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Interview with José Luis Palacio
José Luis Palacio, center, traveled to Feb. 21 event in Havana from Cuba’s Pinar del Río province along with Sergio Abreu, left, local president of ICAP. Gerardo Hernández, Palacio’s commander during Angola mission, “knows I’ll always be in the front trenches alongside him, in every cause we’re fighting for,” Palacio told Militant reporter Martín Koppel, right.
By MARTÍN KOPPEL and TOM BAUMANN
HAVANA—Sgt. José Luis Palacio Cuní served from 1989 to 1991 as a squad leader in a 12-man reconnaissance platoon in Cabinda, the northernmost province of Angola. The platoon was led by Lt. Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, today known around the world as one of the Cuban Five. Hernández is serving two life sentences in a U.S. penitentiary on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder.
Hernández and Palacio were among the 375,000 Cubans who volunteered for military duty in Angola between 1975 and 1991. The Cuban internationalists fought alongside the armed forces of the newly independent nation of Angola—which had just overturned nearly five centuries of Portuguese colonial rule—to defeat repeated invasions by the armed forces of the South African apartheid regime and its allies.
The Militant spoke with Palacio at a Feb. 21 presentation in Havana of the book The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, Why They Should be Free (see above).
Today Palacio is a member of the Communist Party of Cuba and a refrigeration mechanic who works in a cold-storage warehouse in Pinar del Río, western Cuba. He recounted his Angola experiences in a 2006 interview first published in the Pinar del Río newspaper Guerrillero. That interview—”Twelve Men and Two Cats: With Gerardo Hernández and His Platoon in Angola”—is reprinted in The Cuban Five, published by Pathfinder Press.
Accompanied by Sergio Abreu, president of the Pinar del Río branch of the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), Palacio traveled to Havana to attend the February 21 book presentation. The translation from Spanish is by the Militant.
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MARTÍN KOPPEL: You were 28 years old when you left for Angola, a member of the UJC [Union of Young Communists] at that time. What did Cuba’s internationalist mission in Angola mean for you?
JOSÉ LUIS PALACIO: I’m proud that this book about our five heroes brings together the experience we lived through in Angola.
Angola was the best school we could have gone through. We saw conditions there that don’t exist in our country anymore. It made us prouder of the Cuban Revolution and strengthened us in our fight to defend the revolution today.
The Cuban mission helped Angola defend its independence. It brought the end of apartheid closer. It showed we’re internationalists who will fight for a just cause anywhere in the world.
Many of us were just kids when we went to Angola. We knew little about the world. Over the years we’ve developed as revolutionaries and realize how much that mission helped us. It certainly helped me. And it helped Gerardo too.
I was sad when I first heard the news that my lieutenant Nordelo, as we affectionately called him, was imprisoned in the United States. But I’m proud of what he did, of what he is doing today. It’s an inspiration. He knows I’ll always be in the front trenches alongside him, in every cause we’re fighting for in the world.
When the history of humanity is written, there will have to be a page for the five Cuban heroes. They’re internationalist heroes, world heroes.
KOPPEL: What can you tell us about Gerardo from your experiences working with him?
PALACIO: The first thing I remember about Gerardo as a leader is that he treated us like brothers. He was always concerned about the men he was responsible for. He had the ability to sense when you had problems, if you were sad or troubled. “What’s the matter? You feel bad?” he’d say. “Are you getting any letters from home? What’s going on?”
He paid attention to detail. “We’re going on patrol. Did you clean your rifle? Do you have your ammunition?” He was always on top of everything.
Nordelo never raised his voice. He never mistreated anyone. If you didn’t understand something, if you did something the wrong way, he didn’t get mad. He’d explain it again. “Try it this way, do it that way,” he’d say. Until you knew it well. Until you could handle any task.
In the army there are always officers who are very formal in their approach, or who have a sharp temper. But not Nordelo. He was outgoing, good-humored. He never made anyone stand at attention while he chewed them out. When he wanted to tell you that you’d done something wrong, he’d say:
“Hey, pinareño [native of Pinar del Río], come over here. Listen, man, this is what you did and it was wrong. What’s up? Be sure not to do it again.”
