The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 74/No. 31      August 16, 2010

(feature article)
‘12 men and 2 cats’: With Gerardo
Hernández and his platoon in Angola
Interview with Cuban combatant highlights
leadership qualities of one of Cuban Five prisoners
that make him a target of U.S. rulers
Cuban-Angolan platoon attached to 11th Tactical Group, 10th Tank Brigade, Cabinda, Angola, under command of Lt. Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, 1989-90. Starting with front row from left to right, as Hernández wrote, are: “Wilfredo Pérez Corcho (with a cat), Fidel Martell (with the other cat), Palacio, Bouza, and Adolfo. (Bouza is from the Zapata Swamp area, and the last that I heard of him, he was an official of the municipal Cuban Communist Party in Soplillar.) I’m in the middle, and behind are Gabriel Basquito (Angolan), Henry, Manuel (who also graduated from the ISRI [Institute for Advanced Study of International Relations] and may now be a diplomat), José Ramón Zamora, two compañeros whose names unfortunately I cannot remember now, Nelson Abreu, another compañero (with the sunglasses) whose name I cannot recall, and Carlos Amores, with the camera, our current ambassador to Malaysia. For most of those whose names I cannot recall, it’s because they were in the platoon for only a short time after I arrived because they completed their missions and returned to Cuba.”

When Gerardo Hernández Nordelo graduated from Cuba’s Institute for Advanced Study of International Relations (ISRI) in 1989, like hundreds of thousands of other Cubans had done, he volunteered for duty in Angola. The Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Cuba was then engaged in the final stages of a nearly 16-year internationalist mission, fighting alongside the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), to defend the government of that former Portuguese colony against the invading forces of the apartheid regime of South Africa and its imperialist-backed allies based in Zaire.

In 1989-90, Lieutenant Hernández led the Cuban-Angolan Scouting Platoon of 12 men attached to the 11th Tactical Group of the 10th Tank Brigade, stationed in the Angolan province of Cabinda.

The following account of those years is by José Luis Palacio, a mechanic by trade and one of the men who served under Hernández in Cabinda. It was originally published under the title “12 men and 2 cats” in March 2006 in Guerrillero, the provincial newspaper of Pinar del Río in western Cuba.

Palacio’s tribute to the leadership qualities of Hernández—or simply “Gerardo” as he is known to millions around the world fighting for his freedom—goes far to explain why the U.S. government has singled him out for the brutal and vindictive treatment reported in the accompanying front-page story. Among the Cuban Five, Hernández was given the most draconian penalty of all—two life sentences plus 15 years. He has been denied the right to receive visits from his wife, Adriana Pérez, for the past 12 years.

Hernández sent a photocopy of the Guerrillero article to me as one of the editors of Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power by Jack Barnes, published by Pathfinder Press. That book, which Hernández had received earlier this year, includes one of the photos on these pages—the picture of Hernández together with other members of his platoon around a cooking fire. The other two photos of the platoon printed here were mailed by Gerardo from the maximum security penitentiary in Victorville, California, where he is being held.

In accompanying letters, Hernández commented:

It’s been twenty years, but I remember as if it were today the moment when we took that photo around the fire in Angola. We were making a dulce de coco [a coconut dessert]. I remember everyone’s names, including the two Angolan combatants in the picture, who were part of our scouting team.

Several Cuban combatants from my platoon often write to me, including three members of what they called my “Matancera squad,” since all of them were from Matanzas—José Ramón Zamora, Fidel Martell, and Wilfredo Pérez Corcho. All three are peasants, very modest people, and very revolutionary. They sent me these two photos, which I am now sharing with you.

The quality of the originals is not very good due to the passage of time and the conditions under which they were developed and printed… .

In the photo with the tank … standing on the ground is José Luis Palacio, from Pinar del Río. For some years I have kept an interview that Palacio gave to the newspaper in his province, which moved me very much when I read it. I’ll look for it among my papers and send you a copy.

I have great admiration for all those compañeros who volunteered for such a mission. At that time they were practically youngsters. I had been asked to give them classes in certain subjects, that is, I was supposed to teach them, but I was the one who wound up learning a lot from them. Angola was a great school for everyone.

The identifications in the captions were provided by Hernández. The comments in brackets in the interview below are his also.

Translation from the original Spanish is by the Militant. It will be printed in Spanish in next week’s issue.


