BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
Soldier of the Cuban Revolution: From the Cane Fields of Oriente to General of the Revolutionary Armed Forces tells the story of the revolution in the most accurate and effective way it can be toldthrough the life of one of its protagonists. Luis Alfonso Zayass story is at once both unique and typical of the young men and women, many still in their teens, who more than a half century ago threw themselves into uncompromising struggle to rid Cuba of a bloody military dictatorship, and dared to take on the propertied classes of Cuba and the United States whose interests that tyranny served.
Through Zayass account, we come to understand how hundreds, then thousands, and eventually hundreds of thousands of ordinary working people transformed themselves as they gained confidence in their own collective strength to storm the heavens, in Karl Marxs memorable words of tribute to the working men and women of the 1871 Paris Commune, the first government of the working class in history.
In refusing to betray the goals for which they fought, Cubas workers and farmers accomplished what all the voices of both bourgeois authority and petty-bourgeois hesitancy, in Cuba and beyond, assured them was impossible. They broke the armed might, and then the economic power, of the existing ruling classes and set out to create a truly just world order. They began to build Cuban society on a new, a proletarian, economic and social foundation, as they simultaneously extended the hand of solidarity to those in combat against imperialist domination and capitalist exploitation around the globe.
Soldier of the Cuban Revolution is not the first book published by Pathfinder Press that seeks to bring Cubas socialist revolution to life in this way for new generations of working people and youth. It joins a growing arsenal of titles that includes Our History Is Still Being Written by Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, and Moisés Sío Wong; Aldabonazo by Armando Hart; Marianas in Combat by Teté Puebla; From the Escambray to the Congo by Víctor Dreke; Pombo: A Man of Ches guerrilla by Harry Villegas; Cuba and the Coming American Revolution by Jack Barnes; and Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto Che Guevara.
In each, the author tells the story of how as a rebel-minded young person they found themselves drawn to, and educated by, the revolutionary struggles of the Cuban workers and farmers who refused to accept the conditions of life imposed on them by the propertied families who owned the plantations, mills, and factories. And how they never turned back.
Several things stand out in the firsthand story of Alfonso Zayas as it unfolds through these pages.
One of the most powerful sections of the book is the authors account of economic and social relations that shaped struggles in the countryside as he was growing up in the 1940s and 50s, when Cuba was the largest sugar producer and exporter in the world and supplied 37 percent of the sugar consumed in the United States alone.
Todays generation didnt live in the Cuba of old, Zayas says. No one under fifty was even born yet when that Cuba disappeared forever. No one under sixty had even entered their teens. They see photographs of what Cuba was like then, but they dont know how life was under capitalism.
Its not that there are no problems in Cuba today, Zayas notes. But when young Cubans go abroad to offer their services in various countries, including Venezuela and Haiti, they see the reality in these places firsthand, and that gives them a clearer understanding of what the revolution changed.
Soldier of the Cuban Revolution gives readers everywhere a clearer understanding of what Cubas workers and farmers changed when they openedand, to this day, successfully continue to defendthe socialist revolution in our hemisphere.
Through the account in these pages, we are able to participate alongside Zayas in the clandestine actions of the July 26 Movement in Puerto Padre, his hometown. We go with him and his compañeros in the initial group of reinforcementsthe fifty-one Marabuzaleros, as they became knownwho in March 1957 joined the twenty-two Rebel Army combatants who had regrouped in the Sierra Maestra mountains after their initial setbacks. Together with Zayas, we grow through the battles, both political and military, waged by the Rebel Army in its formative months. In the process, we come to appreciate in an entirely new way the decisive weight of the rural toilers who early on threw themselves into the revolutionary war and joined the ranks of the combatants.
The Rebel Army could not have survived without the years of prior work that made possible the supplies and lines of communication organized by the clandestine cadres of the July 26 Movement in the cities and the wide network of support not only among workers but reaching deep into the middle classes. But the reader can understand that without the broad support of campesinos and young workers in the countryside like Zayasrecruits used to hard work, accustomed to the rigors of rural life, steeped in the ways of survival, knowledgeable about the operations of Cubas hated Guardia Rural and other repressive forces, and deeply committed to the strugglethe odds would have been poor that the few dozen combatants in the early period of the Rebel Army could have avoided annihilation by the well-armed military forces of the US-backed tyranny of General Fulgencio Batista.
Zayas himself underlines this fact in a firsthand description of the epic hardships faced by the one hundred forty men in Che Guevaras famous Column 8 who marched from the Sierra Maestra to the Escambray mountains of central Cuba in September and early October 1958an operation expected to take forty-eight hours that lasted forty-seven days instead. If wed advanced by truck [as initially planned], maybe we would have fallen into an ambush and none of us would have made it, Zayas says. If we had covered those three hundred seventy miles in forty-eight hours, perhaps we wouldnt have weeded out the quitters, those who didnt have the willpower to continue. Perhaps we would never have been able to measure the capacities of those who did.
