19. THE DAY I MET HUBER MATOS
19. THE DAY I MET HUBER MATOS
It was late August or the very first days of September 1958. Batista’s best troops, defeated in highest mountains, had withdrawn from the Sierra Maestra. We, Mojena’s “gente,” Mojena’s men, still escopeteros, were waiting, marking time with harassing actions, while the main force rebels were now taking the offensive. We knew that war on the plains would be lethal. We worried that with victory so close we might not survive.
We are camped, in our semi-permanent headquarters, fairly far up the
Then I carried a 22 rifle, tube fed, semiautomatic target rifle, which really was quite accurate and unlike the .410 shotgun I had carried before had range, but I knew that wounds from its light ammunition lacked the cruel “shock” of the heavier bullets of an effective war weapon. This recently acquired rifle was all that there was, then and I was glad to have it.
This was the rifle that Uncle Calixto Lionel was so fond of, and loved to shoot with. In the days before this war, he had taught me to shoot with it at the little target range he had set up on the north side of the Casa de los Generales. Somehow the large enclosure just beyond, with its orange trees, carpet of malva forbs, and the large coop for different fowl that were kept for our consumption never suffered damage. Neither did this seem to damage the quartet of free wandering vicious geese that noisily paraded their dominion over all at that place. Perhaps, for memories condense time, these fowl had already been moved from there.
Uncle Calixto showed me, how to hold my arms, left arm elbow bent vertically down. My hand, with fingers extended, cradled the smooth wood beneath the barrel. Uncle Calixto taught a less usual trigger pull used by those with smaller hands. My other elbow was bent sharply and horizontally to the right, right forefinger pointing along the barrel, and the stronger middle finger gently resting on the trigger.
Uncle Calixto taught me how to align the sights, making the front site appear to fit, sharp in the flexible focus of the eyes of youth, into the slotted rear site. Uncle Calixto taught me to breathe in then release most of the air, and only then slowly squeeze the trigger.
The targets sat up on narrow wooden board impaled into the earth, amid a sparse row of Opuntia cactus that Aunt Aida had planted. She was my Uncle Calixto’s wife. We called her Tía Aida to her face and sometimes the dragon lady behind her back. She had an elegant face with a straight long nose, and long black hair, slim, beautiful, and also arrogant, ambitious, and willful. We as children feared her scolding tongue.
At the end of the rifle range, suddenly perhaps on a single day per season or per year flowers appear on the cactus. These flowers are startling large, complex waxed yellow and orange blossoms that opened for this magical time drooping on the green fluted thorny stems, exposing thin elegant long sexual organs to delight and entice the tickling pollinating insects. Then fertilization done, in a day or so the flowers had drooped, soon they had completely wilted and then were gone. These flowers were a reminder of the swift passing of opportunity and the ephemeral nature of life.
Uncle Calixto, who was a stout man, short, square faced, with light olive-brown skin and with wavy black hair receding from a wide forehead. He ever conscious of creature comforts would fire the weapon from the raised north veranda, careful not to resting the rifle on the wooden rail. He used a telescopic sight and was a very- excellent shot. As Uncle Calixto fired, the ejected spent cases rose from the rifle and fell, tinkling and bouncing on to the ornate tile of the veranda floor or going through the carved railings into the lush tropical shrubs of the garden below.
I stared and tried to decipher the cryptic writing engraved on the .22 caliber casings bottom. I peered to examine the sharp rectangular edge, a wedged shaped little dent, left by the off-centered firing-pin, as it struck at the bottom edge of the rimmed base, to trigger the primer that ignited the powder to send the little bullet on its way.
Then I most especially remembered the thrill of the smell of cordite as the nitrates filled the air. When the inhaled smoke reached my lungs and blood, I can still feel how the excitement deepened, and remember how my heart responded by beating faster. It was the English Guy Fawkes day all over again, noise and sounds of gunpowder and taught memories of dire and ancient plots against puritanical authority.
Uncle Calixto’s undergraduate English degree was from Tulane. One day in his future exile, he would be a professor here in the
“When I was young the old man said
I thought it would injure my brain
Now I am perfectly sure I have none
Why I do it again and again.”
I listen then and never forgot the strange madness of that scene.
