The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.60/No.5           February 5, 1996 
Rebel Army Trained Fighters With Guts  

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 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 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.

Below is the second installment - a description of the Rebel Army school organized in April 1958 at Minas del Frío in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba.

These accounts by Rebel Army fighters, published originally in the Cuban press, were collected and included together in Che: Sierra adentro (Che: Deep in the Sierra) by Froilán Escobar and Félix Guerra (Havana: Editora Política, 1988). As Guevara recounts in Episodes, this school was set up under his personal direction, as was a second one set up in late 1958 in the Escambray mountains of Las Villas province. Evelio Laferté, military instructor at the school, had been a lieutenant in Batista's army who had been captured in battle and then decided to join the Rebel Army.

The English-language translation of the accounts below is copyright Pathfinder Press. They are reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.

Evelio Laferté: Right after I decided to pass over to the Rebel Army, Fidel sent for me. I was in La Mesa and he was in Montería - this was during the preparations for the April 9 strike. Fidel spoke to me at length (we had already talked previously, and it had a big influence on my state of mind, resulting in my request to join the Rebel Army. I recall that we spoke for more than four hours - Hernando Chacón was there - and Fidel had laid out the idea of a military school in the Sierra.) I could now see that the idea had taken concrete form, and he left it in my hands. This was all done utilizing Fidel's style of exchanging opinions, which often led people to believe the idea had come from them.

Luis Crespo: The Minas del Frío school was created because there was a problem with recruits from the cities who arrived without even knowing how to shoot. When many of them began to fire, instead of shutting their left eye, they would shut the right one. Shots would go here, there, everywhere but near the target. So we put up a pole for target practice, and asked people, "Which eye are you using? This one? OK, we're going to cover the other one." And then they would say, "No, no, I can't see." That's when Fidel said that we had to create a school to teach the people to shoot.

Laferté: It should be added that Fidel put considerable emphasis on the ideological aspect, on developing consciousness among comrades who, for lack of supervision, had been allowed to join. There was much impulsiveness and enthusiasm, but little political clarity. So the school had not only a military structure, a staff of supposedly professional instructors (I was the only one with some experience in this regard); but comrades were also brought there who were more developed ideologically. From the very first moment, Che sent officers there who had spent a considerable period of time in the Sierra.

Military and political training

Ernesto Che Guevara: All the young recruits who we are unable to incorporate for lack of arms and want to remain with us, join the academy. They are put under a regime of strict discipline and very severe training. Out of this we hope to get some good officers in a brief period of time.

Laferté: Young people were sent by different leaders from the various fronts. Some had the status of recruits, while others were officers - comrades with some responsibilities. As I understand it, Che participated with Fidel in planning out the school - this was after the second battle of Pino del Agua and Che's activities in La Otilia. As head of the zone where Minas del Frío was located, and because of his military rank, the school fell directly under Che's command, we reported directly to him. In other words, the specific responsibility for running the school was ours, but all the general questions were under the responsibility of Che.

This should be pointed out, because it seems that many comrades, half joking and half serious, blamed us for a certain military-type atmosphere in the school. However, as the comrades who spent time with him know, Che had a certain aspect of his personality that was even more demanding than the military cadres who were professionally trained, among whom the question of discipline was more formal. With Che, however, discipline was a question that went to the very heart of things. We were surprised by Che's methods, extremely harsh methods aimed at achieving discipline and forming habits of behavior that never strayed into indiscipline.

The organization of that school - which in the beginning was somewhat idealistic, somewhat far removed from the realities of life here in the Sierra - began with a plan of study, with a whole schedule. There was an hour to rise, an hour for meals - meals that often didn't exist anywhere but on the schedule - and there were various assignments. I recall that there were classes in tactics, including both the theoretical and practical aspect.

And it was there that certain of my prejudices began to come out. To put it bluntly, it really rankled to teach people who, in short, had defeated us. I was not especially eager to transmit knowledge to people who in practice had shown that while they had not received their knowledge in school, they had it instinctively.

Guevara: At that time enemy aircraft dominated Cuban airspace. The first facility built in the zone in front of you, that zone where I believe there is now an electrical plant; at the time there were more trees. However, the enemy discovered it in two weeks, and from then on every morning and afternoon for three months we were bombed. That was the test our column faced.

Educated ourselves for victory

There the troops also learned the ABCs. In our column there was a man whose nom de guerre was Moisés, named Pablo [Rivalta], who is today in our army, he was with our column and taught the ABCs to the peasants. Ninety percent of our column was illiterate when it left Las Mercedes for Las Villas. Through the work of education - both political education and the bombs - we educated ourselves for victory.

There we were all forged; there we learned to scorn the enemy's weakness despite all his might. We came to understand that there were things more important than weapons, that there was a power much greater than the force of arms, and that victory would belong to the people. Our morale grew with each passing day.

