Sunday, July 02, 2006



Days earlier in 1958, it has been as Spanish Capitán Calvo’s 1896 “Guateque de Guatao” a feast of noise, fire, fighting and slaughter. When we were in the Corojo occasionally the 37 mm cannon shells from Batista’s armored cars went over the hills north of Guisa with a screaming, high whine exploding to the west side with a boom-roar. At least on one occasion 75 mm cannon of the dictator’s Sherman tanks coming by the Bayamo had fired with sounds of deep rolling thunder, as if the thunder gods Chango and Guataúba of Batista’s armies were spitting Guatú fire and drumming roaring raging noise.

The sounds of the 75 mm had gone rolling over us bathing us in vibrating air and fear. Then the sounds diminished as they sped above us towards the mountains at the upper end of the Bayamo Valley, and then they would land and explode. We then, not used to this kind of artillery, could not help but be intimidated.

That was now in the past, the will of the Batista forces had been broken on the blood drenched road to Guisa. One staghound T-17 armored car was still belly up on a little hill by the edge of the road from El Horno to Guisa, and would stay there for the rest of the century.

Contrary to family legend, I had very little to do with blowing up these armored cars. The mines that destroyed those metal monsters, were almost certainly built and probably triggered by another later time Spaniard, the old Miguel Angel Calvo. He was a Spanish immigrant, who lived and had his truck repair and machine shop at El Sordo. El Sordo had been our stamping ground; that is it had been Amelio Mojena's escopetero territory before we joined the main forces. However, most of this has been mentioned before.

Calvo quickly repaired one armored car and took the 37 mm cannon of the other and turned it into a wheeled, armor shielded field piece. This is the cannon to which I refer to here.

At the time of this account about December 29 1958, this 37 mm field piece, or one very much like it, had been carried to the east and placed in some orange groves. The weapon had just finished shelling a fortified coffee “descascarador” factory near Contramaestre at a place called Maffo.

Cuban rebels had died at Maffo before; since this place like Guisa was commonly a place of war in Cuba. Great Grandfather took this place during the War of 1895-98. Mambí Pedro-Tamayo, Capitan of “la Brigada de Jiguaní” died in batle here on April 1, 1896.

This coffee shelling factory was one of the many strong points that the Batista forces still held. They hide their moral and will to fight almost destroyed

Dickey Chapelle, who I was to meet very soon told me later rather incredously tale that she was a reporter for the Reader’s Digest. Chapelle, before she died in a far away battlefield on the other side of the world, left an account of the rebel action against the 150 Batista troops in this place. Here the Batista troops had held out for fourteen days.

As this siege went on the Batista troops were continually harassed. At night groups of rebels would creep in stealth to within 40 yards of the fortified factory and blast it with bullets until they ran out of ammunition.

The rebels set up a sound truck to harangue the troops to surrender. The Batista troops targeted the truck with their mortar, expending all their nine round of mortar shells. The mortar shells set the truck fire. Thus, the Casquitos killed four rebels and wounded thirteen.

Later our improvised 37 mm cannon fires back. However, the only munitions for this weapon are armor piercing rounds. These rounds, meant to penetrate steel armor, do not work so well. These projectiles easily penetrated the concrete walls; however these shells go right through the walls without exploding.

Orlando Rodriguez Puerta's column six, the rebel group I am with, arrive on the last day December 30th 1958 of the siege, on the Maffo position. We set up positions in the back of the orange grove.

The land slopes slightly towards the factory, and there is a short space of perhaps fifty yards of open ground. The rows of orange trees make open, straight-line, rows pointing towards our destination. This is not good since these rows also point back directly at us.

These orange trees have narrow trunks, less than six inches across. They offer little protection, for the bullets would go right through them.

Surprisingly there are no trenches for our positions; it seems that our rebel predecessors here, had either been lazy or they had not been able to dig foxholes under fire. It also seemed unusual that we, not they, are given this most difficult assignment. We see no bodies here, for although we are not told that other rebel groups had taken casualties here, but we know this must be so.

Many years later I learn that these other rebels did not lack resolve, for Chapelle lists at least seventeen casualties. According to Chapelle, the problem was that these other rebels never completed their assault.

The attackers stop just short of their target and fire a storm of hail-like sheets of fire until they run out of ammunition. Most bullets splatter against the concrete walls.

