• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Fidel in the Evening

Memorias de un soldado cubano, by “Benigno” (Dariel Alarcón Ramírez), is by far the most valuable historically, as well as the most painful and astonishing of these. A movie or two could be made out of any given chapter of this remarkable man’s life. Born in 1939, he was a seventeen-year-old farmer in the Sierra Maestra—illiterate, industrious, and very poor—when a couple of bearded men in olive-green uniforms came to his bohío asking for food. Frightened, thinking they were government soldiers, he gave them what they wanted, and more. So began his unwitting collaboration with Fidel’s barbudos. It turned conscious, and purposeful, when the real government forces murdered his teenage wife as revenge for the help he’d given the rebels.

Benigno” is the pseudonym Dariel Alarcón used in Bolivia when he fought alongside Ernesto Guevara. By then, he had already served under him as a machine-gunner in the Rebel Army, infiltrated the leadership of the counterrevolutionary bands in the Escambray hills, and joined Che again on his disastrous expedition to the Congo. Benigno’s wholehearted love for Che and Fidel led him to volunteer for every shoddily put-together suicide mission his leaders dreamed up. “We had a tremendous fever for internationalist struggle,” he says, recalling how eager he and sixteen other Cuban volunteers were to depart for Bolivia, where their chances of survival were so small.

Che’s love of harsh punishment does not diminish Benigno’s loyalty. Once, Benigno recalls, he removed his boots while trying to move a heavy load of supplies across a river in Bolivia, and when the raft he was using broke, he lost his boots. To set an example Che forced him to go barefoot, carrying his usual ninety-pound load. “The pain was terrible, frightful,” Benigno says. But Che also made a point of teaching him to read and giving him the basics of an education, which led to Benigno’s eventually getting a degree in history:

On December 30, by the light of a campfire in the Bolivian jungle, at the end of a lesson, Che said, “You’ve got sixth-grade level now.” I felt like the king of the jungle at that moment, and I dared to say to him, “If I get out of here alive, I’ll make it at least to the first step of the University stairs.”…He hugged me and said, “That’s the kind of commitment worth making.”

Benigno’s adventures continue after he and two other Cuban fighters make a Houdini-like escape from Bolivia into Chile following Che’s murder. After a few weeks’ rest, he is off to Peru on another special mission Fidel has designed for him. He is equipped with an explosive device wired to his crotch, which he is to detonate if anyone tries to open a briefcase he is carrying. Inside, according to Benigno, is a blueprint Fidel has written up: instructions, supposedly, for the military coup that brought the pro-Cuban General Juan Velasco Alvarado to power in 1968. Having delivered the briefcase, Benigno volunteers again for a second attempt to create a guerrilla movement in Bolivia—where he is not recognized, despite the fact that his picture has been all over the papers, “because they’d given me a very good plastic surgery just a while back.”

After this last adventure Benigno more or less settles down, training Latin American guerrillas at the special clandestine schools that the Central Committee’s quasi-autonomous Departamento Américas has set up on the island. While his own education is postponed, he suffers whenever he has to write something for his trainees on the blackboard, and the internacionalista comrades mockingly correct his spelling.

It is at this point that we begin to learn about Fidel’s Cuba. Fidel offers training to guerrillas from Uruguay to Mexico—denying the fact all the while to the Mexican government, Cuba’s one real ally in the hemisphere—but leaves the various countries’ rebel groups parked on the island for months.^7 Particularly instructive is the case of the Dominican Republic’s Francisco Caamaño Deñó—an army colonel from a military family who was one of the few would-be liberators with any real following. Fidel kept Caamaño on hold for almost four years, without granting him so much as an interview. Caamaño was killed in 1972, soon after his poorly equipped and poorly informed expedition (set up by Cuban intelligence) finally landed on Dominican soil. “That is when I realized that my Revolution was not what I had dreamt,” Benigno writes.

