Top Menu

Dear Reader, we make this and other articles available for free online to serve those unable to afford or access the print edition of Monthly Review. If you read the magazine online and can afford a print subscription, we hope you will consider purchasing one. Please visit the MR store for subscription options. Thank you very much. —Eds.

Filming Fidel: A Cuban Diary, 1968

Saul Landau is author of many books and producer of many documentary films. His most recent book is A Bush and Botox World (AK Press, 2007). His new documentary film is We Don’t Play Golf Here—And Other Stories of Globalization in Mexico. To get a copy e-mail roundworldproductions [at]

By late May 2007, Fidel Castro appeared to have recuperated from a difficult operation followed by a life-threatening infection. Instead of returning to public view in his ubiquitous uniform, he has transformed himself—at least temporarily—into a columnist for Granma, Cuba’s daily newspaper. In his columns he addresses the dangers and irrationality of converting corn into ethanol, using food that could feed the world’s starving and hungry and transforming it into gasoline for the wealthy while further contributing to global warming; Bush’s dangerous and inhumane war policies; the idiocy of England’s new nuclear submarine, and the insanity of designing new Cold War weapons—all in the age of impending catastrophic climate change.

The essayist Fidel exudes the same sense of astute practicality—a devastatingly cold grip on reality—combined with a seemingly inexhaustible optimism about the future, including the potential for creating one day the perfect human species, physically and morally. As I remember him in 1968, this political giant of our times had merged his Jesuitical education with texts from José Martí and the Cuban revolutionaries of the 1860s (don’t forget Bolívar) and then Marx and Lenin, along with studies of agronomy and animal husbandry. This voracious reader and cosmopolitan intellect has also been the Machiavellian politician of the third world—getting the United States to import Cuba’s enemies—and has emerged as the sole survivor of nearly fifty years of U.S. imperial wrath. The politician who has plotted the course of the Cuban revolution, from taking power to holding it, also has an opposite side. Don Quijote also lives inside Fidel Castro. This is reflected in Cuba’s programs, bringing medical students from around the world to Cuba to become doctors at no cost and sending doctors to wherever Nature strikes the poor—Fidel offered them to the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, but Bush naturally refused.

As I read his essays, in Granma, I think back almost forty years to the amazing jeep ride through the undeveloped mountain villages of eastern Cuba, during the filming of Fidel (1968), produced for public television.

Saul Landau

In May 1968, I received a call in San Francisco where I worked for the local public television station. From Havana, Dr. Rene Vallejo, Fidel Castro’s doctor and confidante, said: “Come down with your crew as soon as you can.” In other words, Castro was ready to cooperate on a film portrait for public television. We arrived shortly thereafter and waited for seven weeks. What follows is a diary and commentary about the jeep trip with Fidel through Oriente Province in July 1968.

On July 5, 1968, at 3 a.m., the phone rang. “Be in the lobby at 6 a.m. Bring the whole crew and all your film equipment.”

Three hours after receiving the curt message from Dr. Vallejo, two uniformed men walked briskly into the Hotel Habana Libre (formerly the Hilton) and helped me and the crew load cameras, lights, tripods, and a hundred rolls of film and audio tape stock into two 1958 Mercedes-Benzes. None of us (myself, cameraman Irving Saraf, soundman Stanley Kronquest, and my assistant and wife Nina Serrano) had any idea where we were going as the cars drove west through morning dew and pulled into a military airport in San Antonio de los Baños, about thirty miles west of Havana. From there we flew for twenty minutes on the Soviet jet to Varadero.

Fidel strode toward the jet. We shook hands and he apologized for keeping us waiting—only seven weeks—explaining it had taken him longer than he calculated to finish writing the introduction to Che’s diary (the Bolivian notes Dr. Ernesto Guevara had kept while he commanded the 1966–67 guerrilla expedition. Bolivian Rangers trained by U.S. Special Forces—with CIA officials nearby—captured and then murdered Che in October 1967).

