21. Despatch From the Embassy in Cuba to the Department of State1
- Information concerning Fidel Castro’s “26th of July” Movement: Events at Pino del Agua
Homer Bigart, well-known American newsman now with the New York Times, returned to Habana on February 23 from two weeks spent in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel Castro and his forces there. He has since furnished an officer of the Embassy with the following information and impressions.[Page 39]
Bigart was impressed with the ease and comparative freedom of travel into and within the Sierra Maestra. His group had no trouble in evading the few army patrols in the area. The headquarters at which he spent the time appears to be fairly near Manzanillo—Bigart said the route of access led up the Yara River. The area is not heavily forested in accordance with the usual concept of “jungle”, but rather is covered mainly with scrub growth, with many clearings. The country is very rough. The headquarters appeared to be at least semi-permanent, and was not moved while he was there. Living conditions were primitive. Food was plentiful but of fairly poor quality and monotonous—Bigart says he never wants to see a “malanga” again. He met an excellent surgeon and physician there who was caring for most of the troops—Dr. Julio Martinez Paez. Dr. Martinez said that health conditions were fairly good except for the fact that most of the men have intestinal parasites—a condition he described as common in Cuban rural areas. Bathing was a luxury most of the men had apparently decided to forego for the duration. As a whole, the group was definitely dirty and sloppy in appearance. The dirtiest of the bunch was the one Roman Catholic priest Bigart met—Father Sardiñas. He was thoroughly unprepossessing. [1 sentence (less than 1 line) not declassified] He was the only religious Bigart saw or heard of. There was no indication that there were other Catholic priests or Protestant ministers with the group, as spokesmen of the group have frequently alleged.
Castro and others of the group stated that the political and economic program of the “26th of July” Movement does not exist yet in other than informal and nebulous form. Bigart was told that the program is now being drafted by “a group of professors of the University of Oriente”. From other sources the Embassy has heard in the past that this group is headed by Dr. Regino Boti, and that Dr. Rafael Font probably works with him. Both are said to be sound economists, though relatively unknown. Boti studied at one time at Columbia University and Font, who is also a public accountant, has taken courses in the United States.
A young lawyer named Humberto Sori Marin is acting as legal advisor and sort of one-man judicial system for the Movement in the Sierra Maestra. Bigart was favorably impressed by him. Sori said he had drawn up the legal code which the movement had imposed on the area under its control. A total of 60 persons had been tried under the code. Twenty-eight had been convicted, and 8 executed by firing squad. Crimes punishable by death were murder, rape, banditry and espionage.
Bigart reported that there was no evidence of an anti-American bias among the people he talked to. Castro and the others said that once they obtained power it would be necessary to re-examine the contracts which had been negotiated by the Batista regime, but that [Page 40] only obviously bad or corrupt ones would be canceled. “Badly run” public utilities would have to be nationalized—but none were specifically mentioned. They did not think it would be necessary to nationalize or expropriate land in order to obtain a more equitable distribution. This could be accomplished by distribution of land now owned by the government and by revised taxation aimed at discouraging the holding of idle lands. Castro personally thought the practice of 50–50 distribution of profits from petroleum operations was unfair to the government, and that in the event oil was discovered in Cuba some other ratio of distribution of profits should be adopted.
As was to be expected, Castro and his associates complained bitterly of grants and sales by the United States of military equipment to the Batista Government. They said that such aid was the fundamental reason that Batista was able to remain in power. Castro felt that a secret agreement probably existed between the United States and Batista covering such aid.
Bigart was frankly puzzled by confused comments from Castro and others concerning a treaty with the United States under which Cuba had received $600 million, one article of which they held was unconstitutional. They felt that the treaty imposed unfair treatment on Cuban companies. This may be an example of immature and inaccurate thinking by Castro and many of his leaders. The only possible explanation the Embassy can work out for such obscure remarks is that some of Castro’s advisers have seen references in any of several publications which mentioned the size of private United States investments in Cuba a few years ago as around $600 million. To this they may have added some mistaken reasoning in connection with the Investment Guaranty Agreement.2 However, this is merely speculation on our part.
The National Directorate of the movement now consists of ten members. Bigart met Lucas Moran and Vilma Espin in the hills, both of whom may be members of the Directorate. These people spoke of Castro as merely the military commander for the movement, subject to the will of the Directorate. In contrast, Castro spoke and acted as an absolute ruler, and appeared to be obeyed as such.
