BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
The following is the introduction to Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara. It is copyright Pathfinder Press and is reprinted by permission.
BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
Without pretension or exaggeration - indeed, with humor and simple clarity - Ernesto Che Guevara provides a firsthand account in these pages of the final two years of the revolutionary struggle in Cuba that culminated January 1, 1959, in the destruction of the brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
The workers and farmers government consolidated in the following months rapidly became "the hope of the unredeemed Americas," as Guevara says in an article in this collection. It opened the door to the first socialist revolution in the hemisphere, a reality that almost four decades later still stands at the center of world politics.
Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War is also a book about the education of Ernesto Che Guevara, the young Argentine rebel who became one of the central leaders of the Cuban revolution. It is the story of his political coming of age - often to his own surprise - as he is transformed from a serious student of Marxism with little practical political experience into a seasoned combat leader of men and women. We watch him as he takes on greater and greater responsibilities. We follow his growth, his education, and his transformation by the Cuban workers and peasants alongside of whom he is engaged in a life-and-death struggle. From a determined revolutionary intellectual imbued with a spirit of adventure, a self-described Quixote, one of the great communist leaders of the twentieth century begins to emerge.
"Some time ago," Guevara wrote to his parents from Mexico in July 1956, "I met a young Cuban leader who invited me to join his movement, dedicated to the armed liberation of his country. I of course accepted." Guevara's letter, which appears here in full for the first time in English, continued, "My future is linked to the liberation of Cuba. Either I will triumph with it, or I will die there."
The young Cuban leader was Fidel Castro, twenty-nine years old but already a well-known political figure in Cuba. As a student leader at the University of Havana law school in the late 1940s he had begun to assume growing leadership responsibility within the Latin American anti-imperialist student movement. In 1947 Castro became a founding member of the Cuban People's Party - the Orthodox Party, or Ortodoxos, as it became known - which campaigned on a platform of opposition to Yankee domination and rampant government corruption and graft. He was a leader of the party's student- based youth organization, which at the same time was its left wing. That same year he volunteered for an armed expedition to the Dominican Republic aimed at overthrowing the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. The operation, led by bourgeois forces, was aborted, however, before even leaving Cuba.
A year later Castro was in Bogotá, Colombia, helping to organize a Latin American student conference to coincide with a meeting of foreign ministers from North and South America, when opposition Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán was assassinated. The city erupted in a mass popular uprising soon known as the Bogotazo. Joining with thousands of others who rushed to the police stations and seized arms, Castro found himself helping to organize the resistance to the impending military assault on the working people and youth who had poured into the streets.
While a student at the university, Castro came in contact with Marxist literature, including the Communist Manifesto and other classic works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, and he began to develop a materialist world outlook and a revolutionary perspective.(1)
In 1952 Castro was running as an Orthodox Party candidate for the house of representatives when Batista and his generals seized power on March 10 and scuttled the scheduled elections. Within weeks of the coup, Castro began putting together an armed movement to overthrow the dictatorship, an underground organization that grew, in little more than a year, to twelve hundred men and women.
On July 26, 1953, 160 of these combatants carried out simultaneous armed assaults on the army garrisons in the eastern Cuban cities of Bayamo and Santiago de Cuba, hoping to create the conditions for an armed popular uprising in Santiago, the island's second-largest city and a historic center of anti-imperialist activity in Cuba. If Santiago could not be held, the plan was to retreat to the Sierra Maestra mountains and regroup a force of several thousand combatants to dig in and continue the armed insurrection.
The attacks were crushed. Nearly half of the revolutionaries were captured, brutally tortured, and murdered. Twenty-eight of those who escaped this slaughter, including Castro, who had headed the assault force in Santiago, were tried and sentenced to up to fifteen years in prison. Castro's defense speech before the court, later reconstructed by him in prison and smuggled out, was published under the title History Will Absolve Me and initially circulated in some 100,000 copies as part of a growing popular amnesty campaign in Cuba.
In May 1955, in response to this campaign, Castro and other veterans of the attacks on the Santiago and Bayamo garrisons were released from prison. Together with other groups moving in a revolutionary direction, they founded the July 26 Movement. Then, with persecution mounting in Cuba, Castro left the island for Mexico in July 1955 to prepare an expedition that would establish a base that could be defended in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Oriente province and relaunch the armed struggle against the Batista dictatorship .
In Mexico City, Castro soon met Ernesto Guevara and signed him up as the third confirmed member of the expedition. Raúl Castro, Fidel's brother, had been the second. In the closing weeks of 1956, eighty-two combatants with relatively few weapons returned to Cuba aboard the yacht Granma, and the revolutionary war whose episodes are recounted in these pages began to unfold.
Che, as Ernesto Guevara was called by his Cuban comrades, was twenty-seven at the time, two years out of medical school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when he met Fidel Castro. He had spent most of the preceding three and a half years traveling through the Americas. Riding a motorcycle, then hitching transportation in trucks, boats, rafts, and planes, bumming food wherever possible, Guevara immersed himself in the lives, culture, and, increasingly, the struggles of the peoples of the Americas.
In December 1953 Guevara arrived in Guatemala, drawn by the popular upsurge that accompanied the limited land reform program being advanced by the government of Jacobo Arbenz. In pre-land reform Guatemala, counting each imperialist- based corporation as one person, 98 percent of Guatemala's cultivated land was owned by 142 people.(2) The United Fruit Company, one of the biggest landowners, and its government in Washington responded to the threat that even this timid land reform represented to propertied interests by organizing a mercenary army to overthrow the Arbenz regime in 1954.
Along with thousands of Guatemalans, Guevara volunteered to fight, but Arbenz rejected arming the population and resigned. As the mercenary troops entered Guatemala City and began massacring supporters of the Arbenz regime, Guevara took refuge in the Argentine embassy, and in September 1954 escaped to Mexico.
