Chicago Tribune
March 24, 2004

Castro's rebel camp frozen in time

In a land still marked by revolutionary fervor, La Comandancia stands out for its inspiration
By Gary Marx
Tribune foreign correspondent

IN THE SIERRA MAESTRA, Cuba -- At the crest of a mountaintop sits a smattering of wood-planked structures where nearly 50 years ago a revolution was planned, fought and won and where today schoolchildren and others come to learn about the struggle.

There is a hut covered with palm fronds that served as a guard post, a wooden structure that still houses old equipment from the rebels' famed radio station and, built on the edge of a ravine, Fidel Castro's meticulously preserved home.

Frozen in time, the old guerrilla camp is a reminder of the humble and improbable beginnings of a revolution that transformed the island and sparked leftist rebel movements throughout Latin America and the world.

"This place inspires people," said Rogelio Mendoza, a 38-year-old government guide who escorts visitors to the site known as La Comandancia de la Plata. "When you experience this part of history you realize that nothing is impossible."

All nations foster their own legends and myths, and few places in Cuba are as venerated as La Comandancia and the isolated and rugged Sierra Maestra spreading across the island's southeastern coast.

Fleeing to the Sierra days after landing by boat from Mexico and suffering devastating battle losses, Castro managed to regroup with a handful of survivors, rebuild his forces and eventually defeat the better-armed and far more numerous troops of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Yet while Havana and many of Cuba's larger cities have been radically altered since Castro took power, the Sierra and much of rural Cuba have retained the harsh but simple rhythms of life. Work begins at sunrise and lumbers on until darkness.

The revolution brought roads, health clinics and schools to many towns throughout the Sierra but failed to lift the sparsely populated region out of poverty.

Still, many residents express admiration for Castro, whom they first met trudging through their villages as a 30-year-old rebel fighter nearly a half-century ago. He is the only leader anyone middle-aged or younger has ever known.

"Fidel is like a father to me," said Amparo Varela, a 63-year-old grandmother. "He has given me everything."

Sitting in the living room of her cinderblock home, Varela listened as her husband, Orlando Hernandez, recalled the first time he saw the young, bearded revolutionaries walking down a path.

It was 1957, and Hernandez was 15.

"I started running back to my house," said Hernandez, now 62, who lives in Banco Arriba, just over the mountains from La Comandancia. "When you go out and see a line of people with long hair and beards--I had never seen something like that before."

Hernandez had only a 6th-grade education, and his father worked a small coffee farm. Life was difficult. There were no roads to speak of, no telephone service and no electricity. Medical care was expensive.

"If you didn't have two or three pesos the doctor wouldn't take care of you," he said.

At first, Hernandez and other residents knew little about the rebels, who set up camp on nearby hills and initially kept to themselves. Residents gave the rebels coffee, food, cigars and shotguns. But they did it as much out of fear as out of any commitment to the rebel cause.

"I didn't have any idea what the revolution meant," Hernandez said. "The rebels were here and the government [troops] were over there. We had to support the rebels because they were where we were living."

Other peasants said they backed the rebels because of the cruelty of Batista's regime.

Varela, who at the time lived in a nearby region, said a neighbor who was carrying food and medicine to the rebels was stopped by government troops and tortured and killed in front of his son. "They pulled out his eyes and castrated him," she said.

Once victorious, Castro did not forget the impoverished residents. He sent volunteers into the Sierra Maestra and other regions as part of a large literacy campaign.

In the nearly half-century since, the government rebuilt the small primary school in Banco Arriba and equipped it with a handful of computers. It started a small health clinic, improved the main roads, provided electricity and installed three public telephones.

Hernandez said that as an adult he has been able to study up to the 9th grade. Varela said she had thyroid surgery that cost her nothing.

Angel Espinosa, a coffee farmer in Banco Arriba, said his 22-year-old daughter also received free hospital care after her husband attacked her with a machete last year. Espinosa carried his daughter in a hammock several miles to another town, where an ambulance took her to the nearest hospital.

"Before the revolution there was no ambulance service. We are thankful," he said.

Despite major improvements, the people of this region spend their days much like their parents did before the revolution: They work the land and tend pigs, chickens and other animals that, along with government-subsidized food, allow them to subsist.

Many mountain residents still get around by mule, horseback or on foot. Fields are plowed with oxen or cleared by hand with machetes. Homes often are cinderblock or wooden shacks with dirt floors; food is cooked on primitive wood or gas stoves.

"We don't have enough clothing and other supplies," said a tearful Aurora Arzoaga, the 56-year-old wife of a coffee farmer in Banco Arriba. "We need more food."

Arzoaga said she recently sold a pig to buy boots for her husband who was working the coffee fields barefoot. But she said they do not have enough money to buy a machete or a file to sharpen it. Her husband works the land with broken pieces of a blade.

Yet Arzoaga said she couldn't imagine life without Castro and his fellow revolutionaries who fought and won a war here so long ago.

"There shouldn't be a change in the government," she said. "We just need more supplies."

Copyright © 2004