CHE IN 1959
• From 1959, the heroic guerrilla became one of the central leaders of the revolutionary process as a result of his proven determination, versatility and abilities and because of the dynamic of the tremendous events resulting from the aggression against Cuba • Héctor Rodríguez Lompart recalls Fidel Castro's strategy for combating the blockade that is now more than 45 years old, and the role played by Che, who would have been 80 years old on June 14
BY GABRIEL MOLINA
• THE Cuban Revolution has always been forced to defend itself from the hostility of the U.S. government, as far back as the days of the Sierra Maestra.
As early as March of '59, just three months after the triumph of the armed struggle, then-Vice President Richard Nixon left a meeting he had held with Fidel in Washington and convinced President Eisenhower that action had to be taken to overthrow him.
That same year, the United States persuaded the British government to cancel a sale of Hunter fighter planes to Cuba. In the opinion of the U.S. authorities, those aircraft would have posed a problem for the invasion it was preparing, and which was carried out in April 1961 in the Bay of Pigs. With the same goal, the French ship La Coubre was blown up in February 1960 as munitions were being unloaded on Havana's docks. Dozens of Cubans and French citizens were killed in that terrorist act, attributed in Cuba to the CIA. Simultaneously, Washington prevented a consortium of Western European banks from approving a loan to Cuba of $100 million.
Sometimes the revolutionary government adopted the tactic of retaliating to economic blows. On June 6, when the Standard Oil, Texaco and Royal Dutch Shell oil companies refused, under U.S. government orders, to refine oil that Cuba had bought from the Soviet Union, the Cuban government did not hesitate to take over the refineries less than one month later. The sparring continued with the boycott that the Eisenhower administration promoted among oil exporters and shipping companies.
Cuba responded by nationalizing its refineries on August 6.
Che Guevara participated in all of those events and the corresponding decisions, not just as a combatant and politician, but as an economist, or better said, a strategist of the economy together with Fidel, a function for which he is not so well known.
Beginning with Che's first official civilian responsibility as director of industries for the Institute of Agrarian Reform, and also as president of the National Bank as of November of '60, and minister of industries as of 1962, it was his duty to act principally in the economy, to implement the line of diversification that the Revolution had charted both in production and international trade. An exceptional witness to the trajectory of Commander Guevara is Hector Rodríguez Llompart, who met Che in the La Cabaña fortress — where Commander Guevara was the military chief — in early 1959. Llompart was the municipal commissioner of Regla, and visited him together with Captain Miguel Angel Duque de Estrada, who was in charge of the Revolutionary Courts. Here are some of his valuable memories and assessments.
How do you remember those first days of the aggression?
--Aggressions of all types by the U.S. government against Cuba began very early on.
The armed aggression against the island's production centers, terrorist attacks and armed threats were answered by the Revolution by the improved organization of its military and security apparatuses, acquiring weapons, and creating the National Revolutionary Militias, Committees for Defense of the Revolution, etc.
The support and determination of our people to fight for victory under the slogan of 'Homeland or Death' made the political trenches impregnable.
The plans for economic aggression were more surreptitious, but just as dangerous
How did Che participate in the fight against those plans?
—The almost total dependence on the U.S. market and our economic ties of 50-plus years with the former colonial power made the situation of our open economy even more complicated.
It was essential to find other markets for the sale of our products, as well as for imported goods.
In late 1959, a Soviet exposition was set to take place in Mexico, and the Soviet delegation was being led by then-Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan.
At that time, I was an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it was precisely Commander Guevara who told me that I should go to Mexico to officially invite Mikoyan to bring the Soviet exposition to Havana, and for him to personally lead, if possible, the Soviet mission.
As one personal anecdote, I remember how the newspapers announced Che's visit; the day I arrived in Mexico, there were many reporters and photographers at the airport. The newspaper El Universal reported the news that day under the headline: "They were expecting a bearded one, and a smooth-cheeked one arrived."
After a number of setbacks related to an ecclesiastical congress that was taking place in Cuba at the time, the visit was proposed, and finally happened in February 1960.
The Cuban delegation led by Commander Guevara and the Soviet one held a number of talks about the need to place our sugar sales in the USSR [market], in the face of the imminent suspension of purchases by the United States.
A trade agreement and another on credit were finally signed on February 13, 1960 by the Commander-in-Chief [Fidel Castro] and Anastas Mikoyan.
At that time, the USSR promised to buy 5 million tons of Cuban unrefined sugar over five years, and granted us a credit of $100 million, to be repaid over 12 years with 2.5% interest.