In Guatemala Guevara had become friends with Ñico López, a veteran of the assault on the "Carlos Manuel de Céspedes" army barracks in Bayamo in 1953. López and several other participants in the Bayamo action had escaped arrest and fled Cuba, ending up in Costa Rica and Guatemala.(3) López and Guevara found themselves together again in Mexico, where the Cuban fighter introduced his Argentine comrade to Raúl Castro and then Fidel Castro. As Fidel recalls in the 1971 speech that opens this book, he met Che a few days after arriving in Mexico:
Because of his state of mind when he left Guatemala, because of the extremely bitter experience he'd lived through there - that cowardly aggression against the country, the interruption of a process that had awakened the hopes of the people - because of his revolutionary vocation, his spirit of struggle, we can't say it took hours, we can say that in a matter of minutes Che decided to join the small group of Cubans who were working on organizing a new phase of the struggle in our country.(4)
"Che wasn't Che then," Castro added. "He was Ernesto Guevara. It was because of the Argentine custom of calling people `Che' that the Cubans began calling him Che." That was how he got the name he later made famous.
Throughout this period, in addition to holding down a number of odd jobs, Guevara worked on and off at hospitals and other places related to his medical training. But, as letters to his family attest, he found himself drawn more and more to a serious study of Marxism. "My path seems to diverge gradually and firmly from clinical medicine," he wrote his mother in August or September 1956. "St. Karl," as he humorously referred to Karl Marx, "has won a studious adherent."(5) On the eve of departure aboard the Granma, he explained:
I'm in the process of changing the direction of my studies. In the past, for better or worse, I concentrated on medicine while devoting my free time to an informal study of St. Karl. The new stage of my life demands a change in the direction of my studies as well. St. Karl now comes first. He is the axis of my studies and will remain so for the years that remain to me in the outermost layer of this spheroid....
In addition, I was beginning to draw a series of conclusions that clashed sharply with my trajectory as fundamentally an adventurer. I decided to tackle first things first, to enter into battle against the way things are, a shield upon my arm, full of dreams; and then, if the windmills didn't crack my skull, to write.(6)
Guevara departed Mexico as the troop's doctor. In the battle of Alegría de Pío, the first episode of the revolutionary war described here, he tells how he had to choose between rescuing a knapsack full of medicine or salvaging a box of ammunition. After brief hesitation, he picked up the ammunition.
Six months later he became the first combatant to earn the rank of commander, leading the first column separate from the nucleus directed by Fidel. Within two years, as columns led by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro closed the encirclement of Santiago, Che commanded the Rebel Army campaign in Las Villas province to the west that cut the island in two, capturing Santa Clara, Cuba's third largest city. The fate of the Batista dictatorship was sealed.
"The war revolutionized us," Guevara wrote to Ernesto Sábato, a prominent Argentine novelist, in 1960:
There is no more profound experience for a revolutionary than the act of war; not the isolated act of killing, or of carrying a rifle, or of undertaking a struggle of this or that type. It is the totality of the war itself, knowing that an armed man is worth something as a combat entity, and is worth as much as any other armed man, and no longer fears other armed men.
It is the process of continuing to explain to the defenseless peasants how they can take up a rifle and prove to the soldiers that an armed peasant is worth as much as the best of them; of continuing to learn how the efforts of one are worthless if not surrounded by the efforts of all.
It is the process of continuing to learn how revolutionary slogans have to reflect the tangible aspirations of the people, and of continuing to learn from the people what their most deeply felt desires are, and to transform these into banners of political agitation.
This we have all been doing, and we understood that the peasants' yearning for land was the most powerful motive of struggle that could be found in Cuba.(7)
As Guevara explained on several occasions, he did not foresee the opening of the socialist revolution in the Americas as the outcome of the revolutionary war in Cuba. Based on his knowledge of the history of Latin America, and his reading of books, Marxist ones included, he was convinced that the forces being assembled under the leadership of Fidel Castro could bring down the Batista tyranny, one of the bloodiest yet seen in the long list of Latin American dictatorships. That was an objective for which he was willing to give his life. But he thought that imperialist dollars and bourgeois greed would then once again assert their dominance, and the revolution would go the way of all movements trying to reform capitalism.
The workers and peasants of Cuba would teach Che that a different outcome was possible.
As the war transformed the Rebel Army, and the July 26 Movement as well, Guevara's assessment of the social and class dynamics of the revolution, including the course of the central leadership of the movement, changed also. The turning point came in December 1957, as he explains in the chapter "One Year of Armed Struggle." That was when Fidel Castro, speaking for the leadership of the July 26 Movement, publicly repudiated an agreement among bourgeois opposition forces, known as the Miami Pact, after its drafters falsely claimed that the document, which contained both public and secret clauses, had been signed by authorized representatives of the July 26 Movement.
Throughout the Episodes, Guevara tells much of the story of the July 26 Movement's unceasing, though generally unsuccessful, efforts to secure arms and money from the parties that opposed the Batista dictatorship but had come to fear even more the growing organization and confidence of the armed workers and peasants. "The opposition groups were varied and dissimilar," Che wrote, "even though most had as a common denominator the wish to take power (read: public funds) for themselves. This brought in its wake a sordid internal struggle to win that victory."
The July 26 leadership fought throughout the revolutionary war to win political leadership of the broadest possible forces influenced by the bourgeois parties. The stakes were high: preventing those parties from coalescing and mobilizing Washington's support behind them in order to usurp the victory being won by the Rebel Army at the head of a popular insurrection.
