In July 1955, Che Guevara was introduced to Fidel Castro, who was organising a guerrilla invasion of Cuba, with a view to overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Guevara was soon asked to join the party of insurgents. Another foreigner had been invited to help: General Alberto Bayo, a Spanish career officer who had fought against the Moroccans and against Franco during the 1930s. Exiled to Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War, he had begun a new life, training youthful Caribbean revolutionaries. When Fidel (whose own father came to Cuba during an earlier Spanish emigration) was casting around for a military man to train his own rebel band in Mexico, the choice of Bayo reaffirmed the historical connection between the Cuban revolution and the Spanish Civil War.
Régis Debray saw himself as ‘the last messenger between the two companions in arms’ — Che and Fidel. He was much fonder of Castro, an energetic Caribbean, open, radiating a ‘tropical cordiality’ more attractive by far than the ‘melancholy coldness’ of Che, the ‘armed hermit’. Debray’s Castro has something of Zorro and something of Don Quixote; he is steeped in oral tradition – hour upon hour of speeches – but passionate about books, though in later years he reads nothing but history. Debray recalls in Les Masques that when he was summoned for impromptu guerrilla practicals, a treat Fidel bestowed on his favourites, often in the early hours of the morning, the floor of the Jefe’s Oldsmobile was littered with small arms and the rear shelf with books – Churchill’s memoirs, but also a novel by Cortázar and a stack of livestock management manuals. Debray suggests that the Fidel Portable Library dwindled to a history-only collection when he became ‘obsessed … by historians in the future and his own posthumous image’.
‘We haven’t always agreed with Comrade Konstantin,’ Castro remarked at a meeting in Luanda, where Konstantin Kurochkin, the head of the Soviet military mission, was present. ‘He is more the academic type, we are a little more, let’s say, “guerrillas”.’ The Cubans poked fun at the Soviet posture in Angola, arguing that Russian war plans were drawn up for another era and another place. Castro ridiculed a scheme to retake a one-horse town held by Unita as a rerun of the Red Army’s ‘operation against Berlin’. A few years later he told the Soviet foreign minister Anatoly Adamishin what a bombastic distraction the Soviet effort to train a prestigious African army had been: ‘You underestimated the bandits [Unita] and concentrated on creating a big army with many tanks, guns, and artillery … troops who knew how to parade. It was a great army for parades.’
As we were leaving the dining-room, Castro stopped and said: ‘You know Lee Harvey Oswald was trying to get to Cuba.’ Oswald had been refused a visa at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City a few weeks before the assassination. John nodded, and Castro walked on before stopping again. ‘You know it was hard to allow Americans into Cuba at that time,’ he said. John nodded again. I think this was Castro’s way of saying that he hadn’t had anything to with the assassination.
For Castro the fight against imperialism is more than a fight against the United States: it is a fight against poverty and oppression in the Third World. In this war his battalions include the Cuban doctors and other aid workers who have laboured, and continue to labour, in some of the poorest regions of the world, at no cost or very little cost to the host country. And they include the thousands of underprivileged youths from Latin America and Africa who attend, all expenses paid, the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, a few miles west of Havana. In this war against ‘imperialism’, Castro has achieved impressive victories.