Monday, May 29, 2006



René Cuervo was not quite a friend, for I did not know him that well. Yet, even if he was not related, he was as a kind of older distant cousin. Thus he was given, and he returned, the loyalties due to a member of our vast extended tribe-like family where relationships were often defined in irregular fashion.

When René Cuervo joined the rebels in the mountains, sometime in early 1957, he became a mysterious, brave, hero. We younger males looked up to him in envy of his adventures and in respect for his courage.

To fully understand what happened it is useful to place the events in local and historical contest. These mountains have been long centers of resistance to the powers that be. Thus, in order to be in a position to control the new left wing forces allied with Castro had to control the area completely.

This one can presume that Castro and or his associates such as the Che Guevara knew, or intuited subconsciously, from his long association with the Caribbean Legion and José Figueres, that a successful democratic revolution of the kind that Figueres carried out in the Costa Rica in 1948, would destroy any chance of control.

For this reason, René Cuervo, and escopeteros like him, urban resistance organizers such as the País brothers, and René Ramos Latour, and comandantes such as Huber Matos, William Morgan and Humberto Sorí Marín after him were in the way. I of course did not know this then; I doubt that René knew this. Perhaps Huber Matos did understand this at the time.

René's father lived across the ridge from the coconut grove of Entre Ríos, over precipice and river, to the east and south. He had, as I described previously a rural store, a galvanized metal roofed "tienda" and a palm-thatched house nearby under a very large mango tree in a place called simply after the river, Guamá.

The Cuervo shop and house sat just at the edge of the flood plain of the Guamá River, less than a mile upriver from Paso Caimanes. These buildings were adjacent to tall guinea grass pastures, hedged by living fences of leguminous Piñon Florida trees. Between these fences well-cared-for cattle grazed. This was grandmother’s brother’s, Tío Ming, land.

René’s father, a rigid middle aged Spaniard, got on well with Tío Ming who was the eldest son of “Coronel de las Guerras de Independencia," Don Benjamín Ramírez.

The Ming part of “Tío Ming” was merely an abbreviation for Benjamín. Tío is not a title, it merely means uncle, but somehow that implied respect, it kind of substituted for the title “Don.” So calling him Tío Ming avoided confusion, since he had the same first name as his long lived father, who died well into the 20th Century on July 2, 1924. The younger Benjamín Ramírez could not be called Don, for father and son to share the same title would be socially unacceptable, and after the elder died the custom continued.

Tío Ming, had a half brother, almost full blooded Taíno. This half brother who since he was illegitimate could also be called Benjamín, after their father. He too had a nickname; he was called Ping Ping, another play on his father’s name. Ping Ping, had a big head, and was said to have three testicles, which of course led to ping-pong jokes. Ping Ping lived above Arroyón at a place called Gibraltar, more on this will follow.

In the much honored tradition of Cuban revolutions, the rebels ate the cows. After the long wars of independence, which really hurt the cattle industry, Cuba had a lot of revolutions, 1906, 1912, 1917, 1933, and then 1956-1958. Now in 21st century Cuba not many of the cattle are left, and the common people are not allowed to eat beef. Only the Castro Government can give the order to slaughter cattle; in consequence these cows are now called “Ganado del Comandante.”

While all this gave the family continued war experiences, this was bad for the cattle business. Tío Ming was known for his rigid dignity, severe demeanor, and old fashioned ideas. He preferred cattle raising to coffee, for although far less lucrative, it involved less dealing with people. Perhaps in retrospect he was right.

Most of these revolutions involved family in one way or the other. We often lost the cows. Thus, after a while, Tío Ming said he would not own any more cows. From this experience Tío Ming charged "piso" by the head, a charge for each head of cattle “treading” his land.

For instance, Lionel remembers Fajardo a physician or veterinarian who owned the cattle that fed on Tío Ming's pastures. Perhaps Fajardo was the same man who owned the cattle that Uncle Marcos lost on his land. It is likely that this Dr. Fajardo knew the Cuervo family because he would have to pass by their house, since it was the only other dwelling for miles along the way, to see Tío Ming.

It could be that Dr. Fajardo was (Manuel) Piti Fajardo Rivero who joined the rebels in March 1958. Piti, even though an experienced guerrilla fighter, died in supposedly in an ambush on November 29, 1960. He was chief of operations in the Escambray mountains at the time fighting against anti-Castro forces in the “War Against the Bandits.” It is said he was killed by his own men, in a “friendly fire” incident.

Doubt lingers since Castro’s officers often came to such an obscure end, and Cuban government sanctioned histories are not reliable. Castro moves so adroitly behind the fog of war, one never knows for certain what was fate and what was planned betrayal..... Still it is most dangerous to be close to Castro....

Perhaps Dr. Fajardo was related to Juan Cristóbal Nápoles Fajardo. This Juan Nápole Fajardo, a lyrical siboneyista poet, was known as Cucalambé for his verse interlaced with Siboney (Taíno) words. He wrote in La Piragua which was the publication of the Siboneyistas.

The siboneyistas were a group which, in middle 19th Century, undercover of a Taíno revival literature, criticized Spanish rule. This was dangerous for then Spanish even executed poets who opposed them. Family tradition tells that Don Benjamín Ramírez, who had a beautiful voice sang of the Siboney and probably, given his record in Ten Year War, also was a secret member of this group.

Cucalambé was born in Victoria de las Tunas far north of here, and from his poetry which sings of his love for “Rufina,” it is known that in his many local travelings he wandered near family land. And thus for that was the custom, almost certainly was invited into Don Benjamín’s rural residence in Guamá.

When he was old, sometime early in the 20th Century Don Benjamín used to sing a typical siboneyista song sitting down, his taburete leaning against the wall of the old adobe house in Guamá:

Siboney con orgullo me llamo

Y soy hijo del sol y del agua

Con mi arco y mi linda piragua

Soy feliz y no espero otro bien

(I am a proud Taino, child of sun and water, with my bow and my beautiful canoe I happy and content expect no more.)