That proletarian morality of the Rebel Army became the foundation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, the FAR, formed after Batistas military forces were defeated in battle and disintegrated by the power of the revolutionary mass insurrection that swept the country in the first hours of January 1959. It was the moral and political foundation of the forces of the Revolutionary National Militia, the Revolutionary National Police, Ministry of the Interior, and Cubas internationalist volunteers throughout the Americas, Africa, and beyond.
The insight Zayass account of the revolutionary war gives us goes far in explaining what the leaders of neither Washington nor of apartheid South Africa could comprehend. How was it possible for Cuba to mount the military operation it did some sixteen years laternot with a few thousands in elite units, but with a volunteer force that numbered nearly four hundred thousand Cubans over a decade and a half, volunteers who were willing to give their lives, as two thousand did, to defend the newly independent government of Angola against the forces of South Africas white supremacist regime and its allies?
Washingtons great strategists couldnt even conceive of the kind of consciousness the Cubans demonstrated, the author says. And he is right. It is a class blindness they have never overcome, and never can.
Soldier of the Cuban Revolution includes Zayass reflections on his three tours of duty in Angola between 1975 and 1987, serving at the request of the Angolan government in primarily civilian assignments. His story widens the scope of the firsthand accounts and documents available, especially in English, including those previously published by Pathfinder in books such as How Far We Slaves Have Come by Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, Cubas Internationalist Foreign Policy by Fidel Castro, and Our History Is Still Being Written.
Of special interest are Zayass observations about his work to help draw up development plans for oil-rich Cabinda province, which is separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). His account of the divisions within the governing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and 1977 coup attempt against MPLA leader Agostinho Neto is similarly valuable, as is the description of the joint Angolan-Cuban military counteroffensive in early 1976 that pushed apartheids reactionary, Zaire-based allies out of northern Angola.
What comes through Zayass account is eloquently summarized in the words of then Minister of the FAR Raúl Castro, speaking to the final group of volunteers returning to Cuba some twenty years ago, in May 1991:
If theres anything unique about the Cuban presence in Angolawhich was the continuation of our best national traditionsit was the peoples massive support for it . Even more far-reaching and significant was the absolutely voluntary nature of the peoples participation. Ours was not just a professional army, even if we take great pride in our troops conduct in combat, in their technical preparednessbut an army of the masses, a revolutionary army of the people .
Faced with new and unexpected challenges, we will always be able to remember the epic of Angola with gratitude, because without Angola we would not be as strong as we are today.
The new and unexpected challenges Cuba was already facing in 1991 were the consequence of the evaporation of 75 to 85 percent of Cubas exports and imports, as the bureaucratic Stalinized regimes of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed like a meringue, to use the evocative phrase of then Cuban president Fidel Castro. There was an abrupt loss of vital suppliesfrom food, clothing, and fertilizers, to fuel, paper, machinery, and spare partslosses that paralyzed every facet of agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. Overnight a substantial, nearly thirty-year-long subsidy to the Cuban economy, in the form of favorable terms of trade and long-term loans, was wiped out. In response, Cubas revolutionary leadership initiated what was known as the Special Period in time of peace, and activated contingency plans developed to allow the Cuban people to survive even if the island were completely isolated by a naval blockade.
In the darkest moments of the Special Period, in 1993-94, Cuban families literally did not know from one day to another where their next meal would come from. But as Raúl foresaw, the hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers, farmers, and youth who had in the preceding years put their lives on the line in the struggle against apartheid South Africa did make the difference. They were stronger for that proletarian internationalism. They knew better the stakes they were fighting for and what Cuban working people were capable of achieving. Through the enormous efforts of Cuban workers and farmers and the measures taken by their government, production slowly began to recover. By the end of 1996, the very worst of the Special Period was behind them. And contrary to the predictions of all its enemies, the Cuban Revolution had proved in practice that its proletarian class foundations remained intact.
Throughout these harshest years of the Cuban Revolution, Zayas served as second in command of the Ejército Juvenil de Trabajo (EJT), the Youth Army of Labor, made up of special units of the Revolutionary Armed Forces that since 1973 have been a critical component of the rural labor force. Its units are organized, as Zayas says, to fight, resist, and produce. Their contribution to meeting the food crisis of the Special Period was decisive, and remains so.
Agricultural products from farms operated by the Youth Army of Labor are brought into the cities and sold at EJT stands and food fairs for prices substantially lower than at other markets. This government policy implemented by the FAR assists those most in need, especially retirees scraping by on meager pensions. It helps hold down food prices by offering an alternative to farmers markets where prices are not capped. If an older person is short on money, Zayas notes, the established policy has been, Give it to them. No charge. Thats how EJT markets have been run.
A special periodwith a small s and small pstill exists in Cuba, and will continue. The preferential trade policies, and other forms of subsidies and aid that cushioned Cuban working people against the capitalist world market, and against the incomparably greater productivity of labor in the imperialist countries, will not return. There will be no cease-fire in the fifty-year-old economic war waged against socialist Cuba by the imperialist colossus to the north. For the US ruling families, only surrender by the working people of Cuba would suffice; only reversal of the revolutionary actions that wrested fertile lands, factories, and natural resources out of the control of capital would meet their demands.
