The Cuban Adventure Part 1 

"What is this shit!" Dave yelled, looking at the twisted morass of blackened sugar cane stalks. "Weirdest cane field I've ever seen!"

"It's not a field, it's a jumble!" I yelled back. 

The problem with the field was that a hurricane had hit it when the plants were young so that the stalks were either more or less parallel to the ground or leaning at a 45 degree angle or every angle in between and in every direction. Because of this most of the stalks had grown like snakes to get around each other. Worse yet the stalks had grown much thicker than normal -- a good two inches in diameter in places -- and the sheath was very hard. On top of it all, the patch had been subjected to a controlled burn to get the leaves off the stalks, leaving a black sticky residue on them and destroying what was left of the field's beauty.

A member of the Cuban Communist Party had taught my work partner Dave and myself to cut cane and one thing she stressed was creativity. "There are a number of ways to cut well but you must always strive to create a better way." Her name was Elsa and her own creativity had included running a pirate radio station in Havana which supported the Revolution, along with surviving the attempts of Batista's thugs to kill her and destroy her transmitters. We both had taken to her and her skilful teaching and within a week or so were very productive cutters, which is perhaps why the jefe of our group had brought the two of us to the patch and left us there with, "Lo que tu puedes, haga! [Do what you can]." 

Looking at the mess we were baffled. For one thing, the method we had been using was: cut a stalk from its root, cut the leaves from it, cut it into two-foot pieces and pile the pieces in the lane between the rows of cane. But the lanes were covered by the chaotic jumble of stalks. Also none of the stalks were straight so cutting them into neat two-foot pieces was impossible.

To get some feel for the situation, we began by cutting at the edges of the patch. But this had us stomping on the roots of the stalks we had cut. This is a huge no-no in cane cutting because sugar cane is a perennial and walking on the roots will destroy the next season's crop. We decided then to cut in the normal direction, parallel to the rows, with me cutting (and frequently sharpening my machete) and Dave hauling the stalks out of the mess to a clear area to cut them into pieces. Soon Dave was unable to keep up with me so we got two other cutters from the jefe to help us. 

After an hour or so we'd gotten control of the situation. Then I noticed a group of four or five Cubans studying us from the road by the patch. I realized suddenly that one of them was Fidel Castro Romero who was considered the best machatero in all of Cuba. I had seen him in a newsreel. He saw me looking at the group, smiled, and raised his thumb in the air. That thumb was one of the highlights of a great adventure.

I'm tempted to say that the adventure began with a Greyhound ride with fifty or so others from Washington, DC, to St. John's, Newfoundland, and then a boat ride to Havana with a total of about four hundred people from all over the United States. But for me the adventure began much earlier than that. It began with my upbringing and schooling as a Roman Catholic and continued with my membership in the Brothers of the Christian Schools for seven years beginning at the age of fifteen. The Roman Catholic Church has always been devoted to helping the poor and the working class. This devotion has been even more intense among the Christian Brothers, who even take a vow to teach the poor for free. During my last year with the Brothers I had come to see Jean Baptiste de La Salle, the founder of the organization, as an heroic and revolutionary figure and a major force in the movement to bring education to the French masses. I still often think of the words of a hymn in which La Salle is referred to as "vainqueur de l’ignorance, à l’âme si fatale [conqueror of ignorance, that killer of souls].

After leaving the Christian Brothers and working for a year, I enrolled at the University of Maryland to study history. This was the time of the anti-war movement and student uprisings of the 1960s. One feature of this environment was a great deal of interest in the Soviet Union and its effort to raise the educational and cultural level of workers in Russia and its allies. I began to go to anti-war gatherings and student protests and was soon spending a lot of time reading and thinking about writers like Marx and Fidel Castro and of course discussing them. I was also doing construction work during this time, for the most part with union members, some of whom were union organizers.

After finishing at Maryland I began to think seriously about my future and to think even more about how people in the socialist world were living. As well, from my experiences at peace protest events and their incredibly distorted coverage by the New York Times and its satraps, I became convinced that only living and, if possible, working in the Soviet Bloc would enable me to understand that world. I had been in this process when a friend told me of an opportunity to work in Cuba. I snapped at it and towards the end of February there was a somewhat converted cattle boat steaming into Havana harbor with myself and four hundred other Americans aboard. 

Within two hours of leaving the boat we had been assigned our tents at a sugar plantation camp and were sitting down to an evening meal of white rice, black beans, fried cod fish, and coffee. The group by now had swelled to about eight hundred people. A hundred or so of the additional people had come from Puerto Rico, another hundred had come by plane from Miami, and about three hundred were Cubans.

The dining area was a concrete deck on which stood an array of huge wooden pillars supporting a thatched roof. The only walls in the structure were that of the kitchen. Even at that hour in the month of February the air was hot but it was made very comfortable by the constant breeze coming in from the nearby Caribbean Sea.

We were now part of La Grande Zafra [The Great Harvest] with the whole country's focus on making cane sugar. Everyone had to spend two months cutting cane or working in the sugar mills. Even Castro tried to spend time in the fields. You read on huge signs, "Los diez milliones van! [Onward with the ten million!]" everywhere you went, or heard it over the radio or from TVs or from people just yelling it at each other. Ten million tons of refined sugar was the goal.

After dinner fifty or so men and women grouped in one corner of the shelter. These were the jefes or leaders of the cane cutting crews. One by one they began calling out our names and asking us to come forward. One of them called out my name and I came forward to meet him. "Pedro, companero, con mucho gusto [Peter, comrade, glad to meet you," he quietly exclaimed as he shook my hand and brought me into the group forming around him. "Soy alegre! [I'm very happy!]" was all I could think of and blurted it out in my clumsy Spanish. He smiled and chuckled a bit, then called out the next name.

In a half our or so we were seated around a fire, twenty or so of us. As Pedro spoke one of the group interpreted for him. She was an American, dressed in olive drab fatigue pants and a grey sweat shirt. The first thing I noticed about her was that she had a double chin. "Weird," I thought to myself. "She's almost thin, clearly in good shape but has a double chin." My reverie abruptly halted when I saw Pedro open a canvas bag and begin pulling machetes from it. Another of the group began handing them out to us. Then Pedro opened another, much smaller bag and pulled out a medium sized mill bastard file (the kind with a rat-tail shape at one end). "This is a file," Sharon translated. Pedro then began to sharpen his machete. "Notice that I stroke in only one direction. If you pull it to you to stroke in the other direction, you will ruin the file. Also never let it get wet. Just a drop of water will ruin a file." 

The files were handed round and we each, under Pedro's and another member's direction, began to sharpen our machete. I had used similar files sharpening drywall knives so I took to it right away and in about three minutes was shaving some hair from my forearm. Pedro happened to be near me, instructing another brigadista, when he noticed me. "Que haces? [What are you doing?]" he asked. "Para provar bastante agudo [To check if it's sharp enough]," I answered. "Bien, pero quidado [Good, but be careful]," he replied with a serious look on his face. 

After Pedro was satisfied that people had learned the basics of machete sharpening, he gave a bit of a speech about the significance of our work and that it was not just for Cuba but in a very real sense for the worldwide revolution. Sharon was doing the translating and as she did I studied her: the hair blond and in a pony tale, the eyes a rich brown, the bust medium. Finally she said as translator for Pedro, "A trumpeter will wake us all up tomorrow morning at six. In half an hour breakfast will start. In another half hour or so we'll head for the fields. Have a good night. Get some rest. You will need it for tomorrow's work."

End of Part 1