Yo sufro, yo sufro, yo sufro

Por volver a mí Cuba querida

A Cuba, a Cuba done donde yo nací.

(I suffer! I suffer! I suffer, waiting for return to my beloved Cuba, where I was born.)

Cucalambé believed conspiring against the Spanish, disappeared somewhere in or near these mountains in 1862, three years before the Ten Year War started. These hills hold many such tragedies and hidden graves. The Castro government web sites put forward the hypothesis that Cucalambé committed suicide. However, most consider it probable that Cucalambé was killed by Spanish government agents.

The shop and the house of René Cuervo's father were just below the little plateau that held the batey of Tío Ming that was fortified by a high fence of thirteen strands (I counted them as a child) barbwire, and guarded by dogs and sometimes even a wild boar. Here Tío Ming’s family resided in a long adobe house roofed with galvanized metal sheeting. Nearby, close to Tío Ming’s cattle corral, in an orange and grapefruit grove two of the dead from a 1933 Batista army raid are buried.

About half a mile to the east and was an old dried out bed of the river. That place was called Madre Vieja. In Madre Vieja there were ruins of Don Benjamín’s ancient trapiche sugar mill. It had been burned-out in the race war of 1912.

My mind sees the area in 1957, the year of René Cuervo’s death:

The land rises slightly going east and north towards the far greater plateau of Los Llanos. Here stand the adobe walls of a metal-roofed house and the unpainted wooden farm buildings of the batey of Levarbo. The house is not too well cared for, because Levarbo drinks and, as is traditional has a second family, but the roof keeps out the rain. Levarbo is son of Tío Ming. Levarbo’s legal wife, my Aunt Lucia, is a small robust, pretty, woman always called Muñeca or the doll.

The adobe walls of Levarbo and Muñeca's house still bear pockets from 1933 bullet strikes. The bark of the trunk of their mango tree, where the executed had stood, has grown to cover its wounds.

To the south, the curving Guamá River runs moving gently. Across the river the land rises steeply. The river laps at the feet of the mountains, under rainforests, canyons, and coffee plantations. The Guamá, I know from my geography classes, is an old river, older than the mountains it borders. Guamá is the name of a tree and that of a Taíno chief who resisted the Spanish. The name is old enough to be common not only in Taíno but in also in other Arawak languages. Guama, without accent on the last a, symbolizes rule; there are Guamá Rivers in several parts of Cuba, in Venezuela and in Brazil.

My mind envisions the area as it changed through geological times:

The volcano grew, and the Guamá River adapted and flowed around it. In the primordial times of its youth and the greatest strength this river had gathered to itself the waters spilling over the brim of the then caldera lake. For then the big stream now called Arroyón burst through the high mountains walls of the ancient broken crater of what we call today Los Números. Now great cliffs gave testimony to the joint power of these streams that had once ripped apart that crater’s northern wall.

Returning to the middle 20th century:

Periodically, perhaps once a week, until the 1940s, a yoke of oxen pull a crude V shaped “stoneboat” made of a thick excised tree crotch. The castrated beasts drag the stoneboat apex first, ever, so slowly, uphill, sliding it over soil and ancient boulders. Polished glossy by constant rubbing, the forked timbers of the sled creak as if in tortured pain. The drover pokes the oxen with his púa prod, urging the beasts on crying “Thisa! Thisa!” as he does it. Thus, for a long, long time oxen had brought Guamá River water hundreds of gallons at a time uphill from the river to the batey of Tío Ming.

Tío Ming also had a cistern system that held rain water in one of the great iron pila pots from Don Benjamín Ramírez’s little sugar factory, the one burned out in 1912. Tío Ming was a primitive, but sage, and prudent man. He may have wanted to be more able resist a siege.

Uncle Rafael, my mother’s eldest brother, Tío Ming’s nephew, at the petition of the women of Tío Ming’s household, had installed a water pump. Tío Ming never did see why.

It would seem that old Cuervo and Tío Ming, two stiff men, had the old ways in common, despite the conflicts, and enmities of the wars of the past. The Cuervo store sold lots of liquor. and the sons of Tío Ming, especially Levarbo, often drank rum there.

René's Cuervo’s father was respected, but his son, René, was considered to be somewhat wild. It must have been 1957 when we heard in hushed tones that René had joined the rebels.

My brother, Lionel, who then lived higher up in the mountains, provides a context and a follow up, of the events that followed our last sighting of René. René had come from Santiago. After crossing our hilly pastures, and the Guamá River near his home, had reached Teófilo’s Espinosa’s land. Espinosa’s fields are the north side of the curving Guamá River which there runs approximately east-west.

René crossed this river again a little west of the Los Horneros, and ascended to Los Números by the eastern Bejucero trail. He stopped at Raúl Martínez’s house.

Raúl, a dark skinned man, son of one of Uncle Calixto’s colonos (contract coffee producers) had married Marina, daughter of Bartolo Díaz a Spaniard. Bartolo was a colono on Grandmother’s land at this place, a little, relatively flat place called Bejucero, the place of the tangling vines.

Bejucero was part of a far more ancient coffee plantation, at least from the time of Don Benjamín. A certain Ricarte Martínez had also lived in Bejucero before he sold out his interest and bought his own land on the higher ridge of La Maestra. The two Martínez, one dark, one Spanish, were not related. It is Raul Martínez who tells this part of this tale.

Ricarte Martínez, who has been mentioned earlier, was a Spaniard whose father may have fled the fall of the Spanish Republic in about 1938. Ricarte was a prosperous communist and harsh driver of his workmen; he insisted on an illegal 12 hour day and provided poor food “sopa de hueso blanco y fideo,” bad vermicelli pasta and scraped bone soup. We will learn still more of Ricarte later in this book.

