Granma International
November 30, 2001

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
                   constant hunger.

                   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. He
                   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
                   all.

                   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
                   husbands afterwards."

                   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
                   commander.

                   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.