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Fidel Castro, My Life - Chapter 8: In the Sierra Maestra

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For two years in Mexico, Fidel and his group planned their return to Cuba and the revolution they were going to lead. During the last few months, they practiced sailing on their boat, Granma. Unfortunately, all their trial runs were with an empty boat. When they finally set sail for Cuba with 82 men, their weapons, ammo and food, their precalculated 5-day voyage to Alegría de Pío turned out to be 7 days. While this may seem somewhat insignificant, it was nevertheless an omen of worse things to come.

Upon arrival, their first order of business was to gain the high ground that the Sierra Maestra mountains would afford them. They knew that it would take at least four days of hard marching in order to arrive at the mountains and they were certain the Batista's army would learn about their arrival long before they got there. After only three days the government's one-engine spotter planes began circling above them and, even though the group immediately scattered, fighter planes arrived a few hours later after the fighter jets came into view and started firing at them. Fidel, along with two others, quickly gained access to a small, harvested patch of sugar cane where they dove under the sugar cane remnants that covered the ground. At that point, Fidel states, he lived his most precarious moments. The lack of adequate sleep finally caught up with him. Realizing that he couldn't move while the spotter planes circled above, he decided to allow Mr. Sandman to overtake his senses and for the next three hours he slept under those leaves. Fidel vividly remembered the last time he allowed himself the luxury of deep sleep and the subsequent capture as a result. This time he was determined to avoid recapture and placed his rifle between his legs with the barrel just underneath his chin. If worse came to worse, he preferred suicide to recapture.

Despite these major setbacks, the group went forth with the same determination as before, though they had but two rifles between them. A few days later, brother Raúl joined them carrying five more guns. With just a handful of people and seven guns, Fidel uttered his famous quote, "Now we can win the war." His statement was actually a variation of the famous quote by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes at the beginning of the 10-year war against Spain in the late 19th Century, "We still have twelve men! That's enough to win Cuba's independence."

Fidel's statement sparked renewed faith in their objective and just a little more than a month later, they recorded their first military victory. Around 300 soldiers fell into an ambush that they created and for the first time, it was the soldiers fleeing for their lives. A few setbacks hampered their movement, unfortunately, as El Che had forgotten his asthma inhaler and soon found he could barely walk. Just days prior, the group's only guide proved to be a spy for the government and betrayed their position. The firefight that ensued forced them to seek the shelter of the woods ahead and they found themselves practically dragging El Che the whole way. As luck would have it, just as they gained the shelter of the woods a huge downpour silenced the attack and allowed his band to continue towards the top unabated. When they finally reached a small home higher up, Fidel asked for someone to go into town to get the necessary asthma medicine for El Che.

Soon after though, the group was again growing with more and more campesinos joining in earnest. One day word arrived that another, completely unrelated group of fighters had landed near their position. Realizing how hard it had been for Fidel and his group to make it past the Batista army, Fidel planned a daring surprise attack on the Uvero barracks which lay between the two rebel groups, even though to do so was a very risky adventure with little to gain and a lot to lose. At the end of the battle, the barracks fell and Dr. Che sprung into action. There were several dozen wounded altogether and El Che saw to it that everyone received the best care he could find.

The months of living in the wilderness with very little civilized accoutrement, everyone started letting their hair and beards grow. Eventually, word got out that the rebels were all sporting beards and the press started calling them, "Los Barbudos," the bearded ones. The victories mounted over the next six months until General Eulogio Cantillo, head of Batista's Operational Forces, sent a request for a meeting to end the fighting. On December 28, 1958, leaders of both forces met in a rundown, dilapidated sugar cane warehouse near Palma Soriano. Fidel proposed defeat with dignity and asked the General to tell his forces to support the revolution to show Batista once and for all that the entire country was against him. The three-pronged demand that the general took back to Havana was, (1) "we don't want a coup in the capital," (2) "we don't want Batista to escape, and (3) "no contact with the US embassy."

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Six days later Fidel got word that Batista had escaped and that a coup had been announced in the capital with the full knowledge of the US embassy. The general had completely betrayed the revolution. Through Radio Rebelde, Castro ordered a general stike by all the workers and the immediate advance on Havana. Within a day the resistance to his forces had ended and Fidel was able to claim complete victory. By then, the morale of Batista's army was at its lowest and the revolutionary forces were able to enter the capital without firing a single shot. It took Fidel 8 days to make it to Havana because he was asked to stop and give a speech at every regional capital along the way.

ed. note: Throughout his revolutionary campaign to rid Cuba from the yoke of Yankee imperialism from 1956 to 1959, Fidel Castro had kept human rights at the top of his decision making process. With the help from Doctor Guevara, they tended equally to all wounded combatants after every battle. The POWs that fell into their hands were treated with the utmost respect and dignity and were quite often freed within months to return to civilian life. One of the main reasons that this new type of guerrilla warfare was so successful was for that very reason. Batista's forces intimidated, raped. pillaged, and murdered anyone they felt was supporting the rebel forces. The contrast is night and day. American military should take quick note of this fact. Guerrilla wars have never been won through blind violence, torture and murder and just one look at the US disaster with the Contra forces in Central America during the 1980s demonstrates the veracity of this statement. As long as the US favors terror over humane treatment, violence over respect and murder over fairness, support for American troops and the US as a whole will continue to fall dramatically. We only have ourselves to blame.

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60 year old Californian male - I've lived in four different countries, USA, Switzerland, Mexico, Venezuela - speak three languages fluently, English, French, Spanish - part-time journalist for Empower-Sport Magazine. I also write four (more...)

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