Raul Martínez tells:

René then took the main eastern trail from Lot Three of Los Números, through Lot Four. René went through the coffee plantations and by the remains of rain forest. He reached the strange store of Ito Martínez. I know that René Cuervo must have stopped there because the store was a front used to supply rebels. Ito had yellowish skin and thus probably part Taíno; he even though his last name, Martínez, is very common may have been related to Ricarte. Everybody nearby knew that pack mules unloaded there, but few goods were sold at the store.

Avoiding the branch path to the west side of the crater René Cuervo went on to Lot Seven. Lot Seven was Mother’s land. Mother called it “El Rosario.” Ito Martínez’s store supplies were sent down the back to the southern slope of that ancient crater. The supplies were carried on mules along the Lot Seven path down to the little mountain stream, now erroneously known as the Bayamito. The real Bayamito stream falls into the sea on the other side of the mountains, and once marked the western edge of the vast lands of Don Benjamín.

From Ito’s store the supplies went across the false Bayamito up to Ricarte Martínez’s place lost on the north side of the vast main ridge of the Maestra (Master, or more accurately Mistress) ridge. There Castro’s rebels picked them up.

The name of this little stream is a sore point for my family because in the law suit by which Don Benjamín recovered some of his land from Spanish confiscation this stream was labeled falsely Bayamito. This seemingly trivial name change meant that Don Benjamín’s land no longer reached south to the sea.

Formerly, two other south running streams the Guamá del Sur and the real Bayamito were the boundaries of Don Benjamín, and he hid his family there in time of war. Thus, Don Benjamín’s land then also included the main ridge or the Maestra) ridge to sea. This spurious legal decision reduced Don Benjamín holdings tremendously, still at that time these lands seemed endless.

René, did not take that path down to the false Bayamito, but after passing beneath the south west side of the great Peña Prieta crag, he turned south east and crossed into Lot Eight. Lot Eight was Uncle Calixto Mario’s land named after the great red-tailed hawk of Cuba the Guaraguao.

René went through Lot Eight, south of the huge Peña Prieta Crag to Lot Nine Aunt Rosita’s plantation which she called La Golondrina. Aunt Rosita, rich, former movie star, still had beautiful skin when she died in her nineties. Rosita was a romantic who enjoyed the pleasures of life to the fullest. La Golondrina is the Spanish word for fast flying swallow.

Golondrina can also mean any number of things from the romantic bird, the “swallow of lost love” of Carlota the bride of Maximillian the executed Emperor of Mexico, to a graciously vague euphuism for a man’s testicles. Such a name appealed to Rosita.

None of this was on René’s mind. To him important thing was that somewhere in La Golondrina was the guerrilla band of the man of the angelic face, and the murderous fanatic marxist mind, Castro’s follower, Comandante Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

And René came to return to troubled rebel ranks. It is not known, if this return was completely voluntary or was if he was led by guile and deceit. Remember René was fearless, and such valor leads to constant danger.

When I saw René, in the coconut grove at the start of the hills, he was alone. However, he had reached Los Números and Raúl Martínez wife, Marina, cooked for him. By this time, several people with submachine guns were with him. Raul Martínez tells that he was impressed by the guns they brought, since they had long clips; perhaps they were Madsen machine guns.

The Che is known, in those days, to have at least one Madsen, a gift from Fidel Castro “himself.” The Che is also shown in photographs of this time holding a Thompson. However, the Madsen is lighter 9 mm caliber weapon, not .45 like the far more common, far heavier, Thompson submachine gun. A Madsen would be far easier to travel with.

In those days, the Madsen was important armament, and thus its possession gave status as well as power. Three such weapons in a group define a main force unit. Strangely, there was no talk at this place of a fight for possession of weapons. That would have occurred if René Cuervo had possession of these guns because it was well known that the Che squabbled endlessly over such weapons

Lionel tells me that René was bringing money in from Santiago, most of it donated by his father and the rest from Frank País’s urban action group, a moderate left non-communist anti-Batista faction that had been absorbed into Castro’s movement. País had visited Mexico to coordinate Castro’s 1956 landing and provide effective distractions to the Batista forces and rescue the survivors.

Perhaps as some suggest, some of the money came from official US sources, a matter Marxist Che strongly opposed. The Che had already tried every excuse to gain control of a group sent up by País under the direction of Jorge Sotús, an experience resistance fighter, in March 1957. That is the year I saw René for the last time in that coconut grove.

Later when I had just joined the rebels, in April of 1958, the following year, I asked about René. Someone, probably El Mejicano, told me not to ask about that "desgraciado" again, and he let me understand Cuervo had been a traitor and was executed.

I was to learn later that El Mejicano had also been involved in the Cuervo matter, but the Che strangely enough had “forgiven him.” Perhaps the Che could not afford to rid himself of all his brave and experienced fighters. El Mejicano was certainly one of these, for he had already distinguished himself in battle.

El Mejicano went on to distinguish himself further in the war against Batista and become Captain under Universo Sanchez. Then he fled to the US, where it is said he indulged in crime and cockfighting.

As did El Mejicano, and René Cuervo, over time, most of the Che’s men left him, by death or by defection. The Che, it seems, carried the gift of short life. Before Guevara died, he had buried friends and enemies, from Algeria to the Congo, and finally in Bolivia.

According to the Che, the place where René Cuervo was killed was La Botella hill. This was one of the guerrilla camps. It happened sometime in October, 1957.

René was not armed when he was seized. However, published descriptions of the condemned man shot there do not fit René, and some reports record the Che ordering but not being present at the execution. Yet in other reports by the Che, the communist guerrilla leader refused to shake hands with Cuervo, saying “...he had summoned him to have him shot, not to greet him.”

The Che, justified this action with complex accusations, including a charge that René had deserted with a Remington rifle. The other charges against René made by the Che are strangely varied, broad, and all encompassing.

