Cuba During the Last Part of 1958
By Santiago de Juan
PART II OF A SERIES
Sixteen hours later, I arrived at Guinia de Miranda. It was December 19, 1958.
I rested for three days. Well, not exactly. The kind of life we lived could be compared to a whirlwind. Every event is like a drop of water saved in a container. Then, the container is about to overflow and in order to keep our sanity, we must seek refuge, a place to empty the container. But the mountains offered safety and the container never fully emptied or it did in one or two days. Lying down on a hammock, constantly bitten by mosquitoes and other creatures, was not an ideal way to rest the body. At the time and place, we had no repellants available to fight the always hungry mosquitoes, but we had cilantro and other smelling plants that, if used properly, not only covered the effects of sweating for a few days without a bath, but also repelled the blood suckers.
Then on the evening of December 22, 1958, the full force of revolutionaries came down the mountains. By 10 pm, coming off the dirt road toward Placetas, mortar shells exploded around us. A few minutes later, I was shooting shadows in the streets of Placetas. I had not fired or been fired upon since September 5, 1958, a little over three months before, at Cienfuegos, in what later became known as the Revolt of Cienfuegos was not widely known by many not in the city that day. At the time, Batista had in force martial law and suspended the Constitution, so the media was not allowed to report on any fighting between soldiers and rebels, especially when the soldiers suffered heavy casualties. The first shots were fired early in the morning of September fifth. Batista’s air force bombed the city. The fighting only ended with the coming of night, with dozens killed, maybe hundreds mostly Batista’s soldiers. The memories of that day in Cienfuegos remain with me to this day.
Right in the center of town in Placetas there was a catholic church. We saw some flashes coming from the belfry. Patiently, I aimed my M-1 carbine toward the top and waited. There was a sniper there but he was extra cautious. I saw a few flashes but nothing indicating a specific pattern. I knew that, by the time I saw him fire and reacted by shooting back, I was not quick enough. So, I decided to aim at the bell instead. I was no more than 50 yards, under the cover of darkness and a thick concrete column. I shot a few rounds in the course of the next few hours. Finally, dawn came and the rules changed. We were now all visible. It was about noon when Major Rolando Cubelas of el Directorio caught a bullet in the arm while seated at the office of a gasoline station at the Carretera Central, an easy target to a lousy sniper.
The assault lasted until 4 pm next afternoon, when Batista’s soldiers surrendered. It took another two or three hours to fully take control of the city of Placetas. During this time, a truck equipped with loudspeakers drove all over playing the Himno Invasor, the inflaming military march, while at intervals a thunderous voice announced: “Ciudadanos, Placetas es ya territorio libre de Cuba.)” I did not feel the impact of those words until many hours later, when it was time to catch a couple of hours sleep. Yes, I could sleep in a bed, for the first time in many years and feel safe. But the tension and the mental planning of what lay ahead would not allow me to sleep.
Most of the evening and well into the hours after midnight, planning for the next few days took place in meetings of the high ranking staff. Faure Chomon, General Secretary of the Directorio, Che Guevara, Commander of the 26 of July Movement in Las Villas Province, and a few other officers of both groups as well as a handful of civilians (earlier, Faure had giving me a Star, but I considered myself a civilian) went over what was next. We left at the crack of dawn, I and seven civilians, including two women, for Santa Clara. From there each of us was to fulfill our assignments.
Mine was to arrange in Santa Clara the taking over of the Telephone Company, as an option to blowing it up by others, and keep incommunicado the police, army and any others depending on phones to communicate, as the city was to be attacked in a few days, not later than December 27. Then, proceed to Cienfuegos. It was rumored that the Marina de Guerra - Cuban Navy, was planning to surrender without any confrontation. Then, proceed to Matanzas and this was to fulfill a plan proposed by Che Guevara. While in Matanzas, I was to arrange the killing of Col. Joaquin Casillas Lumpuy, who was Batista’s highest authority in the Matanzas Province. The elimination of Casillas was to be at a public place, preferably close to noon. The name of the executioner was to be leaked to radio stations and newspapers. Within a few days, this name (obviously a nom-de-guerre) would be the most feared person in the province and the perfect “collector of war taxes”.
