Posted on Sunday, 09.05.10
BATTLE AT ESCAMBRAY
Survivors remember bloody battle on 50th anniversary
The battle became known as the last armed internal combat against the
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Shot in both legs and right arm, and ringed by Fidel Castro's troops,
Agapito Rivera sat in a sugar cane field, pulled out his pistol, lit a
cigar and waited to die in a final battle.
Instead, he fainted, was captured and jailed for 25 years.
He was lucky.
Two of his brothers and nine first cousins died — some executed by
firing squads, some in combat.
Fifty years ago, Rivera was one of up to 4,000 Cubans battling Castro's
brand new government in a little-known, but nasty guerrilla war that
raged in parts of the island from roughly 1960 to 1966. The battle is
best known for the difficult terrain where the anti-Castro rebels made
their stand — in the Escambray, the south central mountain range in
Cuba and where the bloodiest fighting took place.
This month, many of the survivors of the Escambray who live in
Miami-Dade — including Rivera — are marking the anniversary of their
role in what became known as the last armed internal combat against
Castro, a heroic effort led mostly by farmers and peasants.
Today, at age 73, Rivera's memories of the fighting are as crisp as his
white linen guayabera. Still trim, with short dark hair and light brown
eyes, he dropped his jeans to show the ugly battle scars on his right
hip and both legs.
Rivera recalls the moment he decided to enter what became a years-long
battle against Castro that all but destroyed him and his family — and
those of the other rebels.
“When I saw that Castro's government was taking property away from
people, I knew there was no future for me or anyone else in Cuba,'' said
Rivera, who was an illiterate 23-year-old peasant in October 1960, when
he joined the guerrillas. “Castro left us no choice. Without free
elections, we had to take up arms against him to stop him.''
The Cuban government branded Rivera and the other rebels “bandits'' and
created elite army counter-guerrilla units made up of 60,000 men called
Battalions for the Fight Against Bandits to wipe them out.
Many others of the rebels were peasants, angered by Castro's seizure of
private farms under the 1959 Agrarian Reform Law, said Pedro Corzo, head
of the Miami-based Institute of Cuban Historic Memory against
Some of the rebels were veterans of the Castro guerrilla movement that
had toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and grown disgruntled
with his turn toward communism, said Enrique Encinosa, a Miami radio
commentator and author of several books on Cuba and the Escambray movement.
The first rebels headed for the mountains and remote flatlands in early
1960, Rivera recalled, sometimes armed with weapons seized from Castro's
civilian militias. By September, the war was in full swing.
The overwhelming majority were based in the Escambray mountains, though
at various points, bands of rebels roamed from Oriente in the east to
Pinar del Rio in the west, said Encinosa. They usually moved about in
independent groups of 20 and 30 men — and a few women — though some
groups had up to 200 fighters and several alliances were forged to
coordinate their actions such as the Escambray United Revolutionary Front.
Meanwhile, Castro opponents in towns and cities bombed government
installations, sabotaged its operations and tried — with few successes
– to assassinate several revolutionary leaders, including Castro.
The urban resistance also delivered food, medicines and information to
the guerrillas, Rivera recalled, though that became increasingly
difficult after the government imposed food rationing in 1962.
To help the rebels, the CIA sent in weapons, ammunition and
infiltrations teams as part of its campaign to oust Castro, and a recent
Granma article counted 19 U.S. air drops for the rebels. But in the
first nine weeks of 1962, militias captured all six weapons drops over
the Escambray, it added.
And on Dec. 3 1960, Castro sent the 60,000 elite militias to the
Escambray for the first of two massive sweeps, known as limpias or
cleanings, designed to surround and capture or kill the rebels.
“To break out of those encirclements was terrible, it was suicidal,''
Rivera recalled with a shudder. Militias lined up almost shoulder to
shoulder and the rebels had to rush what they hoped would be the weakest
point of the line.
Rivera said he survived as a guerrilla because he operated in the
flatlands of Las Villas near his hometown of Corralillo, where the
militias were not very effective. But in July of 1962 when the army
created the elite counter-guerrilla units, things got much worse.
“It was total persecution,'' Rivera said, describing day after day of
trying to evade the encirclements. “But we tried to fight on, knowing
that that firing squads were waiting for us.''
Castro's security forces meanwhile cracked down on relatives and other
civilians who could help the rebels. The lands, homes and even farm
animals of those suspected of aiding the guerrillas were seized.
Many Corralillo men were forcibly relocated to work camps nears the
Senado sugar mill and the village of Gaspar in Camagüey to the east,
Rivera recalled. Militias were posted in the homes of other townspeople,
and accompanied them wherever they went.
Many of the civilian men suspected of helping the rebels wound up in
prison camps in Pinar del Rio, where they were put to work building what
would become a dozen “captive towns'' like Sandino and Los Pinos.
The towns had no fences but residents were closely monitored and could
not move about freely. Even today, security in those towns is much
tighter than in other places and police are likely to question unknown
visitors, residents say.
The worst fighting took place in 1963, said Encinosa, the year Rivera
On Nov. 21, militias surrounded Rivera, his 22-year-old brother
Francisco and another fighter. Francisco was shot and died in his arms,
Rivera recalled. The other man was wounded and died later in hospital.
Rivera said he was hiding in a sugar cane field when he was shot —
twice in the right arm, then one leg, then the other. He sat up, put
aside his rifle because he could not fire it with one arm, and put his
.45 pistol and three magazines on his lap. He lit a cigar.
But Rivera fainted from the loss of blood and was captured without a
struggle. He spent 25 years in prison, where he learned to read and
write, and in 1988 was put on plane for Miami. Why he was not executed
like so many others is a mystery to him.
Of the 3,995 anti-Castro guerrillas throughout the country, nearly 3,000
died “in combat and fundamentally in executions after their capture,''
Norberto Fuentes wrote in his book Narcotrafico Y Tareas Revolucionarias
– Narco-trafficking and Revolutionary Duties.
And the Granma newspaper article published last month alleged the
guerrillas “assassinated'' 196 persons, including peasants, teachers,
old people and children. The rebels have acknowledged executing some
Castro collaborators, but nothing close to Granma's figures.
Castro declared victory over the “bandits'' during a speech on July 26
of 1965 — though rebel actions continued until late 1966 — and
dismissed them as little more than U.S. mercenaries.
Against Castro's much larger and better armed forces, and with the
little U.S. government aid they received, Encinosa said, “it was a real
show of bravery that they managed to fight as long as they did.''