HOW I FOUND CASTRO,
THE CUBAN GUERRILLA
by Andrew St. George
Cavalier, October 1957
CAVALIER'S reporter made a perilous trip behind Cuban Army lines to bring back this story of the rebel who threatens to take over Cuba.
Editor's note: Andrew St. George was the ideal man to send behind-the-lines to Fidel Castro. He served with military intelligence during the war and afterwards as a civilian War Crimes Investigator for Hungary, He then put in six years with the Counter-Intelligence-Corps rescuing people from behind the Iron Curtain. He needed all his knowledge of intelligence tactics for this assignment, which was one of the most dangerous of his career.
There was an open-armed girlie poster in the lobby of the Hotel Siboney in Havana beckoning tourists to “See ALL OF Exciting Cuba!" I had been sitting under it for two stiff, sweaty hours when a lanky fellow in a loose guayabrea swung in from the blazing noon sidewalk and swept the lobby with a searching look. I saw him peer at the unlit stogie clenched between my teeth. Slowly, he ambled over and slumped into the chair next to mine, fumbling with a brown Trinidad cigarette and a folder of matches, Kelly-green US paper matches, with a pair of disembodied eyes and a plug for an eye-lotion printed across the cover.
This was it, all right. My throat went dry with tension.
“Got a light?'' I asked.
''Maybe, friend.” My tall neighbor palmed his match folder and held it toward me.
I could see a phone number scrawled on the inside cover. It was my own handwriting.
The matches seemed damp with sweat. No spark.
"Hold on a minute," I said. "I might have some left after all." From my shirt pocket I grabbed an almost empty matchbook, the twin of my neighbor's folder. I opened it as if to strike a light and gave him a good look at the same number inside. It was the same number, the Manhattan phone of CAVALIER.
He dragged deeply on his smoke. "You have a room here, my friend?"
"Yes," I said quickly. "Should we go up?"
Without answering, the lanky man rose and started toward the elevator. I followed him, with that old, almost-forgotten wartime feeling of tautness in my knees.
Wordlessly, we rode up to my room. I locked the door. "Give me those matches," snapped my new friend. He flushed both folders down the toilet. Then he squatted on the edge of the bathtub and grinned at me.
"If we are arrested together and they find the same matches on us it would look funny, no?" he said. He stuck out his hand: "My name is Aurelio, but friends call me Jojo. I come from Fidel. Your name is…?
I put my wallet with the New York press credentials in his hand, numb under the sickening truth of his remark. From here on there would be the prospect of arrest every step of the way. Cuban military intelligence might have trailed me from Miami. They might also have trailed my new friend Jojo, for he had come straight from the secret hideout of the Caribbean's Number One outlaw: Fidel Castro.
Though his name was blazoned on every front page on the newsstand downstairs, the hard facts known about Fidel Castro are still skimpy. Five years ago he had been an apprentice attorney in Havana, struggling to make his way in a city historically overstocked with legal talent. Four years ago Castro, by then a revolutionary, was in jail. Less than a year ago, his troubles seemed over: it was officially announced that he was dead, killed in a pitched battle with government troops on the eastern coast of Cuba.
But what seemed like the end was in fact a beginning. Barely a month later a veteran New York Times correspondent named Herbert Matthews emerged from the Cuban interior with a front-page report that Castro was alive. Castro, Matthews reported, had successfully invaded Cuba with a small band of guerrillas, and, far from being dead, he and his private army were doing fine in the rugged mountains of eastern Cuba.
The invisible Castro has now become a hero and symbol of resistance to millions of Cubans weary of the dictational regime of General Batista. His name, passed along in whispers, has set off a brushfire of rebellion among the highly combustible citizenry of Cuba. Due to Castro, this verdant island of 6,000,000 irate inhabitants with a land area no bigger than Pennsylvania raises the specter of a knock-down-drag-out civil war; practically within water-skiing distance of the Florida Keys.
The Cuban government has done its best to hide Castro's existence. After the Times story, General Martin Diaz Tamayo, who had claimed credit for putting Castro out of circulation, let go with a broadside:
“It was an imaginary interview," he snorted. "It is impossible for anyone to pass through my line of troops without being stopped by patrols. Even if Castro were alive, no American reporter could get in to see him."
Challenges like this are hard to ignore, and CAVALIER called and told me to pack a light kit for a Cuban expedition. To see Castro was not going to be easy, and we started with wartime intelligence tactics. We used a pair of common match folders. As an added identifying mark, I scribbled the office phone of CAVALIER on the inside cover of each. Then I pocketed one of the folders. Angel Perez Vidal, the confidential U.S. agent of the Cuban revolutionaries, took charge of the other.
