Memories of Yara and of Che
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Prensa Latina - Havana, Cuba
)From Cuba Direct
The town of Yara and my memories of Che
By Harry Villegas, Cuba Direct, 1 Oct 97 11:31:40
Yara is the town that witnessed the historical events which have always marked the destiny or the path to be followed as the route of victory. This town is located in the surroundings of the Sierra Maestra, scene of fighting, which places Cuba in the place it deserves today: free and sovereign. I was born in Yara.
With only 17 years of age, I was old enough to judge what an imposed and unfair life we have undergone, and I thought at that time that I should do what other young people had decided to: change the brutal system under which we were subjected.
I heard talk about Fidel, about his actions, his courage, about how he defended the poor to release them from misery, and this helped me make my decision to join the struggle and contribute something, no matter how little it might be, but something to back up his actions.
I started in the underground movement. Together with some other young men from town, we interrupted the electrical power supply to the town and we wrote graffiti against the government on walls. As a consequence, I was put in prison three or four times. It was really hard for us to keep on that way, but we were not authorized to climb the Sierra Maestra. We were told to stay where we were .
One day, together with other comrades in arms, I was in a ballroom and in a sudden rash of indiscipline, we said, We are going to the Sierra Maestra. And so we did.
First, we joined to a group of "gunmen" in Cauto Valley. Then we made contact with Chino Figueredo's troop and when we joined this troop, Che arrived. This was in Canabacoa. Already, Che was a legend, a symbol. His awkward figure made an impression on me; he was riding on the back of a donkey, his physical appearance was sort of weak, and he had an expression on his face that reminded me of Cantiflas.
That day is like yesterday to me: With his peculiar Argentine accent and a fix look, with no hesitations, Che firmly asked me what we were doing there and he told us we had to leave. But we insisted, saying that we were there because we wanted to fight for the freedom of Cuba, and we had made up our minds. Then, he looked at me, he looked at my 22 caliber shotgun and says to me; "Do you believe with that little gun you can make the war? Look, go back to your town where there are a lot of soldiers, beat them with sticks, take their guns and each of you come back with a gun in your hands".
It was not an easy task. There were some obstacles in the way, but we did not return with empty hands. I think Che allowed us to remain not because of the quality of the captured weapons but because of the determination we had showed.
I began as a courier, then I went with him to Minas del Frio, where I got used to the constant bombing from Batista's air force.
When it came to discipline, Che had a high concept of it and it was in Minas where I received the first demonstration. Food was scarse and a comrade called for a hunger strike. I was one of the leaders. When Che arrived, he accused us of conspiracy, threatening to shoot the one responsible, and I was punished by not having food three days. Luckily, Fidel arrived and eased the punishment.
But I was not excluded from other punishments. Everything that was considered an indiscipline was severely punished by Che because he knew that indiscipline was a determinig factor for a guerrilla's survival. It was very important to him that the crimes and mistakes committed were not left unpunished. Che believed that the only way to self-perfection was to force people to think about their own mistakes. He used to be the first to punish himself and he was very hard on himself.
Che dealt with us as if we were his children, trying to provide us with an integrated education. He criticized and sanctioned us whenever it was necessary. But he always was a fair man. He placed a lot of importance on equity and had limitless altruism, and these things made me admire him more, and I got more involve with him.
He believed that young man are the fundamental clay of the Revolution. That is why, in our free time we learned Spanish, mathematics and read history books. He also trained us to become stronger he demanded a lot from us. In each act, his wisdom, integrity, courage and loyalty to Fidel was present.
With the triumph of the Revolution, I became the chief of Fidel's bodyguard corps. As a matter of fact, I learned of this position in the funniest way, a way only a man who has a sense of humor can tell. When we arrived in Havana, the city scared me. At La Cabana, I used to look at the city from the statue of Christ because I did not dare to leave the place. Then, one day he comes and tells me if I, as chief of the bodyguard, had the idea of wondering around as a bum and not working, no my dear friend, only in a capitalist society do you do that. That was the way I heard the news about my new responsabilities. I got with him in the car and drove away. As a member of his body guard, I shared and lived with him and his family.
Fidel gave me the responsablity of transferring to the Management School to run the National Factory of Sanitary Fixtures. This forced me to educate myself technically and culturally. Then, I realized I had made a mistake. I had thought that because I had finished primary school and had studied a little at the Manzanillo School of Commerce, that I did not need to study anymore. But this was not so. I remember, that whenever I rode behind him on his horse, he asked me about certain things, for instance, he pointed out coffee, a tobacco plant, or a mango tree and asked me, "What is that?",and when I answered he used to say; "I can tell you have graduated from Yara University".
