Sunday, June 18, 2006



This is the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, in the times of the War against Batista. It is early summer 1958, before “La ofensiva,” the massive attack by Batista forces on the main line Castro forces strongholds high in the Sierra Maestra. We, the escopeteros of Mojena are visiting at Las Peñas, a short day’s march west of the Bayamo River. La Peñas is the new “Comandancia” (headquarters) of Universo Sánchez. We reach the place by hidden paths, through narrow side valleys, wading up narrow streambeds, and tree covered footpaths.

According to the harsh code we follow “La Ley de la Sierra” all who endanger the revolution can and will be shot. Spies are particularly important in guerrilla warfare and can easily harm a group of irregulars. Spies, or those who are thought spies by the rebels, are killed if possible and if they are caught, a summary trial is held and then they are executed.

Here at las La Peñas Comandante Sánchez is the one who issues commands and conduct trials against those who have in some way offended, or harmed, or believed to have offended or harmed “La Revolución. I am only beginning to understand this, and like it less and less.

Jácinto is the name of one such spy, I do not know his last name, and remember him as merely “Jacinto the barefoot spy.” I guard him and his companion as they sit in the dark of the bohío, now a makeshift prison hut, at this feared rebel Comandancia at Las Peñas, the place of the crags. Jácinto and his companion are of course condemned to death.

The dirt floor of the bohío smooth and hard; but it is only roughly flatterned to compensate for the slope of the ridge, except at the north end, where the floor is scooped out in a kind of shallow pit several feet below ground level. There are no windows just two doors, one up slope and one down. In the shadows of that pit, Jácinto takes off his shoes.

I am assigned to this guard having just returned from the summary trial of these prisoners. There at that trial I had said my thoughts out loud. Thus, unintentionally I had articulated a verbal protest, suggesting that the judgment deliberations had been too short. This had had not been well received.

A six to eight inch round log, served as a door threshold to help keep the dirt floor even roughly level and raised above the lower slope catches my eye and distracts my thoughts. That doorway facing down slope frames a bucolic view to east; the vista of such a beautiful landscape somehow mitigates my worries.

The other prisoner, the other spy, lighter skinned, thin, worn and older lies there. His head is bowed. The concentric circles of platted yarey palm fronds of his torn rain-yellowed hat cover his face. He is resigned, telling me the fatalist sophism, “Cuando te mueres, te mueres! When you die, you die!”

Jácinto, taller, stronger, darker and younger, says nothing. Jácinto’s tight curls on his bare head make clear his partial African heritage. Jácinto is doing something. What is it? I look closely peering into the deep shadows of the windowless north side of the bohío. He has removed his shoes.

“Why?” I think and look more carefully. Jácinto’s feet are broad the soles pale and callused. His toes are splayed. Perhaps, I think in puzzlement, his feet hurt and he wants to be comfortable before he dies.

My thoughts return to a few hours previously. Trial had just begun. Prisoners are placed in in the darkness of another, larger and very crowded bohío, a little further up the slope. Witnesses speak and as the judge pronounces sentence in a few minutes. And then the trial is over.

“!Tan corto! So short!” I had gasped. These words of my involuntary protest had been heard by the judge, he is of course our Commander Universo Sánchez, for he is the leader of this camp and this military zone.

Commander Universo Sánchez, one of Castro’s “original twelve disciples,” was a legendary figure. Thin and of average height, he had the lean long over zealous face of the true believer. Photos taken long months earlier show him clean shaven, but I recall him having a full biblical black beard, much like that of a Boer Patriarch, face severe and self righteous, rifle cradled in his arms, leading his large family, retainers and slaves in an ox-drawn wagon train across the veldt’s of southern Africa.

Universo, despite what you read in rewritten histories from Cuba, is known among us rebels to have a penchant for executions, not battles. However, he prefers to order death, not to give it. He was the same leader who had interrogated me when I had first joined the rebels; and who soon after left us. Now I am no longer that innocent and am absolutely terrified of him.

As described at length previously, a few months before during April 11, 1958 failed general strike when the Batista forces readied to attack in Arroyón my brother told me Universo aware of impending Batista action had, taking “El Mejicano” (“the Mexican”, Francisco Rodriguez Tamayo) who carried an M-1, a Garand rifle, apparently sought help from the main Castro forces, gone up to the heights of Los Números and beyond. At this time Universo carried a semi-atomatic shotgun, and even with this deadly “scattergun” he was not a good shot. That

I knew that from that embarrassing demonstration practice session in Arroyón

No help came Castro’s mainforces had retreated towards the end of the Strike. Thus, when the frightening news of the impending army attack on our camp in Arroyón, we now not only were missing our leadership but had no real war weapons. Lionel, from high up in Los Números, saw Universo and his companion descending from the heights starting to return to the camp. At that time there were no other main forces rebels with them, but there were other escopeteros around. When Universo and El Mejicano arrived at place where they could look down into the Valley of the Arroyón they saw the burning roofs of our encampment they turned and fled uphill again.

