Pinar del Río.– Cueva de Los Portales, October 1962. In his command headquarters, Comandante Ernesto Guevara analyzed with various officers the composition of the enemy force threatening to attack the country.
Lieutenant Luis González Pardo, head of the information section, read data on the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army, which would reportedly be responsible for the attacks.
After mentioning the enormous amount of aircraft, Luis commented: “Comandante, they are going to cover our sky.”
Che, however, was not fazed. Following the abrupt defeat of the dictatorship and the mercenary attack on Playa Girón, he had no doubts about the courage of the Cuban people, thus he assertively responded to his intelligence officer: “Even better, kid, we’ll fight in the shadows.”
Recounting the anecdote is Oscar Valdés Buergo, then adjunct sergeant to the military chief of Pinar del Río, and therefore a man close to the Heroic Guerrilla on the occasions when he assumed command of the province, during the invasion of Playa Girón and the October Crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis).
Supported by a folder full of notes, newspaper clippings, sketches and photographs, the veteran combatant of the clandestine struggle in Vueltabajo speaks with nostalgia of those “whirlwind days” in which he had the opportunity to work alongside Che.
Now aged 80, Valdés remembers him clearly in his fatigues, a pistol at his waist, and his black beret with a star.
“During Girón, the shot that escaped him and injured him in the face made his presence very brief, but during the October Crisis he stayed with us for several weeks, leading the province,” Oscar recalls.
“At that time, Che established his command in Cueva de los Portales (a cave in the municipality of La Palma). He would leave at dawn almost every day to tour the territory and return at night.”
Among the anecdotes that speak for the legendary guerrilla’s personality, Oscar notes that since they never knew what time Che would return, it was proposed that they place a wood stove inside the cave, to keep food warm for of all those who worked late into the night, as the unit’s main kitchen was located at some distance.
“Che at first did not agree, because he thought they were doing it with the intention of preparing a better meal for him than the rest of the troop, and although he finally agreed, when he walked around he always checked with the soldiers that everyone had been served the same.”
Regarding those tense days, in which the world was on the verge of a nuclear conflict, Oscar recalls that on one occasion Che arrived very annoyed, as a group of militia and soldiers who were digging trenches had asked him how long the exercise would last.
“That same day he ordered the principal leaders to go and update them, man to man, regarding the situation of great danger in the country.
“On October 26, after hearing the Comandante en Jefe say that any aircraft that violated our airspace would be shot down, he ordered the air defense to be reinforced.
“In addition, he gave the order to disassemble a 12.7 millimeter machine gun, and with ropes and the help of a group of campesinos from the area, they carried it up piece by piece to the top of the hill and positioned it there.”
A radio antenna was also placed up there, in order to tune into foreign stations, and several compañeros who spoke other languages listened to them constantly, so that they could keep him informed.
“Once, in a meeting, he asked the unit heads who listened to foreign radio stations. There was total silence, and only First Lieutenant Narciso Ceballos, head of the Guane division, raised his hand and said, “I do, Comandante, because they told me you did it.
“People thought that Che would reprimand him, but he congratulated him, and he told the others that they had to be informed and know the enemy.”
Although Che was a very strict man, Oscar says he spoke very softly and very politely. “During the time he was the chief political and military leader of Pinar del Río, he toured the entire province, including the Guanahacabibes peninsula, but above all the north coast, near the capital of the country.
“In the cave, leaders of units and the principal entities of the province went to see him and to check in. The hustle and bustle was tremendous,” he recalls.
However, Oscar explains that there was also free time during the evening, in which Che would go out and talk to people, read, play a game of chess or stop to watch others do so, and he would comment aloud when there was a bad move, to irritate them.
“One night I was reading a book about Latinos’ lives in New York City, and he stopped by my side and said, ‘Lend it to me when you’re done.’
“A little later he came back and said, ‘I’ve come to get the request.’ He took the book and I never saw it again.”
The outcome of the October Crisis is known. Oscar states that after returning from a meeting in Havana, Che met with the political and military authorities of the province, and explained that behind Cuba’s back, the Soviet Union had reached an agreement with the United States to withdraw the nuclear missiles from the country, and he had very strong words to say regarding this solution.
Today, 55 years later, Oscar notes that having had the opportunity to be close to the Heroic Guerrilla at a crucial moment in the history of the Revolution, was one of the most extraordinary experiences of his life.
“I am honored by the confidence he had in me for this important mission,” he says.
“Che was a man who always led by example, and he did not order us to do anything that he was not willing and able of doing himself.
“People liked talking to him. We admired him a lot. It was a very big thing for all of us.”