¡Juan Almeida Bosque, Presente!

Sep 15, 2009

Juan Almeida Bosque

Cuban revolutionary hero Juan Almeida Bosque died late Friday, Sept. 11, in Havana, Cuba. An official period of mourning for this beloved Cuban leader was immediately declared; numerous statements in homage to Almeida have poured in, and two million people visited memorial sites across Cuba on Sunday during a 12-hour period.

Almeida was on the frontlines of Cuba’s revolutionary struggle, alongside Fidel and Raúl Castro, from the moment that dictator Fulgencio Batista executed a coup d’etat on March 10, 1952. Later, in the guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed Batista, Almeida was designated Commander to lead the “Mario Muñoz Column of the Third Front.”

After the triumph, he was a leader in the socialist government and the Communist Party of Cuba, including as a vice-president of the Council of State at the time of his passing. He was also a noted songwriter, penning more than 300 songs, mostly of the bolero genre.

Almeida was born in Havana on Feb. 17, 1927, the second of 12 children in a poor and humble family. At the early age of 11 he had to begin work as a bricklayer apprentice to help provide for his family.

Almeida’s lifelong commitment to Cuba’s revolution was formed by his childhood, his working-class consciousness and an overwhelming will to overcome hardship. Upon joining the revolutionary struggle, his personal qualities contributed greatly to the Cuban people’s struggle for liberation.

Mario Mencía’s book, El Grito de Moncada, relates in detail Almeida’s early experiences. As a bricklayer apprentice, Almeida earned only 40 cents a day. He felt such responsibility to help his family that he looked for a new way to earn money.

“I made a little cart. I got two large cans and carried water to the houses of the barrio that didn’t have running water. There was a public well half a mile from the houses and I went there to get the water. I charged 10 cents a can. Half a mile going and half a mile coming. I pushed the cart all day, from morning to night without stopping. I had to find another boy to help me. He pushed the cart from behind and I from in front…”

In his early 20s, while Almeida worked at various jobs as a cleaner, ticket-taker and mason in the spa at the University of Havana, he met Fidel Castro, who was studying law. There they became close friends who formed an unbreakable bond, sharing a vision of a new Cuba free of oppression.

Inspired by Castro’s political ideas and his audacious decision to wage a military attack on the Batista regime, Almeida became one of the combatants in the July 26, 1953, attack on the Moncada army barracks, in Santiago de Cuba.

To the end of his life, Almeida was side by side with the leader of the Revolution. Those who took up arms in the Moncada attack could not know what the outcome would be. What is certain is that it took great courage and sacrifice for each combatant, since death could be their fate.

Mencía cites Almeida’s personal reflection as he sat by himself for a few moments in the pre-dawn hours, while the fighters prepared to leave for Moncada.

“He remembered his infancy: the days that he had to walk without shoes, the little cart and the two tins of water that he pushed from morning to night, the large pot that his mother would put on the table for dinner … how the 12 children would become quiet and with a ladle, his mother would slowly divide the food in 12 equal parts. Almeida remembered the silence of his brothers and sisters during the serving… the look of their eyes watching the pot… All that misery. The misery of Cuba. And racial discrimination: being destined for abuse because of his skin, to never feel treated like a full human in his country. That faith motivated Almeida.

“Tomorrow at dawn they would fight. They would win. He would survive. ‘It was my first commitment,’ Almeida told me. ‘But later, in the Sierra Maestra [mountains, during the guerrilla war], before each combat, I always meditated for a moment. And I always thought that we would succeed, and that I would survive. That idea gave me courage.’”

Dozens of their comrades were captured and tortured to death in the hours after the failed attack. Several of the survivors, including Fidel and Raúl Castro and Almeida, were later captured, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison. But prison did not deter the revolutionaries; they turned the experience into a school of cadre development, and the July 26 Movement was born.

When they were released from prison 20 months later, in May 1955, a joyous Almeida can be seen walking between Raul and Fidel, greeting supporters, as if to say, we will triumph.

From there they went to Mexico, trained, and returned by boat on Dec. 2, 1956 to begin the battle anew. The hardships were not over. On Dec. 5, Batista’s air force and military suddenly began to strafe the 82 men with air bombing and machine gun fire, at Alegría de Pío, in the eastern province of Oriente. Only 19 men would survive the brutal ambush.

While they were being battered by the gunfire, with what seemed like no way out, a call came out from the Batista forces for the rebels’ surrender. Almeida immediately shouted out, what became a legendary slogan to this day, “No one surrenders here! (Aquí no se rinde nadie.)”

With the formal establishment of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, Almeida was elected to the Political Bureau, a position he held until his death. He was founder and president of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution.

Perhaps the greatest honor for this man of humble roots, unassuming character, great courage and loyalty, was the deep love and respect that the people of Cuba hold for him.

On Sunday, while all of Cuba mourned Almeida’s passing, Fidel Castro wrote a moving  reflection in homage to his lifelong comrade. Click here to read it.

Comandante de la Revolución Juan Almeida Bosque will be buried with military honors in Santiago de Cuba.

¡Juan Almeida Bosque Presente!