A 1968 film diary with Fidel – Part 1
(In May 1968, Saul Landau received a call in San Francisco where he worked for the local public television station. From Havana, Dr. Rene Vallejo, Fidel Castro’s doctor and confidante, said: “Come down with your crew as soon as you can.” In other words, Castro was ready to cooperate on a film portrait for public television. Landau and crew arrived shortly thereafter and waited for seven weeks. This first of a series is a Landau’s diary and commentary about the jeep trip with Fidel through Oriente Province in July 1968.)
On July 5, 1968, at 3 a.m., the phone rang. “Be in the lobby at 6 a.m. Bring the whole crew and all your film equipment.”
Three hours after receiving the curt message from Dr. Rene Vallejo, Fidel Castro’s physician and friend, two uniformed men walked briskly into the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly Hilton) and helped me and the crew load cameras, lights, tripods and a hundred rolls of film and audio tape stock into two 1958 Mercedes Benz.
None of us (myself, Cameraman Irving Saraf, Soundman Stanley Kronquest and Assistant and wife Nina Serrano) had any idea where we were going as the cars drove west through morning dew and pulled into a military airport in San Antonio de los Baños, about 30 miles west of Habana. From there we flew for twenty minutes on the Soviet jet to Varadero.
Fidel strode toward the jet. We shook hands and he apologized for keeping us waiting – only seven weeks – explaining it had taken him longer than he calculated to finish writing the introduction to Che’s Diary (the Bolivian notes Dr. Ernest Guevara had kept while he commanded the 1966-7 guerrilla expedition. Bolivian Rangers trained by U.S. Special Forces, with CIA officials nearby, captured and then murdered Che in October 1967).
His face showed lines of stress as he talked, without turning on the camera. “He was betrayed,” he explained, a bitter tone in his voice. “The strategy was not to blame. The Bolivian Party (Communist) promised they would provide the expedition with supplies, information, food and weapons and also open an urban front, so that the foco guerrillero could function properly. Monge (head of the Bolivian CP0) agreed on this and then reneged without telling us.
As the plane flew over Matanzas, heading east, Fidel began to describe how the people in Moscow had undermined the revolutionary agenda in Latin America, a theme he had stressed in his January 13, 1968, speech commemorating the closing pf the Cultural Congress held in Havana. He had more than implied his disdain for the Soviet leaders when he referred to official Marxism as suffering from “pathological stiffening.” He went further. “When we see sectors of the clergy becoming revolutionary forces, [Liberation Theology movement] how shall we resign ourselves to seeing sectors of Marxism [Soviet Politburo] becoming ecclesiastic forces?”
He followed that startling criticism with a pointed joke. “We hope, naturally, that our saying these things will not bring about our excommunication, [laughter] nor, of course, bring the holy inquisition down upon us.”
After his speech, the Soviets had not withheld oil, but relations clearly remained cool. Fidel’s facial expressions as he spoke of Che’s courage showed pain. Then, he changed the subject.
“So, what are the rules for filming?”
I said we would film unless specifically told not to. He agreed. I gave him a Country Joe and the Fish album, explaining that this combined rock and social consciousness. He thanked me, albeit I thought I caught an expression of skepticism. He asked for his thoughts about the anti-war and civil rights movements and black power. We gave him a brief explanation of how Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s civil rights movement and SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] had split and how black power had arisen as a result of the experience of black organizers in the South.
He compared racial discrimination in pre revolutionary Cuba to that of the United States. “There existed a clear level of discrimination in Cuba, but not with the degrees of hatred in your country.” Castro related how the revolution had issued laws to end discrimination. He concluded that “in the United States imperialism and racial discrimination are tied together. You will have to liberate not only the black people but the white people as well.”
The plane landed some 40 minutes after we took off in Holguin, in northern Oriente Province. We unloaded, the crew into one jeep, I with a small 16 mm Ariflex camera in the jeep with Fidel. We sped off to the El Mate Dam, which Fidel would inaugurate. We saw signs of towns that became famous thirty five years later -- Alto Cedro, Mayari, Marcane -- thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club album.
