Wednesday, May 10, 2006



In these increasingly violent days of late 1957 and early 1958 to be “found suspicious” by Batista’s people was not good for your health. Paid informers were everywhere. It seemed that every week, young men, especially the non-Castro Student “Directorio,” caught or suspected to be trying to fight to restore democracy, appeared shot dead on the streets.

Havana press photographers took pictures of heads with rumpled black hair resting, but now unfeeling, on hard concrete. Their bodies were in the relaxed disorder of death, bullet-holed, sprawled and pallid because their blood was splattered in thin streaking splotches on walls and gathered in dark smoothly lobed pools on the ground all around the cadavers.

Published in the daily newspapers and especially in the magazine “Bohemia,” these graphic horrors served both as a warning and as an indictment of the ruling dictatorship. Strangely, only the Havana dead seemed important; here in Oriente Province, far from the capital, our dead were not commonly deemed, newsworthy.

In Havana, cousin MJ Norman and his friend Raúl Hernández had been caught passing the photographs from the offices of Bohemia magazine. They were imprisoned and beaten severely only narrowly escaping execution through intervention of powerful friends (more on this later).

Dictatorship brings rebellion, and Batista’s army was again trying to suppress rebels in the hills. These soldiers were known family enemies. About twenty-five years before in 1933, in Batista’s first dictatorship, there had been a small action on Don Benjamín’s estate, between the guerrilla forces of Gamboa, apparently linked to a Batista rival the violently radical Antonio Guiteras. Caught in between, two members of our untidy and very large extended farm family had been placed against a mango tree and shot.

Here in 1957, apprehension was commonplace. I knew that not being involved was not a guarantee of safety. Foreboding came to me with increasing frequency, drowning my youthful contentment in dark thoughts of powerless trepidation. It was as if life was this road, with places of bright sun and safety and shadowy dangerous gulches were death lurked waiting for the unwary.

The Guardia were also there in Guisa. They were headquartered in the fort they called the barracks or “El Cuartel.” At first they were Guardia Rural (Rural Guard) charged with keeping the peace in the countryside. Their uniformed were then US style kaki, with wide brimmed felt hats quadruple creased in World War I style, and full length well polished high laced riding boots. The Guardia would often carry 1903 Springfield rifles in a saddle scabbard, as well as .45 caliber revolvers in a holster at their sides, but they were essentially a rural police force.

The Guardia also carried a long flexible whip-like machete called a “paraguayo”, used to punish miscreants and to break up unruly crowds. The stroke of the paraguayo, which reached over the shoulders to lash at the unprotected back, was much feared. All polished leather, steel and kaki, the Guardia militaria was worn with pride, eliciting an aura that inspired trepidation by on lookers. Usually fearless, shielded, wrapped, in their pride, they rode in pairs high on their tall horses; they were the personalized law in the countryside.

Riding hard in the mountains the Guardia’s horses sweat profusely; and the heaving haunch muscles of their mounts metabolize to leave a trail of pheromones. Being a Guardia was a very masculine profession that the Güajiras and Montunas still admired, and many young country men still aspired to. Others hated their very presence. While these men on horseback seemed all powerful, they were unknowingly doomed. With the year these Guardia Rural would be terrorized, and after many executions they would be dead or gone.

In the late 1940s and the early 1950s the Rural Guard were a little more friendly to us since they were professionals, not political appointees. And they were always fed, as Cuban rural courtesy dictates, when they passed through. Lionel, my brother, tells me they were also given small gifts of money for protection. With some frequency the Rural Guard stayed overnight in one of the buildings of our compound which we called by the Taíno name of batey of grandfathers lands called Entre Ríos (between the rivers) but that most locals called “La Casa de los Generales”.

I remember the Guardia Rurales’s large trotting quarter-horses, really too big and too heavy for mountain work, and really uncomfortable to ride, tied up at a hitching post near the great kitchen were the workers were fed. However, with the increased repression, the horse mounted troops of the Guardia Rural, once a source of protection even friendship for the law abiding had turned to another fount of fear.

Arrested in Guisa

My thoughts on this are vivid, and as real as the day they happened:

Arriving at Guisa I go to the "almacén," a wholesale supply store. The store has a galvanized metal roof and is partially sunk below grade on the north side of the west road into town. I ready to make the purchases my brother requested. Outside there is hot sun, dust and the pungency of recently deposited horse and mule dung.

I go in. The store is cool and dark with a myriad of smells, the faint coldness of beans, the fine powder dust tickle of rice, the sharp smell of the leather on new saddles. Then riding above all was the mildly erotic stink dried cod. This was the smells of that eighteenth century vanity, the cod-piece. These are aromas of the tree the Montunos called “la verijua.” This tree when it was cut it gave off the pungent odor of “she of the great crevice” Mother of Taíno gods, She the Most High, Goddess of Caguana, Earth Goddess, Frog Woman. She is Atabeyra, Atabey, Atabei. Carved shell amulets of her great verija, her ready vagina, her plump lipped xoxa, open wide or closed tight, are still found near Holguín, close to where great grandfather was born, perhaps a hundred miles to the north.