Uncle Calixto had owned at least part of the bakery in the Corojo, which employed a long thin young man known as Beto Largo, or Bert the Long. Beto had been assistant baker. He was the same baker’s boy, who, in innocence and fear, had made the mistake of returning an M-1 Garand rifle that the Batista army had dropped during ambush.
After the Baker’s boy was hung by our rebel group, a matter that stills fills me with guilt although Mojena had ordered I not be there, a terrified message reached me at El Sordo. I hurried over the long road and paths and trails to Entre Rios grandfather’s land where I had lived before joining the rebels.
There, I remember Che el Grande giving me Uncle Calixto Lionel’s hidden weapons. He of course is not Ernesto the Che Guevara. Che el Grande is one of Uncle Calixto Lionel’s foremen, and he is now in charge of farm operations within the Batey of Casa de los Generales, the houses, storage areas, and industrial part of our family’s plantation.
Che el Grande, tall, strong and terrified, leaves me an urgent message. I ask Mojena he gives me permission. We meet in secret and at night on the road of the outer batey of the Casa de los Generales. We stand at the meeting, a little distance away for the edge of the cliff above the lagoon, close to the Casa de Alto, under the Indian almond tree, by the dull white gleam of moonlight that reflects off the flat empty concrete of the coffee drying aprons. Nicia hovers in the back ground trying, wishing to help, and fearing for her lover.
Although physically so tall and strong, Che el Grande is close to tears and almost trembling. He apparently feels I am, as a surrogate for my family’s traditional leadership, his only chance at salvation from execution. He also fears me, and yet I am alone, much, perhaps a foot shorter, with my then puny weapon the .410 shotgun.
We stand a moment in the coffee scented night shadows outside of the Almacén, which contains the “Descascaradora” an assembly of large machines that shell coffee. All this secrecy strikes me as absurd, but Che el Grande is scared and we escopeteros need all the weapons we find.
We enter into the unlit space through the main warehouse door, by the little desk where the coffee size and other quality analyses were done, and where the small beam balance scale stood. On the desk’s unfinished wood, dimly lit by the light of a hurricane lamp held by Che el Grande are the sharp stainless steel cone shaped hollow daggers called “grain thieves.” These tools are used as if in a killing. One quick and violent thrust to bleeds the coffee samples from within the sacks. Strangely having penetrated and savaged the sack, these “grain thieves” do not break the burlap open, and on withdrawal the weave closes in on itself again.
We reach the sorter and the little elevator device that feeds it. The drum of the sorter is as large and as long as a small fuel-oil truck and reaches much higher than Che’s el Grande’s head. In this dimness, weak light reflects off the polished metal of small little chutes from where the different grades of coffee had dropped out in a clattering cacophony to fill hundreds of sacks.
The big gasoline motor that drives the Descascarador machinery sits in the northwest corner, all black heavy cast metal and iron spoke drive wheel that turns the drive belts of the equipment. This is the machinery that dead Uncle Rafael, the engineer, had installed with so much care and hope; it was no longer in use because of the war. Its noisy belts, wheels and cogs, and rhythmic powerful stroking pistons of the engine are now silent
The eight inch polished tubing of the waste pipe which when working ejaculates coffee residue with many earsplitting noisy banging sounds is now silent. Now there are no spurts of broken black sun dried coffee shells, and yellow white chaff of coffee parchment. There no smell of hot burnt fuel and heated metal. There are no traces of sneezy pulses of dusty ground coffee parchment and cracked coffee shells. All I smell is the sedate odor of stored, “green” coffee, and the kerosene of the hurricane lamp.
The scene is eerie, black and white, like some horror old film. The machinery just sits there as if brooding doing nothing. The waste ejection tube is straight and still, a dead shining silver snake, lying along and across the floor its head disappearing, through a hole in the rough concrete of the inner northern wall to the outside. It does not vibrate; it is just still; because of the war’s advance our family sells no coffee now.
On the same wall, above the motor a square open and un glazed window, looks north under the roofs wide eaves; and a little further east along that wall, is the closed wide door of rarely used loading dock.
I did not open that wide door, for I know that outside are the machinery’s leavings, an acre or so of two or more feet thick layers of coffee shells, fermenting and rotting to compost at the base of an unused concrete covered well.
