In February Pathfinder Press released a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58.
To promote this book the Militant is running "Pages from Cuba's Revolutionary History." This series features articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.- backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
This week's installment - the tenth - is an account of the voyage of the Granma. On Nov. 25, 1956, 82 revolutionaries, including Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara, set sail on this small yacht from Mexico to begin the revolutionary war in Cuba. Landing in southeastern Cuba on December 2, the column was attacked by Batista's forces three days later at Alegría de Pío and dispersed. One-quarter of the expeditionaries were subsequently able to regroup and make their way to the Sierra Maestra mountains.
Faustino Pérez, a participant in the expedition, was later sent to Havana, where he spent much of the war helping to coordinate the July 26 Movement's urban underground. He was a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba from 1965 until his death in 1992.
The account below was originally read over Radio Rebelde on Dec. 2, 1958, and was first published in the Cuban daily Revolución (Revolution) on Dec. 2, 1963. Translation and subheadings are by the Militant.
BY FAUSTINO PÉREZ
Days before, the leader of the movement and the head of the expedition [Fidel Castro] had decided on the day of departure. From different and distant parts of Mexico, where the camps and training centers were located, groups of recruits had to leave, allowing sufficient time. Mexico City, Veracruz, and Tamaulipas were centers of silent mobilization.
Except for a few of the leaders in charge of bringing the weapons and the men, no one else knew the trip's destination. It was necessary to travel with extreme discretion. The police vigilance and the watchful eyes of the tyranny's foreign agents were a permanent danger. An important shipment and key men had recently fallen into the hands of the police. Speed and caution were essential to avoid losing what had cost so much effort and sacrifice to put together. A promise had been made, and Cuba cried out for someone to keep their word: We would be free or we would be martyrs!
We converged one night at a point on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It was the city of Tuxpan, divided in two by the river it is named after. The night was dark and rainy. Many of us had to cross the wide river utilizing rented boats whose owners rowed with annoying slowness. They must have been surprised to be seated there amid such a large and strange clientele that on repeated trips had invaded their creaking docks. But we were generous travelers who came up with abundant excuses to dispel the slightest possibility of ill will.
One after another the groups arrived by different and obscure streets at the prearranged point. All were convinced by then of the significance of that assembling. No one asked questions or spoke. A series of silent embraces in the woods next to the river was the emotional greeting given to those not seen for a long time. The silence of the night was violated only by the persistent barking of the dogs in the vicinity, who were alarmed. We observed some shadows very close by, moving to and from the river. They were all comrades, working feverishly to haul cargo toward a small boat whose reflection could be seen in the water. It was the Granma! No one expressed their thoughts. We all felt intense emotion and happiness, but I'm sure everyone was assaulted by the same fear.
After we finished carrying the weapons, ammunition, other items, and the meager food supply, a subtle competition began as to who would board first, since it was feared that the last ones would have to remain behind. Some had still not arrived. We waited.
At one o'clock in the morning of Nov. 25, 1956, it was time to set out. With the minimum amount of noise and power, the Granma began to move. All the lights were out, a single motor was going at low power, everyone was huddled over, some on top of others. The helmsman looked for the center of the wide canal formed by the Tuxpan river toward its mouth. Onward it went. On both sides the city slept.
It took us about half an hour to leave the river behind, perhaps another half hour to cross the port. No one had seen us and we were already entering what we had anxiously been awaiting: the Gulf. We all understood that silence was no longer necessary. Suddenly we broke out singing, in unison, as if prearranged. Never has the National Anthem sounded more beautiful! We were all seized by happiness. Again and again our anthem filled our throats. Our small boat fixed its speed with irrevocable determination. We were en route to Cuba. But the journey ahead was still not an easy one.
After a few hours the effects of the constant swaying began to be felt. Nausea, seasickness, and fatigue were leaving their mark with growing intensity on the majority of the comrades. Almost everyone was seized by such bothersome and common symptoms.
Furthermore, the forecasters had announced bad weather and the Mexican navy had suspended navigation permits for that part of the Gulf. It was a so-called northerly, very frequent that time of year. As we advanced the weather became more intense and the enormous waves - like bobbing mountains - toyed with the small but tenacious boat. The force of the elements slowed the boat's progress to a crawl. The danger of capsizing seemed imminent at all times.
One afternoon we saw that water was rising below the deck more than usual. An order was issued to use the bilge pumps, but instead of stopping it, the water level continued to rise, slowly but visibly. Rapidly and nervously we grabbed two buckets as a last resort. The results proved counterproductive. The water continue rising above our feet, and uneasiness grew among everyone. Trying not to look worried, I spoke with the navigators. I asked how far it was to the Yucatan coast. One of them responded: "Very far. We're goners." Not giving up hope, I found Fidel, who was intently monitoring the incessant and almost useless back-and-forth of the buckets. I was going to raise with him changing course toward the coast. But I saw that the water was already going down; the planks of the deck became visible once more; the bilge pumps were now working.
Everyone began to breathe again. The Granma was invincible, like the spirit that moved within its deck! There were forces at work in addition to purely physical ones, and they too withstood the storms and drove the boat onward to its destination. One thought, one common ideal, one single desire, was projected in a single direction: the soil of the enslaved homeland.
By now we were out of the zone of danger of the northerlies and another type of danger began. A boat over the horizon or a plane flying overhead was more than enough to put us on alert. Having overcome the intense sea of the interminable Gulf, one morning we passed by the Yucatan peninsula. The proximity to the Pinar del Río coast was strongly appealing; but Oriente awaited us. And that's where the Granma headed, slow and resolute, toward its goal.