After arranging the details of the mission in Matanzas with the local underground, I was to go back to Santa Clara and proceed with the taking over of the Telephone Company.
On Christmas Eve 1958, minutes after 6 am, in two vehicles the eight of us left Placetas. Our plans were soon altered. As the vehicles started to cross the Falcon River on its shallow end, a couple of Sherman tanks, a few armored vehicles and jeeps and hundreds of Batista’s soldiers confronted us. We were ordered out of our vehicles and lined up single file, where we stood silent for a few minutes. From near one of the tanks an officer approached us. I immediately noticed his rank of Colonel. He stood in front of each of us. I was fourth or fifth in line. He went all the way to the last person in line, with no hurry, came back again looking at each of us but without stopping, and walked away a few paces before he turned around and with his left hand, pointed at me and signaled to follow him. His M-2 carbine was held by his right hand and aimed at the ground. We walked away from our friends, the soldiers and the vehicles, into a private area. (What happened there is the subject of another story.) All I can say now is that, a little past noon time, at the Grand Hotel of Santa Clara, on the Restaurant, I had a brief conference with this Colonel. Later on I learned that a couple of days later he went into exile, to Miami, where he died not long ago.
I used the rest of the morning to arrange the takeover of the Telephone Company. The Chief Engineer of the phone company was a short man, portly, in his mid-forties. His voice was sort of raspy but friendly. He was not a revolutionary nor sympathized with the regime. He appreciated the choice of disabling the equipment rather than blowing it up. He had been nurturing it for many years and saw no reason to destroy all his work. He knew he would face some risks, but agreed to cooperate with me. We agreed to make contact within a few days. He said he would be ready in one hour’s notice.
I did not arrive in Cienfuegos until late in the afternoon. The name of one of our employees in the radio stations we owned in town was given to me by one of Che’s assistants. He was the main man of the 26 de Julio Movement in Cienfuegos. I was surprised when I heard his name but more surprised was he when he learned of my mission. He had been alerted that Marcos Duran was to pay him a visit, but he could not imagine that I was Marcos Duran. We spent the next few hours making arrangements for the following days. While doing so, news came from Matanzas that one of Che’s subordinates was trying to take over the town of Santo Domingo. Through our radio stations, we had established a communication Code Red that kept us in close contact. That information disturbed me, as it was not in the agenda. Santo Domingo was a town we could take but we could not hold and could not afford to lose face at that stage of the game. So, using our code system, knowing that the action to be taken by Com. Victor Bordon Machado was not authorized by Che Guevara, I tried to stop it. I knew it was a long shot as Bordon would not recognize my authority, but I did it anyway. I learned that same night that Victor got the message in time...but disregarded it. He failed in his attempt to take the town. For this action, he was later on down-graded to Captain by Che Guevara.
Cienfuegos was different from the last time I was there. Police and soldiers were more visible everywhere. It was not a safe place. At the suggestion of Guerrero, 26 de Julio coordinator and my employee, I agreed to spend the night in the only place he considered safe for me. It was dark already when he drove me into one of the poorest neighborhoods in town. Most of the inhabitants were black. Most of the houses were made of wood and in ruin. We reached our destination.
The husband, wife and three children at home occupied the one bedroom. One of children was about sixteen years old, and the other two not older that five. I was invited to sit at a wooden table, where an old checkered red cover was placed. I was asked by the lady if I had eaten. I told her not to worry about that. She knew I had not eaten. About ten minutes later, the husband came back. He brought plates containing white rice and black beans. Then a third plate, different in shape, with lechon azado and yucca, and finally a bowl with fresh lettuce and red radishes. For a moment, I was in awe. The lady read my thoughts and said: “Have you forgotten that tonight is Christmas Eve?”
