I first met Commandante Che Guevara in July 1966. It was at the training camp for revolutionaries in Pinar del Rio Province to the East of Havana. I was loosely related to a very famous Cuban Revolutionary, Camilo Cienfuegos, through my mother’s side of the family. Camilo died in 1959 when I was nine years old – the mystery surrounding his death has never been resolved. I remember at that time my parents dedicated me to the revolution. I never hesitated. I was brought up in Revolutionary Cuba and I was happy to serve.
The day I turned sixteen I headed for the training camp – I had overheard my mother talking about it to one of my uncles – it was top secret at the time – all they knew was it was a place preparing for international revolution. That was good enough for me.
As I said, I was just sixteen and very skinny. It was March 1966. I’ll admit I looked more like a boy in need of a good meal than a heroic guerrilla. But I had spirit and determination. They let me stay. And then, as I said, in July, I met Che Guevara for the first time. He looked me up and down.
‘Go home,’ he told me. ‘You are too young for this fight.’
‘And was Pombo too young?’ I asked.
That pulled him up short.
‘You think to compare yourself with Pombo?’
I could not tell if he was laughing at me or if he was deadly serious. I was afraid, but fear did not stop me. I was also determined.
‘Commandante, I want to fight,’ I said.
He asked me what I wanted to fight and why. I told him I wanted to fight imperialism and injustice, as he had taught us.
‘It is the duty of all Cubans,’ I said, hoping to convince him with my sense of purpose.
He told me to go home once more.
But I refused. I was quaking in my boots as I stood up to the great Che Guevara, but I realised if I could not pass this first test, then he was right and I should go home and lose my dreams of being a revolutionary.
‘Will you disobey an order?’ Che asked me.
‘I will be honest and true to you as my commander until death,’ I said. ‘But you must give me the chance to prove myself.’
‘Look, boy,’ he said to me, ‘you should go home to your mother.’
‘I am no boy,’ I replied. ‘I have been a man since I was twelve and my father died. And I am related to Camilo Cienfuegos. There is no better man.’
That pulled him up short.
‘It is a good name,’ he said, ‘Can you live up to it?’
‘Or die in the attempt, Commandante,’ I replied.
He fixed me with his powerful eyes, which seemed to look right into my heart.
‘You want revenge?’ he said. ‘Your motivation is hatred?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘My motivation is justice. I want to honour my family and to make Cuba proud.’
‘I don’t want you on my conscience,’ he said. And moved on.
But after all, he did not send me home. He spoke to others about me. I believe he wanted to give me a taste, maybe a fright, but I was determined to live up to anything they threw at me. He let me stay training.
‘Every man deserves a chance to prove himself,’ he told me.
I stayed training at the camp through July and August and my chance came in September. I was to be a messenger, sent to Bolivia to tell Pombo (Harry Villegas) about the imminent arrival of Che. Pombo had been in Bolivia for some months. I had met him
‘This will be enough action for you,’ Che said. ‘You can travel there and back and no one will ever know you were out of Cuba.’
I know Che fully expected me to be home in Cuba by October, before he himself would even arrive in Bolivia but I determined that I would not be coming back to Cuba with any message. I would prove myself enough of a man to be allowed to stay and fight with the companeros. Even then, I was determined that I would ‘be like Che’ and that no man would find me lacking in heart, spirit or commitment to the international revolutionary cause. I would fight and I might die, but I would not go home with my tail between my legs.
I travelled from Cuba to Bolivia with Pacho (Alberto Fernandez). I was a bit in awe of him I must admit, since he was a veteran member of the July 26th Movement . But he was a truly nice man, and he treated me with like a son – but also with respect. We set out on August 20th and were supposed to arrive on 24th, but our route was circuitous and we did not arrive until September 3rd. The final stage of the journey was by train from Chile. It was only when I was at the border between Chile and Bolivia that I fully realised what I was doing. Until then it was a bit of an adventure. Then it became real. I realised there would be consequences if we were caught. And those consequences would affect not just ourselves, or our families, but all those who were working to establish a revolution in Bolivia.
We were met in Bolivia by Pombo. Imagine how I felt, flanked on either side by two of the greatest revolutionaries the world has ever known, and trying to look like we were just ordinary hombres.
The arrangement was to meet outside the Universio Theater. Then we went to the movies. I think I was still in some shock. Pacho whispered to me ‘is this exciting enough for you?’
I cannot remember what the movie was. I was so pumped with adrenalin it was everything I could do to stop from drawing attention to us. After this we went to a safe house and passed on the message about Che’s plans.
Pombo asked me if I wanted to go home. I said no. He said Pacho would be going back in a week and that I could go with him. I told him I hadn’t come this far just to be sent home. He said that this was Che’s plan for me. I begged with him to let me prove myself. Pacho spoke for me. He said he believed I was mature and was beginning to understand what was required of a guerrilla. He said he knew I had a revolutionary spirit. They were both concerned by how young I was. But I reminded them that they were young men when the Cuban Revolution started. Pombo agreed that if I proved myself to them, they would intercede on my behalf with Che.
The message that Pacho was taking back told Che all about the farm in Ńancahuazú. It was situated in a canyon between the mountain ranges of the Pirienda and the Incagusai. A relatively isolated place it was decided that our cover would first be raising pigs and then a sawmill, since it was a very wooded area. So my first job in the Bolivian Revolution would be to raise pigs! I went to the farm on October 2nd with Rodolfo the Bolivian. We checked it out and came back to report. I went there again around the 12th and was told to stay there until Che and Pombo arrived, which was anticipated in a few weeks. I was glad not to be on my way back to Cuba and so I stayed – though I would rather have been in the town. I had plenty of time to think about the decision I had made, and of course I was in no way prepared for what was to come. I was sixteen.