Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 51 in February, 1968, this story appeared in Issue 100 in 1998 after being selected for publication in the retrospective volume Evergreen Review Reader 1967-1973.
The history of the military takeover of March 10, 1952 - the bloodless coup directed by Fulgencio Batista - does not, of course, begin on the very day of the coup. Its antecedents must be sought further back in the history of Cuba: much further back than the intervention of U. S. Ambassador Sumner Welles in 1933; even further back than the Platt Amendment of 1901; further back than the landing of the "hero" Narciso López, sent directly by the North American annexationists. We reach the roots of the matter in the period of John Quincy Adams who, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, announced the posture which his country was to take with regard to Cuba. The island was seen as an apple which, cut from Spain's branches, was fated to fall into Uncle Sam's hands. These are all links in a long chain of continental aggression which has been directed against others as well as Cuba.
This tide, this imperial ebb and flow, is marked by the rise or fall of new governments under the uncontrollable pressure of the masses. The history of all Latin America exhibits these characteristics: dictatorial governments representing a small minority come to power through coups d'etat; democratic governments with a wide popular base arise laboriously and often, even before assuming power, are compromised by a series of pre-arranged concessions which had been necessary to their survival.
The Cuban revolution in this respect was an exception, and it becomes necessary here to present a little background, for the author of these words, tossed by the waves of these social movements convulsing America, had the opportunity to meet, because of all this, another exile: Fidel Castro.
I met him on one of those cold nights in Mexico, and I remember that our first discussion was on international politics. A few hours later that same night - at dawn - I was one of the future expeditionaries. But I should like to clarify how and why I met the present head of the Cuban government in Mexico. It was in 1954, during the ebb of the democratic governments, when the last revolutionary American democracy maintaining itself upright in the area - that of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmàn - succumbed before the cold, premeditated aggression of the U.S.A., hidden behind a smoke screen of continental propaganda. Its apparent leader was the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who by a strange coincidence was also the lawyer for and a stockholder in the United Fruit Company, the major imperialist concern in Guatemala.
I was on my way back from there, defeated, united in my pain to all the Guatemalans, hoping, seeking a way to recreate a future for that bleeding land. And Fidel came to Mexico seeking neutral territory on which to prepare his men for the big push. The assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba had already pared away all those of weak will, who for one reason or another joined political parties or revolutionary groups demanding less sacrifice.
The recruits were joining the brand - new ranks of the 26th of July Movement (named for a date marking the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks). A very hard task was beginning for those in charge of training these people under necessary conditions of secrecy in Mexico. They were fighting against the Mexican government, against American FBI agents, and also against Batista's spies; they were fighting against these three forces which in one way or another joined together, money and personal sellouts playing a large role. In addition, they had to fight against Trujillo's spies, against the poor selection of human material (especially in Miami). And, after overcoming all of these difficulties, we also had to manage the all-important departure, and then arrival, and all that these entailed. At that time, this seemed easy to us. Today we can measure the cost in effort, in sacrifices, and in lives.
Fidel Castro, helped by a small group of intimates, gave himself over entirely, with all his capacity and his extraordinary spirit of work, to the task of organizing the armed expedition to Cuba. He almost never gave lessons in military tactics, for there was little time. The rest of us were able to learn a good bit from General Alberto Bayo. My almost immediate impression, on hearing the first lessons, was of the possibility for victory, which I had seen as very doubtful when I joined the rebel commander. I had been linked to him, from the outset, by a tie of romantic adventurous sympathy, and by the conviction that it would be worth dying on a foreign beach for such a purcideal.
Thus several months passed. Our marksmanship became more exact, and sharpshooters emerged. We found a ranch in Mexico where, under the direction of General Bayo - I was Chief of Personnel - the final preparations for a March, 1956 departure were made. However at that time two Mexican police forces, both paid by Batista, were hunting Fidel Castro, and one of them had the good fortune - financially speaking - to capture him. But they committed the error - also financially speaking - of not killing him after taking him prisoner. Many of Fidel's followers were captured some days later. Our ranch on the outskirts of Mexico City also fell to the police, and we all went to jail.
This postponed the beginning of the last part of the first stage. There were some who spent fifty-seven days in prison, with the threat of extradition hanging constantly over us (Major Calixto García and I can testify to this). But at no time did we lose our personal trust in Fidel Castro. For Fidel did some things which we might almost say compromised his revolutionary attitude for the sake of friendship. I remember making my own case clear. I was a foreigner in Mexico illegally, and with a series of charges against me. I told Fidel that under no circumstances should the revolution be held back for me; that he could leave me behind; that I understood the situation and would try to join their fight from wherever I was sent; that the only effort they should make on my behalf was to have me sent to a nearby country and not to Argentina. I also remember Fidel's brusque reply - "I will not abandon you." And so it was, for they had to use precious time and money to get us out of the Mexican jail. The personal attitude of Fidel toward the people he esteems is the key to the absolute devotion which is created around him; loyalty to the man, together with an attachment to principles make this rebel army an indivisible unit.
