(All photos by Malcolm Davidson)
By Malcolm Davidson
A small bunch of pink and white flowers lie in front of the bed where Fidel Castro slept as he led his small band of rebels to victory in the Cuban Revolution from the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.
The flowers mark the death last week of the former Cuban leader in a place that has long been a pilgrimage destination for Cubans.
They lie in the open window in front of a double bed in the two-room wooden hut that lies well hidden on a ridge high up in the cloud forest of the mountains in the southeast of Cuba.
Palm fronds cover the roof, and tall palms and wild tropical vegetation still hide Castro’s home and headquarters — as they did from the government forces of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1958.
Castro made La Plata his headquarters for about six months in 1958 after spending more than a year hiding in the Sierra Maestra with his growing band of supporters, never staying in one place for more than a few days.
The hideout was so well hidden that Batista’s forces never found La Plata.
The hut concealed several escape routes.
Today, a concrete road built up incredibly steep hills takes Cubans and tourists to within three or four kilometers of Comandancia la Plata. But then there is a rough trail that has to be trekked through the tropical forest that was once trod by rebel forces.
In all, there are 16 buildings still left of the Comandancia. At the top of the ridge was the base for Castro’s Radio Rebelde that he used to foment popular support for his campaign. Down the ridge, a rough hut marks the spot where Che Guevara, one of Castro’s top commanders, gave soldiers basic medical treatment.
But it is Castro’s hut that is the main draw. Most of the roughly made furniture is still there where he left it. The bed was a gift from a family living in the mountains. There is a stumpy white fridge that was powered by kerosene and was supposedly used to keep medical supplies cold. Beside the fridge is a table, a trunk for arms and a bookcase.
Despite the apparently simple appearance of the hut, it concealed several escape routes. Had Batista’s forces ever discovered his headquarters, he could have disappeared through a trap in the floor and disappeared into the forest that falls away steeply below the hut.
Despite the importance of the Comandancia to the Castro legend, it will not be on the route of the Caravan of Freedom that is carrying his ashes from Havana to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country where they will be interred on Sunday.
The nearest they will come is Bayamo, one of Cuba’s oldest colonial towns where Fidel Castro made one of his last major speeches in 2006 before falling ill a few days later and handing over power to his brother Raul.
From there, the Sierra Maestra loom in the distance as a reminder that without their shelter, the revolution of Fidel Castro and his rag-tag band of supporters could so easily have been snuffed out.
Malcolm Davidson worked for four decades as a journalist in Europe, Asia and Australasia. He served as correspondent with Reuters in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Philippines, and reported widely from other parts of Asia. He also worked in Brussels and most recently was the London-based editor of Reuters’s Front Page multimedia news service.