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And so the war was over.
Our army grew very rapidly towards the end, because in December 1958 we had only – according to my calculations – three thousand men with weapons. And when all the weapons were in use, on January 1, 1959, our army grew in a few weeks to forty thousand men. The war was won in less than two years by three thousand men. We cannot lose sight of the concept of time.
- conclusion to Chapter 8, “In the Sierra Maestra”. All translations in this article are my own.
Part II of Vulpes Libris’ review of Fidel Castro: Biografía a dos voces, by Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet. To see Part I, click here.
On December 2, 1956, a group of 82 rebels – members of the 26th of July Movement – arrived in Cuba aboard a rather decrepit yacht called the Granma. Three days into their trek into the Sierra Maestra mountain range, they suffered a devastating surprise attack by Batista’s forces. At most twenty of these men survived, among them Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevara. Just over two years later, Guevara and Cienfuegos entered Havana unopposed at the head of their respective columns, with Fidel Castro arriving a few days later. Batista had fled and the rebels were met with demonstrations of popular support. The war had been won.
The Sierra Maestra campaign rightly occupies a prominent place in the historical imagination surrounding Cuba. Today I will be considering the story of this campaign as told by arguably its most prominent soldier, Fidel Castro, in his interviews with Ignacio Ramonet.
It goes without saying that a first-hand account by Fidel Castro – recorded decades after the events under consideration – can only be unreliable. Indeed, any first-hand account is bound to be; this is historical common sense, especially when it comes to a witness so utterly invested in those events and their outcome. However, unreliable does not mean worthless; far from it, in this case. The opportunity to engage directly with Castro is an invaluable one, providing we bear in mind that his story is precisely that: a story, and one no doubt told and retold and refined in the course of many years (as the best stories tend to be).
Let’s begin by returning to the attack on the Granma soldiers described above. Castro recounts that as the survivors scattered, he ended up isolated with two other men, Faustino Pérez and Universo Sánchez, in a nearby sugar cane plantation.
Total dispersion… Every man or small group of men lived his own personal Odyssey. Hidden among the sugarcanes, the three of us waited for the already imminent nightfall and headed for the great forest. There we slept as best we could. Total forces: three men; total weapons: my rifle with 90 bullets and Universo’s with 30. That was what remained under my command.
The attack was both fast and violent. Castro states that Batista’s men could not have known with whom they were dealing and that this was essentially a knee-jerk response to the presence of partisans. At any rate, the situation of the survivors was extremely perilous.
Then I lived one of the most dramatic moments of my life. I began to feel sleepy, very sleepy there in the plantation, a very short distance from the place they had been machine-gunning. I said: “They are certainly going to come and explore on the ground. They will come to see the results of their disproportionate attack.”
Hiding under a layer of straw and cane leaves, the three men waited and waited as an airplane patrolled overhead.
I remember when I could barely stay awake. My rifle had two triggers: one rendered the mechanism more sensitive and, after that, you only had to touch the other to obtain a precise shot. My rifle had a telescopic sight of 10x magnification.
When I realised I would inevitably fall asleep, I lay on my side. I placed the butt of the rifle between my legs and the point of the barrel under my chin. I didn’t want to be taken alive if the enemy expedition surprised me while sleeping. It would have been better to have a pistol in this case: you can easily take it out and shoot at the enemy or at yourself; but with a rifle of this description you can’t do anything. We were under the straw, the airplane was above us. Unable to move, I slept deeply. My exhaustion was such that I slept something like three hours…
For all my familiarity with the events in question, I was nonetheless seized by this episode from Fidel’s story. For one, the idea of a military commander who can count his strength in men and rifles is a striking one for a reader familiar with partisan warfare only in theory; as is the immediate loss of at least 3/4 of that force upon embarking in Cuba. For another, the old trope of being prepared to die rather than be captured alive becomes vivid and immediate when described in such matter-of-fact language. All these things are facts of partisan warfare; and Fidel’s account supplies us with plentiful examples of such facts. As the rebels gather in strength and numbers, suffering defeats here and gaining victories there, we read about the necessity of taking prisoners in order to ensure that the enemy would not attack the base where the rebel wounded were kept. We are given an insight into the difficulty of soliciting help from the campesinos when they are in severe danger of violent repercussions for aiding rebels;we read of Castro and his soldiers fleeing enemy fire while hauling Che Guevara, convulsed with asthma and with no inhaler, up a steep hill in the pouring tropical rain.
As the narrative progresses and the 26th of July Movement grows in strength, the reader is drawn in to a truly foreign time and place; and introduced to a set of ideas and priorities that many of us are unlikely to have to countenance. The story carries even more impact for being rendered in Castro’s clear and elegant Spanish, with an easy informality that to my eye reflects Ramonet’s skill as an interviewer. This is one passage of this long and varied book in which Fidel responds to Ramonet’s questions in all directness and simplicity:
At that moment you had no doubt that Che Guevara was an exceptional leader?
He was exemplary. He had strong morals and influence over his troops. I believe he was a model of revolutionary man.
They say that perhaps he had too much of a risk-taker’s personality.
He was very daring…. And sometimes, he could have avoided some fight, but he did not avoid it. That was another difference with Camilo [Cienfuegos]. Che was brave, but he also took too many risks: that’s why I sometimes told him: “You are responsible for these troops with you.”
Incidentally, this version of Che is not one that generally emerges in sympathetic accounts of the Revolution (at least in my experience). Like much of Castro’s account, the degree of veracity here is undetermined and, I think, impossible to determine now. But as stories about Che go, it’s an interesting one; not least because it is a striking example of how Castro constructs his own history, and the history of his famous and disputed relationship with Che.
In conclusion, why should we – discriminating, critical readers – read Castro’s story? Why should we spend our time on a narrative that can only be, at best, unreliable? There are many answers to this, but two spring immediately to mind. Firstly, because it is so interesting to see how a person such as Castro constructs his own narrative of events that are to some extent familiar to all of us. Speaking decades later, from a position of power and yet under constant scrutiny, speaking to one man but with a global audience in mind… this extraordinary story is told in extraordinary circumstances, and it can only benefit us to read it and question it.
Secondly, because Fidel Castro’s story of the Sierra Maestra campaign is just that: a story. A well-told story with a great cast of characters and a dramatic setting, but a story nonetheless and one among many told about these same events. We cannot now establish precisely what happened in those mountains among that small band of men and women, their enemies, their prisoners and their allies. But Fidel’s story gives us another piece of the puzzle. We may be limited by time, place, distance and our own subjectivity; but, by engaging with this multitude of stories, we can at least begin to imagine a situation that is ultimately beyond our grasp.
Fidel Castro: Biografía a dos voces, Debate, ISBN: 978-0307376534
Published in English as Fidel Castro: My Life (trans. Andrew Hurley), Penguin, 978-0141026268
(I couldn’t find a reference for this striking photo of Fidel, Raul and Camilo in the Sierra Maestra. If you know who the author is – or, unlikely I know, ARE the author – please get in touch.)