Fidel Castro's December 14, 1957, letter, on behalf of the July 26 Movement, repudiating the Miami Pact - printed in full by Guevara in the single longest chapter of the Episodes - was the turning point in the political battle. Thousands of copies were produced by the fledgling print shop (a mimeograph machine brought up to the Sierra) and propaganda apparatus of the Rebel Army under Guevara's command. Then, during a window of opportunity when press censorship was briefly lifted by the Batista regime, Bohemia, the most widely circulated weekly magazine in Cuba, published the letter in full in a print run of half a million copies.
While the long record of negotiations with all the diverse forces made clear that compromise on many points of difference was possible in order to maintain unity, "what is important for the revolution is not unity in itself, but the principles on which it is based," Castro's letter stated.
No matter how desperate our situation in face of thousands of the dictatorship's troops mobilized to annihilate us, and perhaps with more determination because of it (since nothing is more humiliating than to accept an onerous condition under trying circumstances), we would never accept the sacrifice of certain principles that are fundamental to our conception of the Cuban revolution.(8)
Those conditions had been contained in an earlier agreement with some of the forces behind the betrayal of the Miami Pact, especially former National Bank head Felipe Pazos, who thought he deserved praise for not being corrupt, and the "absolute mediocrity" Raúl Chibás. Guevara colorfully describes them both as "two Stone Age mentalities" imbued with deep antipathy to the peasants' demands for agrarian reform.
Two principles were omitted from the Miami document, Castro wrote: first,"the explicit declaration that we reject every form of foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Cuba," that is, not only aid to Batista but any other attempt to determine the course of events in Cuba; and, second, "the explicit rejection of any kind of military junta as a provisional government of the republic," that is, rejection of any government that did not derive its legitimacy, authority, and composition from the hard-won victory of the insurrectionary forces.
Moreover, the secret clauses of the Miami Pact provided that "the revolutionary forces are to be incorporated, with their weapons, into the regular armed bodies of the republic," a condition the July 26 leadership categorically repudiated as an invitation to "gangsterism and anarchy."
"The July 26 Movement claims for itself the role of maintaining public order and reorganizing the armed forces of the republic," Castro responded, with a conviction born of hard-won experience in the mountains dealing with banditry and crime unleashed by the disintegration of the old repressive order, and often carried out by those camouflaging themselves as part of the guerrillas. No other force could guarantee the revolutionary victory and maintain public order.
With the rejection of the Miami Pact, the deepening social revolution in the Sierras, led by the vanguard forces of the Rebel Army, was strengthened, and the march toward the establishment of a popular revolutionary government of the workers and peasants accelerated. But these two factors were intertwined. Without the victories of the first year of struggle in the Sierras, without the growing support of the peasantry, without the increasing political homogeneity of a battle-tested cadre committed to deep-going social transformation, the uncompromising rejection of the Miami Pact would not have been possible.
Throughout the Episodes we can follow the birth of the first free territory of the Americas, high in the Sierra Maestra, as the guerrilla forces grew strong enough to win the confidence and collaboration of the peasants, and as the declining morale of the dictatorship's troops enlarged the terrain the army treated as a no-go zone.
Out of the poverty, hopes, and dignity of the men and women of the Sierra, out of the struggle for change, new social relations began to emerge, at the center of which was the land reform, the right of each peasant family to the land they tilled. Military Order no. 1, issued by Guevara as the commander in chief of the Las Villas region during the closing months of the war, reprinted here as part of the documents from the Las Villas campaign, underscores the place of land reform in the revolutionary program of the advancing Rebel Army: "Every peasant who for at least two years has been paying rent, either in cash or in kind, for working a parcel of land in the territory covered by this military order is hereby declared free of all payment obligations and is invited to claim his rights over the land he works."(9)
The new legal system emerged as a reflection of already changing social practice, Guevara noted, before any written law of the Sierra had been promulgated. The land reform, for example, had begun well before Law no. 3 of the Rebel Army was issued on October 10, 1958, granting land to the tillers.
"The execution of antisocial individuals who took advantage of the prevailing atmosphere in the area to commit crimes was, unfortunately, not infrequent," Che writes. But such severe measures had the "full public blessing" of the local residents, Fidel points out in the letter rejecting the Miami Pact.
The local residents, accustomed in the past to viewing agents of authority as enemies of the people, quite understandably offered protection and shelter to those fleeing from the former system of justice. Now, when they see our soldiers as defenders of their interests, the most complete order prevails; and the best guardians of it are the citizens themselves.(10))
The great miracle of the revolution, Guevara writes, is "the rediscovery by the Cuban peasant of his own happiness." The happy, hearty laughter that can be heard in the new Sierra flows from "the self-confidence that the awareness of his own strength gave to the inhabitant of our liberated area."
Guevara's description of El Hombrito, the base where his column took steps to establish the first industries - a forge and crude armory, an oven for baking bread, a leather goods shop, preparations for hydroelectric generation of power, a newspaper, El Cubano Libre, and later the increasingly important Radio Rebelde - provide a glimpse of life in the liberated Sierra. The total destruction of that base in a matter of hours by the forces under the command of Angel Sanchez Mosquera, "the bravest, the most murderous, and one of the most thieving of all of Batista's military chieftains," was a bitter lesson in the limits imposed by war, as well.
The Sierra peasants longing for land to till, the exhausted women condemned to too much work on too meager a diet, and the children whose bellies were distended with parasites, taught Che in the course of day-to-day struggle that revolutions are not born directly of a set of ideas or from the history of previous revolutions, but from the line of march of a class fighting for its liberation.
The opening of the socialist revolution in Cuba turned out to be much closer than any of the revolutionary combatants thought when they began their struggle. It came about because - with growing political clarity and leadership capacity forged in battle - they refused to be diverted from that line of march and the confrontation with imperialism it provoked.
