Escambray, the General´s Experience
By Carmen Rodríguez
Div. General Raúl Menéndez Tomassevich, Santiago de Cuba-born and revolutionary by conviction, Hero of the Republic of Cuba and main unrepeatable figure of stories on fights against bandits in Cuba and Angola.
The first impression of him responded to a strict face under his military grades and green suit, what changed as this conversation went by.
His most intimate partners call him Tomás, maybe, as a way of contracting his unusual last name. Div. General Raúl Menéndez Tomassevich is within that short list of men shaped by force of heroism for almost half century.
He knows him himself as a revolutionary stauncher since he enrolled into the 26th of July Movement, the Fidel Castro´s Rebel Army ; in addition to having become an academic military officer with studies at the prestigious Voroshilov Academy in former USSR. In his long service record accumulates Senior responsibilities: chief of the Revolutionary National Police after the triumph of Cuban Revolution in 1959, chief of the Fight Against Bandits Section, Bay of Pigs, in addition to having been Cuba’s only military officer commanding the three Cuban regional armies: Central , Occidental and Oriental.
To those who have flow to commit five internationalist missions in Latin America and Africa, He, Tomás, is a common Cuban, only different because he is accustomed to doing his duty. After so much of those details, I faced a short but robust man with a young look that doesn’t match with his 72 years of age , who assures to have lived intensely. Eloquent speaker, possessing that heroes´ unique virtue of simplifying motivations and facts.
– How was you early during the struggle against Batista’s dictatorship?
– I ´ve come from a humble home in eastern Santiago de Cuba province, but I could study. There at the Segunda Enseñanza Institute (Secondary Teaching Institute) we got involved into the student fight until I was sent to prison.
– For being a revolution upholder?
– No way. I made up myself to fake the Santiago de Cuba City mayor’s signature to steal some cash. Police sent me to a jail known as Boniato (Sweet potato). In there I met other inmates, former mates from the Institute as Otto Parellada, Braulio Coroneaux and Carlos Iglesias Fonseca (Nicaragua) who was then leader of the 26th of July Movement inside the prison; he worked linked to Frank País. We made a close friendship and one day both decided escaping from prison.
In Frank País´ first plan, we should flee helped by his outside connections coinciding with the uprising on November 30th, but it did not work out and he said the operation had been suspended. We came up ourselves with an overnight plan, with no outside ties; we dismantled the garnish and seized all weapons.
– What did the ex-inmate do later?
– I first become a clandestine fighter and then a guerrilla trooper in the Sierra Maestra mountain range. I fought in the area of Alto Songo. After the attack to Mayarí Arriba barracks, I was put under Raúl Castro’s orders in the Column 6, II Front and later in the Column 17, which defeated Batista’s troops in San Germán. When the triumph of Revolution in !959, I entered the Havana City on the victorious caravan along with Fidel, and days later comrade Efigenio Ameijeiras, asked me to help him organizing the Revolutionary National Police.
– How and why was Tomassevich a choice to command the fight against bandits?
– During the Limpia (The Escambray cleanse),the Revolutionary Armed Forces started to be created, Commander Juan Almeida was appointed as the Chief of the Army and I was designated Chief of Staff, since the Limpia del Escambray (the Escambray Cleanse) was over.
– Talking on this topic, some people believe the Limpia and the Fight Against Bandits are two different wars. Do you believe so?
– Fully. The Limpia came first. Our Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro’s ahead-of-time vision that has always guided us since the Sierra Maestra mountain range till today, allowed us the overwhelming victory over U.S mercenaries in Bay of Pigs, because the Escambray range was gone a long way of heavily-armed bandits. By that time, there were 8 columns, with two companies believed to support the inland landing, firstly planed through Trinidad’s shores. With such an amount of troopers, bandit leaders practically took for granted a beach head, because they expected to cut off Sancti Spíritus-Trinidad and Cienfuegos-Trinidad highways and to back up the airborne landing. It was a piece of cake, but Fidel Castro quickly decoded bandits´ role in a supposedly U.S invasion, then carried out, and organized the so-called Limpia del Escambray, which eroded a dangerous focus that held clout in Cuban central mountains. After that stage some dispersed rubbles of those insurgents kept alive and from my position as chief of staff I devoted myself a little bit to dog them while organizing the army. Shortly after, such a stream of armed bandits peaked again and consequently, it was created the Fight Against Bandits Section in the Escambray. I was upgraded to Army Second Chief, with the serious responsibility of heading the Fight Against Bandits (LCB).