Indeed, I had forgotten. I felt a lump in my throat. It was at that moment that I remembered that I had a family, a family I had forgotten existed for the last few weeks. But these people whom I just met were my family now. That night the couple let me use their bed despite my insistence to the contrary. The husband assured me that I could sleep without fear, for his son and other friends and neighbors will stand watch to be sure that no strangers enter the neighborhood. I did sleep a good six hours. That was the last Christmas Eve I celebrated in Cuba.
On Christmas morning, I took a bus to Matanzas, less than two hours from Cienfuegos. Due to the roadblocks the trip took over five hours. The roadblocks always increased the risk of being arrested if only your body betrayed your thoughts, especially when the soldiers exceeded their duties when searching women; the prettier the more intense and invasive. Sometimes I thought they did this on purpose to see if any man would object to what was an insult to any civilized male. Maybe the first time I saw that abuse of power my reaction was to intervene, but after a while I blocked my surroundings and concentrated on a more broad mission, the one that just put me right there, at that time and space, that will take us a step closer of the liberation of Cuba from a bloody dictator.
In every city there was a safe house to stay. But I did not trust any of the safe houses, as I felt trapped in them. Many times I caught some sleep in a church, but more important, was to be out of the streets. My choice for safety was a contradiction of what I was doing, safety in a house of ill repute? In those houses there is a code of ethics that is not influenced by politics. A young man looking for a place to rest rather the gratification offered by the ladies, as long as he paid well, there were no questions asked.
My business in Matanzas concluded close to midnight and a local drove me to my “hotel” that night. Next day, back in Santa Clara.
In Santa Clara, I could rest at one of our radio stations without arousing suspicion. From there, I called the telephone company engineer and set our rendezvous for the next night. However, in a revolution, one can plan but those plans get altered due to fast changing circumstances. Part of the master plan for the attack of the city in which I did not participate, was to disable the Electric Company in a way that could not be easily repaired. No electricity; no water. The city of Santa Clara was completely dark and dry.
We decided to go ahead with the plan, which involved now walking, as no one but police and army patrol, including tanks would dare to drive at night. Something that we did not prepare for, as it never crossed our minds, was that shoes had leather soles. Trying to walk at night, in a desolated and quiet city without making noise is almost impossible. Any little pebble, piece of paper or any other material hidden in the dark, once stepped on sounded as loud as the roar of a cannon. At least, that is how it sounded to us, so we walked slowly and carefully. In addition, the worse part was that the telephone company was located within a couple of blocks from the buildings where Batista’s soldiers had holed themselves up to repel the incoming rebel attack. More than once, we had to stop and wait, as voices coming from above warned us of hidden soldiers. We even spotted someone lighting a cigarette.
We finally arrived. The Telephone Company was housed in a building solely occupied by it. The building was at least 200 years old. The entrance door was at least ten feet high and very thick. It would take a tank to force it open. But our option was to knock. We did it as gently as possible, however, it sounded very loud. We waited. We knew that on the roof of the building across the street there were soldiers posted. The first time we knocked, the sound alerted them, but they could not locate exactly where it came from. Knocking again would expose our location and that was not healthy. I could not only hear my heart beating but that of my comrade as well.
Finally, a little peep door opened and a voice, soft but firm, inquired who was there. My companion identified himself and through that little hole a flashlight illuminated his face. The little door closed and we heard the noise of locks as they unlocked. The door opened and in the dim light of lantern and candles coming from inside, we could see a few soldiers aiming their rifles at us. When who seemed to be the boss realized my presence, he lifted his weapon and aimed at me. I was wearing a business suit on purpose unbuttoned, exposing in my waist the upper part of a .32 caliber Beretta. When a flashlight shined at my waist, I heard the typical sound of rifles loading cartridges in the chamber. But I also took the trouble before I left, to pin in each of my jacket shoulder a gold star, which once hit by a beam of light, shined in its entire splendor.