In the eyes of the North American rulers, Guevara wrote in a 1960 letter printed in these pages, "we constitute the great fraud of the century: we stated the truth in an attempt to deceive." To Washington
the words "We will nationalize public services," were to be read as "We will prevent this from happening if we receive a reasonable amount of support." The words "we will eliminate the system of large landed estates," were to be read as: "we will utilize the large landed estates as a good source of funding for our political campaigns, or for our personal enrichment." And so on and so forth. It never entered their heads that what Fidel Castro and our Movement were saying so candidly and sharply was what we actually intended to do.(11)
Throughout the Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Guevara also describes his evolution as a leader of the July 26 Movement. Working together with Fidel Castro, Che learned the revolutionary art of uniting diverse forces around the central objective of taking power, while avoiding premature conflicts and allowing time and experience in struggle to create the conditions in which differences could be settled in practice if not superseded. Fidel's course was to fight from a political base in the Sierra to win the uncontested leadership of those social forces that, unlike the bourgeois parties, were committed to the insurrectional struggle to overthrow the Batista regime.
Throughout the book, we see how the leadership of the July 26 Movement charted a course to forge a revolutionary united front with the student-based Revolutionary Directorate, which maintained its own political and military structures during the war. We follow this political evolution from the Mexico Pact signed by Fidel Castro and José Antonio Echeverría in August 1956; to the assault on the Presidential Palace in March 1957, in which Echeverría and other Revolutionary Directorate leaders were killed; to the split in the Directorate's forces that gave rise to the current known as the Second National Front of the Escambray, whose cattle rustling and thievery, Guevara said, was responsible for "sowing more terror than Batista's army"; to the Pedrero Pact between the July 26 Movement and Revolutionary Directorate during the final push toward victory in December 1958.
With careful precision, Guevara also sketches the relations between the July 26 Movement and the Popular Socialist Party, the name taken in 1944 by the Communist Party. "The PSP joined with us in certain concrete actions, but mutual distrust hampered joint action and, fundamentally, the party of the workers did not understand with sufficient clarity the role of the guerrilla force, nor the place of Fidel in our revolutionary struggle," Guevara writes.
Guevara recounts a discussion he once had with a PSP leader during the war. "You are capable of creating cadres who can silently endure the most terrible tortures in jail," Guevara told him, "but you cannot create cadres who can take a machine gun nest." This PSP leader, Guevara writes, later repeated this observation to others "as an accurate characterization of that period."
"As I saw it from my guerrilla vantage point," Guevara continued, "this was a consequence of [the PSP's] strategic conception: a determination to struggle against imperialism and the abuses of the exploiting classes, together with an inability to envision the possibility of taking power."(12)
Each of these three forces - the July 26 Movement, the Revolutionary Directorate, and the Popular Socialist Party - was put to the test in the course of the deep-going revolution described in these pages, and a process of political differentiation and transformation took place within and among them. Following the defeat of the Batista regime, and under the leadership of the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army that had organized the victorious popular revolution, the forces that emerged from these organizations and from this experience came together to form a united party that in 1965 took the name Communist Party of Cuba.
Guevara's most concentrated political education took place within the July 26 Movement itself. In the chapters "One Year of Armed Struggle" and "A Decisive Meeting," Che explains how Fidel successfully worked to bring about a revolutionary political resolution of differences between "two quite clearly defined tendencies" within the July 26 Movement, known as the Sierra [mountains] and the Llano [plains]. "Differences over strategic conception separated us," Guevara notes, above all over counterposed assessments of the vanguard position of the Rebel Army in creating the political and military conditions for victory. The Llano current saw the work in the cities, Guevara says, "as having greater relative importance than the Sierra."
The frictions were ongoing, and sometimes intermixed with differences within the July 26 Movement over broader class and political perspectives. As Guevara describes in the chapter "The Second Battle of Pino del Agua," when a broadening polemic threatened to erupt, Fidel stepped in to prevent it and allow the differences to begin being resolved in a revolutionary direction, as the entire leadership of the July 26 Movement united around a public repudiation of the Miami Pact. This was an important leadership lesson for Che. "It is important to point out," he emphasizes, "that the fighters against the dictatorship in both the Sierra and Llano were able to hold opinions on tactics that were at times diametrically opposed, without having this lead to abandoning the insurrectional struggle."
The resolution of the conflicts came later in 1958, following the disastrous outcome of the April 9 general strike called by the July 26 Movement's National Directorate, despite the strong reservations of the Sierra about the adequacy of its preparation. At a May 3 gathering of the National Directorate held in the Sierra Maestra, which Guevara describes in the chapter "A Decisive Meeting," those who had been centrally responsible for the April 9 action were replaced in their Llano responsibilities and reassigned to the Sierra. The national leadership was reorganized.
Fidel Castro was elected general secretary of the July 26 Movement, and was named commander in chief of all armed forces, including the Llano militias. The Sierra leaders assumed undisputed political guidance of the movement, their authority having been won as a consequence of "their accurate interpretation of events."
The defeat of the April 9 general strike led to some dark days for the rebel forces, as Guevara describes, and opened the door to the final "encircle and annihilate" offensive mounted in the Sierra by the Batista regime. On May 25 an invasion column some 10,000-strong was sent into the mountains to wipe out the combatants of the Rebel Army - at that time numbering 300, with 200 usable weapons.
The Batista army's advance into the Sierra did prove to be its final offensive, but it did not succeed in encircling the Rebel Army, let alone annihilating it. With the victory by the revolutionary forces at El Jigue in July, the tide turned once again, and the rebels' retreat was over. "Once the regiments that assaulted the Sierra Maestra had been wiped out, once the front had returned to its normal level, and once our troops had increased their strength and morale," Guevara recounts, "it was decided to begin the march on the central province of Las Villas." Guevara was placed in command of that new front.
The final march toward victory accelerated toward New Year's Day
The Rebel Army was a political vanguard organization, built around an expanding cadre that was painstakingly selected and tested in battle. As the revolutionary war advanced, these cadres became more educated and more politically homogeneous in the process.
