A 1968 film diary with Fidel – Part Four
By Saul Landau
As the jeeps descended into a
valley somewhere in the Sierra Maestra that evening, we saw in a clearing a row
of tents. Fidel exploded. He told Guillermo Garcia that he had ordered Chucho to
erect the campsite on the hill. “They’ve put me in a hole,” he spat.
Fidel jumped out of the jeep
and upbraided the smaller and leaner Chucho. His anger vibrated through the
night air. “How could you bury me in this indefensible pit? You of all people
know that you never make camp in a hole.” Fidel cursed. Chucho shuddered. Fidel
paced back and forth in front of him, repeating in different words the
accusation of unpardonable stupidity.
In our tent, we shook our
heads. Fidel’s outburst had frightened us as well. The dinner was subdued and
ended quickly. I saw Fidel’s tent lantern burning, indicating he had begun
In the morning, Fidel stood in
front of Chucho again, with his arm around him and loudly apologized for last
night’s verbal explosion. He hugged Chucho and told him how much he valued him,
while repeating that he had been out of line, albeit “the idea of camping in a
hole made him uneasy.”
Chucho looked deeply relieved,
as did all other members of the entourage.
Fidel explained that we would
have a chicken stew for breakfast, pointing to the serving bowl filled with
steaming pieces of chicken in gravy. Next to it, sat a bowl of freshly cooked
Irving turned on the camera
and Fidel pretended to be offended.
“Imagine, getting filmed
eating breakfast! What an abuse! Well, I better remember the French etiquette
lessons I learned in school.” He played with his utensils as if uncertain of the
proper one to use for the chicken and rice. Everyone chuckled.
I asked him if he had kept a
diary during the guerrilla years. He shook his head negatively until he almost
finished chewing and answered.
“No, I never kept one. Che
kept one. Raul (his brother) and Almeida (one of the 1953 attackers of Moncada
and head of the army in 1968). I have a very good memory and kept all the key
details in my head. But a diary can have strategically negative implications.
You can lose it if you’re beating a hasty retreat and drop your backpack. Then
the enemy can learn important details.”
Fidel served himself a second
helping of chicken and rice and continued. “A diary is important if you’re
thinking of history, like Napoleon, for example.”
Fidel turned to the other
comandantes. “I think it was in Elba where he was exiled, wasn’t it?”
Several said, “Yes, Elba.”
“No,” Fidel retorted. It was
Santa Helena. He was exiled first in Elba, then in Santa Helena.” He referred
to the 1815 British imprisonment of the former French Emperor on the island of
Saint Helena. During his six years there, preceding his death, he dictated his
memoirs. He died on May 5, 1821.
“He was concerned with his
place in history. My concern was deeds, action. I was making history.” He stood,
lit a cigar and said: “Well, gentleman, we have a long day. Let’s get moving.”
As day’s heat and the road’s
dust poured into the jeep and Faustino’s pistol butt and Leyte’s ammunition clip
alternately japed me in the sides as the vehicle lurched helter skelter over and
in the ruts, Fidel smoked and appeared to be lost in thought. I had yet to see a
pygmy owls, miniature sized frogs, or wingless butterflies (their wings are
invisible) which I read existed in these mountains. The jeeps climbed and I
asked Faustino if we were near Pico Turquino, the highest point in Cuba, about
6,580 feet high. He nodded and point. I looked and saw nothing but mountains and
Fidel had reason to look
nostalgic. Not only had he lived in this region from December 1956 to January
1959, but he had shared it with other revolutionaries. Supposedly, in 1511, one
of Columbus’ men, Diego Velásquez, conquered Cuba. Chief Hatuey (of the Caribs)
led guerrilla attacks against the better armed (with firearms) Spaniards. Like
Fidel, he hid in the mountains, and waged deadly assaults. But just as Batista
found a peasant to reveal Fidel’s location, so his air force could bomb it,
Velásquez also discovered a traitor who showed him where Hatuey had hidden.
In October 1868, in the town
of Yara, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes issued his Grito to launch the first
independence war, and in 1895, in the second war of independence, at Dos Rios in
the same area, Jose Martí began his fatal horseback charge against the Spanish
machine guns. Fidel had much to reflect on. He descended directly from them.
Below, I saw picture post card
scenes of palm trees and meadow, with large buzzards making lazy circles
overhead. Fidel returned to his theme of revolution. “Look at the revolutions
that succeeded,” he began. “Russia, China, Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam – all came
about through armed struggle. Every time a revolutionary wins power through
elections, or any non violent means, he is quickly overthrown by his own army,
in the service of the local ruling class and the imperialists. You would think
that the Soviet leaders would grasp this elementary concept and support genuine
revolutionary movements. What Che and the other compañeros were doing in the
Congo and in Bolivia constituted a model that we had successfully employed in
Cuba. A guerrilla foco (mobile force of armed revolutionaries) needs the support
of an active urban movement. It needs intelligence, logistical help, food,
weapons and a refurbishing of the guerrilla band. It also needs an active and
urban front that carries out effective measures against the government. As we
learned, our comrades in the cities carried out armed actions against Batista
police and repressive forces. They did propaganda and sapped the legitimacy of
the government with their continual assault on its authority.”
He paused to puff on his
ubiquitous cohiba and continued, as the jeep bounced upward into the Sierra.
“When the Soviets removed
Che’s support in Bolivia, it as much as doomed the mission.” He looked bitter,
as if still grieving over Che and the other compañeros and also deeply
disappointed in the behavior of the Soviets.
We entered a village where a
baseball game was underway. Within minutes, Fidel had a bat and was swinging
unsuccessfully at the local pitcher’s offerings. He removed his cigar. No luck.
He made a few jokes as the villagers offered to change pitchers.
“No,” Fidel insisted, “as long
as he’s willing to pitch, I’ll be trying to hit one.”
He took off his hat, then his
glasses. Still no contact. He tried throwing the ball in the air and swinging.
No result. Annoyed at his apparent loss of coordination and complaining to
Vallejo about how he had “lost my eye,” he changed from his olive drab shirt
into a jersey, put on cleats and took the mound.
He gave me permission to
stand behind him with a camera as he threw, semi side arm, but hard. His
unorthodox delivery came with a natural curve.
After a shaky start, he
retired the side. One of the comandantes whispered to another. “We could be here
for three days if he doesn’t belt one.”
On his first at bat, clad in the white and red jersey, Fidel smacked a pitch between the
center and right fielders and raced around the bases. The villagers applauded.
The members of the entourage breathed a deep sigh of relief. Fidel gave a brief
nod of satisfaction to Vallejo, changed back into his shirt and army boots and
the caravan proceeded into other reaches of the Sierra.
The baseball stop showed
Fidel’s determination, a man who will not accept defeat, even at play. Lee
Lockwood wrote in his book Castro’s Cuba; Cuba’s Fidel about Fidel
playing dominoes until he had literally exhausted his competitors.
Unfortunately, none of the 10 U.S. presidents who tried to undo him understood
In the jeep, Fidel began to
talk about how he had played baseball intermittently all his life, about one
game he played with Camilo Cienfuegos. Guillermo Garcia said he remembered the
game. “Camilo was catching and you were pitching.” Fidel nodded as the jeeps
continued their climb up the mountain.
For DVDs of Saul Landau’s Cuba
films write firstname.lastname@example.org.