To the foreground west and the left of the well, bare of leaves, stripped of berries, young dead ateje trees are stark and dark against the night sky. They died their roots suffocated and poisoned by the effluents leached by the rain from the discarded coffee waste. Yet they still stand, trunks reaching upward as if killed while petitioning life, the trees extend stage after ascending stage of dead whorls of horizontal limbs in ladders towards the stars.
The wellhead is a concrete pill-box shaped dome about fifteen feet in diameter, tapped in its center by a bulbous, long handled manual water pump erect like an alternating thin and bulbous African sculpture. It is too dark to see that hand pump, but I know it is painted red or what my color blind eyes interpret as red.
That well is now polluted with coffee leavings. The pump if used now will bring forth, not the clean water of before, but coffee smelling golden-brown fluids. For years now, this well has been replaced by a far more modern set up, that pumps clean water from down below the cliff, to a large concrete tank -how Uncle Rafael loved to build with concrete- on the hill above us.
I also did not see, but also knew that below the outside of that square window was a massive iron caldron, called a “pila.” The pila is about ten feet across, basin shaped, only perhaps five feet deep at the middle, the lowest part of its concave bottom. It sits there in the solemn permanent way a heavy mass of iron sits upon the yielding ground, at the very northwest corner of the building under the drain spout. It is painted, yellow I think, to avoid rusting for Uncle Rafael had cared for all his equipment. Now it is used to collect rainwater from the roof of the Almacén warehouse, in case of fire or other emergency need of water.
This massive pot looked like, but was even larger than, those used in cartoons to portray cannibal food preparation. As a young teenager thought, if one were to stand inside the always full, caldron, as if one were fictitious cannibal meat, the water would reach almost to one’s neck.
Then, I did not know that the original cannibals, the Caribbean Caribs, cooked their victims over an open fire. These raiders had invented the barbeque, preferring flavorful roast, not insipid ajiacos of boiled human stew. Besides this method of roasting released in the barbeque’s smoke the taint of the manchineel tree-sap poison. This is the poison sap hacked from the bark of the Hippomane mancinella tree, the tree that bears “Columbus’s apples” that kills horses, and was what the Caribs used to envenom their arrows. Manicheel sap, when diluted is reported to increase sexual desire, but of course the Caribs knew exactly how much it took to kill, and how to cook their “meat.” This is not exactly what “one should try at home.”
This secondary effect was significant since while the Caribs short term goal was to kill and eat their Taíno enemies, they also had long term objectives taking the most attractive Taína women for their pleasure as wives and to provide for their leisure by working as their small conucos crop plots as field slaves.
It is common to view the Caribs as conquerors and wonder why they held strong in minor
Such a circumstance came about because of the ability which Arawaks were able to fuse mingle assimilate with even the Carib culture, and later the Spanish and Portuguese. Now in these Cuban mountains of the 1950s the Güajiro culture mixes its Spanish and Taíno, African and Canary heritages in seamless fashion. The Güajiros have become a warrior race, swift and inexhaustible on the march, and wise in the cunning ways of the manigua forests. The Güajiros are the food fed to the gods of war in the battles for Cuban independence, and in this and other civil conflicts.
In the afternoon when the clouds darken the sky and release their burdens, the endless thousands of drops of tropical rain gather together on the Almacén’s vast roof. Raindrops unite to pour down the rainspouts to fill the caldron readily. Then the caldron spills over forming smooth water falls over the rimmed metal sides, and these waters run down hill to divide and to be lost in the fermenting coffee rind compost. Then on filtering and purifying through layers of rock to the underworld of Cuban waters that feed the rivers, trees and clouds of the plains and finally return to the warm seas from whence they came.
This area, as much of these hills, is part of one the most traditional battle grounds of
In this mill is a molino de sangre, for here flesh and blood oxen drove the rollers that crushed the sugar cane and extracted the guarapo juice. The oxen move slow and relentless circles for if they stop they are prodded with a púa prod to the boyero drover cries of thisa! thisa!. The guarapo is poured in these iron caldrons.
These caldrons are piled stacked on each other, above a roaring wood fire to more efficiently evaporate sugarcane juice to a caramelized, thick molasses making dark treacle from which the crude sugar crystallized out. It was a rural primitive chaos with white clouds of steam, smells of human perspiration, and the odors of oxen sweat and droppings, sweet molasses and wood smoke.