Bigart found Castro willing to discuss terms for ceasing his armed rebellion—but these terms would certainly be unacceptable to the Cuban Government. Castro laid down as his first condition withdrawal of the Cuban Army from all of Oriente Province. The civilian officials of the Government could remain, but the “26th of July” Movement would take over military control. The Government would [Page 41] also have to declare a general amnesty, postpone elections, and permit the Castro movement to organize a political party and run Dr. Manuel Urrutia Lleó for the Presidency.
Castro said that he could put four hundred well-armed men into any one action. That would be an all out effort. He had a few hundred additional men, but some had to be held in reserve for possible attacks from other quarters, some had to perform housekeeping duties, and there were not enough weapons to arm others. The men were armed with M–1 rifles, shotguns, and revolvers. They got very little military equipment from abroad or elsewhere in Cuba. Most of the rifles had been captured from the Cuban Army. Some of the ammunition had been captured, and some had been stolen by sympathizers. Castro said they had some .30 caliber machine guns, a few bazookas, and some mortars. Bigart saw them practicing with a rifle which had been modified into a “grenade launcher”, capable of throwing a grenade somewhat more than a hundred yards. He had the impression that this was what the Castro forces called a mortar.
Bigart was struck by the confident, aggressive tone of Castro’s conversation. Castro spoke of dominating most of Oriente Province and of being able to defeat the detachments of the Cuban Army stationed there. Bigart asked how he could expect to defeat around 4,000 well-armed men, when by Castro’s own admission the most he could muster for action were 400 lightly armed fighters. Castro’s reply, as Bigart noted it down, was that “one has to have faith”. Castro also spoke confidently of a spontaneous uprising of the Cuban people in support of his Movement. Bigart felt that Castro had an exaggerated impression of the strength of his Movement elsewhere in Cuba, and particularly in the cities.
The action around Pino del Agua, near Bayamo in Oriente Province, took place just as Bigart was entering the Sierra Maestra. Castro told him that the Movement had assembled a force of 300 men for what was intended to be a raid followed by ambush, led by himself, Guevara, and Raul Castro. One small force raided the installations at Pino del Agua, and decimated the small military detachment there. Other groups were concealed in the hills above the locality. Still another group, much the strongest, was concealed along the road leading to Pino del Agua from Bayamo. The reasoning was that the Army detachment at Pino del Agua would manage to get off word of the attack and request reinforcements, as indeed they did. The attacking force of the group was to hang around, giving the impression that they were relatively weak and could be caught. The Army was expected to rush in heavy reinforcements. These would be permitted to reach Pino del Agua, whereupon they would be attacked by the forces of the movement concealed along the road and in the surrounding hills—the force along the road also holding off any further reinforcements.[Page 42]
What happened was that by chance there was a fairly large patrol on the road between Bayamo and Pino del Agua at the time of the first attack and appeal for reinforcements. That patrol was at once ordered to investigate what the Army thought was a raid by a small force. It was almost completely wiped out by the Castro forces—Castro said two soldiers got away. But it apparently radioed out word of the situation before being over-run, and subsequent Army reinforcements did not fall into the trap. Bigart was shown papers belonging to a Lt. Pedro L. Suarez Lorenzo, who Castro said was killed in the engagement, and spoke with a Lt. Evelio Laferte, who said he had led the reinforcing patrol which was trapped. Castro said he lost 3 men killed and an unspecified number wounded. Bigart got the impression that the Army had lost some 40 men in killed and wounded. Castro insisted that the engagement had been a great victory. He said his forces had lost three machine guns, but had captured five machine guns and several rifles, plus considerable ammunition and several prisoners. Castro said that his forces had formerly given prisoners a choice of joining the movement or leaving the hills on promise to go into hiding and not rejoin the Army, but that lately they were keeping all prisoners.
Eugene A. Gilmore, Jr.
Counselor of Embassy
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, 737.00/2–2858. Confidential. Drafted by Topping.↩
- For text of the agreement providing guarantees against inconvertibility of investment receipts, as effected by an exchange of notes at Havana on February 4, 1957, and entered into force on November 29, 1957, see 8 UST 2375.↩