Out of the eighty-two combatants who participated in the Granma expedition, Fidel Castro told Italian journalist Gianni Mina in 1987, "there were many young men who, had they survived the initial expedition, were well suited to become leaders. At least fifteen or twenty outstanding leaders could have emerged from our group - because a man needs both the opportunity and responsibilities to distinguish himself." The accuracy of this judgment, Fidel noted, was confirmed by the fact that "out of those few who survived, several brilliant leaders emerged," men such as Che, Raúl Castro, and Camilo Cienfuegos.(13)
Fidel, like Che, first "looked for men and women who are made of good timber," is the way a former Rebel Army combatant, today a brigadier general in Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces, explained it. If the human material is there, "it can be shaped. Leaders who are forged in adverse conditions develop a deep sense of fraternity, of comradeship, knowing that human beings need each other, cannot live as hermits like Robinson Crusoe. In order to withstand the hostile environment of the Sierra, to really be able to fight, one has to be part of a collective effort. In such a context human qualities are born, allowing future leaders to be forged."(14)
Throughout the pages of the Episodes, we are introduced to hundreds of the men and women whose courage and capacities made possible the Cuban revolution; and we see in turn, how they grew into the fighters and leaders they became.
"Men may contribute to the making of history," Castro tells the people of San Miguel in Santiago de Chile in the speech about Che at the opening of this volume, "but history also makes men."
Among those we meet are some of the legendary heroes and heroines of the Cuban revolution. People like Frank País, leader of the Santiago underground, whose "calm lesson in order and discipline" made such an impression on Che when País visited their camp in the Sierra; Celia Sánchez, organizer of the July 26 Movement's first peasant cells in the Sierra before the Granma landing, the person responsible for the urban supply and recruitment network for the Rebel Army, and the first woman to join the Sierra leadership; Camilo Cienfuegos, Granma expeditionary and rebel commander whose bravery and good humor made him one of the most beloved of the guerrilla leaders.
Even more centrally, however, we learn how "the revolution has been built on many sincere efforts on the part of simple men." We watch as those who join the Rebel Army are tested, the human material sifted, and those who are made of good timber distinguish themselves.
Che refers to the daily "struggle against the lack of physical, ideological, and moral preparation among the combatants" newly arrived. He describes how many were discharged and sent away after a period of testing. Others, he notes, developed what the combatants called "the hunted look." That look was "incompatible with guerrilla life," Guevara says - a sure sign that someone was .getting ready to "shift into third" and risk the death penalty for desertion, rather than continue to face the psychological and physical hardships of life in the mountains.
Che tells the story of one of the many whose departure served to strengthen, not weaken, the fighting morale of the troops: "He had an attack of nerves, there in the solitude of the mountains and the guerrilla camp," Che writes. "He began to shout that he had been promised a camp with abundant food and antiaircraft defenses, but instead the planes were hounding him and he had neither permanent quarters, nor food, nor even water to drink.
"This was more or less the same impression that all new guerrillas had of campaign life." Guevara continues. "Afterward, those who stayed and passed the first tests grew accustomed to dirt, to lack of water, food, shelter, and security, and to a life where the only things one could rely on were a rifle and the cohesion and resistance of the small guerrilla nucleus."
The high level of discipline and fighting morale of the guerrilla fighters was not sustained on the basis of coercion, however. As Guevara explains in the chapter "An Unpleasant Incident," discipline was effective above all as it became a byproduct of the growing political homogeneity and commitment to the social program that was being implemented in practice as the revolution deepened its roots among the peasants of the Sierra. Che writes:
Our revolutionary war was already beginning to acquire new characteristics. The consciousness of the leaders and the combatants was being deepened. We were beginning to feel in our flesh and blood the need for an agrarian reform and for profound and integral changes in the social structure that had to be carried out in order to cleanse the country. But this deepening consciousness among the best and the most numerous part of our fighters provoked clashes with those elements who had joined the struggle solely out of a lust for adventure, or perhaps not just for laurels, but for material gain as well.(15)
It is not surprising that among those who not only stayed and fought but rose to become lieutenants, captains, and commanders before the end of 1958, one recognizes the names of a strikingly large percentage of those who have been in the front ranks of leadership of the Cuban revolution for almost forty years.
The power of the events Che recounts comes in greatest measure, however, from the portraits of the ordinary men and women who joined in the revolutionary struggle, risking and often giving everything, including their lives. Men and women like Julio Zenón Accost, Che's first pupil who, like hundreds of other combatants, was learning to read as part of becoming a Rebel Army cadre; Oniria, the very young woman combatant who demands to know if she too has the right to vote like the fighters who are men; Vaquerito, the head of the courageous and youthful "suicide squad" who is killed in the final days of the battle for Santa Clara; Crucito, the guerrilla bard whose ballads die with him at Pino del Agua; and hundreds more.
Every social movement lives within the channels of its own history and continuity. To mine the richness of the events Guevara describes in Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, the reader is obliged to enter the world of the Rebel Army combatants themselves. We need to learn a few of the often-cited names and places and events that are part of the revolutionary history and traditions of Cuba's century-long struggle to eradicate slavery, win freedom from Spanish colonial rule, and then break the stranglehold of U.S. imperialist domination.
Legendary figures abound: Simón Bolívar, hero of Latin America's struggle for independence from Spain; José Martí, great leader of Cuba's final struggle for independence, killed in battle in 1895; Máximo Gómez, Dominican-born general who was commander in chief of the independence forces in two wars against Spain; Antonio Maceo, the Bronze Titan, as he is called in Cuba, who led a military column from eastern to western Cuba in the independence war of 1895-98. Often a simple reference to a name such as these is sufficient to an audience in Cuba to imply an entire political course or military strategy, or to provide a timely warning that needs no further elaboration.