Once enough rough crystals of brown sugar had been accumulated in rich sweetness at the bottom of these large basins, the pilas emptied o f liquid and scraped. The crude sugar collected in wooden boxes. Since these caldrons were used stacked in a vertical pile, una pila as it is said in Spanish, they logically enough were called pilas. However, pilas are also baptismal founts.
This pila was not there by accident. Don Benjamin’s land had been confiscated by the Spanish during the Ten Year war, as he fought for Cuban freedom, and kept hostage as he aged in exile. After freedom came more than thirty years later and long litigation, he had gotten back part of his huge hacienda, and began to rebuild. And then disaster struck in 1912 during the so called “Guerra de los
After years of agitation, frustration and their perceived slow realizations of their goals, the leaders of El Partido Independiente de Color (PIC) had decided to go to war. They intended to seize the south eastern part of our Oriente province and apparently to make it a separate country. Although the stated PIC actions were supposedly mere “armed demonstration;” they became more a series of roving mobs than an army and were most destructive.
Most people of that time, saw as this war as the basis of a future independent racist homeland, where only the black, but not the brown or white could live. In 1912 the PIC movement, now rejected legal channels to advocate and carry out violence, and thus was far more akin to the Haitian slave revolts in its ethic and concept of race war. This kind of revolt had no place in a
Unfortunate and fatally for the members of PIC, their radical organization did not include most of the prominent and educated blacks and most especially they did not count on best military leaders from among the black Mambí Independence warriors. These Mambí veterans, like those in my family, had fought to make Cuba free of racism and slavery, and had no intention of reintroducing such again to the Island; they did not want anything to do with these crazies.
Ignoring their lack of support, the PIC were determined to rid that area from any who’s skin was lighter than theirs. It did not matter to these extremists if they had to burn out Mambí houses. It did not matter if those Mambí who were burned out had fought against slavery.
All that mattered to these maddened ones was the color of one’s skin, for they had decided to burn out all who were not of their particular depth of pigmentation. And in one raid these PIC bands destroyed, Don Benjamin’s sugar factory.
The Guerra de los
The Cuban Army was forced to act quickly or risk
Retribution and vengeance came. The PIC was helpless against the organized well armed veteran forces of former Mambí General José de Jésus Monteagudo Consuegra. Thus, the 1912 war ended in a cruel blood bath for PIC and many innocents also were killed; as would also happen at the end of this war against Batista. In these circumstances it is wisest for the defeated to flee, not surrender.
And thus in time, after all was over from the ruins of Don Benjamin’s war torched sugar factory this large caldron or pila, was dragged by oxen over the ridge between the rivers, over the pass of the Barrenos; and came be placed here outside the Almacén at Entre Rios. And it was here when in 1958 I went to “La Casa de los Generales” to help Che el Grande get out of the mess he was in.
Before things got really bad in 1958, the Almacén was filled with “green” coffee beans. Hundreds of pillows shaped brown coarse jute sacks were stacked in high serried rows against the northeast corner. They were sewn shut with rough white sisal twine, and each sack contained part of the treasured coffee crop, a crop with nowhere now to go.
Now in 1958, this Almacén was a place that had been searched by Lorente’s rebels before and no weapons had been found. Weapons were so important to us escopeteros, and acquired at so much effort and risk, that I, knowing that these guns were somewhere on the farm, dreamed of places where these particular weapons, could be hid. Surprisingly of all the hiding places dreamed this, their real place, was none of them.
In dim light inside the Almacén, I see the elevator wooden towers of the descascaradora; they are narrow, square in cross section, and mostly enclosed they reach up to the roof. Che el Grande goes to these towers, that take the dried beans, from the place where the shells were cracked and the chaff and shells blown way to the outside to mulch, taking the cleaned beans, to the big sorting drum, where the coffee were selected, by size, for quality.
Here and there on these elevators are sample ports for maintenance and repair. Che el Grande reaches up through one of the ports, and pulls the conveyor belt down with his very strong arms. Arms that could throw a 180 pound sack of coffee over his head and three feet into the air, pull down the belt by one after other of the little “v” bottomed square topped buckets that lifted up the coffee. Heavy, wrapped packages appear; these are pulled out awkwardly from the port and unwrapped.
