Jeep trip with Fidel – 1968 (Part 6)
Fidel talked about agriculture at breakfast, as if preparing for his next round of speeches on the virtues of the cross breeding of the Cuban cows with the superior milk producing and better beef cattle of the United States and Europe. I retained enough of college genetics to follow his argument about how, with each succeeding generation, the Cuban offspring would more resemble the milk-abundant Holsteins, while retaining the immunity Brahmans and Zebus possess to tropical infirmities.
“Milk is a very complete food,” he lectured me. “With increased milk production all Cubans would ingest adequate protein. The first steps to overcoming underdevelopment are those that ensure that the people have enough protein, good medical care, solid education. Without these basic investments you cannot move forward with meaningful development.”
On the road through the Sierra Cristal on Oriente’s north coast the skinny pines fluttered like botanical ballerinas in early morning wind, as warming themselves before the sun came out. “Here Raul commanded,” Fidel explained, twisting to look at me in the back seat of the jeep. “He and his men won important battles. They established a legitimate source of authority, one even the Americans had to recognize.”
He referred to the March 1958 “Frank Pais Second Front” (named after the assassinated underground leader in Santiago de Cuba). On June 26, 1958, Raul’s guerrillas ambushed a bus with 50 Navy and Marine personnel on board. The group had left the Guantanamo naval base for some R and R and became instead prisoners of the rebel army.
Then, U.S. officials warned Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista not to take actions that would endanger the hostages’ lives. So, for three weeks, Raul’s impulse worked to stop military operations against the barbudos.
In mid July, Raul and his close companion Vilma Espin, who he later married, met with U.S. Consul Park Wollam Jr. and Vice Consul Robert Wiecha, a CIA official working in the consulate. They met in the town of La Calabaza (pumpkin). Raul ordered the hostages freed.
Raul showed his “guests” that local residents got good – and free -- medical care from guerrilla doctors. The rebels also fed the Americans well, albeit some did not love boiled green bananas.
The ploy turned Raul into a Robin Hood. Reporters who visited generally sympathized with his cause as did some of the hostages. Raul also gave invited foreign reporters a battlefield tour, including demonstrations of how Batista used U.S. weapons to kill his rebels and local supporters. He also used the opportunity to inform the press that Batista used the U.S. base at Guantanamo to refuel his bombers to hit rebel bases.
When Raul released the hostages, he opportunistically posed as a friend of the U.S. government, sending the hostages “back because their country needs them.” This referred to Eisenhower’s announcement of the deployment of Marines to Lebanon to help suppress a revolt against U.S.-backed President Camille Chamoun.
As Fidel chuckled over this ten year old incident, the jeeps pulled into Biran, Fidel’s birthplace. His Galician father, Angel, had served in the Spanish army during the 1898 War and later returned to Cuba to make his fortune as a farmer. Angel married Lina Ruz, a Cuban, some years after Fidel was born; not unusual for rural Cuba where itinerant priests dropped by every few years to marry and baptize.
In July, Biran possessed an almost stereotypical sleepy rural Caribbean town look. Some women washed clothes in a nearby stream. A few men on horseback joined clucking chickens in the dusty streets of small wooden houses in need of paint. Fidel jumped from his jeep and marched toward a more official looking structure with flaking blue paint.
“This was our school,” he said leaning against a post. “We’d line up here during recess to determine who got to bat first. One day, I remember an argument occurred and the priest came up and whacked me hard on the head. That was the norm in those days. Everyone behaved like a brute, one farmer toward another, boss and worker and so on.”
We went inside to escape the heat. He sat at a tiny desk with his feet sticking out into the aisles, his Cohiba smoking away. “In those days we didn’t smoke in school,” he quipped. He looked at the small classroom. “Nothing much has changed. The teachers punished barbarically in those days. They’d put you on your knees with grains of corn under your knees. I think I recall getting one of those … But since my father was the owner of a nearby farm,” he pointed out of the school window, “that was our farm over there.” I saw palm trees and pasture land. “I suspect we got away with some stuff because of my father’s position.” During the agrarian reform, Castro’s parents’ farm was reduced to the 150 acre limit.
Fidel wrote dates on the school blackboard –1930, 1931. “I spent those years here, learned the alphabet. He sounded out the letters “a, ma ma, p, a, pa-pa pa.” Adding, “I think there’s a more modern method to teach reading these days. We studied a little geography, listened to stories and learned some poems. ‘The shoes hurt my feet, the socks make me hot, but the kiss you gave me I keep in my heart.’”
As we left the school in the late afternoon, Fidel scanned the almost empty village and smiled. “I went to school here until I was seven, I think. Then, my father sent me to the LaSalle Academy in Santiago.”
In 1942, he moved to Havana and attended Belen, a Jesuit run school, and then entered the University of Havana where he got his law degree in 1950.
Soon afterwards, the entourage traded jeeps for Alfa Romeos which Fidel said he had gotten for bargain prices. It felt cramped in the back seat and since he was bigger he gave me the AK rifle to hold. He began to talk about how “only armed struggle can lead to real revolutions, revolutions that endure.
“How can revolutionaries claim power if the former army and those who control them remain intact?” he asked rhetorically. “That was what the Americans wanted when we beat the Batista forces. In late December of 1958, when it became clear that Batista’s forces were finished, people at the U.S. Embassy tried to organize a bunch of so-called moderate officers to form a junta that would seize power from Batista, claim to be a new and clean government and then somehow prevent the revolutionaries from assuming control of the government. Of course, the officers immediately began to quarrel amongst themselves and so the idea never took hold. It would not have worked anyway, not with the immense support we had.
“The U.S. government wanted to do all it could to stop us from taking power.”
Castro was right. On December 5, 1958, the U.S. Ambassador in Havana cabled State: “Since inconceivable that U.S. assist Castro and since probably too late to help Batista, U.S. should promote and give full and actual support including arms to a military civilian junta. The group generally felt the junta would be more likely to enlist wide popular support and would weaken Castro, if it included some of best elements of present GOC, of political opposition, and of civic groups now supporting Castro. Those consulting with Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith included the President of Portland Cement Company, Havana. The Vice President of Moa Bay Mining, the Vice President of First National Bank of Boston and a high executive from Standard Oil.”
On December 23, 1958, Secretary of State Christian Herter sent a memorandum to his ambassador in Havana affirming: “The Department clearly does not want to see Castro succeed to the leadership of the Government.”
“Do you think the United States would have allowed us to take power if we had not won it by force of arms?” he asked. I nodded. He spoke of how Washington knocked off the Iranian and Guatemalan governments because their armies were not people’s armies. As Castro spoke in the hot, cramped Alfa Romeo of the need to make revolution by armed struggle, I began to fight sleep. The palm leaves seemed to beat a monotonous rhythm in the wind. I sucked mints, chewed gum, pinched my thighs and did jaw exercises. To no avail! I think the days of filming and listening, the days of receiving the powerful vibrations that emanated from the man had exhausted me. I admit I missed some of what he said. But he didn’t miss that behind my dark glasses my eyes had forced themselves shut.
As we pulled into the campsite, he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “I think we should stop for awhile. I’ll see you in Havana. He went off somewhere and the next morning we went to the Santiago airport and flew back to Havana -- material for a film in the proverbial can. I don’t think I spoke for a while -- one day, maybe two.