Sunday, June 11, 2006



It is late in the spring of 1958, south of Guisa. We are in a rolling land of pastures, brush, tree-shaded coffee, and small woods, in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra.

We are escopeteros shotguns picket and range wide. We scout, we try to get weapons in every way possible, and we try to do whatever is required or needed to harm Batista’s forces. We lurk in the lower hills to screen, kill or capture enemy intruders and provide intelligence for the pitifully small number of better-armed main force fighters high in the Sierra.

Once in the time of Spanish conquest of the New World, escopeteros was a title given to honored soldiers. However, now this title brings no gratitude, those in main Castro rebel force, ignoring the fact that they are high in mountains and we close to the dangerous plains, despise us and our essential work. Is such mere military vanity of these elitist ambitious warriors; or does this as yet unexplained zeal for control of our leaders up there, bode ill for Cuba’s future. At this time we do not know.

We live off the land and requisition cattle to feed ourselves. The main-force rebels, while eating the supplies we help get through the Batista soldiers’ lines call us “Come Vacas” The Eaters of Cows. Later it will become apparent that the leaders of the main-forces despise everybody who helps them, for that is their nature, born of their ambition, ideology and life experiences. Much of what was done then by others is written out of Castro Governments’ official histories.

This is what I recall of how we gathered cows to eat. Cuba, with a population of about 5,000,000 people then had about 7,000,000 cattle. Cuban cattle were mostly large and healthy grass fed crosses of Zebu, Criollo (the rangy Spanish types that became the long horns in Texas) and Brown Swiss breeds. There were quite a few Holstein and Holstein crosses used for dairy and even some huge Charolais, before the revolution began.

This is a personal note of those times:

This incident is the one I recall most clearly. Details are an amalgam of memories of different similar situations of that time. The exact words of the dialogue are reconstructed and translated.

I clearly recall:

We walk at night. We, perhaps three of us, walk, well-spaced, in single file. We go miles and miles along footpaths, and the hoof-beaten earth of cattle trails. We follow truck tracks over karst, ancient lava bedrock, smoothed mud, and red, white or black dirt on the roughly east-west road that runs atop of the low ridge of Pueblo Nuevo.

We are walking west. We walk seeing all by star shine and moonlight. We cross pits of black in Caraya-cast shadows, and open expanses fuzzy-bright in the weak light. We walk easily in the blessed cool of tropical night.

The fear of ambush is a nagging presence, as always, when we travel. We walk fast, very fast, our shotguns, .22 caliber rifles, and revolvers always ready. Heavy dynamite pipe-bombs tied to our waists sway against our thighs. Many odors, faint tickle smells of dust, the sharper ferment of horse-apples in road mire, the bitter tang of our river-washed bodies, our rough-laundered clothing. Odors of nitroglycerine and the welded metal of the bombs are our companions.

We are young; our eyes now are fully dark-adapted. There are no electric lights. The stars are very bright and Caraya the big tropical moon is full. It seemed almost as if it were day.

In this light the white, karstic-limestone rock outcroppings gleam like ice-burgs, or white sails of ships. We walk now between the rocks on another dark sea of grass, wet with the heavy night dew of Cuba.

We walk on hard uneven ground slippery with the prone stems of wet grass trodden down by the first of our file. Our feet, slip a little, sliding slightly. We adjust easily and automatically, without conscious thought, to recover our walking stance. Falling is for the drunk and for city folk.

We turn north towards the plains but do not go far, to reach a small pasture on a gentle, east-facing slope. We are heading towards the house, where Mojena our leader, told us to go.

Mojena is not with us now. He is busy elsewhere, either with the war or with his women; we do not know which and do not question his actions.

We arrive at the "donor’s" house. It is a humble home that is more like a bohío than a house. It is roofed with pencas, royal palm leaves, and walled with crooked cuje poles that support yaguas, broad board-like palm petioles. It is flimsier than most cattlemen’s residences. It is obvious that this is not a rich man’s home.

