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The Americano: Fighting With Castro for Cuba's Freedom

From the Prologue:

During the summer of 2002, Comandante Raul Nieves in­vited me to his duplex apartment across from the Malecon sea­ wall and promenade in Havana to talk about the Escambray and the Revolution.

Nieves, in his seventies now, is a little hard of hearing, which may account in part for his revolutionary shout, a tone I encountered often among Cubans who find comfort in parrot­ing reams of official history. It's like listening to a quarreling spouse who wants his entire argument to be heard uninter­rupted, hoping that some incantatory power will make what he says unquestionable.

It's also like Fidel Castro's impassioned discourses, which are ubiquitous on Cuban television. Be's not just standing there, he's always talking, delivering long lectures that, for the most part, sound nothing like the "reasonable" political speeches to which we are accustomed in the United States. Fidel argues and defends, rants and chides. He pauses to fiddle with the microphones, collects himself for a particularly salient barb aimed at some aspect of U.S. policy. Then he bounces up onto his toes, cocks his head, rolls his Rs, points his finger, accusing and justifying. Regardless of what he's saying, his passion is impressive. The modulation of his voice and his body language persuade before the ideas have come to rest in the listeners' minds. It's great drama and it's on almost every day.

The revolutionary shout of other Cubans seems to imitate the tone of Fidel's conviction, often repeating something El Com.andante en Jefe has said. Sometimes the speakers even reference their source, saying, for example, "As Fidel said about the French Revolution, ... " While the imitators can repro­duce the volume, they have trouble reflecting the passion and, since they are merely sourcing their information, when they finish what they can remember they often start over from the beginning.

Nieves gnawed on an unlit cigar and listened to the quick synopsis of my research. Then he disappeared upstairs and brought back his personal archive of photos, documents, and notes on the Revolution. He was planning a book, he said, one that would tell the true story of the Escambray.

As he shuffled his papers, Nieves ignored or didn't hear my first questions about the Second National Front of the Escambray. A rooster walked through the laundry room be­yond the kitchen. The Comandante laid out black-and-white photographs from 1958, '59, '60, and '61. Photographs of the Rebel Nieves showed a man who looked like a young Robert DeNiro, wiry, tough, and clearly loving the adventure of re­bellion and revolution. "Faure Chomon," he said, identifying his commander and the leader of the DRE. "But who's that?" I asked, pointing at an unnamed man beside Chomon. At first, Nieves ignored me, and I thought maybe he'd forgotten the man's name. I tried again. Finally, exasperated, he bellowed in a pitch-perfect revolutionary shout, "Traidor!- Traitor!"

It soon became evident that only two categories of people existed: heroes and traitors. The heroes had names. The trai­tors didn't. "Who's that?" I'd ask. "Traitor!" he'd bellow. Mis­guided. Nothing good about them-ever. Even the things they'd done in support of the Revolution before they became traitors were erased! They mattered only as a category of peo­ple to be eliminated, and as a foil to those who had remained loyal to Castro's Revolution.

Our conversation went on from there, question and deflec­tion, parry and riposte, like a fencing match, each of us daring the other to expose a little more of what he knew.

"The Second National Front of the Escambray never fought in a single battle. When Faure Chomon arrived in the Es­cambray, he realized immediately that Menoyo and his com­panions were traitors. He denounced them and expelled them from the DRE.

''All they did," he continued in the loud monotone, "was eat the peasants' cows, chase the peasant women, and get fat." That was it, the entire history of the SNFE according to Raul Nieves. Over the course of our two hours, I heard this version several times.

As Nieves told me about "traitors" and "comevacas-cow eat­ers," I peered over his shoulder at the notes he flipped through as we talked. When he noted my gaze, he turned slightly, as if to block my view, hut he did not put the papers away. In the documents, I caught brief glimpses of lists of men who fought with the SNFE and charts detailing the SNFE's battles with the Cuban Army, battles that Nieves was telling me had never happened. The notes on Nieves's dining-room table, the ones he was allowing me to catch hits and pieces of, contradicted nearly everything he was telling me. On one list, next to al­most every Rebel victory in the Escambray was written the name of Morgan or Menoyo. I saw location names: La Diana, Charco Azul, Michilena, Linares, Hanabanilla, Rio Negro. The list went on.

Was he trying to protect himself and give me information at the same time? Or was he careless? Nieves never strayed from the official talking point, that the SNFE were traitors and agents of the imperialists. I had nothing on tape that would compromise him.

When we finished the interview Nieves and his wife insisted on taking me to lunch. We went to an outdoor restaurant that catered to the Cuban elite and foreign diplomats. The three of us were whisked into a mobile, aluminum storage building that had been outfitted as a dining room for special parties. There were no windows. The air conditioning whirred and I shivered as the three of us ate alone in the room. Nieves had a glass of rum, his mood darkened, and I wondered at the personal toll his distortions had exacted.