November 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 7
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
Like a hurricane spawned in distant waters, the full force of the collapse of world Communism has finally reached the island of Cuba and seems poised to sweep away the last vestiges of the Marxist-Leninist structure erected there over the last three decades. The demise of Cuban Communism has been better foretold than its rise: in 1958 few Americans could have imagined the establishment, ninety miles off their shores, of a Soviet-allied state that within four years would bring the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe. I certainly had no idea it could happen; America’s Cold War obsession with Communism at home and abroad seemed to ensure that nothing like that would happen. But as it turned out, I unwittingly participated in the making of one of history's great surprises.
Cuba was in the news in the summer of 1958. One of the biggest stories was the kidnaping of twenty-eight servicemen from the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay by Raúl Castro, brother of the Cuban rebel leader Fidel, in June. By the time I arrived in New York City—from Korea via Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where I had separated from the U.S. Army after a tour of duty in the Far East—it was August and Raul had released the hostages after publicly decrying the United States’s alleged support for the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Raúl’s stunt had not gone over well with the American public; it gave new credibility to old charges by Batista spokesmen that the Castro brothers were anti-American and pro-Communist. But I chose not to believe those charges. I was in New York to make contact with Fidel’s 26th of July Movement and volunteer for his army in Cuba—and to see an American girl I’d met in Mexico two years earlier.
Joining the Cuban Revolution seemed like a good idea. I’d followed its progress in Time magazine during my fifteen months in Korea. I had a history degree from The Citadel and two years in the infantry, and soldiering was the only job I’d been trained for. I was temperamentally unsuited for peacetime military service, though. For a while I thought about going to South America to look for lost trails and lost cities, but my application for a Fulbright grant to study archeology in Peru was rejected while I was in Asia. After halfheartedly considering law school, I returned to the States from Korea intent on joining the Cuban rebel army.
But first I met up with Nancy Copenhaver, who took a week off from her summer job in New Hampshire to see me in New York. By the end of that week we were married. This was a time in America when long-term commitments were more often made and kept than in succeeding decades, and by the standards of the 1950s, what Nancy and I did was not unusual: we agreed that she would return to her parents and to school at the University of Michigan, while I would go to Cuba and rise to power with the revolutionary forces. I assumed that the war would be over by the end of the semester, and by then I should have acquired a home and a livelihood.
I found the address of the New York office of the 26th of July Movement in the Spanish-language newspaper La Prensa. My reading knowledge of Spanish was good, but my command of the spoken language was only fair. I had no communication problem at the movement headquarters, though, because most of the people there spoke excellent English. The office was in an old brownstone building at 305 Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan. A huge red and black banner, draped under the second-story windows, proclaimed in Spanish, 26TH OF JULY MOVEMENT, MILITANTS AND SYMPATHIZERS.
The place was staffed by clean-cut young men, some of whom had come to the United States to study after Batista had closed the University of Havana the year before. Others, like the office treasurer, Ginés Gorrin, had been students in the States much longer. They all were well-mannered, educated, and apparently devoted to the cause of Cuban liberty. Their job was to raise money and to counter batistiano propaganda by presenting the revolutionaries to the American people as democratic and anti-Communist.
Ginés gave me some pamphlets that highlighted Batista’s Communist connections (he ran for president on the Cuban Communist party ticket in 1940 and headed a popular-front government during World War II) and claimed that Raúl Castro had detained the American citizens merely in order to show them some of the damage the dictator’s forces were inflicting on the Cuban people with arms supplied by the United States. I didn’t need to be convinced, I told Ginés. I knew the revolution was not anti-American or pro-Communist; otherwise I wouldn’t be volunteering. But there was one problem: Ginés said the New York office was authorized to accept donations but not volunteers. American kids came all the time, trying to join Fidel’s army; some wanted to enlist only for the summer. Of course, I was different, Ginés admitted. He was impressed by my military credentials; still, he insisted his office could not accept volunteers. He suggested I talk with Donald Soldini, an American on medical leave from Raúl Castro’s forces.
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 Raúl 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 Raúl 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
After the Las Pozas attack Escalona and his men returned to the Organos range, and we went back to the Sierra del Rosario. On Halloween Claudio took over the mountain resort of Soroa, where we killed one informer, wounded another, and captured three policemen. One of our men was shot in the leg and had to be left behind when we withdrew; we took the policemen with us as hostages to ensure decent treatment of our wounded comrade. We left the prisoners under guard in the sierra when we moved back to the northern highway to ambush a two-car patrol of Batista’s hated SIM (Military Intelligence Service). That action resulted in seven batistianos dead at no cost to Claudio, but the next day the SIM hanged fourteen peasants in two-for-one retaliation.
