And then there were three

The recent death 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 56 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

Few black revolutionaries

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 Raúl Castro, who promoted him to the rank of commandant
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 honoured
with the title Commander of the Revolution. He served in a variety of
capacities in Raúl’s armed-forces ministry, as chief of staff, and in the mid
1970s as acting minister when Raúl 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 1960s and 1970s
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 1970s.

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 25 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 12 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 labour from the age of 11.

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 1960s, 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 1960s he at least temporarily
lost faith in Fidel’s leadership.

Eyeing the other side

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, 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.

Brian Latell is a senior research
associate in Cuba studies at the University of Miami and author of After Fidel:
Raúl Castro and the Future of Cuba’s Revolution.