Despite Chapelle’s remarks this fire was not wasted, for as in such fortifications the few bullets that do get in through the slots are quite lethal. This is because a geometry of death, for although most of the defenders’ bodies are shielded from outside fire, if their heads are raised to peer through the open firing positions. In addition, although the attackers can spread out in a wide circle vastly diluting the effects of enemy fire, the defenders inside are crowded together. Bullets that get through bounce and ricochet against the concrete inside causing more casualties.

Batista pilots flew B-26 light bombers in defense of these forts still held by the enemy, and the convoys that supplied and supported them. Rarely, it seemed, did these planes shoot to kill us. This mercy would not save the pilots from the wrath of a victorious Castro who then, and still does, mortally fear the power of warplanes. In 1958 the lack of effective action of the pilots did much to doom these forts.

Then we rebel foot soldiers did not know any of this information. If we had this would have given us more confidence.

Now December 29, 1958, readying for the assault we are not happy with this place. We do not like our role in what seems certain to come. It seemed to us that we, the men of Captain Puerta’s Company Six, had been called in to do the dirty work of the assault.

Our action at the sugar factory “Central America,” had shown we would charge under fire. Despite our reputation we were not really that brave, and we certainly did not like the situation here.

Unlike the skinny high branching seedling trees of Aunt Muñeca’s old fashioned groves in Guamá, the groves here were planted with grafted trees. Thus, in this modern grove, these trees branched low for easier fruit picking. This meant when we were to charge, we could not run semi-erect, but would have to stoop very low.

Charging stooped low down makes movement slow and increases time of exposure to enemy fire. Here it seemed our losses would be heavy since these trees would only serve to line us up as targets for our enemies. A night assault was the only possibility of success. With good reason we fear for our lives on the coming night.

Then, something miraculous happens. It turns out that the Batista force inside this improvised fort, are far more afraid of us, than we are fearful of them. The enemy troops in the fort surrenders because some of other rebel group we are told, threatened to flood them with gasoline from a water-tanker truck. Some rebel must have told them this perhaps using the sound truck if it had survived the mortar shelling.

We are sent in after the Batista soldiers have surrendered and left the fort. We are very relieved, especially so as we approach and examined it more closely and see how the enemy has prepared defenses around the factory.

The outside of the factory, in the ancient tradition of Spanish forts in Cuba, is highly fortified. It is completely encircled by a very well sandbagged, rectangle of bunkers.

The bunkers even have sandbagged roofs. Little windows open between sandbags ready to be used as “arpilleras,” rifle slots. These arpilleras pierce the wall of sandbags at regular intervals.

I find a small, now undefended, entrance and go into these outside defenses. The defenses are divided into small “rooms” that are designed to contain invaders and decrease damage done by attackers’ grenades. The Casquitos have labored hard and diligently to prepare this position.

There are more of us rebels in here now. We seek weapons. Most of the weapons of the enemy are gone. Then I find a Brazilian-made high explosive grenade.

The grenade is as if waiting, sitting quietly by an apillera in the wall of sandbags. The grenade is not scored on the outside in the common pineapple rind fashion, but smooth and egg-shaped. On top of the grenade is the standard protruding square device, the pin and its metal wire loop ready to be pulled to arm it; a standard spoon-like lever curving to hug one side.

This lever delays the explosion while held pressed in the thrower’s hand. When the lever is pressed down, the pin comes out easily. Once the pin is out, the lever rises, the fuse counts downs in about 4 seconds or less, depending on the setting of the grenade’s chemical or mechanical delay mechanism.

In my blissful ignorance, I take the grenade and tie it unwisely by the loop to my belt. In my foolishness, feel proud to own it.

As we explore these outside defenses, I look out through one of the apilleras. I felt chill looking out, for I know for certain that, as if we expected we had been order to attack the position, most of us would have died just outside here.

I doubt whether any of us would have survived much beyond the cover of the orange grove. We would have been cut down by automatic fire. And those few who reach cover lying below the sandbags would have been died, killed by such grenades as these dropped to the outside from these windows between the sandbags.

