Saturday, July 15, 2006

000 Levarbo escapes death

000 Levarbo escapes death

during Gamboa’s 1933 revolt against Batista

It was during the fall of 1933, three years before I was born, Levarbo Ramírez was about eighteen, slim and darkly handsome. On that day he seemed a doomed prisoner of Batista troops. Years later, under pressure from grandfather, who would arrive at the Guamá Hacienda, armed with his powerful presence and a priest, Levarbo would marry his first cousin, my Aunt Muñeca, and become my uncle. This is an account of how Levarbo lived that day and how Aunt Dulce María’s lover Renato Barrero Laborde died against the old Mango tree in the Guamá batey.

Background of the times

As today, in those days ideological hates stalked peace. Order overrode kindness. In Cuba, and too much of the world, times were confused and bloody building up to WWII and beyond had begun. Doctrinaire “strong men” were rising to power, ruthlessly crushing resistance, all over the globe. Thoughts of liberty were on the defensive.

In Cuba Dictator Gerardo Machado had been removed by a general revolt that had the support of the American Ambassador Benjamin Sumner Welles early that August of 1933. Welles well dressed and dapper was aggressively bisexual and omnivorous in his selections; this apparently influenced his choices of associates and collaborators. He chose among his lovers the mysterious Havana Post newspaper reporter, the bilingual William

Arthur Wieland (aka. (Arturo) Guillermo Montenegro, Wilheim Wieland) as protégé who, with his slicked down hair and pencil thin mustache, looked more than vaguely like Clark Gable. Wells actively promoted Wieland’s career. Wieland would become a highly influential U.S. State Department Official, variously and conflictingly described as a communist.

Rolando Masferrer was university gangster, brilliant scholar, Professor at the Havana Institute, Cuban Senator and supporter of Batista. Masferrer is known to have been a communist and an infamous lame assassin in Civil War Spain as well as in Cuba. Masferrer claimed that, in the 1930s, he belonged to the same communist cell as Wieland. Wieland would be very influential in Fidel Castro’s rise and control of power. However, that is “another story” since Castro was a child at the time. By 1957 US State Department documents make clear that Wieland wanted to get rid of Masferrer, who could, it seems, remember Wieland from his communist days. Both Wieland and Masferrer, significant personages in Cuban history, will be mentioned as these narrations progress.

Under Welles influence a temporary government was formed Cuba. And yet struggle for power continued. Almost every political group of those turbulent times sought power. With the dictator gone some non commissioned officers and enlisted men including an increasingly dominant Batista rebelled against the Cuban officer corps.

Batista, was vividly alive intelligent and darkly robust in a strikingly virile Taíno way. So much so that he was called “El Mulato Lindo”, the “Good looking Mulato.” However he was dangerous since his ethics were flexible and his little tutored, but agile and quick learning mind, was set on gaining power. These factors made Batista attractive to Welles who was seeking a way to solve Cuba’s problems and saw him as a “man of the people.” Thus, with the backing of Welles, Batista was emerging as the leader of the Cuban Army’s enlisted men’s mutiny. To live and survive Batista must remove the all rivals from any source of power.

Now Sergeant Fulgencio Batista rising from his key telegraph office position was essentially in command of the non-commissioned rank and file that now comprised the Cuban army. The ousted officers made strong in the Hotel Nacional which was on a buff overlooking the sea, and much of then newer part of Havana. It was also the American Ambassadors residence. After much consultation with either side, Welles left the hotel. Then, Batista’s forces, and some civilian action groups including those of Antonio Guiteras Holmes who was part of the provisional government, attacked. These soldiers and civilians fought clumsily but after heavy losses they forced surrender from their former officers on October 2 at the Hotel Nacional.

Stepfather Enrique Sanz once told me of the fighting. He described how attackers located in the large adjacent Careño building, were unable to fire at the hotel. As soon as they attempted to fire their rifles at the hotel from the Careño they were hit. Even if only their right elbow protruded they were wounded as they held their own rifles in the orthodox fashion right elbows bent and extended at a right angle to their chest.

A cannon was brought up but could not be fired indirectly out of line of sight because the ranks lacked the skill to do it; fired directly sighting through the barrel exposed the cannon’s crews to enemy rifle fire and they were soon killed. An armored car, some say it was bringing supplies to the officers, was thought hostile and driven off by pistol fire from the defenders which penetrated the vision slots in the vehicles armor.

