The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 75/No. 10      March 14, 2011

Gen. Alfonso Zayas is ‘example
of what we aspire to be’
Havana Book Fair presentation of book by
peasant rebel who became leader of Cuban Revolution
(feature article)
HAVANA—Some 75 people, many of them longtime revolutionary combatants, attended a panel presentation here on Soldier of the Cuban Revolution: From the Cane Fields of Oriente to General in the Revolutionary Armed Forces. The book is an interview with Brig. Gen. Alfonso Zayas, whose life of revolutionary struggle began in 1955 as one of the initial recruits to the July 26 Revolutionary Movement led by Fidel Castro.

The February 18 event, held at the Casa del ALBA cultural center in the heart of the city, was among the many book presentations that were part of the Havana International Book Fair.

Published by Pathfinder Press in both English and Spanish earlier this year, Soldier of the Cuban Revolution offers a vivid portrait of the kind of men and women who made the Cuban Revolution, transforming themselves and all of society in the process.

Speaking at the presentation, in addition to Zayas, were Brig. Gen. Harry Villegas, executive vice president of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution (ACRC); Esmel Valera, national vice president of Cuba’s Federation of University Students (FEU); and Mary-Alice Waters, editor of the book and a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Iraida Aguirrechu of Editora Política, publishing house of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, chaired the meeting.

Soldier of the Cuban Revolution is the latest in a series of books and pamphlets published by Pathfinder Press on the Cuban Revolution, currently numbering more than 20 titles. These books are published in the United States and distributed throughout the world to help “prepare us all for the revolutionary battles to come as we enter the most profound crisis the capitalist system has known in almost a century,” explained Waters in her opening remarks. (See text of Waters’s remarks on facing page.)

As a youth Zayas, the son of a sugarcane farmer, helped on his father’s small farm, cut cane, broke rock, and worked at other jobs on the U.S.-owned Chaparra sugar plantation in what is today Las Tunas province, in eastern Cuba. In the first chapter Zayas paints a picture of the social and political conditions in the countryside during the 1940s and ’50s that led him and others of his generation to take up arms against the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Hundreds, then thousands of Cubans, “especially young people, threw themselves into the struggle against Batista’s murderous regime,” Zayas told the audience. As a teenager he joined the July 26 Movement, led by Fidel Castro, “who was the clearest about the perspectives for overthrowing that government” through a revolutionary struggle.

Zayas led an armed action in his hometown of Puerto Padre on Nov. 29, 1956, in support of the 82 combatants aboard the yacht Granma who landed a few days later elsewhere in eastern Cuba to begin the revolutionary war against the Batista dictatorship. He was part of the first major group of reinforcements for the Rebel Army in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba in March 1957.

In the final months of 1958, Zayas helped lead the Rebel Army’s march into central Cuba as a member of Column 8 under Ernesto Che Guevara’s command.

Today, “Cubans who are younger than 52, 53 years old,” Zayas said, “don’t know firsthand what it used to be like in Cuba” before the revolution. “It’s our responsibility to try to explain it.”

Soldier of the Cuban Revolution, he added, “will also be useful for young generations in other countries where they don’t know about the struggles of our people. They will learn not only about those of the past, he said, but also about our ongoing struggle today to build a socialist society.”

Since the victory of the revolution in 1959, Zayas has shouldered numerous leadership responsibilities, from secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Holguín and Las Tunas provinces to second in command of the Youth Army of Labor, a special unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) engaged in agricultural labor, construction, transport, and other work vital to the Cuban economy.  
Served three times in Angola
Zayas served three times as part of Cuba’s internationalist mission in Angola, which helped that country defeat multiple invasions by the white-supremacist regime of South Africa between 1975 and 1991. Promoted to brigadier general, Zayas retired from active duty in 1998 and today serves as part of the national leadership of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution.

Esmel Valera told the audience he found Soldier of the Cuban Revolution very readable and informative for young people such as himself. “It caught my attention because I too am from Las Tunas province,” he said. Through Zayas’s account and the photos in the book, Valera said he learned things about the revolutionary struggle he hadn’t known.

“This book shows us the development of a true revolutionary,” Valera said. “The picture emerges of a modest man always ready to undertake whatever task is necessary, always ready to help in advancing the revolution.” Among other things, Valera said he was struck by Zayas’s firsthand account of “the thousands of combatants who came to the aid of the Angolan people.”

“For young people in Cuba this book is of immeasurable value,” Valera concluded. “We haven’t had the opportunity to be protagonists in the deeds described. When you read the book, you end up wanting to be like Zayas, like that historic generation.”

The final speaker was Harry Villegas, who, like Zayas, joined the July 26 Movement and Rebel Army as a teenager, and became a general in the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Known by his nom de guerre “Pombo,” Villegas served under Ernesto Che Guevara in internationalist missions in the Congo in 1965 and in Bolivia in 1966-67. He volunteered for multiple missions in Angola.

“We combatants were called upon to write, to transmit our experiences so they could help educate future generations,” Villegas said. He was referring to the call nearly two decades ago by Cuban president Raúl Castro, at that time minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, to form the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution. With 300,000 members, the ACRC brings together several generations of revolutionary fighters.

Many of those in the audience were members and leaders of the Combatants Association. Among them were generals Jesús Bermúdez Cutiño and Armando Choy, as well as Víctor Dreke. In the early 1960s Dreke commanded the special units in the Escambray mountains cleaning out armed counterrevolutionary bands financed and organized by U.S. imperialism, and later was second in command to Che Guevara in the Congo.

Villegas described the years of work by communists in the United States in collaboration with the Combatants Association to publish books that bring the Cuban Revolution to life through the stories of revolutionary combatants, including himself—an undertaking that coincides with similar projects the Combatants have taken on inside Cuba.

Villegas paid tribute to Zayas as a lifelong proletarian fighter. When Villegas arrived in the Sierra Maestra to join the Rebel Army, “Zayas had already been there as a combatant for 10 months” and was a veteran of many battles, Villegas said.

“For me Zayas was then already an example of what we all aspire to be, just as he is today for all of you. I wanted to be like Zayas, he inspired me—his honesty, his courage, his revolutionary conviction.”

Zayas’s life and activity in the revolutionary movement can “inspire us to arrive at our own similar convictions and emulate his example,” Villegas said. “Soldier of the Cuban Revolution is a powerful piece of literature that helps us do so.”  
Other presentations
In the week following the February 20 closing of the Havana book fair, the ACRC sponsored three other presentations of Soldier of the Cuban Revolution, along with Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes, another title presented by Pathfinder Press at the fair. Some 200 people participated in the three events.

One presentation was held at the National Combatants Center in Havana. Another was organized in the city of Artemisa, an hour west of the capital. A third was held in Cotorro, an outlying district of Havana. Speakers included Víctor Dreke and César Alba, vice president of the ACRC in Havana province. Altogether more than 500 copies of Soldier of the Cuban Revolution were sold or distributed in Cuba during the book fair and other related activities.

A total of 82 copies of Soldier of the Cuban Revolution and 81 of Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power were sold at the three events. Another 183 copies of Soldier of the Cuban Revolution were sold at the Havana book fair activities and 150 were donated to libraries, institutions, and individuals.

Rebecca Williamson and Naomi Craine contributed to this article.
Related articles:
‘Arming ourselves for coming battles’
Talk by Mary-Alice Waters, editor of ‘Soldier of Cuban Revolution’  
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