I Fought For Fidel

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When Escalona occupied the main military base at Pinar del Río city, he assigned to my platoon all the heavy weapons found there: a 1936 General Motors tank, a couple of armored scout cars, a pair of 37-millimeter pack howitzers, an 81-millimeter mortar, and various heavy machine guns. I was just starting to sort out this booty when the comandante invited me to accompany him to Havana.

It was January 6, and most of Batista’s troops in the Havana area had surrendered to fidelista Comandante Camilo Cienfueaos at Camp Columbia on the outskirts of the city. Closer to the heart of the capital, Che Guevara and the fidelista core of his victorious column from Las Villas occupied La Cabaña fortress, but Che’s student allies from the Escambray had broken away and joined the Revolutionary Directorate camped at the University of Havana. Fidel had yet to arrive in the capital city. Our Maximum Leader was creeping along the central highway in an armed caravan, making his way from Santiago to Havana, rallying the people and consolidating his grip on the eastern provinces, while in the capital thousands of armed students and former underground fighters were acting as if they intended to challenge Fidel’s absolutist claims to post-Batista Cuba.

Before going to see Che at La Cabaña, Escalona took me to scout out the Revolutionary Directorate at the university. The comandante, his driver, his bodyguard, and I walked around the campus unmolested. The students were well equipped—they had some armored cars with 37-millimeter guns—but they didn’t seem to have much military discipline. We agreed they wouldn’t be too hard to handle.

At La Cabaña fortress we had to push through a mob of middle-class ladies and their teen-age daughters to get in to see Che, who was receiving admirers in a small office on the ground floor of the headquarters building. It was a balmy winter afternoon, and hordes of giddy adolescents in long skirts and saddle oxfords and pullover sweaters jammed the hall and lined the sidewalk outside Che’s office. They could have been American girls anticipating a glimpse of Elvis Presley, I thought, except that there were a good number of well-coifed, plump matrons who obviously shared their daughters’ enthusiasm for El Che—a parental attitude hardly associated with the gringo teen idol.

We had to crawl over a desk that Che had shoved up against the door-way as a barrier to hold back his fans. Che warmly embraced his old comrade Escalona but only nodded and smiled as Escalona introduced him to his driver, to his bodyguard, and, with a friendly obscenity, to me. The famous guerrillero wore a black cloth sling around his neck; he said that he’d aggravated an old wound during the Battle of Santa Clara the week before but that his arm was O.K. now and he really didn’t need the sling. I figured it gave him an excuse for not shaking hands or signing autographs.

Che’s female admirers made such a racket as they crowded against his desk that it was impossible to carry on a conversation in the office. Finally the driver, the bodyguard, and I formed a phalanx and pushed them back from the doorway. Then we removed the desk and bolted the door.

Escalona bragged that Pinar del Río was 100 percent under our control and assured Che that Fidel could count on our province when the showdown came in Havana. Fidel was expected in the capital in a day or two, Che said, and they would disarm the students and all the rival revolutionary groups then.

We all were puffing on cigars, and pretty soon the room filled up with smoke. Che walked over to a window and opened the wooden shutters. When he did, three screaming teenage girls tried to climb through. That ended the conference. We left Che with his fans and drove back to Pinar del Río.

Two days later Fidel triumphantly marched into Havana and—with a brilliant, demagogic speech—turned the people of that sophisticated city against the leaders of the Revolutionary Directorate and forced the unconditional disarming of Cuba’s democratic resistance. Another week passed before the western province of Pinar del Río received its eagerly awaited visit from the Maximum Leader.

Meanwhile, I was busy training my platoon. We spent hours on the firing range, and my men became the best shots in Escalona’s regiment. When the time came to execute batistiano “war criminals” in Pinar del Río, the firing squads would be drawn from my outfit and commanded by my platoon sergeant.

Fidel and his entourage arrived at our base the evening of January 17. The Maximum Leader had spent ten hours on the central highway between Havana and Pinar del Río city, speaking at every town and village along the hundred-mile route. When he walked into the base commander’s house, he was hoarse and bleary-eyed. His secretary was concerned because he was getting only about two hours of sleep a day and was running a fever of 102 degrees. Nevertheless, he acted like someone who had never felt better in his life.