Where we left Che in part II: In our tale thus far, native Argentinean Dr. Ernesto “Che” Guevara left Mexican soil, where he had lived for more than two years, on November 25, 1956 from Port Tuxpan aboard the yacht, Granma, as part of the small expeditionary force organized by Fidel Castro.
Che Guevara’s first contact with Cuba was on December 2nd, 1956 when he landed on Las Coloradas Beach together with the 81 other members of the expedition under the leadership of Fidel Castro.
Several years later, when recalling that moment, Che said:
“We landed with great haste, just carrying what was essential. We were entering the marsh when we were attacked by the enemy air force. Naturally, once we were in the mangrove swamp, we were neither seen nor harassed by the air force, but the dictatorship’s army was already on our trail.”
Three days later, Che and his comrades received their baptism of fire when the rebel troops were surprised while resting in a small sugarcane plantation at Alegría de Pío.
“At four o’clock that afternoon, without prior warning or at the least suspecting it, the first shot sounded, followed by a symphony of lead that hovered above heads still unaccustomed to that virile sport. A comrade fell and I personally had the disagreeable impression of receiving in my flesh the simultaneous baptism of fire and blood.”
At that first volley, Che - who came with the expedition as a physician - had to make what would prove to be a significant decision: he was faced with the dilemma of thinking like a doctor or like a combatant.
“I had in front of me a knapsack full of medicines and a box of bullets. The two weighed too much to carry together. To be able to cross the clearing into the sugarcane, I took the box of bullets, leaving the knapsack.”
The setback suffered in Alegría de Pío did not panic him, although the group was now much smaller. They managed to elude the military and move into the Sierra Maestra Mountains, planning to regroup with Fidel Castro several days later.
“...It was incredible to hear that small group of people who did not know each other too well yet talk of victory, talk of attacking.”
Che also played a key role in organizing the emerging Rebel Army, which by January (1957) was already in condition to fight its first victorious battle against the dictatorship’s soldiers.
“The attack against a small garrison on the mouth of the La Plata River in the Sierra Maestra Mountains was our first victory. Its impact resounded beyond the region where it took place.
It called everyone’s attention, proving that the Rebel Army existed and that it was ready to fight. For us, it meant reaffirmation of the possibility of a final victory.” Over the following months, Che continued to evidence bravery, skill and discipline such that, after the May 1957 battle in El Uvero, he had the distinction of becoming the first member of the Rebel Army whom Fidel Castro awarded the rank of comandante. Fidel also put him in charge of Column IV, the first organized from the main column.
In December 1957 Che moved his headquarters to La Mesa in the Sierra Maestra, because the dictatorship’s army had attacked his previous camp. La Mesa came to house several facilities, including an armory, a small field hospital, a printing shop, a school, a tinsmith’s shop and a leather workshop.
On February 24, 1958, on Che’s initiative and from his camp in the Sierra Maestra, Radio Rebelde started regular broadcasts. By August 1958, after having taken part in many battles and successfully led others, Che was assigned the risky mission of leading an invading column from eastern Sierra Maestra to central Cuba. In accomplishing this task, he again showed his leadership ability and his extraordinary military talent.
In Las Villas Province his authority and prestige grew even more when he performed the significant service of uniting the different revolutionary forces operating there, so they could carry on the armed struggle. On December 7, 1958 Che initiated a clandestine newsletter as the official organ of the Rebel Army in Las Villas.
During the last days of the year 1958, the rebel fighters under Che intensified actions against military objectives of the dictatorship and occupied several villages in the province of Las Villas. An eloquent expression of his military ability was given in the battle to occupy the city of Santa Clara, one of the most important the rebel fighters waged during the revolution.
The Batista regime fell finally on New Year’s Day 1959. On January 2nd, Comandante Che Guevara went from Santa Clara to Havana, where he occupied the military fortress of La Cabaña, under orders of Fidel Castro. In addition to calling a general strike, Fidel Castro also ordered that Che and Camilo Cienfuegos control the situation in Havana and counter the actions of reactionary elements who might try to prevent the consolidation of the victory of the Revolution after the escape of Dictator Fulgencio Batista.
“We have demonstrated that a small group of men, who are determined, supported by the people and without fear of dying… can overcome a regular army… There is another lesson for our brothers in America, economically in the same agrarian category as ourselves, which is that we must make agrarian revolutions, fight in the fields, in the mountains, and from here take revolution to the cities, not try to make it in the latter without a comprehensive social content.”