His face showed lines of stress as he talked. “He was betrayed,” Fidel explained, with a bitter tone in his voice. “The strategy was not to blame. The Bolivian [Communist] Party promised they would provide the expedition with supplies, information, food, and weapons and also open an urban front, so that the foco guerrillero [mobile force of armed revolutionaries] could function properly. [Mario] Monge [the head of the Bolivian Communist Party] agreed on this and then reneged without telling us.”

As the plane flew over Matanzas, heading east, Fidel began to describe how the people in Moscow had undermined the revolutionary agenda in Latin America, a theme he had stressed in his January 13, 1968, speech commemorating the closing of the Cultural Congress held in Havana. He had more than implied his disdain for the Soviet leaders when he referred to official Marxism as suffering from “pathological stiffening.” He went further. “When we see sectors of the clergy becoming revolutionary forces [the Liberation Theology movement], how shall we resign ourselves to seeing sectors of Marxism [the Soviet Politburo] becoming ecclesiastic forces?”

He followed that startling criticism with a pointed joke. “We hope, naturally, that our saying these things will not bring about our excommunication, [laughter] nor, of course, bring the holy inquisition down upon us.”

After his speech, the Soviets had not withheld oil, but relations clearly remained cool. Fidel’s facial expressions as he spoke of Che’s courage showed pain. Then, he changed the subject.

“So, what are the rules for filming?”

I said we would film unless specifically told not to. He agreed. I gave him a Country Joe and the Fish album, explaining that this combined rock and social consciousness. He thanked me, albeit I thought I caught an expression of skepticism. He asked for our thoughts about the anti-war movement, civil rights movements, and black power. We gave him a brief explanation of how Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had split and how black power had arisen as a result of the experience of black organizers in the South.

He compared racial discrimination in pre-revolutionary Cuba to that of the United States. “There existed a clear level of discrimination in Cuba, but not with the degrees of hatred in your country.” Castro related how the revolution had issued laws to end discrimination. He concluded that “in the United States imperialism and racial discrimination are tied together. You will have to liberate not only the black people but the white people as well.”

The plane landed in Holguin, in northern Oriente Province some forty minutes after we took off. We unloaded our equipment. The crew piled into one jeep. With a small 16 mm Ariflex camera I got into the jeep with Fidel. We sped off to the El Mate Dam, which Fidel would inaugurate. We saw signs of towns that became famous thirty-five years later—Alto Cedro, Mayari, and Marcane—thanks to the Buena Vista Social Club album.

We drove through the countryside. Newly cut cane fields, with large sugar mills, were nearby. Rural Cuba moved slowly, but Fidel’s jeep caravan sped past small farms with tall corn and a few pigs and state farms with malanga and yucca growing. We passed campesinos (peasants) on horseback and sitting on rickety wagons.

The July heat baked the jeeps, but Fidel did not perspire. He talked about the importance of development above all things. He knew how many dams Cuba had, the output of its various energy systems, and also the figures he thought necessary to transform the island into a modern country.

The jeeps pulled up alongside the Contramaestre River, where a newly built dam stood. Fidel jumped out and greeted a waiting committee. We set up the tripod and gazed at thousands of people waiting to hear their “maximo lider” speak.

After a few warmup speakers finished explaining that the new dam would serve the entire region, Fidel, after much applause and a brief greeting to the crowd, continued with the thoughts he had begun expressing in the jeep. “A country that had lived with technical backwardness under economic exploitation did not even have the chance to try to train a minimum number of trained technicians to perform these tasks, without which there would be no way to emerge from poverty, misery, and absolute dependence on uncontrollable forces of nature.”

In the crowd, peasants and young workers listened avidly. In the absence of newspapers, Fidel had become in Lee Lockwood’s words, “Cuba’s living newspaper.” He gave information and explained. “We are not inaugurating this dam with the idea that we have done a great thing. This is an important dam because it is one of the first, because it became a school, because it gave us experience, because it was built with the enthusiasm, goodwill, courage, and the tenacity of our workers. We are inaugurating a dam that is simply the beginning of the enormous water resources undertaking that must be carried out throughout the country.”

