Politics & Policy

Our Olive Green Years

An excerpt from a great anti-Communist novel you can't read in English.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  In the April 6 issue of National Review, Mark Falcoff wrote about Roberto Ampuero, a popular Chilean novelist whose books remain unpublished in English. He called particular attention to Our Olive Green Years, Ampuero’s semi-autobiographical work. “This book is a classic of political disenchantment, comparable in some ways to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon,” wrote Falcoff.

Here is an excerpt, translated by Falcoff. The hero is a leftist Chilean exile who escapes General Pinochet’s dragnet after the coup that deposed Marxist president Salvador Allende. He ends up in East Germany and falls in love with the daughter of Castro’s ambassador to Moscow. They are married in Havana and move into a bedroom in the house of Cienfuegos (his father-in-law) in a zone of the city reserved for the nomenklatura.

Every time Cienfuegos returned to Havana from Moscow, he took advantage of his presence to talk to me. Our conversations were not extended, but rather hurried, somewhat like those of ants who meet while traveling in opposite directions on the same road: antennae extended to determine that there is no enemy about, a signal here and there, then the resumption of their busy tasks.

We often found ourselves seated opposite one another on the terrace of the Miramar house at nightfall. The building itself retained many of the smells and sounds of its former owners. The sky had congealed into clumps of stars, and I balanced myself in a rocking chair fighting off mosquitoes, while Cienfuegos calmly smoked a Lanceros to pass the time. He always seemed a bit overwhelmed or under some mysterious pressure. I surmised that it was the weight of his conscience. After all, to send hundreds of people to death — even if guilty criminals — cannot fail to leave its mark on someone.

“I did it not because the Revolution favored the death penalty as such,” he said to me one night when I sensed that he was attacked by feelings or remorse, “but because it was the only way to guarantee the survival of the Revolution itself. Only certainty of the ultimate penalty was capable of keeping the counterrevolutionaries at bay when imperialism was closing in on us.”

During those ephemeral conversations under the warm tropical sky I eventually sensed that Cienfuegos was shipwrecked in the storm of his own conscience. A Catholic in his youth — so much so, in fact, that he had married in the church — he now formed part of a Marxist-Leninist government. Paradoxically, however, he was never able to grasp the theoretical foundations of Marxism itself. Instead, he clung instinctively to the slogans of Fidel as if to a lifesaver. He was, as he repeated on a daily basis, a Fidelista, a man who owed everything to the Maximum Leader, and to whom he would be faithful unto death. At times it seemed to me as if his early enlistment in the fight against Batista’s tyranny proved that he had been a young man of strong humanist convictions, a respectable individual who believed in freedom, a cause for which he had risked his life. In effect, he could not have become an executioner for the simple pleasure of it.

At times it seemed to me that his incapacity to express affection, his attempt to intimidate people around him, and his belligerent personal style was the product of a long-standing psychological disturbance. Perhaps during the long watches of the night the memory of the people he had sent to the firing squad and the sense that he was paying perhaps too high a price for his loyalty to the cause might well have awakened him from the deepest sleep. He might well have imagined that the day that the Revolution ceased to be necessary — the objective, after all, of any revolution worthy of the name — he, Cienfuegos, not Fidel, would end up being held responsible for the wave of executions. Then he would confront his own victims, men who were still incarcerated in Castro’s prisons, or who were playing dominoes and drinking Cuban coffee on Calle Ocho in Miami, patiently waiting the appropriate moment to avenge themselves. During those warm nights under the Cuban skies, far, far from the cloudy peaks of Moscow and the golden glow of the Kremlin towers, Cienfuegos’ profound loneliness became almost palpable. It was at times like these that I thought I could understand his problem. I was scarcely a vacillating apprentice revolutionary, assailed on all sides by petty-bourgeois doubts and fears; he, on the other hand, was a victorious revolutionary. I belonged to that company of expatriate Chileans who had failed to implant socialism in their country; he was the product a victorious revolutionary movement that had managed to consolidate itself a mere ninety miles from the United States. In spite of the distance between us, I learned to appreciate him, and at times, even came to believe that more than anything else he was one more victim of the Cuban Revolution.

As my own studies of Marxism at the university progressed, I discovered that Cienfuegos was ideologically illiterate.

“Kid, you’ve got to explain the three laws of the dialectic to me,” he blurted out to me one afternoon, as if the matter itself were of little importance. I sensed, however, that deep down he considered it crucial. Outside the tropical sun beat down and my wife, my son, and I were about to go to the beach at Varadero. “They’ve made such a mess of the principles of Marx in my embassy study group that even I, the ambassador, need remedial coaching.”

