By Katia Monteagudo
Back in the Escambray cordillera, Mario Rodríguez Valero, a brave man who taught peasants and hunted paramilitary bandits as well, recalls his old, but vivid memories.
He still smells the gunpowder of the then-boxes laden with bullets that accompanied him while he climbed aboard a jeep through the hard-to-cross paths that only mules could trace journey of to the Escambray Mountains.
He feels yet the relish of canned sardines, Russian beef or cabbage, as well as the countless hurried food and the month-long sleeplessness. His feats still hurting since he, while on shock, strongly punch the tree, where the dead body of a boy teacher hung. His cry for that death still seems to be boundless…
“People do not figure out how hard to propel a huge Literacy Campaign, conducted by our Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro himself could turn out amidst a war, in which we knew that the enemy sought to eliminate, to murder and to stem us, and because we did not either want to take a step back.”
And once more he revives those tough months from April to December of 1961, of a literacy crusade that held during the peak of an armed terrorist stream, sponsored by the U.S. Time now brings back again his military uniform and inseparable M-52 rifle and Czech-made gun machine.
Fellow comrades, collaborators and former chiefs: Almeida, Milián, Félix Torres, Gelasio León, Olga Villa, Rojas, Ortelio, Chau Piedra, Marturelo, Pineda, Oropesa, Evelia… and some other come to mind in this moment.
At age of 23, Mario Rodríguez Valero enlisted in the used-to-be Rebel Army to defeat a military invasion on the sands of Bay of Pigs, accepted a post as Literacy Campaign Block No. 1 coordinator in the area of Trinidad.
Once more he set his headquarters in Rancho Consuelo, and leant his back on a hammock hanging from any nearby grove of this wilderness and again he is commanding oodles of boys and girls who imposed over bullets and extermination, wisdom for the first letters and numbers.
“I was designated for this last post. It was known as the most difficult place of the island country. At those times although you drove a jeep, you needed to drive as slow as if you were riding a mule. Today this is easily said, but bandits could ambush you in any place along this vast forest, Condado, Méyer, Pitajones, Polo Viejo, Topes de Collantes; from Cuatros Vientos to deep into Charco Azul … terrorist gangs under the command of Carretero, Blas Tardio, Cheíto León, Pedro González…and many other kept going back and forth.”
How was this campaign organized?
Firstly, we agreed to decentralize a sort of camp. Secondly, we created areas and sub-areas and started moving all boys and girls to the neighboring peasant and farmer’s houses. We grouped volunteer young teachers of scarcely 13, 14, 15 or in few cases of 16 years of age from almost all parts of Cuba.
There was an epoch, in which we reached 3 000, due to it was necessary to be supported by a volunteer force made up of Patria Muerte (Homeland or Death) crews of selected tobacco rollers from villages of Cabaiguán, Taguasco, Zaza del Medio, Sancti Spíritus and Cienfuegos, from this latter one, I received nearly 1000, the majority of them were former construction workers, who were assigned the most intricate places and of course, I provided them with one or two arms for them to protect themselves.
Throughout large extensions of lands we located a technical adviser; most of them came to be women. They could be either regulars or volunteers of the Cinco Picos (Five Picks) that Commander Fidel Castro ordered to be formed in the Sierra Maestra cordillera.
I counted on a fleet of five Russian-made jeeps that President Fidel had recently supplied to Almeida for the Campaign in the Escambray, which we used to load with sufficient munitions.
How could you guarantee complete security for those young teachers, almost kids, under those hard conditions?
An essential measure was taken, which stated that none of these teachers was allowed to move to other house after the nightfall. Moreover, we had plenty of straight talks to peasants sheltering them in their own household that they must look after them as though they were their own children. Even for these humble peasants to plow the soil was hard as well.
They responded by working cloistered in groups and bearing rifles to defend themselves from anti-Cuban criminals, there are many examples as the Villalobos family, which once working on the soil had to face a an armed terrorist band.
