A unique, dual-biography of the two men whose partnership-while it lasted-captivated a generation.
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FIDEL AND CHEA REVOLUTIONARY FRIENDSHIP
By SIMON REID-HENRY
Walker & CompanyCopyright © 2009 Simon Reid-Henry
All right reserved.
PrologueA FATEFUL CROSSING
In the early hours of the morning of November 25, 1956, there was unusual activity at the small port town of Tuxpan, one of the few settlements situated between Veracruz and Ciudad Madero on the long, sweeping arc of Mexico's eastern coast. Soaked by a windblown drizzle that foretold an approaching storm, a small group of men were busily carting biscuits, water and medical supplies up a precarious gangplank to a small pleasure craft tied up alongside the river that flowed down into the port. Two attractive young women gave a hand as Hershey bars, oranges and a couple of hams were stowed among the rifles, ammunition and antitank guns already on board.
Overseeing these last-minute preparations was the six-foot-two figure of the Cuban lawyer Fidel Castro, one of that country's most promising basketball players in a life that could have been; a largely unsuccessful practitioner of law turned politician and now amnestied revolutionary in the life that increasingly was. Everything he had worked for since walking out of Jesuit school in Havana—his gangster days, his enrollment in armed operations, his months of solitude in prison and, more recently, the long nights of clandestine preparations in exile—all were staked on the success of the next few hours.
Standing nearby in the darkness was the much leaner figure of the Argentine doctor Ernesto Guevara, until then a somewhat reluctant medic and scientific researcher who was at heart a wanderer and a poet. He, too, stood that night on the brink of a new period in his life, one from which there would be no return but which he had sought, perhaps without quite knowing it, all his life. The two men did not speak as the silent mobilization got under way.
More than a hundred other men had been summoned to Tuxpan. Many had arrived in ones and twos from the various safe houses and sparsely furnished backstreet hotels in which they had been lodged since the group's release from prison a few months earlier. Guevara himself arrived in an old Ford Pontiac. Its tires crunched over the loose dirt of the road as someone wheeled it off to be hidden. Some of the men around him embraced each other silently in the dark, but nobody spoke. Like men on a prison break, their task for the moment was simply to lie low, keeping out of sight in the small warehouse next to where the boat was being loaded.
Castro, the mastermind of the whole operation, was among the few men standing outside in the rain. He wore a black cape, and his Thompson submachine gun rested across his thighs. He looked concerned and kept glancing at his watch. Not all of his men had yet arrived, and despite having continually shuttled them from one safe house to another, he was fearful the Mexican police might have been alerted to his plans. He had reason to fear more than just them. In the last few months his group had been tracked by Cuba's notorious SIM agents—the Military Intelligence Service (Servicio de Inteligencia Militar)—as well as Mexico's own Federal Security forces and the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The security services of all three countries had watched the activities of Castro's group closely since Fidel had publicly declared his intention to overthrow the Cuban regime led by Batista. Their fears had only been heightened when the group was temporarily detained in a sting operation, and the secret ranch where these men had been training was uncovered. Fidel had managed to secure their release, but the Communist credentials of one Dr. Ernesto Guevara had been splashed all across the Mexican newspapers by editors who caught, among the growing cold war tensions of the country, the unmistakable scent of a good scandal.
Fidel had chosen their point of departure with these recent events in mind. Tuxpan was a desolate place, a small port hopefully poised at the mouth of a river. Here neither customs house nor immigration controls existed, allowing the would-be revolutionaries a degree or two of freedom in their preparations. For now, at least, they were also aided by the weather. The previous day had been one of the stormiest of the year and that night everything in the half-lit town receded even further into the darkness.
As the men loaded equipment onto the boat that Fidel had found in Tuxpán, it was illuminated in the reflection of the lights on the water: the Granma, a shabby sixty-three-foot wooden yacht, with two sickly diesel engines for propulsion. Far from Castro's first choice, she was the only craft available in the rapid escalation of events that had engulfed his small band of rebels over the previous weeks. In fact, she had already sunk once, during the 1953 hurricane. The boat had been prepared with two days to spare by one of Castro's men who had been tortured during the group's arrest five months earlier, and a Mexican gun smuggler named El Cuate ("Buddy") who had sourced half of their weapons as well. But with only the patchiest of repairs carried out by the two men working at night by the light of a bare bulb so as not to arouse suspicion, she looked as though she might well sink again.
