When history imitates reality
BY MARELYS VALENCIA (Granma International staff writer)
IT was 1956. Arsenio was 20 years old and was about to leave Cuba
for the first time. This young man, born in a small town near Havana,
faced the greatest responsibility of his life: the transfer of
correspondence and around $10,000 USD for the revolutionaries
who had been exiled in Mexico the year before, after the amnesty
granted by Batista that freed the revolutionaries who had attacked
the Moncada Garrison.
He prepared a box of cigars to give to customs officials, in case they
checked his baggage, and wrapped up the package to be delivered in
a gift box. In a few hours, he would be in the house of María Antonia in
Mexico City, where the recipients of the package were staying: Fidel
Castro and his colleagues. Fidel took out several hundred dollars to pay
the debts they had accumulated for food. Hot chocolate and bread
featured as the main diet of the approximately 30 Cubans who were then
preparing for an unsurpassable mission: to initiate the struggle in the
mountains of eastern Cuba.
Arsenio was probably the youngest in the group. He was born in April
1936, but his father registered him as five years older than he was
so that he would be given the vote, which he could later sell to the
politicians. The vote in those days was considered a commodity,
especially in Cubaís rural areas, where the inhabitants lived in
He had barely finished third grade and was forced to work at
whatever came along, because there was not even enough land to
support him and his two younger brothers. He had met the men and
women who attacked the Moncada Garrison before they became
heroes. It was at the same time that his family moved to Artemisa,
in search of better living conditions. There he often spoke with Ciro
Redondo, who would later die in combat in the Sierra Maestra; Julito
Díaz, who died in the battle of Alegría del Pío, hours after the
Granma landing; and Major of the Revolution Ramiro Valdés. Their
political concerns led them to found the first cell in Artemisa of
Orthodox Youth, a movement that produced the majority of the
young people that attacked the Moncada.
He didnít meet Fidel for the first time at María Antoniaís house.
had seen him at an Orthodox Youth meeting before the coup in
1952. Time passed and he joined the Authentic organization (related
to the party that was in power before Batistaís coup). The arms that
were supposed to be used to defeat the general, brought with
money from the Authentic members in exile, were entering the
country at many different locations. Arsenio had become involved in
the groupís conspiracies but soon became disillusioned. "I realized
later that we had been used to transport arms from one destination
to another. Although some acted in good faith, the fight against
Batista had become a business." This is exactly what he said to Fidel
soon afterwards, when the latter was released from the Model
Prison, where he was serving a sentence for the events of July 26,
1953. Then Arsenio asked a friend who maintained contact with Fidel
to take him to see the leader. And thatís how it happened. He told
Fidel that some days before, he had transferred an arms
consignment to a farm, and that no doubt they would not be used,
because so far there had been no uprisings. However, the police
occasionally found the hidden weapons. He believed that the same
people that smuggled the weapons into and around the country also
informed Batistaís security forces and thereby maintained an
atmosphere of insurrection, when actually nothing was happening at
Fidel listened to him avidly and insisted that he confirm that the
Authentic group was not planning anything, because he didnít want to
hinder any serious plan. He decided to wait a few weeks. Arsenio
received a communication from Havana and traveled there,
convinced that finally the arms would be put to use. But he was
wrong. What was waiting for him was the Mexican mission.
He stayed in that country on Fidelís suggestion. The expedition was
approaching and it seemed better for him to train for it, too. He went
to live in a nearby apartment, at No. 5 Insurgente Street, one of the
first to be rented by the revolutionaries. "We never saw a rifle and
we had no training camp. We ran 15 to 20 kilometers per day
through the city or went to row in a lake in Chapultepec wood; thatís
how we began the physical stamina training."
Arsenio explains that later a shooting range and rifles with telescopic
sights appeared, and they began the training that he and the others
had been waiting for.
