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Excerpt Chapter 1 Cien Horas con FC
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About This Book
Scribner, January 2008
Hardcover, 736 pages
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The Childhood of a Leader
Childhood in Bira´n - Don Angel - The batey - Fidel's mother - Living in the teacher's house - Colegio de La Salle - Echoes of the war in Spain - The Jesuits of the Colegio de Dolores
Historical roots are important, and in that regard, I wanted to ask you: You were born into a relatively well-to-do family, you studied at religious schools for the wealthy, you later studied law. With that sort of upbringing, you could have been a conservative leader, couldn't you?
Perfectly well could have, because a man is not entirely the master of his own destiny. A man is also the child of circumstances, of difficulties, of struggle. Problems gradually sculpt him like a lathe sculpts a piece of metal. A man is not born a revolutionary, I'd venture to say.
So how did the revolutionary in you come forth?
I made myself into a revolutionary. I've reflected from time to time about the factors that had to do with that. Beginning with the fact of the place where I was born, way out in the country, on a large estate.
Could you describe the place where you were born?
I was born on a farm. Towards the north-centre of the former province of Oriente, not far from the Bay of Nipe, and near the sugar-cane central Marcane´. The farm was called Bira´n. It wasn't a town, or even a village - just a few isolated houses. My family's house was there, alongside the old Camino Real, as the dirt and mud path was called that ran from the capital of the municipality [sic] southward. The roads at that time were just big mud-tracks. People travelled on horseback or in oxcarts. There were no motorized vehicles yet, or even electric light. When I was little, we lit the house with wax candles and kerosene lamps.
Do you remember the house you were born in?
It was a house constructed in Spanish architecture, or rather Galician. I should point out that my father was a Spaniard, a Galician, from the village of La´ncara, in the province of Lugo, the son of poor campesinos. And in Galicia, the custom was to shelter the animals underneath the house. My house was inspired by that architecture in Galicia, because it was built on wooden piles, like stilts. These piles were over six feet tall, which was the usual way of building houses in Galicia. I remember that when I was three or four years old, the cows slept underneath the house. They'd be brought in at nightfall, and they'd sleep under the house. And they'd be milked there, tied to some of the piles. Under the house there was also, just like in Galicia, a little pen with pigs and fowl - at various times there'd be chickens, ducks, guinea hens, turkeys and even a few geese.
I've been visiting Bira´n. And I've seen that house where you were born, which is, as you say, a very original sort of structure.
It was a wooden house. The piles were made of a very hard wood, caguaira´n, and then laid on top of those piles was the floor. The house, I imagine, was originally square. Later on, an addition was made to it: at one corner a kind of office was built. Then it was expanded to make a bathroom area, a pantry for foodstuffs, a dining room and a kitchen. Then on top of the original square area of the house there was a second floor, smaller, which we called the 'mirador'. And it was there that I was born, on 13 August 1926, at two o'clock in the morning, as the story goes.
In those surroundings, from the time I was a very young boy I lived among the sights and the work of the country - the trees, the sugar cane, the birds, the insects...
What's remarkable about Bira´n is that one feels, almost palpably, the strong entrepreneurial character of your father, don Angel.
He was a man of great will, great determination. He taught himself to read and write, with great effort. Without question he was a very active man - he moved around a lot, he was a go-get-'em kind of person, and he had a natural talent for organization.
Under what circumstances did your father come to Cuba?
My father was the son of campesinos; they were extremely poor. When I visited Galicia in 1992, I went to La´ncara, the town he'd lived in, and I saw the house he'd been born in. It's a tiny little house, about thirty feet long by about eighteen to twenty feet wide. Made of fieldstone, which is a material that's very abundant in that area [and that's] used traditionally by Galician campesinos to build their houses. In that little rustic house lived the whole family, and I suppose the animals did, too. The bedroom and kitchen were in one room. There was no land, not a square yard. Families farmed isolated plots scattered over the countryside.
When he was very young, sixteen or seventeen years old, my father was recruited in Spain for military duty, but he was over twenty when he came to Cuba for the second War of Independence, which began in 1895. No one knows exactly how he came, under what conditions. After I was old enough to do so, I never talked about those things with my father. He would - from time to time, at a dinner, with a group of friends, that sort of thing - he would tell stories. But my older sister, Angelita, and Ramo´ n, the second oldest - they're both still alive - they might know something, because they talked to him more than I did. And then later, when I went to Havana to school and became involved in revolutionary activities, organized the attack on Moncada, was in jail, and later in the Granma expedition, my younger brothers and sisters, like Rau´ l, who's four years and some months younger than me, and then two girls, Emma and Juana, who stayed there at home, talked with my father quite a bit, and by then he probably talked more about those things, though I wasn't there to hear him.
Through them I've learned about some things, and the theory is that my father was one of those poor boys from Galicia that some rich man gave money to so he'd go into military service as a replacement for him. And it's apparently quite true that my father was one of those campesinos, one of the ones recruited that way. You know what those wars were like.
Recruitment was by lottery, and the wealthy could pay the poor to do their military service, or go to war, in their place.
Well, it must have been as you say; there were many cases in which a rich man would be ordered to perform his military service or go off to war and he'd come up with a certain amount of money and give it to a man who didn't have any, who lived very badly, on a little piece of land or doing some sort of labour in the country.
My father was sent here as a Spanish soldier, and he was stationed in the great tract of cleared land between Ju´ caro and Moro´ n. And among other things, it turned out that the huge clearing in the woods where the garrison had been constructed was used by [Cuban rebel] invaders from Oriente, under the command of Maceo and Ma´ximo Go´mez, shortly after the death of Martõ´.
The enormous clearing where the garrison had been built had to be crossed at all costs - a difficult operation. It was on a fortified line that ran north-south, in the narrowest part of the centre of the island, quite a few kilometres long, it might be almost 100 kilometres, over sixty miles, from Moro´n in the north to Ju´caro, a port city on the south coast. I know that my father was stationed along that line, but I don't think he was still there when Maceo came through. The Cubans travelled through there constantly, or farther to the north, they went into a place called Turiguano´, a kind of island joined to Moro´n by a very swampy area. There, on that road, was my father, stationed there. That's what I know; my brothers and sisters may know more.