We drove through countryside of newly cut cane fields, with large sugar mills nearby. Rural Cuba moved slowly, but Fidel’s jeep caravan sped past small farms with tall corn and a few pigs and state farms with malanga and yucca growing. We passed campesinos on horseback and sitting on rickety wagons.
The July heat baked the jeeps, but Fidel did not perspire. He talked about the importance of development above all things. He knew how many dams Cuba had, the output of its various energy systems and also the figures he thought necessary to transform the island into a modern country.
The jeeps pulled up alongside the Contramaestre River, where a newly built dam stood. Fidel jumped out and greeted a waiting committee. We set up the tripod and gazed at thousands of people waiting to hear their “maximo lider” speak.
After a few arm up speakers finished explaining that the new dam would serve the entire region, Fidel, after much applause and a brief greeting to the crowd, continued with the thoughts he had begun expressing in the jeep.
“A country that had lived with technical backwardness under economic exploitation did not even have the chance to try to train a minimum number of trained technicians to perform these tasks, without which there would be no way to emerge from poverty, misery, and absolute dependence on uncontrollable forces of nature.”
In the crowd, peasants and young workers listened avidly. In the absence of newspapers, Fidel had become in Lee Lockwood’s words, “Cuba’s living newspaper.” He gave information and explained.
“We are not inaugurating this dam with the idea that we have done a great thing. This is an important dam because it is one of the first, because it became a school, because it gave us experience, because it was built with the enthusiasm, goodwill, courage, and the tenacity of our workers. We are inaugurating a dam that is simply the beginning of the enormous water resources undertaking that must be carried out throughout the country.”
Dr. Vallejo, who I had met in 1960 on my first visit to Cuba, whispered in my ear. “I hope this trip will be a continuation of your education.” He referred to a conversation six years earlier when he directed INRA (the Agrarian Reform Institute and most powerful force for change at the time) and he picked me up hitchhiking on a road near Santiago de Cuba. I told him I had left graduate school to see the revolution. He asked what I thought revolution was and I gave him an academic answer about changing economic and social systems. He laughed and patted me on the back. “It’s also a very profound change in how people view the world,” he said. “You will see.”
Castro continued. “No manual and no words describe what a revolutionary installation is. Perhaps many thought that on the day after winning the fight with weapons, we would become heirs of abundance, take full possession of the wealth, when the only certainty was that one day after the victory with firearms, we would begin the time of constructing the country, the time for building the wealth of the future.”
Vallejo acted as a kind of guide and interpreter of Fidel’s speech. “He is a teacher, you understand, for people who never went to school but must learn based on instinct and experience.”
Fidel’s tone rose in pitch as he enunciated his vision for the future. “Many good things may have been done by the revolution to liberate the people from the exploitation of their work as in the past, to liberate the peasants from exploitation by landowners, to liberate the workers from exploitation by the rich. Perhaps nothing can compare with what a revolution signifies when it liberates man from dehumanized, unproductive work, when it liberates man from working conditions that are barely different from those performed by animals and allows him to work under conditions incomparably more human. When there is no man in this country who has to cut cane, when there is no man who has to plow behind a yoke of oxen, when there is no man who has to use a hoe to cut weeds [several words indistinct] does not have to perform that work, then the revolution will have performed one of its most human accomplishments and will have moved from working conditions fit for beasts to working conditions that are truly human.”
After the speech, we toured the dam. I checked the tape Stanley had recorded.
“We have had to win a battle against time. We have had to overcome the backwardness of centuries in just a few years….How many stories have we heard about families who died in the past because they had no way to move in time, that is, members of the family died because they had no means to get to a hospital in time! Today, hospitals are scattered throughout the mountains. Nevertheless, roads are needed, and not a single place in the country will remain isolated. No one will be isolated, particularly when there are so many people who are happy because this dam has been finished.”
Fidel asked the engineers questions about the height of the installations. Then we sped off to make camp for the night.
In the late afternoon of July 5, 1968, Fidel’s jeep headed a caravan of five Soviet-made vehicles. We drove south along back roads toward the Sierra Maestra. The paved roads gave way to dirt trails and I began to get some exercise while sitting: my kidneys not only experienced unusual up, down and sideways patterns, but as the jeep bounced I got jabbed by the holstered pistol of Comandante Faustino Perez, who sat next to me or by the cartridge of Comandante Leyte, my other neighbor in the back seat. Perez, a doctor and Minister of Health, had joined Castro’s rebels in 1955, in Mexico.