That is the goal Washington has been vainly striving to achieve for more than half a century. It is in face of this social and political fact that the battle to produce, the battle to raise living standards, the battle to defend Cubas socialist course is being waged by the workers, farmers, and young people of Cuba today.
The political front of the US rulers economic war has a different focus, however, and Zayass account of the battles waged during the opening months of the revolution underscores this.
Conjuring forth, financing, promoting, and publicizing a democratic counterrevolution has been, from the very first days, the US rulers political weapon of choice. The propaganda drumbeat never stops.
The goal: To persuade those around the world attracted to the liberating example of the Cuban Revolution that socialism, far from being the road to eradicating the myriad forms of tyranny and oppression produced by capital, instead means the suppression of individual freedom and inevitable narrowing of human rightsas has occurred in more than one country since early in the twentieth century and been defended in the name of communism.
The imperialist campaign began in the very first weeks of 1959, as Batistas army of thugs were attempting to flee the country. Zayas was assigned by Ernesto Che Guevara to take charge of the prison at La Cabaña, the Rebel Army command post in the Spanish colonial fortress overlooking Havana Bay. There werent many prisoners at first, Zayas recounts, but they quickly started to arrive. He continues:
On January 1, in response to Fidels call for a general strike and a popular insurrection, police stations and garrisons all across the country had been taken, and in the days that followed many of the regimes henchmen were captured. Im talking about the ones who didnt escape with Batistathe ones who had to pay for their crimes. From all directions, at all hours of the day and night, patrol cars began to arrive at La Cabaña. In the end, more than a thousand of these thugs and murderers had been turned over.
As Zayas describes, revolutionary tribunals were established to hear evidence against each of them and hand down decisions. The outcry began immediately from the great defenders of bourgeois democracy, law, and order to the north. Cubas popular revolutionary leadership was executing its enemies without due process, they charged. But the truth was the opposite. No one was executed without having a trial with all established guarantees, Zayas notes. In fact, had these individuals been released, they would have been lynched in the street. We had to protect them from the population. The people wanted justice for the deaths of their family members, their loved ones.
Responding to questions about these revolutionary tribunals put to him a few years ago by journalist Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro explained further:
Here, when [the dictator] Machado fell, in 1933, Machados people were dragged through the streets; there were lynchings, houses were invaded and attacked, people sought vengeance, revenge . So throughout the entire war, thinking about the mass violence that can accompany the victory of the people, we warned our country about that .
This may have been the only revolution in which the main war criminals were tried and brought to justice, the only revolution that didnt rob or steal, didnt drag people through the streets, didnt take revenge, didnt take justice into its own hands . And if there were no lynchings, no bloodbaths it was because of our insistence and our promise: War criminals will be brought to justice and punished.
One need only remember the corpse of Mussolini dangling by its feet in the streets of Milan, or the vengeful circus preceding the US-imposed regimes execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006, to recognize the powerful example set by the Cuban Revolution as it led the victims of Batistas tyranny to transform vengeance into revolutionary justice. Nothing throws the proletarian character of that revolution into sharper relief.
The interviews with Alfonso Zayas that eventually became Soldier of the Cuban Revolution were conducted by Martín Koppel and me in February and June 2007 and March 2009 in the national offices of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution (ACRC) in Havana, Cuba. Koppel is a staff writer for the Militant newsweekly and a Pathfinder editor. Another interview with Zayas, early this year, in which El Militante editor Róger Calero participated, added further details and clarifications.
The close interest and at times insistent inquiries of the executive vice president of the ACRC, General Harry Villegasknown throughout the world today as Pombowere an ever-present stimulus. And the exacting work of Iraida Aguirrechu of Editora Política, the publishing house of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was indispensable. She took part in every step of the process, from initial interviews to final review.
The famous photograph of the mounted militia unit riding toward the headquarters of the US-owned United Fruit Company in May 1960 to announce that the workers and farmers of Cuba had expropriated its vast plantations was given to Pathfinder more than a decade ago by Raúl Corrales, one of the finest photographers of the revolution. Corrales granted permission to reproduce that memorable photograph on a cover of our choosing, and no more appropriate choice can be imagined than this book.
Many of the other historic photos included here were supplied by the author. Others were located with the aid of the always helpful staffs responsible for the photographic archives of the periodicals Granma and Bohemia. And we are especially grateful for the help of Francisco Rodríguez Robles of the Youth Club in the nearby Jesús Menéndez municipality, who found, scanned, and sent us a photograph of the Chaparra sugar mill as it looked in the days before the revolution, when Zayas was growing up virtually in its shadow.
Above all, our thanks go to General Alfonso Zayas for his many long hours of work that made this book possible. The current and future generations of revolutionary-minded workers and farmers, and young people attracted to them, for whom this book is written, will now have a clearer view of the deep roots of the Cuban Revolution and the men and women whose actions made it the beacon it remains in the world today. They will know better the proletarian character traits and discipline they must emulate if they are to engage in similar deeds in every country the world over whose toilers are oppressed by capitalist exploitation.
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