Welcome to The Latell Report. The Report, analyzing Cuba's contemporary domestic and foreign policy, is published monthly except August and December and distributed by the electronic information service of the Cuba Transition Project (CTP) at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS).
The Latell Report is a publication of ICCAS and no government funding has been used in its publication. The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ICCAS and/or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The death last week of Juan Almeida, Cuba’s most prominent Afro-descended leader, leaves just three “historicos,” survivors of all the revolution’s conflicts and crises of the last fifty-six years.
Only the Castro brothers and Ramiro Valdes remain among those who assaulted the Moncada garrison in July 1953, were imprisoned on the Isle of Pines, trained in Mexico after their release, waded ashore calamitously from the Granma, fought for two years as guerrillas in Cuba’s eastern sierras, and entered Havana triumphantly in January 1959 to take up official duties.
Yet, despite his heroic credentials --and like Valdes-- Almeida was not always fully trusted by the Castro brothers. In the end, nonetheless, his humble roots, racial identity, and youthful military feats guaranteed his prominent place in the revolutionary pantheon.
Castro’s guerrilla movement produced few other black warriors and none who distinguished themselves in combat to the extent he did. Almeida, according to Herbert Matthews, was a “fanatically brave” leader. He was wounded at least once, and according to Che Guevara, probably saved his life in an early skirmish with Batista’s forces. Almeida led guerrillas in a fierce battle in September 1958 when a high ranking Batista colonel was taken prisoner, the highest ranking officer captured by Castro’s forces during the Sierra Maestra campaigns.
Almeida was then, and until his death, especially close to Raul Castro, who promoted him to the rank of comandante early in the guerrilla war and gave him command of a guerrilla column, only the third one created. Years later he and Valdes, and only a few others, were honored with the title Commander of the Revolution. He served in a variety of capacities in Raul’s armed forces ministry, as chief of staff, and in the mid 1970’s as acting minister when Raul resided in the Soviet Union for extended military training.
Almeida is not known, however, to have served either as a clandestine volunteer or a leader of Cuban expeditionary forces in any of the third world conflicts of the 1960’s and 1970’s where Cuba intervened. There is no evidence that he ever held the rank of general after the new system of military ranking was introduced in the 1970's.
For many years he occupied prominent positions in the highest ranks of the Cuban Communist Party and its predecessor organizations. In March 1962 he was one of twenty five named to the directorate of the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations (ORI) that fused the pre-Castro communist party with the two leading “revolutionary” organizations that waged war against the Batista regime. Almeida was one of twelve members inducted from Castro’s own 26th of July Movement, and the only Afro-Cuban among them. Later, he served continuously on the Communist Party Politburo.
But it has never been suggested that Almeida performed policy making or important administrative functions other than as a figurehead or ceremonial front man. He rarely gave speeches, avoiding situations where he would be asked to speak extemporaneously. He was described by one early historian of the revolution as “almost illiterate,” and by another as of “limited intellect.” He had little or no formal education before the revolution. An apprentice bricklayer when he joined Fidel Castro’s incipient movement before Moncada, he is said until then to have performed manual labor from the age of eleven.
Even long after his retirement from active service he greeted African and Caribbean leaders visiting Cuba and appeared at government rallies and provincial ribbon-cuttings, especially in the country’s eastern provinces where majorities of the populace are Afro-descended. He went with Fidel to the United Nations in 1960, lodged with him at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, and was conspicuous in ceremonial dealings with African-Americans.
Most historians agree that he was always malleable once he devoted himself to the Castro brothers. Hugh Thomas wrote that “he was willing to follow Fidel anywhere under any circumstances.” Tad Szulc described him as a fidelista “knight.”
But in the mid 1960’s, and possibly again in more recent years, Almeida may have strayed from such blind fealty. Defectors and refugees have reported that after the Missile Crisis and the purges and tumultuous political upheavals of the 1960’s he at least temporarily lost faith in Fidel’s leadership. According to uncorroborated accounts, he was attracted to the conniving of high ranking conspirators in the armed forces. Whatever his involvement may have been, he was subsequently cleared or rehabilitated by the Castros and then served for several more decades as their most celebrated Afro-descended revolutionary.
His death has not altered the dynamics of Cuba’s leadership dynamics, and as the foremost symbol of Afro-Cuban participation in the revolution’s senior counsels, he has been succeeded by younger men, including Esteban Lazo. But as one of the last remaining links to all the myths and exaggerated history of determined revolutionary struggle he is survived now by only three others, also in their twilight years.
I wish to acknowledge the valuable support in the preparation of this analysis of my University of Miami student research assistant, Ms. Lolita Sosa.
Dr. Brian Latell, distinguished Cuba analyst and recent author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader, is a Senior Research Associate at ICCAS. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively.
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