Pathfinder Press is releasing a new edition of Ernesto Che Guevara's Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War - 1956-58, including material never before available in English.
To promote this book the Militant is running "Pages from Cuba's revolutionary history." This series features articles by and about combatants of the July 26 Movement and the Rebel Army, which led the revolutionary war that overthrew the U.S.- backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and opened the socialist revolution in the Americas.
The following is the fourth installment - a story about Oniria Gutiérrez, the first woman who joined Guevara's Rebel Army column in the Sierra Maestra. This article appeared first in the weekly Cuban magazine Bohemia on Oct. 20, 1967. The translation and subheads are by the Militant.
Oniria Gutiérrez is a young woman of medium height, with a lively demeanor. She graciously accepted an interview with a Bohemia reporter in her apartment, briefly interrupting her daily work of tending to her three small children.
It is surprising to Oniria that a journalist would want to interview her about Che Guevara. However, Oniria is the first woman who joined the legendary commander's military column, which operated in the wild mountains of eastern Cuba. Finally, after an initial reluctance, she begins to speak, and a piece of revolutionary history springs from her lips.
"I arrived at Che's column on August 3, 1957. They were in Alto de Santa Ana, right after the battle of Bueycito had taken place - that was on August 1. It was the first time I saw Che and it was also the first time I saw an encampment. Actually, I had never been involved with the guerrillas, nor even the July 26 Movement. I lived in Victoria de las Tunas and I went on my own account."
Oniria's first words are marked with enthusiasm for telling everything- up to the finest details. For Oniria, meeting Che for the first time was unforgettable and decisive for her life:
"After almost a month of wandering, they led me to the Sierra Maestra mountains. I remember that when I went up to the house of a peasant in Minas de Bueycito, I thought that I was in liberated territory and I told the peasant that I wanted to join the insurgents. Luckily, they were good people and they sent me to where comrade Olivé from the [July 26] Movement was. After that, I continued climbing up into the mountains, going from house to house. I was overcome with emotion when I was finally stopped by one of the guerrilla rebels, who was wearing the armband of the July 26 Movement.
"The truth is that I started to cry. Of course, I didn't know that it was Che's encampment. But then I saw him, as well as Ramiro [Valdés], Ciro Redondo, and others. Che was in the little house that served as general staff headquarters when I came to tell him that I wanted to join the Rebel Army. He told me that it was totally impossible, that it would be very hard for a woman in my physical condition, that I would be more useful in the cities, and I don't know what else."
Oniria briefly pauses to put her thoughts in order while the Bohemia reporter's eyes drift over to a beautiful portrait of Che, hung above the sofa in the living room. Hung on one side of the frame, curiously, is a red beret, the type worn by the Committees in Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) in the Plaza of the Revolution last September 28. After that, Oniria continues her interesting story:
Women proved they could fight
"I continued arguing about this with Che, with Ramiro, with Ciro, for a good long time. Finally, I took Che aside and I told him that the fact that Celia [Sánchez] was in the Sierra Maestra demonstrated that women too could fight. I proposed that he give me the opportunity to stay in the encampment for three or four days, and, if I could handle it, that he let me stay for good. So he accepted. Sometimes I think about why he accepted and I think that it was because of my persistent pleas. I begged him: `Come on, commander, please, don't be bad,' over and over again until he accepted my proposal."
Women proved they could fight
When she joined Che's troops, Oniria Gutiérrez was only 17 years old. Her extraordinary youthfulness brought out the sympathy in everyone, especially in Commander Guevara. Now, with a slight smile, she remembers the special attention he gave her:
"Che really looked out for me. I was just a young girl, and at night he was always concerned about where I was, what I was doing. When I joined his column, I didn't have a blanket or a hammock, and he scolded me affectionately. I told him that I thought that everybody there slept on the ground. Then he gave me his hammock and his blanket. I saw how he endured the cold until he could find another blanket. Oh, how he was with me...!"
There are many anecdotes and Oniria tries to remember them all. She doesn't forget how in her first days in the encampment, she devoted herself to helping the rebel soldiers, mending and washing their clothes. Finally Che intervened, ordering her to stop. "Before you came," he said, "everyone took care of their own problems here."