At the UN Conference on Trade and Development on March 25, 1964, speaking in the name of our government, Commander Guevara summed up that first period as follows: "Subsequently, this aggression was characterized by measures aimed at paralyzing the Cuban economy. The idea was to deprive Cuba, in mid-1960, of the fuel it needed for the operation of its industries, transportation and electric power plants. Under pressure from the State Department, independent U.S. oil companies refused to sell oil to Cuba or to make their tanker ships available for its transport. Shortly afterward, an attempt was made to deprive the island of the necessary hard currency for foreign trade. On July 6, 1960, then-President Eisenhower cut Cuba's sugar quota to the United States to 700,000 tons, totally eliminating that quota on March 31, 1961, a few days after the announced Alliance for Progress and days before the Bay of Pigs invasion. There was an attempt to shut down Cuba's industry, by depriving it of raw materials and spare parts for its machines and, to that end, on October 19, 1960, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a resolution prohibiting the shipment of numerous products to our island. That ban on trade with Cuba became greater, until on February 3, 1962, then-President Kennedy declared a complete embargo on U.S. trade with Cuba."
Having failed in all of its aggression, the United States moved to implement an economic blockade against our country, aimed at preventing other countries from trading with us. First of all, on January 24, 1962, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it was prohibiting entry into the United States of any product made, wholly or in part, with Cuban products, even if they were manufactured in another country. In another step signifying the establishment of a virtual economic blockade, on February 6, 1963, the White House issued a press release announcing that merchandise bought with U.S. government money would not be loaded on to ships with foreign flags that had engaged in trade with Cuba after January 1st of that year. That was how the blacklist began, which is now applied to more than 150 ships from countries who did not bow down to the illegal U.S. blockade. And in another step, to hinder trade with Cuba, on July 8, 1963, the U.S. Treasury Department froze all Cuban assets in U.S. territory and prohibited all transfers of money to and from Cuba, as well as any other transaction in dollars via third countries.
What were the objectives of that tour?
—The decision to deprive us of fuel, suspend purchases of Cuban sugar and other economic aggression had already materialized by October 1960, when, as deputy secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I received a telephone call from Jaime Barrios, who worked with Che, informing me that in the coming days I should join a delegation that would be led by Che and would visit all of the socialist countries. At that time, Che was already talking to us quite a lot about the need to build relations with those countries.
Later, I would learn more details about our mission; the primary objective of diversifying our trade by placing most of our sugar production in those markets and replacing the majority of our imports with products from those places.
Once in the USSR, an emergency meeting took place in Moscow that included almost all of the foreign ministers of the socialist countries. In the meeting, Commander Guevara explained the serious situation facing the Cuban Revolution given the imperialist aggression, and as the main theme, the need to place four million tons of sugar in those markets, at a price of four cents per pound. This price was higher than the rate on the New York Stock Exchange at the time.
He also said it was necessary for Cuba to buy its essential products from those countries.
You should remember that at the time, Cuba did not yet have a Ministry of Foreign Trade, and we had very little information, and even less experience, in that area. All we had were solid political arguments and a letter signed by our prime minister, Commander Fidel Castro, which had the abovementioned request, and its bearer was Commander Guevara.
What were the agreements reached?
—As a result of those negotiations, the USSR promised to buy 2.7 million tons of sugar; China, one million tons; and the other socialist countries, 300,000 tons.
In addition, Korea, Vietnam and Mongolia bought symbolic quantities as an expression of support and solidarity with the socialist countries.
In Moscow, a multilateral agreement on payments was also signed.
With the goal of reaching trade agreements that included lists of the products to be bought and sold, payment agreements and credit agreements, the delegation led by Che also visited Czechoslovakia, China, Korea and the Federal Republic of Germany.
During his stay in China, and to save time, Che decided that he would visit the Democratic Republic of Korea, and had me lead a small group to Vietnam and Mongolia, countries with which we also established diplomatic relations at the time.
At the end of his stay in Berlin, Che had to return to Cuba, informing us that he would make a short stop in Budapest and that the delegation I was leading from then on should travel to Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania.
Was there already talk of the need to change Cuba's trade structure?
—After arriving in Cuba, Commander Guevara appeared on television on January 6, 1961, to report on the signing of the agreements with the socialist countries:
"It was an extremely difficult task, a difficult task, because we have had to change the structure of our trade in just a few months. From the end of 1959, exactly one year ago, Cuba has passed from being a country with a totally colonial structure, with domestic and foreign trade systems completely dominated by the large import companies dependent on monopoly capital, to being — in 10 months, as of October, when the cycle definitively ends — a country where the state holds a complete monopoly over foreign trade, and also a large part of domestic trade."
He also referred to additional difficulties that we were facing, given that in those countries, the decimal metric system was used, while we continued to use the colonial practice of weighing in pounds and measuring in yards, with different systems for measuring pressure or a simple pipe fitting.
Electrical equipment in Cuba uses 60 cycles, while in the socialist countries, it was 50 cycles per second.
In short, we were facing all types of difficulties, but with the determination to overcome them and triumph over them in face of the dilemma created for us by the imperialist aggression.
Interesting anecdotes emerged out of these initial experiences.
For example, in China, when evaluating the list of products to be traded, there was a difference of $3 million favoring the Chinese side.