The man at the door asked me what do I want. “In the name of the Revolution, I am taking over this place” was my reply. I said those words with such authority that, after a few hesitating moments, the man replied, while standing at attention: “A la orden, Comandante”. Those words sounded to our ears like music coming from heaven. Immediately, we entered and the door closed. Once inside, I explained to the soldier, who happened to be a man in his sixties and his insignia showed the rank of Lieutenant. I told them that no harm will come to anyone. That I will take their weapons and will place them in a safe house, not half a block away, until everything was over. All of them had civilian clothes at work, for in those times, the less they wore their uniforms the safer they were, so they volunteered to change to civilian clothes. They knew that the war was over for them. I remember clearly the words of that old warrior when he surrendered his rifle: “Son, the Republic gave me this weapon to defend the people and I cannot use it against you”. Each one went through the routine of surrendering their weapons with the utmost dignity.
Before going to change their clothes and while the Engineer was doing his job, the old man spoke again: “What guarantee do my men and I have to prove we honorably surrendered should something happen to you?” I never thought about that, so I told him I would type and sign a Safe Conduct to each one of them. I just needed a typewriter. The last to surrender his weapon guided me to an office, where illuminated by a few candles, a secretary was reading a book. What else was she to do; she couldn’t even go home. She stood up when she saw me. She was just a few years older than me. I asked if she could type something for me. She typed the six documents and when finished, I signed. She then asked me if I could do her a favor. With a movement of my head, I agreed. She picked up the book she was reading, found an almost blank page and asked me to autograph it for her. That really surprised me. First time in my life this happened (and also the last). I was flattered.
Once the Engineer finished his job, we escorted the six soldiers now as civilians and the secretary to the safe house. But I could not leave behind those weapons. Carrying one M-1 carbine and 5 Garand rifles, five .45 revolvers and one .45 Colt pistol, plus all the ammo, a few blocks, in the dark, without making any noise was more difficult than one can imagine. If we added to that the fear factor, the odyssey could be classified as stupid.
But, we did it.
In the next few days, I utilized the radio station building. From there we supported the attack against the Batista Military Police holed up at the Grand Hotel, just across the park, as well as others in different buildings. An army of seven against God knows how many. Again, when you are young and idealistic you are not afraid to die.
As I knew that the taking of Santa Clara, where thousands of Batista soldiers were, plus hundreds of policemen as well as possible re-enforcements from the neighboring cities would not be an easy battle and would take days, I ordered on short notice to stock food and water at the radio station. To my surprise, my order was interpreted as get food and water for a couple of people maybe a couple of days. And the only food available was sardines and crackers. Where so many cans of sardines (in oil) were found, I do not know, but there were a lot. But sardines for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day, were a little too much. Water? Four water closets in the building and their tanks were our supply.
Getting dark on New Years Eve, I ventured into the streets. We needed real food and needed cigarettes. Being shot at while crossing the street was a premeditated risk. I was lucky. I knocked at a door of a house. It was the largest around so I assumed they were a large family, hence, a lot of food. A large man in the mid forties with a strong accent of a Spaniard opened the door. He could not hide the excitement of seeing one live revolutionary. He closed the door fast behind me and bombarded me with questions. He felt safe with me, and guided me toward the family room. I told him I needed food. He took me to the kitchen. There, on a wood stove, his wife was cooking what looked like arroz con pollo. Where did they get the chicken, as without electricity there was no refrigeration. He did not have to answer my thoughts. On a huge bell on top of the stove hung chorizos and other pieces of meat. Smoked chicken for arroz con pollo was new to me. By this time, a young woman about 20 years, plus another one a little younger and three other siblings were in the kitchen. Even their grandmother, definitely from Spain, was there. They looked at me as if I were from Mars. The younger of the women even dared to touch my hand to verify that I was real. A boy about 12 years could not get his eyes away from my weapon.
I explained to them that I had six hungry soldiers who had not eaten in the last few days, at least, real food. I needed food, water and cigarettes. The grandmother was the only one who smoked, so she spared a few packs. I told them that I could stay long enough for the food to be cooked and I offered to pay, which they refused.
The smell of the food was making my stomach growl. The grandmother offered a piece of meat that she pulled from the arroz con pollo pot, but I refused. I would take the food and will eat with my men. However, I could have some of the toasting bread in the oven and butter in the meantime.
