Montura Ranch Estates, near Clewiston, Fla.
Jorge Gonzalez empties his 9-mm Browning revolver into an empty can that lies 30 paces away up the grassy firing range and steps back. His dark brown eyes are blazing.
All around, troops in camouflaged fatigues, some kneeling, some lying, are bringing a hail of rifle fire to bear on a target atop a sandy ridge some 400 yards away. Spouts of sand are erupting all around it. Every so often the highpitched report of the AR-15s is drowned by the crash of an M- 1 and a Belgian FAL. Jorge Gonzalez returns his revolver to its leather holster and surveys his people. There is a faint smile on his face: Fidel Castro has something else to worry about.
Maj. Jorge Gonzalez, who goes by the nickname of "Bombillo," or "Light Bulb," is the commander of a guerrilla group training here, just south of Lake Okeechobee, for the liberation of Cuba. The guerrillas don't intend to storm the island, though. They plan to help liberate it after the Cuban people have risen in revolt -- which is something Major Gonzalez is confidently expecting. The lessons of the Bay of Pigs are still very much in his mind. When the invasion failed so dismally in 1961, he was poised in Oriente Province with 60 armed men.
The comandante,m until recently a Miami car exporter, now devotes all his time to supervising his guerrilla force. "His wife works and he's put money aside, especially for this time," says Lt. Ernesto Don, the group's military information officer and the major's translator. All ranks are self- styled.
Much of the guerrilla group's basic training takes place on four acres of sand, grass, and pine trees that Gonzalez owns in this remote community near Clewiston. At the entrance to his barbed-wire-ringed property, known as "Camp Liberty," stands a wooden ranch-style archway painted red. A somewhat forbidding sentry in a green beret, AR-15 raised, paces back and forth beneath it. Flanking the entrance are a Cuban flag and a Stars and Stripes, hanging motionless in the still, hot air. A trailer under the pine trees, which the comandantem uses during the group's weekend training sessions, is adorned with stickers proclaiming: "Russians Out Of Cuba," and "I'm Proud To Be A Cuban." Inside, another warns: "We The Cubans Have To Fight For Our Land."
According to Lieutenant Don, a mechanical engineer, Cuban guerrillas trained hereabouts after the Bay of Pigs debacle in a vain hope that they might transform defeat into victory. All were killed when they landed in Cuba, he says, "so this place is of some sentimental value."
The Cuban-American guerrillas come from every walk of life. "They're factory workers, barbers, businessmen, and clerks," declares the military information officer, rubbing a hand over his unshaven face and fighting back fatigue after a tiring night operation. Lieutenant Don declines to disclose the strength of the guerrilla force.
"We have never given out any figures," he says. Recently the Miami News reported that it was composed of "500 crack troops" -- and quoted Major Gonzalez as saying so.
"It's possible they've got 500 in the state of Florida," says Hendry County Sheriff Earl Dyess Sr., but he says he's never seen more than 40 at Camp Liberty. A Miami FBI spokesman doubts that the force can be numbered in the hundreds.
The guerrilla group, which was formed in 1978, chooses to be known by the rather awkward title of "support unit for the Internal National Liberation Front." According to Lieutenant Don, who sports a blue woolen watch cap rather than more traditional headgear, the guerrilla leadership maintains communications with the Front, which, he says, is already committing acts of sabotage in Cuba. He adds that a branch of the guerrilla force is to be found at Homestead and that a new 40-acre camp has just been opened near Miami.
When the Monitor visited the guerrillas at their remote base, 20 recruits, including a 14-year-old boy and a 19-year- old girl, were undergoing training. The average guerrilla is between 30 and 33 years old, but 45-year-old men can be found within the group. Not everybody could be described as in superb fighting trim: A number of waistlines could benefit from iron rations and a forced march or two.
