The Uprising: the Escambray Rebellion
January 4, 1959
“Are you telling me not to go?” Elpidio García asked his older brother, Ortelio.
“Elpidio, it’s such a long drive to Santa Clara, up and down mountains.”
“Really? Look, Ortelio, most of my friends are going. Many of yours too. This is an important moment for our nation. No one can deny that Fidel’s triumph is anything short of miraculous.”
“Don’t use that word together with that man’s name, Elpidito,” Elpidio García, the family’s patriarch, admonished from his wheelchair, shaking a gnarled index finger at his youngest son and drilling him with his teary blue eyes. “He’s no saint.”
Elpidio didn’t respond. They all had fresh in their minds their father’s volatile temper and quick hands, until the stroke a few years ago. It was an old Spanish thing—discipline and respect were better taught with pain.
People in the region respected the old man for having turned the land he inherited into a successful enterprise with hard and at times beastly work. Physically very strong, he had never known the meaning of fear. He was barely educated, only a few years of primary school as a child, and the rest of his life dedicated to the land, like his parents before him and the ones before in Spain, who could not even sign their names on a piece of paper but were of hard-as-nails stock.
At twenty-four years of age, Elpidio was the youngest of the three García boys, a pregnancy later in life that had surprised his parents, who were already in their mid-forties at the time. It had cost his mother her life. Blond, with blue eyes and very fair skin, short and muscular, he was the only child in the family who had inherited all his Spanish ancestors’ traits, including a mind of his own.
“We talked about it yesterday and the day before. No one knows this guy’s real agenda,” Ortelio said. “His so-called ‘rebel army’ is full of well-known communists and shady guys.”
“Yes, you’re right, we’ve talked about it again and again.”
“My son”—the old man intervened once more, now mellower, out of steam—“why don’t you listen to your older brother’s opinions? Remember the old Spanish saying, El que no oye consejo no llega a viejo—He who doesn’t listen to advice will not make it to old age.”
“I want to witness history in the making, Dad. I would like to be there when Fidel rolls into Santa Clara with his troops. And if he gives a speech, I want to see and hear him in person. What’s wrong with that?”
“I’ll tell you what, Elpidio,” Ortelio said. “Why don’t you save yourself the grueling drive and we all watch it on TV from right here, our ancestral home?” He swept the air around him with his hands, in a faintly comical attempt to lighten up the conversation. “We can roast a pig, chill the beer, maybe Rosita will make those special black beans we like so much.” He shot a glance at Rosa, the family’s quasi adopted daughter, who was standing outside the room talking with his own daughter, Soledad. “I’m sure Dad won’t mind opening a couple of those old bottles of rum he has stashed away, and we can toast your hero and wish for the best, for him, us, and the country.”
“He’s not my hero, Ortelio, but he has accomplished something remarkable.”
“We can invite the whole family to come,” added the patriarch, “but I will open only one of the bottles, only for us, the immediate family. Every time there’s a celebration you guys want to rid me of my stash. And this is not a family celebration, this is… just… a…” He waved a hand, dismissing the thought.
“Dad, you barely drink anymore,” Elpidio said with a slight grin, looking at Ortelio, who rolled his eyes.
“He’s going to take that fancy booze with him when he departs,” Ortelio quipped.
“Don’t you be making departure plans on my behalf, sonny. Not yet. I know I’m old and sick, but I might still surprise all of you and stick around longer than you expect me to.”
“We all pray to God for that, Dad,” Ortelio was quick to respond. “We still need you.”
No one could usually deter the young Elpidio from doing what he wanted once his mind was made up, but this time he relented. Like the rest of the family, Elpidio was very aware of his father’s increasing frailty and he abhorred the notion of being responsible for anything untoward happening to the old man. Not because of him. Not again. He came to his father’s ranch three times a week to help Ortelio run it. Their father couldn’t do it anymore. Ortelio was very good at business in general, but help from his brothers was always welcomed. Ramón, though, almost never showed up; he was very busy with his fishing boats, surely a half-truth at best.