You don't remember any conversations with your father about this?
I once heard him talk about some of this, when I was going off to the working-men's camps in Pinares de Mayarõ´, because I liked to be anywhere but at home. Home represented authority, and that got my dander up, and the rebel spirit in me began to emerge.
So as a youngster you were a rebel?
I had several reasons for being one. Faced with a certain Spanish authoritarianism, and even more so the particular Spaniard giving the orders...so it was authority, respect in general...I didn't like authority, because at that time there was also a lot of corporal punishment, a slap on the head or a belt taken to you - we always ran that risk, although we gradually learned to defend ourselves against it.
Your father was authoritarian?
He had a little temper. He couldn't have done what he did, build himself up - so young, first during the war, far from his family and his country, and later from nothing, without a cent, without family, the first in his family to read and write, by his own efforts and no one else's - [couldn't have built] a latifundio, [accumulated] wealth, without a strong character. Like most Galician immigrants, he was modest and hard-working, with a spirit of humility. And yet [he had] great character and determination. But he was never unfair. He never said no to anyone who came to him for help. [He was] always ready to listen, ready to lend a hand when other people were in difficulty. He himself had been in need when he was a boy and growing up. I know he was orphaned at a very early age - eleven; he lost his mother. His father remarried and, well, his childhood was one of suffering and turbulence. But he had the noble virtues of the Galician emigrant: kindness, hospitality, generosity.
There are many stories of his generosity. Even kindness. A man with a good heart who always helped his friends, labourers, people who were having a hard time. Sometimes he'd complain, he'd grumble, but he never let anyone leave without an answer to his problem. When the tiempo muerto came, when the harvest was over and there was very little work, then often a man would come and say, 'My children are hungry...we have nothing, I need work.' At that time there was a system called the ajuste: 'You clear this land for so much.' This ajuste was another of the ways that were common in Cuba for landowners to lower their costs; it consisted of a contract with a family or a worker to clear a cane field, and you'd give him so much per caballerõ´a or per roza; they didn't use hectares, like now. I thinka caballerõ´a was about eighteen rozas. Every country in Central and South America used different measurements. Thank goodness the metric system came along, invented in the times of the French Revolution. So as I was saying, there would be a contract: 'All right, for twenty pesos, I'll ajustar this for you.' My father would invent some new field that needed clearing or some sort of non-essential chores in order to make jobs for people, even though it wasn't financially profitable for him. I realized this as I got a little older, when I'd work in the office during my holiday time. There, I'd give out purchase orders to the workers so they could get goods from the stores even when they weren't hired to work. He was a kind and noble man.
After the War of Independence, in 1898, did your father decide to stay in Cuba?
No, he was repatriated to Spain after the war, in 1898, but apparently he liked Cuba, so, along with a lot of other Galician emigrants, he came back to Cuba the next year. It's documented that he landed in the port of Havana in December 1899. Without a penny and without any family at all, he went to work. He ended up, I have no idea how, in the eastern provinces. It was the period when the great American plantations were spreading through the forests of hardwood, which would be cut down and used for fuel in the sugar centrales - that same wonderful hardwood that El Escorial palace was made from, and other famous buildings and ships, like that formidable Santõ´sima Trinidad, the largest and most powerful warship of its time, which was built in the shipyards of Havana and then sank in a storm after being boarded by the English at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
So anyway, the Americans would hire people to cut down the trees and plant sugar cane. The land is always fertile where there's been a forest; the first harvests are excellent.
And your father worked for the Americans?
My father began to work in Oriente province as a simple labourer for the famous United Fruit Company, which had plantations in the north-central part of the province. Then he organized a group of workers and hired himself out to the Yankee company with this group of men under him. I think my father at one time had - I heard this once - as many as 300 men, and that left him a profit. Some talent as an organizer, he had. But he didn't know how to read or write; he learned, gradually, but it wasn't easy. He began with a small business that cut down forests for planting sugar cane or producing firewood for the centrales. And that way he began to turn a profit as an organizer of that group of workers, who, I imagine, were immigrants, mostly Spaniards and men from the islands - Haiti and Jamaica.
How much land did your father finally end up owning?
He ended up buying about, approximately 900 hectares, a little over 2,000 acres, which belonged to him, and then later he leased several thousand hectares from two Cuban generals who had fought in the War of Independence - no one knows even today how they came by that land. Vast forests of pine, most of them virgin. The land stretched over mountains and into valleys, up on to a big plateau about 1,800 feet high, a great tableland that pine trees grew on, a natural forest. My father cut the pine forests of Mayarõ´. Seventeen trucks loaded with pinewood came down out of there every day. The income, also, from sugar cane and livestock was considerable, because he owned other land, mostly flatlands, but some pre-mountain land as well. Around 10,000 hectares, about 25,000 acres, in all.
An extraordinary amount of land.
If you add it up, my father, as owner of part of it and leaseholder of another part, controlled no less than 11,000 hectares of land.
A considerable amount.
Yes, itwas considerable. I can tell you this story, because I, really, under those conditions, belonged to a family that was more than relatively well-to-do. It was, on that scale, quite well-to-do. I mean, I don't say it out of pride, but rather just because it's the case - [I want] to tell things accurately.
So you're the son of a millionaire.
Well, not of a millionaire. No one would ever have said that my father was a millionaire. In those days, being a millionaire was a colossal thing - a millionaire was somebody who really, really had a lot of money. A millionaire, for example - at that time, when a dollar was worth something and a worker would earn an average of a dollar a day - was a man who had a million times what a person earned in a day. My father's properties couldn't be assessed at that high a price. My father can't be said to have been a millionaire, although he was very well-to-do and had a solid financial position. Although in that poor, suffering society we children were treated like the children of rich people. I can assure you that a lot of people would come up to us and be nice out of pure self-interest, although we really never realized that.
