14. Despatch From the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State [1]

No. 656


Revolutionary Activity in Western Oriente Province

Havana, February 18, 1958.

During the past two months there have been frequent reports and rumors of activities of revolutionary forces in the area in western Oriente Province in which the cities of Manzanillo, Bayamo and Niquero are located. Some representatives in Cuba of American wire services and newspapers have filed reports at various times that the rebel forces have attacked or occupied Manzanillo. The stories have been erroneous. But since they were carried in the press in the United States, and were not subsequently corrected, they have caused some difficulty for the Embassy, and doubtless for the Department as well.

The true situation, as nearly as the Embassy can determine it, is as follows: Manzanillo, Bayamo and Niquero are the nearest cities of any consequence to that portion of the Sierra Maestra range most strongly controlled by the "26th of July" Movement forces led by Fidel Castro. There is a considerable extension of agricultural land between them and the hills. The rebels have for some time past been carrying out raids and excursions by small parties throughout the area. These movements are conducted both to obtain provisions and in connection with the rebel campaign of burning fields of sugar cane and rice. They are performed in "hit and run" fashion.

The Cuban army has found that it is unable to maintain sufficient forces in the area to prevent these raids. It has therefore decided to establish fairly strong posts in the principal villages and towns and in the sugar centrals. The rebels occasionally come close to such places, but have so far not attacked one successfully when it was properly guarded.

As a result the area in question is a sort of no man's land. The Army holds what it considers the key points, and the rebel forces are able to operate in the rest of the area with relative impunity, so long as they keep moving. The rebels rely on mobility and surprise. The Army keeps hoping to pin them down and force a fight.

Such roads as there are in the area are generally just dirt tracks, frequently passable only with difficulty. Communication by telephone and telegraph is also difficult, except for some of the sugar centrals and the cities of Manzanillo, Bayamo and Niquero. News of clashes in the area tends to come from those places and is difficult to verify. The reports put out by the Army are incomplete and frequently inaccurate. Accurate information can be obtained only from people who live in the area, and the occasional visitor.

The rebel forces have been active during the past two months - more so than in the past. There have been a number of skirmishes with the Army, which have resulted in casualties on both sides. There have also been occasional acts of violence in the cities. But persons from the area state flatly that at no time has a body of the rebel forces entered or held any of the cities. Small commando-type groups of the rebels have carried out specific assignments which have caused them to be briefly present in the cities, such as the recent burning in Niquero of a yacht belonging to Senator Rolando Masferrer. But they do not appear ever to have attempted to take over an entire city, even briefly.

A typical example of rebel activity and subsequent erroneous reporting is the events around Manzanillo on December 24 and 25, and the resultant accounts. A considerable group of the rebels came down from the hills to engage in sugar cane burning in the area to the southeast of Manzanillo. Contrary to usual practice, the group remained out of the hills overnight. Members of the group were finally operating within some five miles of Manzanillo. Some of them appeared at the local airport, which is about that far from the city. They were in considerably greater strength than the small army garrison at the airport, which apparently prudently withdrew. The rebels went no closer to the city, and themselves withdrew fairly promptly. However, for an hour or so air traffic with the city was disrupted.

The next day Habana was full of "reliable reports" that a force of more than 200 rebel troops had seized and held Manzanillo, had liquidated the local garrison and had fought off a relief column, and had performed various other feats of derring-do. The wire services carried some of the rumors, and ended up reporting them as fact. The same rumors were fanned into flame several times during the next two weeks, and were reported at least once again as fact. Actually they were all false, and were all based on the one incident recounted above.

The rebel forces are giving an impression of increasing boldness and aggressiveness. This may be due to increased strength and skill as some claim, or to increasing desperation as others maintain. The campaign to destroy the sugar crop by burning the cane has been an almost complete failure to date. It has probably caused the "26th of July" Movement to lose both prestige and following throughout the country. It has been successful only in the area near the Sierra Maestra-particularly the area between the hills and the aforementioned cities. Reports from the area indicate that it has caused resentment among the local inhabitants, who were formerly inclined to favor the rebels. Castro and his followers have been in open, armed rebellion for 15 months now. They have succeeded in maintaining themselves in the Sierra Maestra and in carrying out sporadic acts of terrorism and sabotage throughout the country. Castro and his advisors may well feel that unless they become more aggressive and successful their following will rapidly wane, and hence may be operating more from desperation than strength.

Sooner or later, as the rebel forces become bolder and the Army more skilled and familiar with the terrain, there will probably be one or more fairly large-scale engagements between them. As this is written there are reports of such an affair which is said to have been going on for three days, at a remote location known as Pino del Agua between Bayamo and the Sierra Maestra. As usual, the reports state that several hundred rebels are involved and that the Army is using planes, tanks and artillery. It may be that these reports are basically accurate. If past experience holds true they will turn out to be considerably exaggerated. No information has been released by the Government. The papers are playing the affair in banner headlines, but state in the body of the story that the accounts are based entirely on reports of a few inhabitants of the area who have visited Bayamo and Manzanillo. The story has been filed by the wire services, and will undoubtedly be given prominent treatment by some American papers.

Regardless of the size of the engagement at Pino del Agua, the situation in the area of Oriente Province around the Sierra Maestra will probably continue to be confused and fluid for some time. The

Embassy will report promptly such information as appears reliable, but sensationalist and sometimes inaccurate accounts will undoubtedly continue to appear in the press both in Cuba and in the United States.

For the Ambassador:

Daniel M. Braddock [2]

Counselor of Embassy


1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/2-1858. Confidential.

2. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.