"You'll not get more than a dozen men on that," Melba Hernandez, a loyal member of the Cuban resistance who was a lawyer from Cruces, in Las Villas province and one of the young women helping with the preparations, told Fidel when she saw the Granma. She may have been right, but Fidel refused to believe it. "She'll take ninety," he declared obstinately. When the order to board was given, eighty-two men shuttled out of the warehouse and managed to squeeze themselves belowdecks. Some, armed with the few machine guns that El Cuate had obtained, took up their positions around the boat. Fearing arrest if he waited any longer for the last few men to arrive, Fidel gambled on luck staying with him and set about making the final preparations.
Guevara's official capacity on the expedition was medical officer and head of personnel. Despite being personally and ideologically committed to the domineering figure of Fidel Castro ever since they had met the previous summer, and though, as he later put it, for such a noble cause it seemed "worth dying on some foreign beach somewhere," he had his reservations about the course they were taking. These were not fears of failure, though any commonsense appraisal suggested the mission they were embarking upon was unlikely to succeed. Like all the other men crouching in the shadows that night, Guevara had an optimism bordering on blind faith that they would achieve their aims. His apprehensions rested instead on the possibility that, once successful, the revolution might go the same way as most other attempts to overthrow corrupt governments across South America. Given time, Guevara imagined, Castro's hoped-for Cuban revolution would succumb to Western dollars and bourgeois greed just like the rest.
The young Guevara had already made his rushed farewells to the wife he had met at the end of his second journey across the South American continent. "Is something going to happen?" Hilda Gadea had asked her husband when one of the movement's members came nervously to the house and asked for him. Another comrade had just been arrested then, and his papers and some weapons taken. "No, just precautions ..." Guevara replied, gathering his things but not looking at her. When he was finished he went over to the crib where their baby daughter was asleep and caressed her. "Then he turned, held me, and kissed me," Hilda recalled. "Without knowing why, I trembled and drew closer to him. Afterward I would remember how he tried to remain natural at that time, and I knew how much he must have forced himself. He left that weekend and did not come back."
Fidel, too, now made his own farewells. He put his arm around his good friends and fellow underground conspirators, the Mexicans de Cardenas and Orquidea Pino, who would be staying behind, before issuing his final order to them: "Hide, all of you, hide yourselves and don't go out until you hear we either got there or were arrested." He then arranged for a coded message to be sent to alert his supporters on the island to the rebels' imminent arrival. Once the men were safely on their way with their backup following them along the coast in blacked-out cars, that message—"Book ordered out of print"—would be duly cabled to Santiago de Cuba, to the capital Havana, and to another major Cuban city, Santa Clara. After a final hug from Melba, Fidel took up the gun he had handed briefly to a comrade and ordered the last of those who were coming to follow him on board when they had loosened the lines. With that he bounded up the gangplank to the ship's cabin and ordered the crew to cast off.
The event that would soon come to play such an important role in the cold war and that would reshape the political landscape of Latin America was under way. If various intelligence agencies were tracking the movements of this group of rebels, the politicians in Washington and Moscow were themselves largely unaware of what was afoot, however. Rumors of rebellion were constant traffic in this part of the world, and Washington paid the activities of Fidel Castro no particular attention: its primary concern was with whether or not any uprisings were Communist in nature, and though Castro had by then made something of a name for himself as a troublemaker, he had never publicly said anything to suggest he was a Communist. Consequently, despite having an embassy in Havana and a consulate in Santiago de Cuba, just a few miles away from where Castro planned to land, the U.S. government had no idea of the extent of Fidel's underground movement on the island—testimony in part to the wisdom of the precautions he had taken.
The Soviet leadership, too, was preoccupied with other matters. As the Granma prepared to sail from Mexico, Soviet tanks were still grinding their way around the streets of Budapest, where Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor, had deployed them to crush an uprising just a few weeks before. Events in Hungary were not Khrushchev's only concern. Communist China under Chairman Mao was growing increasingly powerful and restless at the presumed primacy of the Soviet Union among the socialist countries and Khrushchev had just been roundly criticized by the West for voicing his infamous "We will bury you" speech to a group of Western diplomats in Moscow.
Only a year before things had looked so much better for the Soviet leader and his prime minister, Nikolai Bulganin, as they made a state visit to India. So positive had their reception been in Calcutta, where they had been completely engulfed by a vast throng of more than two million, that their security guards had violently elbowed and jack-booted their way through the crowds to rescue them, lifting the two statesmen up above the crowd and carrying them back to the safety of their official limousines like precious dolls. Khrushchev had been impressed by the whole experience. It had left him with a tantalizing sense of the possibilities the USSR might yet exploit in some of the recently independent nations around the globe, particularly as it sought to retain its international standing relative to the Americans and the Chinese.