To aid the reader in politically understanding this world of the Cuban revolutionary struggle, extensive footnotes and glossary entries have been provided.
Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War is also a book about war, written by a military leader of exceptional ability. In the letter reprinted here repudiating the Miami Pact, Fidel Castro criticizes the signers for their "regrettable underestimation of the military importance of the struggle in Oriente," pointing out that "what is being waged at present in the Sierra Maestra is not guerrilla warfare but a war of columns," and explaining the political significance of that evolution of the rebels' military organization.
Guevara's accounts both give and demand attention to the details of war: to the weapons used; to the sounds of battle; to questions of military tactics and strategy and their interconnections; to the differences between guerrilla warfare and regular warfare; to command structure and order of battle; to military training, discipline, and morale; to the political education of the troops; and much more. The reader learns in almost every battle, for example, what weapons combatants are carrying, and why it is sometimes a life-or-death matter who has a Thompson submachine gun, who a Springfield bolt-action rifle, and who a Garand semiautomatic. We learn how the best soldiers have earned the best rifles available by their conduct in battle before they possessed those rare and precious weapons.
The reader also sees what happens as the fighting morale of an army declines. Che describes how, in the twilight of the U.S.-backed tyranny, Batista's soldiers became "deaf to every suspicious sound," thereby easing the movement of the Rebel Forces. He recounts how, out of fear of ambush and improved accuracy of the rebel riflemen, the regime's soldiers more and more refused to take the point on patrol.
Numerous maps, battle sketches, and diagrams have been provided, to make it easier to follow the military campaign, along with charts that show the command structure and the branching-off of new columns and fronts as the Rebel Army grew and its area of operations and political influence expanded.
Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War was written as a series of articles that appeared in the pages of Verde Olivo [Olive drab], the weekly publication of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). The first article, on the battle of Alegría de Pío was published in February 1961; the last of the Verde Olivo articles, "A Decisive Meeting," appeared in November 1964.
A few months later, in March 1965, Guevara resigned his leadership responsibilities and posts in Cuba and left, first for the Congo (today Zaire) and then, after returning to Cuba for several months, Bolivia.
In Bolivia, Guevara led an eleven-month campaign to begin forging a fighting movement of workers and peasants that could advance the revolution in the Americas. In October 1967 he was wounded in battle, captured, and murdered by the Bolivian Army under Washington's guiding hand. The story of that campaign is told in Guevara's Bolivian Diary, also published in English translation by Pathfinder.
The first collection of Che's articles on the Cuban revolutionary war to appear in book form was published in 1963 by Ediciones Unión, the publishing house of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. The first edition in English followed in 1967, published in Cuba by the Cuban Book Institute.
In addition to the articles that appeared as part of the Episodes series, Guevara wrote dozens of other contributions on many subjects for Verde Olivo between 1959 and 1964. As head of political education of the Revolutionary Armed Forces during part of that time, he took a special interest in the materials that appeared in the magazine and worked with the editorial leadership responsible for its production.
In Guevara's introduction to the Verde Olivo series that appeared in February 1961 along with the first installment, "Alegría de Pío," Guevara explains his intention to make a contribution to the monumental task of recording the history of the insurrectional struggle before an accurate memory of those events, "which already belong to the history of the Americas," dissolves into the past.
By beginning to write down his own reminiscences of the major events in which he participated, Guevara hoped to encourage other survivors of the revolutionary war to contribute in a similar way. They did so, week after week in the pages of Verde Olivo.
"I ask only that the narrator be strictly truthful," Guevara charged. "He should not present any inaccuracy in order to clarify his own role, exaggerate it, or claim to have been where he was not."
Che's insistence on historical accuracy, his war on exaggeration and retrospective self-aggrandizement, is a theme that runs throughout the pages of the book, including the letters to other veteran combatants. His October 1963 letter to Granma expeditionary Pablo Díaz González, for example, is a gem of Che's straightforward style:
Pablo: I read your article. I must thank you for how well you portray me; too well, I think. Furthermore, it seems you portray yourself pretty well too. The first thing a revolutionary who writes history has to do is stick to the truth like a finger inside a glove. You did that, but it was a boxing glove.
Guevara's concern for accuracy was reflected in the way he worked on preparing his articles. They were not quickly thrown together recollections, as someone might innocently assume from their brevity and transparent clarity; they were carefully prepared and thoroughly researched contributions. Luis Pavón, the editor of Verde Olivo during the period the Episodes were written, described how Che prepared them.
The first articles by Che, Pavón wrote, "were based fundamentally on his diary, on photographs taken in the Sierra Maestra, and on his own personal memory.
"Demanding in everything - and above all with himself - he constantly revised his opinions, compared them with those of other comrades, and thus continued to enrich his narratives in his own mind. Later he dictated them into a tape recorder that his secretary, Comrade Manresa, would transcribe. Che would then edit them over and over again with exemplary rigor."(16)
In drafting the articles from the September 1957 battle of Pino del Agua onward, Che had no diary to refer to. Those articles were "based on his recollections and those of other combatants. On various occasions he assembled together, in a meeting room of the Ministry of Industry, combatants who had been participants in the action to be related. Amid jokes and anecdotes, he would start to piece together maps and diagrams, spread out over the table, noting down people's responses.... In this way he reconstructed the battle, submitting to analysis each individual version, correcting them, eliminating exaggerations, until the most exact version was obtained."
All this was done while Guevara was carrying an enormous leadership load of other party, government, and military responsibilities. As a leading public spokesperson for the revolutionary government, he was deeply involved in internationalist work. And throughout these years, based on direct experience in beginning to transform the factory system and economic management in Cuba, Guevara was also putting down on paper the most valuable contributions on the practical connection between economics and politics that the workers movement has had since those of the leadership team forged by Lenin in the course of the Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia.