Universo also carried, if memory does not fail, a broom-handled Mauser, the kind young Winston Churchill used so effectively in the Sudan in 1898 and carried 1899 in South Africa. You know the kind that has narrow rounded handle like a hand broom or the handle of a butcher’s knife, and the clip is in front of the trigger guard.

Universo’s aide, his deadly feared lieutenant, had a sharp criminal mind under his wide brown felt hat. He was called El Mejicano that is “The Mexican,” his name is believed to be Francisco Rodriguez Tamayo. Later after this war was over, El Mejicano sent to kill an enemy by Castro would instead defect and it is said joined the CIA. El Mejicano would be accused, not very convincingly, of being linked to misdeeds by conspiracy theorists studying the Kennedy assassination.

That is the future, now after we routed at Arroyón in 1958 and our escopetero groups scattered headquarters had been moved to a safer place here at Las Peñas. Universo and El Mejicano stand together gathered in the center of power at one end of in the shade darkened hut; they were conducting the trial.

El Mejicano already has a reputation as an effective guerrilla. He is reputed to have been in action at the second “battle” of Hombrito (August 29, 1957), where he killed a Batista enemy while armed with only a single shot .22 rifle. Much of our view of things in the Sierra is not quite real, for here in this wild land myth: war legends, oral tradition and reality intermingle. El Hombrito is a rise a shoulder on a minor mountain and means the place of the slight shoulder, or the small man which may also mean the place of El Jigüe, the little black Taíno demon of forest pools. El Mejicano, unlike his superior, is an excellent shot. Now after last years terror being coerced and nearly shot by El Che, he has become almost demonic, in his devilish fervor and obedience to any command.

El Mejicano now, in early summer of 1958, if my memory serves, wears a Luger pistol at his side. Perhaps it had been Uncle Levarbo’s Luger the one, that when I was younger my uncle when drunk used to shoot. He had shot at the fearful hupía ghosts of anti-Batista Gamboa rebels, killed in 1933, who haunted that rocky eerie pass of the Barrenos, where the winds cross between the Valley of the Guamá and that of the Bayamo River.

These ghosts would come to Uncle Levarbo, when he was in his cups. They came in his drunkenness to torment him with the fears of his narrow escape from Batista forces in 1933. Levarbo had what we now call now DSS for Delayed Stress Syndrome. We know now that DSS ghosts haunt many who have seen the face of war. We as children just thought him very strange.

In 1957 El Mejicano, I understand, had first been part of a rebel band lead by childhood acquaintance René Cuervo the son of “Cuervo” the shop-owner and barkeep of Guamá. Cuervo means crow in Spanish; the crow is always a symbol of death. Levarbo often drank at the Cuervo bar.

A Luger is not a common weapon, and even less so in Cuba of that time. It is prossible that Levarbo sold that Luger to René for drink, or gave it to him, for they were neighbors in Guamá. It is also possible that the Che Guevara took it from Levarbo when my Uncle was capture and held at La Hortaliza, which is someplace near Números Lot 9. The Hortaliza is where, according to my Great Aunt Manuela Jimenez, the Che buried some of the dead he executed. How El Mejicano got it the Luger I do not understand.

It seems that the Che, like escopetero leader Desiderio Alarcón, took Levarbo prisoner because he was seeking the non-existent weapons used by the Guiterista Gamboa rebels who were fighting here against Batista in 1933. Apparently neither the Che nor Desiderio knew that this 1933 revolt failed to prosper for lack of weapons. Eventually in desperation Desiderio burnt down some of Levarbo’s batey buildings. Including the barn that the fighting cocks were kept during their training.

The Mexican, El Mejicano, had barely saved his own life when the Che Guevara, had ordered René Cuervo executed, on spurious charges. The Che, it was said, disliked Cuervo because Cuervo was a better and braver leader of men than he. And so the Che, who liked to kill, had ordered a deceptive plot to assure the destruction of his fleeing rival. The Mexican also tried to run away, but was caught and apparently not executed because the Che was losing too many of his own men that way. Still now El Mejicano knew he could show no generosity to his assigned victims or he would join his putative former leader in the grave.