Once the arroz con pollo was cooked, plus a few more pieces of meat that were warmed up were ready, we wrapped everything in a few plastic bags. Some rope was used so I could carry the food, water in double plastic bags and my rifle. The young boy offered to help me carry, which I refused by smiling and ruffling his hair. They all followed me to the door. As I was leaving, the younger female touched my hand and smiled.
A few minutes later, we were having a feast.
I was resting at the landing area of the stairwell, when the silence of the night (I noticed that there was hardly any shooting in the last hour) was shattered by the toll of bells coming from a church not too far away. I counted each one of them, until it stopped at twelve. A phrase escaped my thoughts: “It’s New Year”. Right then, I realized the contradictions of war. Since I could remember, New Year was marked by noise: People, bells, firecrackers, and music. This time, it was marked by the silence left after the toll of the bell. Were those bells pealing with hope? Who was pulling the rope for them to announce the New Year? I don’t recall hearing those bells in prior nights.
That silence, like magic, brought me back to reality. I thought about the night before, just about this time, when the Sherman tank brought provisions to those at the Grand Hotel as well as those at the courthouse and the other buildings. One of my men, thinking he could disable the tank by putting a bullet of his rifle through the tank’s peep hole, regardless of my warnings that that was not possible, fired a single shot at the tank to prove me wrong. The tank spotted his position and fired once his .75mm cannon that blew a hole where a wall air-conditioner used to be, followed by a rain of bullets from a .50 caliber machine gun. We were lucky that none of us was hurt and that the tank had no intention to engage against us. And of all other times, during the years, when death got closer than my own shadow - was it all worth it? What about my mother? She has not heard from me in weeks nor I from her or my family. Was she at this time, hundreds of kilometers away, awake? I was sure she was. How could I infringe on her such suffering? That line of thinking started to get to me, so I decided to write a poem, which I did in the dim light of a candle strategically placed inside a tin can that was partially covered to control the light.
I must have fallen asleep when I finished writing my poem. I awoke to the yelling of men and crying of a baby and the running of my men toward the windows facing the Grand Hotel. I jumped and ran to another window. It was still dark, but in the horizon, I could sense that dawn was to come soon.
All the noise came from across the Park, from one of the higher floors. A man was holding an infant by the open window and yelling that they were hostages, while from another window, men were shouting that they wanted to negotiate a surrender. The attack on the city surprised the manager of the hotel and his family as well as a few employees at work, so they felt trapped . Added to their panic, Batista’s members of the feared SIM (Military Intelligent Service) had decided to make the hotel their stronghold.
To the plea coming from the Grand Hotel, other rebels responded. I ordered my men to take positions to back those rebels. I sensed that, since they knew we were there, they expected us to take that action as we were at a high position. We did not have to do anything to let them know. As they approached the hotel, from an adjacent rooftop, we saw flashing and responded by firing at them. At those moments, everything happened in slow motion. We were alert and waited while watching our comrades as they cautiously approached the hotel, inch by inch and watching the rooftops and windows and firing at them.
Now definitely, dawn was coming down on the city of Santa Clara. Our vision used to the darkness could easily spot as the rebels entered the hotel. Now they were easy targets for snipers and the tension was building up. But everything was quiet.
No more shots, at least around us, just in the distance. The sun started to show its first rays when a few dozen rebels escorted at least a dozen men out of the hotel. It was time to relax.
Since we were isolated from the rest of the country by our own doing, we did not know that hours before (probably when I was listening to the bells announcing the New Year) a little over 300km to the west, Batista was leaving the country. Now, the theory that brought us to attack the Cuban Palace on March 13, 1957 to kill Batista, proved true: eliminating the man the system will collapse.
It took another hour for the electric power to be restored. With it, the radio station personnel appeared and again, we hit the air, to announce the coming of the New Year and that the war was over.
My first task was to go to army barracks Cuartel 3l and get transportation. I got my hands on a 1957 Dodge, army green, with siren and lights and government plates. I traded my M-1 for a Tommy gun and a 26 de Julio Lieutenant offered his services as my assistant. He was a couple of years younger but much taller than me. I accepted. We went to pick up our prisoners and get them home. They, like us, had been away from their families, with all the anxiety that uncertainty brings. We packed them all in the vehicle and asked directions to where they lived.