“No lieutenant, I won’t do it again. I promise.”
“Fine. Let’s go play some baseball.”
That’s the way he was. That’s why we respected him.
Nordelo loved to draw cartoons. He loved to read. And he especially liked to encourage others to read—reading opens the mind, he’d say. “If you don’t want to go to school, don’t go. But read. You’ll get a better understanding of things.”
TOM BAUMANN: What kind of books did he read?
PALACIO: He read a lot of revolutionary books—books by Che and others. When he found something on a page that related to us, he’d say, “Hey, come over here. Look at this. See what it says here.”
The night before he left Angola, when his mission was finished, we organized a farewell for him. I remember the last thing he told us when he got in the truck.
“Guys, don’t make me look bad,” he said. “Always hold high the banner of the Cuban Revolution.” I’ll never forget that.
We all yelled, “Lieutenant!” as his truck left. We liked him a lot. And we never made him look bad.
KOPPEL: What were relations like between Cubans and Angolans in the platoon?
PALACIO: We had good relations. We were providing military training to the Angolans. And they wanted to learn. They knew we’d be leaving one day and they would remain.
In our platoon there were two men from the FAPLA [People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola], Basquito and Pembele. They’d been soldiers in the armed forces for many years. They were originally from southern Angola but were with us in Cabinda, in the north. They were just two more members of the reconnaissance unit, like the rest of us. They even spoke Spanish like Cubans!
KOPPEL: How did you decide to go to Angola?
PALACIO: I was recruited as a reservist. I was asked to go because I’d been trained as a tank artilleryman. At that time many tank crew members had returned, and we had to send replacements. The military committee here in Cuba selected me as one of them.
In Angola I didn’t serve as an artilleryman. I was a member of the tank brigade in Cabinda, but I was assigned to the scouting platoon. Being black, I could blend in. I could be taken for an Angolan—a member of either UNITA [the force allied with South Africa] or the Angolan army.
KOPPEL: You were asked to go, but you and other Cuban combatants in Angola went as volunteers, right?
PALACIO: When you were called in by the military committee, they’d ask you, “Are you willing to carry out an internationalist mission?” If you said yes, fine. If you said no, fine.
I could have said no. I could have said I had to take care of my mother. That I had children. That I had such and such a situation and didn’t want to go. Nothing would have happened. I would have gone on with my life. I know some who said, “No, look, I’m not going,” and today they have leadership responsibilities.
I went to Angola, first and foremost, because I was a member of the Union of Young Communists. I have my principles. “Of course, I’ll go,” I said.
When I returned from meeting with the military committee, my father asked me, “So, what did you tell them?”
“I said yes.”
“That’s good,” he said.
If I had said no …!
BAUMANN: Was your father a party member?
PALACIO: My father, now deceased, was not a party member, but he supported the revolution. He was a Christian. My mother is a Christian too. She supports the revolution. They both understood the cause we were fighting for. They agreed with my going.
KOPPEL: What kind of work did your parents do?
PALACIO: My father was an electrician. My mother was a nurse in a hospital in Pinar del Río. She’s now retired.
When I was getting ready to leave Pinar del Río to come here for the book presentation, my mother said, “It’s wonderful that they invited you!” She’ll be even prouder when I bring her this book.
It’s a matter of pride for any Cuban to have been in Angola. There were 50,000 volunteers there when I was, and all of us contributed our little grain of sand to the internationalist cause. I’m proud to have given my grain of sand.
And I’m very proud to have served under the command of Gerardo Hernández Nordelo.
Internationalist mission in Angola “strengthened us in our fight to defend the Cuban Revolution today,” said José Luis Palacio. Above, Sgt. Palacio, standing, with members of scouting platoon in Cabinda, Angola. At right, Lt. Gerardo Hernández Nordelo.