Surrender was negotiated. However, the officers' far reaching almost supernaturally accurate rifle bullets had killed too many enlisted men; thus vengeance was called for by their comrades, and radical supporters. At conclusion of Batista’s victory at the Hotel Nacional in Havana some of the defeated officers were killed on surrender Ancient Roman style.

As he progressively rose in power to Batista would commonly revive this Ancient Roman tradition again and again; each time he defeated his opponents and they surrendered he would kill a selected number of them. A relative, an officer and a member of the Cuban Olympic rifle team named Enrique Ros y Fernández Castro was lucky not to suffer such a death. Mother told me one day, that she dated this Enrique Ros once; she tells he took her to a movie, but that she, 23 at the time, found him too old.

US Ambassador Sumner Welles, although aristocratic represented the left wing of the U.S.’s F. D .Roosevelt administration, and is widely believed to have betrayed the Army Officers. Batista continued to crush resistance. On November 9th less a week before the events described the blood of Mambí and anti-Machado fighter Colonel Blas Hernández and many of his men often had just dried the stone inside Atarés Castle and the grass outside.

This crime which also included a confused killing of the defeated again stained the Batista troops’ hands. Blas Hernández had been called out while filing out of the castle after surrender; he answered to his name and was immediately shot down by Captain Mario Alfonso Hernández who was one of the few army officers who had joined forces with Batista a month before; these two were not related Hernández is a common last name. Riots broke out in Havana and hundreds were killed. Then, as it is said in the Cuban vernacular, in those days “La Muerte andaba en bicicleta” ‘The Grim Reaper needed to ride a bicycle to complete his rounds.’

The bloody struggle for power continued, Antonio Guiteras Holmes, a chemist-pharmacist and a revolutionary against Machado, as a member of the provisional government began to both covertly and actively oppose Batista’s rise to power.

Levarbo is captured

On 13 of November of 1933 Levarbo was captured by Batista troops in the Corojo hamlet on the Royal Road from the City of Bayamo and the town of Guisa to the Sierra Maestra. The troops were seeking “Gamboa”, almost certainly one of Guiteras chieftains Francisco Gamboa Tornés and his men. The Batista troops, now without their officers to map their way needed a práctico, a guide,.

Levarbo was taken across the Bayamo River at the Paso de Lajas. Levarbo, fearful and reluctant and on pain of, and in anticipation of death guided the troops towards Guamá.

Levarbo led the troops up that road where the ancient lava rocks, broken by the explosive charges gave their names to that ugly place. The part of the road there is called Los Barrenos, that is the place were holes for the explosives were drilled. Here twenty five years later the Baker and others would die.

To the east at the Guamá Hacienda, the rebel sentry, on the high rising hill of guinea grass north of Adobe House, looked south for a moment towards the lowest, northern-most, crater wall of the ancient extinct volcano now called “Los Números.” This hill is south across and near the curving Guamá River covered its skeleton like etched, intricately caved, white rock with dense stands of trees.

Then Los Números had not been subdivided, it was called La Mambisa, and was heavily forested. This is family land. Here the Números rise first as hills, then mountains.

The high ridge-of the Números stood tall like a wall blocking the southern horizon. Below Los Números the clear, cold, stream of Arroyón came out of its canyon and lost itself in the river. Each evening as the sun set and the shadows grew rapidly longer on the little plateau, the almost wild, tiny enana, barely domesticated chickens took flight to their nightly tree roosts in a great rain-tree, their spread white wings glisten like mother of pearl in the evening light. In the high guinea grass pastures the wild guinea fowl cried “Gwonk! Gwonk!” on their way to rest.

Down on the little plateau of the Hacienda Guamá, in this year of 1933, the revolutionaries of Gamboa, were roasting an ox near where the old sugar mill, the old ingenio, of Don Benjamín Ramírez had stood. That old fashioned sugar mill had been burned in the Guerra de los Negros twenty two years before and never rebuilt.

Details on this Gamboa are almost lost to history. It is not clear if Gamboa was bandit who decided to support Guiteras or if he was merely an ideological disciple of his violent leader. Since the armament promised to Gamboa had not come, these rebels had few weapons.

That day in November of 1933, the Gamboa's rebel sentry then looked west towards, the high cliff and the watershed divide at los Barrenos. The sentry had just time to fire one warning shot. Highly trained although their tactical leaders were gone, the oncoming Batista troops were also known to be ruthless. These troops once loyal to Machado, a president "gone bad" in his efforts to make Cuba the Switzerland of America, were rushing to Guamá.