Next day all of the Garcías, their families, some distant relatives, and a few friends
and neighbors came to the sprawling, old country estate. The family had built the mansion over many years, one chunk of stone and masonry at a time, the sporadic construction leaving ample space for a central patio with the ubiquitous water well in the middle, its circular wall covered in old Spanish tiles that showed off the colorful shiny arabesques. The roof of the house was finished with the traditional red clay tiles, and it was easy to distinguish the age of each of the house’s additions by the hue the roof tiles had acquired over the years, the darkest being the oldest.
Lush tropical vegetation and palm, fruit, and shade trees surrounded the property outside its walls. On the mountain-facing side of the house, all the way to the first elevations of the thick-forested Sierra del Escambray, man-tended landscape and wild growth created the illusion of a continuous natural green carpet. Several orange trees prospered and perfumed the central patio and the rooms of the house that wrapped around it. The plants’ greens, oranges, and yellow, the white wash of the walls, and the burnt and bright reds of the roof, all of it under the radiant blue Caribbean sky, seemed to have sprung from an Impressionist painter’s palette.
That day, January 5th, 1959, Fidel Castro Ruz spoke from the Leoncio Vidal Park in Santa Clara to great popular acclaim, and promised his people that a new era was dawning for the Republic. Five months later, in June of the same year, Castro signed into law the First Agrarian Reform Law, which prohibited the ownership of more than 993 acres by any person or corporation, national or foreign. Although this law was interpreted to be more to the detriment of the huge American interests on the island, it gave young Elpidio pause. The family ranch was smaller than the limit, but it was pretty big. He wondered if it would stop there.
It was well known that the size of the García ranch was an anomaly in this area of the island. Here, most of the arable land was divided among thousands of small property owners, all direct descendants of the men and women who had fought in the Wars of Independence from Spain, after which a grateful nation had bestowed on them five-acre parcels of farming land. Nevertheless, all the landowners, big and small, in the Sierra del Escambray and beyond began to worry. And not only the Escambray’s landowners, but many people from all walks of life also worried; everyone knew what had happened in Russia after Lenin’s revolution and in the eastern European countries after World War II.
Eighteen months later, the big speech came, and it was broadcasted live to the nation.
August 6, 1960
“¡Fii… del! ¡Fii… del! ¡Fii… del!”
The drizzle falling unabated on the capital that night, one of the frequent showers this time of year, was no match for the highly charged atmosphere among the thousands in and around the stadium. The light rain sparkled under the bright spotlights, and occasional puffs of glittery mist blew sideways on short-lived gusts of wind.
El Estadio del Cerro, the best-known stadium in the nation, where important political rallies and baseball games had taken place for many years, was bursting at the seams. No one remembered anything this big. Every seat in the stands was taken. On the field it was standing room only, and it was packed. The latecomers had no choice but to stand outside on the poorly lit sidewalks and narrow streets, hoping to hear on the loudspeakers what all had come to witness. This wasn’t just another rally, and they were certainly not there to watch a ball game.
“¡Fii… del! ¡Fii… del! ¡Fii… del!”
They were hailing the new leader, Fidel Castro, the man who had mesmerized the country after winning an improbable victory. Tonight he had an exceptional message for the nation. No one wanted to miss a single word. He was young and tall, with a Roman profile, a red-flecked dark beard, and an intense sparkle in his eyes. The masses already knew how easily and clearly he spoke, making them feel as if he knew everyone in the crowd personally.
There had been no one like him in the country’s recent political history. But oddly, no one there really viewed him as a politician. He didn’t speak like a politician, he didn’t act the part, and certainly didn’t dress like one. Born into a wealthy rural family, he had been a hot-headed university student in his early years, then a mountain guerrilla and, finally, the most revered man on the island, even before the success of his revolution on the first day of January the previous year. All of this had turned the young leader into the embodiment of freedom, the same freedom José Martí, the Apostle of the Nation, had promised his people way back in 1895 at the beginning of the last War of Independence.
The word on the street was that, on this night, Fidel was going to forever change the distribution of the nation’s wealth. No one doubted for one second that he had what it took to carry it out and the people were ready. If he said the word, they would enforce it.
“¡Fii… del! ¡Fii… del! ¡Fii… del!”