Benigno dwells on this and other instances of Cuban international revolutionary solidarity that end in disaster because he is tormented by one question: Did Fidel deliberately leave Che to die in Bolivia? He never understands why Fidel withdrew the key liaison agent between himself and Che from Bolivia and never replaced him, or why communications were allowed to die, or why no rescue mission was launched when it became evident that Che was encircled. Was it, in truth, because Cuba’s financial backers in the Soviet Union had made it clear that they would not stand for it? Once Benigno works up his courage and asks his commander-in-chief point-blank what, specifically, Cuba did to try to save Che. In answer, Fidel “…throws his arm over my shoulder, walks me away, strokes his beard with his left hand and says, ‘This is a case requiring study…,”’ then offers Benigno yet another delicate mission.

It takes the aging fighter years to formulate the question that follows from his doubt, and years more to act on it: If the Revolution’s purpose is to improve everyone’s life, and to make life in general more meaningful, why did it not care about my life, why did I mean nothing to Fidel? Coming after such experiences, the question is anything but disingenuous.

While his disillusionment grows, Benigno moves up the ranks of the Special Troops. He becomes one of the three rotating chiefs of Fidel’s personal security. He tells us about the East German-type security measures that guard Cuba’s political elite, and about the curious precautions taken before Fidel is to visit a given work center:

The first thing Counterintelligence had to do was look in the files and see what personnel in that specific place were not supporters of the revolutionary process: those people were given the day off…. Their workplaces and lockers were checked to see if they weren’t hiding anything that could be used for sabotage or assassination attempts…. This was so routine that many workers, if they happened to find out about an upcoming visit by Fidel, would go ask their supervisors:

Well, do I show up tomorrow or not?

From his fly-on-the-wall position Benigno is privy to all sorts of performances by Fidel. Typically, he remembers, a meeting with him would be called at the last minute, the participants would come rushing in to hear Fidel lay out the subject at hand, and then, one by one, give their opinion “while Fidel stroked his beard and looked at them very attentively.” At the end, a vote was taken,

and when everyone thought that the point had been approved by the majority, Fidel stood and summarized the meeting—whether it was of the Politburo, the Council of State or the Central Committee, since he presides over all three. And then one realized that the meeting had been called practically for the hell of it, because there was nothing in the summary about what had actually been discussed…. Then [Fidel] would start to give everybody their tasks according to how he saw things, and each one left the meeting with some relief because these tasks were now not his responsibility but Fidel’s.

In meetings where the flaws or failures of a high-ranking official had to be discussed, Fidel would lash out at him in front of everyone until the humiliated official hung his head and swore to mend his ways. “Then Fidel would get up, throw his arm over the man’s shoulder and walk him to the door….”

The ‘blockade,’ or US economic embargo, is Fidel’s last resort for holding on to power,” Benigno writes, echoing the conviction of so many dissidents still living in Cuba.

The incident with the planes [in which two light aircraft flown by members of an anti-Castro organization based in Florida were shot down over Cuban airspace on February 24, 1996] happened precisely when the United States was disposed to turn over a new leaf in its relations with Cuba. After the planes were shot down, the United States evidently had no other option but to harden its position again. Fidel needs to continue egging on the North Americans, and the day the North Americans don’t react he’ll go and pinch them so that they do. The day the blockade stops existing, so will Fidel.

How much can we believe Benigno? For the moment, his stories remain impossible to verify. He is not an academic—or a writer. Often we suspect that he knows more than he is willing to say (about Cuba and the drug trade, for example). At other times he makes assertions or engages in speculations about important events without offering anything but anecdotal evidence. Did Castro, in fact, simultaneously encourage guerrilla movements in order to keep up his standing in Latin America, and sabotage their operations in order to keep peace with the Soviets? This is a serious charge, but the confusion, delays, and tragic errors Benigno cites in support of his thesis could just as easily be the result of Cuban bureaucratic incompetence.