Dr. Vallejo, who I had met in 1960 on my first visit to Cuba, whispered in my ear, “I hope this trip will be a continuation of your education.” He was referring to a conversation six years earlier when he directed the Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA), the most powerful force for change at the time, and he picked me up hitchhiking on a road near Santiago de Cuba. I told him I had left graduate school to see the revolution. He asked what I thought revolution was and I gave him an academic answer about changing economic and social systems. He laughed and patted me on the back. “It’s also a very profound change in how people view the world,” he said. “You will see.”

Castro continued. “No manual and no words describe what a revolutionary installation is. Perhaps many thought that on the day after winning the fight with weapons, we would become heirs of abundance, take full possession of the wealth, when the only certainty was that one day after the victory with firearms, we would begin the time of constructing the country, the time for building the wealth of the future.”

Vallejo acted as a kind of guide and interpreter of Fidel’s speech. “He is a teacher, you understand, for people who never went to school but must learn based on instinct and experience.”

Fidel’s tone rose in pitch as he enunciated his vision for the future. “Many good things may have been done by the revolution to liberate the people from the exploitation of their work as it was in the past, to liberate the peasants from exploitation by landowners, to liberate the workers from exploitation by the rich. Perhaps nothing can compare with what a revolution signifies when it liberates man from dehumanized, unproductive work, when it liberates man from working conditions that are barely different from those performed by animals and allows him to work under conditions incomparably more human. When there is no man in this country who has to cut cane, when there is no man who has to plow behind a yoke of oxen, when there is no man who has to use a hoe to cut weeds…when man…does not have to perform that work, then the revolution will have performed one of its most human accomplishments and will have moved from working conditions fit for beasts to working conditions that are truly human.”

After the speech, we toured the dam. I checked the tape Stanley had recorded.

“We have had to win a battle against time. We have had to overcome the backwardness of centuries in just a few years. How many stories have we heard about families who died in the past because they had no way to move in time, that is, members of the family died because they had no means to get to a hospital in time! Today, hospitals are scattered throughout the mountains. Nevertheless, roads are needed, and not a single place in the country will remain isolated. No one will be isolated, particularly when there are so many people who are happy because this dam has been finished.”

Fidel asked the engineers questions about the height of the installations. Then we sped off in the direction of the place where we would make camp for the night. In the late afternoon of July 5, 1968, Fidel’s jeep headed the caravan of five Soviet-made vehicles. We drove south along back roads toward the Sierra Maestra. The paved roads gave way to dirt trails and I began to get some exercise while sitting: my kidneys not only experienced unusual up, down, and sideways patterns, but as the jeep bounced I got jabbed by the holstered pistol of Commandant Faustino Perez, who sat next to me, or by the ammunition clip of Commandant Leyte, my other neighbor in the back seat. Perez, a doctor and Minister of Health, had joined Castro’s rebels in 1955, in Mexico.

Faustino became a leader of the July 26th Movement, named after the day in 1953 when Castro and 158 comrades attacked Fort Moncada to start the insurrection. He met with Fidel in Mexico, helping to prepare the guerrillas for their December 1956 invasion of Cuba on the yacht Granma. After Batista’s forces ambushed the arriving expedition, Faustino stayed with Fidel for two weeks before they met up with Raul and other warriors at Cinco Palmas. Faustino became a captain and a member of Fidel’s high command. Fidel then sent him to Havana to lead the urban underground in carrying out acts of sabotage against the Batista dictatorship and to support the guerrillas in the Sierra.

After organizing the failed general strike of April 1958, Faustino rejoined the guerrillas. After the victory he headed the Ministry of Recovery of Ill Gotten Gains. In 1961, he fought at the Bay of Pigs and subsequently in the fight to combat the “Counterrevolutionary Bandits” in the Escambray Mountains of central Cuba. He also was Cuba’s first Minister of Hydraulic Resources and a Member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He served in a variety of leadership positions before he died in 1992 at age seventy-two.