In Bira´n, your father built not only a house but little by little, there alongside the Camino Real, other buildings as well - a bakery, an inn, a tavern, a school, houses for the Haitian workers...A real little town.
Well, where we lived there was no town, just some buildings. It was what you might call a batey. When I was little, the dairy was underneath the house. Later, a dairy was built about forty yards from the house, and across the road [there was] a blacksmith shop where the tools, ploughs, all that would be repaired. And very close to that, a small slaughterhouse was built. And then about forty yards away, in another direction, was the bakery, and not far from that, a primary school, a little state school. Also, alongside the road, there was a store, with a storage shed for provisions [non-perishables] and whatnot, and on the other side of the road the post office and telegraph office. Not far away were some very poorly built barracks-like buildings, some huts with dirt floors and palm-leaf roofs, where, as you say, a few dozen Haitian immigrants lived in poor conditions; they worked during the cultivation and harvesting of the sugar cane, which was the farm's major activity. Near the house there was a big orange grove where my father personally oversaw the pruning, with a big two-handed pair of shears; there were about twelve or fourteen hectares, thirty to thirty-five acres there, and all kinds of fruit trees, sometimes just one or two and sometimes in little groups; there were plantains, papaya, coconuts, soursops, sugar-apples, a little of everything. And three big apiaries with forty-something beehives that yielded lots and lots of honey. I could still walk through that orange grove with my eyes closed today - I knew where every single kind of fruit tree was; I'd peel the oranges with my fingers, and I'd spend my whole summer and Christmas holidays out there. Nobody ate more oranges than I did.
And there was also a big arena for cockfights. Were there cockfights?
Yes. About 100 yards from our house, and along that road, was the cockfight enclosure that you're talking about. It was a place where every Sunday during the harvest season, and also Christmas Day and New Year, Easter Saturday and Easter Sunday, there would be cockfights. In the country, that was the sport.
A local entertainment.
Yes, because there was very little entertainment. People played dominoes. People also played cards; my father, when he was a young soldier, loved to play cards; he was apparently an excellent card player. And in my house there was also, from the time I was about three years old, one of those wind-up phonographs, an RCA Victor [i.e., Victrola], I think it was, to play music. Nobody even had radio. I think my father was the only one who did, and I was big by the time radio came - I mean, I must have been seven or eight years old. No! Older! I must have been ten or twelve, because that was 1936 or 1937 - the Spanish Civil War had already started by the time there was a radio and a small generator there, a little motor that ran for a couple of hours. It charged several 'accumulators', as they were called back then - batteries - and almost every day we had to give it a little rainwater.
And all that belonged to your father?
All except the little schoolhouse and the post office, which were public - all the rest belonged to my family. By the time I was born, in 1926, my father had already accumulated a certain degree of wealth, and he was very well-to-do as a landowner. Don Angel, 'don Angel Castro', they called him, a person who was very highly respected, a man of great authority in that almost feudal area and time. That's why I tell you that I was the son, really, of a landowning family; my father had been buying land little by little for years.
Talk to me about your mother.
Her name was Lina. She was Cuban, from the western part of the island, from the province of Pinar del Rõ´o. Her family was originally from the Canary Islands. She, too, was of campesino origin, and her family was very poor. My maternal grandfather was a carter, he transported sugar cane in an oxcart. When they moved to the area of Bira´n, my mother, who was then thirteen or fourteen years old, came with her parents and her brothers and sisters from Camagu¨ ey, where they'd gone by train from Pinar del Rõ´o, seeking their fortune. Then they travelled a long, long way by oxcart, first to Guaro and finally to Bira´n.
My mother was practically illiterate, and, like my father, she learned to read and write practically on her own. With a great deal of effort and determination, too. I never heard her say that she'd gone to school. She was self-taught. An extraordinarily hard-working woman, and there was nothing that escaped her attention. She was a cook, a doctor, a caretaker of all of us - she provided every single thing we might need, and she was a shoulder to cry on for any problem we might have. She didn't spoil us, though; she was a stickler for order, savings, cleanliness. She was the 'overseer', you might say, for all the daily tasks and routines inside and outside the house; she was the family economist. Nobody ever knew where she got the time and energy to do everything she did; she never sat down, I never saw her rest one second the whole day.
She brought seven children into the world, all of us born in that house, although there was always a midwife to help at the delivery. There was never a doctor, never could have been - there was no such thing in that remote part of the country.
Nobody ever worked as hard to see that her children went to school; she wanted us to have what she'd never had a chance for. Without her, I assure you that I - who always loved to study - would be a functional illiterate. My mother, although she wasn't saying so every minute, adored her children. She was a strong-willed woman, brave and self-sacrificing. She was strong and unwavering in the face of the sufferings that some of us unwittingly caused her. She was never bitter about the agrarian reform and the redistribution of that land, which she truly loved.
She was very, very religious, in her faith and her beliefs, which I always respected. She was somehow comforted by the pains of being a mother, and she also accepted her role as the mother of the Revolution that she'd suffered so much over, even though, since she was just a poor, humble campesina, she'd never had the least possibility of knowing anything about the history of humanity and the deeper causes for the events she lived through in Cuba and the world.
She died on 6 August 1963, three and a half years after the triumph of the Revolution.
And your father, when did he die?
He died earlier. He was quite a bit older than my mother. He died on 21 October 1956. Two months after my thirtieth birthday, and two months before we started back from Mexico with the Granma expedition.
Did your father speak the Galician language?
Yes, but he never used it.
Did you ever hear him speak it?
I heard him say some phrases in Galician a few times. There were other Galicians in that area, and my father may have spoken Galician with them, it's possible. But there were also Spaniards from other provinces; there were Asturians, for example, who didn't speak Galician. Apparently the Galicians had adapted to Spanish, they could speak it, they could be understood better that way, of course, and besides, they weren't going to speak Galician to the Cubans, because nobody would understand them. To a worker, they had to speak Spanish - to everybody, even to their girlfriend or their wife they had to speak Spanish, because [those people] wouldn't know Galician, so that's why I almost never heard him speak Galician.