By November 1958 most of the rural population of Pinar del Rio was under fidelista control and a militia structure was in place. What we lacked were arms. Shortly before Thanksgiving Claudio authorized me to go to the United States and arrange an arms shipment to our area.
Locating military weapons was no problem for me, a product of the shooting and gun-swapping culture of the American South. I still had a Thompson submachine gun, an M1-A1 carbine, and various rifles stored in my parents’ home, while some of my boyhood friends had similar or better collections or knew others who had them. One friend of a friend had stashed in the basement of his parents’ home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, an arsenal that included machine guns, automatic rifles, submachine guns, recoilless rifles, and hand grenades. I made a tentative deal with this fellow to buy most of his collection, plus ammunition and a few other items he could procure for me, for less than three thousand dollars. At a South Carolina fishing village near Edisto Beach, where I used to hang out during college days, another buddy introduced me to a shrimp-boat captain who agreed to run the stuff to Cuba for two thousand dollars.
Returning to Cuba with photographs of the weapons and a price list, I celebrated Christmas with Claudio’s band and then went to Escalona’s camp to make the final arrangements for the arms deal.
At that time the decisive battles of the revolution were being fought in central Cuba. Comandante Ernesto (“Che”) Guevara, after imposing fidelista control on the independent guerrillas of the Sierra del Escambray, had moved out of the mountains to attack the main government garrisons in Las Villas Province. On New Year’s Eve I listened on Escalona’s radio to rebel shortwave transmissions from Las Villas and, with all the frantic jabbering about casualties and pleas for help, got the impression that the situation there was desperate. But at seven the next morning, when I tuned in the news from Key West, I learned that Batista had fled Cuba.
I shouted the news to Escalona, who was standing just outside his headquarters cave. For a moment the comandante seemed to be paralyzed, his face frozen in an astonished stare. Then he leaped into the air and began yelling to his men. “¡El Hombre se fué!” (The Man has gone!)
I turned the radio volume as high as it would go and began translating the newscast. Camp discipline evaporated as guerrillas crowded around me in noisy jubilation. As the transmitter of the good news, I was the hero of the hour.
Escalona left the sierra on New Year’s Day to seize Pinar del Río Province for the 26th of July Movement. It was a perfect Cuban winter’s day, bright and crisp, when we marched down the mountains toward the northern highway. Peasant militiamen joined our column at almost every turn in the trail; some came on horseback and carried huge Cuban and 26th of July flags. At dusk, when we reached the highway at Las Pozas, more militia appeared with trucks and jeeps.
Radio reports from Havana were confusing, but I had no doubt that we were winning and that Cuba would soon have a fidelista government. Since Americans who served voluntarily in the armed forces of a foreign government risked losing their citizenship under U.S. law, I submitted my resignation from the Cuban rebel army on the night of January 1. Escalona didn’t accept it. Instead, after we’d taken the surrender of several cuarteles and distributed their arms to the militia, he commissioned me first lieutenant, gave me a platoon of militiamen, a .50-caliber machine gun, and a stake-body truck, and sent me to the south coast to help local forces deal with batis>tiano holdouts.
The batistianos were gone by the time we reached our objectives, but we were received as conquering heroes nonetheless. Everywhere peasant families stood along the highways and country roads and cheered wildly as our truck hurtled past, its exuberant occupants waving ther newly acquired rifles above their heads. The people of La Coloma set up tables in the town plaza and served a magnificent victory dinner to Lieutenant Americano and his muchachos.
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.
Escalona introduced me as “the American who is training the firing squad.” Fidel thought that was a great joke. “The American who is training the firing squad?” He threw back his head and roared with laughter. As I extended my hand, he grabbed me by the shoulders and gave me a bear hug. Everybody was happy. Fidel kidded around with Escalona’s sister and the other girls present, mostly relatives of rebel officers who had been invited to the comandante’s home to meet the Maximum Leader.
After dinner Fidel went to the city plaza and delivered a two-hour speech to some thirty thousand people. With Escalona and about a dozen others I stood on the platform with the speaker, who made his usual pitch for discipline and self-sacrifice.
After the speech Fidel agreed to grant WNEW Radio in New York a telephone interview. He understood English fairly well but asked me to stand by as an interpreter. When questioned about the executions of “war criminals” that were proceeding, he appealed to the American people for understanding. Everyone, he said, was getting a fair trial.
