Monday, June 12, 2006



In the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, the damp nights are cool. We walk on wet grass. The abundant tropical dew soaks our pants to above our knees and chills our legs.

My mind takes odd tangents of thought. Nothing is quite real.

The moonlight of Caraya transforms white karst rocks to ghost vessels. The jagged up-thrusts with their protruding crags and deep fissures turn into a fleet of tall sailing ships. Sheets of white canvas are pulled tight, reefed taut on many masts catch the weakest wind in the doldrums of this phantom Sargasso Sea.

As we move closer to the rocks, the tall ships appear to glide away, separating to let us go between them. A new breeze stirs ripples the surface of a night-darkened grass sea.

We are part of the dream world of Taíno myth. We are in Yuke the world of the white earth at night.

We move between these rock ships, ready to cross the dirt road to Guisa and take up positions. Our shotguns and .22 rifles are ready.

Amelio Mojena, our group leader, signals us to the far side of the dirt road. We move quietly and take up positions behind some much smaller, diente de perro, dog-tooth shaped rocks, facing the road. We feel the mental shift as we ready our minds to hit and run.

Our backs are to the dangerous north, which is casquito, Batista territory. The phantasmal ship-rocks facing us block escape to the south. The meager rocks in front of us on our side of the road are our last protection. To the north our unprotected rear is a pasture, empty, flat, treeless and without even the smallest rocks to hide behind.

We are exposed, and vulnerable. We worry at this circumstance; hairs prickle over our spines.

The road goes east, between us and the ship-rocks; then it turns to the feared north. It goes through the unfenced pasture and disappears behind some trees towards the garrison town of Guisa. It is from this eastern direction, from the garrison from where we expected the casquitos to come.

Lorente's men take the south, the safe side of the road, closest to our mountain refuges. They scramble quietly, each selecting where to hide from the road behind the good cover given by one of the tall rock ships. They are taking positions directly across, above and in direct line of fire, well within shotgun range, much less than 50 yards, from us.

We, Mojena’s men, look around, sizing up the situation. Without a word exchanged among us, each of us realizes that despite the deep shadows, we have very little cover. The way this ambush is set up, we, as well as the casquitos, would catch the gunfire from Lorente’s men.

This is not good. We consider the courage and capability of Lorente's followers to be very much in doubt. Their reputed communist affiliation and known readiness to murder raises fears. Even at this earlier time, Lorente’s men are not considered steady. This means they are unreliable in combat, and with no real ties of loyalty to us, they will not support us here.

They are the same escopeteros who, later that year, would be ridiculed for fleeing for mile after unnecessary mile from Huber Matos rebel forces. They would mistake Matos’ men, one of our better armed columns, for the casquitos.

The night is long, damp and chill. Here lost in Yuke, in this place of evil mabuyina, this realm of hupía and mabuya the Taíno ghost spirits and demons. Here I am less Catholic and my companions never were. We all feel the presence of haunting death. Our worries increase.

As we await combat and the night goes on, I remembered one of Uncle Calixto Leonel's books. It was an account of the fighting during World War II in the Balkans, in Yugoslavia. That was a three-sided war in which, the partisans and the royalist factions, who fought the Germans, and each other.

I had read how Tito's partisans would murder their nominal allies, the royalists, as readily as they would kill Germans. When they fought together, Tito’s partisans would set up joint ambushes to attack the Nazi forces, which would also kill their nominal allies, the royalists, as well.

In the Escolapios boarding school, I had seen the 1943 movie For Whom the Bell Tolls with Gary Cooper, and the most beautiful Ingrid Bergman. In this movie, the cowardly guerrilla leader, Pablo, betrays his allies to save his own skin, and steal their horses and thus escape more readily. Hemingway, who wrote the book on which this movie was based, knew well of what he wrote, for this story has its roots in real events.

Here in Cuba of 1958, we find ourselves in just such an ambush. We are in circumstances that appear intended to kill friend as well as foe. That Balkan trap, as described in that book, is unfolding here.