There was no food either. And when there was, it was a can of condensed milk, or black beans, sometimes without salt.

Laferté: The plan of study included tactics, a little on armaments (very rudimentary since we had virtually no weapons to use). We had some target practice (I don't know whether it was Crespo who led it), some very rudimentary exercises. We built some equipment similar to what military schools use for target practice. The aim was to help train the young men in the correct method of firing, since one of the problems was not knowing which eye to close. Later Comrade Celia [Sánchez] sent us some old guns with which we began to carry out some practice, a little more lifelike, although still without firing. Together with this, importance was given to the ideological aspect, an assignment carried out largely by Comrade Rivalta, who we then knew as Moisés Pérez.

In regard to installations we were utilizing the house belonging to the peasant Mario Sariol. Later the very same comrades at the school, who were coming in greater number, built the school, built the installations we used, improved the defenses. They built up some installations in a mine that we used: a tunnel with considerable capacity that we decided to use for antiaircraft defense. In other words, in addition to theoretical and practical classes, the school had the objective of creating material installations. Clearly, that too was interrupted, so the courses were not very regular. Those same young men had to go to Las Vegas de Jibacoa, to San Lorenzo, which was where the tools and materials were arriving, the construction materials: zinc, wood, etc. In addition, other comrades - officers above all - had to leave to fulfill other military tasks.

In other words, conditions did not exist to develop a course of study as we had conceived it: where young men would be locked away with a whole series of conditions and facilities available to them. But what appeared at the time to be a disadvantage, was not such a disadvantage in real life. And if the school is seen not as a peacetime school but as a school in wartime, it can be seen how it worked marvels.

`Lily-liver disease'

For example, there came to be an additional assignment at the school (and I believe that the comrades remember this as something that today makes us laugh, but bothered us to no end at the time): preoccupation with the enemy planes came to constitute an assignment here, and I recall that Che had a word for the effect of the planes on our spirits: "lily-liver disease." Anyone who suffered an attack of lily-liver disease during an air attack was suspended from that assignment. And this test was conducted five or six times a day.

Miguel E. Rivero: Once the school of Minas del Frío had been installed, the enemy aircraft began to bomb, and Che ordered then-lieutenant Rogelio Acevedo to install a .30 caliber machine gun on the summit of the hill and open fire on the aircraft. The machine gun was in place for four or five days, and during that time the planes did not appear. There were some desertions, however. Che gathered everyone together and I recall his words:

"Many of you have come here to brag, but you are mistaken: guerrilla struggle is long and hard. Whoever wants to leave can do so. What we don't want are people coming here to sit around and eat. Getting food costs us too much effort."

As a result, some people left, and Che commented, "There is no better way to purify our Rebel Army. Those we have let go are suffering from an acute case of lily-liver disease."

Laferté: After each air attack we would generally call a formation, to count the men, to find out if there had been casualties. I recall only one direct hit from the air. The victim was Cansín, a shoemaker, who one day ran in desperation, charged into a grove of trees, and got his head blown off.

Che frequently came to the school and at times spent two or three days with us. He sat down to review every aspect of the school, and to give us guidelines for when he would not be there.

Really, the first impression I had of Che (to be sure, under circumstances in no way pleasant for me, and justified too by the bad reputation he had been given of me) - my first impression was of his personal aspect, his clothing, his type of beard, his almost Mongolian, Oriental features, his ironic expression, his gaze. He aimed a few words at my expense, until a peasant from the region came to my rescue, explaining my participation and my conduct as a soldier from the official army (at the time I had not yet asked to join the Rebel Army). Despite that clarification, I retained a poor impression of Che, an impression that was eventually overcome through daily contact here in the school, through the unconditional support he gave to our efforts at the school - a support that at times, however, came like bursts of gunfire, as he made clear his concern for certain things I did not understand, and that I came to understand later, with time.

As part of organizing the school, Fidel wanted us to come up with certain kinds of oaths for the recruits. The kind of oath we were familiar with was the classic one that existed in the army, which involved God, the word of God, "I swear before God and Country, the Flag" - that sort of thing. We sent two drafts, one of which, by accident, included the word God; accidentally, because we had not intentionally put it there. I recall that this one had to go through Che to get to Fidel.

Che replied to us in a letter that he had not sent the oath on because, in his view, it was not correct to make someone swear to something in which he did not believe. That he, for example, did not believe in God, and that no one was capable of making him believe in God. That was his reply to us. At the time, it seemed to me that the reply was not very good politics, because the concept I had of politics was to make concessions. But for Che, when it came to questions of fundamental principles, no concessions were possible; it was wrong to try to enlist men through deceit.  
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