We go out of the pasture towards the house. We pass through a rustic gateway. The “gate” is just four strands of barbwire attached, stretched out, to a pole. The barbwire extends about ten or twelve feet from the fence post to a pole. When this “gate” is closed, the barbwire is pulled taut from the stout fencepost to this pole. The pole is held upright, by two smooth wire loops, one high and one low, locked close and tight onto another thick fence post.

The lead rebel raising his arms high lifts the upper wire loop from where it is attached to the gate pole. Then grasping the gate pole with two hands he lifts it out of the lower loop. Even though it bothers us country folk to leave a pasture open, and so let the cattle wander, he does not re-hook the pole to close the “gate.”

The “gate” collapses, falling half-twisted, squirming like a thorny snake. Then slowly like the long length of a dying majá rainbow-boa, machete-chopped for chicken stealing, it becomes still on the bare well-trodden ground by the gateway. We drag the “gate” to one side to leave our way “clear.” Should we have to run, we do not wish to trip, cut ourselves, or fall on such a barbwire “serpent.”

We approach the house. Everything around the house is shadowed and unreal. No dogs come out. “Strange!” I think. We are so tense, our hearts beat fast. Over-educated as I am, I know that our well excited nervous system is almost ready to make us shake with excess adrenaline. The other rebels do not know such details. They consider such shivers cowardly and do their best to suppress them.

Could this be a baited trap, with hidden Batista soldiers waiting? I feel these could be our last moments on Earth; surely now I will burn in hell for things I have done or perhaps merely what I wanted to do? Will demonic tongues of flames come out at us through those thin yagua walls?

The others do not worry as much as I. They fear their lives will end in a hailstorm of gunfire ending life’s pleasures and all this excitement. Thus, although they feel fear, there is a kind of excited fatalistic tinge to all of this.

As in Ancient Imperial Rome dying bravely is a much valued art-form in Cuba, especially in these mountains. Perhaps my fellow rebels wonder, if they die here, how bravely they will leave life.

Somewhere near here, the Bandit, Edesio Hernández was shot, ambushed through a screening yagua wall. His forehead streaming blood, he survived, in calm courage he staring at his assailant. Will we behave as bravely if the flames of weapons at point blank range come at us, touching us, hurting us?

If they are there to kill us, our enemies’ faces will be screened by wall and dark. Or will the shots miss and give mere scraping wounds as with generous heroic bandit Edesio, who merely smiled, through the blood streaming down his face at the panicked then fleeing would-be assassin. Or will there be, we hope, no ambush at all.

Gathering courage, for we have a job to do, and driven because our young bellies need food; we move forward. Getting closer we see the house turn even more fearsome in its shrouded, silent darkness. We approach the door which is on the east side.

The dirt floor at the entrance is covered by a little awning of palm penca frond thatch to protect it from the rain and reduce the mud tracked inside. The door is flimsy, thin, unpainted, boards held together with bailing wire attached to a lattice work of cuje poles.

Knock, knock, one rebel escopetero is rapping on the door. He is me. Somehow I now hold the lead position, and thus stand vulnerable at the doorway. The rest of the rebels stand back a little way in a semi-circle waiting very quietly in the shadows.

The owner of the cattle comes to the door. He smells strongly of acrid nervous sweat. I cannot see into the house; it is too dark under the night and heavy thatch. I smell the tang of the wetted dust from the dirt floor behind him and feel the warmth of sleeping people.

The owner of the cattle sees and recognizes me; he is a little less afraid.

I think now about how I looked to the owner.

He sees that I am scruffy. My beard is too young and only grows on my neck like a ruff.

I do not recognize him; he must know me through my family. He must smell my jíbaro wild odor, although I bathe in the river each day there is little soap, and we have walked far tonight.

We are through sniffing at each other. He looks further into the darkness. He sees the other rebels and is again more fearful but tries not to let on.