Faustino became a leader of the 26th of July Movement, named after the day in 1953 when Castro and 158 comrades attacked Fort Moncada to start the insurrection. He met with Fidel in Mexico, helping to prepare the guerrillas for their December 1956 invasion of Cuba on the yacht Granma. After Batista’s forces ambushed the arriving expedition, Faustino stayed with Fidel for two weeks before they met up with Raul and other warriors at Cinco Palmas. Faustino became a captain and a member of Fidel’s high command. Fidel then sent him to Habana to lead the urban underground in carrying out acts of sabotage against the Batista dictatorship and to support the guerrillas in the Sierra.
After organizing the failed general strike of April 1958, Faustino rejoined the guerrillas. After the victory he headed the Ministry of Recovery of Ill Gotten Gains. In 1961, he fought at the Bay of Pigs and subsequently in the fight to combat the “Counterrevolutionary Bandits” in the Escambray Moutains of central Cuba. He also was Cuba’s first Minister of Hydraulic resources and a Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He served in a variety of leadership positions before he died in 1992 at age 72.
Comandante Guillermo Garcia drove. The 28-year-old was the first campesino [rural worker/farm worker] to join Fidel’s guerrillas in the Sierra. He became their guide and quickly rose to become second in command to Juan Almeida in the Third Front (Guantanamo) in Oriente. He became a Party Central Committee Member and Vice President of the State Council. He also served as Minister of Transportation.
Fidel rode shotgun. He smoked cohibas, one after another, and resumed his commentary on the Soviet perfidy in Bolivia. I tried to allow the lush scenery and the bucolic atmosphere to etch itself into my mind along with the harsh words Fidel spoke about the “cowards in the Kremlin.”
Flourishing mango trees and spindly papayas, broad yucca leaves and deep green corn stalks amid acres of recently cut sugar cane land – the setting of Central Oriente Province. I asked Fidel to elaborate on his remark made on January 13 in his speech closing the cultural Congress, where he alluded to ecclesiastical thinking in Marxist circles.
“What kind of revolutionaries refuse to support revolution?” he asked rhetorically. Irving and Stanley rode behind us in another jeep, damn it! We were missing Fidel on revolution and the USSR. So, I tried to tape record in my mind. “We do not think for a minute that the Bolivian Party betrayed Che and the other compañeros [comrades] on their own volition. We know who dictates to Monje (Party chief). They will say that “now is not the moment for revolution.” Or they will justify their treachery on the grounds of not wanting to “upset the delicate strategic balance with the imperialists.” So, why call themselves Marxists? Some of the religious people who have associated themselves with Liberation Theology have taken courageous positions. I don’t mean only Camilo Torres (the Colombian priest who joined the guerrillas and died in action.).”
The cigar smoke filled the jeep as we pulled into a rustic area where tents had been erected – presumably the place we would spend the night. The neighbors, an elderly couple, their children and grandchildren leaned against the fence, staring at the entourage of Cuban leaders. An ancient woman said: “Now, I can say I have seen him in the flesh.” She let out a long sigh.
“Papito,” getting out of his jeep laughed sympathetically. Jorge “Papito” Serguera, who ran Cuban radio and TV, and in 1963 was Cuba’s Ambassador to revolutionary Algeria and major contact for Che Guevara’s Congo mission in 1964. He was a lawyer and had just received his doctorate in Philosophy when he joined the guerrillas. As director of TV and Radio, Papito established a “hardline” reputation, in contrast with his gregarious personality and lifestyle. In 1965-66, debates emerged among Cuban leaders about proper behavior and what music to broadcast. In these years, a campaign put idlers and homosexuals in work camps (UMAP). Silvio Rodriguez (Cuba’s Bob Dylan) could not appear on radio. Papito was said to have even favored banning the Beatles. I had a few elliptical conversations with him before meeting with Fidel and he gave me a friendly smile as we approached the waiting neighbors.
“They’re islanders,” Vallejo explained to Fidel.
“Naturally, they’re islanders,” he replied. They live in Cuba, an island.”
