“Were you and Che friends?”
“I wouldn’t say we were friends. Compatriots by circumstance rather than birth. He came here from Argentina looking for a fight. He wanted to revolutionize the world one country at a time.”
“He was beloved by many, though, wasn’t he?”
“He was. He had charisma, and his fighters looked up to him.” Pablo shrugs. “I cared more for Cuba than I did about revolution. I dreamed of freedom in those days. Freedom from Batista’s tyrannical ways, from our position as America’s playground. I wanted the island to be democratic and independent; I wanted the Cuban people to determine their own future. Sometimes I wondered if Che merely liked the fight.”
“Yet you fought beside him.”
“I did. We were brothers of sorts. You don’t always like your brothers, don’t always agree with them, but you take up arms and fight beside them. In those days, it was the right thing to do.”
“So you went to Santa Clara.”
“I did. Elisa didn’t want me to go. She was afraid something would happen to me, to Cuba, to us. And I didn’t want to leave her. But after I got out of prison, after Elisa—and your great-grandfather—helped get me out, my days were numbered. Batista was determined to make an example of the rebels, and it was only a matter of time before I ended up in front of a firing squad.”
“Were you scared?”
“Terrified. In my younger years, I would have told you I was ready to die for my country, that I was brave, but it’s the prerogative of old men to tell the truth. I was afraid I would die. Afraid I would be wounded. Afraid I’d never see Elisa again. Afraid we’d lose and all we’d done would be for naught.
“But on the way, that fear changed. On the way to Santa Clara people came out of their homes, from the fields where they worked and cheered us along. Their shoes were worn, their clothes dirty, but there was hope in their eyes. They saw us as their future. Cuba’s future. And it was impossible to not feel proud on that march, to not feel like we served something greater than us, to not feel some sense of purpose that if we faced death, it would not be in vain. Young men dream of nothing more than becoming heroes, and we knew that whatever happened in Santa Clara, we would be remembered as heroes or martyrs.”
“Why did you decide to fight?”
“I met Fidel when I was studying law at the University of Havana. We had a class together, and we went out for drinks one night after a lecture. He was so passionate back in those days; it was easy to get swept up in his words, in his enthusiasm for change. We were consumed by the idea of dethroning Batista, so caught up in the spirit of the fight that we didn’t think as much about the future as we should have. We agreed Cuba should be free, but we didn’t realize at the time that we had different views of what that freedom would look like, that the reality would be different from the one we spoke of when we were just kids playing at revolution.”
I’m surprised by the candor in his voice, by the thread of regret beneath it all.
“What would you have done differently?”
“Everything. Nothing. Who knows how much would have changed?”
“What happened that day in Santa Clara?”
“I was shot at Santa Clara. There were a few hundred of us. Some went with Che; others, like me, armed with grenades, were sent to capture the hill. El Vaquerito led us.”
“Roberto Rodríguez Fernández. He died at Santa Clara. He was only twenty-three.”
He delivers the words in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, as though he is too familiar with men dying in war.
“Batista’s army had nearly four thousand soldiers, tanks, planes. We were outmatched and outgunned.”
“But you won. I saw the memorial, the train.”
He seems pleased by this.
“We did. Batista’s forces were tired of fighting. When we captured the train Batista sent with reinforcements, it was all over. Batista fled during the early hours of New Year’s Day, and everyone marched toward the city. I lost a lot of blood, and my wound became infected. I nearly died; the doctors didn’t think it was wise to move me. So I stayed and recovered in a house nearby. In the confusion, Guillermo thought I’d died.
“By the time I was well enough to contact Elisa, Batista was already gone and Fidel had taken power. There were strikes throughout the country, and everything descended into a state of chaos. I had to be careful; her family never would have approved, and at that time, I had nothing to offer her.
“I went to Havana to see her. Before I had a chance, I learned her father was in prison. They were after anyone who supported Batista in those days, and already the regime was discussing taking the plantations away from the elite. The Perez family was an attractive target.”
I’m struck by the way in which he describes the regime as separate from him, as though Castro’s revolution was almost, but not quite, his.
“He was in La Cabaña,” Pablo continues.
A chill slides down my spine as I remember the sight of the prison in Havana looming on the horizon.