After all, why should the owner be frightened? He is a supporter of the revolution and would do anything to help, right! Yeah right! He worries for his herd. He is not a rich man; to him each cow is a treasured investment.

"How are you?" I ask politely.

"I am well! How are you?" he says very cautiously, not challenging, not looking directly into my eyes. He is reading the red and black M-26-7, the 26th of July Revolutionary Organization, armband stitched to my right sleeve by the women of the family with whom we stay.

"Would you like to donate a cow to the revolution?" I respond in very formal Spanish.

"I would give everything to revolution!" says the owner, lying through his teeth.

"Which one, which cow?," ask I.

"How about my finest cow?” “That slim, and respectfully mature one, over there in the pasture. See the one standing on three legs scratching it self?"

"That would fine. Thank you very much for your support of the revolution." I reply, knowing well what is happening, and pleased that this is a safe and successful negotiation.

"Anything for the revolution!" the owner says trying hard not to curse under his breath.

We smell cow and dung and feel the heat of the animal’s body when we get close. Her great, beautiful long-lashed eyes are passive and resigned.

We lead the cow away, a rope around the animal’s neck. The old cow gently follows us, limping, as she walks slowly. The hairy tufted at the tip of her tail sways slightly like a tired pendulum as she goes. She is kind of roan in color. Her horns are short and their tips are clipped; she is a Criollo cow, not a wilder Zebu, and thus not dangerous.

We find we need to do surprisingly little prodding to take her to her death.

We walk far and finally arrive at camp near dawn. The cow is tied to a post and left there to rest. This is not a mercy, for to kill a cow when it is over-heated is said to make the meat taste bad.

Now the stay of execution is over. Pulling down on the rope tether, lowers down the cow’s head down exposing her vulnerable neck; her resistance is slight. Her head is lowered down nearly to the ground, as if to help her graze. Swiftly the triangular blade of a butcher’s knife chips at the back of her skull. Chip! Chip!

The cow falls down, almost gently with perhaps a little sigh. Blessedly unconscious now, her heart is pierced right through with the knife. She bleeds. The blood, lots of blood, spills dark in a large flood on the sloping grassy ground.

I, too gently educated, look away. Some blood sinks into the ground; some runs downhill in a thin river; some blood just pools and begins to clot. The flies gather to feast.

The chickens gather to eat the bloated flies; ants come to eat miniscule amounts of blood at the edges of the clotted mess. The animal’s guts, dragged far away from the house will soon start to stink. The cow’s complex offal, one stomach part full of half digested grass has burst.

A güajiro who lives nearby carries away the horned head on his jute sack covered shoulder to help feed his family. In the distance, as he disappears over the hill, he looks like a two-headed horned devil.

It takes about one cow a week to feed our group of escopeteros. This is more than enough meat for a day. We rebels, and the family of the place where we live, slice up, salt, and store the rest. We usually eat this meat salt or fresh after boiling it over a wood fire. For a cooking we use a square five-gallon can of the type then used to sell kerosene or lard. The can is blackened over the open fire.

We eat the meat unflavored, in large horrible chunks gristle and all. “Yetch!” However, the meat "smelt funny," going bad, even when salted, within the first week; so we gave much of it away.

Soon the supply of local cows ran low. The local people, who informed us of the opposition's movements, came to expect meat from us every week. When we had to cut back, these people grew very upset and nearly rioted. This surprised us; we had thought they liked us because of our cause, not our meat.

After the revolution there were many fewer cows. Most surviving cattle are government property. Now it requires special permission to kill a cow even if you are lucky enough to own one. Beef rations are extremely, almost impossibly, rare and usually reserved for the Castro hierarchy and tourists.

Cattle-rustling is common in Cuba today, even if rustlers are sometimes shot on sight. Some rustlers, especially one nicknamed “Zorro,” share their pilfered meat freely. Zorro, it seems, is quite popular.

Now living in US abundance, I hate beef to this day.

Larry Daley copyright@1997 revised 1998, 2000 and 2002, 2003. 2005, 2006.


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