“No,” Vallejo laughed. “They’re from the Canary Islands.”
“So that makes them double islanders,” quipped Fidel as he extended his hand to an ancient woman leaning across the fence. He joked with the “islanders” for a few minutes, congratulating the older woman on being a great grandmother. “My mother didn’t even want to become a grandmother,” he laughed. We filmed in the low light, but had to quit when Fidel accepted the family’s invitation to have coffee.
About thirty people piled into a dark bohio (the straw roofed, dirt floor hut that Cuban peasants have lived in for centuries) only by a kerosene lantern. Remarkably, the peasant women remained composed, at least outwardly, as they served the unexpected guests. The women must have run to their neighbors to borrow demi tasse size cups, from which we drank the strong, sweet and aromatic brew.
Bodyguards showed us to our tent, with primitive cots with a sheet to cover us. For dinner, Fidel had promised mule meat. But, luckily, Pedro, the cook, had prepared a more traditional roast, tough but tasty. In the center of each of the three tables under the mess tent, sat large bowls of beans and rice. The table setters had placed bottles of water beside each place.
Fidel spoke about the importance of hydraulic resources and the genetics of cattle breeding, a theme he would elaborate over the next days. His knowledge of both subjects impressed me. He said he had begun immersing himself in books about animal husbandry and genetics so that Cuban cattle could produce efficiently, both for meat and milk.
He talked about the need for proper nourishment as part of a development strategy. “Milk,” he explained, “is an excellent source of protein and contains other important nutriments. We must not only expand dairy production, but think about exporting dairy products. We also must produce huge quantities of meat, which will require an accelerated growth of good cattle breeding.”
He talked about how the Cuban Brahmans and Zebu cows (from Africa) produced little quantity and poor quality of milk and meat and compared them the Hosteins, whose milk production ran up to nine times more than the local cattle.
By 1970, he said, “we’ll need to produce some 4 million liters a day.” And by 1972, 12 million. We can do this by not eating the females.”
We finished our meat, drank another little cup of Cuban coffee and retired to our tents. Irving filmed Fidel’s tent, where the lantern burned when all the others had gone out. He had taken a text to bed on the genetics of cattle breeding and Waldo Frank’s biography of Simon Bolivar. The books would become conversational food for tomorrow’s breakfast.
The sound of a helicopter engine woke me. At 6 am, I watched a large Soviet made whirly bird descend into a clearing near the camp site. A man in olive drab with a large briefcase jumped from the craft and ran toward the tents where some of Fidel’s body guards greeted him and took the brief case. The man retreated and climbed aboard and the helicopter ascended into the early morning sky.
I nodded a good morning to the small group of body guards and other military personnel who were checking jeep motors and kicking tires. The crew slept, so I put my shoes on and walked to a nearby creek and watched some campesinos putting a halter on a yoke of oven. They gave a polite nod.
As I returned to the campsite a guard handed me a paper cup full of café con leche. The comandantes had begun to gather in small groups. They greeted me politely. I chatted briefly with Vallejo, who inquired about how we slept. “The chopper,” he told me in English, “bring the news and other papers Fidel needs to see.” Vallejo had served in the U.S. Army during World War II and managed the American idiom as a result. I had first met him in July 1960, on my first trip to Cuba. He came along in a jeep on a back road in Oriente, where I was hitchhiking. After picking me up and talking to me in my poor Spanish, he broke out into English and invited me to his office for coffee. He was head of INRA** (The Agrarian Reform Institute) and he told me how he had delivered papers to the King Ranch, an off shoot of the famous Texas property, ordering their expropriation. “I knew the manager and his wife because I had delivered their babies. I told him I had bad news and handed him the papers. He laughed and told me I was a great joker. He called his wife, a very attractive woman from Texas, and they offered me coffee as I explained to them that the expropriation order was real. They couldn’t believe it and assured me that this meant the U.S. Marines would come to Cuba and that they felt so sad because they liked owed me so much for delivering their babies. It was kind of sad. But that’s the drama of revolution.”
Fidel emerged from his tent, buttoning his trousers. Irving had begun to film and I explained to Fidel that we would not include any scenes in bad taste. He laughed and we entered the breakfast tent for Cuban tamales, served runny, in bowls. When Fidel finished eating, he lit a cohiba.