The days passed, we worked secretly, hid where we could, avoided public appearances as much as possible, and in fact almost never went out into the street. When a few months had passed, we found there was a traitor in our ranks. We did not know who it was, but he had sold an arms shipment of ours. We also knew that he had sold the yacht and a transmitter, although the "legal contract" of the sale had not yet been completed. This first betrayal proved to the Cuban authorities that their agent was doing his job and knew our secrets. This is also what saved us, for we were shown the same thing. From that moment on, frenzied activity was necessary: the "Granma" was prepared with extraordinary speed, and we stocked as much food as we could get (not very much, of course), as well as uniforms, rifles, equipment, and two anti-tank rifles with almost no ammunition.
Finally, on November 25, 1956, at two in the morning, Fidel's words, which had been derided by the official press, began to take on reality: "In 1956 we shall be free or we shall be martyrs."
With our lights extinguished we left the port of Tuxpan amid an infernal mess of men and all sorts of material. The weather was very bad and navigation was forbidden, but the river's estuary was calm. We traversed the entrance into the Gulf and a little later turned on our lights. We began a frenzied search for the anti-seasickness pills, which we did not find. We sang the Cuban national anthem and the "Hymn of the 26th of July" for perhaps five minutes and then the entire boat took on an aspect both ridiculous and tragic: men with anguished faces holding their stomachs, some with their heads in buckets, others lying in the strangest positions immobile, their clothing soiled with vomit.
Apart from two or three sailors and four or five other people, the rest of the eighty-three crew members were seasick. But by the fourth or fifth day the general situation had improved a little. We discovered that what we had thought was a leak in the boat was actually an open plumbing faucet. We had thrown overboard everything superfluous in order to lighten the load.
The route we had chosen made a wide circuit south of Cuba, windward of Jamaica and the Grand Cayman islands, in order to reach the point of disembarkation somewhere near the town of Niquero, in the province of Oriente. The plan was carried out quite slowly. On the 30th we heard over the radio the news of riots in Santiago de Cuba, which our great Frank País had organized, hoping to coincide with the arrival of our expedition. The following night, December 1, without water, fuel, and food, we were pointing our bow on a straight course toward Cuba, desperately seeking the lighthouse at Cabo Cruz. At two in the morning, on a dark and tempestuous night, the situation was worrisome. The watches moved about, looking for the beam of fight which did not appear on the horizon. Roque, an ex-lieutenant in the navy, once again mounted the small upper bridge looking for the light at Cabo. He lost his footing and fell into the water. A while later, as we set out once again, we did see the light, but the wheezing progress of our yacht made the last hours of the trip interminable. It was already daylight when we landed in Cuba, at a place known as Belic, on the Las Coloradas beach.
A coast guard cutter spotted us and tlegraphed Batista's army. No sooner had we disembarked and entered the swamp, in great haste and carrying only the indispensable, when we were attacked by enemy planes. Since we were walking through mangrove-covered marshes, we were not visible, nor were we hit by the planes, but the army of the dictatorship was now on our trail.
We took several hours to get through the swamp. We were delayed in this by the lack of experience and irresponsibility of a comrade who had claimed he knew the way. We were on solid ground, disoriented and walking in circles, an army of shadows, of phantoms, walking as if moved by some obscure psychic mechanism. We had had seven days of continual hunger and sickness at sea, followed by three days on land which were even more terrible. Exactly ten days after leaving Mexico, at dawn on December 5, after a night's march interrupted by fainting, exhaustion, and rest stops, we reached a place known - what a paradox! - as Alegria [Happiness] de Pio.
Alegria de Pio is in the province of Oriente, in the Niquero zone, near Cabo Cruz. It was there, on December 5, 1956, that we were set upon by Batistals troops.
We were much weakened after a march more arduous than long. On December 2, we had landed in a place called Playa de las Coloradas, losing almost all our equipment and walking for endless hours through saltwater marshes. We all wore new boots which had blistered our feet. But our footwear and the resulting fungal infections were not our only enemies. We had left the Mexican port of Tuxpan on November 26, a day on which the north wind (a norther) made navigation hazardous. We landed in Cuba after seven days of crossing the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. We sailed without food, our boat was in poor repair, and most of us, unused to sea travel, were seasick. All this had left its mark on the troop of rookies who had never known combat.