Standing on an improvised podium and clad in his habitual olive-green fatigues and combat boots, Fidel Castro smiled. He waved his hands, trying to quiet the crowd. He stood unsheltered in the rain, just like his people.
“Compañeros,” he said into the microphones, “we have a long and important night ahead of us.” The last words were raspy. He drank from a glass, cleared his throat, and kept on smiling while motioning with his hands for the people to calm down. He looked cool and collected.
“Compañeros,” started Castro softly, then raised his voice. “Tonight we are going to change the course of history—not only ours, but of the entire American continent!”
Thunderous applause and more chanting.
Fidel pulled a crumpled piece of paper from a side pocket of his jacket. He studied it while the rapture of the crowd subsided. He cleared his voice again.
“Tonight—” he began. Nothing more came out. All he could manage was a scratchy sound. Fidel had lost his voice! He tried clearing his throat several times.
Absolute silence fell on the audience inside and outside the stadium. Everyone was motionless, frozen. The faces looking up at him were anxious, the eyes stricken with uncertainty.
“Fidel se ha resfriado—Fidel has a cold,” said someone in the crowd, and this statement spread in a murmur all around the stadium and, like a powerful wave, jumped the high walls and kept on spreading.
“A cold?” Many in the crowd wondered how this was even possible. This shouldn’t be happening, not to Fidel, and definitely not on this night. Was this a divine signal? No, no, it wasn’t possible that someone destined for glory could be silenced this easily. Even the believers in the Santería religion scattered among the multitude could not believe that Elegguá, the Lord of the Crossroads, was closing the road to the man popularly known as el Caballo—the Horse, for his strength and unstoppable ways.
It was then that those sitting or standing close to Castro saw a great unease wash over his face, saw how almost immediately it turned into contained anger. Scowling, with a hard look in his eyes, Castro closed his jacket up to his neck, pushed his lips against the microphone, and started moving them, slowly, painfully, not even looking at the piece of paper in his hand. His sudden inability to speak had caught him by surprise, but he wasn’t about to be silenced by a simple cold, by any divine bullshit, or even by Elegguá himself. Too much was at stake.
“Compañeros…” he finally managed to whisper, “tonight… the American oil refinery… across the bay… is appropriated… by the people… and it becomes La Refinería Ñico Lopez… in honor… of that… fine revolutionary…”
The roar boomed like the exploding walls of an overflowing dam. This was it! It was happening! This man was the real deal. He was going to single-handedly steer the nation into the valley of milk and honey.
“¡Fidel, seguro!—Fidel, without a doubt!”
“!A los Yankis dale duro!—Hit the Yankees hard!”
The chant went on and on, fists in the air, and tears of joy sparkling everywhere.
“The Cuban Telephone Company will become La Compañía Cubana de Teléfonos,” Castro whispered into the microphone, this time with much more poise, and a group in the crowd close to him shouted: “¡Se llamaba!—It used to be!” The shout carried across the stadium in spite of the roaring and applause. Castro nodded at what seemed to be a spontaneous popular outburst.
“The Havana Hilton will become el Hotel Habana Libreeee!” He dragged the last word, reminiscent of his native Oriente province drawl, one loved by his people, who shouted as one:
“El Central Amalia—Sugar mill Amalia,” he said.
“¡Se llamaba!” everyone shouted.
“Victoria de Yaguajay,” responded a now-smiling Castro.
“All the national and international banks…”
“¡Se llamaban!” roared the people.
Castro smiled and nodded, he liked the rhythm.
“… will become El Banco Nacional de Cuba.”
He looked up at the spotlights, realizing the rain had stopped and the wind had died down. The multitude followed his look and rejoiced with him. The clouds were parting and a clear moon was on the horizon. It was a good omen! They continued on down the list. It would be a long night, but one full of promises.
The floors of the sugar mill’s lobby and central offices were made of local mahogany trees. Three generations of the family that owned the mill had been proud of the shine on the reddish-brown woods.