"He didn't want to let me go to the battles," Oniria continues, "I think he saw me more or less as a young girl and he kidded around with me a lot. Between August 28 and 30, there was a skirmish with the Batista army, and even though they warned me not to go, I went to speak with Che just as they were about to leave for the battle. I convinced him and he said, `Let's go!' Then he put me `in charge' of watching his field glasses and his coat while they fought, and gave me a small revolver for my personal defense.
"I also can't forget the first night that he and I spoke in depth. He asked me about my political ideas, and if I belonged to any political party. I told him that I supported the Orthodox Party, that my whole family did. Then he asked me about my religious ideas and, in turn, I asked him if he was religious. `No,' he answered, `I can't be religious because I'm a communist.'
"For a young person like me, without much knowledge of politics and who had heard only bad things about communism, it was a surprise. I gave a start in my hammock and said to him: `You can't be a communist, because you're such a good person.' Then Che laughed a lot and started explaining to me all the things I didn't know."
One interesting anecdote after another rolls off the lips of this veteran of the Sierra Maestra:
"Many times we would get together in groups and talk. There were compañeros who would always say that when we triumphed in the struggle against Batista, we should go to other countries and fight. I once asked Che, `As an Argentine, Che, why did you come here? It's fine that we're fighting, but you...?' He replied to my words with understanding, using a phrase I will never forget: `We all have to help one another...' I remember that he would always say that he would not die of old age. I think he repeated this because he always planned to continue fighting."
A question comes up that throws Oniria deep into thought. She is asked which aspect of Commander Ernesto Che Guevara's character is, to her, the most fundamental. At last she responds slowly:
"So many things! He was sensitive, honest and straightforward, disciplined... so many things. He was very human, with an enormous and fierce sense of duty. I remember one time when an individual had to be executed. You could see that Che was concerned about it, even though it was necessary, because there was no way this man could be pardoned for what he had done. He was a traitor who had assaulted peasants and raped women, and in the name of the Movement, no less!
"The order was to execute him with a single shot and a compañero was designated to do the job. However, he exceeded his orders, shooting the traitor two or three times. Che, who was sitting in his hammock awaiting the execution, got up, very upset, and shouted `Enough!' at the compañero who was entrusted with executing the traitor. It was as if he wanted to prevent anything out-of-the-ordinary from happening."
The personal courage of the heroic commander, which was demonstrated so many times, is also evoked in the interview:
"During the second battle of Pino del Agua, which was very long, when the enemy planes came to bomb and strafe us, we had to find cover under trees and rocks and wait until the planes left. I was behind some rocks and when I lifted my head up, I saw Che standing there, calmly smoking his pipe and observing how the planes swooped down. I left my hiding place and went running to his side, where, despite his protests, I stayed, because if the planes didn't bother him, I wasn't going to let them bother me either."
Discipline in the camp
All the affection that Che demonstrated for Oniria didn't stop him from subjecting her to the iron discipline of the camp. One clear example of this occurred during the battle of Mar Verde. Che ordered the troops to march because there were large contingents of enemy forces nearby. He also ordered the women and wounded to be taken somewhere safe. He sent them to Alto del Hombrito with orders not to come down from there.
Discipline in the camp
"I disobeyed this order that night," Oniria recounts, "I wanted to be with them in case the Batista soldiers came, so I went down to the camp. When Che saw me there, he sternly reprimanded me and ordered me to leave. He treated me like he never had before, in spite of my protests. It was his concept of discipline, and it couldn't be any other way. In retrospect, that's how I have come to see it."
The combatant was separated from Che for the rest of the war when he left for the Escambray to lead the "Ciro Redondo" invasion column. This time her pleas were not heard by Commander Che Guevara:
"He scolded me and told me that it was impossible, that I wouldn't be able to withstand that campaign. I protested that Joel Iglesias, who also was very young and had been injured a short time before, was going. But he did not want me to go with them.
After the triumph of the revolution, I saw him in La Cabaña. We embraced, jubilant about the victory of the revolution. Then he asked me what I was going to do and I replied that I was going to get married. I can't forget his playful response, `What do you mean get married?! What you have to do is study so that you can do something useful!' "
Time has flown by, almost without the reporter or the subject noticing. It has been like immersing oneself in a heroic, unprecedented chapter of history and getting a firsthand look at the commander, flawless and unafraid, who gave his life to the Latin American revolution.
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