Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Reliving Cuba's revolution

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Sierra Maestra, Cuba


A look inside Fidel Castro's mountain hideout

Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba 50 years ago after mounting one of the most successful guerrilla campaigns in history.

Operating out of the Sierra Maestra, a densely forested mountain range on the eastern tip of Cuba, his lightly armed rebel fighters defeated a US-equipped standing army complete with aircraft, tanks and artillery.

Yet the revolution was almost stillborn. The initial crossing by Fidel and his fighters from Mexico in 1956 aboard the boat Granma went horribly wrong and just 12 of the original rebels survived an early ambush.

Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, along with the legendary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, took refuge in the mountains.

From this remote, rugged terrain they forged a new fighting force which in a little over two years had toppled the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who flew into exile on 1 January 1959.

Map of Cuba

Eliecer Tejeda was one of their early recruits. At the age of 19 he had left his father's farm at the base of the mountains to join the rebels' forces.

"Batista's troops were harassing all the young people here. I was beaten by the troops so decided to go underground and join the guerrillas," he says.

Fidel's former headquarters, La Comandancia de La Plata, is now designated a national monument.

Today there is a paved road which takes you most of the way up into the mountains. But the final 3km (1.9 miles) of steep narrow trails can only be covered on foot or by mule.

A fit 71-year-old, Eliecer Tejeda agreed to accompany me on the mule ride up the steep muddy path strewn with rocks.

It was a journey he had made many times in his youth.

Eliecer had been one of Fidel's messengers. His role was to guide people in and out of the camp and to take messages and orders to supporters in the towns. He also helped organise the supply of food and weapons.

Fidel Castro's 26 July movement had a strong urban base and could also count on the support of other anti-Batista groups, one of the critical factors in the revolution's success.

Trap door

The camp itself is spread out, each hut hidden beneath the trees so that Batista's spotter planes could not find them.

Fidel Castro's hideout in the Sierra Maestra was never discovered

There are still 16 thatched, wooden huts which have been meticulously restored and preserved.

One of the most substantial buildings is the cookhouse. Eliecer told me that they only lit the fire to cook at night so that the smoke could not be detected from afar.

He grimaced when I asked him what the food had been like.

"It was pretty bad at the beginning," he said. "We didn't have access to supplies then and had to live mainly on roots and vegetables."

Fidel Castro's headquarters is built into a steep slope overlooking a stream. The hut is divided into two rooms, his bed in one, the other with a dining table and desk and bookshelves.

There is also a fridge complete with a bullet hole in the side. There was no electricity up here, the fridge ran on kerosene and was used as much for medicines as food. They had heaved it up from a nearby town in the valley.

There is a trap door in the floor, an escape hatch through which Fidel could flee into the forest if needed.

The hideout was never discovered, though. Remoteness and camouflage helped. But Eliecer Tejeda believes that another key factor was that the guerrillas had the full support of the local population.

They were never betrayed.

"The guerrillas treated everyone well. Unlike Batista's soldiers they never abused the peasants or their women. There was even a camp hospital which Fidel would let the local people use. It was the same with captured troops, we were ordered to treat them well too," he says.

'Ideological weapon'

As well as being a charismatic leader and military strategist, Fidel Castro was also a master of propaganda.

The rebels built a press hut in the mountains where they produced a newspaper called El Cubano Libre, the Free Cuban.

There was a radio station, Radio Rebelde, broadcasting from inside the camp. One of the highlights was live performances by a local peasant band called the Quinteto Rebelde or Rebel Quintet.

Quinteto Rebelde perform a song
Quinteto Rebelde's music was intended to encourage the rebel fighters

The Quintet were all brothers, sons of a local farmer who had let Fidel build his headquarters on his land.

Three of the brothers are still alive and have brought new members into the band.

When we met they were all dressed in their olive green guerrilla fatigues, though they never took part in the fighting.

"We wanted Fidel to give us guns but he said that ours was an ideological weapon," band leader Eugenio Medina explained.

"We were so excited we thought that ideology was the name of some new type of gun. Only later did we realise he meant we were there to cheer up the guerrillas and demoralise the army."

The band still performs on special occasions. From the front garden of Eugenio Medina's modest home in the valley, the Quinteto Rebelde sang me one of the songs they had written, aimed at Batista's troops:

You'd better show respect to Che Guevara

Don't go looking for problems with Fidel

Think before you start messing with Raul

The rebels are difficult to catch

Fifty years have passed and, much like the revolution, the old band plays on with many of its original members still defiantly singing their rebel songs.


Quinteto Rebelde sing and reminisce 50 years on

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