Two Mexican families played an unsung role in enabling Fidel Castro to topple the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and bring communism to Cuba
There are two Mexicans who were not among the revolutionaries who boarded a boat to Cuba in 1956. Nor were they alongside Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara in the hills of the Sierra Maestra in Cuba fighting to overthrow Fulgencio Batista. They certainly don’t appear in Steven Soderbergh’s movie Che, The Argentine. Nonetheless, the two Mexicans were key figures in the Cuban revolution, which brought Castro to power in 1959.
Fifty years on, tangible proof of their roles has come to light in the form of two letters Fidel Castro sent to the homes of Antonio “El Cuate” del Conde, 83, and Arsacio “Kid” Vanegas, who died in 2001. The letters thank each of them for their valuable help in bringing about the revolution in 1959.
“Shortly after I met Fidel I asked him to allow me to do for Cuba what I could not do for Mexico,” del Conde said in a recent interview. Born in New York City he grew up in Mexico City after the Great Depression forced his parents to return to their homeland.
The thin, agile man recalls with great clarity the day when a “tall, elegant” man walked into his armoury on Revillagigedo 47, in downtown Mexico City. “He asked me if I had Belgian mechanisms for high-calibre weapons,” del Conde said.
He asked Castro to step into his office and from that moment a close friendship was born between the two men, which has lasted to this day. Castro, obsessed about the future of his country, came face to face with an expert in arms. “I can help you,” del Conde told Castro.
He went on to embrace the cause of the revolution and went about providing the future guerrilla fighters with arms – carbines, machine guns, pistols, 50-calibre anti-tank rifles, munitions, camping equipment and food, which comprised biscuits and 20 sacks of oranges picked from his orchard.
Afterwards he bought the Granma – the yacht that Castro used to transport fighters to Cuba – and worked for more than a year to make it seaworthy. “It was in very bad shape. It was supposed to transport 82 men when it was designed for no more than 10, but I was unable to dissuade Fidel,” del Conde said.
When he learned that the 12 survivors of the original group of 82 guerrillas were staked out in the Cuban mountains, he continued to send them supplies from Mexico and the US. For his efforts he spent 11 months in a US jail. From there he heard Castro had victoriously entered Havana on January 8, 1959, and taken control of the island nation.
Before that momentous event 40 revolutionaries, among them Che Guevara and Raul Castro, had spent about 18 months hiding out in the family home of Arsacio Vanegas Arroyo in Mexico City. “Since there were not enough cots, most of them slept on the wooden floor, under which they hid weapons and munitions,” said Irma Vanegas, Arsacio’s 77-year-old sister who survived him.
She recalled that the password to come into the house was three knocks on one of the windows facing the street. It was Fidel’s way of announcing the many endless meetings he held with his men to plot the revolution. Sometimes Raul was absent from the meetings, which annoyed Fidel, according to Irma. She said he would “punish” his younger brother the following morning by having him prepare the food – usually rice, beans and plantains – and wash all the dishes after the meal.
Arsacio, a well-known “lucha libre” or free wrestler at the time, helped to train the budding revolutionaries by taking them on long hikes in the mountains near Mexico City and by teaching them self-defence in personal combat sessions.
Their house still contains many items of interest, such as old M-1 carbine bullets and one of Castro’s knapsacks. Another curious item is a photograph of the inside of the Basilica of Guadalupe with a small pinpoint perforation. Shine a lamp behind it and the altar lights up.
Apparently, the budding revolutionaries used to create the photographs and put them inside boxes lit by electric flashlights. They would sell the kitsch items door-to-door to make a living, Irma said.