Could you tell us about your family background?
I was born in the village of Yaguajay, in the old province of Las Villas, on the northern coast of Cuba, 300 kilometres east of the capital.footnote1 My family had come up in the world. My father had to go begging in the streets as a child and never went to school. My mother only completed the first year of primary school, then became a worker in the tobacco industry. My father was searching for a place in society throughout his life. He started as a cobbler’s apprentice, became a tailor, then he owned a shoe-shop and achieved some financial comfort by late middle age. My mother worked until she had her third child, when he was able to set her up at home. There were six children, but only four of us reached adulthood, which was normal at the time; one baby fell victim to diarrhoea and a four-year-old boy died of typhoid. I was the fifth. I was born in 1939, when my father was already fifty years old. From the two sides of our family, my brothers and I were the first to complete primary school. I did my baccalaureate in Santa Clara, the provincial capital, a hundred kilometres from my village. My mother would settle for nothing less than professional status for us, and my father supported her in this.
When did you begin to learn about political affairs?
I started to read about politics in Bohemia, the famous Cuban weekly, which was one of the greatest magazines of its kind in the Americas, widely read throughout the region. Bohemia was a fundamental source on Cuba, with sharp political analysis—from a position very critical of those in power—coverage of economic and social topics, and plenty of history. I would devour the magazine every week.
I also learnt a great deal from other sources. I listened to countless stories of the independence war and the revolution of 1930.footnote2 This respect for the country’s revolutionary heritage formed part of a popular nationalism that was resistant to bourgeois manipulation, with an understanding of Cuba as a project born of revolutions that had yet to be fulfilled. It was a past that called us to action. Going to Santa Clara helped me a lot. It was one of the country’s great cities, and it had an excellent library that for me seemed like a branch-office of paradise. I read voraciously. In the newspaper section I could follow the dozen papers then published in Havana, some of great quality. I particularly remember the books on Cuban history.
The first time I remember hearing about Lenin was in Yaguajay, before I knew Marx existed. A communist worker told me: ‘Lenin was a great man, it was he who said: “Property is theft”.’ Neither of us knew who Proudhon was.