The guerrillas buy their own uniforms and weapons, displaying a preference for distinctively mottled Marine Corps fatigues. Some sport a tiger-striped camouflage and one man wears an olive drab jump suit with a floppy jungle hat and cowboy boots. Many have Cuban flag patches sewn on their sleeves. Only one of the trainees appears to have a helmet. As for weapons, most carry Colt AR-15 Sporters, a semiautomatic version of the M-16 military rifle. There are a few pistols in evidence. One guerrilla has a .357 Magnum stuck in his belt.
The guerrillas contribute cash to the cause. At a recent training session, $ 20 bills rapidly filled a hat that was passed round. The money is spent on food and ammunition. The latter is expensive, says Lieutenant Don. Frequently, trainees are only allocated two rounds each at the firing range. The brass casings are carefully collected up afterward.
Major Gonzalez's troops are cautioned against revealing too much about their guerrilla activities.
"We like to teach these men to be very reserved about their training," the lieutenant says."There are a lot of Castro agents about." Not surprisingly, the training camp has been visited by anxious officialdom.The FBI has watched the guerrillas train, declares the lieutenant, adding that representatives of the state attorney general's office and the Hendry County sheriff's department have also paid visits to the camp. "No one has tried to stop us," Lieutenant Don says.
Because the guerrillas are armed with semiautomatic weapons and not automatic ones, like machine guns, they are apparently breaking no laws. Indeed, they remove the magazines from their AR-15s, though the sentry on the gate keeps a loaded one in his pocket in case of emergencies.
"You can get AR-15s in any gun shop," the lieutenant says. "All ours are registered."
Astoundingly, perhaps, local residents welcome the guerrillas in their midst. When the homeowners' association here recently met to discuss the gun-toting group, it ended up giving a rousing vote of support. The fact that the guerrillas have helped put out fires in the neighborhood and driven away prowlers probably accounts for their popularity. But people here still tend to look askance when they see the guerrillas marching down the road, weapons at the ready.
"We're the funny neighbors," says Lieutenant Don with a grin.
The guerrilla band counts "quite a few women" in its midst, the military information officer adds. "Some want to be nurses," he says. "But before they can be nurses they have to be alive." Consequently all the women undergo combat training.
Why did Gladys Santana join up? "To free my country," she says simply, her peaked forage cap pulled down over her eyes. She had thought of joining the United States Army, but seems to find the life as a part-time guerrilla just as acceptable. "I love it," she says, "even if you do get a little bit dirty." The 19-year-old secretary particularly enjoys the live firing, she says, loosing off shots from her AR-15 with a cool professionalism. Miss Santana, a Miamian, views the tough training philosophically. "Sometimes it's easy," she says. "Sometimes it's hard."
Fourteen-year-old Carlos Pedroso from Hialeah, who has been training every weekend for six months, says he's ready to take on Soviet troops in Cuba. "My parents will let me go," he asserts confidently. Carlos, who was brought to the US from Cuba when he was three years old and who has a 17- year-old brother there, says guerrilla life is "great." But he says he doesn't tell his friends about his activities.
Another guerrilla, wearing a US Special Forces badge in his beret, says that "the idea of obtaining the liberation of my country" led him to join Major Gonzalez's force. "Most of my family remains in Cuba," says Jose Reyes. The owner of a heavy-equipment company who has served in the US Army, he predicts internal revolt in Cuba in the near future. "The morale in Castro's forces is not very good," he claims.
Lunch follows the morning's training activities. Each guerrilla receives a portion of yellow rice, a hot dog, a boiled egg, a chunk of pork fat, and a generous helping of beans. There is water to drink.
The afternoon begins with a sudden fire alert. There is a blaze about a mile down the road and a number of guerrillas, armed with shovels, clamber aboard an old doorless, camouflaged truck and wait to be driven off to battle it.
"It's good public relations," Lieutenant Don explains knowingly. But the comandantem who has roared off to investigate the blaze in his blue jeep soon roars back to say that it is under control.