The high gray, steel-re-enforced, concrete walls of the factory touch the back of the sandbagged perimeter. I go inside, and look at the unsatisfactorily small holes that the 37 mm shells had made high up on the walls. These had been armor piercing shells have left little more than holes a little larger than one and half inch in diameter through concrete.

This place had been a coffee cleaning factory, a large scale descascaradora. Here was where the hard berries of sun-dried whole coffee were dehusked, and the integuments and dried skin and pulp removed. Machinery stands around in silence there was no one else here now, except a few rebels like myself, scavenging what we can find that is useful to us.

Outside the sun drenched living shapes of glossy-leaved orange trees, the bright dome of sky, the clouds, the birds and scurrying lizards. Inside the factory, is an underworld; all is dark, hard, flat-surfaced and angular. This place is full of fascinating evil, as if the walls are ready to crawl with demonic entities. Here mabuya wicked beings are at rest and thus not quickened, wait only half alive.

Within the square shadows of a deep concrete well in the factory floor, there is a shelter. Within the shelter I see to my amazement, for I never had seen such before is a glittering, be-candled, cluttered and very ornate shrine. It is a place of worship dedicated to one, or more or all of the seven Yoruba African deities.

I knew nothing then of Afro-Cuban religions; and I still know very little now. It is presently fashionable among scholars to attribute only African and Spanish influences, but essentially no indigenous American input into these faiths, after all the lines of the Taínos were supposedly extinct (despite recent DNA evidence to the contrary); thus the indigenous thunder god Guataúba is supposedly “dead.” However, one can be sure that Chango was there, personified as a statue of the Catholic Saint "Santa Barbara," with sword and red cloak. I am sure it was red, for although, I cannot see red, Chango always wears it.

In my 1958 naïveté, I just look and do not see more than the clutter, lurid colored objects and what I remember as flickering fat little votive candles in little low glass cups. It looks so much like the cluttered home altar of a devoted Irish Catholic widow, and yet these were different G-ds. It too crawls with fear.

In the religious-racial politics of the time some of the more heavily pigmented, less- educated, and more religious Afro-Cubans find common cause with Batista. This is reasonable since Batista lifted the last rules against these religions.

Know I know their religion is complex. There are at least seven gods in the pantheon of the Lacumi beliefs of the Yoruba. These deities or Orishas are represented as Catholic saints: Chango as Saint Barbara; Oggun as Saint Peter; Orunla as Saint Francis; Yemaya as “Our Lady of Regla;” Oshun as “Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre.” Obatala is represented as our Our Lady of Mercy, and Eleggua as Saint Anthony. Somehow, Babalu Aye, god of disease, as Saint Lazarus, is also one of them; don’t ask me why, for I do not know to tell you.

These gods have complicated lives and widespread sexual relationships. They are often cruel and commonly require blood sacrifice. They live in a chaotic sub-world that resembles the fiction of a wild soap opera, or the reality of the most disordered of Cuban philanderers and the wildest of the Island’s women.

Sometimes it is said, that the blood sacrifices to these gods are sometimes children. And that the children are selected one black one white, like offered chickens. This of course is stridently denied by the defenders of these religions.

There are at least three cults, within this religion: Santeria, Palo Monte and the dreaded secretive Abakuá. Batista cultivated these religious group successfully; and it certainly helped that this dictator was part black and one of his brothers Hermelindo, not considered too bright and yet representative to the Cuban Congress in the false 1958 elections, was reputed to be a "babalao, a “priest” of the Afro-Cuban religions.

Cuban “strong man” Batista had --as president turned dictator Gerardo Machado before him, and Castro who defeated him-- sought support from the followers of African-Cuban religions. For instance the colors chosen for Batista’s 1933 4th of September Flag can be interpreted as corresponding to the Lucumi pantheon (green for Orumbila and yellow of Ochun). Although not exclusive of dictators, the cult ot Chango, a violent god of thunder appeals to their angry egos.

It is said that Chango was the chosen deity of Batista. Castro, an often merciless white atheist of Spanish descent, cultivates a feigned attachment to Obatala, alter ego of Our Lady of Mercy.

Many years afterwards a learned enemy of many friendly e-mail battles tells me more of Afro-Cuba cult to Santa Barbara as Chango, god of thunder to the Yoruba tribe of Africa. Chango is also a warrior and one of the kings of Oyo (Alafin Oyo). Chango will be called upon for protection by warriors even though Ogun --usually represented as Saint Peter-- is the deity of war.

