HOLGUÍN.— Avoiding interviews was a constant in engineer Demetrio Presilla López’ life. But in the few that he agreed to regarding his role in the resumption of national nickel production, he never failed to mention that day in December, 1960, when Comandante Ernesto Guevara, then head of the National Institute for Agrarian Reform’s (INRA) Industrialization Department, asked him to get into operation a recently built plant in Moa, abandoned by a U.S. company on April 9 of the same year, as part of the economic measures adopted by the U.S. government to stifle the Cuban Revolution.
Che spoke of a gradual process, but was clear on the need to restart the industry, as the Hero of Labor of the Republic of Cuba recalled, who passed away in Moa in March 2006.
The long-ago meeting had been promoted by the guerrilla commander. Presilla noted that during their conversation, he made comments and asked questions about the difficulties that could arise in marketing the final product, to which Che replied that Presilla would be in charge of getting the plant into operation, and that he would be responsible for the supplies needed for production and the sale of nickel.
Such confidence assured those gathered that there would be no backtracking in the task entrusted to them. Che was convinced of the possibility of success, and dedicated his keen strategic vision and the organizing capacity that distinguished him as a guerrilla, to the efforts.
TIRELESS AND FORESIGHTED
Che was also tireless. According to the chronology in which journalist Camilo Velasco describes the relationship between Che and the nickel industry, he also met in mid-December, 1960, in Havana, with a group of 17 engineers and technicians who had participated together with U.S. specialists in the fitting and testing of the inactive Moa plant, taken over by the INRA on August 5 of that year, when it became known as the Comandante Pedro Sotto Alba plant.
In fact, throughout 1960, the INRA was very active in the recovery of nickel production. On August 19, the institute executed the official take over of the Cayo del Medio mining company, which exploited the Cayo Guan deposits and other mines.
In addition, on October 24, Resolution No. 16 of the Cuban Institute of Mining established the nationalization of the Nicaro nickel industry, which immediately received the name of Comandante René Ramos Latour.
On January 6, 1961, the traditional celebrations for Día de los Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Day) were held. They were accompanied, fittingly perhaps, by an appearance by Che on Cuban television. He reported the signing of agreements with various socialist countries, and the commitment of the Soviet Union to send specialists to assist with the start-up of the nickel plant.
Previously, in December 1960, a delegation from the Soviet Union had visited Moa to learn about the plant's technology.
Completely immersed in this mission, at the end of April, 1961, in a conference at the Popular University, Comandante Ernesto Guevara, then Minister of Industries (he had been appointed to the position on February 2 that year) detailed that the basic products of Cuban mining were iron, nickel, and copper. He also noted that there were cobalt and chromite deposits. He noted that some of the greatest potential resources were laterite deposits located in the north of the eastern region of the island, in the areas of Nicaro, Moa, and Baracoa.
As for the Comandante Pedro Sotto Alba plant, on stating that it would probably be up and running in a short period, Che asserted that this should be regarded an accomplishment of the Revolutionary Government, as it had previously been inoperative.
As one reviews what was done in 1961, the admiration for Che’s efforts inevitably grows. In May, in Havana, he received a delegation headed by the Vice Minister of Economy of the USSR, who explored the negotiation of future agreements for the purchase of Cuban nickel. In August, during the first national production meeting of the sector that he led, Che stated that the René Ramos Latour plant, in Nicaro, had produced 7,620 tons, which represented a slight increase compared to the same period the previous year.
In October, Che made public the decision to build a future steelworks in Oriente province that would use iron and nickel from the Moa and Nicaro areas as its raw materials.
Later stages were equally dynamic and creative. It is logical to suppose that Che’s views were taken into account regarding other essential steps undertaken by the Revolutionary Government, including the creation, in July 1963, of the Coordinating Center for the Northern Oriente Development Plan (Plan Norte), whose fundamental objective was to boost the nickel industry.
THE PHYSICAL PRESENCE OF CHE IN NICKEL PRODUCTION FACILITIES
Following the habit of leaders of the Revolution to personally visit areas undergoing transformations, to verify the developments themselves, Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara toured the areas and facilities related to nickel production and made detailed analyzes of the sector.
Like Camilo Velasco, journalist and historian María Julia Guerra notes in her chronology of Che’s visits to the province of Holguín, that he visited the locality of Nicaro for the first time on January 20, 1961. At that time, he toured the nickel plant and spoke with workers.
He likewise toured the local community, and in the central park he spoke to residents regarding the need to work to create the country’s wealth.
A little more than a year later, Che repeated this tour of the industry, to which he would return several times during 1963. During one of these visits, he participated in an extraordinary management board meeting of the Consolidated Nickel Company.
Regarding Che’s first exchange with the René Ramos Latour plant workers, Manuel Galbán Sopeña, one of those deeply involved in the recovery of domestic nickel production, reported that the Comandante arrived without any prior warning, aboard a jeep. “He observed the classes on processes and metallurgical balance that I taught to a group of compañeros, asked several questions and then said goodbye, recommending we continue like that.”
Che’s initial visit to the Moa region occurred on May 26, 1961. He was accompanied by Comandante Raúl Castro Ruz, Aleida March, and Vilma Espín. They visited the Pedro Sotto Alba plant and the Cayo Guan mine. On noting the way in which the workers of the chromite mine lived, Che expressed the need to improve their living conditions by building decent housing.
In January, 1963, as well as visiting Nicaro, Che toured Moa. He held meetings with leaders of revolutionary organizations from both localities and administrative and union cadre in the René Ramos Latour and Pedro Sotto Alba plants. He also toured Punta Gorda and the Cayo Guan mine again.
Che returned to Moa in September, 1964, to converse with chromite miners and verify the operations of the Comandante Pedro Sotto Alba plant. There he assured Juan Rodríguez Guerrero, general secretary of the union bureau, that on his next trip he would meet with the workers.
He fulfilled that promise at the end of November, 1964. It was his last visit to the region. He was accompanied by José Cardona Hoyos, leader of the Communist Party of Colombia, among others. In the Ciro Redondo cinema, Che presided the workers assembly of the Comandante Pedro Sotto Alba company. During his speech, he admitted that this industry was one of his most beloved.
A RIGHT RECOGNIZED BY THE PEOPLE
On January 11, 1984, to the north of the mineral deposit of Punta Gorda, in Moa, the Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara plant was put into operation. Designed to produce nickel and cobalt, which is internationally recognized, the plant was named to honor the efforts and talent demonstrated by the heroic guerrilla in leading the recovery process of the national nickel industry. His audacity was decisive to the materialization of the Development Plan of the northern Oriente coast.
Fidel and the highest authorities of the Party and the government had promised that the first great installation of this type to be built by the Revolution with the help of the socialist camp, especially the USSR, could only be named as such. And the Cuban people agreed.
• Camilo Velasco, Relaciones del Comandante Ernesto Guevara con la industria cubana del níquel.
• María Julia Guerra, Cronología de las visitas del Che a la provincia de Holguín.
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