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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
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, observed that Communists were always trying to confuse people.
Of course, there was also the perception that the United States government favored Batista. El presidente Eisenhower, I acknowledged, was muy equivocado in his shameful policy toward Cuba and toward all Latin America, supporting the dictators who were trampling on the liberty of the people. I had no sympathy for the regime in Washington, for I was a militant supporter of the opposition party, los demócratas.
The level of political discourse in the guerrilla camp was considerably below that in the movement office in New York. Claudio’s band was composed of working people who simply wanted what Fidel said he wanted: land for the landless, jobs for the unemployed, no more corruption or police brutality. If Fidel said he favored political democracy, then they did too—and however he chose to bring it about was fine with them. There wasn’t much to discuss. They were not fighting for individual freedom and personal fulfillment—the goals of liberal revolutionaries since the time of Lafayette—but for a sense of belonging, a collective identity, anonymity as followers of the Maximum Leader.
Eventually Fidel would turn his people against the United States, but in 1958 he was professing to all Yankee journalists who climbed the Sierra Maestra his love for the American people and their institutions. If he was not sincere, other Cubans were. “I can’t tell you,” Ramoncito said, “how much it means to have an American with us.” Ramoncito had worked for Americans in Havana and liked them. Claudio and the boys from Mercedita admired Philip Cooper, the American manager of the mill there owned by the Cuban-American Sugar Refining Company, and they fondly remembered Mr. Cooper’s son, Philip-cito , who was a few years older than most of them. Others in the band had less experience with Americans, but all were fans of Hollywood movies and had some concept—however distorted—of life in the United States. We spent endless hours recounting and analyzing the celluloid exploits of Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance, George Raft, and other macho action heroes.
I submitted my resignation on the night of January 1. Escalona didn’t accept it. Instead, he made me a first lieutenant, gave me a machine gun, and sent me to deal with batistiano holdouts.
The way I fractured the Spanish language made the jokes I told funnier—even to me—than they were in the original English. Tales of the Lone Ranger (el Llanero Solitario) and Speedy ( el Rápido ) González reduced bearded warriors to writhing on the jungle floor in fits of laughter.
Even when deadly serious, I evoked laughter. Once I went with Claudio and three others to explore a limestone cave. We carried only sidearms, and I had two hand grenades tied to my cartridge belt in the style of my hero, Gen. Matthew Ridgway. The grenades had been loaded and fused by the underground and were commonly called piñas (pineapples). We entered the mouth of the cave and, searching its interior with flashlights, spotted a small opening at the top of a steep incline. Since el americano was the largest of the bunch, all could get through the aperture if I could, so I led the way toward it. About halfway up a hand grenade got loose. As it began its bounding descent, in my excitement I confused the Spanish words for pineapple and penis. “¡Cuidado!” I shouted, with visions of us all being blown to bits. “La pinga is falling!” My companions were immobilized with laughter. They hooted even louder when I finally got it across that I was talking about a live hand grenade. At length we recovered the runaway piña from among the rocks on the cave floor. I needn’t have worried; three weeks later, when I removed the safety pins from both grenades and tossed them at the enemy, neither exploded.