“Che had him. I had a few cards to play, and I knew how much Elisa loved her father, that it would have broken her heart to have lost him, that the family depended on him. In the end, it wasn’t enough—”
This is the part of the story I didn’t get from the letters, Magda, or Ana, the missing piece to the puzzle.
“I met with Elisa’s father, your great-grandfather, before he was released, and he promised he would tell her I was safe, that I loved her, that I would come for her when I could, when I had something to offer her. I gave him a letter to give to her. He seemed grateful to me for getting him out, but at the same time, I saw the way he looked at me. I was just another criminal in green fatigues in his eyes. And still—I had hope. That the dream of Elisa, of a future of us together, the one that had sustained me through prison, my time in the mountains, would eventually come true.
“And then they killed Alejandro,” he says, sadness in his gaze. “After everything, I couldn’t save him.”
I grew up knowing that once, my grandmother had a brother, but the mention of him was always too painful for her and her sisters to discuss.
“I didn’t know him personally, only what I heard through the rebel circles and my relationship with Elisa. He was well-liked, charismatic, well-placed to influence Cuba’s future. He was a threat, and someone took that threat seriously enough to kill him.”
“He wasn’t with the 26th of July?”
“No, he wasn’t.”
Those words seem particularly ominous.
“As soon as I learned Alejandro had been killed—I wanted to see Elisa, to comfort her. And at the same time, I worried my presence would be a slap in the face for all they’d lost. So I stayed away for a while, thinking it was the honorable thing to do. Eventually, I realized your great-grandfather never told her I was alive, never gave her my letter. I learned Guillermo told Elisa I was dead, that she thought I was gone. I don’t blame your great-grandfather, not after all he’d lost. My own family disowned me for joining Fidel. The last words my father said to me were that he was ashamed I was his son, that I had betrayed my country, my people. I didn’t want Elisa to feel the same way, couldn’t bear the thought that I’d destroyed what she loved, too.
“I went to her house to see her once I learned Guillermo had told her I died, once it became clear your great-grandfather didn’t tell her I was alive, once some time had passed. I asked one of the gardeners about the family, and he said they had gone, fled to the United States. He didn’t know when they would return. That was in March. I told myself she was safer there. You can’t imagine the fear we lived with during those days, even those of us close to Fidel. Perhaps those of us close to Fidel more than anyone. It took nothing to sentence a man to death. You learned to survive by following his orders, by agreeing with everything he said. Men who didn’t, good men, well—” His voice cracks, and I see the man my grandmother loved, the earnestness there and the immense sorrow at all that goodness and hope being twisted into something else entirely. “The firing squads, the blood—”
His eyes close.
“It wasn’t what I believed in. Wasn’t the future I had fought for. But I couldn’t give up. We’d come too far for the country to fail. The problem was no one really understood what it would take to make the necessary changes in Cuba. And there were so many problems to be addressed. So I stayed behind and I worked. I wanted to help with legal reform. One of the goals of the revolution was to restore Cuba to the 1940 Constitution. Of course, instead we had the Fundamental Law.
“I worked every day. I saved. And I made plans. Fidel traveled to New York in September 1960 to address the United Nations, and I was part of the delegation that accompanied him. I went with the hopes that once I was in the United States I could find Elisa. I knew she was in Florida. I didn’t know where she lived, but I found the headquarters of your great-grandfather’s sugar company in Palm Beach.
“It took most of my savings to get there, and when I did, he met with me in his office. From the beginning, some part of me knew Elisa didn’t belong with me anymore. She’d never cared about the money, but in having money I now saw a security I couldn’t provide for her. Cuba was in such a state of unrest that it would have been a challenge to protect her, to give her the kind of life she deserved. And I worried. Worried about her being a Perez in a country where it was no longer prudent to stand out for having more than everyone else. Your family was known in Cuba. Elisa and her sisters were known in Cuba. Those were dangerous times to be one of the elite. Fidel had nationalized Cuban industry—the sugar fields. Privately, he was talking about the government seizing the property of those who left.
“And then your great-grandfather told me the news—that she’d married. He wasn’t cruel about it; quite the opposite, really. He showed me a picture of your grandmother in a wedding dress, standing next to her husband.”