My Cuba Years 1987-92

Part 3 of Solidarity and Resistance: 50 Years with Che

Grethe Porsgaard and I fell in love, in 1979. She was from Denmark and vacationing in Los Angeles. I traveled to her homeland, in 1980, where we married. At my behest, we made a go of it in her country. A major factor in that decision was a falling out with my former wife. It would have been a negative way to begin a new love life living close to that madness. Although Grethe and I ended our marriage after several years, we remain friends.

In the first years in Denmark, I worked at odd jobs and wrote free lance, while also participating in Central America solidarity activities. I met an El Salvadoran guerrilla leader in Copenhagen while he was on tour for the FMLN. We agreed that I would travel clandestinely to El Salvador where I would accompany guerrillas in the countryside. I would report and write a book.

This project led to my first visit to Cuba, in the autumn of 1987. My first book, Yankee Sandinistas: interviews with North Americans living & working in the new Nicaragua had recently been published by Curbstone Press.1 At the recommendation of Cuba’s embassy personnel in Copenhagen, I offered it to Cuba’s foreign book publisher, Editorial José Martí, to publish a Spanish translation.

In a few days, the publishing house director told me that they wished to publish my book and assigned a translator to it. Delighted, I signed a formal contract. Then I saw Fidel hold a four-hour speech in the convention center and hung on to every word. It was true what was said about his abilities as a speaker: he was the world’s greatest orator. And what a memory he had. He could start off somewhere and go around the world describing how it was and how it is, and do so without notes or even water, and seemingly all in one long breath.

Just the year before, the government had launched a period of “Rectification of Errors and Negative Tendencies” as a response to economic and political stagnation. The leadership now realized that having copied the Soviet Union’s Economic Management and Planning System for 15 years had been a mistake. Rectification was aimed to diversify domestic production, reduce dependency on the mono-culture sugar export, stem marketing economy tendencies, and emphasize volunteer labor.

On October 8, I traveled with other journalists to Pinar del Rio province where Fidel inaugurated an electronics factory and held a speech on the 20th year of Che’s capture. We stood for three hours listening to Fidel speak extemporaneously. I was so impressed with this speech, “Che’s ideas are absolutely relevant today”, that I quote from it extensively.

“If we need a paradigm, a model, an example to follow, then men like Che are essential…educating by setting an example… the first to volunteer for the most difficult tasks… the individual who gives his body and soul to others, the person who displays true solidarity…who doesn’t live any contradiction between what he says and what he does…a man of thought and a man of action…”

(“Be Like Che” is the slogan to which Fidel referred during this speech and was adopted by the Pioneer Exploring Movement, Cuba’s version of the boy and girl scouts. They engage in outdoor activities, exploring nature, and do volunteer work.)

“We’re rectifying all the shoddiness and mediocrity that is precisely the negation of Che’s ideas, his revolutionary thought, his style, his spirit and his example…”

“For example, voluntary work, the brainchild of Che and one of the best things he left us during his stay in our country and his part in the revolution, was steadily on the decline. …The bureaucrat’s view, the technocrat’s view that voluntary work was neither basic nor essential gained more and more ground…We had fallen into a whole host of habits that Che would have been really appalled at. If Che had ever been told that one day, under the Cuban revolution, there would be enterprises prepared to steal to pretend they were profitable, Che would have been appalled.”

“Che would have been appalled if he’d been told that money was becoming man’s concerns, man’s fundamental motivation…the mentality of our worker was being corrupted… he knew that communism could never be attained by wandering down those beaten paths, and to follow along those paths would mean eventually to forget all ideals of solidarity and even internationalism.”

”Che had great faith in man. Che was a realist and did not reject material incentives. He deemed them necessary during the transitional stage, while building socialism. But Che attached more importance—more and more importance—to the conscious factor, to the moral factor…”

“Che was radically opposed to using and developing capitalist economic laws and categories in building socialism…”

“Che’s ideas were incorrectly interpreted and, what’s more, incorrectly applied. Certainly no serious attempt was ever made to put them into practice, and there came a time when ideas diametrically opposed to Che’s economic thought began to take over.”