The Che has written that he executed Cuervo, because René had executed spies, and was victimizing an entire section of the Sierra, perhaps in collusion with Batista forces, plundering country folk, participating in gang rape, and he was raiding marijuana plantations.

The exact date is important. The October date for his execution given by the Che, in one account, would fix the “desertion” of René Cuervo in early August, not July. Yet in other accounts, the Che clearly states that René “deserted” July 11th.

This is date is between the time when the anti-Batista Urban Civic Resistance lost its two leaders the brother’s Josue País (July1) and Frank (July 30). Frank is, commonly believed, betrayed by rivals Armando Hart and Haydée Santamaría, leading communist activists in Castro’s organization, thus, lending credence to the idea that René Cuervo was killed to help consolidate communist control over the rebels.

Esteban Ventura Novo --the same Batista Police Captain who beat up my cousin MJ in April 1958 and tortured by stepfather Enrique Sanz at the end of that year-- has written that when Frank País was killed, he had been betrayed to Mariano Faget, the head of Dictator Batista’s notoriously ineffective, but brutal, “communist control” group, the BRAC.

Historians were reluctant to accept this link of the communists to Faget until recently. Now we may know differently, because Faget’s son, also called Mariano, was discovered to be a Castro agent. Faget, the younger, had infiltrated the US Immigration and Naturalization Service at its highest levels. This further suggests that the René Cuervo killing was part of such a communist takeover or purge.

As time passed, many other such known and suspected betrayals of non-communist members of the resistance to Batista have come to light. One of the most prominent betrayals led to the killing of escaped members of the assault on Batista in the Presidential Palace.

This killing, a gruesome event, took place on the lower floors of same building where mother lived (Humbolt 7) in Havana. Even Castro had to admit that this was due to a betrayal, and the present dictator, was forced to try some of his own henchmen.

The country folk said that the reason for René Cuervo’s execution was that he had made certain people contribute to the July 26 movement. Now this in itself is strange, since subtle coercive pressure was commonly brought about by many in Castro’s forces to induce contribution. There were standard taxes to pay to the July 26 organization. It would seem that the Che was either jealous of not getting to control these funds or just interested in ruthlessly promoting himself and his marxist ideas.

Apparently the Che was more than willing to take credit for the things that René Cuervo did, and the Che admits recruiting marihuana growers. The Che is reputed to have captured and eventually killed Vejerano the "Guardia Rural" who was collecting the numbers racket money from the Banqueo del Oro for his lieutenant in Guisa.

The Banqueo del Oro a road along the extremely steep hillsides of the gorge of the upper Bayamo River. Here the Camino Real twists climbing towards the main ridge of the Maestra.

Vejerano was last seen as he started up the steep road of the Banqueo. However, it was not the Che who caught Vejerano. My grand-Aunt Manuela Jimenez, who lived near by the Banqueo del Oro, stated that it was René Cuervo and his men who captured Vejerano.

Vejerano was last seen heading into the mountains on the Banqueo road, riding a borrowed mule, because his horse was spent. However, it seems clear that Che did kill Vejerano when he was his captive, for the guerrilla leader was always ready to shoot captives. Vejerano's borrowed mule was eaten by the Che and his men.

It is notable that El Mejicano was also accused of plotting to desert at that same time as René left; however, according to the Che, he did not leave, confessed, and was forgiven. This must have been a busy day for the Che since he normally executed all and sundry at the least excuse. El Mejicano, if memory serves, wore a hat like that of a Rural Guard when I first saw him, perhaps it was that had been Vejerano’s hat.

I had already met Vejerano, when on his rounds he stayed at Grandfather’s batey. The family knew him well. Before "the revolution" Vejerano, abandoned by his Rural Guard partner who fled, had been savagely slashed by machete by a montuno he was trying to arrest for illegally cutting down forest.

Uncle Calixto Leonel put both the wounded Guardia Rural, and the Montuno who had cut him down with a machete, into his four wheel truck. Then he took them both to Guisa. Vejerano was taken to Dr. Joaquin Bueno’s Clínica for treatment. The Montuno was taken to jail so he would be booked, and thus on record could not be killed “fleeing arrest” as was the custom for such circumstance.

My Grand-Aunt Manuela Jiménez also told me that her abandoned house, was the site from which several ambushes of Batista convoys by the Che's forces effected. It is probable that both René Cuervo and El Mejicano participated in these actions. These encounters led to Batista reprisals.

The people of the area always privately maintained that René had a reputation for bravery and command that was overshadowing the Che. Perhaps that last time I saw René, he was returned with money donated by people on the plains and in the cities. The Che, who other rebels (Santiago de Juan, personal communication) said “se le aranca a cualquiera” (was always ready to kill anybody) brought up false charges and had René executed.

Despite the Che’s writings saying that René Cuervo was buried elsewhere, I favor the idea that he is interred in "La Hortaliza," the Che's private burial ground or at least one of them. La Hortaliza is supposed to be somewhere on a back slope of Aunt Rosie’s Lot Nine the most remote of the lots of Los Números. It is the lot closest to "La Maestra" the main ridge of the Sierra.

La Hortaliza is possibly nearby where Facundo Mantecón, had his store. I remember Facundo had a .410 shotgun that also shot .44 calibre bullets. He was a fat, bright, talkative, inventive man, but apparently a double agent for both Castro and Batista.

In "La Hortaliza" also lay the bodies of "El Negrito," the little black thief, who the Che is reputed to have kicked to death. Also buried there is Merengue a murderous shopkeeper and Batista informant.

There seems little doubt that René Cuervo was ready to kill in war against Batista; Grand-Aunt Manuela Jimenez, told of such.

