Néstor López Cuba
Néstor López Cuba (1938–1999) was born into a peasant family near the city of Holguín, in what was then the province of Oriente in eastern Cuba. He attended school up to the sixth grade when his father told him, “School is in town, and peasants get corrupted in town. Pick...
Néstor López Cuba (1938–1999) was born into a peasant family near the city of Holguín, in what was then the province of Oriente in eastern Cuba. He attended school up to the sixth grade when his father told him, “School is in town, and peasants get corrupted in town. Pick up your machete and hoe and help me here in the fields.” For the next several years the young man did so, working also as a sugarcane cutter, cart driver, and truck loader.
In 1957 López Cuba joined a cell of the July 26 Revolutionary Movement, which was leading the struggle in Cuba to bring down the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. One of the cell’s most important activities was raising money for the Rebel Army, led by Fidel Castro, which from its base in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba, had begun waging a revolutionary war against the Batista tyranny.
In May 1958, as repression by the regime intensified, López Cuba and a group of his comrades went up to the mountains to join the Rebel Army. They became members of a front led by Raúl Castro, taking part in the Rebel Army counteroffensive in late 1958 that culminated in a triumphant popular uprising and general strike. In face of these developments, Batista fled Cuba on January 1, 1959.
When he heard the news of Batista’s flight, López Cuba assumed the job was done. His unit was stationed only twenty-five miles from his father’s farm. When his brothers came looking for him, he turned in his military gear, and prepared to go home. “I’m off,” he told his fellow combatants. “The war is over and I’m going back to the fields.”
His commander, Abelardo Colomé Ibarra—known, then as now, as “Furry”—learned of this and spoke with López Cuba.
“No, you can’t go,” Colomé told him. “Are you chicken? How can you take off when things are just beginning?”
“Come with us,” the commander insisted. “You can return when the situation permits.”
He wasn’t chicken. López Cuba joined the Liberty Caravan that marched with Rebel Army Commander in Chief Fidel Castro from Oriente province to Havana, Cuba’s capital. They arrived January 8.
López Cuba never returned to the life of a farmer.
He soon became head of the Rebel Army’s first tank battalion. In October 1960 the first Soviet tanks requested by the Cuban government to defend the revolution against escalating US attacks began to arrive. The Rebel Army immediately organized a crash course in how to operate them. “Everything we learned in the morning from the Soviet instructors we had to teach at night to the rest of the compañeros,” he later recalled. Before they had finished their training course, US-organized counterrevolutionaries launched the Bay of Pigs invasion.
On the morning of April 17, 1961, López Cuba, not yet knowing of the mercenary attack, was ordered to move immediately to Matanzas at the head of a tank contingent. When he reached this destination, he was startled to find himself face to face with Commander in Chief Fidel Castro, who told him of the invasion at Playa Girón and ordered the unit into battle.
With four functioning tanks, the squad advanced, accompanied by militia units on foot. They saw heavy combat and helped contain the initial advance of the invading mercenaries, who were defeated within seventy-two hours by the Revolutionary Armed Forces and popular militias.
López Cuba himself was wounded by enemy machine gun fire. His comrades took him to a field hospital, from which they planned to evacuate him to Matanzas for an operation to remove shrapnel lodged in his arm.
As he listened to other wounded fighters tell of the advance of the revolutionary troops at Playa Girón, however, López Cuba got out of his hospital bed and headed back to the battlefield. He was present for the final push against the invading forces, until Castro, noticing that López Cuba was suffering chills and fever, ordered him off the field. After the battle he was promoted to the rank of captain.
In 1973 López Cuba volunteered for a mission in Syria, at the head of a tank battalion that later became a regiment. That year Syrian and Egyptian forces had fought a war against the Israeli army to try to retake the Golan Heights and Israeli-occupied territory in the Sinai desert. While the Cuban internationalist military mission did not see combat, it organized fortification of Syrian defenses, helping deter further Israeli aggression. The unit remained in Syria until February 1975.
Shortly after returning to Cuba, López Cuba joined the first Cuban internationalist volunteers who arrived in Angola in late 1975, responding to the urgent request of the government of that newly independent country for help in combating a South African invasion. His tank column opened the way across Angola as the advance detachment of the Cuban forces, reaching the border with Namibia—then a South African colony—in March 1976. The apartheid regime was forced to shelve its plans for a quick military defeat of Angola.
A thirteen-year effort to wear down the Angolan government and Cuban internationalists ensued, with the South African military spearheading support for a bloody war waged by right-wing Angolan forces. More than 300,000 Cuban volunteers fought in Angola over this period; 2,000 were killed. In 1988, at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, another direct South African invasion was defeated by Cuban volunteers, Angolan troops, and Namibian fighters. A weakened South African regime sued for peace in Angola and conceded independence to Namibia in 1990. By 1994 apartheid itself had succumbed to a sustained rise in mass struggles inspired in part by the victory over South African forces at Cuito Cuanavale. Following the July 1979 victory of the Nicaraguan revolution, López Cuba headed the Cuban military mission in Nicaragua. In response to the request of the new government, the Cuban mission assisted and advised the Sandinista army in defending the revolution and the sovereignty of Nicaragua against the US-backed mercenary forces known as the “contras.”
The interview with López Cuba was conducted in Havana, Cuba, on October 20, 1997, by Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters, and Martín Koppel.
At the time, López Cuba was head of the Political Directorate of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, and a deputy of the National Assembly of People’s Power. In December 1998 he was elected vice president of the Executive Secretariat of the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution. He held these responsibilities at the time of his death on October 15, 1999.