In December 2019, Cuba bid farewell to two veterans of the struggle which overthrew the Batista dictatorship in January 1959. Both men remained committed revolutionaries and important figures in Cuba for the next 61 years. Faure Chomón Mediavilla died on 5 December, a few weeks before his 91st birthday. Harry Villegas Tamayo died on 29 December, at the age of 79. Both received state tributes and were laid to rest in the Pantheon of Veterans of the famous Colon Cemetery in Havana.
Living in Havana between 2004 and 2006, I had the privilege of interviewing both Chomón and Villegas during my research on Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Both men had fought under Guevara’s command in the armed struggle and, in Villegas’ case, on internationalist missions in the Congo and Bolivia. These military campaigns, for which they were best known, were not the subject of our discussions however. Instead, I was interested in their collaboration with Guevara in the economic sphere between 1959 and 1965, and their insights into the development of his economic theory and practice as Minister of Industries. My subsequent book Che Guevara: the Economics of Revolution was enriched by their fascinating accounts of the period of socialist transition in 1960s Cuba. These anecdotes highlight the breadth of their responsibilities. They also underscore the point that revolutionary transformation is a complex, challenging process in which countless individuals contribute in diverse and multiple ways.
Faure Chomón Mediavilla was born on 15 January 1929 in Manatí, a town 45km from the city Las Tunas, in western Cuba. At the time of Batista’s coup in March 1952, he was studying at the University of Havana and was a member of the Federation of University Students (FEU). In 1954, he co-founded the Directorio Revolutionario (DR) with FEU President, José Antonio Echeverría; signifying the student movement’s shift to armed struggle. With Chomón as the chief of military operations, DR members began organising an underground network to prepare for urban guerrilla warfare. On 13 March 1957, 50 members of the DR carried out an audacious and perilous armed attack on the Presidential Palace. Echeverría was killed, so leadership of the DR passed to Chomón who was one of the few students who escaped alive, but severely injured, and went into exile.
Returning to Cuba with DR activists in a yacht from Florida in February 1958, Chomón set up a guerrilla command in the Escambray Mountains in central Cuba. He welcomed Guevara ‘with open arms’, he told me, when the Argentinian arrived with his Rebel Army column in the same region in October 1958; subsequently they coordinated military actions. They had previously met in Mexico in 1956. Chomón’s troops took the city of Trinidad in central Cuba during the push towards Havana, and he also received the rank of Comandante.
Following victory, the DR, under Chomón’s leadership, gradually merged with the Movement for 26th July (M26J), led by Fidel Castro, and with the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). This was formalised with the establishment of the Integrated Revolutionary Organisations (ORI) in July 1961, which became the United Party of the Socialist Revolution (PURS) in 1962 and finally the Cuban Communist Party in 1965. Chomón held positions in the national leadership throughout.
Between 1960 and 1962, Chomón was Cuba’s ambassador to Moscow. When Guevara visited Moscow during those years they participated together in discussions with state and Party leaders there. On return to Cuba, Chomón served as Minister of Communications, switching to Minister of Transport in late 1963. They served together on the Council of Ministers at the time when Guevara initiated the ‘Great Debate’ about which system of economic management to develop in Cuba.
In 1967 after Guevara’s had left the island, the then-President of Cuba, Osvaldo Dorticós instructed all ministers to implement the ‘Registry System’ which he claimed was consistent with Guevara’s Budgetary Finance System of economic management. In fact, the Registry System abandoned key tenets of Guevara’s approach, including economic analysis and cost controls. Having been Minister of Transport at that time, Chomón gave me an insight into the system’s implementation: ‘Everyone made their own interpretation of how to apply the basic elements of the System. Many interpreted it incorrectly deciding that they could produce without concern for costs… At that time, we did not fully understand Che’s ideas and the compañeros who proposed the System did not prepare specialists in the productive and services sectors of the country. It was pure idealism in which, logically, Che’s absence was felt.’
Also in the 1960s, as a member of the government’s Trade Union Commission, Chomón had the delicate political task of debating fundamental economic and political issues with the trade union leadership, seeking to win them over to a new conception of the role of trade unions in a socialist state. Chomón explained the challenge:
‘There was a negative tendency in trade unions led by old union leaders who, at the triumph of the Revolution, used the fact that this was a Revolution of the workers to obtain in a disorganised and, it could even be said, ruthless way, big salaries that did not correspond with the country’s economy. These economistic tendencies infiltrated the workers’ ranks so the Revolution was seen only in terms of how much they earn and how much more they want to earn, without analysing how the Revolution should be made and how much it costs; ruining consciousness by taking a syndicalist position as if the state were just a foolish big boss from whom they had to get the most out that they could.’