However, the Che was a fanatically ambitious man, who killed so many that it appears he did not really remember who René Cuervo was, nor where he was buried. The goddess Canaima showed her approval of the Che’s deeds by soon taking him to her cruel bosom in the earth of a far South American land.

The land of Entre Ríos, with its coconut groves, pastures, batey and houses, will never be as it was. Now all of it, except for the heights of the ridge, is beneath the waters behind the large Corojo dam. These waters now block the Guamá and Bayamo Rivers from their northern union at Las Bocas, to reach deeper towards the foot of the mountains almost as far south as René Cuervo’s father’s shop.

Larry Daley copyright@1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006

Monday, May 22, 2006



In April 1958 when I arrive at the rebel encampment at Arroyón, I am greeted with far more reserve and suspicion than I expect. Unknown to me, the rebel strike has failed. The city rebels of Daniel have been badly blooded, and Castro’s mountain forces are in retreat.

Relief at my escape from the very lethal clutches of Batista’s shadowy spies and minions fades as a different and unexpected fear arises. The rebels are clearly very afraid that they may recruit infiltrators.

The first thing I remember was being asked if I had a weapon.

Opening my backpack, Aunt Rosie’s long barreled .38 Police Special raised interest, and the box of fifty bullets sparked much gladness; I had not known that ammunition was in such short supply. I am interrogated by the then Captain and Lieutenant in charge of the camp, Universo Sánchez, and the “Mexican” which was the name by which Francisco Rodríguez Tamayo was called.

They ask why I want join the rebels. I respond saying frankly and little scared that:

“! Me habían denunciado al ejército!”

“I have been reported as a rebel to the army!”

Then I tell why I know this and how Nicia had helped me.

Continuing I mention democracy and freedom.

Universo and the Mexican mutter between themselves and ask those gathered around about me, an assembled motley crew of mostly new rebels, a few more bearded rebels, and some “civilians” who I do not then realize are part of Castro’s extensive spy and support network.

The “Asturiano,” the proud Spanish mule skinner, speaks up for me:

“! El es buena gente!”

“He is a good person!”

That is enough. The others mutter assent. Then they ask if I would share my bullets.

“! Si! !Yo solo necesito cinco balas!"”

Yes, I only need five cartridges.”

“Why five, not six!” they ask. So I reply that I do not want to leave one under the hammer, in case a shot goes off in a fall. They look at me with respect.

I am in.

It was then that they gave me the .410 bolt action shotgun.

They ask if I needed a hammock and I say:

“No I prefer to sleep on the ground; it is safer.”

They look puzzled.

I do not know if they fed me that day, but I went to sleep early, wrapped in the blanket I had brought.

With the luck of innocents, I had made no mention of knowing René Cuervo. Later that year, I would ask the Mexican about René. The Mexican said, in scary tones:

“! No hablas de eso!

Do not talk about that!”

Forty years later:

I did not, but I thought about it a bit. It was forty years later that I began to learn something more substantial about what happened.

About six or seven years ago, I met Miriam Mata on e-mail. Her father had been a Batista policeman in the town of Guanabacoa. Although apparently innocent of crimes, he was executed in 1959 by the Argentine born rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Miriam was cataloguing the Argentine killer’s crimes, so we started corresponding on the matter.

I tell Miriam that the last time I saw René Cuervo was in a cocal, a coconut grove, on our land about a mile upriver from "Las Bocas." Las Bocas is a confluence of waters, where the usually older, usually peaceful, Río Guamá sedately joins with her younger, bigger, more violent sibling, the Bayamo River.

More memories of life and reading float to the surface of my mind as I dredge from memories the last time I saw René Cuervo.

It is 1957, school is out. We are in an old coconut grove on our family’s land. I am an immature but well educated twenty, trying to forget the terrors of revolutionary violence in Havana. My sisters and cousins here, except for Cali, are at least five years younger. We do not know that these brief days in the summer of 1957, are the last time we are to be on our land as a family.

I am there among cousins and siblings, gathering fallen coconuts. All is peace and happiness. We forget our troubles. Well-educated, we know intellectually of the hopeless death fears and furious revenges of the Ancient Greeks. We are aware of the savage poetics of slow violent death of South American goddess, Canaima, that have plagued our Latin American cultures for millennia. We also are aware of the floods of cruel bloody violence of past Cuban wars and the growing creciente of gore of present circumstances.

So far such sadness has not touched us personally, except for MJ our eldest cousin who is not here and thus we can let ourselves forget his narrow escape from death three long years ago. We are not in Havana or even Bayamo, around here, since the Ros have left their plantation house, there is no TV for many miles. Here we avoid the radio, and no longer receive newspapers and news magazines. We are young, at home in our so seemingly peaceful land; and set disturbing thoughts aside.

Thus, we ignore the growth of the dark barbaric forces of chaos and tyranny. We cling tightly, irrationally, to the thoughts of the refuge of Bayatiquirí, that legendary Taína land of happiness, peace and love. Yet, the horrors of the patient stealthy kills of Canaima were soon to come right to this, their often chosen island playground, in these very mountains, hills, and plains.

For now, we can still pretend that times are good. Finding peace in our illusions, we gaze at the rounded, tree capped, hills, protruding sparsely from the flat lands to the northwest. We note with proprietary satisfaction that these hills near the plains are very low compared to our coffee and forest holdings in the mountain barrier that blocks the southern sky.

Others in the family are already affected. My younger brother Lionel is not here; he always precocious already lives with a woman in our high mountain coffee plantation in Los Números, where the war is closer. Cousin Rafael Garcia Iñiguez, far more sophisticated than us, has already graduated as a Cuban Airforce pilot, and probably patrolling skies above the island in a F-47; the last time we saw Rafaelito was some years ago when he was flying dangerously low up the Bayamo River valley, appearing to our worried eyes to be dodging among the trees. MJ is somewhere in Bayamo or Havana studying.