Dried salted cod was then, as it had been for centuries a common and well accepted food in Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean. It had been known to the Europeans since perhaps before Columbus, and to the Indigenous peoples far longer than that. And comprised for centuries one of the three legs of the cod-rum-slave trade.

Then I did not know that its fishy aroma came from the decomposition of the protein in the dead fish’s flesh to (putrescine, cadaverine, spermine, spermidine, etc). These are compounds necessary for cell growth. These are the sex pheromones, the whiff of carnal scent of a well used vagina, a sharp smell of a penis during urination or the far stronger stink of a cadaver in decomposition. This is the trail that buzzards and cadaver dogs follow. Again death and life are linked.

My nose stings as it is cleansed by the alkaline scents of plain un-perfumed laundry soap. There is the powerful biting odor of cured hide from new rough leather shoes, the sharp smell of polish on embossed saddles, the cold-steel, teeth-grating taste-smell of canned goods, and dull black chill hardness of metal tools and deadly machetes.

I find myself engaging in an inane vehement discussion with one of the sons of the store-owner. The discussion is about being able to use algebra to decode his father’s price tags and deduce the wholesale price. I say it could be done; the boy quite upset and angry, but seemingly worried, says defensively that it could not be done.

Now a friend tells me that the Spaniards used phrases, like HIJO DE PUTA (with 10 letters that are not repeated) easy to remember and substitute in order: H for 1, I for 2, etc. It is a fool’s code, since even then I knew, from memories of hearing such in Sherlock Holmes films of WWII England that such simplified key phrase codes that letters have to be repeated in each use. Thus each particular letter has a certain frequency of use, the key phrase is readily revealed.

This very unwise discussion turns out badly for me. After all the almacén owners are Spanish, recent immigrants who still considered Spain as their mother country. They commonly do not feel Cuban; they speak Spanish differently frequently lisping as if in high Castilian. Often such Spaniards carry serious grudges against the Cubans who had broken free from the motherland, for in the Spanish view this humiliated and beggared Spain.

Now in retrospect, I do not know why I offended that kid. In those days, I was very young and very, very foolish.

Suddenly, for my memory still refuses to tell me how I got there I am in the Cuartel. It is something about permission to take goods into what is becoming a war zone:

I am within the thick concrete walls of the Cuartel being questioned by the Guardia Rural. It is a horrible helpless nightmare. Being here is so unexpected, and so full of impotent fear, no matter the prominence of my family, a wrong answer at the wrong time could cost me my life in this place. I am very confused about what is happening and did not know what to say to get myself out of trouble.

After a while, the almacén owner arrived and talked the Guardia into releasing me. It seemed that an item on my brother’s list -Coñac Fundador- was causing the trouble. The Guardia had believed that this cognac, supposedly both Batista’s and Castro's favorite brandy, was a special order. Thus they had falsely concluded that I must be a member of Castro’s supply system. Now I know that Castro’s supplies often came through Guisa. Lionel tells me that some of the stores on the heights of “Los Números” were part of the guerrilla supply chain.

Batista and his minions seemed to have a lot of information about the Castro brothers’ life. This is not so strange since much later it would become better known that Batista had links through marriage to the Castro’s and was said by some to be Raúl Castro’s godfather. However, I as most Cubans, were not aware of such links at the time.

The Batista and the Castro families lived near to each other in northern Oriente Province. The place Batista was born is called Banes (from Baní “the father of waters,” a river and a Taíno province part of the Cacicazgo of Bayamo). The place where the Castro family lived is called Birán, apparently named after the Taíno dog-god of death Opiyél-Guao-Birán.

Today as Castro fades, there is much discussion on this matter. The mother of the Castro brothers, Lina Ruz, is reputed to have been unhappy with her husband, and to share her favors with others. Raul’s male parent is usually referred to as the mysterious “El Chino,” the “China man.” One can speculate that Batista, for he was short and had Taíno features, or as others suggest, one of his army officers Gilberto Carrillo, or Felipe Miraval may have been “El Chino.” Who ever “El Chino” was, he has left his Taíno features stamped all over Fidel Castro’s, noticeably shorter, younger brother’s face.

I did know then that Batista had executed lots of the Castro brother’s followers captured after their failed attack on the Moncada barracks, July 26, 1953. However, although the Castro brothers were also captured, they themselves were spared. At the time this was attributed solely to the intervention of the Catholic Church. The Cuban press was never as informative as it could be.

All I cared about then was that although the Guardia Rural had set me free, now, and “forever” afterwards, for the Batista forces kept good records, they would always look at me with suspicion. I was terrified and found it wise never to go into Guisa again. I could not know that perhaps a year later, as a rebel I would help drive the Batista forces out that town.

So I stayed put for sometime more in grandfather’s fine house “La Casa de los Generales” in the foothills. Even there, beset with thoughts of terrors real and imagined, I did not feel safe.

Larry Daley Copyright@2001, revised 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006


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