Commandant Guillermo Garcia drove. This twenty-eight-year-old man was the first campesino to join Fidel’s guerrillas during the insurrection (1956–58) in the Sierra. He became their guide and quickly rose to become second in command to Juan Almeida in the Third Front (Guantánamo) in Oriente. He became a Party Central Committee Member and Vice President of the State Council. He also served as Minister of Transportation.

Fidel rode shotgun. He smoked Cohibas, one after another, and resumed his commentary on the Soviet perfidy in Bolivia. I tried to allow the lush scenery and the bucolic atmosphere to etch itself into my mind along with the harsh words Fidel spoke about the “cowards in the Kremlin.”

The land of Central Oriente Province was filled with flourishing mango trees, spindly papayas, broad yucca leaves, and deep green corn stalks, amid acres of recently cut sugarcane. I asked Fidel to elaborate on his remark made on January 13 in his speech closing the Cultural Congress, where he alluded to ecclesiastical thinking in Marxist circles.

“What kind of revolutionaries refuse to support revolution?” he asked rhetorically. Irving and Stanley rode behind us in another jeep, damn it! We were missing Fidel on revolution and the Soviet Union. So, I tried to tape record in my mind. “We do not think for a minute that the Bolivian Party betrayed Che and the other compañeros [comrades] on their own volition. We know who dictates to Monge. They will say that ‘now is not the moment for revolution.’ Or they will justify their treachery on the grounds of not wanting to ‘upset the delicate strategic balance with the imperialists.’ So, why call themselves Marxists? Some of the religious people who have associated themselves with Liberation Theology have taken courageous positions. I don’t mean only Camilo Torres” [the Colombian priest who joined the guerrillas and died in action].

The cigar smoke filled the jeep as we pulled into a rustic area where tents had been erected—presumably this was the place we would spend the night. The neighbors, an elderly couple, their children, and grandchildren, leaned against the fence, staring at the entourage of Cuban leaders. An ancient woman said: “Now, I can say I have seen him in the flesh.” She let out a long sigh.

“Papito,” getting out of his jeep, laughed sympathetically. Jorge “Papito” Serguera ran Cuban radio and television, and in 1963 he was Cuba’s ambassador to revolutionary Algeria and the major contact for Che Guevara’s Congo mission in 1964. He was a lawyer and had just received his doctorate in philosophy when he joined the guerrillas. As director of television and radio, Papito established a “hard-line” reputation, in contrast with his gregarious personality and lifestyle. In 1965–66, debates emerged among Cuban leaders about proper behavior and what music to broadcast. In these years, a campaign put idlers and homosexuals in work camps (UMAP). Silvio Rodríguez (Cuba’s Bob Dylan) could not be broadcast. Papito was said to have even favored banning the Beatles. I had a few elliptical conversations with him before meeting with Fidel and he gave me a friendly smile as we approached the waiting neighbors.

“They’re islanders,” Vallejo explained to Fidel.

“Naturally, they’re islanders,” he replied. “They live in Cuba, an island.”

“No,” Vallejo laughed. “They’re from the Canary Islands.”

“So that makes them double islanders,” quipped Fidel as he extended his hand to an ancient woman leaning across the fence. He joked with the “islanders” for a few minutes, congratulating the older woman on being a great grandmother. “My mother didn’t even want to become a grandmother,” he laughed. We filmed in the low light, but had to quit when Fidel accepted the family’s invitation to have coffee.

About thirty people piled into a dark bohio (the straw-roofed, dirt floor hut, that Cuban peasants have lived in for centuries) lit only by a kerosene lantern. Remarkably, the peasant women remained composed, at least outwardly, as they served the unexpected guests. The women must have run to their neighbors to borrow demitasse cups, from which we drank the strong, sweet, and aromatic brew.

Bodyguards showed us to our tent, with primitive cots and sheets to cover us. For dinner, Fidel had promised mule meat. But, luckily, Pedro, the cook, had prepared a more traditional roast, tough but tasty. In the center of each of the three tables under the mess tent sat large bowls of beans and rice. The table setters had placed bottles of water beside each place.