Though Khrushchev did not know it, a young associate of the Soviet embassy in Mexico, Nikolai Leonov, had in fact already made friends with Che and with Fidel's brother, Raul. Khrushchev would not learn of Leonov's "contact" with the Cuban rebels under Fidel for some time yet. Nor indeed was Fidel to realize the full extent of his brother's and Che's involvement with the Communists until several years later. For the moment, Fidel Castro, Ernesto Guevara, and the other men aboard the Granma sailed into a new and as yet undefined era largely unnoticed by either of the superpowers and unencumbered by plans for the finer details of their political program.
With a single motor set to low power the Granma slid away from the dock and headed down the river. Squall warnings had been posted along the Mexican coast and the streets of the port town were empty. But through the portholes of the overloaded vessel the men could see the occasional light slip by as the boat crossed the harbor and turned into the rougher waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As the full force of the storm hit the rebels, the boat yawed precariously against the waves and soon all inessential items had to be thrown overboard. To make matters worse, the engines were sputtering and the overloaded vessel was shipping water.
No sooner had they left the Mexican coast than the rebels all but ran into a Mexican navy frigate. Fortunately the frigate failed to spot the Granma lying low in the water and when the coast had receded a little farther Fidel deemed it safe to put on the boat's lights. A few hours later, in spite of the waves that continued crashing against the small craft "like mountains," the tension of the initial departure had eased somewhat and the men on board began to sing. Guevara joined in with the Cuban national anthem as if it were his own as cries of "Viva la revolution!" and "Abajo la dictadura!" were hurled out into the night.
Fidel's plan for getting his group of rebels to Cuba aboard the Granma was, once he had rounded Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, to pass near the Cayman Islands. In this way he hoped to avoid Cuban waters for much of the journey before making a quick dash at the last minute for the southernmost tip of the island, which juts out like the skull of a hammerhead shark. From there he and his men would have to scramble up into the sanctuary of the mountains that limn the southern shores of the island.
But further trouble soon beset the crew of the Granma. Water was rushing in at the sides and it seemed as if the Granma might list in the dark waters at any moment. Someone ordered the bilge pumps to be turned on, only to find that they didn't work properly; the men took to bailing out the craft with buckets instead. Amid the renewed confusion Faustino Perez, one of the rebel leaders, sought out Fidel, who himself was busy shifting water. He wanted to suggest that they change their course toward the coast. "This is lost!" he shouted to Fidel over the storm. But Fidel seemed not to hear him.
In the city of Santiago de Cuba, near where the Granma was due to land, the members of Castro's underground revolutionary movement on the island swung into action. Celia Sanchez, daughter of the doctor at a vast sugar mill whose firsthand experiences of conditions there had given him and his family a sharp sense of injustice, and Frank País, a radical young student leader whose father was a Baptist minister, were busy implementing the final elements of the carefully prepared plan. They had received from Fidel the code telegram "Book ordered out of print" and the two of them now set about organizing an armed uprising and a strike to coincide with the Granma's landing.
The president of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, was informed, too. Fidel and Batista had met on a number of occasions when Fidel had been an aspiring politician, and since Fidel's more radical turn Batista had kept a close eye on the man whom everyone acknowledged to be as brilliant as he was unpredictable. Batista had been alerted to Fidel's attempt to depart for Cuba aboard the Granma. But he was confident that any small group attempting to land on the island would be picked up long before they reached the coast. There would be no invasion by "gangsters" he had assured his people in the newspaper El Mundo just three days before. The army was "alert, competent and fully capable of handling any insurrection that might take place."
The telegram Castro had sent as they departed was a signal to Pais, Sanchez and their men that they should expect the Granma before dawn on November 30. So early that morning País's small force, armed with "rifles, machine guns, grenades, and Molotov cocktails," attacked key points in Santiago. With the element of surprise in their favor, around three hundred men in uniforms and the red and black armbands that indicated their adherence to Fidel's July 26 Movement took control of the radio station. For much of the day the city was closed down. The town's inhabitants either shut up their shops or stayed at home. The army and the police remained in their barracks, unsure as to what was happening: País had created a perfectly executed diversion for Castro's landing.
Excerpted from FIDEL AND CHE by SIMON REID-HENRY Copyright © 2009 by Simon Reid-Henry. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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