Nothing remained of our equipment but a few rifles, cartridge belts, and some wet bullets. Our medical supplies had disappeared. Our packs had for the most part been left in the swamps. The previous day we had walked by night along the border of the cane fields of Niquero sugar mill, which in those days belonged to Julio Lobo. We satisfied our hunger and thirst by eating cane as we walked, and, inexperienced as we were, we left the peelings behind. We found out years later that the enemy did not in fact need these careless clues to our presence since our guide, one of the principal traitors in the revolution, brought them to us. The guide had been given the night off, an error we were to repeat several times during the war, until we learned that civilians of unknown background were always to be closely watched when we were in danger zones. We should never have allowed our treacherous guide to leave.
At dawn on the 5th only a few of us could go a step farther; our exhausted men could walk only short distances, and then needed long rests. A halt at the edge of a cane field was ordered. Most of us slept through the morning in a thicket near the dense woods.
At noon we became aware of unusual activity. Piper Cub planes as well as other military and private aircraft began to circle in the vicinity. Some of our men were calmly cutting and eating cane as the planes passed overhead, without thinking how visible they were to the low-flying aircraft.
As the troop's doctor, it was my job to treat the men's blisters. I think I remember my last patient on that day. He was Humberto Lamotte, and as it turned out, it was his last day on earth. I can still see his tired and anxious face as he moved from our primitive clinic toward his post, carrying the shoes he could not wear.
Comrade Montanè and I were leaning against a tree, talking about our respective children; we were eating our meager rations - half a sausage and two crackers - when we heard a shot. In a matter of seconds a hurricane of bullets - or at least this is what it seemed to my anxious mind during that trial by fire - rained on the troop of eighty-two men. My rifle was not of the best - I had deliberately asked for it because a long asthma attack during the crossing had left me in a deplorable state and I did not want to waste a good weapon. I do not know exactly when or how things happened; the memories are already hazy. I do remember that during the cross fire, Almeida - captain in those days - came to ask for orders, but there was no longer anyone there to give them. As I found out later, Fidel tried in vain to regroup his men in the nearby cane field, which could be reached simply by crossing a small clearing. The surprise attack had been too massive, the bullets too abundant. Almeida went back to take charge of his group. At that moment a comrade dropped a cartridge box at my feet. I pointed questioningly to it and the man answered me with a face I remember perfectly, for the anguish it reflected seemed to say, "It's too late for bullets," and he immediately left along the path through the cane field (he was later murdered by Batista's thugs). This was perhaps the first time I was faced with the dilemma of choosing between my dedication to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. At my feet were a pack full of medicines and a hit us both. I felt a terrible blow on the chest and another in the neck, and was sure I was dead. Arbentosa spewing blood from his nose, mouth, and an enormous wound from a .45 bullet, shouted something like, "They've killed me," and began to fire wildly, although no one was visible at that moment. From the ground I said to Faustino "They've got me," (but I used a stronger expression). Still firing, Faustino glanced at me and told me it was nothing, but in his eyes I read a sentence of death from my wound.
I stayed on the ground; following the same obscure impulse as Faustino, I fired once toward the forest. I immediately began to wonder what would be the best way to die, now that all seemed lost. I remembered an old story of Jack London's in which the hero, knowing that he is condemned to freeze to death in the icy reaches of Alaska, leans against a tree and decides to end his life with dignity. This is the only image I remember. Someone, crawling near me, shouted that we'd better surrender, and behind me I heard a voice, which I later learned belonged to Camilo Cienfuegos, shouting back: "Here no one surrenders .... " followed by an oath. Agitated and short of breath, Ponce approached me. He had a wound, apparently through the lung. He told me he was wounded and, indifferently, I showed him that I was also. Ponce continued dragging himself toward the cane field, together with the unwounded men. For a moment I was alone, stretched out waiting for my death.
Almeida came over to me and urged me to move. In spite of my pain, I did so and we entered the field. There I saw our comrade Raúl Suárez near a tree, his thumb shattered by a bullet and Faustino Pérez bandaging it for him. After this everything became confused. The light planes flew low over us, firing a few shots from their machine guns. This only added to the Dantesque and grotesque scenes around us: a stout guerrillero trying to hide behind a single stalk of sugar cane; and another, without really knowing why, crying out for silence in the midst of the tremendous uproar.
A group was formed, led by Almeida, and including Lieutenant Ramiro Valdés (now a major), comrades Chao and Benítez, and myself. With Almeida at the head, we crossed the last row in the cane field in order to reach a small sheltering forest. At that moment we heard the first shouts of "Fire!" from the cane field and columns of smoke and flames rose from it; I am not sure of this, for I was thinking more of the bitterness of our defeat and the imminence of my death than of the specific incidents of the battle. We walked until night prevented us from going any farther, and we decided to sleep huddled together. We were attacked by mosquitoes, tortured by thirst and by hunger. Such was our baptism of fire on December 5, 1956, in the district of Niquero. Such was the beginning of what would become the rebel army.