Below is an excerpt from Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War 1956-58, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for May. In the book, Ernesto Che Guevara provides a firsthand account of the military campaigns and political events that culminated in the January 1959 popular insurrection that overthrew the U.S.-backed dictatorship in Cuba. The piece reprinted here describes the situation in December 1957. Copyright © 1996 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY ERNESTO CHE GUEVARA
Living in a continual state of war creates a new state of mind in the popular consciousness in order to adapt to this new phenomenon. The individual must undergo a long and painful process of adaptation to enable him to withstand the bitter experience that threatens his tranquility. The Sierra Maestra and other newly liberated zones had to undergo this bitter experience.
The situation of the peasants in the rugged mountain zones was nothing less than frightful. The peasant, having migrated from afar with a yearning for freedom, had put all his efforts into squeezing out an existence from the newly cleared land. Through a thousand and one sacrifices he had coaxed the coffee plants to grow on the craggy slopes where creating anything new entails sacrifice. All this he did by his own sweat, responding to the age-old yearning of man to possess his own plot of land, working with infinite love this hostile crag, which he treated as part of his very self.
Suddenly, when the coffee plants were beginning to blossom with the fruit that represented his hope, the lands were claimed by a new owner. It might be a foreign company, a local land-grabber, or some other speculator taking advantage of peasant indebtedness. The political bosses and local army chieftains worked for the company or the land-grabber, jailing or murdering any peasant who was unduly rebellious against these arbitrary acts.
Such was the panorama of defeat and desolation that we found, paralleling our own defeat at Alegría de Pío, the product of our inexperience (our only reverse in this long campaign, our bloody baptism of fire). The peasantry recognized those lean men whose beards, now legendary, were beginning to flourish, as companions in misfortune, fresh victims of the repressive forces, and gave us their spontaneous and disinterested aid, without expecting anything in return from the vanquished rebels.
Days passed and our small troop of now seasoned soldiers sustained the victories of La Plata and Palma Mocha. The regime responded with all its brutality, including the mass murder of peasants. Terror was unleashed on the rustic valleys of the Sierra Maestra, and the peasants withdrew their aid. A barrier of mutual mistrust loomed up between the peasants and the guerrillas, the former out of fear of reprisals, the latter out of fear of betrayal by the weak-willed. Our policy, nevertheless, was a just and understanding one, and the peasant population began once more to return to our cause.
The dictatorship, in its desperation and criminality, ordered the resettlement of thousands of peasant families from the Sierra Maestra to the cities. …
Hunger, misery, illness, epidemics, and death decimated the peasants resettled by the tyranny. Children died for lack of medical attention and food, when a few steps away the resources existed that could have saved their lives. The indignant protest of the Cuban people, international scandal, and the dictatorship’s inability to defeat the rebels compelled the tyrant to suspend the resettlement of peasant families from the Sierra Maestra. …
Peasants returned with an unbreakable will to struggle until death or victory, as rebels until death or freedom.
Our little guerrilla band, of city extraction, began to don palm leaf hats. The people lost their fear and decided to join the struggle and proceed resolutely along the road to their redemption. In this change, our policy toward the peasantry and our military victories came together as one, and already we were revealed to be an unbeatable force in the Sierra Maestra.
Faced by the choice, all the peasants chose the path of revolution. The change of mental attitude, of which we have already spoken, now revealed itself fully. The war was a fact—painful, yes, but transitory, a situation within which the individual had to adapt himself in order to survive. Once the peasants understood this, they began to make the efforts necessary to confront the adverse circumstances that would come.
The peasants returned to their abandoned plots of land. They stopped the slaughter of their animals, saving them for worse times to come. They became used to the savage strafings, and each family built its own shelter. They accustomed themselves to periodic flights from the battle zones, with family, cattle, and household goods, leaving only their huts to the enemy, which displayed its hatred by burning them to the ground. They got used to rebuilding on the smoking ruins of their old dwellings, uncomplaining but with concentrated hatred and the will to conquer. …
It is a new miracle of the revolution that—under the imperative of war—the staunchest individualist, who zealously protected the boundaries of his property and his own rights, joined the great common effort of the struggle. But there is an even greater miracle: the rediscovery by the Cuban peasant of his own happiness, within the liberated zones. Whoever witnessed the apprehensive murmurs with which our forces were formerly received in each peasant household notes with pride the carefree clamor, the happy, hearty laughter of the new Sierra inhabitant. That is a reflection of the self-confidence that the awareness of his own strength gave to the inhabitant of our liberated area. That is our future task: for the Cuban people to regain the concept of their own strength, and to achieve absolute assurance that their individual rights, guaranteed by the constitution, are their dearest treasure. Even more than the pealing of bells, it will be the return of the old, happy laughter, of carefree security, lost by the Cuban people, which will signify liberation.
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