Fidel in the Fields

In the afternoon, following Fidel’s dramatic hit between the outfielders, the caravan resumed its crawl through mountain villages of the Sierra Maestra in Oriente. The people poured out of their homes and laid their grievances and needs on Fidel. Fidel questioned them: “How is the milk supply?”

“We get about six liters from the best cow.”

Fidel stared at the man and turned to Comandante Guillermo Garcia, the first peasant top join the guerrilla troop during the insurrection (1956-8). “They need F1s (crossbreed between Zebu and Holstein) to have enough milk.”

Another man asked for a pickup truck to make life easier. Fidel nodded.

“And the schools?”

“OK,” said a woman, “but some kids want to leave the village because they can’t go beyond 6th grade here.”

At a nearby village, a black woman stuck her head into the jeep. They’re administering very badly here,” she said. “Not sharing. If we have one boniato (sweet potato) it should be shared by all, not hogged by the administrator and his cronies.”

“What’s this granja (state farm) called?

Patricio Lumumba, she said.

Fidel told Guillermo Garcia to note the name and promised the woman he would check. The caravan sped off through small villages along unpaved roads. Fidel asked for directions in one village and by the time the villagers had informed him a huge crowd had gathered to stare. Several women tried to touch his olive drab army shirt. His body guards glared, but to no avail. They touched and seemed contented. Contact with Obatalá, the creation of God’s chief assistant and messenger.

In Cuban Santeria, according to Dr. Nelson Valdes, “Obatalá rules over the minds of humans as he represents education, learning and enlightenment. He cures and gives illnesses, is regarded by believers as the epitome of purity itself, and is associated with the highest of morals. Obatalá detests money and greed, and his main standard or concern is with justice.” (Fidel Castro, Charisma and Santería: Max Weber Revisited.)

Twenty years later, while filming a sequel, I saw Fidel put his arm around a young machinist at a lens factory near Havana. As Fidel walked away, the man experienced a mild ecstasy, clutching the shoulder Fidel had touched. He made a kind of hallelujah motion. His companions ran over to share the event with him. Following this, Fidel put his arm around my shoulder. I wondered if I too should have a religious experience. I had to postpone the decision because I was too busy filming.

Following a meeting with villagers, we waited in a clearing and a large Soviet helicopter landed. Fidel and the film crew boarded and he pointed to places from the co-pilot’s seat, with Irving behind filming. He then began to talk about the nature of underdevelopment as jeeps picked us up at another spot and headed toward the evening campsite.

“We didn’t realize how difficult it would be when we took power and had to make a revolution in an underdeveloped country,” Fidel recalled as he lit a cohiba and rested his hand on the stock of the AK-47 mounted in a rack in front of him. We passed a countryside that illustrated his comments. Small patches of corn, malanga grew on the small farms in the bucolic July heat. Guajiros (a Cuban peasant) on horses, leading packs of burros laden with bags of coffee or on animal drawn carts, waved at the jeeps without knowing Fidel was in one of them. The mules had bells attached to them that sounded as if the animals were shaking to a Christmas tune in the middle of the Caribbean summer.

“What a difference between this place and Havana! The city had everything, fancy houses, wide boulevards, culture, art and all kinds of services. The countryside had nothing.” He talked about latifundias (large estates) and how the large sugar barons exploited the macheteros (cane cutters).

The caravan stopped at a pineapple orchard. The farmer picked and peeled, with his machete, a few large and very ripe specimens. Fidel bit into it and exclaimed: “Mmm.” He swallowed the juice and spit out the meat. I swallowed everything. It was the sweetest pineapple I ever tasted. And I was starving. I later realized my error.

Fidel held up what must have been a three-pounder for Irving to film. “I’m turning the bruised part away from the camera, so I can make a little propaganda for Cuba’s pineapples.” The farmer smiled, showing missing teeth. Fidel congratulated him on his product and asked him for his secret. The farmer shrugged and said he just paid a lot of attention, weeded the cultivated area and used bat guano for fertilizer.

“Underdevelopment,” Fidel continued as the jeeps pulled away, “is more than an economic or technological problem. It’s also a psychological issue. The people have lived for so long without hope and the resources and education that make optimism possible, that they feel paralyzed by the challenges before them, the tasks required to build a nation.”

“It isn’t just that we lacked the scientists and the technology, which indeed we lacked,” Fidel emphasized. “We had also lost a lot of the skilled and educated population. 3,000 of Cuba’s 6,000 doctors had gone by the end of 1960, 90% of our lawyers and most of the engineers, architects, chemists etc. We had a longer learning process than we anticipated, but I think we’ve come a long way. Obviously, we have a long way to go”

I began to understand the nature of underdevelopment as well as the results of eating fresh pineapple on an empty stomach. I fought to ignore the gas pains and concentrate on Fidel’s wisdom.

“The imperial countries have no interest in the third world overcoming underdevelopment,” he said. “Their interest is to continue exploiting them, only now most of the former colonies have formal independence. That doesn’t make them independent. They have no access to modern technology unless the developed countries deign to share it with them.”

I asked how he thought development could occur.

“In Cuba we are building roads. With roads comes access to schools, hospitals, culture, everything.” I had seen construction crews at various sites. Alongside Soviet heavy machinery, men banged with large hammers.

He asked me how many miles of road had been constructed in the United States, explaining that roads were a key measure of development.

I confessed I had no idea. I thought I saw in his reaction a look of disgust at my ignorance on such a basic subject.

He continued. “Moreover, one must invest resources in the infrastructure that had gone neglected for so long. Not just building railroads from banana plantations to the shipping ports as United Fruit did in Guatemala, or railroads from sugar mills to the sea as they did in Cuba. The point is that the third world cannot afford to develop a society of consumers. Aside from the spiritual shallowness of such a society, we simply can’t afford it.”

Guillermo Garcia nodded as Fidel talked and smoked. The sun began to lose its intensity and the mountains cast shadows on the plains below. Fidel gazed at the horizon. The jeeps stopped at the side of the road. Fidel sucked on a weed and talked about “these veteran mountains,” meaning “they have witnessed all the struggles since the first war for independence.”

“This was our base, our home. We attacked the enemy [Batista’s army] from here and we hit them hard.”

I asked if he always been confident the revolutionaries would win.

“There was one point at which they came close to annihilating us. A spotter plane flew over. One of the campesinos who had been out guide showed them where our campsite was. He betrayed us. They offered him money or some position. In any case, we couldn’t figure out how they could have hit us with such precision. They bombed three times and we just managed to get out by the skin of our teeth. After those episodes I would say we had overcome their best efforts and they could no longer have beaten us.”

We remounted. The Soviet-made jeeps whirred and chugged over the hard packed dirt and rocks. That night Chucho had made camp on a hilltop and Fidel seemed satisfied. We ate mule. I smelled the horsey essence from a foot away and forced a piece into my mouth even as my nose screamed “don’t do it.”

As I fought either real or imagined indigestion, a meeting took place between Chomy (Dr. Jose Millar) and Fidel about the proper amounts of fertilizer and pesticide that would yield ideal crop results. I found it amazing that a lawyer and a doctor directed the science of Cuban agriculture. I also got a clear indication of what Fidel meant when he said the task of the revolution was to overcome underdevelopment. As he spoke about how much fertilizer to put on the ground before the sugar cane plant emerged, I noticed that he had placed his elbows on a pile of large textbooks on soils, fertilizer and animal husbandry.

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 in February by CounterPunch Press.


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.