“I read chapters of an entertaining biography of Bolivar by Waldo Frank.”
The other comandantes lit up. Irving filmed Fidel’s blackened fingernails, his elegant fingers clutching the cigar. “This one scene –this is how Frank tells it because everyone has a different version – has a priest whipping up the crowd after a tremendous earthquake has devastated Caracas. Imagine, one million people died in that disaster.”
The cigar smoke filled the tent. “Bolivar, standing in the crowd, got an ingenious idea. He strode up to the altar from which the priest was agitating the crowd saying that the earthquake showed God’s wrath against the Republicans, the heretics and godless. In those days you had to make the revolution against God.” Fidel paused and puffed. The audience waited on his next words. “Bolivar whips out his sword and belts the priest three times, knocking him off the altar.” The comandantes laughed.
“Three blows with the sword destroyed the priest’s spell over the crowd. Bolivar took the offensive. I don’t know what happened next because I fell asleep.”
Shortly afterwards, the caravan moved up the rocky dirt roads of the Sierra. Fidel waved to villagers. They waved back. Those who actually saw who it was experienced a mild ecstasy. I tried to imagine these sparely populated mountains as the scenario for a two-year guerrilla war.
Fidel told Guillermo Garcia where to go. Guillermo pushed the jeep into the proper gears and maneuvered past coffee trees and skinny pines set against blue tinted mountains. Tropical July sun beat its heat into the jeep. Dust kicked up from the road. Fidel smoked and talked.
“Cross breed Zebus with Holsteins we get the first generation of what geneticists call F1s. These cows have already increased milk production. They inherit the milk producing genes of the Holsteins and the tropical resistance of the Zebus, African cows the Spaniards brought here.” He admitted he had studied his animal genetics text before picking up the Bolivar book. “At the F4 stage in the breeding process we should the offspring should produce 40 liters a day.”
Fidel asked Guillermo to stop in a town with a few stores and houses needing paint. A crowd quickly gathered. Within minutes what looked like the whole village had gathered around Fidel’s jeep.
Fidel asked if they had enough milk. Yes, a woman replied in machinegun staccato: “But no transportation. We had a bus and then they took it away. Imagine!” Fidel winced.
“We have no ambulance either,” said a man perched on a tree branch overlooking the caravan.
“They gave us a bus and then took it away,” the woman continued. “They said the road was too bad so the bus couldn’t pass. But you ordered that we have a bus, right?”
“I didn’t know they had withdrawn it,” Fidel replied. “At least they should have consulted me.”
“But no ambulance is serious,” continued the tree-based man. “In an emergency how will people get to a hospital, pregnant women for example?”
Fidel nodded. Where do you take sick people, to Mayari or Marcane?”
They said yes to both. Fidel asked if the town still had midwives. “No, all gone,” said another man. Doctors now deliver babies.”
Fidel distributed candy to the kids.
“How’s the school? He asked everyone.
The fast talking woman fired back. “The school is fine, but we have no uniforms for the kids. How can they go to school without uniforms?”
“In this heat, why do they need a uniform? asked Fidel.
“Ah,” said an older man, as if Fidel had imparted startling wisdom. The caravan returned to the bumpy road.
A bouncy hour later, the jeeps stopped in another village. An old man pulled on Fidel’s sleeve. “I’m 98,” he said, “and I need your help.”
They chatted as villagers gathered. “I don’t get it,” said Fidel, who at 6’3” towered over the others. “Do you want the pension or the house?”
“The house, the house,” the old man repeated. “No big thing. I’ll make it from guano (palm leaves). But these days who knows what’s happening? The trucks go back and forth making all that noise and creating problems.”
Fidel interrupted. “Problems? We’re building the highway. You think it’s problem to have a paved highway?”
“They could just throw down some bitulai (tar),” Fidel explained.
“I never voted for those corrupt ones,” the ancient one said. “For Batista that skunk, never”
“Did you ever vote for any good ones? Tell the truth,” Fidel implored.
“I voted for Alfredo Zayas (President 1921-25). He was good.”