That same August night, a middle-aged man dressed in a starched white linen suit was looking at those polished floors. His gaze moved on to the old wooden desk he was standing near, and then to the original worn-out leather chair, the same chair his grandfather, his father, and finally he had sat in to run the family business. Imperceptibly, he shook his head; so many sweet memories clashing with bitter realities.
“Ay, Moisés, por Dios,” his wife had begged him. “Don’t go back to the office, there’s nothing for you to do there anymore; it’s the middle of the night, my love, tengo miedo. Let them have it all. It will do them no good. Let’s wait in Miami with our family and friends. The Americans won’t take this lightly. The Marines will come knocking soon. We’ll be back in less than a year. Please, my love, listen to me!”
Moisés knew she was right, and yet here he was. How could he live with himself if he ran away like a dog with its tail between its legs? Dispossessed. How could he feel like a man after that? His eyes roamed all over the office and came to rest on the loaded Smith & Wesson lying on top of the desk.
Right then he heard a vehicle stop outside. Men got out, talking and laughing, the usual curse words. The main door to the lobby flew open. An army lieutenant and three soldiers carrying rifles walked in as if they already owned the place. Through the open door of his office, Moisés regarded them in silence.
The soldiers noticed the revolver on the desk and held their guns at the ready.
“What the hell are you doing here?” the officer demanded. “This mill no longer belongs to you! Now it’s in the hands of the workers!” As they approached, their filthy boots tracked mud across his grandfather’s immaculate floor.
“I don’t know whose hands it’s in,” Moisés said in a tight, controlled voice. “But I can see it’s now under your filthy hooves.”
“Get the fuck out of here!” The officer shook an angry finger towards a side door.
Moshe Karol Guttman, better known in Cuba as Moisés, turned pale and his bitterness walloped back at his opponent: “Fuck is what your mother does in the whorehouse, you son of a bitch!” And he lunged for the gun on his desk, no doubt in his mind what the outcome would be.
“¡Se llamaba!” roared the crowd in the stadium.
The Catholic Church had owned the seminary since colonial times. The old building and surrounding lands were located in the fertile and secluded San Luis Valley, east of Trinidad.
A young seminarian stood in the cobbled courtyard and watched as the soldiers took possession of the place. “It’s not possible that God sees this and does nothing,” he said in a low, angry voice.
“That’s blasphemy! Shut up and repent!” responded the fat priest standing next to him. The man had a heavy Galician accent, his breath reeking of chorizo and wine. “It is His will.”
“I can’t believe that,” retorted the boy.
The priest turned forcefully. With the full momentum of his body, he slapped the boy in the face and knocked him to the ground.
A few weeks later, when the government finally expelled the clergy from Cuba, the boy stayed behind. He could not just leave his country and forget it all. He had to do something, and he knew God would provide him with an answer.
He returned to Trinidad, where he was born and raised, and asked God for guidance.
“My Lord,” he prayed, “I can’t find the strength to forgive these brothers of mine, although I know they are also Your sons. They strip Your Church of its property and laugh at You. What can I do? Help me find my way!” He prayed with such devotion that his family and friends started calling him el Curita—the Little Priest.
The seminary was turned into an army outpost.
“¡Se llamaba!” yelled the crowd in the stadium.
When the soldiers came for the Garcías’ cattle ranch, the women cried openly. So did the bewildered children clinging to their skirts. Only the men, angry and bitter, would not let their tears show. Young Elpidio, strong like a bull, had such a grip on his machete that his fingers were ash-white. His cold blue eyes measured the distance to his closest foe.
Rosa saw it all through the kitchen window and immediately knew what was going on in Elpidio’s mind. Wasting no time, she grabbed a sharp knife from the counter, concealed it under her apron, and walked out of the house through a side door. Swiftly and quietly she went to stand by Elpidio. “The son of a bitch on the left is mine, all mine,” she said, so low that it was barely audible.
Ortelio came to stand in front of them. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s suicide.” Turning his head to look at the soldiers, he added: “And the dead can’t fight back.”
Elpidio and Rosa looked at him, eyes glinting, a faint smile on their lips.
The García’s were just allowed to keep the farm’s main house and one acre of land around it. The old man died the next day.
“¡Se llamaba!” howled the masses as expected.