It is convenient to forget that Castro is in the south on the highest, furthermost mountains with his guerrillas. The attack on the Palace is known to us but that was tumultuous Havana. We do not know that the Guisa area is a re-supply zone for the guerrillas, nor that the Che Guevara is conducting a blood purge weakening the rebels’ forces and aggressiveness; and these last two factors make for relative calm in the Bayamo Valley. Here none of that seems important.

The varied spectrum of our hair shows our mixed origins. There is the jet-black straight hair of my youngest sister Leonor, and light brown of Lucia her elder sibling. Beautiful fair-skinned cousin Madelyne Hatswell has sandy locks. Madelyne’s bratty younger brothers, darker haired Michael, and very blond Gary are also with us in that grove.

Cousin Cali, half brother of the Hatswell kids, is older, sharper featured, and darkly handsome. He, I guess because we had noticed some years back when we male cousins bathed in the river, already had been shaved by Nicia to better enjoy her sophisticated delights. There was some jealousy among us; however, Cali refused to talk about that.

Bucolic beauty surrounds us. In a full blue sky flecked with moving ships of white cloud, the Taíno Sun Lord Guami güey shines intense and yellow-bright, bringing its light and heat to the complex emerald brocade of this florid green land. Multi colors blotch the hide of the lizards, chipojo, guaná and many more that run on ground and the palm trunks. Some of the many birds of Cuba fly by. This semi-wild countryside basks languid in solar heat, lost in the tranquility of satisfied fertility. No storms seem near.

The coconut grove is old. The palms are perhaps thirty or forty feet high, leaning at curving angles to the ground, their palm trunks ring-notched with the scars of fallen fronds. The coconut palms’ canopies far above us give pleasantly moderate shade, with occasional flecks of direct sun light.

Our old, gray donkey Avellana meaning Hazelnut, just stands there, at the northwest edge of the coconut grove Her has sparsely napped hair looks much like the worn pelt on a beloved old teddy bear. She has a single short, black, zebra stripe to the right of her boney shoulder blades. A few flies that having so far escaped the lizards’ fast tongues wing in. Her fuzzy, long ears twitch as she shakes her head to shrug these insects off.

The donkey’s tufted tail is sporadically and languidly lashing away other insects. Her plump haunches, wide belly and only slightly swayed back without patches of white hair over old scars, testified to a life of careful care. These beasts live long. Avellana’s large eyes are not as deep and liquid black as when she was young, many “donkey years” ago. Yet, her now sparser lashes are still languid, and she can still see well.

Avellana was already too old to work, when she had been bought for five dollars about seven years before, to serve our infrequent and undemanding whims of childhood. This was a kind of donkey retirement; this way the burra could live without much work and pass the rest of her life in peace grazing on tall guinea grass, malva and other forbs in our lush pastures.

Avellana wears a jáquima, an ancient Arab style rope bridle. In English, twisting sounds of ancient Arabic or was it Aramaic, we say halter. The jáquima was really just a single rope tied in a certain complex way.

The rope lazo, a lasso, was first placed over her head to loosely drape around the neck of the beast. Then the free end of the lasso was wrapped thrice around her muzzle. A loop, of the rope was, tucked under these muzzle wraps, pulled over her ears and around her head. I still recall the prickly feel and stiffness of the thin, coarse rope.

The loose end of the rope was tugged down through the muzzle wraps, so that it was tight behind her ears. Avellana did not object to the rough rope rubbing across her neck and face. The free end was left as a single guiding line, making a rein long enough so that its knotted end could be used to lash her rump gently to tell her when she was to move.

The end of the untied rein lay on the ground. Avellana was old enough and set in her ways; she did not need to be tethered to something to hold her.

Here seems eternal, in this placid grove we seem to have connections to all portals of history. Such a rope halter might well have been used since Babylonian times; it probably was as unnoticed and as commonplace then, as now, a mere tool of man through ages. One could imagine processions of ancient, now long dead, ghost donkeys stretching back over the millennia and the vastness of continents, beasts of burden, gray, quiet and enduring.

Memories and more memories, drag me back to that grove:

We all wear yarey, fan-palm frond hats. The women wear hats which are as is customary broader, floppier, with wider brims, filigreed edges and ribbons to tie them on. These women’s hats are far more ornate than those boys and men use.

Women cannot run well in their hats since they tend to blow off. Men’s hats with the narrower brims tend to stay on. Women stay better shaded, skin less tanned by the burning sun of the plains of Oriente Province. A least by day to maintain their dignity, women must move more sedately.

To move faster, women run, hip-swinging, slightly knock-kneed, hat in hand.

Young middle class women of this time in Cuba, are respected half-repressed half free, but almost always loved. They do not have the freedoms or the hardships of Güajira women, nor do they yet have the sophisticated wiles and discrete sexual lives of their married elder sisters. They are, at least supposedly, set aside, cocooned, chaperoned and protected from the wiles and wars of predatory men.

We, boys as well as young men, wear machetíns, short pointed machetes, at our sides. They are perhaps phallic emblems of our virility which by custom cannot be physically directed at respectable young women, only at those women whose status allows such.

These cutlasses could provide some protection against less well intended strangers. By law in Cuba, full machetes were sold with cropped tips. Jabbing machetín points can keep the longer full machete at bay, and reach to stab under longer weapon’s slower curving slice.

The portals of history open:

Machetíns are also ancient tools, for Romans had used such short stabbing swords. The Roman gladius hispanus was about two feet long and pointed. The barbarians use the far longer spatha slashing sword.

Luis was the wildest of Juan Ramo’s Taíno sons. My brother, Lionel, once used a machetín to fend off an envious and boastful Luis Ramos. Lionel, unknowingly, repeated the ancient duels between ancient Romans and Barbarians, or the Romanized Iberians and the invading Visigoths, showing once again that the machetín, the gladius, could be more effective than the spatha-like long machete.

