The seeds of the Cuba Revolution began in Mexico
“I was faced, literally, with the dilemma of choosing between my devotion to medicine and my duty as a revolutionary soldier. There, at my feet, was a backpack full of medicine and a box of ammunition… and I could only take one.” –Che Guevara
The names of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are synonymous with the Cuban Revolution and communist dictatorship, but most people don’t realize that the seeds of the revolution were formed in Mexico.
It was on a cold Mexican night that Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro first met over a discussion of international politics and before dawn the following morning, Guevara had decided to become a part of Castro’s communist movement, the July 26th Movement, against US backed Military Dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The year was 1954, the Cold War was still breathing life, actress/model Marilyn Monroe weds Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio, The British continue their war against revolting Mau Mau rebels in the British Kenya Colony that would see upwards of 20,000 casualties and tensions throughout Latin America beginning with the coup d’etat of Federico Chavez in Paraguay were high.
Political parties and small revolutionary groups were trying to gain footholds in an ever-changing political climate with the superpowers like the United States, China and Russia all taking firm stances on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Castro had chosen Mexico as his base of operations due to its “neutrality,” though one can argue the proximity with the United States might have played a significant role in his decision. Mexico didn’t want Castro or his kind there. The government, along with the FBI, was trying to locate radical training camps that were popping up in the jungles and deserts.
The rumor circulating was that even Batista was cooperating with both governments in the hunt for communist radicals with Mexican police units on his payroll. It was only a matter of time before Guevara and Castro were discovered and arrested at a ranch outside of Mexico City.
They were taken to the Colonia Santa Maria la Ribera prison. Some accounts say they were tortured though Guevara does not back this claim in his memoirs. Over the next few days numerous other members of the resistance were arrested and tossed into various jails. Castro was freed first with the intervention of former President Lazaro Cardenas.
It would be 57 days of confinement before Guevara was released and the guards and police regularly threatened extradition to the United States for prosecution. The year was now 1956.
Guevara had mentioned, in his autobiography regarding Castro and his capture, “They made the absurd error, also financial, of not killing him after taking him prisoner.”
Whatever the reasons were for his life to be spared- would have grave repercussions, as the once beautiful island paradise of Cuba would become a rundown, poverty-stricken wasteland controlled by fear and desperation. The byline of the communist government was that everyone was equal. The reality was that everyone was equally “poor.”
In December of 1956 after a seven-day journey across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea the rebel troops arrived in Alegria de Pio in the Oriente Province of Cuba. It was on the third day after arriving to the island, on the 5th of December when the small 82-man unit including Guevara was ambushed by Batista’s forces.
Castro’s unit was some distance away pinned down in a sugarcane plantation. It was early on in the battle when Guevara and a fellow soldier Emilio Albentosa were simultaneously hit by a burst of gunfire. Guevara recounts, “I felt a sharp blow to my chest and a wound in my neck; I thought for certain I was dead.”
Albentosa was nearby vomiting blood while bleeding from a wound and periodically screaming, “They’ve killed me!” While continuing to indiscriminately fire shots into the brush.
Guevara lay on the ground and also kept shooting into the woods. “I immediately began to think about the best way to die, since in that minute all seemed lost. I remembered an old Jack London story in which the hero, aware that he is about to freeze to death in Alaskan ice, leans against a tree and prepares to die with dignity.”
Nearby Guevara could hear the voice of another fellow soldier Camilo Cienfuegos, “No one surrenders here!” Friend Jose Ponce crawled out of the bush with a bullet wound to his lungs. A few meters away Raul Suarez tried to stop the bleeding to the spot where his thumb had been blown off. The unit was decimated. The battered rebel army would retreat and survive to fight another day.
The paramilitary force would not return to Mexico. Instead they would go on to overthrow Batista and take control of Cuba. Castro declared himself Prime Minister and remained in that position from 1959-1976.
He then became President of the Council of State from 1976-2008. He would be succeeded by his brother Raul Castro who was also in Mexico when it all began and fought to overthrow Batista.