Fidel spoke about the importance of hydraulic resources and the genetics of cattle breeding, a theme he would elaborate on over the next couple of days. His knowledge of both subjects impressed me. He said he had begun immersing himself in books about animal husbandry and genetics so that Cuban cattle could produce efficiently, both for meat and milk.

He talked about the need for proper nourishment as part of a development strategy. “Milk,” he explained, “is an excellent source of protein and contains other important nutriments. We must not only expand dairy production, but think about exporting dairy products. We also must produce huge quantities of meat, which will require an accelerated growth of good cattle breeding.” He pointed out how the Cuban Brahmans and Zebu cows (from Africa) produced smaller amounts of poorer quality milk and meat compared to Holsteins, whose milk production ran up to nine times more than the local cattle. By 1970, he said, “We’ll need to produce some four million liters a day.” And by 1972, twelve million. “We can do this by not eating the females.”

We finished our meat, drank another little cup of Cuban coffee, and retired to our tents. Irving filmed Fidel’s tent, where the lantern burned when all the others had gone out. He had taken a text to bed on the genetics of cattle breeding and Waldo Frank’s biography of Simon Bolívar. The books would become conversational food for tomorrow’s breakfast.

The Roots of Revolution

At 6 a.m., the sound of a helicopter woke me. I watched a large Soviet-made helicopter 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 bodyguards greeted him and took the brief case. The man retreated and climbed aboard the helicopter, which then ascended into the early morning sky.

I nodded a good morning to the small group of bodyguards 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 commandants 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, “brings the news and other papers Fidel needs to see.” Vallejo had served in the U.S. Army during the Second World War and managed the American idiom as a result. When I first met him that day in July 1960, when I was hitchhiking and he picked me up along a back road, we conversed with my poor Spanish. Then he broke out into English and invited me to his office for coffee. He told me how he had delivered papers to the King Ranch, an offshoot 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 U.S. Marines would come to Cuba and that they felt so sad because they liked and 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 Bolívar by Waldo Frank.”

The other commandants 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, one million people died in that disaster.”

The cigar smoke filled the tent. “Bolívar, 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. “Bolívar whips out his sword and belts the priest three times, knocking him off the altar.” The commandants laughed. “Three blows with the sword destroyed the priest’s spell over the crowd. Bolívar 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. “Crossbreed 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 Bolívar book. “At the F4 stage in the breeding process the offspring should produce forty 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 ninety-eight,” he said, “and I need your help.”

They chatted as villagers gathered. “I don’t get it,” said Fidel, who at six feet, three inches 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 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 a problem to have a paved highway?”

“They could just throw down some tar.”

Fidel explained that they were building a highway.

“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 along 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 longer beat us.”

Later that afternoon, the commandants lounged in the mountain grass and the 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.

Making History

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. [So did] Raul [Fidel’s brother] and Almeida [one of the 1953 attackers of Moncada and head of the army in 1968]. I had 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 commandants. “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 the day’s heat and the road’s dust poured into the jeep and Faustino’s pistol butt and Leyte’s ammunition clip alternately jabbed 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 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 pointed. 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’s 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 postcard scenes of palm trees and meadows, 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 compañeros were doing in the Congo and in Bolivia constituted a model that we had successfully employed in Cuba. A guerrilla foco 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 compañeros 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 commandants 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, he 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 ten U.S. 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.

Understanding and Overcoming Underdevelopment

In the afternoon of July 9, following Fidel’s dramatic hit between the outfielders, the caravan resumed its crawl through mountain villages of the Sierra Maestra in Oriente. People poured out of their homes and laid their grievances and needs on Fidel. He shook hands and questioned them: “How is the milk supply?”

“We get about six liters from the best cow,” said a village man.

Fidel stared at the man and turned to Commandant Guillermo Garcia, “They need F1s (a crossbreed between Zebu and Holstein) to have enough milk. With even one F1, this village would have protein.”

Another man asked him to secure 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 sixth grade here.”

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

“What’s this 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 bodyguards glared, but to no avail. They touched and seemed contented to have contact with Obatalá, the creation of God’s chief assistant and messenger.