“The min-brigades, which were destroyed…are now rising again…demonstrating the significance of that mass movement, the significance of that revolutionary path of solving the problems that the theoreticians, technocrats, those who do not believe in man, and who believe in two-bit capitalism had stopped and dismantled.”

(Mini-brigades were composed of workers who volunteered to be relieved of their normal responsibilities for up to two years, in order to build housing, schools and day-care centers. More day-care centers allowed more women to join the work force and volunteer brigades. But soon, with the fall of European socialism, Cuba lost 80% of its international trade and its GDP fell by 35%. Rectification turned into a national campaign for sheer survival—the Special Period in Peacetime—and voluntary work took on even greater steam with volunteer contingents doing farm work. Volunteers worked longer hours than at their normal job. They received the same wage, and the state reimbursed the original workplace for their wages. Although I did not think of it at the time, I came to wonder how Fidel could make such a strong critique of “theoreticians, technocrats, bureaucrats” destroying socialism for “two-bit capitalism” while he was the leader whom everybody knew oversaw all policies. What Fidel criticized then—the thirst for money and consumerism—is even more pronounced today.)

Fidel’s praise for the new volunteer workers included medical personnel and teachers traveling to poor countries to cure the sick and enlighten the student. Che, he said, would be proud of these people. Today, Cuba continues exporting this “human capital”, as Fidel calls the volunteers. The United Nations recognizes Cuba as the world’s leading solidarity contributor in these fields. In fact, Cuba sends more medical personnel to countries in need than do the combined countries in the UN.

In a December 2008 article commemorating 50 years of the revolution, I wrote, “Today, nearly 100,000 medical personnel, teachers, sports instructors, technicians and advisors are serving in 104 countries. In the medical arena alone, over 10 million people, in 68 countries, have been treated just this decade. Millions of people have been aided in a score of countries hit by natural disasters, such as Pakistan (2006), a US war ally. The new Cuban created Operation Miracle has cured upwards to half a million blind patients in 25 countries just since 2004. With Venezuela’s oil profits, and Cuba’s doctors and those it is training in Venezuela, the Venezuela-Cuba plan is to cure 10 million Latin Americans within a decade.”

When Fidel ended this speech of criticism of errors, I felt exhilarated. I had a hardbound copy of “Yankee Sandinistas” with me and wished that Fidel might read it, or, at least, sign his autograph on it. I handed it to a bodyguard to give to Fidel. Four days later, I received notice to collect my book. Fidel had signed it after, apparently, reading through it. I gave another copy to the assistant to give to Fidel for his library.
My contacts in El Salvador got word to me to travel to Mexico and await further instructions. I would make it into El Salvador from there and see what could happen. I was thirsty for actually doing something to advance consciousness and for revolutionary action. In Denmark, there was nothing to be done it seemed to me, nothing more than offering a bit of aid to those elsewhere in the world who were struggling. A key difference with Danes, who do protest government policies, and many other nationalities, is a lack of passion to win. They protest perfunctorily, in the main.

I had to wait in Mexico several weeks before I got word to come to El Salvador. Conditions had changed since the time I had made the agreement with the guerilla leader. Propaganda about the struggle was no longer a priority. I was asked to do other sorts of solidarity work. Not so enthused about this, I agreed to one short-lived project in Denmark and then returned to Cuba.

Editorial José Marti´s director and chief editor greeted me with broad smiles. They asked me to write a book about 27 double agents (26 Cubans and one Italian resident in Cuba) who had infiltrated the CIA and passed on vital information to Cuba security forces. It would be published in English and Spanish. These men and women had recently been called in “out of the cold”. Very few media in the “first world” were writing anything. The agents were all civilians who had other jobs than intelligence work. All had been contacted by the CIA while abroad on their work assignments for Cuban enterprises. They played along with the CIA, agreeing to accept money for information, even to assist efforts to murder Fidel, but then they told their government all they could learn. Apparently “white man” mentality influenced CIA officials to think that these “natives” would rather rake in handsome spy fees than be less well paid patriots.

