I Fought For Fidel

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Captain Claudio had been ordered not to initiate action by the fidelista commander of the province, Comandante Dermidio Escalona, a Sierra Maestra veteran sent by Fidel to Pinar del Río to open the new guerrilla “front.” At the time I joined Claudio, Escalona and about forty men were on their way from the west to link up with us for a joint operation along the north-central coast of the province. With the rendezvous I was supposed to transfer to Escalona’s group, but after a couple of weeks with Claudio I knew I wanted to stay with him. I told Claudio, and he got Escalona to cancel the transfer.

Claudio was truly a natural leader, a guerrilla caudillo whose authority rested on the force of his personality. Though he was only twenty-one, his bushy black beard made him appear much older. He had large brown eyes with long, almost feminine lashes; when he smiled, which was often, they twinkled, and he looked like a Cuban Santa Claus. He was short and powerfully built and, like so many rural and small-town Cubans, disarmingly softspoken. Claudio exuded quiet confidence; he was imperturbable, tough, and competent. The intelligence and logistical network he had created functioned flawlessly. The discipline of his men was superb, their morale high, and complaints were rare. Claudio’s security dispositions in camp and on the march were impeccable. He seemed to have an unerring instinct for small-unit tactics; there wasn’t much I could teach him.

Comandante Escalona was different. His authority rested on his appointment by Fidel as supreme commander of the revolution in Pinar del Río. Claudio and the other fidelista guerrillas in the province obeyed Escalona for that reason alone; they would not have elected him their leader. With no institutional structure, the fidelista revolution was as rigidly authoritarian—and functioned as smoothly—as the U.S. Army. What Escalona lacked in charm and brilliance he made up for in determination and unwavering loyalty to Fidel; he was the kind of hombre duro (hard man) who made the improvised system work. We grumbled, but all of us obeyed him except three recent recruits, high school boys from Pinar del Río city, who tried to desert. Within a few hours they were hunted down by a patrol led by Escalona’s bodyguard and hanged.

Escalona was about thirty, a high school graduate from the small city of Holguín in Oriente Province. Of medium height and slender build, with a tame beard and doleful eyes, he did not project an image of physical power, but he was in fact very strong, and he drove his men relentlessly. He kept us on the move constantly, seemingly without purpose, seldom pausing to eat or even to rest. We would walk all day and much of the night. Avoiding roads and decent trails, we plunged through the thickest underbrush.

All this went against my military training, and I frequently exercised my God-given right as an American to gripe. One should never march through the forest at night, I would pontificate to my comrades in the ranks, because it makes too much noise. At night you march on roads and across open terrain. And you don’t skip meals. Eating regularly is necessary to keep the soldiers in good spirits, I would insist, asserting that in the Korean War, even during the fiercest fighting, the troops received three good meals a day.

Cuba, however, was not Korea. The Cuban working poor who composed our army were not used to eating regularly; missing a few meals had little effect on their morale, which depended not on food but on the prospects for revolutionary success. As for trampling through the brush at night, Escalona was ensuring his men against ambush. The enemy might hear us but could do us little damage. The batistianos had at their immediate disposal no area weapons—no artillery barrages or air strikes to call down on us. They could only hope to learn our direction of march and lay ambushes for us on likely roads or trails. This wasn’t war; it was more like cowboys and Indians.

At the town of Las Pozas on the northern highway, Claudio’s band attacked the local army barracks while Escalona’s men lay in ambush on both highway approaches to the cuartel. We couldn’t break into the cuartel because the grenades we tossed through the windows and rolled up against the front door didn’t go off. After weeks of speaking Spanish in whispers I enjoyed yelling obscenities in English at the cuartel’s defenders and experienced the exhilaration of being shot at and missed. But one of my buddies was hit in the chest and barely survived. The batistianos suffered losses too: one killed and one wounded.