“What did he do?” Fidel laughed. “He built a statue in front of the presidential palace. That’s all.”
The villagers laughed, even the old man.
“Let’s go, quickly,” Fidel ordered. The jeeps sped away along the kidney jolting road, higher into the Sierra where Fidel looked out from one mountain onto another.
“This was our theater of operations.” He played with a long blade of grass he had plucked. “We fought them here. We won some small battles and a few big ones. At one point, we were dangerously close to being annihilated. This peasant, our guide, defected. They offered him money, rank, who knows what and he sat in a plane and three times led bombers to the exact site of our camp. They bombed, and the last time almost got us. But after those failures to kill us off, they could no loner beat us.”
The comandantes lounged in the mountain grass in the late afternoon and very welcome shadows. Guillermo Garcia seemed introspective. I asked him if he was thinking of those “good old days.”
He smiled. Fidel laughed.
“It took extraordinary character to make it as a guerrilla. Men who risked their lives and showed incredible courage in the urban underground found it impossible to endure the life of the guerrilla. Not just the biological deprivation and the need to be constantly mobile, but the sense of being out of one’s place, one’s environment.” Garcia nodded. So did Vallejo, who spent a few months in 1958 with Fidel after leaving his gynecology practice in Manzanillo.
We remounted the jeeps and headed for the evening campsite, somewhere – I was lost – in Cuba’s eastern mountains.
As the jeeps descended into a valley somewhere in the Sierra Maestra that evening, we saw in a clearing a row of tents. Fidel exploded. He told Guillermo Garcia that he had ordered Chucho to erect the campsite on the hill. “They’ve put me in a hole,” he spat.
Fidel jumped out of the jeep and upbraided the smaller and leaner Chucho. His anger vibrated through the night air. “How could you bury me in this indefensible pit? You of all people know that you never make camp in a hole.” Fidel cursed. Chucho shuddered. Fidel paced back and forth in front of him, repeating in different words the accusation of unpardonable stupidity.
In our tent, we shook our heads. Fidel’s outburst had frightened us as well. The dinner was subdued and ended quickly. I saw Fidel’s tent lantern burning, indicating he had begun reading.
In the morning, Fidel stood in front of Chucho again, with his arm around him and loudly apologized for last night’s verbal explosion. He hugged Chucho and told him how much he valued him, while repeating that he had been out of line, albeit “the idea of camping in a hole made him uneasy.”
Chucho looked deeply relieved, as did all other members of the entourage.
Fidel explained that we would have a chicken stew for breakfast, pointing to the serving bowl filled with steaming pieces of chicken in gravy. Next to it, sat a bowl of freshly cooked rice.
Irving turned on the camera and Fidel pretended to be offended.
“Imagine, getting filmed eating breakfast! What an abuse! Well, I better remember the French etiquette lessons I learned in school.” He played with his utensils as if uncertain of the proper one to use for the chicken and rice. Everyone chuckled.
I asked him if he had kept a diary during the guerrilla years. He shook his head negatively until he almost finished chewing and answered.
“No, I never kept one. Che kept one. Raul (his brother) and Almeida (one of the 1953 attackers of Moncada and head of the army in 1968). I have a very good memory and kept all the key details in my head. But a diary can have strategically negative implications. You can lose it if you’re beating a hasty retreat and drop your backpack. Then the enemy can learn important details.”
Fidel served himself a second helping of chicken and rice and continued. “A diary is important if you’re thinking of history, like Napoleon, for example.”
Fidel turned to the other comandantes. “I think it was in Elba where he was exiled, wasn’t it?”
Several said, “Yes, Elba.”
“No,” Fidel retorted. It was Santa Helena. He was exiled first in Elba, then in Santa Helena.” He referred to the 1815 British imprisonment of the former French Emperor on the island of Saint Helena. During his six years there, preceding his death, he dictated his memoirs. He died on May 5, 1821.
“He was concerned with his place in history. My concern was deeds, action. I was making history.” He stood, lit a cigar and said: “Well, gentleman, we have a long day. Let’s get moving.”