One could speculate that El Mejicano might have been the rebel who in 1957 the Che Guevara ordered to kill René Cuervo after he was caught. This is because El Mejicano was there and there were few rebels then, and especially because that gruesome execution, according to Guevara biographer Anderson, had involved a .22 rifle and took several shots. Firing repeated shots is not usually a problem with the .22 rifles unless it is of the one shot type as in the kind of weapon said used by El Mejicano at that time.

However, this execution description carried out in September of 1957, according to Anderson involved killing a “big man”, and as mention previously René Cuervo by no account was a large man.

Now back to early summer 1958, when I was a rebel with only a few months experience as an escopetero.

At the summary trial which was for these prisoners after I had said “! Tan corto! So short!” Universo had looked towards my direction. His aides had looked too, the whites of their eyes visible in the huts darkness, following his searching gaze.

I held my breath. Universo had not seen me and he said “? Quien dijo eso? Who said that?” Universo obviously had little tolerance of critics. Later I was to realize clearly that these trials were meant to terrorize all, at the time I was just scared for myself.

With great fright, while making a personal promise not to think aloud again, I had admitted that it was me. Quickly I realize that Universo is suspicious to the point of paranoia. I am lucky not to be a made a prisoner myself. I fear him. I am rebuked in some fearful way that I do not remember.

Now in that hut, still shaking from my unwise and dangerous remark at the trial, I kept wondering why Jácinto took off his shoes, but I do not say anything.

My guard duty is up, evening is approaching, and so I go outside and taking my semiautomatic tube fed .22 caliber rifle with me. My replacement with his old .44 Winchester lever action rifle takes my place guarding the two prisoners in the hut.

I look around me. The place is etched in my memory. We are on a lower, but still high, part of the steep ridge, covered with tree shaded, coffee groves. The taller shade trees were algorrobos, tall trees with spreading canopies and rough bark cracked in irregular short gashes. These trees can have trunks as wide, or wider, than ancient oaks; but while these are young trees nowhere near the majesty of their full gigantic growth they are already large.

Now in the twenty first century as an academic in the plant sciences, I mine my memory of that time and place it the context of I have learned and done in my long studies. In the English speaking tropics these trees are known as rain-trees, and much admired for their vast spreading umbrella like canopies perhaps 200 feet across.

In Cuba the leguminous pods, the fruit of these trees, are a favorite food of cattle which the beasts eat as they gather to rest in cooler shade under their shade, out of in the pressing prickly burning light of noonday sun.

In a cycle of life the seeds of these trees pass through the cattle to germinate and grow throughout the potrero pastures. Once these algorobo seeds had most probably been eaten by the ground sloth that spread the seeds of forest, but that large, hairy smelly beast has been gone from Cuba for at least a thousand years. This ground-sloth, perhaps the mythical monster mapinguari with its killing fangs, has joined the great Cuban condor and the huge ground hunting owl that once wandered these lands.

In the far less poetic English speaking Caribbean, this tree is called by the laconic un-poetic name of cow tamarind. For me these trees will always be named in rolling Spanish sonority: “Al-go-rr-ooo-bo-oo!”

Beneath the soil, there is another world, in silent darkness. Here the little root tips of the leguminous algorrobo trees, nitrogen fixing bacteria work their miracle gathering fertilizer from air. The coffee trees feed on the rich nitrogen in the fallen pods and leaves of the algorrobos.

The coffee trees are in rows that go almost vertically down the hill. Dead leaves thickly carpeted the spaces between the rows of coffee. Here along these rows, in harvest season, the coffee pickers stand to collect the ripe red coffee cherries. Beneath the dead leaves the guabá: spiders, centipedes and scorpions hunt; further beneath them the earth is black with humus from the droppings of worms that feed well on the rich organic matter.

To the north are tree dotted hot pastures. There the soil is red with iron oxides. The view is alternately dusty reddish yellow in the dry or dotted with emerald green trees and streaked with purpled veined grasses, in the muddy rainy season. This land holds the ancient and future battlefields of the hot Cauto River plains.

On these plains tip feathered caña brava bamboo and galleries of trees, often tall elegant royal palm, run in long lines along slow streams meandered through the long lasting mud of swamps. Caña brava, in Spanish “brave” can mean showy, is a giant grass that in winter, shelters migratory birds by the millions under its feather like blooms. Through most of the year these palms drops their palmiche fruit to feeds tame and feral pigs.

Now the vicious leaping Cuban crocodiles that once lived in these streams were mostly gone. My readings fill in more of my memories. Near here, hundreds of years ago, Hernando De Soto had fought and slaughtered Taínos. A Taíno guazábara warrior had nearly killed him hurling with great force a large ciba stone. The Taíno warriors, brave Ya-Hatuey and Guarina, adulterous Guamá and his fanatic woman warrier Casiguaya also fought and died near here.