Effectively, Chomón’s task meant reorganising the union leadership, pushing for the election of new cadre. These measures, he said, ‘defeated this [economistic] line which affected productivity, encouraged indiscipline and crude customs in the workers’ relationships’, insisting that, ‘the Revolution never imposed a change that was not discussed in the Production Assemblies by the mass of workers.’
In 1967 Chomón became a member of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the new Cuban Communist Party and sat on its Economic Commission. Since its foundation in 1976, he was a delegate to the National Assembly of People’s Power. He also served as Cuba’s Ambassador to Ecuador and to Vietnam; first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in his home province of Las Tunas; advisor to the National Assembly of Peoples Power, and other roles. He had a long, momentous life and made a tangible contribution to the Cuban Revolution as an event and a process.
Harry Villegas Tamayo was born in 1940 to a poor peasant family in Yara, on the foothills of the Sierra Maestra between Bayamo and Manzanillo. His brother was a local leader in the Orthodox Party, which had been founded in 1947 by Eduardo Chibás and in which Fidel Castro was a leading youth leader. In 1954, the 14-year old Harry Villegas joined the insurrection against Batista’s dictatorship. The following year he joined an underground cell of the M26J, set up by Fidel Castro to foment armed opposition to Batista following the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks in 1953. In early 1958, Villegas he set off with a group of friends into the mountains to enrol in the Rebel Army. He joined Guevara’s column, become a squad leader and one of Guevara’s four young bodyguards and confidants.
Villegas remained the head of Guevara’s bodyguards following the seizure of power and lived with him throughout his years in Cuba. Guevara had a reputation for being most demanding of his closest compañeros, including his bodyguards. He gave them a teacher so they could study while he was busy in his office. Returning from a trip to the non-aligned countries in September 1959, Guevara checked the class register and seeing that Villegas and Juan Alberto Castellanos had skipped classes he punished them with one month’s labour on a farm outside Havana. Guevara expected them to accept the discipline of superación (self-improvement) just as they had accepted the discipline of the guerrilla struggle.
During the nationalisations of 1960, Villegas was named as the intervening administrator at a Cuban-Mexican mixed enterprise which sold insulators and tiles and had been taken into the jurisdiction of the Department of Industrialisation headed by Guevara. The inexperienced Villegas took risks: ‘I had read in a student’s thesis about the possibility of making homogenous glazed earthenware’ he explained, ‘so I tried to make it with Coca-Cola bottles. I invested the whole budget to test the idea. Che told me that if it didn’t work, I would have committed a technical misappropriation and would receive a strong penalty for deviating from the budget. I spent nights watching that little oven rotating full of Coca-Cola bottles to see if they would arrive at the temperature necessary to obtain this glassed earthenware. Finally, I was saved! I ran to our house and waited for the morning to give him the good news.’
In 1962 Villegas attended the School for Administrators set up by Guevara for the Ministry of Industries. The intensive curriculum included mathematics, political economy, philosophy, accounting and statistics, work norms and organisation, Spanish, physics, chemistry, and some history. Villegas explained: ‘To graduate you had to present a thesis about a factory; describe all its aspects from human relations to flows of production, costs, and perspectives plans. I did my thesis about beer production’, he said.
After graduating, Villegas returned to the army as head of Personnel and Cadre in the west of the island and joined the commission for the construction of the new Cuban Communist Party. In 1965, he was one of a small group of Cubans called on to fight with Guevara in the Congo, taking the nom de guerre ‘Pombo’ by which he has since been known. In 1966 he went to Bolivia to form part of Guevara’s foco force there. Guevara gave him a list of 300 books to buy in Argentina and Brazil on the way to Bolivia because, Villegas told me, ‘he wanted to write about philosophy’ whilst in the mountains.
Villegas was one of the just five guerrillas – three Cubans and two Bolivians – to escape alive in October 1967 when the rest, including Guevara, were killed in October 1967. His difficult journey back to Cuba has been recorded in the book Pan Comido by Efraín Quicáñez Aguilar. On return to Cuba, Villegas continued in Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, serving as a military advisor in Nicaragua and in Angola where Cuban forces fought back the invading army of apartheid South African between 1975 and 1991. He was awarded the rank of Brigadier General and received the distinguished title of ‘Hero of the Revolution’. Villegas was a leading Cuban internationalist, who risked his life for the liberation of people many miles from Cuban shores.
I was fortunate, indeed, to meet these revolutionaries who, to use Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s expression, ‘lived to tell the tale’, and to inspire the following generations whose world they had helped shape.
1) Faure Chomón Mediaville, interview in Havana 16 February 2005 and Harry Villegas Tamayo, interview in Havana 22 March 2006. ↑
2) Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
3) For more on the Great Debate see Helen Yaffe, ‘Che Guevara and the Great Debate, Past and Present’, Science & Society, 76: 1, January 2012 or chapter 3, Economics of Revolution. ↑