Fidel sounded like a B-movie Latin revolutionist, and I doubted he was making a favorable impression on listeners in the United States. Even in Cuba he had to be seen to be appreciated; radio and the printed word conveyed little of his power. Television served him better, but it was primarily through personal contact that Fidel achieved his incredible rapport with the masses. The man was a born dictator; I had no doubt about that. I could only hope that he would be a benevolent one and loosen up—and that he wouldn’t turn Communist.
Among my final duties in the revolutionary army was to select, on the morning of January 21, six of my best marksmen for the firing squad to execute the batistiano “war criminals.” My men had done all right against a paper silhouette at twenty paces, but I was worried about the effect a live target would have on their aim. There was a definite possibility, I thought, that these first executions in Pinar del Río might be badly bungled. To guard against this I decided to join the firing squad. We shot eleven men that day, and my squad’s performance convinced me that my presence at the executions was no longer necessary.
After my release from the revolutionary army in March, I asked Fidel for a grant of land, where I could plant tomatoes for export to the United States. I got sixty-six fertile acres on the central highway near San Cristobal, plus unlimited credit from the National Institute of Agrarian Reform. For living quarters I was given the confiscated country home of a batistiano big shot, and my wife and new baby joined me there in July. We brought in a good crop in the winter of 1959-60, and the proceeds from our export sales were deposited directly into our account at the First National Bank of Miami.
With my business prospering I ignored the ominous developments around me. Fidel, not content with his monopoly on armed force in Cuba, proceeded to take all political power into his own hands. He declared himself prime minister, replaced a conservative former judge as puppet president with a small-time lawyer long associated with Communists, and, by November 1959, had dismissed most of the anti-Communists in his cabinet. More ominous still, Fidel obliterated all traces of an independent judiciary. When one of the few independent-minded comandantes of the revolutionary army, Huber Matos, resigned his commission to protest Communist influence in the government, he was subjected to a farcical trial—dominated by the prime minister’s longwinded “testimony”—convicted of treason, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. I found it increasingly difficult to swallow the official line that Cuban anti-Communism was simply a facade concealing revanchist batistianos. By the end of 1959 Che Guevara was pushing his leftist agenda from his new position as president of Cuba’s National Bank, and friends of mine in Pinar del Río began speaking of the need to create a new “collectivist mentality.”
The last time I saw Fidel was at the Los Pinos collective, next to my private farm, in February 1960, when he invited me and my wife to meet the Soviet deputy premier Anastas Mikoyan. Shortly afterward Fidel launched a full-scale campaign against “Yankee imperialism.” No one threatened me, but a decree by Che Guevara giving the government an export monopoly meant that I wouldn’t get any more American dollars for produce sold in the United States. Cuban newspapers that dared criticize the regime’s economic measures were taken over by fidelista unions. My hopes that Fidel would moderate his policies were dashed that spring as Cuba took its irreversible turn toward totalitarianism. Government-controlled mobs—once called into the streets and plazas to demand the execution of batistiano war criminals or to denounce foreign intervention in the island’s affairs—were now directed against Cuban businessmen. It was like a page out of the history of Nazi Germany. The fact that the Cuban masses were as firmly behind Fidel as the Germans had been behind Hitler was no comfort. For those who valued freedom the situation was intolerable. In July Nancy and I abandoned our Cuban homestead and joined the exodus to Miami.
There, after checking in with a CIA agent known to me as Jay, I dabbled in exile politics. I put in a brief stint as “military commander” of one of the two hundred-odd anti-Castro organizations in the city. Everything I learned I passed on to Jay. He was closemouthed, but it was obvious that his agency was backing only the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FRD), which I refused to join. I warned Jay that the FRD politicos—good liberals though they were—had little following inside Cuba and that Fidel’s hold on the masses, as well as the effectiveness of his army and militia, should not be underestimated. The best way to undermine Fidel, I told Jay, was to support the guerrilla bands that were being formed in Las Villas Province by veterans of the Second Front of the Escambray. I volunteered to parachute into the Escambray mountains, but the CIA wasn’t interested. Jay’s superiors were planning to overthrow Fidel with an exile invasion from Central America, for which I also volunteered, to no avail. Resigned to the fact that the CIA was going to conduct this operation without me, I decided to change my way of life, go to graduate school, and become a history professor. In April 1961, three months after I enrolled as a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, the CIA-directed invasion was wiped out at the Bay of Pigs.