The Ministry of Interior’s Department of State Security (DSE) allowed me to interview all the double agents I wished. They also showed me some of their audio-visuals of US spying, and some of the communication apparatuses that the CIA provided their assumed recruits. The two governments did not have official relations but allowed each other to have interest sections. Many of the US state department employees in Havana were actually CIA officials, and they controlled the Cubans in Cuba whom they thought were on their side.
Once I had enough material, I was prepared to return to Denmark and write the book. Then another surprise occurred. The Ministry of Culture, which oversees all publishing houses, offered me a full-time job as a “foreign technician”. I would work at José Martí publishing house as a consultant in the English department, and finish this book and write others. I would be paid a normal Cuban peso wage and live as a Cuban. There were a couple of extras, too. The ministry would find a place for me to live, which would be part of my salary. We foreigner workers had a ration card as did Cubans but we shopped at special stores with more products on sale, sometimes. Another exception was that we could possess US dollars, which I earned when selling a piece free lance. I used the extra money for traveling abroad. On July 26, 1993, Fidel told the Cuban people that they, too, could earn and use dollars.

I was overjoyed as I boarded a plane back to Denmark. The publishing house would be sending plane tickets for both of us, but Grethe decided not to move. She preferred to keep her useful job and visit me in Cuba. I wrote most of the book in Copenhagen and then Grethe and I flew to New York City. I wanted US government officials to respond about the infiltration but they stonewalled me. I contacted CBS 60 Minutes TV news about doing a story on this “worst burn in the CIA history”, as Mauro Casagrandi (the Italian double agent) dubbed it. At first, there was interest but when the US government refused to make any response, CBS dropped the big story.

Back in Cuba, I finished the book, Backfire: The CIA’s Biggest Burn, in the fall of 1988. It took two years to come out, which was frustrating for me but Cuban authors said that was quick production work. In the meantime, I worked voluntarily constructing an apartment building and cultivating the earth at a cooperative farm 50 kilometers outside Havana. And I read about Cuba’s economic forms the leadership experimented with in the early-mid 1960s.

As Minister of Industry, Che developed what he called the Budget Finance System (BFS), which competed with the Soviet-oriented Economic Finance System (EFS) being applied in other parts of the economy. The latter was overseen by a former leader of the Moscow-oriented Communist Party, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. The Soviet economic model was based on monetary pricing, on the law of value but managed by state bureaucracies rather than individual capitalists or private monopolies.

At his most idealistic, Che even made efforts to abolish money, which was too advanced for the times. Furthermore, one state cannot fully create socialism in a world run by capitalism, especially if that state sits on an island just 150 kilometers from the policeman of the globe.

Che was also realistic in much of his endeavor to create an economy that would assure a full stomach and equality for all, eventually ending “alienation of labor”. This means implementing equality not only in productive relations—producer workers as owners with government assistance in coordination and distribution of products—but also equality in overall political and economic decision-making aimed at abolishing capitalist market values and rule.

Capitalist owners allow workers to produce for their use, to varying degrees subject to union power if such exists, but the goal is greater profits for owners, who set prices and wages. Che’s national budgetary system would set prices determined on labor time used and on costs of resources and tools necessary to make the product or the service. Che meant that economic planning must reinforce political consciousness. This requires a climate of debate and the organization of schools where workers could improve their skills and study politics, becoming more self-confident and prepared to actually run the economy and eventually the government. The ultimate goal is the “withering away of the state.”

This economic strategy, which incorporated the planned transfer of power to the working class, is a key contribution that Che made to real socialism, one not widely recognized. Che’s plan died with his death, just as Fidel said in my citation above. I don’t know what Fidel really thinks about this today, but the 6th CP Congress (April 16-19, 2011) reversed Che’s very concept of a socialist economy/workers power.

Cuba at Sea

In addition to doing volunteer work, I began research on a new book project: sailing with Cuban merchant marines to tell a story of Cuba from the sea. During a two-year period, I worked for six months on three tankers, delivering oil around the island-nation; and then to and fro Europe on container ships. These were invaluable experiences and gave me unique insights into Cubans. Unfortunately, a book could not get published in Cuba as the Special Period curtailed nearly all publishing. Cuba at Sea was eventually published in English by a small house, Socialist Resistance, in England.