News of Santiago rebellion
One morning our radio caught news of great significance to us: Santiago de Cuba! The naval station and police station attacked! Gunfights in the streets! Mortars and machine guns seized at the Institute! Guantánamo paralyzed! A wave of sabotage in Matanzas, Las Villas, etc.! We immediately understood the magnitude and the cause of it all. They had received news of our departure. We should have already been on Cuban soil. That was how they responded to our arrival!
In Santiago the brave and disciplined combatants, led by the unforgettable Frank País and Pepito Tey, dominated the city. Guantánamo was totally paralyzed. Pepito, Otto Parellada, and Tony Alomá were the first heroes who fell confronting the tyranny in the new stage of the struggle that had just opened. It was November 30, a day indelibly etched in our history.
Impatience mounted - no longer from the waves but from the speed we were traveling at. But the Granma was not characterized by its velocity or size. We passed very close to the Cayman Islands. A helicopter approached in our direction. It circled suspiciously, but left without incident. We were on the last leg of our long journey. Now everyone had their weapon ready, a sufficient number to confront any contingency.
We were prepared for everything, except being captured or dying without a fight. Proud and beaming, with our olive drab uniforms, combat boots, backpacks, messkits, and canteens, we were conquering sickness and hunger. "Soon the lighthouse should appear," said one of our sailors. Everyone anxiously looked for it over the dark horizon. The sea was choppy.
Comrade Roque, formerly a lieutenant in the navy, tried to see better by climbing to the roof of the Granma. Still nothing was visible. Climbing down, he braced himself by holding on to the antenna and fell into the sea. Someone saw it and shouted the alarm: "Man overboard!" The helmsman made the greatest effort. We all wanted to do something. Several times desperate shouts were heard: "Here! Here! Here!" moving away from us. We turned to find him, but no one could hear or see anything. With growing anxiety we looked, called out, searched. For the first time the Granma's headlight was turned on, when the danger was greatest.
Everything seemed useless. The comrade who had gone to search for the light had disappeared into the dark depths of the ocean. We resigned ourselves to the bitter reality. The deepest pain arose in everyone. Fidel however had still not given up hope, and ordered one last effort. Again we heard the fading and almost imperceptible shout: "Here!" Inexplicably it was now coming closer. And Pichirilo, the efficient old helmsman who always saw things ahead of everyone else, aided by his lantern, turned the miracle.
The rest was easy. The comrade was rescued. His extraordinary strength, dexterity, and serenity, together with the commander's faith and the effort of the comrades had saved him, although Roque would no longer be the first to spot Cabo Cruz, whose beaming signal of salvation still delayed its appearance.
Niquero was supposed to be our Playitas.(1) But already on the horizon the first light of the new day appeared. There were doubts about the route. The sea was shallow, and there was a danger of running aground. Finally we headed toward the coast, which could already be seen over the horizon. Our ship advanced until it could go no further, less than 100 meters from shore. There was no time to lose. The lifeboat was dropped into the water. The exploratory unit got on board, led by Captain Smith. But because of excessive weight, water came in, and it was necessary to wade in on foot.
The sea bottom was swampy and difficult, but we kept moving, anxious to find solid ground. The sea extended into mangrove swamps that formed a thick and multicolored tangle difficult to penetrate. Before our anxious eyes all we saw was more mud, more water, more dense thicket. We continued on. One comrade climbed to the highest branch, and saw that the water extended farther than the undergrowth. For a moment we thought we had landed in the open sea, on some small and swampy key. But we could not allow ourselves any doubts. We had to continue on. Cuba had to be ahead.
After innumerable hours fighting our way through the immense swamp of mud, underbrush, and water, we began to feel solid ground. Some comrades had to be pulled out in the arms of stronger ones. As we reached dry land, we threw ourselves down in the abundant grass, fatigued, hungry, covered in mud virtually from head to foot. Little by little we were becoming conscious that we were on the soil of the homeland.
There were already indications of human presence. Crespo, climbing on another branch, discovered a small house in the distance. We approached and met its frightened owner, bringing him toward us. He was one of Cuba's poor, with whom we had come to throw in our lot. His name was Angel Pérez. Fidel spoke to him, telling him who we were, why we had come, what our ideas were. Frightened, the man invited us into his hut to offer us his meager food. The first ones arrived, and drank some water. Some of us began to shake off the sacrilegious mud off our olive drab; others cleaned their guns. The family hunted a hen and ran after a pig. The immediate perspectives seemed good, although many comrades were still missing.
Suddenly we heard multiple shots, bursts of fire, and explosions in the direction of the abandoned Granma. We did not know if it was the infantry or the navy, and we retreated into the nearby woods, giving a counterorder about the pig. Later, taking stock of our ranks, we noted that eight comrades were still missing. Two days later they appeared in very distant locations.
The first day ended without a morsel of food. We were entering a dense woods. There we would rest. It was December 2. We had landed on the Las Coloradas beach, although to use Juan Manuel Márquez's words, it was not a landing but a shipwreck.
The column, now complete, was continuing to recover. And it advanced, vibrant and determined. But we did not have a chance to continue narrating and reliving those events. Very soon we reached a spot charged with tragic irony. There is no other name with such sad significance: Alegría de Pío.
1. Playitas, in southeastern Cuba, was the site where José Martí and other expeditionaries landed on April 11, 1895, to begin Cuba's war of independence from Spain.
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