Lieutenant Don is adamant that the guerrilla group will intervene in Cuba only after a rising has first broken out, and then only from an undisclosed third country. "There'll be no raiding," he says. "We do not want to compromise the US in any way with the Castro government. It will be a one-way trip." But he insists that the guerrillas' services must be requested by "our people" in Cuba.
"We think an internal revolt is getting close," he says. "Castro is able to kill, but he won't be able to govern Cuba, and that time's coming up fast. The Cuban people are living without a breath of freedom. There's going to be a time when they're ready to die."
Lieutenant Don is not as delighted with the freedom boatlift from Mariel to Key West as one might expect him to be.
"Without Mariel the internal revolt would have happened," he observes a little disconsolately. "It was a very smart move. Castro is not a stupid man." The military information officer doesn't think the guerrillas will face the full weight of the Soviet-trained Cuban Army when they reach the island. "Most would side with the revolt," he says, but cautions that "the well-trained and well-indoctrinated will side with Castro."
Does he fear the tanks and aircraft the Cubans will throw at the force?
"That's war," he shrugs. "It's going to be hard and it's going to be bloody."
Lieutenant Don assumes that the General Directorate of Intelligence, the Cuban equivalent of the Soviet KGB, "knows about us," and concedes that the guerrilla group may be penetrated by its secret agents. "They might come posing as recruits and try to bring illegal things here, such as an unregistered pistol ," he says. But, he claims, "we have our intelligence service doing their job."
The guerrilla group has been increasingly on its guard since a gunman sped past its office at 1679 NW 27th Avenue in Miami and sprayed it with pistol shots. Gonzalez is convinced that Fidel Castro's agents were responsible. As a consequence, trunks of vehicles entering the training camp are searched for -- among other things -- explosive devices and unregistered weapons.
Lieutenant Don insists that the guerrilla group has no connection with the anti-Castro terrorist organization Omega 7, which appears to specialize in murdering Cuban-Americans who are members of the Committee of 75, a group that negotiated the release of 3,000 political prisoners in meetings with the Cuban dictator in 1978.
Comandantem Gonzalez asserts, moreover, that the guerrilla force has no ties with the US Central Intelligence Agency. "I swear before God and the Bible that I have no contact with the CIA," he says, but adds quickly, "We will accept every bit of help in good faith we can get."
But would he accept aid from the CIA?
"If the devil makes an offer to help Cuba he would accept it," says Lieutenant Don, translating for the earnest commander.
Are the guerrillas just playing soldiers, fascinated with firearms and uniforms?
"We respect every opinion," Lieutenant Don says quietly. "But the person who criticizes us should ask himself what is he doing for our cause. We're very serious, but we don't like to think of ourselves as the only people who could liberate Cuba. We're not the only armed group. Others are training in Florida."
Though commander of the guerrilla force, Major Gonzalez leaves the bulk of the training to Capt. Willy Calvino, who fought in Vietnam with the US Special Forces and who now runs a sporting goods store in Hialeah. Captain Calvino is a muscular, stocky man in Marine Corps fatigues decorated with a Cuban flag patch on the sleeve. Across his left shoulder, strapped to a webbing harness, he wears a dagger in a black leather sheath. Across his right shoulder dangles an army flashlight. He is teaching recruits how to fall with a rifle. Some fall heavily. Carlos Pedroso falls well. "He's good," the captain declares enthusiastically.
When not throwing themselves to the ground, the guerrillas are route marching , hurling dummy hand grenades, patrolling, learning how to dismantle their AR-15 s, and holding night exercises. Though forbidden to train with machine guns, some of the guerrillas have been instructed in their use. Some have even studied manuals on the Soviet AK-47 assault rifle, which equips the Cuban Army.
The physical demands of the training are rigorous. But only two recruits have so far dropped out of combat training. Their services will be used in other ways.
Of those who have poked fun at the guerrilla force, Captain Calvino says: "If they think we're playing games, why don't they come and join us."