A Pinar del Río native was in Angola with Lt. Gerardo Hernández Nordelo. He remembers him as lively and jocular, always drawing cartoons of the soldiers in his reconnaissance platoon; reading Che’s diary. The first to get up in the morning and the last to go to bed. Always very concerned with the health of the men under his command.

When a group of 12 men have to sleep two and a half meters underground, shake off the homesickness that slowly eats at them with each delayed letter, march through snake-infested terrain, that’s when friendship soars to its greatest heights.

So one can understand why José Luis Palacio Cuní would feel out of sorts when he returned from Angola in 1991 and why he would miss the down-to-earth camaraderie and kidding around by those platoon mates of the 10th Tank Brigade in Cabinda.

At night they killed time playing seven-piece dominoes or playing cards. The latter was the favorite entertainment of Lt. Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, [Actually it was dominoes. —GH] who was good-humored and always roused them at 5:00 a.m. with that characteristic expression of his: “Stand up, soldiers! As straight as Cuba’s palm trees!”

At that time nobody imagined that Gerardo—who shared the same hole with them—would become a hero, and that he would have to withstand even greater tests—nothing less than imprisonment in the United States.

None of Palacio’s friends wanted to believe him that afternoon when they were watching television and, in the middle of a little party, this dark-skinned man who lives in the new 12-story building at “Hermanos Cruz” told them, “Damn! That man in the photo was my leader in Angola. It’s Lt. Nordelo!”  
Two cats in the platoon
Palacio was in Angola, in Cabinda, for two years and three months. He had been working at the Machinery and Equipment Repair Enterprise, what was then the EREA, when he was called to fulfill his duty as a reservist. It was 1989, and he left behind a daughter who was just a little over three years old.

How did you all adjust to sleeping in the dugout? was one of the first questions we asked in our interview.

“The dugouts were six meters long and two or three meters wide. It wasn’t easy getting used to sleeping there, but when you know it’s safer than having your body out in the open, you have to do it.

“I was the only Pinar del Río native among those 12 men. The majority were from Matanzas, and we also had some orientales [from eastern Cuba] and some from Havana. At night when we were down there, someone would start telling the others that the most beautiful place in Cuba was Viñales; then someone else would jump in talking about his province, and so on… .

“A young guy from Matanzas, as soon as he arrived, began to take care of two cats. Those little animals really were internationalist soldiers too, because there were mice underground, and while we slept we often heard the cats hunting. They were very attached to us.

“Our lieutenant completed his mission, and then Gerardo arrived, a graduate of the Institute for Advanced Study of International Relations. The head of the 11th Tactical Group told us, ‘This is your new commander.’ I remember very well Nordelo’s first words:

‘“I’m going to share the happiness, the sadness, and all other emotions with you. I’ll just be one of you, like a brother, simply another human being.’ We liked him a lot from the start.

“At night he would talk about when he was at the university, about his life as a student, about his cartoons, about his mother and his wife.

“He was very funny and knew how to tell jokes. In class he would give us a six-minute break, and during that time he would draw cartoons of us and say, ‘That’s what you were like in class.’

“When he saw someone was sad, Gerardo would even show him his own letters. When you’re so far away, nothing is worth more than someone writing you.

“We played baseball in our free time. Was he good? To tell the truth, no, he wasn’t. He was a pitcher, and since we were playing for fun, it didn’t matter much… .

“He set up a radio; he always had to be doing something. He wrote the communiqués and jokes that were read by a soldier.”  
El Corcho
The tall, slender, dark-skinned man recalled that in the platoon there was a very thin young man named Pérez Corcho, who they nicknamed “El Corcho” [The Cork].

“Everyone would call to him, ‘El Corcho, come here’ and ‘El Corcho, go there.’ When his birthday came along, Gerardo got the idea that we should celebrate it. He asked for permission, and it was granted.

“For the occasion we made wine from rice and from pineapples, which were very abundant in the area. That day we didn’t go to the unit’s main mess hall.” [It wasn’t wine but a kind of fruit drink, because alcohol was prohibited. —GH]

Many of those in the group of 12 had no idea how to cook, but they invented things. Gerardo wrote some jokes for the occasion and a communiqué. He always combined happy themes with patriotic ones, says his former subordinate.

And did you have a strategy for dealing with the snakes?

“There were lots of cobras there. We had orders to sleep with mosquito netting and to put one boot inside the other so as not to leave them a space they could slide into, since they always seek body warmth.