In Cuban Santeria, according to Nelson Valdés, “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 (The Uncompromising Revolution [1988]), 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 we 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, and yucca grew on the small farms in the bucolic July heat. Guajiros (Cuban peasants) 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 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. Three thousand of Cuba’s six thousand doctors had gone by the end of 1960, 90 percent 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 had 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 our 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. A lawyer and a doctor directed Cuba’s agricultural science. I also understood Fidel’s insistence that the revolution’s task was overcoming underdevelopment. He talked about quantities of fertilizer needed before the sugarcane plant emerged. I noticed he had placed one elbow on a pile of textbooks about soils, fertilizer, and animal husbandry.

Revolution as Education

The next morning, Fidel talked about agriculture at breakfast, as if preparing for his next round of speeches on the virtues of the crossbreeding of the Cuban cows with the superior milk producing and better beef cattle of the United States and Europe. I retained enough of college genetics to follow his argument about how with each succeeding generation the Cuban offspring would more resemble the milk abundant Holsteins, while retaining the immunity Brahmans and Zebus possess to tropical infirmities.

“Milk is a very complete food,” he lectured me. “With increased milk production all Cubans would ingest adequate protein. The first steps to overcoming underdevelopment are those that ensure that the people have enough protein, good medical care, solid education. Without these basic investments you cannot move forward with meaningful development.”

On the road through the Sierra Cristal on Oriente’s north coast the skinny pines fluttered like botanical ballerinas in the early morning wind, as they were warming themselves before the sun came out.

“Here Raul commanded,” Fidel explained, twisting to look at me in the back seat of the jeep. “He and his men won important battles. They established a legitimate source of authority, one even the Americans had to recognize.”

He referred to the March 1958 “Frank Pais Second Front” (named after the assassinated underground leader in Santiago de Cuba). On June 26, 1958, Raul’s guerrillas ambushed a bus with fifty U.S. Navy and Marine personnel on board. The group had left the Guantánamo naval base for some rest and recreation and instead became prisoners of the rebel army.

Then, U.S. officials warned Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista not to take actions that would endanger the hostages’ lives. So, for three weeks Raul’s impulse worked to stop military operations against the guerillas.

In mid-July, Raul and his close companion Vilma Espin, who he later married, met with U.S. Consul Park Wollam Jr. and Vice Consul Robert Wiecha, a CIA official working in the consulate. They met in the town of La Calabaza. Raul ordered the hostages freed.

Raul showed his “guests” that local residents got good—and free—medical care from guerrilla doctors. The rebels also fed the Americans well, albeit some did not love boiled green bananas.

The ploy turned Raul into a Robin Hood. Reporters who visited generally sympathized with his cause as did some of the hostages. Raul also gave invited foreign reporters a battlefield tour, including demonstrations of how Batista used U.S. weapons to kill his rebels and local supporters. He also used the opportunity to inform the press that Batista used the U.S. base at Guantánamo to refuel his bombers to hit rebel bases.

When Raul released the hostages, he opportunistically posed as a friend of the U.S. government, sending the hostages “back because their country needs them.” This referred to Eisenhower’s announcement of the deployment of Marines to Lebanon to help suppress a revolt against U.S.-backed president Camille Chamoun.

As Fidel chuckled over this ten-year-old incident, the jeeps pulled into Biran, Fidel’s birthplace. His Galician father, Angel, had served in the Spanish army during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and later returned to Cuba to make his fortune as a farmer. Angel married Lina Ruz, also from Spain, some years after Fidel was born; not unusual for rural Cuba where itinerant priests dropped by every few years to marry and baptize.

In July, Biran possessed an almost stereotypical sleepy rural Caribbean town look. Some women washed clothes in a nearby stream. A few men on horseback joined clucking chickens in the dusty streets of small wooden houses in need of paint. Fidel jumped from his jeep and marched toward a more official looking structure with flaking blue paint.

“This was our school,” he said leaning against a post. “We’d line up here during recess to determine who got to bat first. One day, I remember an argument occurred and the priest came up and whacked me hard on the head. That was the norm in those days. Everyone behaved like a brute, one farmer toward another, boss and worker, and so on.”

