Where It All Began
by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
"If the Latin-America colonels and their Yankee advisors believe today, as Time magazine wrote a few weeks ago, that Che's disappearance deprives subversion of much of its mystery and romanticism, they are doubtless committing the same error the Romans committed nineteen hundred and thirty years ago when they executed, together with two thieves, a Jewish agitator whose ideas eventually triumphed over the greatest empire in the history of the world."
Michel Bosquet, 'The Last Hours of Che Guevara'
The following article was a featured selection in the Evergreen Review Reader 1967-1972 published by Four Walls Eight Windows Press in 1998. It originally appeared in Evergreen Review #51, February 1968.
The history of the military takeover of March 10, 1952 –the bloodless coup directed by Fulgencio Batista– does not, of course, begin on the very day of the coup. Its antecedents must be sought further back in the history of Cuba: much further back than the intervention of U. S. Ambassador Sumner Welles in 1933; even further back than the Platt Amendment of 1901; further back than the landing of the "hero" Narciso López, sent directly by the North American annexationists. We reach the roots of the matter in the period of John Quincy Adams who, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, announced the posture which his country was to take with regard to Cuba. The island was seen as an apple which, cut from Spain's branches, was fated to fall into Uncle Sam's hands. These are all links in a long chain of continental aggression which has been directed against others as well as Cuba.
This tide, this imperial ebb and flow, is marked by the rise or fall of new governments under the uncontrollable pressure of the masses. The history of all Latin America exhibits these characteristics: dictatorial governments representing a small minority come to power through coups d'etat; democratic governments with a wide popular base arise laboriously and often, even before assuming power, are compromised by a series of pre-arranged concessions which had been necessary to their survival.
The Cuban revolution in this respect was an exception, and it becomes necessary here to present a little background, for the author of these words, tossed by the waves of these social movements convulsing America, had the opportunity to meet, because of all this, another exile: Fidel Castro.
I met him on one of those cold nights in Mexico, and I remember that our first discussion was on international politics. A few hours later that same night - at dawn - I was one of the future expeditionaries. But I should like to clarify how and why I met the present head of the Cuban government in Mexico. It was in 1954, during the ebb of the democratic governments, when the last revolutionary American democracy maintaining itself upright in the area - that of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmàn - succumbed before the cold, premeditated aggression of the U.S.A., hidden behind a smoke screen of continental propaganda. Its apparent leader was the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who by a strange coincidence was also the lawyer for and a stockholder in the United Fruit Company, the major imperialist concern in Guatemala.
I was on my way back from there, defeated, united in my pain to all the Guatemalans, hoping, seeking a way to recreate a future for that bleeding land. And Fidel came to Mexico seeking neutral territory on which to prepare his men for the big push. The assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba had already pared away all those of weak will, who for one reason or another joined political parties or revolutionary groups demanding less sacrifice.
The recruits were joining the brand-new ranks of the 26th of July Movement (named for a date marking the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks). A very hard task was beginning for those in charge of training these people under necessary conditions of secrecy in Mexico. They were fighting against the Mexican government, against American FBI agents, and also against Batista's spies; they were fighting against these three forces which in one way or another joined together, money and personal sellouts playing a large role. In addition, they had to fight against [Dominican Republic dictator] Trujillo's spies, against the poor selection of human material (especially in Miami). And, after overcoming all of these difficulties, we also had to manage the all-important departure, and then arrival, and all that these entailed. At that time, this seemed easy to us. Today we can measure the cost in effort, in sacrifices, and in lives.
Fidel Castro, helped by a small group of intimates, gave himself over entirely, with all his capacity and his extraordinary spirit of work, to the task of organizing the armed expedition to Cuba. He almost never gave lessons in military tactics, for there was little time. The rest of us were able to learn a good bit from General Alberto Bayo. My almost immediate impression, on hearing the first lessons, was of the possibility for victory, which I had seen as very doubtful when I joined the rebel commander. I had been linked to him, from the outset, by a tie of romantic adventurous sympathy, and by the conviction that it would be worth dying on a foreign beach for such a pure ideal.
Thus several months passed. Our marksmanship became more exact, and sharpshooters emerged. We found a ranch in Mexico where, under the direction of General Bayo - I was Chief of Personnel - the final preparations for a March, 1956 departure were made. However at that time two Mexican police forces, both paid by Batista, were hunting Fidel Castro, and one of them had the good fortune - financially speaking - to capture him. But they committed the error - also financially speaking - of not killing him after taking him prisoner.2 Many of Fidel's followers were captured some days later. Our ranch on the outskirts of Mexico City also fell to the police, and we all went to jail.
This postponed the beginning of the last part of the first stage. There were some who spent fifty-seven days in prison, with the threat of extradition hanging constantly over us (Major Calixto García and I can testify to this). But at no time did we lose our personal trust in Fidel Castro. For Fidel did some things which we might almost say compromised his revolutionary attitude for the sake of friendship. I remember making my own case clear. I was a foreigner in Mexico illegally, and with a series of charges against me. I told Fidel that under no circumstances should the revolution be held back for me; that he could leave me behind; that I understood the situation and would try to join their fight from wherever I was sent; that the only effort they should make on my behalf was to have me sent to a nearby country and not to Argentina. I also remember Fidel's brusque reply - "I will not abandon you." And so it was, for they had to use precious time and money to get us out of the Mexican jail. The personal attitude of Fidel toward the people he esteems is the key to the absolute devotion which is created around him; loyalty to the man, together with an attachment to principles make this rebel army an indivisible unit.
