By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA TIMES, Sept.14 (IPS) – Cuba dedicated 12 hours of Sunday to mourning of its loss of Vice-president Juan Almeida, a commandant of the Revolution and comrade in arms of Fidel and Raúl Castro in the 1953 assault on the Moncada Barracks, the initiation of armed struggle that triumphed in this country in 1959.
Almeida died on Friday night from a cessation of cardio-respiratory activity. His name “will remain forever in the hearts and minds of his countrymen as a paradigm of revolutionary firmness, solid convictions, courage, patriotism and commitment to the people,” read an official communiqué.
In accordance with his wishes, his remains were not displayed and will be interred with military honors on a date still to be announced in the Mausoleum of the Mario Muñoz Monroy Third Eastern Front, of which Almeida was the founder and only leader.
Tens of thousands of people converged beginning in the early hours of Sunday morning at the base from the José Martí Monument in Havana’s Revolution Square to express their condolences upon the death of the man considered “number three” in the country’s political hierarchy, behind the Castro brothers.
In the main hall was placed a photo of Almeida and his badges, among them the title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba, and a national flag.
The mournful day began at 8:00 a.m. (13:00 GMT), headed by President Raúl Castro, family members of the deceased, government ministers and leaders of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba, who laid a wreath in front of his image.
“He was one of the most beloved commandants because of his historic role, his humble origin, a man whose development within the revolution demonstrated that the poor can only win their rights by fighting for them,” said Enrique Riveros, 60, an employee of the Ministry of Communications and Informatics.
Rodolfo Viqueira, a 40-year-old sales employee, said Almeida was “a man of the people who made it to where he did based on merit. He won it through an act of courage and effort, and that permeated deep in the hearts of the people. For Cuba he is history,” added a visibly moved Viqueira.
Ceremonies similar to those carried out in Havana were held in the capital cities of the island’s 14 provinces, according to reports from state television, which interrupted their new broadcasts with reports and photos of the leader deceased as well as songs composed by him.
The official statement highlighted that Almeida was able to develop “his intense, responsible and fertile work as a revolutionary leader, with valuable and meticulous artistic work that includes more than 300 songs and a dozen books that constitute an invaluable contribution to the knowledge of our history.”
“Santiago de Cuba is crying for this man,” commented by telephone René Camacho, a former guerilla soldier of the rebel campaign in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Camacho said he was witnessing the great affection that the people of that eastern Cuba city hold for “Commandant Almeida.”
A Tremendous Comrade
Upon his death Almeida presided over the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, created in 1993 to gather veterans of the struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1952-1959), the failed invasion backed by the United States at the Bay of Pigs (1961) and other actions, as well as retired military combatants and volunteers of “internationalist” missions in Angola and other countries.
“He was a tremendous comrade and took care of many of the combatants in the Association,” assured Luis Santana Miranda, a construction worker who was one of the Cuban troops that participated in the Angolan civil war between 1975 and 1988.
Born in the Cuban capital on February 17, 1927, Almeida was a bricklayer who became linked to the insurrectional fight by the mid 1950s. His biographers highlighted him for a laconic and categorical style, concise, pungent, and sometimes even inquisitive and a defender of unity as the root of freedom and independence.
Almeida would later recount in an interview available on the Internet, “I met Fidel in the Plaza Cadena of the University of Havana (…) he talked as he walked from here to there, up and down. We were found ourselves interested in the form in which he reflected on things, of saying things….”
Starting from those conversations, Almeida accompanied the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution in the thwarted assault on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, later in exile in Mexico, the return to Cuba aboard the yacht Granma, in the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra and in responsibilities that continued after the taking of power.
He was a member of the Communist Party Central Committee Politburo since its creation in 1965, a responsibility that was ratified at the Fifth Congress in 1997. He maintained that position until the moment of his death.
A national conference, to be held on a date still not yet announced, is expected to restructure the Politburo and other bodies and to prepare for the Sixth Congress.
Almeida was also a deputy to the National Assembly and one of the three “historical commandants of the revolution,” an honorary title that also includes Ramiro Valdés and Guillermo García Frías, veteran comrades of arms of Fidel Castro, who stepped down from government in 2006 due to health problems.