MY UNCLE PEPE SCALED the hills of the Sierra Maestra as a rebel, before he had shaved for the first time. It was said he was precocious or clairvoyant and knew, or so he and the rest of my family thought, when to jump on the bandwagon of the future winners. In any event, he did it for his conscience, dreaming of a revolution.
On coming down from the hills in January of ’59, he brought a thick black beard, several Santajuanas necklaces, and a Thompson machine gun carried across shoulders sporting the rank of captain. He belonged to the group of Commander Camilo Cienfuegos who, months later, would fall into the sea in a small plane. And strangely, later, his officers were discharged; in some way they, too, went down with him. “My only Commander,” my uncle would repeat, and for fifty years he maintained a silent act of insubordination out of loyalty to his late leader.
From that time my uncle learned to wait, like the Arab proverb: he sat at the door of his cabin to watch the triumphs, for which he had sacrificed, pass by. Continuing to help “the process,” because it had nothing to do with his personal interests, he was sure that the political changes had been for the benefit of the people.
My uncle’s bushy beard turned gray, and later sparse, his teeth went missing, and scoliosis prevented him from continuing the long wait. He barely spoke. He stopped attending the meetings of the war veterans. A few months ago we found him crying, feeling ashamed, he told us he could not understand how we would soon tally fifty years of “victory” and yet the people find themselves worse off.
Finally, we buried my Uncle Pepe without military honors. They denied his daughters a flag for his coffin or the right to display his well-earned medals because the head of la Casa de los Combatientes, the veterans’ association, said that by putting a rope around his neck he had surrendered; he was no longer a worthy son of the fatherland.