The days passed, we worked secretly, hid where we could, avoided public appearances as much as possible, and in fact almost never went out into the street. When a few months had passed, we found there was a traitor in our ranks. We did not know who it was, but he had sold an arms shipment of ours. We also knew that he had sold the yacht and a transmitter, although the "legal contract" of the sale had not yet been completed. This first betrayal proved to the Cuban authorities that their agent was doing his job and knew our secrets. This is also what saved us, for we were shown the same thing. From that moment on, frenzied activity was necessary: the "Granma" was prepared with extraordinary speed, and we stocked as much food as we could get (not very much, of course), as well as uniforms, rifles, equipment, and two anti-tank rifles with almost no ammunition.
Finally, on November 25, 1956, at two in the morning, Fidel's words, which had been derided by the official press, began to take on reality: "In 1956 we shall be free or we shall be martyrs."
With our lights extinguished we left the port of Tuxpan amid an infernal mess of men and all sorts of material. The weather was very bad and navigation was forbidden, but the river's estuary was calm. We traversed the entrance into the Gulf and a little later turned on our lights. We began a frenzied search for the anti-seasickness pills, which we did not find. We sang the Cuban national anthem and the "Hymn of the 26th of July" for perhaps five minutes and then the entire boat took on an aspect both ridiculous and tragic: men with anguished faces holding their stomachs, some with their heads in buckets, others lying in the strangest positions immobile, their clothing soiled with vomit.
Apart from two or three sailors and four or five other people, the rest of the eighty-three crew members were seasick. But by the fourth or fifth day the general situation had improved a little. We discovered that what we had thought was a leak in the boat was actually an open plumbing faucet. We had thrown overboard everything superfluous in order to lighten the load.
The route we had chosen made a wide circuit south of Cuba, windward of Jamaica and the Grand Cayman islands, in order to reach the point of disembarkation somewhere near the town of Niquero, in the province of Oriente. The plan was carried out quite slowly. On the 30th we heard over the radio the news of riots in Santiago de Cuba, which our great Frank País had organized, hoping to coincide with the arrival of our expedition. The following night, December 1, without water, fuel, and food, we were pointing our bow on a straight course toward Cuba, desperately seeking the lighthouse at Cabo Cruz. At two in the morning, on a dark and tempestuous night, the situation was worrisome. The watches moved about, looking for the beam of fight which did not appear on the horizon. Roque, an ex-lieutenant in the navy, once again mounted the small upper bridge looking for the light at Cabo. He lost his footing and fell into the water. A while later, as we set out once again, we did see the light, but the wheezing progress of our yacht made the last hours of the trip interminable. It was already daylight when we landed in Cuba, at a place known as Belic, on the Las Coloradas beach.
A coast guard cutter spotted us and telegraphed Batista's army. No sooner had we disembarked and entered the swamp, in great haste and carrying only the indispensable, when we were attacked by enemy planes. Since we were walking through mangrove-covered marshes, we were not visible, nor were we hit by the planes, but the army of the dictatorship was now on our trail.
We took several hours to get through the swamp. We were delayed in this by the lack of experience and irresponsibility of a comrade who had claimed he knew the way. We were on solid ground, disoriented and walking in circles, an army of shadows, of phantoms, walking as if moved by some obscure psychic mechanism. We had had seven days of continual hunger and sickness at sea, followed by three days on land which were even more terrible. Exactly ten days after leaving Mexico, at dawn on December 5, after a night's march interrupted by fainting, exhaustion, and rest stops, we reached a place known - what a paradox! - as Alegria [Happiness] de Pio.
Alegria de Pio is in the province of Oriente, in the Niquero zone, near Cabo Cruz. It was there, on December 5, 1956, that we were set upon by Batista's troops.
We were much weakened after a march more arduous than long. On December 2, we had landed in a place called Playa de las Coloradas, losing almost all our equipment and walking for endless hours through saltwater marshes. We all wore new boots which had blistered our feet. But our footwear and the resulting fungal infections were not our only enemies. We had left the Mexican port of Tuxpan on November 26, a day on which the north wind (a norther) made navigation hazardous. We landed in Cuba after seven days of crossing the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. We sailed without food, our boat was in poor repair, and most of us, unused to sea travel, were seasick. All this had left its mark on the troop of rookies who had never known combat.
Nothing remained of our equipment but a few rifles, cartridge belts, and some wet bullets. Our medical supplies had disappeared. Our packs had for the most part been left in the swamps. The previous day we had walked by night along the border of the cane fields of Niquero sugar mill, which in those days belonged to Julio Lobo. We satisfied our hunger and thirst by eating cane as we walked, and, inexperienced as we were, we left the peelings behind. We found out years later that the enemy did not in fact need these careless clues to our presence since our guide, one of the principal traitors in the revolution, brought them to us. The guide had been given the night off, an error we were to repeat several times during the war, until we learned that civilians of unknown background were always to be closely watched when we were in danger zones. We should never have allowed our treacherous guide to leave.