At those times we kept narrow ties with comrades from the Army, particularly, with First Lieutenant Manuel Chau Piedra. Our headquarters was located on Rancho Consuelo, where we received a flow of well-detailed reports on all bandits’ movements.
If one of those murderous gangs drew closer to where a young member of this literacy campaign held his classroom, we quickly moved toward those places for one day or two. We camped near the house, usually, in surrounding bushes and stayed alongside the boys for as long as the threat lasted.
Did you once have to fight a combat against these gangs?
In each and every meeting that I had to attend weekly in Santa Clara, in order to inform the real situation regarding the Literacy Campaign, I was always asked the roster of literate peasants, as well as of bandits captured. It had already turned into a routine, but one day on the area of Puente Azul, in Trinidad, we were heading for the coast and suddenly found ourselves fighting intensively against a band.
The girl teacher assigned to that area had newly informed us of 17 local people unwilling to attend classes and as soon as we set foot in there bandits opened fire heavily against us, what proved that that rural family was harboring terrorist squads.
How many times did these gangs attempt to murder a teacher?
A great deal I could say. Just to mention some of them, one day at the agricultural cooperative 24, Carretero’s band came to murder a peasant and his entire family, for they sheltered a literacy brigade member. Over there together with the rest of the family members lived a young teacher from Cárdenas, dubbed as Tarzan, I just cannot recall his first name right now.
That peasant had built a trench around the house. Bandits attempted to get closer several times, but intense shootings coming out from the hut stemmed them. The rifle of one of the peasant’s son stuck in the middle of the combat, and Tarzan who was very quick and decisive, fixed it on the heat of the battle and opened fire, wounding one of the criminals in his stomach, what made the band retired.
Another teacher, in La Pastora, a Santa Clara-born mulatto was also between life and death when bandits placed a rope in his neck, but miraculously he unfastened himself as soon as one of his two executioners went to hold back a peasant who was with him, and could elude running nonstop to Trinidad.
Up there in Méyer, these murderous gangs kidnapped one of my voluntary teachers named David. They took him away from the zone under my command, so we asked a militia to come behind them. On the fourth day of a chasing we found our boy tied to a tree trunk. I do not know yet why they didn’t kill him.
And didn’t these boys feel frightened? They were almost children
I will be sincere to you; the story should be said as real as it was. The boys never hesitated at any moment; neither after Ascunce’s painful murder. Mothers and parents from across the country came and asked them to get back with them, but none gave up.
It was a deep historical as well as a revolutionary period. I will mention the story of a 13-year-old boy from Havana, who was target of a band in Yaguanabo; however, when we finally located him, he was not willingly to leave, either the rural family wanted me to take him with me, but as the death threat grew I had no other choice than replaced him by a Patria o Muerte (Homeland or Death) teacher, a former tobacco roller from Cabaiguán, a cousin of mine.
I could also mention another example that took place in the Araca batey (small rural community), where we committed several girls raging from 13 to 15 years of age. Murderer Pedro González and his band besieged all over the place. The revolutionary militia surrounded the whole town. I crossed immediately through that revolutionary fencelike ambush, but when I finally got there I found the entire population was shielding them all. They hid them behind the closets or between two mattresses, but none of them fled.
What did actually happen to the rest of the literacy campaign members after Ascunce’s assassination?
Ascunce’s death turned to be the most difficult moment of all. We had gone through really thousands of troubles for a long time, and we were already raising ourselves victorious, without any other victim. When we returned from the funeral, we all met at the school in Casa de Tablas aside the highway. Over there we took a picture of ourselves waving our Cuban flag and made the oath with our very signatures to stand firmly up to the end of the Literacy Campaign.
We had the ever historical responsibility of following our Commander-In-Chief Fidel Castro’s directions and ideas. We taught nearly 4 000 peasants from the Escambray cordillera. We all marched in blocks in a very emotional parade and we released a huge Cuban flag that then was taken to Havana for a national ceremony before our undefeated leader Fidel Castro. We shed our blood, but triumphed at the end.