He was a restless, studious person. When he went on that trip to Africa and Asia, he left an organized program of study for his body-guards. Castellanos and I learned how to fly airplanes. When Che returned, we were at the airport and the first person Fidel called was our teacher and asked him about the course. The teacher told him that we had not participated in class. Fidel rewarded the rest of the class but he sent Castellanos and me to work in the country. Today, I understand the importance of bettering oneself and I regret that I had not understood Che's example.
To me, among the most important characteristics of Che's personality are his strong human sensibility and his extraordinary
concern for mankind. An example of this, was the struggle in the Congo. It was a great experience. It was hard to understand the psychology of the African leaders. It turned out to be really difficult to understand a people, where one finds a wide variety of social stages, going from a primitive community all the way trough the modern manifestations of today.
However, even with the little help we had received and the instability provided by African leaders, Che who did not want to leave the place, decided that the request for our retreat should be in a written form, in that way Cuba's prestige would be intact. But we did not have the heart to leave the comrades-in- arms behind. From the human point of view, it was really difficult for Che, who asked that they themselves chose the 20 comrades who would go to Cuba to study. But there was not enough room for them in the boats and I know how painful this was, because I will say it again, his human sensibility did not allow him to be on another way.
His audacity is another characteristic I always admired in him.
He was extremely audacious. If we compare Camilo and Che, I would say that Camilo was more reckless. Che made this very clear in his book, "The War of the Guerrilla", where he systematized his concepts of irregular war. He believed that the only way one should go to a battle-field is when success is guaranteed. Let us look at example, the battle of Santa Clara, in which Che took the credit as strategist and he made himself into a military leader. He went against the logic and rules of war which establishes the necesity of the superiority in numbers to attack. He felt that surprise was a very important element to weaken the enemy in a psychological way. Showing his audacity, he walked into the city with Aleida, Parra and me. While we were advancing, the people of the town took to the streets and shouted; "Here comes Che with three women". Parra and I were taken as women because of our long hair.
Regarding my ideas about Che we can talk for hours, but I think it is fair to clear up a few things. One of them is, is that it is very important for the youth of our country and the time in which we are living, to have discipline and to be exigent.
Once I was at a Military Base in which we were having a sort of debate about Che. All of a sudden, a private asked me a question that I was never been asked before. Imagine: what defect had I found in Che. He said he had always heard people talking about his good points but never about his bad points. With no hesitation,I told him that from my own point of view, Che had only a bad point: he was extraordinarily demanding person. But his exigency always was for a good cause, based on his sense of justice. He would never ask for a task to be accomplished unless this task was doable. Though it seems quite contradictory, that defect was his greatest virtue. This virtue of his, his demanding personality, directly had an effect on me because of my repeated indiciplines.
I have lots of examples of indiciplines, but I am going to recall an example for which Che severely punished me: during the Invasion, Che prohibited me from riding a horse, I disobeyed his order and I had the bad luck of stumbling and when I stumbled a shot went off. I did not know if he had heard the shot or not, but I told him what had had happened and I was punished. He sent me to "Los descamisados" platoon, where I was given a huge boiler, pots and canteens. I put them on my back, and started walking. Three or four days passed by when he sent for me to return to the Column.
Today, I think about my disobedience and the consequences this could had caused the troop. If by any chance, there would had been soldiers in the surrounding area, that shot have signalled our position to them and they easily could had placed an embush.
For almost over a year, we were in Argentina at the University of La Plata, and someone asked me the same question which I previously made reference to, only this time, the question was made from another angle: is it was true what Che's detractors say when they call him a tough man, bossy and a dictator. I answered right away. I told them that was a defamatory campaign of imperialism, a grotesque campaign that tries to blur Che's example and image. They have distorted those anecdotes told by those who fought with him in the Guerrilla, in and out of Cuba.
For those who were present, I reminded them of Maceo, when he said that where indiscipline lies, he would never be; and of Marti who said, that people are not commanded in the same way armies are; and of Fidel in the introduction to the "Diario del Che en Bolivia": "In a guerrilla encampment there are critisims which have to happen incessantly, above all (...) when the most insignificant lack of attention, or a mistake, may cause a fatal outcome, so the chief must be a very demanding person."
Che was a military chief, a troop leader, and he had a great sense of discipline. He conceived the guerrilla as a social reformer, but you cannot convince if you are not convinced, and this led Che to avoid his bad points, his mistakes, and to fulfill with dignity the task of how he conceived the revolutionary.
He can be defined as an honorable man, a comprehensive revolutionary. There is not a single thing that stains his reputation. Because of all his good points, as Fidel said, he can be called a model revolutionary. And it was precisely so when he was discussing the discipline of the guerrilla, that he told us; " This kind of struggle gives us the opportunity to graduate as revolutionaries, the highest echelor of the human race."
[Originally published by the Cuban magazine "Casa de las Americas"]
[c] 1997. Latin American News Agency
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