Before these nineteenth century Cuban wars, Máximo Gómez had left his native island of “Quisqueya La Bella” or Hispaniola and had lived seeking peace near here in a little hamlet called El Dátil, the place of the date tree. This hamlet was not more than fifteen miles northwest of here, on the Cauto plains just over the horizon near Bayamo. One could almost, but not quite because of the distance and intervening isolated foothills, see the place from this coconut grove.

As a little old man, Gómez was a bad-tempered, strict and skilled guerrilla general. He was a friend of Calixto senior, for over thirty years and his campaign diaries often place him in close proximity to Don Benjamín. El Chino Viejo, as he was called then was once the leader of all Cuban rebels; he, the last of the great Mambí warrior-leaders, died in bed when Cuba was free of Spain.

In the wars of Independence, Mambí General Máximo Gómez Báez, experienced in war in the mountainous Caribbean island of Quisqueya, had taught the lethal advantages of such relatively short swords in mounted combat. Still the short sword was not always an advantage in those battles. Grandfather, on foot, in the battle for Tunas, as I have already mentioned coerced surrender of a fort using a far longer and very flexible paraguayo machete, but that was against a fortified enemy hiding behind rifle slots.

My machetín was given to me by grandmother; I do not know why but it was a most treasured and useful possession. In the 1950s, riveted Bakelite® was the common material for machete handles.

This machetín, this short cutlass, was different. Its hilt had a boss of brass, and was made of leather disks over a steel spike that joined the blade. Its leather scabbard was short too, indicating that the machetín was designed to be used as a weapon, and not a mere mocho, a worn down old work machete.

I know that Grandmother had used the weapon to defend against the majás, the great rainbow boas that came of out the rainforest and pastures to eat her roosting chickens at night. Perhaps it had even been a war weapon in those nineteenth century wars. Some time before illness took her to a rocking chair I had seen her use the machetín. Even in her seventies dressed in solemn black, a nightmare of rage and vengeance, she would rush towards the roosts of the cackling scared chickens, machetín on high screaming a terrifying shrill war cry ready to cut the snakes in half if she could catch them. I now wore the weapon proudly thinking on its unknown, but surely bloody, history.

My mind returns to that coconut grove:

Our clothes are light and worn, t-shirts and jeans for us, floppy loose dresses for our young women kin. The weather is warm, but not overly so; thus, I guess, it is just the beginning of July. The hot August of the plains is yet to come.

The alliance of these bossy young women asks help to gather a few of green coconuts. They talk Cousin Cali, short for Calixto, into helping them collect these fresh coconuts. This is an old grove, the palms are tall, reaching towards the sky. Cali, much lighter and far more agile than I, could climb the highest palms. I could only climb far lower palms.

The young women, we call them “girls,” do not need the green nuts still hanging on the palms for their project. The coconut milk from the green fruit is for refreshment.

What the girls want is the firm white flesh of the mature nuts. They plan to mix the coconut “meat” with brown sugar to make the lumpy, crunchy, very sweet candies we call dulce de coco.

We were too old for such play at being children, yet we did it. Collecting mature fallen coconuts, we search as if for gigantic Easter eggs. The great nuts lay partially hidden among the decaying fallen fronds, sparse weeds, and discarded coconut husks under the high roof of the coco palms tops.

Flecks of lights shine down drifting and dancing brightly among the jumbled detritus on the grove floor. By this moving light, among the deep shade, we find what we seek.

Streaked gray on gray, the oval nuts are as if slightly deflated, slightly larger, American footballs. We roll the nuts over with our booted feet before we lift up our prizes.

We do this to drive away any guabá, the alacrán scorpions, great hairy araña pelu’a tarantulas, or centipedes so commonly found in the damp spot of matted crushed vegetation, where the coconut had fallen from far above. We do not fear them, for the bites these guabá are merely painful, not deadly.

As we lifted up the coconuts, we expose the damp and darker underside, and see the fine line cracks formed by drying that would, if left alone, allow the great seed to sprout. Little pill bugs scurry away, or holding on curled up to rise clinging with their many weak feet to the lifted nut, only to fall off to ground.

The hill behind the grove is still forested, steep and almost cliff-like, part of a low ridge. This ridge is at the end of the immense whale’s back at “Entre Ríos,” dead Grandfather’s more than 1,000-acre farm.

Ghosts of ancestors wander by:

This area of cliffs and rolling hills was a small part of the Marquis de Guisa land grant that Don Benjamín Ramírez had inherited in the early 19th Century. Don Benjamín then had seemingly endless land. Entre Ríos was merely one little section of it.

Grandfather had bought Entre Ríos from Don Benjamín at the beginning of the 20th century. Grandfather was proud and prosperous in his new position as Cuban Consul to Uruguay. He married Rafaela Petronila, one of Don Benjamín’s daughters.

Grandfather had needed Entre Ríos to give him the status of landowner, for Rafaela, his bride, would inherit far vaster lands. He married grandmother by proxy, more of a betrothal than a marriage, for she was then too young. She, madly in love sent him photographs of herself. Grandfather waited, satisfying himself with other women.

In Uruguay in 1906, grandmother would bear her first child of many, for eight would live. The first was Rosita, the most beautiful, Rosita the movie star.

The young couple was a union of first cousins; this was an accepted practice in those rural areas, and even condoned by the rigid Spanish clergy, who at first had resisted it until the force of practicality in these scarcely populated realms intervened.

Aurora Petronila was daughter of Manuela Enamorado, Don Benjamín’s wife. Manuela’s sister, Leonela Enamorado, had birthed Grandfather, during the 1868-1878 Ten Years’ failed independence War, against the Spanish. A love child of Leonela and the great general Calixto García Iñiguez, grandfather was born in the manigua forests of the wilderness

The war lost and her adventures done, Leonela shared the reflected glory of the famous General. After the end of the Ten Years’ War, General Calixto had rebelled again in a disaster called the Guerra Chiquita, the little war. The little war was fought in these very lands, and ended in a straggling march of perhaps half a dozen disillusioned survivors, their clothes ripped off by thorns and branches, their limp yuans dangling in naked defeat, on the banks of this very river. Calixto was held imprisoned in Spain and then held under watch for total of eighteen years.