I begin to move ever so slowly out of the line of fire of Lorente's men. One by one, the rest of Mojena’s men follow. And lastly, Amelio Mojena, our group leader, does the same.

Our unspoken agreement is quite clear. We move from our cover. Each, in turn, sets himself up to protect those around him. Hiding behind every available rock, we move out. First, we move east, fearing betrayal more than the arrival of the casquitos, until we are out of the line of fire of the guns of Lorente’s men.

Then we move to the safer south side across the dirt road. We reach a flat, protected pasture between two rock ships. It is a better place for our purpose, yet still it is a place of honor, for here we will have first contact with the enemy. Here we stay put, ready to ambush the casquitos, safely out of the line of fire from Lorente’s people.

The casquitos do not come. As the sun rises the land of night and white earth with Taíno hupía ghosts and our living goeíza spirits, the world of Yuke fades.

We are back in the bloody wars of the twentieth century.

In the early dawn light, the danger of our former position becomes even more apparent. We had been completely under the guns of Lorente's men, behind small rocks no bigger than bread boxes. It was clear, that if we had been there, and the action had occurred, we would have had nowhere to run but the empty field going ever more northward into casquito territory.

Lorente's men are still there where we had left them. They are safe, on the south side of the road, high under the good cover of their rock battleship. Lorente’s men do not need to fear. They have the high ground and cover protected escape routes through the fissures in those great rocks.

As we pass, we look at Lorente’s men, and they look as us. We say nothing and they do not speak. Cautiously, our groups separate and go home in the dawn light to our respective camps. In my old age, I know that they, but not us were close to the secret cabal of the Che Guevara.

We know but do not verbalize our circumstance. Had the casquitos come, and we had been in our original position, the Batista forces would have been in crossfire between our two guerrilla groups. That would not have been good for the casquitos but not so good for to us either.

If we had stayed in that first position and the casquitos had come, we would be firing almost in the open. We would have been exposed not only to the Batista soldiers’ weapons, but also to the plunging downward crossfire from Lorente’s men.

Our weapons, fired direct and level at casquitos on the road, would probably not have hit Lorente’s men because they were higher and well-protected. Yet most of us would have hit, by our so-called allies’ downwardly directed crossfire. Then Lorente’s men would have run, as was the usual plan.

If we were not dead but merely hurt, we would be left there to fend for ourselves. Those of us who survived the crossfire would have been trapped. We would have been between the surviving casquitos on the road and the lead-spitting automatic weapons of the casquito rearguard which, led by trained officers, would have flanked us from the empty field.

Given a head-start because the casquitos would have been occupied killing us, Lorente's men would have a safe run home to the security of the deep, high, canyon of the upper Guamá River. Then our dead bodies, and those of the casquitos killed in the action, would have made Lorente a hero and earned him a promotion.

We, of Mojena’s escopeteros, returned to our own canyon hide-away on the upper Guisa River, far closer to the enemy. We were very disturbed by the implications of this event. It seemed that we had enemies among the rebel ranks; we did not know why, and we grew most cautious of Lorente and his men, yet there was more to it. I felt unformed fears as if we escopeteros were at sea in far too small a boat. Beneath us, I feared large dark shadows were moving in deep water. The others thought far less. It was only after a second similar incident at Gibraltar, towards the end of the book, when Lorente tried something similar were we sure that Lorente wanted to kill us. At that time we presumed that his motive was mere personal ambition.

What we did not know then was worse. Had Lorente’s plan worked; the Che Guevara and the Castro Brother’s designs for a communist Cuba would have advanced through yet another purge of rebels he thought less allied to his cause. After this war had ended, and when the country folk rebelled against communist restrictions supposedly Castro loyalist, Piti Fajardo would die in such a cross fire. We still do not know if Fajardo died accidentally or “accidentally on purpose.”

Larry Daley copyright@1996, revised 1999, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006.


Post a Comment

<< Home