In Cuba the beauty of the land hides many such memories of death. Grandfather had fought here too 1895. Last century in the 1895 war, here on these plains, Spanish armies had been ambushed and defeated at Peralejo and other places. Horses and herds of cattle ran churning the no longer tranquil running streams. Here the waters had run red with blood from wounded men, horses, supply cart oxen and herded cattle. Desperate killing cavalry charges had stampeded cattle. Bright red gore had mixing with fine brown silt rising from the muddied bottoms of the Babatuaba stream and the Mabay River.

After the battles of the 19th century wars, the wounded and dying men, horses and cattle cry out; they scream, whinny and bellow their pain. Then the cries fade. The surviving combatants exhausted, stiff from effort and wounds, often caked with blood, stunned by the loss of friends, move on to other deadly actions. Wounded men and beasts die or stumble off. On the abandoned battle field, still bodies display great slicing wounds from machete, saber and paraguayo; blacked gore clots over red flayed muscle, and fat white and pink strings of guts gather flies.

When Carlos Manuel de Cespedes lead the first revolt against the Spanish, great grandfather, as a young man, was among those who did battle at the Babatuaba creek below in 1868. He had fought all over these plains in three wars, as the leader of Cuban forces in the province he sent his men to fight here again in 1898. The delay of a Spanish reinforcement column at this place had been one of the causes of the defeat of Spanish in the battle for Santiago in what most call the Spanish-Cuban American War.

After that 19th Century horror the plains returned to almost silence. Yet there are time silenced memories of the gathering auras vultures descending flap-snapping their great dirty wings as if canvas sails catching wind. And in the 1950s there are still some old ones who recall of the sharp stench of dead flesh that grew fouler, when the codfish scents of cadavering, and decompostition faded and vanished in cleaning breezes going west to the warm seas.

In 1930, close to here according to Corona (2002) Mario Fontaine y Gerardo Veloz found the first communist cell in that area. Grandfather was correct when he talked about troubles with communist in these mountains. Thus, in 1958 all that ancient violence is gone except in the memories of the oldest, and in the written records of those times. Those troubles have been replaced by new blood spilling. I will pass through here again, unarmed but a main force member, carrying ammunition for Column 1 on about the 18th of November, 1958.

But now I am still an escopetero, guarding prisoners. The great forests of the plains are gone too; they leave as only memorial the minerals that now feed imported African grasses and a few great survivor trees. The great sacred Ceiba, tall, thick and smooth, stands solitary now that its forest subjects are vanished. Sporadically rain-trees grow, spreading shade over pastures and sheltered cattle. While in the gullies and the alongside the creeks those majestic royal palm grace the now cultivated plains. The ancestral lands around the Babatuaba stream are now held by the Cespedes family again, and again war will come here, and again they will lose their lands.

Back again to early summer of 1958, Las Peñas, is our new Comandancia.

This place is to the south of the plains and on an exposed northern slope of the Sierra Maestra foot hills. It is west of the Bayamo River, and only a few solitary low hills, each with their crowns of cayos de monte, islands of trees, interrupt the view northward. Now in this time of renewed battle, the hills, trees, the seas of grass of the plain await their days of violence again. The distance hides the dreaded Batista strong point of La Granja on the Central Highway west of Bayamo.

La Granja was once owned by Mr. Haynes, the well liked American pig breeder. Mr. Haynes had donated it as a place of peace and prosperity to show prize cattle and exhibit livestock. Generous Mr. Haynes is gone; and will not see this desecration his kind purpose.

Now La Granja is a garrison, a prison, and a place of death. By the Central highway side of the garrison was the truck weighing scales, and inside the massive concrete of the scales’ at swampy lower levels are torture chambers. Here in these dungeons anti-Batista rebels and innocents, all immersed in filthy water, are dying in pain.

The country people finding themselves between two growing poles of terror, as they hear new rumors of rebel executions at La Peñas and recalled the older, but continuing news of Batista soldiers’ killings in the La Granja and at the Oro of Guisa. All is the horrible balance of horror of a guerrilla war. War will soon add to mere murder spill more blood on to these plains. More stinks will rise to the blue skies.

To the south west the ridge rises sharply, across many steep valleys, and many other ridges, towards the Turquino Peaks and La Plata Castro’s headquarters. To the immediate south the ridge drops through these rain-tree shaded coffee grove, and then rise more steeply to a higher and higher ridges. There Castro’s main forces hold forth. We escopeteros are far closer to the plains where we wander at night below the flights of bats, mingling with living goeíza spirits of the doomed, and watched by hupía ghosts of the dead.