Che, as Pavón recounts, was "president of the National Bank and head of the Department of Instruction (today the Political Directorate) of the Revolutionary Armed Forces; minister of industry and head of the Army Corps of Pinar del Río; Cuba's representative at international events of special importance, etc; in addition to being a tireless student of political economy and of the classics of Marxism, constantly working in agriculture, promoter of scientific and cultural initiatives, etc. In the midst of this activity he continued writing his narratives, although the time gap between articles grew longer and longer."
As Guevara says in his 1961 introductory note, in preparing these episodes, he was not trying to write the history of the war. The legacy he left was something more important: the political history of the maturing of the Rebel Army as a modern revolutionary leadership of the workers and peasants, reflected through the coming of age of Che, as he gains unshakable confidence in the men and women who are capable of remaking the world.
Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War is a masterpiece of narrative writing in the Spanish language, some of the beauty of which survives even in English translation. The terrible eloquence of Guevara's description of the rout at Alegría de Pío is hard to forget:
Then everything became a blur, as low-flying planes strafed the field. This only added to the confusion, with scenes ranging from the Dantesque to the grotesque - such as a comrade of considerable corpulence desperately trying to hide behind a single stalk of sugarcane, while in the midst of the din of gunfire another man kept on yelling "Silence!" for no apparent reason.
Che was "a magnificent writer and understandably paid careful attention to the literary structure of his works," Pavón noted. "But I dare to assert that for him this was secondary. What interested him was historical truth. If his writings are astonishing for their style and fluidity, if they are justly categorized by commander Fidel Castro as classics of our language, this is precisely because what motivated him was not merely literary concerns. He wrote not to show his hand as a writer - an art he mastered and loved - but because he had something to say."
Numerous editions of Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War have appeared in both Spanish and English since the original volume in 1963. No two have had exactly the same contents.
Two previous English-language editions, both published in 1968 - one by International Publishers, the other by Monthly Review press - have long been out of print. A special run of the Monthly Review edition appeared under a co-imprint with Merit Publishers, predecessor of Pathfinder Press.
This new and expanded Pathfinder edition is the first in English to include the entire Verde Olivo series, as well as several articles written by Guevara for other publications and considerable additional material never before published in English.
Among the ample collection of historical photographs in these pages are many that appear here in print for the first time.
The last of the Episodes Guevara completed for Verde Olivo was "A Decisive Meeting." The narrative "From Batista's Final Offensive to the Battle of Santa Clara" was written well before the Verde Olivo series began, in May 1959, for the Brazilian magazine O Cruzeiro. Similarly the opening chapter in this edition, "A Revolution Begins," also appeared in that Brazilian publication in 1959. The chapter "War and the Peasant Population" was originally published in Lunes de Revolucíón, the Monday cultural supplement to the Havana daily Revolución, the newspaper of the July 26 Movement. It was later incorporated into Guevara's book Guerrilla Warfare: A Method. "The Murdered Puppy," previously unpublished in English, first appeared in the magazine Humanismo.
Articles written for the Episodes series that have not before appeared in any English-language edition include "The Battle of Mar Verde," "Interlude," and "A Decisive Meeting." "The Second Battle of Pino del Agua" is published here in full for the first time in English.
The articles have been arranged chronologically, based on the events described. The three "Portraits of Revolutionaries," which are not part of the narrative sequence of events, have been included here as a separate section.
Two additional sections have been added. One presents reports, letters, and other documents written by Guevara during the course of the Las Villas campaign from September to December 1958. These provide a more detailed account of this decisive chapter of the revolutionary war, which is briefly dealt with in the 1959 article "From Batista's Final Offensive to the Battle of Santa Clara."
We have also included a number of letters by Guevara related to the events covered in his narrative, written both during and after the revolutionary war.
Other items appearing in English translation for the first time include Guevara's Military Order no. 1 on the agrarian reform in Las Villas and the letters by Che to Enrique Oltuski, Alfredo Peña, the Las Villas Provincial Committee of the July 26 Movement, Ernesto Sábato, and Ezequiel Vieta.
Translation work for this new edition has been done by Pathfinder editor Michael Taber, who did the lion's share of the work on the notes, chronology, glossary, and index, and gathered much of the information necessary for the maps. Monthly Review press gave permission to make use of its 1968 translation by Victoria Ortiz, which has been carefully checked and substantially revised. A major part of the work has been newly translated.
Book design, as well as the cover, photo sections, and maps, were done by Eric Simpson.
Photographs and reference materials were provided by Lee Lockwood, who as a young reporter found himself in Havana on January 1, 1959, and captured for all time the faces of the revolution at the moment of victory.
This new and extensively annotated edition of Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War could not have been prepared without the generous and enthusiastic collaboration of numerous individuals and institutions in Cuba.
The aid of Editora Política, the publishing house of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, was indispensable, beginning with the support and encouragement of Editora Política's director, Hugo Chinea.
Special appreciation, above all, goes to Iraida Aguirrechu of Editora Política, whose long hours of work, attention to detail, and determination to provide accurate information made it possible to assemble the documents, photographs, and historical data incorporated into the notes, glossary, maps, photo captions, and other special features of this edition. María Cristina Zamora and Nora Madan, both members of the Editora Política team preparing a new edition of Guevara's Episodes in the Spanish original, assisted in collecting and cross-checking innumerable facts, as did Ella Hernández in the Library of the Central Committee.
Numerous veteran fighters of the Rebel Army and the July 26 Movement, many of them today officers in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, gave generously of their time and their own personal recollections to identify names and faces, locate places on maps, and clarify historical details, large and small.
Brigadier General Harry Villegas, who fought in Guevara's column not only in the revolutionary war, but later in the Congo and Bolivia as well, was unstinting in his aid and support. Colonel Enzo Infante, historian, combatant in the November 30, 1956, uprising in Santiago de Cuba, provincial leader of the July 26 Movement in Oriente and Camaguey and then coordinator of the July 26 Movement in Havana during the closing months of the war, gave many hours of his time to clarify innumerable questions.