Then one by one Che hands me the weapons that had been hidden up the conveyor. To an American used to buying guns and ammunition at any sporting goods store, these weapons would mean little; to us it was a treasure trove. It contained Uncle Calixto’s very fine semiautomatic .22 rifle, his .22 Ruger precision target pistol with round magazines, and two .38 caliber revolvers one was dark and blue, and the other nickel plated.
Uncle Calixto rifle’s telescopic sight was not there, that would have made the rifle far more lethal. Still there was another treasure to us escopeteros, more than 500 rounds of .22 ammunition kept loose inside a small kaki cloth covered box.
Fearing for the life Che el Grande and mindful of my debt to his woman Nicia, I told him to keep the shiny short barreled .38 caliber revolver. After all, that revolver was too visible at night, and I thought it might help keep him and Nicia safe, or at least give him a chance to fire back and run. I owed Nicia at least that much for helping save my life.
Now the almacén and all the buildings are gone, as Don Benjamin’s sugar factory had gone before, and before them
Canaima, goddess of unrestrained passion and cruel evil, from the jungles that bred cannibal Caribs, and from which the Taino fled, has again wrecked her havoc on this beautiful land. For centuries these hills have been her domain, and Canaima is a jealous woman god, all that is built in her domain is fated for destruction.
On my long return walk to the camp above el Sordo, I was perturbed to see a family retainer in such straits; he was so terrified to find out that his great strength was to naught. I successfully pleaded for Che el Grande’s safety with Mojena.
I emphasized the “voluntary” nature of the “gift” of weapons. Mojena, who was really happy liked his new loot including Uncle Calixto’s highly accurate Ruger .22 pistol. He really like the pistol with its impressive polished wood clips and all its leather pouched clips happy. He belted the weapon on and proudly strode around in beaming satisfaction with shining black leather and polished wooden grips over heavy metal on his hip.
Then Mojena agreed that there was no need of hurt the large man. The other revolver went to another of our band; I got the rifle and most of the ammunition.
A few day’s later, holding this rifle I stood there and watched. It was fascinating, there was along line of uniformed troops winding its way up the hill towards our camp. Being young and stupid, I thought that they were far away, so I kept looking trying to puzzle out what they were doing and who they were. The column snaked up hill towards me.
Suddenly the troops at the head of the column popped up from a fold in the hill just in front of me. I was frozen there standing, all alone, right in front of them my .22 in my hands.
They pointed their scary machine pistols at me, I simply held on to my rifle. Then I saw the 7-26 brazaletes, the armbands that told that they were our people, on their arms. Then I knew that I would not die that day.
It was Column Nine, the column of Huber Matos, going east towards Almeida’s “Third Front.” Lorente’s men, further west from us, had seen the column coming. Thinking that it, because it was so well armed, that it was a Batista army column, the communist band gave no warning to us; they sent no courier; they as was their much derided custom, just ran away. So great is their haste and fear, that Lorente and his men end up deep to the caves in the mountains that give birth to the
For a long time Lorente’s escopeteros had to bear the knowing smiles and jibes of many. But then you already know about that.
I only vaguely remember Huber Matos as thin, not particularly tall, and already gray, he if memory serves, wore a green pillbox military cap. I look at his photograph now and see that his cap was softer; he had squinty light perhaps hazel eyes, a smooth wide forehead and a curly beard with distinct goatee.
Huber Matos stood erect, but his shoulders were narrow. He looked like a teacher and he had been that too. Now he carried an M-3 .45 caliber submachine gun, it was the kind with the bulge and the base of the barrel and so looks like and was often called a grease gun. It is said he as well as a teacher was a rice farmer in Manzanillo, and we knew his trucks had help save Castro from utter destruction soon after the future dictator’s messed up landing near the western end of the Sierra Maestra.
Well, given the circumstances of our meeting, the officers of Huber Matos made a mistake and thought they had a really brave new recruit. They thought I had deliberately stayed there ready to face down a whole column with a .22 rifle.
Mojena, who knew better, was willing to get rid of that crazy -that is me of course- he had on his hands. So, Huber Matos's people, and then even the Comandante himself, offered me a position as an officer in their column.