– Do you now recall Fidel Castro’s presence at some time during the operations?
– Yes. I do. He surprised me in some other time and put us to move quick as well. In an opportunity he pursued bandits himself. People there didn’t want him to get close to hot situations, but he did, many times I could say.
– This entire epic story lasted up to 1965. What did it personally mean for Tomassevich?
– I would tell you that at those times, I didn’t think of war stories, nor when the war, was the satisfaction of a military duty fulfilled as a Cuban revolutionary . It was a strong teaching for further missions, for lifetime, for everything. I always see myself as a soldier , I even covered my embroidered military grades with adhesive tape and then entered into the deep wilderness as a common soldier, although one day as I had no grades on my suit sleeves, I could not give precise orders to capture a gang. I realized then that I should not abuse of it.
– This experience should have been useful for your mission in Angola.
– Of course, although Angola and the Escambray were two worlds apart. It was a time in which the UNITA forces started to grow; Commander-In-Chief Fidel and Ministry of the Cuban Armed Forces agreed that our troops were there to defend Angola from an outside aggression by South Africa, instead of interposing a civil war, but our troops began also to be repeatdely target of the UNITA actions, so I asked my superiors whether we should keep ourselves crossed arms. They gave me precise orders to attack back each time they hit us, so we did as we also helped militarily training the FAPLA.
– People rumor a kind of myth that there is only a man in the world able to find the UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi, and this man is named Raúl Menéndez Tomassevich.
What would you have to say about it?
– He and I both know that. I never saw him, but I was pretty close. If you knew that Savimbi had a crew escort of several men, including a highly-educated female secretary, who we captured and later changed to the MPLA side.
– You have been the only officer in Cuba, who has commanded its three regional armies , Isn’t it a high responsibility?
– It’s been a huge satisfaction for me to have served to the Revolution nationwide, and without noticing it, because I never thought that one day people would recall me as a chief. My superiors gave me a new mission one day and I used to forget the previous one
– I know on some of your memoirs published in two books. Will you continue writing?
– We wrote along with Lieutenant Colonel Gárciga three books, the last one is entitled “Golpe para el triunfo” (Blow for the victory). We are amid of full investigation to write another on the fight against bandits. Published books on the theme always deal with much of the bandits and not of who caught them, we want to give an overturn to that and write about the succeeders instead.
– Recently jointly with other ten fellow comrades you received the symbolic decoration Hero of the Republic of Cuba. What does this mean in your personal life?
– Basically, it was a great surprise to me. One always feel inside a little bit of immodesty , but it certainly surprised me and it means a great honor. In that moment, I reminded José Martí´s outstanding words that says who has served a lot, it is forced to continue serving. I consider myself capable, although there are some things now that I physically cannot make due to my advanced age. I newly told my wife that I turned an old man and I have not noticed it. I will turn 72 years old. That ´s not a General´s secret.
– Doesn’t the word retirement exist in your dictionary?
– No, no it doesn´t. I still yell pa’ lo que sea Fidel, (we are up for whatsoever comes Fidel) like Cuban people loves to say. Really. And I have told Fidel himself that I ´m a Cuban state property, and I will go wherever he tells me to go.
– General, you have been part throughout your life of risky missions. Did you ever feel fear?
– I will answer it to you now that I am already a hero. I don’t know yet who affirmed that if fear was felt, there were then no heroes. That´s not true. In the deepest forest when we prepared for a combat, we sang as we felt an overwhelming fear, but as soon as we hear the shots that fear got disappeared. Later, I felt it again, when the shooting was over and I realized about errors made.
– What does a Div. General usually do while off-duty?
– The common things. I like going to the cinema, listening to classic music, reading a lot, mainly historical literature, in fact, I feel pleased of knowing that I have some time for reading. The other time left is always consumed by my grandchildren.
– You have been always closest to our undefeated Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro for more than 40 years…
– I have seen Fidel Castro above his real altitude, as a giant, this has been the way I have seen him since the guerrilla struggle.
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