Perez Vidal's match folder traveled south—by courier relays of the Cuban underground—from New York to Miami, to Havana, to Santiago de Cuba, and into the trackless jungle covering the southeastern tip of the island. There the last bearer delivered it to rebel headquarters, along with our message: we were willing to go in and bring out the true story of their silent war. We asked only for a dependable guide.
The rebel command sent us word to come in. Twenty-four hours later, I was at the airport.
In Miami, a car was waiting for me, an old beetleback Ford with a Mercury engine whistling under its hood. I got my last instructions in the car from a small precise man with fleshless lips who spoke so quietly that I had to lean against his shoulder to understand.
"You fly to Havana tonight," he said. "Go to the Hotel Siboney, on Prado. Register with your own name, but say you are businessman. Do not talk to anyone. In morning at nine o'clock go down to the lobby and wait one, two hours. Buy a tabaco, a cigar. Keep it where one can see but do not light it. If nobody comes, do again same the next day. Now, this luggage," he said, poking my flight bag with his toe. "You have tape recorder?"
"Yes," I said.
"Do not call it that. Tape recorder—machine gravadura— is for reporters. Diktafon is used for businessmen. You are businessman, so say it is a diktafon. You have camera?" "Sure," I said.
"How much film?"
"Three dozen rolls. Maybe 40."
"Show it, please." I opened the zipper a chink and felt round in the bag for the old socks in which I keep my films. He took most of them and stuffed them into his pockets. "Four, five rolls, that is businessman. Twenty, 30 rolls, that is reporter. Customs men know that. As businessman, you stay out of prison or the grave."
Six hours later the commercial airline set me down in Cuba.
Customs at the airport overrun by tipsy tourists was no trouble and the contact in the Hotel Siboney came off smoothly. But, closeted in my room with Jojo, I had to fight off an attack of fear. Sitting almost doubled up on the edge of the tub, the round, potato-like outline of a gun butt had become visible under Jojo's loose shirt.
I realized something I had not foreseen—that if trouble came, my Cuban companions would shoot it out rather than face capture and torture. And that meant I, too, would catch it before I could unhinge my jaw to shout, "Me reporter!" And the headline of the afternoon paper told me it could happen. It read, "Dead Pair Identified As Reporter and Photographer." A brace of cold corpses found the previous morning in a ditch near Santiago—full of regulation, government-issue .45 slugs—had turned out to be none other than a magazine reporter named Juan Bautista Rey and an accompanying cameraman. General Tamayo's threat to nosy newsmen had been plainly more than empty bluster.
Next morning, following Jojo's orders, I went downstairs to the desk at five a.m. The Army dick on night watch was gone-probably with one of the girls who worked the pavement in front the hotel till daybreak. Not that it mattered. We had a plan.
I paid up and asked the night clerk to stop the airport limousine for me. When the dick came back, he would be told in all sincerity that I had gone to the airport—the least suspicious place for foreigners. Halfway out of town I told the driver that I'd forgotten something. He stopped—he had a fixed route and couldn't turn back—and I got out, tipped solidly, and took a cab back to the mid-town train depot. I bought a ticket for Santiago de Cuba and got aboard the 7:00 A.M. express.
The rebel headquarters was in the rugged, jungle-thatched mountain range known as the Sierra Maestra, 700 miles southeast of Havana. By traveling to Santiago I could cover 600 miles of that distance in a single jump. That is, if I got through.
The first check came at Santa Clara, 150 miles out of Havana. Six soldiers, led by a huge meat-faced sergeant, boarded the train. A silence fell over our coach. The soldiers deployed in the aisle and covered the sergeant with Thompson submachine while he questioned each passenger.
I was the only foreigner in the coach, probably in the whole three-car train.
"Arriba!'' I stood up and raised my hands to let the sergeant thwack me for hidden weapons. "The bags!” I lifted it down and unzipped it.
My portable recorder had a dressed-up look. It was plastered with the printed labels of a large Cuban-American electrical firm, telling the world that this was a salesman's demonstrator for a line of medical recording machinery. I had a letter, too, on the same firm's letterhead, welcoming me as an ace drummer from New York who should rack up socko sales n Santiago.
"You going to Santiago?"
"Yes," I said.
"Bueno." They moved on.
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