When we drove by the park, where hours before only tanks traveled, it was a bright morning. Thousands of people were celebrating in the streets, on foot. We realized that, as rebels spotted our vehicles, they got ready, so we stopped and confiscated a large flag of the Directorio Revolucionario that was displayed by one of the revelers, and displayed it on the roof the army vehicle. I was driving slowly because of so many people in the streets, for after all, we were right in the center of the city. Then, it happened.
Some just born militiamen, brandishing rifles, machetes and sticks recognized my prisoners and surrounded the car. They started to yell: Lynch the bastards and the crowd started to increase. A crowd of hundreds against the two of us. My eyes made contact with the Lieutenant. I saw a question in the tired eyes of that old man. I ordered my assistant to aim his weapon at the crowd and I did the same. Safety off, my finger on the trigger, I foresaw what was next: A massacre. I looked around and spotted the leaders of the pack. I yelled at them “I have thirty bullets in this weapon as does my partner. We will kill dozens of you and if given time, will reload and kill dozens more, but you will not lynch my prisoners”. That stopped them. Silence. But I knew we were trapped. There was no way out. Minutes, maybe just seconds, but it seemed as an eternity. Then, a Jeep with half a dozen rebels approached. The first to jump out was a captain of the 26 de Julio Movement. I never removed the gold stars from my shoulders so he asked me, like recognizing my rank, what was going on. Briefly, I explained. He ordered his men to aim their weapons at the crowd while telling me: “You go, I can take care of this.”
The last man I delivered was the old man; he wanted it to be that way. As we arrived at his home, he sort of begged us to come in and meet his family. There are no words to describe that reunion. After a few minutes, when every one quieted down, he addressed his granddaughter, a woman about 20 years. “Listen to me” he told her. “You are the older of the youngest generation in this household and to you I want to tell. Whatever happens in the future, never, never forget that today I am here with you alive, because this young man was willing to give his life to save mine. A week ago, we were strangers to each other - if anything, we were enemies - and today, what he did, you must always remember.”
Every word that old man told his granddaughter I believe brought me to a complete confrontation with reality. He was never my enemy. They were not my enemy. I was not their enemy. Batista was the enemy. Batista and just a bunch of his henchmen who abused power and became murderers...and made us likewise murderers. We were all Cubans and we wanted the best for our country, and our families. All we wanted was freedom. And for freedom we fought and many died.
All over the province of Santa Clara similar events occurred. City after city surrendered. We divided the island into two, right at the center, and that itself was the end of the tyranny. Fidel knew that well. But he was more than 400 km to the East, in the Sierra Maestra in Oriente Province. He ordered Che, Camilo, and all high ranking officers to march immediately upon Havana, as who controlled the capital controlled the country. Our group did the same as well as most of the groups operating in Las Villas Province. I stayed behind, along with another Major of the Directorio to keep law and order. I was named by the head of my group as provisional Governor and the other Major in charge of the Military.
In the next few days, with the exception of a few incidents, normality returned to the city. We were busy 20 hours a day. On January 5, 1958, Fidel arrived at Santa Clara on his way to Havana. The speech he gave that night made me rush to my radio station to type my resignation, which I ended by urging our Commander in Chief to confront Fidel, otherwise, sooner than later, we would have to start another revolution. I delivered my resignation a couple of days later, at the Havana University, headquarters of the Directorio Revolucionario, to the “estado mayor”, ending at that moment my duties as a revolutionary.
Within a few weeks, I was using the microphones of our radio stations to denounce Fidel Castro and his betrayal of the revolution...but that is (also) another story.
THIS SERIE CONTINUES
Presidio Político de Cuba Comunista | Costumbres Comunistas | Temática Cubana | Brigada 2506 | La Iglesia | Cuba y el Terrorismo | Cuba - Inteligencia y Espionaje | Cuba y Venezuela | Clandestinidad | United States Politics | Honduras vs. Marxismo | Bibliografía | Puentes Electrónicos |