I found it impossible to explain the laws of the dialectic to him, for the simple reason that he could not understand them. They confused him, and worse still, they even provoked a certain skepticism. Even though they appeared irrelevant to the problems posed by the Revolution, he nonetheless treated them with respect; if Fidel had ordered their study, there were good and ample reasons to do so. Fidel, after all, was never wrong. He, Cienfuegos, would learn them by memory — these and however many others he was ordered to study. By hook or crook, he would become the star pupil of his embassy’s study circle!

At times when Cienfuegos was home on leave, the Commander in Chief would make an appearance. The event itself was unannounced, at least formally, although before his arrival it was obvious what was going to happen. Advance men from his personal guard dressed in a uniform of deepest olive green — of an intensity exceeded only by that of the Maximum Leader himself — began to station themselves in the vicinity of the house. First they occupied the neighboring streets; then they climbed up on walls, roofs, even trees. Finally, they diverted traffic to outside the area. Only then did two quiet black limousines pull up to the house. They were Chaicas, constructed in the Soviet Union according to a 1970s Cadillac design. They were accompanied by a flotilla of port-wine Alfa-Romeos brimming over with bodyguards, each toting a machine gun.

Fidel rode around in one of the two Russian limousines given to him by Leonid Brezhnev, a passionate collector of automobiles, but one never knew in which. It was one of the methods of preventing an attack on his person. His personal security was in the hands of Comandante José Abrantes, a well set up, athletic young man, of pure white descent, a devotee of women and the good life, who years later would be deposed as minister of interior and condemned to thirty years in jail for trafficking in narcotics. He was to die of a heart attack in is cell shortly after sentencing. Abrantes was Fidel’s shadow, a man who knew his every move and every item on his schedule, his preferences and weaknesses, his sources of irritation and his particular pleasures. It was rumored that his professional zeal reached such extremes that, in order to throw counter-revolutionaries and the CIA off the track, he frequently ordered the motorcade to circle around Havana streets for hours on end, with a double to Castro seated in the back seat of the main vehicle. People used to say that when the United States spoke either of attacks on the Cuban leader or illnesses which he was supposed to be suffering, they were really referring to his doubles, of which there were allegedly five. For this very reason the prestige of the Maximum Leader suffered considerably when it became known that he had condemned and later permitted to die in jail the man who for twenty years had taken such pains over his personal security.

The presence of advance men from the presidential escort was like a breeze smelling of humid earth that normally precedes a major rainstorm. My father-in-law suddenly became nervous and ordered the maids to put the main room in order, and then to hide themselves, since it was not clear how the Maximum Leader would react to finding servants in the house of one of his immediate subordinates — surely, for him, a remnant of practices long since superseded by the Revolution. At the same time Cienfuegos began to assure himself that the guest bathroom was well-provisioned. He hid an anti-Soviet espionage novel he was reading from the main table in the living room. In its place he scattered papers from his office, among which he was careful to drop a copy of the leader’s latest speech. Finally, he ordered his staff not to pass on phone messages or allow anyone — regardless of whom — to enter the room, in light of the imminent arrival of a supremely important personage.

The first time the Commander in Chief came to the house I was surprised most by his height and the purposeful style in which he strode across the marble floors of the house, as well as his smooth, pinkish hands with long fingers and polished fingernails. They were the hands of a Scandinavian pianist or an English aristocrat, not a Latin American revolutionary. He was a strapping man, much taller than I expected, and for some mysterious reason he never perspired. The gaze of his moist, somewhat bloodshot eyes penetrated like a dagger, in many respects resembling those of personalities in Franz Hals’s paintings. To judge by his pale skin, criss-crossed by exploded capillaries, he might have come from some Nordic country. At first glance he seemed timid and discreet, as if he were calling on us a bit apologetically, reluctant to put his host out in any way. Nonetheless, such impressions were only initial and fleeing. Once comfortably installed in the living room, having lit up a Havana cigar and inspected the place to his satisfaction, he seemed fully in charge.

Meanwhile his bodyguards, robust fellows with heavily-etched facial features, silently patrolled the halls of the residence with their firearms exposed and their radios crackling. Inevitably on these sweeps they must have run into the servants hidden under a bed or inside the pantry. Assured that all was well, they ended up stationing themselves at a window, on a balcony, or at the door of the room where Fidel happened to be.