However, although I was stupid, I was not anywhere near as brave as the column officers thought. Huber Matos people, it seemed to me mainly had 9 mm double trigger (one for automatic and one for semiautomatic) Beretta submachine guns.
The Berettas had been provided, funded using an elaborate diversion of some funds meant to provide sweet deserts to important visitors, by “Don Pepe” Jose Figueras the President of democratic Costa Rica, a strong anti-communist. The guns had arrived in the Sierra on
Castro’s people accuse Frank of being in on the assassination of Kennedy; I believe they are lying and that Castro, having the skills, experience and motive did it. Even today nobody really knows, or at least there is no living person who knows or will dare to tell.
What ever the future, I stare at the “real” weapons of the column. Even then I knew that the 9 mm is a pistol cartridge of limited range. Now I know the effective range of the weapon is at most 200 yards. The Madsen submachine guns that Ernesto “the Che” Guevara had, only eked out a range of about 150 yards or less from similar bullets.
These days, an expert tells me, a 9 mm submachine guns are generally considered 100 yard weapons, especially those weapons that "slam fire" from on open bolt. Still the Beretta’s machine guns looked most intimidating.
These Berettas of Matos were made in
Now I now that these Berettas which probably were the model number 38/42, the Italian Army 9mm parabellum submachine gun of the Second World War. Then all I could think of was that the 9mm cartridge does have some strong “shock” effect at short range, but it does not go as far nor penetrate as well, as the .22 rifle I already had.
In those days we were hearing rumors of new weapons being bought for the Batista forces. It was presumed that these would be US made M-14 .308 rifles, which had long range and fully automatic option. This was not to be, for the
Instead Batista turned for help to his fellow dictator, the even more ruthless Tyrant Rafael Trujillo of the
Later in the War against Batista I would use the
However, even if they look much alike, the Beretta is a machine pistol; the
Thus, the range of these weapons was a problem; seeing that I was curious someone in Mato's column told me how they ameliorated the problem. They would hide out in the bushes, and fire a few single shots, at the Batista army ”Casquitos.”
The Casquitos then would think that only there only were one or two 'escopeteros' firing at them with 9 mm pistols. Then the poor 'Casquitos' would charge straight into the bushes, to find a surprising and withering volume of close range full automatic Beretta submachine gun fire. At this short range, the two weapons, the
That whole idea, of two sides firing at each other on full automatic at short and open range, gave me much troubling thought. Semi-suicidal actions of that nature, where random luck not skill provided survival, did not suit my taste.
After a long explanation of how I was unworthy of such an honor and the loyalty I owed to Mojena’s group, the officers of Column Nine agreed to let me stay with Mojena. And thus I did not join Mato's column.
It seemed for a while, that service as an officer in Mato’s column was a quick route to promotion. By late September this column was going from victory to victory, was raiding along the
On November 26 Matos took the Cuartel and captured eighty prisoners at Cristo a place just north of
At the end of the War against Batista, Mato’s column took
Thus I arrived in
Time past, things that had been so promising and appealing turned sour. Anti-communist to the core Matos objected to Castro’s ever increasingly open communist views and actions. At the time of the disappearance of senior Castro Comandante Camilo Cienfuegos, Huber Matos protested personally to his leader.
Castro got angry, and when Castro gets angry that is not good. Since Matos revolt had been verbal and not military, and he and his officers were not shot. I doubt that Castro had cared, or even considered, that Huber Matos had once saved his life, for to a communist dictator all owe to him, and he owes to no one. However, Castro always canny had his own loyalist to consider, were he to execute Matos, his followers might understand the true depth of his ruthlessness. After all to a true Stalinist like Castro, “gratitude is a vice of dogs.”
Matos and his staff, spent most of their lives in
Now, looking back now I realized that this decision of mine not to go with Huber Matos helped me survive and allowed me to meet and marry, have three good, bright, children, and make an academic career in the U.S., so it really was for the best.
Yet, over 40 years later, sometimes I still feel guilty. Yet, this is presumptuous and callous, for how could I, among so many others trying have made a real difference for freedom in
A few years back I met Huber Matos in
Copyright@1997, revised 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006