By Rob Krott
Cuba is probably the only country in the world with a pleasure yacht displayed in a glass case. The Kremlin keeps Lenin under glass while Fidel has his boat. On 2 December 1956, the Granma, a motor yacht, carrying Fidel Castro and packed to the gunwales with 82 men of the 26th of July Movement (M-26-7) and weapons purchased in Mexico, landed in Cuba. Castro and his force, trained in Mexico, landed at Playa Las Coloradas near Niquero in Oriente Province. Three days later the group was nearly wiped out in a skirmish with Batista forces at Algeria de Pio. Castro and 22 of his men including his brother Raul, Che Guevara, and future comandantes, Juan Alameida and Camilo Cienfuegos, escaped into the Sierra Maestra to begin the revolution. The Granma display is behind the Museo de la Revolucion, formerly Fulgencio Batista’s Presidential Palace. Also outside is one of the motor launches (notable for its skull and crossbones emblem added by the Cubans) used by the CIA-backed Cuban-exile force, Brigade 2506, which invaded Cuba on April 17, 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. There are also various aircraft and rockets.
Parked in front is the “tank” (actually a Soviet SAU-100 self-propelled gun), which Fidel used as a mobile command post during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Inside the museum is an oil painting depicting the now famous scene of Castro jumping from the SAU-100. There is also the historically incorrect painting of Castro surveying the beach at Playa Giron, and the sinking of the S.S. Houston. The Houston burned and sank far to the east and south of the bay, which would put it on Castro’s right and out of sight from the top of the bay.
Approaching the entrance to the museum, I spoke with the soldier standing out front on guard duty, a FAR (Fuerzas Armadas de Revolucion – Armed Forces of the Revolution) sub-officer, his chief duty to make sure no one climbs on top of Castro’s “tank.” I asked permission to take his photo and he said, “La camera, No! No!!”
I went inside and paid my admission. On my first visit to the museum a few years ago I had just missed John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, visit the day before. He probably got a big kick out of El Rincon de los Cretinos (Cretin’s Corner), with its cartoon caricatures of Batista, Reagan and Bush. [Note: JFK Jr. presented Castro with tapes of his father’s decision making process during the Cuban crisis]. I was met at the desk by the museum director, Mr. Orencio Nardo Garcia, who I had spoke to recently about the photographing of the museum’s weapons collection. Orencio assigned a curator to guide me around.
The Giron exhibit there nicely rounded out what I’d already seen at Playa Giron. There were several weapons on display from the revolution. The eclectic collection of modified and improvised firearms used by Castro’s guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra was very interesting. But it seemed like much of the museum; actually entire exhibits were devoted to Che Guevara. There is an interesting (though the worse for wear) life-size diorama of Che and a companero. All manner of Che’s personal effects and those of his companions in Bolivia were on display on the ground floor. Dozens of photos of Che, some obvious publicity shots, adorned the walls upstairs. There were pictures of Che sitting and smoking. Che laughing, Che harvesting sugar cane, Che harvesting more sugar cane, and of course, Che with Castro. Che’s likeness is everywhere, usually exhorting Cubans on to final victory. A common slogan is Hasta la victoria siempre: Until the victory is complete). Besides adorning the stories high Ministry of Interior building Che Guevara stares at you from billboards exhorting Socialism. They’re all over the country. His face is plastered on key chains, bookmarks, and refrigerator magnets and of course, T-shirts.
I’d just missed Che’s memorial “Hasta Siempre, Comandante” (Friday 15 October) by a day. Che and his companions’ boxed remains were returned from Bolivia after their discovery and removal by Argentinean archaeologists, placed in glass cases on the back of jeep-towed trailers and paraded through Havana.
Passing the space suit worn by a Cuban astronaut who participated in the USSR’s space program, I looked over the museum’s weapons collection. Cuban weapons included a Cuban-manufactured AK47. I’m not certain that Kalashnikovs were actually made in Cuba, but that’s what the placard said. I’d very much like to get it out of the case and make a detailed inspection. There was also a Fusil Lanzagranadas – Cubana M-26, an interesting pistol-gripped grenade launcher with a collapsible stock. In design it’s very similar to many police tear gas launchers and its wood foregrip looked like a copy of the M-203’s ringed barrel. No ammunition was on display nor was any other information available. The Fusil Alejandro (Alejandro Rifle) is a 7.92x57mm bolt-action sniping rifle manufactured in Cuba. It is supposedly effective to 800 meters with open sights, 1,300 meters with its PSU-1M2 telescopic sight, and 300 meters with its infrared NSPU sight. It weighs 6.5 kilograms and used a ten-round magazine. The Fusil-Mambi (Mambi Rifle) is a 12.7mm semiautomatic weapon designed as an “anti-helicopter weapon.” It fires the 12.7x107mm cartridge with an effective range of between 1,500 and 2,000 meters. Maximum range of Cuba’s answer to the Barrett .50 caliber rifle is 7,000 meters. The Mambi weighs 14 kilograms and is 1.39 meters in length. I hope to return to the museum in the future and examine the functioning of this weapon and get some hands-on familiarization with it.