Leonela had married a certain Spaniard by the name of Pérez. She settled down with him in Manzanillo and gave birth to another child, Eduardo Pérez. We called him “Tío Eduardo.”

Tío Eduardo was a rake, and a philanderer, even by Cuban standards. He had sired a number of children, including a daughter also called Leonela. One of Eduardo’s granddaughters, breathtakingly beautiful Leonela González became a classical dancer in the Cuban National Ballet.

Before the 1895-1898 War of Cuban Independence grandfather, of course, was named Calixto after his father. The young man grew up in the city of Manzanillo on the bay of Guacanayabo, lost from this coconut grove, beyond its sunsets to the west. He was educated in the de la Guardia academy there.

Calixto, the younger, was 20 in 1895 when he joined in the last war of Cuban independence, in a place near the mountains somewhat west of this coconut grove. The next day, Batista’s father Belisario also joined these Mambí fighters. Grandfather would become general like his father; Belisario would not advance to officer.

The war of 1895 was fought mainly on Cuban plains, since the Cuban Mambí were far more successful in this conflict than they had been in Ten Year War. At this time the Spanish forces learned to fear the complexity and abundance of ambush sites of this range. In this war, these Sierra Maestra Mountains were soon safe from Spanish.

Grandfather’s land was in the northern foothills at the place where the Sierra Maestra protruded most deeply into the Cauto River plains. This area had long been family refuge in times of war. This coconut grove was almost at the western hills’ northernmost limit. Yet to the east beyond the Guisa River and west of the Contramaestre, other hills extended miles further north of the town Guisa.

Going to our north, the ridge, the backbone of our farm, came to die, plunging beneath the ground, in deep lava edged pools at the confluence of the Guamá and Bayamo rivers. In modern times these rivers gave this piece of land its name “Entre Ríos” means between rivers, a Spanish name between Taíno waters. And that is what Grandfather called his hacienda.

Back to 1957

At the time of my part in this account, Taíno descendents, the Ramos, still lived there, at Las Bocas, the joining of the river mouths. They lived in a batey of tree-shaded bohíos, just where the waters met, and a mile or so north of this coconut grove. They too had a coconut grove, which was even older than this one.

We, prosperous, well-traveled and well-educated, tied proudly close to the war honors of our rebel Spanish side, denied our links to these peoples who called Grandfather, El Babo or the chief. Only the children of Grandfather’s eldest son, born out of wedlock, addressed Juan Ramos, with the title of “Tío” or uncle.

We did not know our origins well then; school was out for summer, so resting from our studies and not yet having to make a living, we peacefully played at working. We occasionally looked to the west and south, beyond the tree-screened high bank at the curving power of the now crystal-clear, but still fast running Bayamo River.

Beyond the river, the large boulder field and the much more extensive flat alluvial deposits gave testimony of the Bayamo torrent’s power. The river came to full strength to become a vast raging brown, boulder rolling, killing, flood in the time of heavy rains. We called these floods crecientes. We, and all who lived by that river, feared them.

We were carrying un-husked coconuts, surprisingly light for their size, and loading them into large panniers woven of yarey palm fronds. We called these panniers serones. And one of these serones was slung across the back of endlessly patient Avellana.

It was easy work; we were in the shade of the palms’ fronds; and it did not take many coconuts to fill the serones. We were bantering with each other in the light rivalry of siblings and cousins who cared for each other. We were having fun.

Suddenly he appeared, as if from nowhere, on foot,at the edge of the raised riverbank. He was coming from the river’s edge, moving south and upriver. He had crossed the riverside fence by slipping easily between the barbwire strands.

Then I saw René Cuervo for the last time:

René Cuervo was slight, and short; his brown hair combed slicked back and darkened with Vaseline. Despite the river crossings of his journey, his starched and pleated guayabera and pants were well pressed and clean. How these clothes defied the mud-smears of his journey is a secret only a successful, woman hunting, Montuno dandy could know.

Apparently unarmed and unburdened, he gave us a brief salutation. We returned his greeting with the warmth of family, and yet he did not stop as was customary in that sparsely populated area.

René just continued walking rapidly past the large, high, straight gray trunk of the jobo, hog-plum tree. Beneath the high canopy of that tree, he opened and closed a gate behind him, and disappeared up a pasture trail towards the southern mountains.

We of the family try to control of our beasts’ fate by fences. Good barbwire fences kept the pastures in good shape by helping limiting the grazing and allowing the grass to re-sprout and grow. By separating the animals, these fences also stopped the mules from attacking and killing foals. In addition these fences discouraged our massive Brown Swiss breeding bull from finding other bulls to fight with, or finding cows belonging to other owners and thus wastefully expending his expensive sperm.

These fences also stopped cows from straying keeping them from wandering near the dangers of the fast waters of the Bayamo River. We were told by our elders to keep the gates near the rivers closed, since cows drown far easier than horses, because water enters through the cows’ anuses even when they are swimming. Especially here near the river, we were careful to close all gates behind us.

Across the gulf of years, I cannot remember some details. Was René wearing a hat, or was the gate wooden, or was it simply was collapsible device made of barb wire strung between movable poles. However, I do remember he closed the gate, since René Cuervo like us, was trained in county manners. Neither of us knew that simple gate would divide the last semblance of Bayatiquirí from the spreading shadows of the land of Canaima. René was going to unknowing betrayal and death. A tale of his last days would take long to uncover, but now I know enough to tell of it in the next chapter.

Larry Daley copyright@1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006.