The ambitions of Batista for power needed to feed on blood, and that had to be done fast; thus these troops pressed on quickly. They moved rapidly, now that their presence had been announced. Levarbo forced to at gun point to move ahead, was at point position of the soldiers advancing from the north-west.

Levarbo knew he was being taken to the old Adobe House in Guamá were he would be killed. Apparently the Batista soldiers had prior information. Levarbo was to be held in Guamá with cousin Robertico's father Renato Barriero Laborde and the "El Manco." El Manco was the top hand, despite his handicap that gave him his name, still could, but never would again, milk cows with his only hand. They were the only prisoners.

The insurgent sentry's warning shot had not been in vain, the Gamboa rebels rode off in great haste, down off the plateau, passing the ancient, enormous, mango tree long ago planted by the escaped slaves of the Cimarrón who had a century before and more held a palenque at that place. This was same mango tree René Cuervo would know, some two decades later as sign of his home, an inspiration to rebellion and a way station of his family's remembrance.

The 1933 rebels needed to reach to the ridge of Cacaíto to the west and its sheltering woods with its path to the heights of what is now called Los Números. The rebels’ escape south through by Arroyón canyon to the heights of Los Números was blocked by another group of Batista soldiers. These Batista soldier, it seems had approached from the north east coming from Guisa towards the Guamá Hacienda, via the road through El Sordo and Pueblo Nuevo. This is the same path the evil Count of Valmaceda took when he was slaughtering civilians during part of the Ten Year’s War 1868-1878 known as “La Creciente” the flood of Valmaseda.

The rebels way west was blocked by the cliffs of giant laja lava slab that rose from the west bank of the River Guamá as the river curved to the north. The rebels needed to reach the break in the cliffs at the ford "Paso Caimanes" the ford of the crocodiles. They were forced to ride towards los Barrenos, and the other Batista troops.

The rebels rode as hard as they could north, some riding double, all desperate. The road on the east side of the Guamá River was flat and smooth they made good time.

They were expected.

These ruthless Batista soldiers, jumped up non-commissioned officers in charge, had prepared an imperfect ambush, an "anvil." The anvil was set up on that Los Barrenos road to the River Bayamo and El Corojo west of Paso Caimanes on the Guamá River. They prepared to kill those rebels driven towards them by the other Batista force, the "hammer" force that had surprised the rebels at the little plateau at Guamá.

The war knowledge of the Mambí, the legendary fighting force of last century's Cuban independence wars, was still with the Gamboa rebels. The rebels smelled the ambush and cut to their left riding across the upwardly sloping shoulder high guinea grass pastures towards the forests of Cacaíto now south of them.

Here the soldiers’ dead officers' skills were needed, for the soldier's rifle fire was not disciplined perhaps because most soldiers do not want to kill. Although well in range of the soldiers accurate 30.06 1903 model Springfield rifles, only two rebels were killed, two unfortunates each riding double behind two other riders. The rest of the rebels got away and the Batista troops were angry.

The Batista forces pushed on to Guamá. Levarbo got free just before arriving at the Adobe House. Leaping, tumbling down the steep buffs of the old abandoned river bed of the Guamá, "La Madre Vieja de Guamá", he reached where the main river ran. There shivering with cold and fear, Levarbo hid, for days under the standing wave of a rapid of the Guamá River running fast in its new bed.

The other two prisoners were not so lucky. Cousin Robertico’s father Renato Barrero Laborde, still protesting his innocence he had nothing to do with the Gamboa or his rising. This was true since he was dragged from under his beloved Dulce María’s bed in that old adobe house and forced down the high rough concrete steps.

The soldiers’ black well shined high boots moved forward. An odd assortment of chickens scattered in a rainbow of colors. There were the small and white enanas birds, some jaunty brilliantly colored “atravesaos” bastards of game cocks with domestic hens. Some birds showed imported US farm breeds, some large and red plumed showing the influence of Rode Island Red, some heavy and barred with pin stripes of blue like the shirts of stock brokers. Some were the hot wet tropics adapted “cocote pelao’s” who dissipate excess heat through their vulture-ike naked necks. The birds got out of the way, squawking protests; cackling brood hens gathering their downy chicks as they ran. The black boots now spattering mud moved forward.

