Monday, May 29, 2006

07b THE DEATH OF RENÉ CUERVO

07b THE DEATH OF RENÉ CUERVO

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

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