In the war, that insuperable scene of human instincts, there were
many traitors. But they only discovered one: Evaristo Venereo. On
July 22, the Mexican police arrested Fidel on a Mexico City street,
later they burst into the house of María Antonia, and on the 24th
they ambushed the Santa Rosa ranch, where they managed to
capture Che and some Cubans. Thanks to former President Lázaro
Cárdenas, who interceded on the part of the young men, after one
month all the prisoners were freed except Che and Calixto García.
These arrests were also connected to Batistaís intelligence forces,
who bribed the Mexican police. Luckily, Arsenioís apartment, the best
known in the group, was not searched. He and other comrades who
were not arrested took on the training of those who arrived from
Cuba, because the preparations could not be delayed. In search of a
secure location, the small group traveled to Veracruz, where they
stayed until the prisoners were freed.
Intuition saved them from including Evaristo in the trip; years later
they were to discover his involvement in the raid. At the time of
arrest, the police also confiscated 80% of their weapons. "Fidel knew
Cuate [Antonio del Conde], the one who bought the Granma cabin
cruiser, because he had an armory, inherited from his father, which
Fidel visited one day to ask for rifle parts. That is to say, that Fidel
wanted to buy parts in order to assemble them later, as it was
cheaper," recounts Arsenio with his characteristic simplicity.
"We had to comply with quite tough security measures. We could not
visit any other comrades or be out in the street after 10 oíclock at
night. Che and Calixto, who were freed on the condition that they
would leave Mexican territory within 72 hours, came to my
apartment. They were under orders not to even look out the
window, let alone go out. And I, who led the group, was practically
forced to break these rules on two occasions: once to buy Che a
movie ticket, and again so that he could take a picture of his
daughter Hildita. He spent most of the time reading and doing
exercises. At that time, we had to cook and wash our own clothes;
we learned how to do everything, thatís why we were great
When one meets Arsenio today, it is easy to see his vitality and
sense of humor, which also shines through in his conversation. His
strength and his youth made it possible for him to survive the difficult
Granma crossing, from the port of Tuxpan to the southeast coast of
Cuba, at Las Coloradas. That week at sea could be compared to one
of the most daring adventures ever. Crossing the waters of the Gulf
of Mexico with 82 men in a small 10-birth cabin cruiser, with space
for about 12 on deck, could be described as madness.
Owing to bad weather on the day of departure (November 25), all
boats were forbidden to set sail. But they challenged nature and
logic. The Granma headed towards the Yucatán Channel with the
lights out and they left the rest to fate. They experienced
seasickness, vomiting and food shortages, which they tried to
combat with hundreds of oranges.
Other surprises were in store: the motor broke, but they were able
to repair it, and they had to sail against the waves. On the second
day of the trip, the boat began to take on water, and those who
were not sick spent almost a day trying to get rid of the intruder that
was trying to sink the boat. And as if that were not enough, one of
the men fell overboard as they approached Cuba. They reversed at
full speed to rescue him.
The preliminary calculation of a five-day expedition became a week.
Then there came another story, a much longer one, that began with
the landing in the swampy waters on the southern coast and the
disaster of an army that hunted them, killing more than 20 men,
while the others tried to save their lives in the undergrowth. with the
help of campesinos.
Arsenio survived that ordeal and met up with the group again some
weeks later. By 1957, the rebels of the Sierra Maestra were a reality.
The last battle that he fought was alongside Che, and then he was
sent to Gibara in Holguín, where he waited for the Victory Caravan.
When Fidel met him again in early January 1959, he named him
Forty-two years later, he believes that at that time he couldnít have
even dreamt the true extent of the struggle. "We had a program for
victory, but we didnít imagine how much the Revolution could really
do within Cuba, and the help that it would also offer to other
countries," he confirms, as if he were still surprised by what the
survivors, and also those who died, had achieved.
In his case, he retired from the army young, in 1967. From then on,
he did a great deal of work in the civilian sector, especially in the field
of construction. The country boy who once imagined Veracruz, the
vast Mexican city, to be the same size as his native Catalina de
Güines, a tiny town 100 kilometers down the central highway, grew
in both maturity and culture, without losing the warmth that one
perceives in people from the country, even when they have an
amazing history behind them.