One of them habitually carried a heavy attaché case of black leather, containing glasses, bottles of mineral water, a thermos with hot water, and a tin of biscuits. With exaggerated care — the movement itself somewhat resembled a ballet dancer executing a difficult pas de deux–he would half-fill one of the glasses with water and place it with a white napkin close by the Commander in Chief.

Whenever I was able, my curiosity would lead me to place myself as near as possible to the room where Fidel and my father-in-law were holding forth so as to catch snatches of their conversation. I would hide myself behind a litchi nut tree, where I could hear the echo of their voices conveyed through the half-closed jalousies. Generally the Maximum Leader was loudly announcing some new grand project — the proximate opening of a plastic shoe factory; the creation — in a matter of weeks — of a shop to repair Russian tractors; the approval of plans for some institute that in the not too distant future would specialize in oyster farming, and in so doing convert Cuba into the world’s principal exporter of shellfish; or the development of a revolutionary system for the construction of bridges which would save on both men and materiel. It was always a rosary of projects that some day would materialize and profoundly alter the face of the Revolution.

“Don’t you think,” he would ask Cienfuegos after outlining some project in detail, “that it’s the most rational, the most appropriate thing to do in light of the difficulties we face?”

I was somewhat disappointed to learn that the exercise of power reduced itself to such prosaic matters. I was expecting to hear something extraordinary, something historic, something utterly unique from the very lips of the Maximum Leader — like a surprise Cuban missile attack on Miami, or a sudden decision to free Cuba from dependence on the Soviet Union, or a purge of some members of the Politboro, or the invasion of some Central American country. I was always disappointed. The Commander-in-Chief confined himself to addressing the problems of daily life. He was not asking for approval; he regarded his decisions as prima facie correct.

“Well, as far as we’re concerned, the best analysis convinces us that it’s the best, the most reasonable thing to do,” he would say by way of conclusion.

Accustomed as was to using the royal “we”, it was never clear whether he was referring to teams of technicians, political leaders, or himself. In the end it hardly mattered, because thanks to the conversations I overheard in the garden it was easy to conclude that Fidel had not come to the house to ask Cienfuegos’ opinion, but rather to announce his new plans. The visit was merely an exercise in killing time until he moved on to his next meeting.

When he spoke, my father-in-law’s facial expressions alternated between rapt attention, pleasure, or grave concern, depending on the circumstances. “Yes” and “no” — as the situation dictated — were expressed through a nod of the head. He took especial care not to interrupt the leader’s monologues, and he followed the line of argument with especial care. Suddenly there was no trace of the arrogant, somewhat pugnacious man I first met in Leipzig and encountered in Havana on a day-to-day basis; instead, he now appeared obsequious and disciplined, a man used to agreeing with what others said.

On his departure Fidel glowed with satisfaction. He appeared, indeed, as fresh and radiant as he had been upon arrival. Contact with people seemed to do him immense good, to rejuvenate him, even, supplying him with a new source of energy. Such benefits led him to schedule as many meetings as possible, at any hour of the day or night. After Fidel’s departure the first time, Caridad del Rosario, still trembling under the stimulus of the having been so close to The Presence, whispered to me in the kitchen that Fidel took advantage of such conversations to suck energy from other people. The more attention they gave him, the better off he was. Moreover, those who listened to him were seduced by his power and felt a renewed need to see him again wherever he could, whether in a small gathering or a mass meeting in the Plaza of the Revolution. Only thus could they recover their own internal equilibrium. Yes, the granddaughter of slaves repeated to me, no question about it. She had been told as much by a santero from Guanabacoa, who had gone to the Sierra Maestra during the guerrilla war to throw snails at Fidel and his people to determine their future.

“The day that nobody goes to the Plaza to hear him,” Caridad del Rosario assured me, her large white teeth marking the contrast with her mahogany skin, “the people will perish. As for him, without the sustenance of their bodies, he will lose power and melt away like a snowman.”

At times a message from the car radio of the Chaika reminded Fidel that it was time to leave for another meeting. On such occasions my father-in-law would accompany him to the door, where he would take leave of him with a warm shake of the hands and an affirmation that he remained at his complete disposition. Afterwards, the Commander in Chief would mount one of the vehicles, whose motor was already running, and quietly and efficiently slip out of the driveway, escorted by a flotilla of Alfa Romeos packed with bodyguards and automatic weapons.

When the house recovered its accustomed calm, Cienfuegos would go and sit in silence on the terrace, where he silently ruminated while smoking a cigar. It was on such occasions that he seemed to me more lonely and taciturn than ever.

– English translation copyright by Mark Falcoff.

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