When the biggest scandal in Cuba’s revolutionary history occurred, I called in stories to Pacifica radio, the network of four stations like KPFK. In June 1989, Army General Arnaldo Ochoa, Ministry of Interior General Patricio de la Guardia and his brother, Colonel Antonio de la Guardia Font, and other officers were arrested for misappropriating state funds and operating a drug racket for the past three years.

The drug scandal was extremely damaging to Cuba. General Ochoa was an awarded hero. He had held the top Cuban military posts in Nicaragua, Angola and Ethiopia. He was close to Fidel personally yet Fidel initiated the investigation. This was the first time drug smuggling had occurred since the revolutionary victory, and was especially painful and embarrassing to the president and nearly all Cubans. It is illegal to grow, sell and use any intoxicating drug. And there was almost no drug taking in Cuba, not even marijuana.

The 14 involved in drug smuggling all confessed. After a trial, four were executed within the month; the others were given long prison sentences. The death penalty is rarely used but for this high crime it was employed.

People were shocked and baffled about how such a gruesome crime could be pulled off given that the executive government exercises as much control as it does, and because of how much the leadership is opposed to drugs.

While I felt disparaged, I also felt that the government was honest in investigating the crime, in informing the people, and in punishing those who betrayed the nation’s values and laws. I decided to take a long bike trip to Santa Clara, home of Che Guevara’s museum.

When “Backfire” came out, December 1990, we held the launching at the Ministry of Interior’s museum with many of the double agents attending. It was a proud moment. I quote from the book introduction about how the doubles passed CIA “lie detector” tests.

“I thought of Mauro sitting in front of a polygraph, wired to the cold machine, concentrating on fooling its science. Che’s essay flashed through the picture:

At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality. Perhaps it is one of the great dramas of the leader that he must combine a passionate spirit with a cold intelligence and make painful decisions without contracting a muscle.

The 27 men and women, who fooled the CIA polygraphs, outwitting Agency elite officers, are the embodiment of Che’s words.

A month after the book launching, I burned my passport in Havana, in front of the US Interests Section in protest against United States’ invasion of Iraq. My lone act was covered extensively around the world. For a year, I sought to obtain a travel document elsewhere to no avail. Eventually, the US gave me another passport year-by-year on the basis that I not burn it.

Sometimes I would work voluntarily cutting sugar cane, one of the hardest jobs in the world. And the mosquitoes and chiggers love to suck our blood. One of the places I volunteered was one of the oldest plantations, Central Sanguily in Pinar del Rio, the most northern province.

I was fortunate to work with a machetero (machete cutter), who had fought with Che in the Congo (Zaire), in 1965. Pepe Arecnio Fuentes came from a part of southern Cuba where many Africans were brought from the Congo during colonial times to work sugar plantations. When we met, the former guerrilla was 50 years old. He was the quietest Cuban I have ever met. Only after winning several checker games with him, did he speak to me about his time with El Che.

“I had joined the rebel army just after the revolutionary victory. Sometime in late 1964, some of us were asked if we would volunteer for an `international mission´ that would involve armed struggle,” the muscular machetero confided in me.

“We trained for two months in three different camps. We were curious when we realized that all of us were of the same dark black skin and from the same area. Fidel called us together after training and told us we’d be fighting to liberate Africa and that we’d probably die there. Most of us wanted to liberate the country where our ancestors came from. Only two of us stayed behind; 120 went. We had no idea that we’d be led by Che. It was a marvelous surprise when we met him in the Congo,” Karakase (Pepe’s African code name) said softly, spitting on the dirt yet once again.

While the Cuban guerrillas were training, Che was traveling around much of Africa, learning the terrain he knew he would be fighting in. His opinion of many of the various African “freedom fighters” was quite low. Many of them passed time partying in hotels and brothels.

It was in this period that Che gave his last public speech, February 24, 1965. He spoke in Algiers at the Second Economic Seminar of Afro-Asian Solidarity attended by representatives from 63 African and Asian governments, as well as 19 national liberation movements. He referred to them all as brothers in a united cause, “the common aspiration to defeat imperialism”. Che made clear his anger at capitalism, imperialism, and warped socialism.

