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 US 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 US 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,1 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).” building,” 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 alongp 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 head 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 Tainos) 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 companeros 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 companeros 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 US 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.
SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His FIDEL film is available on DVD. His new book, A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD, with an introduction by Gore Vidal, will be published by CounterPunch Press.