Chango is a violent god, who in these religions’ myths lives on the heights of Royal Palm trees, communicating to his followers by sacred drums. Violence and killing can be excused in the more fanatic strains of Chango worship; and thus he serves as suitable diety for members of a repressive force.

In addition, in the Catholic tradition Santa Barbara is patron saint of miners and gunners and of those in danger of sudden death. In Spanish, Santa Barbara is also the name of a powder magazine, the notoriously dangerous fickle place, where the ammunition is kept on a warship.

We had been given leave. I wander quite puzzled around Maffo that evening. Then ignorant of even this vague outline of those beliefs, I hear drums beating beautiful complex rhythms.

Looking into a building from a doorway, I see movement in a darkened cavernous room. Inside a crowd of surrendered Batista soldiers moves in shadows dancing and praying to African gods.

If memory does not fail there was a woman “mounted by an African god” in a dancing trance. Was she dressed in white I do not know, but that is traditional; whatever, she was given deference in her wild trance-dances.

The fear of the Batista casquitos is palpable as they pray and dance with sweating fervor to honor. They are trying communicate with to beg favors these strange gods. I, soul securely bound to the solemn rigid ritual of my youthful Catholicism and mind tied to the rigors of my scientific education, am bemused at all this panicky and useless effort.

Still this magic is frightening even to me. I do not dare to enter that place. It is chilling and dangerously full of the contagious madness of such chaotic evil primitive beliefs. I go on my way.

Inside, not knowing, not caring, that they were being observed, the defeated casquitos danced. They move madly, giving themselves completely to the moment, for getting their fears of the coming of death by firing squad and the general uncertainty of their future.

I leave and come back to my group of rebels. My grenade, the one I had worn so proudly on my belt is taken from me. I am lectured. I was told I am an idiot, for the Brazilian grenade could have been booby trapped. If I had thrown it, it could have been set for zero second delay, and blown away my hand and very probably my life......

For the dancing soldiers, fate would be much worse. Later we would hear that on victory, perhaps a week later that Raul Castro had shot five hundred such Casquitos in one single day on a golf course in Santiago. Chilling reports of this involve bulldozers digging graves. All of this is not so far from here. Most academic authors deny this and as time passes the numbers of dead reported decreases. That, however, is often the nature of academics and I now with at least forty years of living in the academe, I know of the cautions of some scholars.

As the story circulates then, that Fidel Castro had rebuked his sibling, telling him not to spill more blood. Then, according to the story, Raul had hung those he condemned. Thus, technically he did not spill blood.

Hermelindo Batista, the Santeria babalao, his gaunt, high cheek-boned, face was a craggy ruin of vice. Yet he still flaunted an incongruous rakish pencil thin mustache.

Hermelindo wore his still black Taino Indian hair combed back in the same way as his brother. Yet he lacked his brother’s well fed look and his brother’s intelligent eyes. His eyes instead were soulful and strangely innocent. Thin arms gestured and pantomimed lies, and half-truths of fear, and uncertainty.

He had been betrayed, by his closest and most loved sibling. For Heremelindo had been left behind. The plane that took his fleeing brother and his monies into the larcenous clutches of fellow dictator Trujillo had no room for him.

Hermelindo had placed his pitiful faith in the African deities who protected only the strong. These deities also betrayed him, perhaps some believers might explain, because he had prayed desperately that the spilling of blood should end. In an opium haze, he surrendered to the new rebel authorities in January 1959 wearing a 7-26, a Castro forces, armband.

Luckily for Hermelindo, he was in Havana, and he fell into the merciful hands of noble rebel warrior Camilo Cienfuegos, not the those of the Che or Raul. Most people pitied Hermelindo for his dull, drug besotted, but not cruel, mind.

Hermelindo was not shot when the Castro Rebel took over; he was lucky; many others were not. Now Castro took charge of the abandoned Santeria flock and used the symbolism of the white dove to help acquire supporters for his next move to further his power.

Larry Daley copyright@1997, revised 2002, 2004, 2006.


Anonymous robert a. solera said...

Larry: It should be "ABAKUA" not ABAku. The last A is accentuaded.

12:35 PM  

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