Despite the entreaties, and desperate begging, of "Doña Lica" Manuela Enamorado de Cabrera, grandmother’s mother, Renato and El Manco, were placed against a small mango tree in the batey in front of the Adobe House Standing barefooted in mud and dung, perhaps Renato thought of his widowed mother, perhaps his mind went blank, perhaps he called to Mary Mother of G-d to intercede for salvation or deliverance.

El Manco, the beloved mayoral, the top hand, made of firmer stuff, was by Ranier’s side. Renato stood there trembling violently with rushing adrenaline, as fearless Mambisa Doña Lica Enamorado argued vainly for their lives. Renato watched the argument, he saw Dulce María his beloved in hysterics, with other horrified female family relatives gather on the wood railed high veranda, beneath the roof poles holding up the galvanized metal roofs.

Renato looked forward and saw the windows with their mosquito screens and the uneven dirty white adobe wall behind his loved ones. He saw that the high wooden door, beyond the veranda, was open to the inside of the house. To his left, the Guamá River, running fast and hidden below its cliff, was the green blue of the mountains of the Mambisa, and the narrow canyon like valley of the Arroyón. To his right the assorted messy Royal Palm thatched plus galvanized corrugated metal roofed buildings of the old Batey of the Guamá Hacienda.

The soldiers to him were a blur of light tan uniforms, high polished but mud splattered boots, horses, saddles, holsters and guns, brown four dented, “Smokey the Bear”, hats and some stolen flat officers’ caps. The sergeants had taken over the officers’ heavy .45 caliber Colts Revolvers with their command.

The powerful Springfields spoke loudly. “!Ay mi madre!” the 30.06 bullets buried deep into the living flesh and the living tree. The sounds bounced back echoes successively from surrounding cave ridden karst hills, the nearby rain-forested mountains, and finally from the far, high, old igneous rocks beneath the high, thin, twining, ribbons of falling water of Chorrerón of Guamá. The sound died, and was lost as in the distance the water roared as it fell down, between the two thigh-like mountains into the cleft, where the valley of the Arroyón stream was borne.

Blood spurted and then just spilled in that Batey of the Guamá Hacienda. It then pooled in the holes the horse, mule and ox hooves left in mud and dung. The air smelt immediate of burned cordite. Shock numbed El Manco and Renato as they fell dying rapidly. The wind blew the cordite smell lingered and left, replaced by the metallic smell-taste of more subtle blood sulfhydyls. The witnesses sensed blood salt on their tongues. Soon in turn the blood odors were blotted out by the sharp stink of human waste and urine released from under the dead. Thus Renato Barrero Laborde and El Manco ended their lives on the 13 of November of 1933 around 3:00 PM. Their bodies are still buried, under grapefruit trees near by.

The soldiers’ blood raced with the exhilaration of the kill, their fatigue was gone. The women sobbed and cried themselves to mere emptiness of permanent loss. Doña Lica’s long sad memory added another chapter, her dark old face wrinkled as if to form yet another line. Dulce María Ramírez Renato’s young woman had memories were engraved with scars from the events of that day.

The mango tree, as I saw 14-15 year later, was full with sadness and lead poison, sparse foliage and branches like upstretched ghost arms. The tree rarely bore much fruit.

Dulce María Ramírez, Robertico's mother, carried the pain of the death of her lover and the father of her son until she died some sixty years later. My mother remembers "El Manco" with the affection of a cherished memory of childhood.

About two years later in 1935 Guiteras was caught waiting for arms supply at a place called El Morrillo in Matanzas. There about a hundred miles east of Havana, Guiteras, was surprised by Batista forces. The revolutionary chemist was killed by these Batista troops while, according to my stepfather Enrique Sanz, distracted amid an orgy of cocaine and women. The escape of apparent communist Alberto Sánchez Méndez from this Morrillo ambush is seems strikingly familiar to other later well verified communist betrayals of nominal allies; such as that of the survivors of the Palace Raid against Batista who were killed at Humbolt 7 in the 1950s.

Blas Hernández’s killer Mario Alfonso Hernández was later conveniently assassinated by "General" Manuel Benítez on Fulgencio Batista orders which eliminated yet another formally trained military rival. In 1939 General Benítez, and his greed for bribes, would be instrumental in rejecting the Jews who had tried to flee Europe aboard the German ocean liner St. Louis.

I never learned what happened to Gamboa after this incident at Guamá.

Larry Daley Copyright@1997 revised 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006


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