When the Civil War broke out in Spain, you were about ten years old, I believe.
I hadn't turned ten yet. I was born on 13 August 1926, and the war in Spain started on 18 July 1936. So I was nine years and eleven months old; I already knew, of course, how to read and write.
Do you remember, for example, whether your father was worried about that war, concerned about it, whether he talked about the Spanish Civil War?
In Bira´n there were two factions in the group of twelve or fourteen Spaniards who lived and worked there.
Spaniards who met with your father, who came to your house?
Who worked with him doing various things, or as labourers. There was an Asturian who was the bookkeeper, and who also had a good education. He'd say that he spoke seven languages, and I almost believe it, because he...when we got radio in my house and something would come over the radio in English or even German, he'd translate it. He knew Latin, he wrote in a beautiful Gothic hand. This little Asturian - I say little Asturian because he was really short - unquestionably knew more than anybody else there, he was more educated and had wider general knowledge. He knew about Greece, he would talk about Demosthenes; he was the first person I ever heard talk about Demosthenes, the great orator, and what Demosthenes was like, the fact that he would put a little stone in his mouth to cure his stuttering. It was that Asturian who talked to me about that and other things.
That group, and a few more, when the war broke out were on the rebel side - the people who were against the Republic were called the rebels.
The side of the Franquistas?
Right. And there was another group, which supported the Republicans. They were farm workers, and some of them didn't know how to read or write. Although a Cuban named Valero was one of that group, too - the man who was in charge of the telegraph office, the post office, he was a Republican, like a lot of the workers. One of the group of workers was a cook, because since his job on the farm had been taking care of the livestock he'd come down with I don't know what kind of rheumatism, and finally he could hardly walk, so they sent him to be the cook for the house. With all respect for his memory, by the way, and I really liked him a lot, he was not a very good cook, or at least there was a lot of complaining in my house about his cooking. His name was Garcõ´a; he was totally illiterate.
Yes. In my childhood I can assure you that in Bira´n fewer than 20 per cent of the people who lived there knew how to read and write, and even those did so with great difficulty. Very few made it to the sixth grade. There I had the experiences that enable me today to understand how much an illiterate person suffers. No one can imagine, because there's such a thing as self-esteem...What is an illiterate person? He's the guy on the last rung of the social ladder way down there, the man who has to ask a friend to write a letter to his girlfriend for him. In Bira´ n, the people who didn't know how to read and write would ask the ones who did to write a letter to the woman they were courting, for example. But it wasn't that they dictated a letter - tell her so-and-so and so-and-so - that he dreamed about her last night and that he's not eating for thinking about her, that sort of thing, if that had been the sort of thing he wanted to tell her. No, he'd tell the one who knew how to read and write, 'No, no, you just write whatever you think I ought to write to her.' To win over the girlfriend! I'm not exaggerating. I lived during a time when things were like that.
Do you, personally, recall anything of the discussions or the arguments about the Spanish Civil War?
In 1936 I was sent as a live-in student, a boarder, to a school in Santiago de Cuba, and that summer, when the war started, I was at home on holiday in Bira´n; at that point I must have been, I don't know, not ten years old yet, I don't know whether I'd finished second grade...
So what happened? When I arrived in Bira´n from Santiago, on holiday from school, since I knew how to read and write, Manuel Garcõ´a, the cook who limped in one leg, a hard-working man who during this time I'm talking about lived in a little house near the post office - Manuel Garcõ´a runs up to ask me to read the newspaper to him. He was a fire-breathing Republican - just to show you the spirit of class, I often ask myself why he was such a fanatical Republican, and so anti-clerical, I must say for the sake of the truth - and so I would read the newspaper to him and give him news about the war in Spain. So that was how I learned about that war, before I'd even turned ten years old. I would read several newspapers to him. One that came to Bira´n was called, I think, Informacio´n, and others, such as El Mundo,, El Paõ´s and El Diario de Cuba, but the main newspaper that came there was the Diario de la Marina.
Which was a Havana newspaper.
No, no, not a Havana newspaper - it covered the entire republic. It had been a pro-Spanish newspaper since theWar of Independence and it was the most right-wing of any newspaper that ever existed in the country down to the triumph of the Revolution. It had a rotogravure section, too, which came out on Sunday. It was very famous. It had pages and pages of advertisements, very thick, and it came to Garcõ´a's small wooden house and I'd go to his house to read it to him. I'd read it to him cover to cover. The 'rebels' were called just that - 'rebels', but it was almost like praise.
The ones who took Franco's side.
The 'Nationalists', which were also called that ['Nationalists']. The others were the 'reds', the 'little reds', pejoratively, but sometimes, very kindly, the paper would call them 'Republicans'. That was the main newspaper that came to Bira´n - the most weighty, you might say, as well as the thickest, with lots of news, good paper and advertisements, and I would read it to Garcõ´a for hours on end. Although from time to time some other newspaper or other would show up. The one with the most news about the war in Spain was the Diario de la Marina.
I remember that war, almost from the beginning. I remember the capture of Teruel by the Republican troops, for example.
And the Ebro front?
The Ebro front was later, almost at the end.
The battle of Madrid?
Yes, Madrid under siege. The trouncing the Republicans gave Mussolini's soldiers in Guadalajara when they advanced on Madrid, and, as I told you, when the Republicans advanced and took Teruel. And the counter-offensive by General Mola to retake the city, and other news that would come in from the people in Burgos, which was the Franquista capital. What was the name of that fortress where the Franquistas were besieged?
The Alca´zar, in Toledo.
