pact” that made Fidel Castro the supreme military commander and “Maximum Leader” of the revolution, with exclusive power to name the next government of Cuba. The ink was barely dry on that agreement before Fidel made another pact—with the Cuban Communist party, which abandoned its neutrality in the contest to sign up with the sure winner.
I didn’t know about the fidelista -Communist alliance when I joined Claudio in the Sierra del Rosario, and neither did he or any of his men. We did, however, feel the practical effects of the overall anti-Batista consolidation of August 1958, which ended competition for revolutionary funds and channeled the flow of contributions to 26th of July coffers. By September Claudio and most other fidelista guerrilla commanders had plenty of money. Recalling the penury at the movement headquarters in New York only a month before, 1 was pleasantly surprised by the financial strength of the operating units in Cuba.
When we were not on the run, we had plenty to eat—rice, beans, fried pork, plantains, various tubers, canned fruit and milk, chocolate, coffee—and plenty of cigars and cigarettes, all procured through Claudio’s supply network and paid for with cash. Some of the troops were eating better than they ever had before in their lives, and I shared their appreciation for the food, consuming great quantities with demonstrative gusto. In line with their image of Americans, I was bigger than any of them, and I was supposed to be hungry, strong, aggressive, brave, smart, jovial, instructive, and entertaining. I did my best to live up to these expectations.
During my first three weeks with the guerrillas we saw no combat, but I did a lot of talking about it, emphasizing my eagerness for action. I let them know that I had faced the Communists on the line in Korea but always tried to explain that I was there after the war. Still, some of the boys persisted in believing that I was a veteran of the Guerra de Corea . I did make it clear that I disliked Communists and thought them a sorry, devious bunch, almost as bad as the batistianos . That opinion struck a chord with some of the guerrillas, who knew about the Cuban Communists’ long record of collaboration with the dictator. “ Americano ,” Ramoncito, the ex-gardener, assured me, “we are anti -Communists.” Quintin, the African-Cuban ex-day laborer, ob- served that Communists were always trying to confuse people.