Brigadier General Miguel Lorente, Colonel Enrique Dorta, Colonel Miguel Colina, Colonel Raúl Izquierdo, and Brigadier General Julio García Oliveras also gave invaluable help in reviewing maps and photos and clarifying other details. Hermes Caballero, adviser to the executive committe of the Council of Ministers, and veteran of the November 30 Santiago uprising, graciously gave his time and good humor to act as courier and collaborator, as well as providing firsthand knowledge of the work of the July 26 Movement in Santiago de Cuba throughout the revolutionary war.
The extensive selection of historic photographs and battle sketches, which help make the events Guevara writes about come alive, is the product of collaboration from numerous sources. Special appreciation goes to the Council of State Office of Historical Affairs; to Luis Serrano, director, and Marguerita Hernández, head of the archive department, of the History Institute of Cuba; Frank Aguero Gómez, director of the periodical Granma, and Delfín Xiqués, director of Granma's photographic archives; and Manuel Martínez, head of the archive department, and archivist Irelia Rivera, of the magazine Bohemia.
To all those who helped make this book possible, the editors extend their deepest thanks.
The Cuban revolution, Guevara wrote Ernesto Sábato in 1960, "is the most genuine work of improvisation."
The war whose episodes are the subject of this book was not the end but the beginning of the greatest historic event of the second half of the twentieth century. The story of that revolution is still being written by the creativity of millions of women and men determined to remake the world and transform themselves in the process. Almost forty years after they confidently set out on that road, the words of Che Guevara at the end of this book remain true. We Cubans have begun the struggle for our territory's total freedom, he wrote:
We know it will not be easy, but we are all aware of the enormous historic responsibility of the July 26 Movement, of the Cuban revolution, of the nation in general, to be an example for all peoples of Latin America, whom we must not disappoint.
Our friends of the indomitable continent can be sure that, if need be, we will struggle no matter what the economic consequence of our acts may be. And if the fight is taken further still, we shall struggle to the last drop of our rebel blood.(17)
Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War is a book about the most important question facing humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century. It is a book about forging a revolutionary cadre able - and willing - to lead a mass armed insurrection to power and establish a popular revolutionary government.
This book is dedicated to that new generation of fighters in today's world for whom the example of the Cuban revolution and the political line of march of its victorious Rebel Army still show the way.
1. "As a result of studying capitalist political economy, even before I discovered Marxist literature, I started drawing socialist conclusions and imagining a society whose economy would operate more rationally. I started off as a utopian communist. I didn't come in contact with revolutionary ideas, revolutionary theories, the Communist Manifesto, and the first works by Marx, Engels, and Lenin until I was a junior in the university. To be quite frank the simplicity, clarity, and direct manner in which our society are explained in the Communist Manifesto had a particularly great impact on me.
"Naturally, before becoming a utopian or a Marxist communist, I was a follower of José Martí.... I always wholeheartedly admired our people's heroic struggles for independence in the past century.... I'm absolutely convinced that if Martí had lived in the same environment as Marx, he would have had the same ideas and acted in more or less the same way. Martí had great respect for Marx.... I think that Martí's thinking contains such great and beautiful things that you can become a Marxist by taking his thought as a starting point. Of course Martí didn't explain why society was divided into classes, though he was a man who always stood at the side of the poor and who bitterly criticized the worst vices of a society of exploiters.
"When I first got hold of the Communist Manifesto I found an explanation. In the midst of that forest of events, where it was very difficult to understand phenomena and where everything seemed due to the wickedness of men-their defects, perversity, and immorality-I started to identify other factors that weren't dependent on man, his morals, and his individual attitude. I began to understand human society, the historic process, and the divisions that I saw every day." Fidel and Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto (Pathfinder, 1986), pp. 112-13.
2. The figure is cited from John Gerassi, The Great Fear: The Reconquest of Latin America by Latin Americans (New York: Macmillan, 1963), p. 164.
3. Of the twenty-one veterans of the 1953 actions who later joined the eighty-two-man Granma expedition, four had been part of the assault on the Bayamo garrison: Antonio "Ñico" López, Calixto García, Enrique Cámara, and Antonio Darío López. Guevara had met Calixto García and another Bayamo veteran in Costa Rica before arriving in Guatemala, where he met Ñico López and his comrades.
4. See Episodes section "Men contribute to the making of history, but history also makes men" by Fidel Castro.
5. Ernesto Che Guevara, in Ernesto Guevara Lynch, Aquí va un soldado de América (Here goes a soldier of the Americas) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana/Planeta, 1987), p. 149.
6. Guevara, letter from Mexico to his mother, October 1956, in Guevara Lynch, p. 152.
7. See Episodes Letters on the Cuban Revolutionary War, "To Ernesto Sábato."
8. See Episodes chapter "One year of armed struggle."
9 . See "Military order No. 1" in Episodes section "The Las Villas Campaign, September-December 1958."
10. See "One year of armed struggle."
11. See letter "To Ernesto Sábato."
12. See "One year of armed struggle."
13. Fidel Castro, interview June 28-29, 1987, in Gianni Mina, Un encuentro con Fidel (An encounter with Fidel) (Havana: Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado, 1987), p. 318.
14. Interview with Harry Villegas, brigadier general of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, in the Militant, December 18, 1995. Villegas was one of the young Rebel Army recruits who distinguished himself in the war. He later accompanied Che to the Congo and Bolivia.
15. See Episodes chapter "An unpleasant incident."
16. Luis Pavón, in Días de combate (Days of combat) (Havana: Instituto del Libro, 1970), p. vi.
17. See Episodes chapter "From
Batista's final offensive to the battle of Santa Clara."
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home