We do know that Benigno’s account of his days with Che coincides with those of the only two other survivors (both Cuban), and we know that he held the positions he claims to have held. He was for a time in charge of the Cuban prison system, and his description of jail conditions coincides with those of former prisoners.8 Cubans who know him well say that he has been telling the same stories for a long time. His ghostwriter/editor, Elisabeth Burgos, was formerly the wife of Régis Debray, having married him when he was in a Bolivian prison, and she also ghostwrote/edited Rigoberta Menchú’s first book. She knows Latin America—and Cuba particularly—extremely well, and one assumes that she took the trouble to check whatever could be checked.

Whatever his accuracy, Benigno’s amazing autobiography is a precise mirror of Cuba’s revolutionary upheavals, and the change in the author’s feelings about “his” Revolution is also a mirror in which many once-fervent fidelistas can find themselves. Guerrilla heroes become corrupt bureaucrats or commit suicide. A regime that prided itself on its ability to feed, clothe, and educate its youth turns out to have been the late twentieth century’s last true colony, unable to survive even modestly once its ties to Great Mother Russia have been severed. Glorious battles are fought for unwinnable causes, or to support cowardly sluggards, like Laurent Kabila in Africa. Why were we in Angola? Benigno asks himself, having nearly died there, too.

The watershed event for people of his generation as well as those much younger was the summary trial and execution of Colonel Arnaldo Ochoa in 1989.9 Of course Benigno knew him: they fought together as teenage guajiros—hillbillies—in Fidel’s rebel army, but Ochoa rose higher than Benigno. From his post as head of Fidel’s security, Benigno observed the late commander of all Angola’s Cuban troops, and virtual proconsul there, who could enter el Caballo‘s office time and again without an appointment and without going through the official X-ray machine. Once, Benigno says, he heard Ochoa joke in his usual carefree way after a meeting, “So, I’m going to be the Al Capone of Cuba!” and Fidel told him to watch his mouth.

Benigno is convinced that Ochoa, arrested on corruption charges, was offered as a sop to the United States at a time when the CIA and the DEA were threatening to reveal what they had on Cuba’s involvement with the drug trade. Again he gives no proof, but then, this is not an unlikely or even a particularly new theory. What is important is that, in Cuba, where there is so little information about the setting of international intrigue in which the trial took place (and where cocaine is more and more available), there is a widespread conviction that Ochoa did whatever he did on higher orders, that nothing happens in Cuba without Fidel’s knowledge, and that facing the firing squad Ochoa died bravely.

Incredibly, Fidel seems not to have been aware of the consequences of killing a hero. Or perhaps he did understand that Ochoa was not only an official Hero of the Republic but also a wildly popular field commander. In the absence of any other credible explanation, one can conjecture that Ochoa was engaged in some sort of plot against Fidel and his brother and designated successor, Raúl.10 Perhaps what Fidel did not understand was that his own rule was about to become an anachronism, and that the wound caused by Ochoa’s execution would never have time to heal, to diminish and fade in the refound joy and prosperity of an ever more perfect, more socialist Cuba, because the Soviet Union was about to expire in a matter of weeks.

In retrospect, it is hard to imagine a more absurd marriage of conflicting interests. In 1961, when serious talks between the two countries began, the triumphant Cubans wanted to race headlong to utopia and were convinced that the Soviet Union’s only possible desire would be to help them get there—whatever it took. The Russian leadership was rather less interested in the fate of six million dark-colored, Spanish-speaking people living under palm trees on the opposite side of the world. Their goal was to gain the upper hand in the looming Sino-Soviet split, and to get a nuclear foothold in the Western hemisphere. In his biography of Che Guevara, Jon Lee Anderson tells us how Che pressed Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 for a million-ton steel factory, against the older man’s wise counsel that in Cuba there was no coal, no iron, no skilled labor, and no consumers for such a venture. On a subsequent trip to the Soviet Union, according to Che’s other indispensable biographer, Jorge Castañeda, Che and a Cuban revolutionary buddy negotiated the nuclear weapons deal with Khrushchev while shivering on a pier in the Crimea. Through an interpreter (how good was his Spanish?) they listened with misgivings to the chubby old bureaucrat’s proposal that the missiles be kept secret.11

