BY LUIS BAEZ
In February 1996 Pathfinder Press will release a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58, including material never before available in English.
In conjunction with the publication of this book, the Militant is running a series, titled "Pages from Cuba's revolutionary history." This series will feature articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.- backed tyranny of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas. Many items will be translated for the first time from publications in Cuba.
As the first installment, we publish below an interview with Colonel José Quevedo of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba (FAR). It is taken from the Oct. 4, 1995, Granma International weekly, where it appeared under the headline "Colonel José Quevedo at 70. His Greatest Decision."
BY LUIS BAEZ (Prensa Latina)
One of the fiercest battles in Cuba's final war of liberation was fought at Jigue. For ten days, both sides confronted each other without yielding any ground. Only an extraordinary display of valor by the rebel forces and the strategy put into play by Fidel Castro, our commander-in- chief, succeeded in overcoming the stubborn resistance of Batista's troops. This victory marked a definitive turn in the military operations undertaken in Cuba's easternmost region, as a consequence of the offensive unleashed by the Batista dictatorship, in a final attempt to avert the imminent rebel triumph.
Commandant José Quevedo, now a colonel of our Revolutionary Armed Forces, was at the head of the government troops located in Jigue. Now he has just reached his 70th birthday.
The father of five children and grandfather of two, he is the author of several books: La batalla de Jigue (The Battle of Jigue), El ultimo semestre (The Final Six Months), and Vale la pena recordar (Worth Recalling).
During the war he kept a journal, but gave up that practice with the rebel victory. He now regrets this. If he had continued his journal he could have recorded specific data about incidents and events, which would have contributed to the recounting of Cuba's history.
An extremely forthright man, he told me about various aspects of his life with great sincerity.
This is his life, in his own words, told at a moment when his experience and the conviction of always having followed his conscience give it an incalculable value.
I do not believe that he withheld anything from me. If he did, it was some secret he wishes to take to his grave.
* * *
Why did you choose a military career?
I am a soldier's son. My father rose to the rank of colonel. He spent much of his life in the La Cabaña military unit. We lived in La Cabaña and Casablanca.
In 1944, when Ramón Grau San Martín assumed the presidency, my father was one of the few officers who wasn't discharged. He rose to the rank of colonel and was sent to Oriente province as commanding officer of the 1st Regiment. He retired in 1945.
Tell me about your entrance into the army.
I answered a recruitment call at the Cadet Academy at the Morro fortress and got one of the places. That was in 1943. I graduated three years later. I had already completed the first year of law school at the university.
I wouldn't say that I had a definite vocation for military life, it was more that it seemed like the right thing to do, having grown up among the military.
Did you ever get a law degree?
Yes. After finishing in the Cadet Academy, I continued studying law at home, and taking the exams. At the end of the 1950s the university was closed. At that moment I had three or four classes left in order to graduate. After the January 1 triumph of the Revolution, I enrolled and passed those subjects I needed to graduate. Clemente Inclán was still rector of the university. I got my degree in 1960. I could say that I'm a lawyer who graduated with the Revolution, although I have never practiced a law career.
How do you view the military coup of March 10, 1952?
I wasn't in Cuba at that time, but in the United States. I had been sent there with Colonel Manuel León Calá on a visit to the West Point Military Academy in New York. This trip had two objectives: to attend the festivities for the Academy's 150th anniversary and to study their educational system and instruction methods.
Knowing that León Calá was not a Batista supporter, I told him of my intention not to return to Havana and to find work as a Spanish teacher.
He informed me that Colonel Ramón Barquín, the military attaché in Washington, was not sympathetic toward Batista and that it would be a good idea to talk to him. We went to Washington and I had a meeting with Barquín. He was of the opinion that if young officers abandoned the armed forces, that would leave the way open for Batista to consolidate his power. That was why I returned to Cuba and stayed within the army.
Years later, Barquín led the abortive April 4, 1956, conspiracy, which also included José Ramón Fernández and Enrique Borbonet.
Did you take part in that conspiracy?
Yes. What happened is that they didn't find me out. They detained me, interrogated me, reassigned me. But lacking any proof, they never charged me with any crime and gave me back my post.
What was your assignment at that time?
I was located in the San Ambrosio Garrison. I had specialized in logistics as the result of a course I took in Fort Eustace, Virginia, in the Military Transportation Academy. I was also working as a teacher in the Higher Academy of War located in Atarés Castle.
How did you react to the assault on the Moncada Garrison?
I thought it was a madcap idea. I didn't think Batista could be brought down in that way.
Why were you sent to fight in the Sierra Maestra?
This is something that I have never been able to explain. When the armed struggle in the Sierra Maestra started to intensify, combat units were formed to be sent there. One was formed with personnel from the San Ambrosio Garrison and the Cadet Academy.