Before signing the final protocol, the Chinese prime minister at the time, Chou En-lai, told Che that China should not appear to be receiving more in products than what it was exporting to Cuba.
So it was decided to have a line of $3 million in arts and crafts exports, given that at the time, we could not find any other products that met our needs.
It was out of that protocol contingent of Chinese arts and crafts that lots of stories circulated in Havana about the large volume of Chinese walking sticks and umbrellas being sold in our stores.
Actually, the Chinese sent us valuable craftwork that I am sure exceeded the value previously mentioned.
I always believed that neither they nor we really valued those wonderful things.
On the contrary, certain foreigners who were living in Cuba temporarily did take advantage of the situation, enriching themselves through the illegal sale of those art treasures.
Another source of anecdotes and jokes was the snow removers. I think that these actually had a basis in truth, in machines that were the same or similar and were purchased to be tried out in our mining industry.
I will never forget the look of amazement on the face of the Soviet translator who, in reading the list of things we needed, did not know what to say when a typing error led him to read the need for thousands of "monkey lips" (bembas de mono) instead of "hand pumps" (bombas de mano).
We joked amongst ourselves about the decision by Commander Guevara to buy all the canned meat we could, and also all the machine tools that we could.
A few months later, we would realize how correct those decisions were, when, mobilized to occupy trenches or as a volunteer in cutting sugar cane, I thought the Russian meat tasted glorious, after having made so many faces when we first tried the samples they had given us.
We had the same internal satisfaction of knowing that the problem created by the blockade of a shortage of spare parts could be solved through the machine tools we had bought, which a comrade on the delegation had commented on by going so far as to say that on the next King's Day, we would have to do propaganda among the country's parents so they would give each child the present of a machine tool.
Personally, I have unforgettable memories of those days together with a man as peerless as Che.
I had the opportunity to meet prominent individuals like Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai, Nikita Krushchev, Walter Ulbricht, Pham Van Dong and other outstanding leaders of the socialist camp.
But it is with special affection and admiration that I remember one agreeable and helpful young woman who helped us as a German translator in the FRG, Tamara Bunke Bider, who years later would go down in history as Tania the guerrilla fighter.
On February 23, 1961, the Ministry of Foreign Trade was created, with Alberto Mora appointed as its minister.
What problems were created by those changes in foreign trade, and what role in did Commander Guevara play in resolving them?
— Some time after returning from the trip to the socialist countries, I was appointed deputy minister of foreign trade.
During those early years of organizing and readapting our foreign trade, and despite having multiple responsibilities, Commander Guevara played an exceptional role in attending to and developing it.
During those years, Che referred publicly to foreign trade activity, sometimes to refute those who, like the [newspaper] Diario de la Marina, maliciously criticized the first agreements with the Soviet Union. He did that during a talk he gave at the University of Havana on March 2, 1960, and days later, on March 20, 1960, as part of the inaugural lecture of the TV program "The People's University."
He also referred to the main difficulties we were facing at the time in taking on these tasks, such as during the speech he gave at a planning seminar in Algeria on July 13, 1963, where he said:
"Our foreign trade had changed completely in location. From 75% with the United States, it went to 75-80% with the socialist countries. A beneficial change for us in every respect, political and social, but in the economic respect, it required a large amount of organization.
Hundreds of specialized importers used to make their requests to the United States by telephone, and the next day they would arrive by ferry, direct from Miami to Havana. There were no warehouses or foresight of any kind.
That whole apparatus, without those technicians, enemies of the government, had to be established in what was first the Foreign Trade Bank of Cuba and later the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and centralize all of these purchases there with inexperienced people, to do them now, not one day away by telephone, but two months away, in long talks. And at the same time, raw materials that had a different name. And even more: if you all go today to a factory in this country and want to know what kind of steel is used for a given spare part, you will find that it has a number in a catalog, the SKF-27, for example. The SKF-27 in that company's sales catalog corresponds to a particular component; how could that be requested in the socialist countries? We had to do analyses of steel, sometimes machine fabricate one or two particular parts. Almost impossible. We had to import the machines here in Cuba, with a shortage of highly-qualified technicians."
Those were Cuba's everyday problems — and still are.
Was he pleased with the course of those trade relations?
— Che foresaw and warned of the difficulties and obstacles that, in our own experience of trade relations with certain socialist countries, led to the latter following capitalist patterns in the conduct of their relations with underdeveloped countries.
So, in a speech he gave in Algiers on February 24, 1965, at the second Afro-Asian Economic Solidarity Seminar, he said:
"Socialism cannot exist unless there is a change in people's consciousness, creating a new, fraternal attitude toward humanity, both individually, within the society in which socialism is being or has been built, and in relation to the world, with respect to all of the nations that suffer imperialist oppression." •
1. Jaime Barrios, a Chilean, was killed on September 11, 1973 at La Moneda Palace.