It is difficult to express in simple words, when one guards deep inside - almost like a sanctuary - the most beloved aspects of these two extraordinary men who guided me along the mysterious paths of knowledge. It may appear simple to reflect this feeling in images, however, each memory conveys a singular event, testimony of the binding ties that existed between them, very difficult to summarize in these brief lines.
It is impossible to go back to the days of the first meeting between Che and Fidel in Mexico without resorting to documents or testimonies that they themselves provided at some point, and that form part of recent history.
From the reflections made by Fidel on these first interactions, one can appreciate his opinions of that young man, who came to him through his brother Raúl, and who, from that very first meeting, would remain united in the struggle, first in Cuba and later in the desire to achieve a better world, with other horizons ahead.
From those days, there remain some images of when they were detained together with a group of future expeditionaries, in the migrant holding center located in Miguel Schultz, in Mexico City, from June 21, 1956; in addition to being described by Fidel himself, years later: ... one has the impression of a permanent presence of Che, for what he symbolizes, for his character, for his conduct, for his principles. They were a great number of really exceptional qualities. I knew him very well, very well since I came into contact with him in Mexico...”
The same sort of sensations and qualities are also summed up by Che in his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, when he states: “There were some who spent fifty-seven days in prison, with the threat of extradition hanging constantly over us (Major Calixto García and I can testify to this). But at no time did we lose our personal trust in Fidel Castro. For Fidel did some things which we might also say compromised his revolutionary attitude for the sake of friendship. I remember making my own case clear: I was a foreigner in Mexico illegally, and with a series of charges against me. I told Fidel that under no circumstances should the Revolution be held back for me; that he could leave me behind; that I understood the situation and would try to join their fight from wherever I was sent; that the only effort they should make on my behalf was to have me sent to a nearby country and not to Argentina.
“I also remember Fidel’s brusque reply: “I will not abandon you.” And so it was, for they had to use precious time and money to get us out of the Mexican jail. The personal attitude of Fidel toward the people he esteems is the key to the absolute devotion which is created around him; loyalty to the man, together with an attachment to principles…”
Then came the struggle in Cuba for our true independence. Che knew our country through Fidel, and as such he surrendered everything to give his best. It was Fidel himself, with his political and strategic genius, who understood better than anyone the value of that young man of Argentine origin, but Cuban by conviction.
At the beginning, there were terrible days of conflict for the inexperienced fighters, among which the battle of Alegría de Pío, where many fell and others were taken prisoner. But Fidel was alive and would continue to guide the rest; ready to fight the essential battles to achieve what the Cuban people eagerly awaited - definitive freedom. Campesinos and men of the city joined them, inspired by the former’s example, and the Rebel Army was formed.
Thus, the Sierra Maestra became the great school of struggle, including the fight against corruption, betrayal and cowardice of every kind; in which men evolved and the most important values emerged. Fidel and Che had to exchange opinions on many occasions. There are documents confirming this decision-making, on whether or not to attack an enemy patrol, or better to do so at a barracks, not only due to the number of weapons to be obtained, but also because of the political weight of the confrontation.
An example was the battle of El Uvero. For Che, it meant a another step in his growth as a combatant and as a doctor, due to the trust placed in him when Fidel ordered him to carry the wounded, treat them and, most importantly, defend them from enemy attack. Fidel knew that he could fully trust him.
Difficult times ensued, the struggle extended, and Che was named first commander of the fighting force. The two now felt stronger and discussed the strategies to follow among themselves. A new Column was created under the command of Che, Column 4, to mislead the enemy; although in fact it was the second column, as no other was organized. Later, two new columns left to form new battle fronts; the first, under the orders of Raúl Castro, constituting the Second Front, and the Third led by Juan Almeida.
In the documentary archive of the Che Guevara Studies Centre, we zealously guard a document in which Che makes mention of the original idea that Raúl and he should work together in the future Second Front; but finally Fidel, contemplating a greater strategy, sent Che to Minas de Frío, a training school for combatants, already thinking about extending the fight to the entire country.
It was around this time that Fidel decided to send Camilo, until then head of the Column 4 vanguard, to the plains of Oriente, in April, 1958. In my opinion, Fidel had already begun to envisage what the Rebel Army could accomplish beyond the Sierra Maestra, having made decisive breakthroughs, and kept in check the dictatorship’s army high command.
By May 1958, the enemy offensive had been launched with 10,000 men, but in just two and a half months they were defeated with 2,000 casualties, either dead or wounded. In Che’s opinion the army “left with its backbone broken.” Undoubtedly, this served to develop the final strategy designed by Fidel, in three key points of the country’s geography: Santiago de Cuba, under his personal command, and the invasion of the West, with Che up to Las Villas and Camilo toward Pinar del Río.
The invasionary advance extended from August 31, 1958, resulting in a momentary separation of Fidel and Che until their reunion on January 5, 1959, in the airport of Camagüey, following the triumph of the Revolution. Che traveled in a cargo plane to this province, where he made contact with the “Giant” as Camilo called him. By that time, Che had become a prominent military strategist, on applying what he had learned during the advance to Las Villas, and due to the tactics used on leading the troops to take over the province - a feat which was estimated to take a month, yet was achieved in just a few days.
On January 7, a second meeting took place in the province of Matanzas. I was not at the meeting, but that day I was able to meet Fidel, an unforgettable encounter.
After January 8, the day of Fidel’s triumphant entry into Havana, there followed months of events of great importance for Cuba.
On May 17, the Agrarian Reform Law was signed, and on June 12, Che began his first trip abroad, where he made contact with Bandung Pact nations. This was a very special tour, given its strategic importance to Cuba’s foreign policy, taking into account the decisive contribution of these countries to the UN General Assembly were there to be an attack by forces opposing the example emanating from revolutionary Cuba.
The first years of the Revolution saw serious internal difficulties. In 1961, while we were immersed in eliminating illiteracy, counterrevolutionary bandits, paid by the enemy, rose up in certain areas of the national territory. They were defeated by the armed people, who had formed courageous militia forces, and fought to defend their achievements. The unity of the revolutionary forces prevailed with the tenacity and personal charisma of Fidel, and, of course, Che stood out for his critical analysis and positions.
In 1962, the struggle continued, only this time taking on greater dimensions with the so-called October Crisis, also known as a missile crisis.
For Che, it was an unforgettable moment, summed up in his farewell letter read by Fidel during the act to constitute the first Central Committee of our Party: “I have lived magnificent days, and at your side I felt the pride of belonging to our people in the brilliant yet sad days of the Caribbean Crisis. Seldom has a statesman shone more brightly than you did in those days... I am also proud of having followed you without hesitation, of having identified with your way of thinking and of seeing and appraising dangers and principles.”
United in this gigantic effort, Fidel, on many occasions, explained how we faced immense tasks to sweep away the past and build a new society. In the particular case of Che, he explained how he exercised various functions and whenever a man was needed for an important post, he was always ready to do so. The fact is that, in all the time that has passed, those of us who have the duty to respect and admire this union of thought and ideas, among these two men that we can never separate, can only imagine, through the photographs compiled, the empathy that reigned, and the suggestion of what was discussed in an intimate and very personal tone.
Che expressed likewise in his farewell letter, when he left in solidarity with the struggle of the African peoples: “If my final hour finds me under other skies, my last thought will be of this people and especially of you.”
* Director of the Che Guevara Studies Center.