“Ever since monopoly capital took over the world, it has kept the greater part of humanity in poverty, dividing all the profits among the group of the most powerful countries. The standard of living in those countries is based on the extreme poverty of our countries. To raise the living standards of the underdeveloped nations, therefore, we must fight against imperialism. And each time a country is torn away from the imperialist tree, it is not only a partial battle won against the main enemy but it also contributes to the real weakening of that enemy, and is one more step toward the final victory.

There are no borders in this struggle to the death. We cannot be indifferent to what happens anywhere in the world, because a victory by any country over imperialism is our victory, just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all of us. The practice of proletarian internationalism is not only a duty for the peoples struggling for a better future it is also an inescapable necessity.

If the imperialist enemy, the United States or any other, carries out its attack against the underdeveloped peoples and the socialist countries, elementary logic determines the need for an alliance between the underdeveloped peoples and the socialist countries. If there were no other uniting factor, the common enemy should be enough.

A conclusion must be drawn from all this: the socialist countries must help pay for the development of countries now starting out on the road to liberation.

Socialism cannot exist without a change in consciousness resulting in a new fraternal attitude toward humanity…

We believe the responsibility of aiding dependent countries must be approached in such a spirit. There should be no more talk about developing mutually beneficial trade based on prices forced on the backward countries by the law of value and the international relations of unequal exchange that result from the law of value.

If we establish that kind of relation between the two groups of nations, we must agree that the socialist countries are, in a certain way, accomplices of imperialist exploitation.

The socialist countries have the moral duty to put an end to their tacit complicity with the exploiting countries of the West.”

For us there is no valid definition of socialism other than the abolition of the exploitation of one human being by another.

One month after delivering this “tactless” speech, as pro-Moscow Communists saw it, Che was in the Congo. Karakase told me that Che told the Cuban combatants two important things: “We’d have to fight hard and train the Congolese, who knew next to nothing about guerrilla warfare; and we must stay away from the women.”

The most frequent sickness among the African rebels was gonorrhea.
The Cubans were there for seven months. They left on November 18, 1965 feeling they had accomplished nothing. They were distressed at the Congolese for their lack of discipline and frequent drunkenness, their wastefulness of resources, laziness and even cowardice. “To win a war with such troops is out of the question,” Che said.2

“It was even hard for us to engage in combat, because of their lack of discipline and direction” Karakase explained. “I was only in two combats. In all, we lost eight compañeros. When we left, we sailed over to Tanzania. It was the last time I ever saw Che, and I’ll never forget what he said. He explained that the strategy for independence and justice would continue but that we had to return to our homeland because conditions were not possible for guerilla warfare. Later on, four of those who fought in the Congo went with Che to Bolivia. I stayed in Cuba because I got married. Soon after Che was murdered, I left the army and went into forestry. And for the past 21 years, I do volunteer sugar cane harvesting.”

Between Che’s disappearance from public sight in the spring of 1965 until his death, he sent a message “from somewhere in the world” to the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Prensa Latina published it first on April 16, 1967. Here are excerpts:

How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!

And if we were all capable of uniting in order to give our blows greater solidity and certainty, so that the aid of all kinds to the peoples in struggle was even more effective–how great the future would be, and how near!

Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism and a call for the unity of the peoples against the great enemy of the human race: the United States of North America.

Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome if our battle cry has reached even one receptive ear, if another hand reaches out to take up our arms, and other men come forward to join in our funeral dirge with the rattling of machine guns and with new cries of battle and victory.

  • Read Part 1 and 2.
    1. Graham Greene wrote to me after reading my book: “I found [it to be] excellent and your publishers if they want to can quote me. I have marked nearly a dozen passages as is my habit when I am enjoying a book.” []
    2. See Jon Lee Anderson’s Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, chapter “The story of a failure”. Grove Press, New York, 1977. []

    Ron Ridenour is a veteran journalist and author of nine books, the latest is Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Ron, or visit Ron's website.