To the east, the jumble of tall hills turned into mountains as their ranks of ridges, and hidden valley trails go south undercover of the remaining giant rainforest trees of the mountains. These eastern hills and mountains block the view of the unseen Bayamo river valley, where my family and I had lived in the Casa de los Generales. Looking that way I longed for more innocent days.

As I stood there looking at the view, outside the uphill door, the other rebel whose name I cannot recall, but knew he was educated and from some small Cuban city, was on guard duty; so I thought it unnecessary to be alert. I sat thinking then dozed.

There was a commotion. Jácinto, the prisoner, suddenly jumped up, and then leaped over the log threshold out the down slope door of prisoner's bohío. As he landed, Jácinto zagged to the north, out of the guard’s line of fire, running behind the wall of the bohío.

We ran forward, I through the up slope door into the hut. The other rebel, guard on duty, ahead of me. Now through the down slope door, I heard the guard’s Winchester fired twice, exhausting its ammunition, and I came out south door, now wide awake, my small caliber rifle ready.

I could see nothing; but I could hear the crashing of breaking coffee branches, and rustling sounds as Jácinto leaped in successive bounds, further and further down the dead coffee leaves of the slope. Then there was quiet.

A search with all available guerrillas was hurriedly organized, painstakingly carried out, to yield nothing. As the exhausted searchers returned, we realized that Jácinto had gotten clean away; and from him, we knew that the Batista’s forces knew our exact location and the reality of our weak military strength.

The worn prisoner, the other spy, just lay there inside the hut his will to live gone, replaced by acceptance of his soon coming death. El Mejicano stood up the remaining prisoner; he walked him out of the hut and up hill. Probably, El Mejicano asks him some questions, I do not hear what is said but apparently the old prisoner’s answers are not satisfactory.

Then the El Mejicano returns walking down hill towards the prison hut with the old worn man walking in front of him. I am at the upslope western door, just sitting on the log threshold at the stoop, my back uphill. My feet rest on the lower floor inside the hut. El Mejicano stops and asks me to execute the prisoner. Thinking what a mess my .22 rifle would do, how many shots might be required, and not wanting to kill him any way, I having already lie and say instead that my courage was not sufficient.

That was that. As El Mejicano passes by me; entered the hut with prisoner in front; he shoots the old man in the base of the neck. It is quick, not too loud, and seemingly surprisingly simple. The Luger Parabellum 9 mm bullet does its horrible task, and prisoner falls dead, right beside me. There is no exit wound; I do not notice blood.

El Mejicano says “get some men and bury him.” That I do, telling some prisoners who had already dug the grave on the lower eastern side of the hut to put him in. They lifted and carried the corpse to its resting place; they swing the body across the hole and drop it in. The body falls, and lies there on its side folded slightly at the waist. There still is no blood; the old man’s mortal wound is not visible. The dead man looks so small in the big pit meant for at least two; the prisoner’s shovels cover him with subsoil of red clay dirt. There is no talk, and no service except for the silence of the grave digging prisoners and my own fearful and silent thoughts and prayers.

He, old spy is the first human, I have ever seen die violently, and his death is far quicker than most others that follow. Under what I remember as a Guásima, bastard-elm, tree the old worn man’s body went to that underground world of worms, larvae, fungi and bacteria to decompose; then to reassemble and re-emerge as part of that same bastard tree.

Jácinto would show up again that year. Many years later it came to me, that the El Mejicano had saved my life, for surely my execution would have followed if Commandant Universo had known of my refusal. The Mexican went westto middle Cuba with the Che Guevara and became a member of the “suicide squad,” and said witness the bribing of Batista military officials to betray their own forces.

Some say he, the Mexican, El Mejicano, was sent to Florida by Castro on an assignment of assassination, but defected and did not carry out his mission. There are even some who tie El Mejicano to conspiracy theories surrounding the President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, accusations that I find highly improbable, and far more likely to be product of disinformation from Havana to cover up Castro’s involvement in this still not publically understood conspiracy. In this alternate view Fabián Escalante Font, a former head of Cuban counterintelligence, is the orchestrator of this act, since he met with Lee Harvey Oswald a month before this happened. A favorite version of this conspiracy theory is the involvement one which involves Juanita Dale Slusher, better known as “stripper” Candy Barr.

The Mexican was last seen, some time ago, in Miami friends tell me he was fat and rich, and betting on illegal cock-fights. Universo Sánchez is believed no longer under house arrest in Cuba for killing a communist official who denied him a meager extra milk ration. The decades of exile pass slowly, age comes to all that survive; here I pour my milk from a gallon jug.

Larry Daley copyright@1996, revised 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006


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