Castro shared their worries, but he accepted the missiles. Years later, he explained:

Had we known then what we know now about the balance of power, we would have realized that the emplacement changed intermediate-range missiles into strategic weapons. In the light of what we know today, this must have been the real Soviet motive—not the defense of Cuba. We did not know how few missiles the Soviets had. We imagined thousands. If I had known the real ratio I would have advised Nikita to be prudent…. But we had unlimited trust.12

In the event, Fidel advised Nikita to be anything but prudent. In a letter that Fidel referred to many times, but that was made public in Cuba only eight years ago, the Cuban leader exhorted his Soviet counterpart, in effect, to nuke the territory of the United States “if… the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it.” At that moment, Khrushchev and Kennedy were working against the clock on the agreement that avoided a nuclear war, offered assurances that the United States would not invade Cuba, and saved face for all parties concerned—or so Kennedy and Khrushchev thought. When Fidel found out that the two had gone over his head to negotiate, however, he felt humiliated. He returned to the National University, where he had made so many crucial and fiery speeches before, to declare that the Russian had no cojones.13

Conceivably, if one is going to invite one of the two contenders for nuclear supremacy to bring in weapons that can destroy the whole world, one takes into consideration at least two factors: (a) Is the possible outcome of nuclear annihilation good for the world? and (b) Who’s got the most weapons? But Fidel’s enthusiasms don’t work this way. Khrushchev had told him that the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles ninety miles away from the United States was good for the Cubans, and that was good enough for him.

Nikita, you little faggot, what you give can’t be taken away,” Cubans chanted after Kennedy and Khrushchev came to an agreement on the missile withdrawal. That extraordinary slogan and its circumstances, the missiles under the palm trees, the improvised agreement hammered out on Crimean shores between four people who spoke not a word of each other’s language and had barely spent a few hours in each others’ company, the utter improbability of the alliance that was forged on the ashes of this agreement between a leaden bureaucratic empire and a fiery young revolutionary… Nearly forty years later, it is hard to believe that any of this could ever have happened. But it did, because of Fidel.

What will happen when he is no longer around to cast his shadow on the world is anyone’s guess. What will be the future of the exemplary education and health systems, now in shambles, that the Revolution set up? Where will jobs come from if the state apparatus is dismantled? And what about Miami, what about the predators who are assumed to be sharpening their fangs and talons there in expectation of Fidel’s demise: Will they, perhaps, be kind? Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and designated successor, is not the man to answer these questions or calm the bewilderment, anger, cynicism, and fear that now pervade the conversation of so many of his countrymen. Nor does anyone else on the Cuban political horizon currently appear capable of doing so. Fidel is growing old, and it’s getting late.

  1. 8

    Benigno estimates the current prison population in Cuba at over 100,000, or 1 percent of the island’s total population. His estimate of the number of political prisoners is larger than that of most of the human rights organizations. Sensibly, he points out that a great many “common prisoners” are in jail for attempting to leave the island, and that this is a political crime.

  2. 9

    Ochoa and thirteen other members of the military and security forces were arrested on June 12, 1989, accused of corruption and drug trafficking. Ochoa and three others were executed on Fidel’s direct request, on July 13, 1989.

  3. 10

    Certainly, Ochoa’s execution and the subsequent purge of the Interior Ministry’s upper ranks would indicate that a singular political crisis occurred. See Julia Preston in these pages, December 7, 1989, pp. 24-31.

  4. 11

    See Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (Grove, 1997) and Jorge Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Knopf, 1997). Both biographies give extraordinary portraits of Che and his times.

  5. 12

    Quoted by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in these pages, March 26, 1992, p. 25.

  6. 13

    At a conference about the missile crisis held in 1992 in Havana, and described by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in these pages, Fidel told Schlesinger and Robert McNamara, among others, that he wrote the letter in an effort “to strengthen [Khrushchev’s] position from a moral viewpoint.” This was also the first time that the Americans learned that some of the nuclear warheads Khrushchev had sent to the island were actually armed.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print