“Gerardo would be the last to go to bed and always told us, ‘Stuff your boots together the way you now know how to.’ He always paid attention to those details, even though he was very young.

“Every third or fourth day we marched 40 or 50 kilometers [25 or 30 miles] through the jungle on our reconnaissance missions. We went together in a platoon made up of Angolans from FAPLA and the Cubans.

“Once one of the Angolans discovered a six-meter-long boa and killed it. They had a lot of respect for boas and said that we Cubans didn’t fear even those beasts, since we didn’t kill them.

“Lieutenant Nordelo always alerted us to everything, and one of the things he stressed most was the need to respect our own families and the families that lived there.

“I had previously seen on television Angola’s poverty and what the UNITA troops1 were doing, but none of that could compare with what I saw afterward. Children living in very bad conditions, living in those huts, skinny, emaciated, and I couldn’t help comparing them to ours and thinking that sometimes we weren’t really conscious of what we had.

“For me, Angola was a school. I learned to value life and internationalism more, and to give a little of myself.

“One of Gerardo’s many good ideas was about the children of the place where we were. He asked people to make homemade toys for the children, even rag dolls. It was very nice.”

When you saw Gerardo on TV, what did you feel?

“At first I was very sad, thinking of a man who was such a revolutionary, such a good comrade, who had been so concerned for all of us, and who was today imprisoned—in the United States.

“But now I see it differently. It makes me happy to remember that the lieutenant at whose side I spent so much time is today a symbol of patriotism, that he has not given in. He has withstood so much; they haven’t even allowed him to see his wife. That man, who was taking care of all of us, has not been able to have children!

“At the same time, I feel more revolutionary and committed. I also hope he will return and that those 12 Cubans will be able to meet again to recall the times we lived through in Angola.”

Palacio, a modest man, a party member, a refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic in a cold storage plant, has not written Gerardo because he didn’t have the address of the prison. Nor does he seek the limelight in recounting his days together with that lieutenant who liked to read so much.

It was Palacio’s friend Félix Peña, an official of the provincial committee of the party, who encouraged him to speak with a reporter—to share with many more people his experiences with that genuine Cuban, whose ideals support him as straight as the Cuban palms he talked about to his men, as if to remind them they were born in a small island accustomed to nobleness.

Hernández’s scouting platoon was part of a tactical group belonging to the 10th Tank Brigade in Cabinda, which took part in reconnaissance missions to protect Cuban units and troops.

When he gave classes to his soldiers, Palacio reports, Gerardo would stress to them the importance of sharpening their skills for observing the enemy in order to track them.

A scout looks for signs on the ground indicating where the adversary might be. He must study the makeup of the opposing army, its weaponry.

All members of that 12-man platoon—a symbolic number in the history of Cuba—have a photo of the group. Gerardo himself took it. In different ways this patriot has things in common with Ignacio Agramonte,2 that fierce attorney, that man of letters and also of action in the fields of Cuba, capable of wielding a machete but also of writing tender lines to his wife.

And this Cuban hero, who has grown while locked up in a U.S. prison cell, left for his wife Adriana, along with the song “Dulce abismo” [sweet abyss] by Silvio Rodríguez, this poem by Roberto Fernández Retamar entitled “Filin”: 3

If they tell me you have gone away
And will not come back
I won’t believe it
I will wait for you and wait for you.
If they tell you I have gone
And will not return
Don’t believe it
Wait for me

1. Originally founded to fight Portuguese colonial rule, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Savimbi, allied itself in 1975 with the racist apartheid regime in South Africa and U.S. imperialism in an effort to overthrow the newly independent Angolan government. Some 375,000 Cuban combatants fought in Angola alongside FAPLA against pro-imperialist forces, including UNITA. Cuba ended its internationalist combat mission there in 1991 after the South African military was defeated and forced to withdraw from Angola and grant independence to nearby Namibia.

2. Ignacio Agramonte (1841-73) one of the most outstanding political and military leaders of Cuba’s first independence war against Spain. Division commander of the Liberation Army in CamagŁey Province. He rose to the rank of major general. He was killed in battle.

3. Filin (feeling) was a genre of popular Cuban music that developed in Havana during a period of growing social unrest in the 1940s and ’50s, incorporating elements of both jazz and Cuban bolero.

Related articles:
U.S. gov’t takes aim at one of Cuban Five
Message from Gerardo after release from ‘hole’
Join fight to free Cuban Five!  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home