The Alca´zar. I read all about the battle of the Alca´zar in Toledo to Garcõ´a, and I'd practically be on his side! I'd even try to make him feel better. I'd say, 'But listen, listen, the battle of Teruel is going well' - I remember that - 'It's all right, look what they've accomplished; look, they're fighting here and here and here.' Every piece of news that was good for the Republicans that could be given, I'd give it to him. That was the situation that was there in Bira´ n, exactly, just exactly the way I'm telling you.
Did your father favour one side or the other, or was he not interested?
No, my father was against the Republic.
Against the Republic?
Yes, yes, and some others were, too - the Asturian, the bookkeeper, in fact, and some others. I think almost the majority of the Spaniards who were in Bira´n took that position, against the Republic. But there was another group, one that Garcõ´a and some other Spaniards were in, and Valero, the Cuban telegrapher, where they were all Republicans to the death. And once in a while they'd all play dominoes against each other - one ideological side against the other.
A war of dominoes.
Those who were for and against the Republic would get together. They'd face off in spirited games of dominoes. A little like Don Camilo, that famous novel by Guareschi, with the priest and the Communist. When I was on holiday, either during the summer or for Christmas, I'd be at home for two weeks, and during Holy Week [prior to Easter], too. I don't know who might have read the news to Garcõ´a when I was at school. He didn't have a radio - my father in that big house was the only one who had one.
Thanks to this Manuel Garcõ´a, then, you must have followed the Spanish war very closely.
Yes. Which is why I remember the Civil War so well, the run-up to the Second World War, when Republican ideas and Western 'democratic' ideas - I'd put quotation marks around 'democratic' - faced off against the genocidal, hegemonic and imperialist ideas of Nazi Germany. What happened in Spain and why the Spanish Republic fell, and what sort of 'non-intervention' was it that the so-called Western democracies had engaged in, in the face of Hitler and Mussolini's intervention since the very beginning of the war? What did all that mean? That was what helped lead to the Second World War.
The first battles were waged right there, in Spain, and there you could find the leftists and rightists, the so-called 'Nationalists', supported by Mussolini and Hitler, and the Spanish Republic, the Left mixed into the 'democratic system', although it was more advanced than could be conceived at that time, the most just, the most popular, because the Spanish Republic was already defending the idea of progress within a society that was almost feudal, a society that had never become industrialized at all, that lived off the income from its colonies for many years. They're a very combative people, the Spanish.
There, the two sides clashed and shot one another by firing squads - they even executed priests. There were priests who were with the Republic and priests - possibly a majority - who were with the rebels or Nationalists - the Franquistas. At that time, the Spanish teachers at my school, in Santiago, talked about the Spanish Civil War. From the political point of view they were Nationalists, we might say more accurately that they were Franquistas - all of them, without exception. They talked a lot about the horrors of the war - about the Nationalists, even priests, who were being shot by the firing squads. But they didn't talk about the Republicans who were being shot by firing squads. Because the Spanish Civil War was very, very bloody, and on both sides there was a policy of mano dura - an iron hand.
I remember that after the war was over, one of my teachers would tell me long stories about the number of Republican prisoners shot by firing squads in Spain when the Civil War ended. I was attending the Colegio de Bele´n, which was also run by the Jesuits, in Havana, and Padre Llorente - he had been a medic during the war - told me stories about how after the war tens of thousands of people - no one even knew how many - had been shot by firing squad, and he'd been assigned to be the medic in charge of examining them to find out whether they were alive or dead before they were buried. He would tell me details of what he'd seen. It had made such a terrible impression on him. There were some Catholics and Christians who were on the side of the Republic, quite a few.
I've talked about my memories of that episode. Of course, since then I've read quite a bit about the subject, but I'm telling you the things I knew then.
The Battle of the Ebro took place in about 1938, if I remember rightly. That was the last Republican offensive...Movies have been made of that, and books written. But from the time I was about ten years old, reading the newspapers, I saw for myself how that war unfolded.
Do you think that interest in the war in Spain, when you were such a young boy, had any influence on your development?
Oh, yes. The importance of the international scene. But all boys like war. Like everybody else, I also liked films, theWesterns, and what's more, I took them seriously.
Though they were very racist at that time, weren't they, very anti-Indian?
We took seriously all those tricks the cowboys did. As a boy I did, I mean. Later, grown up, almost an adult, I watched them as comedies - that roundhouse right the guy threw at the guy across the bar, that red bottle of whisky. I remember all those details. The revolvers that never ran out of bullets except when the plot needed them to run out. There were no machine guns back then, but lots and lots of shooting, and when somebody was being chased on horseback and ran out of bullets, they'd reach up and grab a tree limb.
All the boys would watch those movies. Boys are brought up watching violence from the moment they're born...So anyway, reading all that news about the war - how could I ever have imagined all the things that would happen in the world after that!
Afterwards came the Second World War.
I also remember the exact day when the world war broke out - 1 September 1939. I was a little older then, about thirteen, and I read about all of it: the taking of the Ruhr, the annexation of Austria, the occupation of the Sudetenland, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the invasion of Poland. I wasn't very aware of the significance of the events, but as things went on I learned about it all.
I can remember the basic battles and the things that happened from the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 to 1945, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I can talk about that subject a great deal, because my interest in it has always remained. But even before that, there had been the war in Ethiopia, when I was just starting school.
You remember the war in Ethiopia?
Yes, you could buy these little biscuits with trading cards about that war, 'the Italians in Abyssinia', as it was called.
It was called the 'Abyssinian War'.
That's right, the 'Abyssinian War' it was called at the time. You could buy these little biscuits that had - so kids would buy them, you know - a collection of trading cards, except for ten or twelve that almost never appeared. Some of them, I think they never even printed, so that kids would drive their parents into bankruptcy buying biscuits.
I became almost an expert on that war in Abyssinia, collecting and playing with those cards. I was in [Colegio de] La Salle by this time, in Santiago de Cuba, and I learned to play with the trading cards that came with the biscuits; you'd lean them up against the wall like this, holding the top edge with your right thumb and then flip them, so they'd go flying off. The one that landed on top of the other would win, and you could keep it...I had put my little marks up on the wall and I'd test the wind, all sorts of things like that - I had a whole technique, and it seemed to really work. Goodness knows how many I finally had.