We went inside to escape the heat. He sat at a tiny desk with his feet sticking out into the aisles, his Cohiba smoking away. “In those days we didn’t smoke in school,” he quipped. He looked at the small classroom. “Nothing much has changed. The teachers punished barbarically in those days. They’d put you on your knees with grains of corn under your knees. I think I recall getting one of those….But since my father was the owner of a nearby farm,” he pointed out the school window, “that was our farm over there.” I saw palm trees and pasture land. “I suspect we got away with some stuff because of my father’s position.” During the agrarian reform, Castro’s parents’ farm was reduced to the 150-acre limit and later expropriated.

Fidel wrote dates on the school blackboard—1930, 1931. “I spent those years here, learned the alphabet.” He sounded out the letters “a, ma ma, p, a, pa-pa pa.” He continued, “I think there’s a more modern method to teach reading these days. We studied a little geography, listened to stories and learned some poems. ‘The shoes hurt my feet, the socks make me hot, but the kiss you gave me I keep in my heart.’”

As we left the school in the late afternoon, Fidel scanned the almost empty village and smiled. “I went to school here until I was seven, I think. Then, my father sent me to the LaSalle Academy in Santiago, a Jesuit school.”

In 1942, he moved to Havana and attended Belen College, also Jesuit run, and then entered the University of Havana where he got his law degree in 1950.

Soon afterwards, the entourage traded jeeps for Alfa Romeos, which Fidel said he had gotten for bargain prices. It felt cramped in the back seat, and since he was bigger, he gave me the rifle to hold. He began to talk about how “only armed struggle can lead to real revolutions, revolutions that endure.”

“How can revolutionaries claim power if the former army and those who control them remain intact?” he asked rhetorically. “That was what the Americans wanted when we beat the Batista forces. In late December of 1958, when it became clear that Batista’s forces were finished, people at the U.S. Embassy tried to organize a bunch of so-called moderate officers to form a junta that would seize power from Batista, claim to be a new and clean government and then somehow prevent the revolutionaries from assuming control of the government. Of course, the officers immediately began to quarrel amongst themselves and so the idea never took hold. It would not have worked anyway, not with the immense support we had. The U.S. government wanted to do all it could to stop us from taking power.”

Castro was right. On December 5, 1958, the U.S. ambassador in Havana cabled the State Department: “Since inconceivable that US assist Castro and since probably too late to help Batista, US should promote and give full and actual support including arms to a military civilian junta. Group generally felt junta would be more likely to enlist wide popular support and would weaken Castro, if it included some of best elements of present GOC [government of Cuba], of political opposition, and of civic groups now supporting Castro. Those consulting with Ambassador Earl E. T. Smith included the President of Portland Cement Company, Havana, the Vice President of Moa Bay Mining, the Vice President of First National Bank of Boston and a high executive from Standard Oil.”

On December 23, 1958, Secretary of State Christian Herter sent a memorandum affirming: “The Department clearly does not want to see Castro succeed to the leadership of the Government.”

“Do you think the United States would have allowed us to take power if we had not won it by force of arms?” Fidel asked. I nodded. He spoke of how Washington knocked off the Iranian and Guatemalan governments because their armies were not people’s armies. As Castro spoke in the hot, cramped Alfa Romeo of the need to make revolution by armed struggle, I began to fight sleep. The palm leaves seemed to beat a monotonous rhythm in the wind. I sucked mints, chewed gum, pinched my thighs, and did jaw exercises. To no avail! I think the days of filming and listening, the days of receiving the powerful vibrations that emanated from the man, had exhausted me. I admit I missed some of what he said. But he didn’t miss that behind my dark glasses my eyes had forced themselves shut.

As we pulled into the campsite, he put his hand on my shoulder and said: “I think we should stop for awhile. I’ll see you in Havana.” He went off somewhere and the next morning we went to the Santiago airport and flew back to Havana—material for a film in the proverbial can. I do not think I spoke for a while—one day, maybe two.

2007, Volume 59, Issue 03 (July-August)
Comments are closed.