A number of officers were trained for this purpose, including Captains Francisco Sierra Talavera, deputy director of the Cadet Academy, and Miguel López Naranjo from the G-4 command.
When the second attack on Pino del Agua occurred, Sierra Talavera was in Guisa with the company, and was given orders to send a reinforcement platoon. That platoon was ambushed and almost all its members killed. Evelio Laferté, who later joined the Rebel Army, was taken prisoner there.
Sierra Talavera was blamed for what happened. They sent him back to the capital. He was discharged. Within a few weeks he was reincorporated. The company had been left without a leader. Surprisingly, they decided to send me. I went off in the direction of the eastern mountains without any kind of training.
You just said that you didn't agree with the March 10 coup d'etat and that you were active in the April 1956 military conspiracy. So, what led you to fight against the Rebel Army?
It shouldn't be forgotten that I was a soldier and following orders. In time of war you can't resign or demobilize. There are only two routes left open to you, you either continue on and see what happens, or you join the other side. I'm not trying to justify my actions. I am telling you the truth.
Did your experience in the academies lead you to believe that it was possible to make a revolution without the support of the army?
No, I never believed that was possible. I was of the opinion that a revolution could be made with the army, but never against the army or without the army. I never thought that the Rebel Army could defeat us, however well trained it was.
The academies were mistaken, and so was I.
What did you think was the solution?
I thought the military was the only force that could bring down Batista. I didn't believe that the solution could arise from a group of civilians who took up arms and went off to the Sierra Maestra.
Sincerely, I never believed that Batista could be brought down by guerrillas or by firing off shots in the Sierra.
Were you afraid during the Jigue battle?
Yes. But when you are responsible for certain persons, your fear diminishes.
I'm not a brave person. I have been afraid many times in my life. The problem is to overcome it. It would be irrational not to feel fear. I have experienced some very difficult times, but a moment arrives when a feeling of tranquility comes over you.
Remember that there were ten days -- from July 11 to 21, 1958 - of intense fighting. Fidel [Castro] had even sent me a letter, saying that we should meet together, to talk and surrender.
How did the letter sent by Fidel affect you?
Both the letter and Fidel's July 15 address played a very important role in my final decision.
Fidel offered us extensive information on the situation we were in and explained how the rebel victory was inevitable.
Imagine, up there in the Sierra Maestra; in the middle of the night, hearing over the loudspeakers a message from the rebel commander, directed at us. It had a real impact, not only on me but on all the battalion's troops.
He sent me two letters. The first did not reach me personally, since I had already left for the offensive.
The letter I'm talking about was sent to me in the middle of the battle on July 20, via Eulogio Rodríguez, a cook in the 103rd company who had been taken prisoner. When I read it, many thoughts went through my mind.
I asked myself how it was possible, in the midst of such a delicate situation, that the Commander-in-chief could express himself in such a respectful manner to someone who had been fighting against him and was still doing so. When I read it to the officers, they had a similar reaction.
Although at that moment we already knew that we were defeated, the letter was decisive in our decision to surrender.
How was your first meeting with Fidel?
It was incredible. When Fidel arrived, he greeted me with an embrace. He took me to one side and started talking with me. Just the two of us.
Do you remember what you talked about?
He asked about my men: He took an interest in the various soldiers who studied with me in the university. He spoke to me with great respect and consideration. He always addressed me very respectfully, but also with great affection and intimacy.
Fidel talked and talked. I was surprised. I answered in short sentences. There were times when I didn't know what to say to him. He had already offered me what I was going to ask him for. At times much more than I had even hoped for.
It seemed like something completely out of this world. It isn't normal for your enemy to receive you, after a ten- day battle, as if you had just finished a sports meet.
But you already knew what Fidel was like.
Yes, I knew him from the university; however, I didn't really know what he was like, because I wasn't in his circle of friends. It was after Jigue that I began to feel like his friend.
At what point did you realize that the Rebel Army would win?
While I was a prisoner, I saw the way the Rebel Army acted toward the people. I was greatly struck by their unselfishness. The way the Rebel Army behaved was completely different from the way the government's army behaved. On the other hand, I realized that the rebel forces had acquired a great deal of experience. They had gained strength physically. Any unit of the Rebel Army was by then more valuable than Batista's army. I began to feel as if I was in a different world. Moreover, they fought for an ideal.
When did you decide to join the Rebel Army?
I did not decide to join during the battle of Jigue. What happened there was that the battalion surrendered. I was taken prisoner. The treatment we were given from the first moment by Fidel and the other rebels was exceptional. I helped in whatever way I could but I wasn't officially part of the Rebel Army.
One day, Raúl Chibás came to see me. We talked. He told me that Fidel had been thinking about how I could help most effectively: to talk to those officers of the dictatorship who weren't murderers and get them to come over to the Rebel Army.