I still remember the images and the colours on the ones that actually did get printed...All the kids always trying to complete the set, but they never did.
There were always some cards missing?
Some of them would deliberately never be printed, to make kids buy them, you know. Capitalism...I don't recall a single complete collection.
One day this kid came along and told me he had a beautiful album on Napoleon Bonaparte. It wasn't those little trading cards printed on thin cardboard; the ones he had were on some other kind of paper, very elegant, they looked like photographs, and the collection was complete...I still have it somewhere. Eusebio Leal came across it not long ago. The kid offered to trade it to me for all those hundreds of trading cards I had on the Abyssinian war. I took him up on it immediately - the album was a real jewel.
So you were very definitely interested in [the] war.
Listen, the Bible talks quite a bit about dramatic events, dramatic wars. From the first grade, in Sacred History - that's what they called that subject in my school - you have the punishment of Babylon, the enslavement of the Israelites, as the Jews were called, the crossing of the Red Sea, Joshua and his trumpets bringing down the walls of Jericho, Samson and his herculean strength, able to pull down a temple with his own hands, the Tablets of the Law, the golden calf worshipped as an idol...I used that image in History Will Absolve Me, to express a Socialist philosophy. I said, 'We do not believe in golden calves.' That was when I defended myself after the assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba. That was in 1953, and here we are, talking about 1936. At that time I was, as I say, more or less ten years old.
But the war in Abyssinia came before the war in Spain - you were even younger then
You're right, the Abyssinian War was a little earlier. I think I must have been in the second grade at Colegio de La Salle. I must have been about nine. I'll tell you, [my interest in that war] helped me get a wonderful album on Napoleon that the city historian, who knows everything, and whom I'd probably told my story about that album, found - either that one or one exactly like it. The yellowish colour of the cards makes me think it was the same one that I'd played with for several years, looking at those images and imagining the famous battles. The battle of Arcole, for example, when at a crucial moment Napoleon picked up the flag and crossed the bridge and shouted, 'Follow your general!' That impresses any boy. And then Austerlitz and all the other battles. The main episodes of Napoleon's life were right there, in pictures. Naturally, it was great entertainment, and I was crazy about that leader, as I was crazy about Hannibal, crazy about Alexander the Great and other famous people that the elementary-school history books never cease writing about. Back then, I wished Hannibal had taken Rome - maybe because of his daring in crossing the Alps with his elephants, or maybe because he was the underdog. I also liked the Spartans and their defence of the Gates of Thermopylae with just 300 men. And I'll tell you, I console myself today by thinking that my Napoleon album was much better than any Wild West movie.
You liked military leaders, warriors.
All boys do. They start, as I say, in Sacred History. The Old Testament is full of wars and other exciting episodes: Noah's Ark, the flood, the forty days of rain...It even says, in Genesis, that after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard, planted grapes and made wine, and he drank a little more than he should have and one of his sons made fun of his father and Noah cursed him! He condemned him to be a slave and to be black! That's one of the things that are in the Bible that I think the Church itself ought to rectify some day, because it sounds as if being black is a curse from God...As it's a curse, a punishment, to be a woman, and to be the one that's responsible for original sin.
You're asking the Catholic Church to rectify that?
Well, actually, I'm not asking that the Church amend itself or change in matters of faith. But John Paul II himself, who was very brave, very determined, said that the theory of evolution is not irreconcilable with the doctrine of creation.
I've spoken with cardinals and bishops from time to time about this subject. There are these two points. I believe that with the wisdom possessed by an institution that has endured for 2,000 years, they should contribute to the notion of women's equality, to women's not being blamed for all the suffering in the world, to getting rid of the idea that being black is a punishment from God, just because a son of Noah made a little fun of his father.
You, too, rebelled first against your father, didn't you?
Well, I didn't rebel against my father; that was hard, because he was a man with a good heart. I rebelled against authority.
You couldn't bear authority.
That has a history. It didn't just spring up full-blown when I was ten or twelve years old, because I'd started being a rebel several years before that, at like six or seven, say.
What other memories marked your early childhood in Bira´n?
I remember many things. And some of them must necessarily have had an influence on me. But, for example, death did not mark my childhood. Although I did lose an aunt, Antonia, who died in childbirth before I was three years old. I still remember that sadness in the family, that air of tragedy among the adults. She was one of my mother's sisters, [and she was] married to a Spaniard that worked with my father in Bira´n - he was the overseer of a sugar-cane area. Soto was his name. I remember walking along a little dirt path through the sugar cane, with the women crying, till we got to a small wooden house. I remember that, but it must not have made a very strong impression on me because I didn't know what it was all about, I wasn't aware of death.
I also remember the first time I saw a locomotive. Everything about a steam locomotive is impressive - its wheels, its noise, its power, its whistle. They would come to pick up sugar cane to be processed. And I thought they were fabulous monsters.
When I was in primary school, I must've been about seven or eight years old, I remember hearing people talk about the flight of Barbera´n and Collar. There in Bira´ n, people would say, 'Barbera´n and Collar flew over here' - they were two Spanish pilots that crossed the Atlantic and then were going on to Mexico. At the end of the flight, there was no news from Barbera´n and Collar. People are still arguing today about where they must've fallen, whether it was into the sea between Pinar del Rõ´o and Mexico or in the Yucata´n or in some other place. But nothing more was ever heard from them, these two guys who had dared to cross the Atlantic in a little prop plane when aviation was still in its infancy. They perished in a little plane carrying I don't know how many tanks of petrol, because that was the only thing they could do back then. They took off - did a thing as daring as that, crossing the Atlantic - they took off from Spain and reached Cuba; then they took off again, headed for Mexico, but they never made it.