As day’s heat and the road’s dust poured into the jeep and Faustino’s pistol butt and Leyte’s ammunition clip alternately japed me in the sides as the vehicle lurched helter skelter over and in the ruts, Fidel smoked and appeared to be lost in thought. I had yet to see a pygmy owls, miniature sized frogs, or wingless butterflies (their wings are invisible) which I read existed in these mountains. The jeeps climbed and I asked Faustino if we were near Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba, about 6,580 feet high. He nodded and point. I looked and saw nothing but mountains and trees.
Fidel had reason to look nostalgic. Not only had he lived in this region from December 1956 to January 1959, but he had shared it with other revolutionaries. Supposedly, in 1511, one of Columbus’ men, Diego Velásquez, conquered Cuba. Chief Hatuey (of the Caribs) led guerrilla attacks against the better armed (with firearms) Spaniards. Like Fidel, he hid in the mountains, and waged deadly assaults. But just as Batista found a peasant to reveal Fidel’s location, so his air force could bomb it, Velásquez also discovered a traitor who showed him where Hatuey had hidden.
In October 1868, in the town of Yara, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes issued his Grito to launch the first independence war, and in 1895, in the second war of independence, at Dos Rios in the same area, Jose Martí began his fatal horseback charge against the Spanish machine guns. Fidel had much to reflect on. He descended directly from them.
Below, I saw picture post card scenes of palm trees and meadow, with large buzzards making lazy circles overhead. Fidel returned to his theme of revolution. “Look at the revolutions that succeeded,” he began. “Russia, China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam – all came about through armed struggle. Every time a revolutionary wins power through elections, or any non violent means, he is quickly overthrown by his own army, in the service of the local ruling class and the imperialists. You would think that the Soviet leaders would grasp this elementary concept and support genuine revolutionary movements. What Che and the other compañeros were doing in the Congo and in Bolivia constituted a model that we had successfully employed in Cuba. A guerrilla foco (mobile force of armed revolutionaries) needs the support of an active urban movement. It needs intelligence, logistical help, food, weapons and a refurbishing of the guerrilla band. It also needs an active and urban front that carries out effective measures against the government. As we learned, our comrades in the cities carried out armed actions against Batista police and repressive forces. They did propaganda and sapped the legitimacy of the government with their continual assault on its authority.”
He paused to puff on his ubiquitous cohiba and continued, as the jeep bounced upward into the Sierra.
“When the Soviets removed Che’s support in Bolivia, it as much as doomed the mission.” He looked bitter, as if still grieving over Che and the other compañeros and also deeply disappointed in the behavior of the Soviets.
We entered a village where a baseball game was underway. Within minutes, Fidel had a bat and was swinging unsuccessfully at the local pitcher’s offerings. He removed his cigar. No luck. He made a few jokes as the villagers offered to change pitchers.
“No,” Fidel insisted, “as long as he’s willing to pitch, I’ll be trying to hit one.”
He took off his hat, then his glasses. Still no contact. He tried throwing the ball in the air and swinging. No result. Annoyed at his apparent loss of coordination and complaining to Vallejo about how he had “lost my eye,” he changed from his olive drab shirt into a jersey, put on cleats and took the mound.
He gave me permission to stand behind him with a camera as he threw, semi side arm, but hard. His unorthodox delivery came with a natural curve. After a shaky start, he retired the side. One of the comandantes whispered to another. “We could be here for three days if he doesn’t belt one.”
On his first at bat, clad in the white and red jersey, Fidel smacked a pitch between the center and right fielders and raced around the bases. The villagers applauded. The members of the entourage breathed a deep sigh of relief. Fidel gave a brief nod of satisfaction to Vallejo, changed back into his shirt and army boots and the caravan proceeded into other reaches of the Sierra.
The baseball stop showed Fidel’s determination, a man who will not accept defeat, even at play. Lee Lockwood wrote in his book Castro’s Cuba; Cuba’s Fidel about Fidel playing dominoes until he had literally exhausted his competitors. Unfortunately, none of the 10 U.S. presidents who tried to undo him understood this.
In the jeep, Fidel began to talk about how he had played baseball intermittently all his life, about one game he played with Camilo Cienfuegos. Guillermo Garcia said he remembered the game. “Camilo was catching and you were pitching.” Fidel nodded as the jeeps continued their climb up the mountain.
Published by Progreso Weekly