Then Fidel spoke to me. He set out his ideas. I agreed with them. His confidence in me made me very happy. From that time on, my life took a 180-degree turn. That wasn't easy. Above all, when one is molded by another system.
Was that when they ratified your rank of commander?
No. I don't think there was any particular time in which that was discussed. I don't remember one.
One thing that I have not forgotten is in Palma Soriano, when the rebel victory was in sight, Fidel asked me what I was thinking of doing when the war ended.
I replied that I planned to retire, to go and work in something else. He answered: "No, no. You have to stay with us. We are going to need your experience." It is likely that, without putting it in so many words, he was ratifying my rank at that time.
What did you do on January 1, 1959?
Following the triumph of the Revolution, I was part of the freedom caravan for two days until, on Fidel's instructions, I traveled to Havana on January 4 to report to Commander Camilo Cienfuegos.
I was initially part of a military advisory commission of which Carlos M. Durán, Evelio Laferté and Rodolfo Villamil were also members. They were all former officers of Batista's forces who had later joined the Rebel Army.
I also presided, in the early stages, over a group created by Camilo to purge the army ranks through an analysis of the records kept by the former officers. I subsequently formed part of the first general staff organized by the Rebel Army, as head of G-4 (rearguard). I remained in that post for two and a half years.
What do you remember of those days?
Many things: the joy, the enthusiasm. On a personal level, the happiness at having made a decision in time. There are unforgettable events. During my time in the Columbia encampment, I remember a tour we made of those military installations together with Commander Camilo Cienfuegos. There Camilo made a gesture of great human solidarity, which caused all of us accompanying him to stop and think.
On walking through what had been one of Fulgencio Batista's residences and seeing a huge cage with different species of birds in the patio, Camilo went up to it, freed them and said: "Here, in this land, even the birds must be free."
What were your thoughts when the revolutionary government expelled the U.S. military mission based in Cuba?
I thought that it was really taking things too far. I considered that and other decisions were too bold. That is what I thought at that time. I also considered the fact that Fidel had made decisions that had seemed impossible and they had produced results: I can now look at these things with hindsight. I now believe he is capable of more still than he has already done.
I have never spoken about these things. Now, at the age of 70, it is permissible for me to do so.
What was it like for you to be the military attaché in the Soviet Union?
One of the greatest feelings of satisfaction that I have had in my life. It was a demonstration of Fidel's and Raúl's confidence in me. The designation came as an incredible surprise to me.
All of my earlier projects may have been destined toward an assignment in Washington, but never in Moscow. I had never thought about that possibility.
Don't forget that I was trained in U.S. military academies. There they teach you to hate communism. I never took the time to find out whether it was good or bad.
I learned a great deal in the USSR. Above all to love and respect the Soviet people. The events that followed in that nation are highly lamentable. I am convinced that it won't be too many years before it becomes a great country again.
Did you think of leaving Cuba at any time?
I didn't even have time to think about it. I could have left, as Fidel himself offered me the choice. When I was in the Sierra, after Jigue, he told me that there were a number of things he could do with me: he could free me, but if he did that I could be arrested; he could get me out of the country; or I could stay in the Sierra. I opted for the last one.
Were you made offers to leave the country after the triumph of the Revolution?
Numerous, even a U.S. company which had sold weapons to the armed forces made very good offers. I also received threats. I received threatening letters from Mexico. There were people who saw me as a symbol of treachery. None of those things concerned me. Although I do confess that I wasn't a Communist.
Why did you accept the path chosen by the Revolution?
Because of my confidence in Fidel. I told myself that if he took that path it was because it must be the right one. I am first and foremost a Fidelista.
Why is that?
There are many reasons. When I entered into the life of the Rebel Army, I was gradually convinced by Fidel's conditions and also because I owed him so much, from my life itself to the political development that I have now.
Fidel is a man of great foresight. He can see further than others are able to see. With tremendous willpower. Always full of optimism.
He is an exceptional man. People like him are not born every day. He has known how to face problems as they arise, with great wisdom. He is the champion of opportunities. One of his great qualities is having known to make the appropriate decision at the opportune moment.
How do you feel at 70 years of ago?
Firstly that life has passed me by. I would like to be younger now, to be able to help the Revolution more. I am very limited by my age and health problems. Nevertheless, I do think there are certain ways in which I can still be useful.
Do you regret anything?
I don't regret anything I did. Like any human being I've had good and bad actions. I don't think so much about the bad things I may have done, but rather the good things I could have done and didn't.
Perhaps not putting my trust completely in Fidel from the first moment. At times I have made decisions too late.
And your greatest decision?
To stay in the Sierra Maestra and join the Rebel Army. That
has been the greatest decision of my life.
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