I saw hurricanes, cyclones, from the time I was a very little boy. Hurricane winds, waterspouts, storms with terrible winds. I even felt an earthquake once when I was probably four or five years old. Our house started shaking; everything just shook. All those natural phenomena must have marked me in some way.
What else, as you see it, had an influence on the formation of your personality?
A privilege and a piece of luck. I was the son of a landowner, not the grandson. If I'd been the grandson of a rich family I'd have been born...I'd have had an aristocratic birth, and all my friends and all my culture would have been marked by a sense of superiority over other people. But in fact, where I was born everybody was poor - [my peers were] children of farm workers and extremely poor campesinos. My own family, on my mother's side, was poor, and some of my father's cousins, who came over from Galicia, were poor, and my father's family in Galicia was also very poor.
No doubt what has had the greatest influence is that where I was born, I lived with people of the most humble origins. I remember the illiterate unemployed men who would stand in line near the cane fields, with nobody to bring them a drop of water, or breakfast, or lunch, or give them shelter, or transport. And I can't forget those children going barefoot. All the children whom I played with in Bira´ n, all those I grew up with, ran around with, all over the place, were very, very poor. Some of them, at lunchtime, I would bring them a big can full of the food that was left over from meals at my house. I would go with them down to the river, on horseback or on foot, with my dogs, all over the place, to throw rocks, to hunt birds - a terrible thing but it was common to use a slingshot. On the other hand, in Santiago and later in Havana, I went to schools for the privileged; there were definitely landowners' children there.
So you also lived with them.
They were the children of people with money. And of course, I was friends with them, we played together, we played sports together and all that. But I didn't exactly 'live' with them in wealthy neighbourhoods.
There [at school], we had other things in our heads, mainly sports or classes, outings and all that. I played a lot of sports, and climbed mountains, two spontaneous hobbies. The people that ran the Colegio de La Salle also had a farm in Santiago, on a peninsula where there's a refinery today - Rente´ [the farm] was called. There was a beach to swim at; they had put out some stakes like this, made of palm canes as they called them, because it was a bay, to make a closed bathing area in the water, because there was the danger of sharks, a real danger, although not as much as you might think. There were diving boards - the first, the second, and the third...I should've been a high diver, because I remember that when I got there, the first time I dived, I dived off the highest one, kind of challenging the rest of the boys, you know - Who wants to dive off the high dive? So I, bam!, I jumped - feet first, by the way; thank goodness I didn't go head first. The diving board was pretty high but I jumped off it without really thinking about it.
Did you know how to swim?
I had learned how to swim when I was I don't know how old in the pools and rivers back in Bira´n, and all that with the same people I was always going off adventuring with.
Your friends, the poor boys, the boys of humble origins?
Yes, all those people, my playmates and my friends. I didn't acquire bourgeois culture. My father was a very isolated landowner, actually. My parents didn't go out to visit people and only rarely had visitors. They didn't have the culture or the customs of a family from the wealthy class. They worked all the time. And our only contact was with the people who lived there, in Bira´n.
Among the boys you played with, were there any black boys?
In my house, I was never told, 'Don't play with this boy or that boy!' Never. And I would go over to the huts and poor houses, the barracks where the Haitians lived, and I finally got scolded for it at home. Not because of social considerations, though - it was out of health considerations, because I would go over there to eat roasted corn on the cob with them. My parents threatened to send me to Guanajay, which was a reformatory west of Havana.
For rebellious children?
My parents would say to me, 'We're going to send you to Guanajay if you keep eating that roasted corn over there with those Haitians!' They threatened to do that more than once - for other things, too. When I began to know about the world, to my mind the best school I ever went to was the childhood I lived out there in the country in the place I lived in. The country was freedom.
Later, because I was the son of a rich man, I was the victim of exploitation.
The victim of exploitation?
In what sense?
It's simple, I'll tell you about it. My childhood circle was the Bira´n public school. I had an older sister and an older brother, Angelita and Ramo´n, who went to that school, and although I still wasn't old enough to be there, I was sent to the same school and they put me at a desk right at the front of the room. There were about twenty-five students, from very poor families in general. I still remember the dates. I don't know how I learned to write, probably by watching the other kids, sitting there in the front row, because they made me sit there.
Then, I remember, I think it was in 1930...
You'd have been four years old.
Four years old. I learned to read and sort of scribble by watching the others, and the teacher with the chalk up at the blackboard - and [I'd play] pranks, too, just like the son of a landowner. The teacher would always come to our house, she ate with our family. And at school there'd be punishments, once in a while a smack with a ruler, I recall. Once in a while I had to get down on my knees, too, and they'd put some coins like this, in your outstretched hands, and you'd have to kneel there, holding your arms out - it wasn't as if they'd have us stay like that for three hours, but listen...And sometimes they'd put down grains of corn.
For you to kneel on?
Oh, yes. I well remember those schoolhouse tortures, although they didn't happen every day, or even all that often. They were really more just ways of scaring us.
Let's call a spade a spade: torture.
By that time I was already very rebellious, because, well, there are long stories about things. If you want, I'll tell you some of them later, I'll tell you things that helped me to become a rebel. I found myself needing to solve problems at a very early age, and that helped me acquire a certain awareness of injustice and of the things that happened in that world. But we're not talking about that, and you're not going to be very interested in it.
I am interested.
When the time comes, if you like, I'll tell you about some of them. But I'll add these factors about what in my view we've been talking about: what was it that made me a revolutionary? What factors influenced my life, despite my social origins as the son of a landowner, and despite the fact that kids are self-centred and that kids are vain, too, and become a little aware of their social position?
You were the only rich person in the little school in Bira´n?
I was the only one, aside from my brother and sister, who were a little older. There was nobody there who was even a little rich, or owned a store. Their parents were day labourers, sharecroppers, or maybe owned just a little piece of land. The children were all the children of very, very poor people.
Was that why your parents decided to send you to Santiago, so you could be among children from another social stratum?