Several American-made weapons are on display. It has been said that Cuba is at the same time our closest and most distant neighbor. American arms have been used on the island since at least the Spanish American War and some of the weapons I’ve seen in museum displays there seem to date from that conflict. In the Havana Museum there’s a Winchester Model 1902 16 gauge shotgun, which had belonged to Captain Jose M. Martinez Tomayo. Shotguns were common weapons of the revolutionaries in the early days even after government armories were captured. There is also a Krag Jorgensen rifle and a lever-action Winchester. The M96 .30/40 Krag rifle, the first bolt-action adopted by the US Army (the Navy had already bought 300 bolt-action rifles, the M1879/82 Lee .45/70), saw extensive service in Cuba during and after the Spanish American War. Winchester lever-actions representing various models and calibers can be found throughout Cuba in museum collections. An American soldier of fortune (and dishonorably discharged US Army private) William Morgan, who became a comandante in the Front of the Escambray of the Directorio de Revolucionario and the highest ranked American to ever serve with anti-Batista forces, had actually converted some Model 94s to fire full-automatic. By switching barrels they could use either .45 ACP, .30 carbine, or 9mm ammunition. They were adapted to use various magazines including the 9mm Luger snail-drum magazine.
There is also a 1903 Springfield rifle, a Johnson Model 1941 LMG and an Auto Ordnance Company Thompson submachine gun sans stock (some guerrilla had probably watched one too many Alan Ladd movie). Of course, there were also a number of .30 M2 carbines, .30 M1 Garand rifles and Colt .45 ACP pistols courtesy of the U.S. Army via Fulgencio Batista’s armories, including that housed in this very building. Of the several M1/M2 Carbines on display some were chopped and modified in jungle workshops. One had a double set of handmade knurled pistol grips. Another was equipped with a unique three-way magazine configuration. Overall, the .30 M1 carbine (in my opinion) was probably the finest small arm of its day for use in a jungle insurgency. One weapon on display that I’m sure could tell an interesting story is an M3 “Grease Gun” with improvised flash suppressor. There is a bullet hole near the magazine-well.
Colt .45 ACP 1911 pistols were used extensively on both sides of the Cuban revolution and were much admired and coveted. Castro is known to have carried a .45 during the revolution (along with a Model 70 Winchester hunting rifle) and supposedly had the same piece with him at the Bay of Pigs. A photo taken by Lester Cole in Havana a few days after Castro’s triumphant overthrow of the Batista regime shows Castro wearing a .45 M1911. The robust, dependable single-action semiautomatic pistol continued to be pressed into service by many Cuban soldiers until widespread issue of Soviet weapons began. Several of the M1911s that I’ve seen in Cuban museum collections boasted custom grips and were well maintained — not an easy job in the tropics. Besides the Colt .45 ACP M1911A1 pistols there were also a Colt .45 revolver and a few Smith & Wesson revolvers on display. Many of the pistols on display bore placards detailing which particular revolutionary carried it as a sidearm and in what particular and notable action is was used. There was a Luger belonging to Machaco Amejeiras; a Pistola Star, 9mm “perteneciente a” Ramon Grau, San Martin; a .38 Colt revolver, used during the abortive coup of 13 March 1957 by Adolfo Delgado; and a Star .30 auto (serial #593561), used by Pedro Martinez Brito in the assault on Radio Reloj.
Regarding these last two: on 13 March 1957, 35 university students belonging to the Directorio de Revolucinario attacked Batista’s Presidential palace (now the museum where the weapon is displayed). Batista was forewarned and 32 of the students were killed after fighting their way to Batista’s office on the second floor where they were trapped by a blocked elevator. A simultaneous assault had captured Radio Reloj and the students announced Batista’s overthrow. They were a bit premature and all were killed attempting to escape.
The museum also had Cesar Escalante’s Soviet Makarov on display, the .45 auto with civilian grips used to assassinate Gustavo Ferrer de Blanche in Corynthia, and Camilo Cienfuegos’ knife, a “Kabar”-style fighting blade in its case, which according to the one of the curators is the artifact of the revolution most commonly selected by kids to draw for school assignments. Of particular interest was the display memorializing General de Brigade Raul Diaz-Arguelles Garcia, 1937 – 1975, killed in action 11 December 1975 when his vehicle detonated a landmine near Calengo, Angola. General Garcia’s badly damaged folding stock Kalashnikov is on display, along with his flashlight and compass.
Whether the battlefield was in Cuba, Bolivia, or Angola, the Museo de la Revolucion commemorates the sacrifices of many of its native sons, like Raul Diaz-Arguelles Garcia, and others like Che who gave their lives for Cuba’s Revolucion. Only then are their weapons retired and housed under glass for school children to sketch.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V7N1 (October 2003)|