No, I don't think that even crossed their minds. What did my parents do with me? At the age of six, they sent me to Santiago de Cuba, with the story, thought up by the teacher, that I was a 'very intelligent little boy'. They had already decided that the schoolteacher in Bira´ n, whose name was Eufrasia Feliu´, would take my sister, the oldest of us, Angelita, who was three years and four months older than me, to her house in Santiago. If I was six, she must've been nine or ten years old. So she was sent there, and my parents included me in the deal: it would be good for the muchachito to go to Santiago too, to improve his education in the teacher's house. That made my head spin - I was curious what that would be like, so I went without a second thought.
What sort of impression did Santiago make on you, coming as you did from the country?
Santiago was a small city at that time, compared with what it is today, but it made a tremendous impression on me; I thought it was huge. It made a strong impression, very similar to the one later when I was sixteen and saw Havana for the first time, the capital of the Republic. Here in Havana I saw big houses, four- or five-storey buildings that looked huge to me. The city that I had been familiar with, Santiago, had little houses, one storey; buildings several storeys tall were the exception. So when I saw Havana it also made a tremendous impression on me. But I should add that in Santiago, when I was six years old, I saw the open sea for the first time. I was coming from the country, inland, the hills. And when, for the first time, at the outlet of the bay in Santiago, I saw the open sea, I was stunned.
What was the teacher's house like in Santiago?
It was a wooden house on the Intendente hill, in the barrio of El Tõ´voli, a relatively poor barrio...And it was a narrow, dark, damp house, very tiny, a little living room with a piano, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and the porch with a beautiful view of the Sierra Maestra and, very nearby, the Bay of Santiago.
The little house, with its wooden walls and its roof of faded and broken roof-tiles, faced a small plaza, just a dirt clearing, with no trees. Next door was a row of one-room houses. Then down in the next block there was a little store that sold coconut nougat sweets, made with brown sugar. In front of the house, across the small plaza, I recall there was a big house that belonged to Yidi, Yidi the Moor, they called him, who was very rich. And behind [the house] was an 'institute', as it was called, a secondary school. I was witness to some very important days there. I recall that the school was occupied by soldiers, because all the students there were against Machado. I recall one thing I saw at the institute while it was occupied - the soldiers beating a civilian with their rifle butts; I guess he'd said something to them. I recall some of those scenes well, because we lived right there and we saw them.
There was an atmosphere of tension; the soldiers would stop people just going by. The town mechanic in Bira´ n, Antonio he was called, was imprisoned by them at that time. I later learned that he was arrested because they claimed he was a Communist. I recall that his wife went to visit him in prison and took me with her, as young as I was. The jail was at the end of the Alameda in Santiago, a gloomy, sombre place, with filthy, grimy, mildewed walls. I shiver when I remember the jailers, the bars, the prisoners' looks...
In that little house I went to live in in Santiago, the roof would leak when it rained and everything would get wet. It rained more inside than outside. They would put pails and buckets down to catch the water. There was terrible damp in that house. It was there that my sister and I were taken. There in a little room with a rickety old bed, lived the lady's father, Ne´stor, and in the other room lived the teacher's other sister, Bele´n, who was a pianist. She was a pianist and a noble person, but she didn't have a single student.
Was there electricity?
Yes, there was electricity by then, but they didn't use it very much. The house was mostly lit with oil lamps, because I guess the oil cost less.
So how many people lived in that house?
First there were the three sisters, I think their parents were Haitians; I'm not sure whether [the sisters] had gone to school in France or in Haiti. They were mestizas. One became a schoolteacher, the other a piano teacher, and the third one was a doctor, and when I went there she had died not long before. The two sisters, as I said, lived with their father, Ne´stor, whose wife had died. Then there was my sister, me - that is, there were five of us counting the teacher, who kept teaching in Bira´n during the school year but came home during the holidays. There was also a campesina, una guajirita, Esme´rida, whom they brought in a little later as a maid. They never paid her a penny. So that made six of us. And later, my older brother Ramo´n came one day and I convinced him to stay, which meant that there were seven of us when the teacher was there. And all five or six or seven of us ate out of a cantinita.
This is at what period?
It was the period of the Machado dictatorship, what was called the machadato. There was terrible hunger all over the country. Machado was toppled, basically, by hunger, because to top things off, besides the economic crisis that took place in 1929, the United States imposed a commercial accord on us from the very earliest years of the dependent republic - an accord that forced us not to produce many things but rather to import them. Although the US bought sugar from us at the time, when the crisis came in 1929 the US also imposed tariffs on sugar. So that limited the amount of sugar that was exported, and the price was just rock-bottom. So the economy became even more depressed, and there was hunger throughout Cuba.
It was a time of economic crisis and also of political repression.
Machado had begun his term with a certain degree of support from the people because of the nationalistic measures he had taken, and he built public works, certain factories, but he was authoritarian, and very soon his regime turned bloody. There was, for example, opposition from students. In particular, from Julio Antonio Mella, the founder of the Fundacio´n Estudiantil Universitaria [FEU] and the Communist Party, at the age, I think, of twenty or twenty-one. Mella was an emblematic figure for students, workers and the people in general. He was later assassinated over in Mexico on Machado's orders.
Mella was an extraordinarily capable and precocious young man, one of the main figures to emerge after Martõ´. He would even talk about a 'workers' university', a brilliant idea. At that time, students would go to university and start to hear him talk about history and his heroes. Of course by this time the famous Bolshevik Revolution had already occurred, in 1917, and Mella, no doubt inspired by the radicalism of that revolution and the principles behind it, had founded the Communist Party. Inspired, too, by Jose´ Martõ´. Mella was very Martõ´-an and was very sympathetic to the Bolshevik Revolution. That must have had a great influence on the fact that he, along with a Marxist who'd been a friend of Martõ´'s, Carlos Balin÷o, founded the first Communist Party in Cuba.
Machado was toppled in 1933, right?
Right. Machado was toppled in the struggle in 1933, in August, and later, in September, the '