As they march off to the firing range, the guerrillas sing lustily in Spanish: "If the tyrant doesn't go, we'll kick his backside until he does!" A little way down the road, Captain Calvino orders them to take evasive action against imaginary strafing by Cuban MIGs. They race off the road and fling themselves, back-first, onto the grass, weapons aloft to return the fire.
Farther on, where fields flank the road, Captain Calvino decides to stage an attack on Major Gonzalez's jeep. Ignoring the coral snakes that reputedly infest the area, he orders a dozen or so guerrillas to conceal themselves in the tall grass. The bulky blue jeep lurches off the road and into the grass. Major Gonzalez, in blue shirt and trousers, with a pistol and walkie-talkie at his waist, stares ahead of him. A bodyguard, armed with an AR-15, scans the grass anxiously while the driver fights with the wheel. As the vehicle grinds into taller grass and bushes, the guerrillas spring from hiding with a whoop and surround it.
It is then the playacting ceases. Snarlingly, they level weapons at the guard's head, force the commander into handcuffs, and wrestle the burly driver into the grass. The latter fights violently, and it takes four equally hefty guerrillas to hold him down. The guard goes quietly.
"We're not playing around," says an excited Lieutenant Don.
To the accompaniment of much shouting, they lead the captives back to a point just short of the road and force the major to his knees in the sand. The pretense that he is a senior Cuban or Russian general soon begins to wane and somebody asks for the keys to unlock him. There follows much searching of pockets and embarrassed smirking. The keys have been left at camp. A portly guerrilla is soon pounding away down the road to fetch them. When he returns, the major is speedily released amid much laughter.
Rubbing his wrists at the firing range, Major Gonzalez, who left Cuba in 1961 , launches into a blistering attack on Fidel Castro. Current internal conditions in Cuba spell "the beginning of the end" for him, he says. "It is time for people of free ideas to erase the oppression which communism represents."
How would his men fare against Cuban and Soviet troops?
They have faith in their cause and that makes them brave men. When a soldier is fighting for something he believes in, he's a good soldier," he says emphatically.
In the beginning, Major Gonzalez says, he regarded Fidel Castro as a savior. He cannot claim to have fought with him in the Sierra Maestra, but he fought against Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew in 1959. In fact, it was for his inspired anti-Batista activities that he earned the nickname "Bombilla." He was the one with all the ideas, says Lieutenant Don. Later he became a major in the Cuban Army.
But Jorge Gonzalez was quickly disillusioned by Castro. "He tricked the Cuban people," he says. "The majority thought that he was going to form a good government and liberate the country from rightist dictatorship, but he fell into one of the worst types of dictatorship." Castro today, he says, is "arrogant" and "sick in mind." He accuses him of perpetrating "more crimes than all the great dictators and assassins. He is killing his own kinfolk."
The comandante,m who declares that the memory of the Cuban countryside is never far from his thought, says he wishes "to be buried in Cuban territory" when he dies. He, too, is confident that when the people of Cuba revolt against Castro, the Army will join them. Does he fear the Soviet advisers? "The whole Cuban people are willing to die to throw off the system of oppression they now have," he says. "There is nothing the Russian advisers can do about that."
Major Gonzalez, who says he has been fighting Fidel Castro in one way or another for the last 20 years, declares: "This struggle is to the very end. Either Castro goes or we go. When one dies for a just cause, one goes along to a better life."
Reflecting on Cuba's recent sinking of a Bahamian patrol boat, Major Gonzalez suggests that in the current "state of stress" in Cuba, Castro "saw ghosts" and imagined the vessel to be loaded with Cuban exiles about to invade the island. Alternatively, he offers, the Cuban leader attacked the vessel "to force the US to attack him, because he doesn't want to go down in history as being overthrown by his own people."
If the expected internal revolt in Cuba fails to occur soon, the guerrillas won't be hanging up their uniforms. Lieutenant Don says they are quite prepared to go on training for another five years. "We want history to say that the Cuban people overthrew Castro," he says.
Are Major Gonzalez's guerrillas just another band of military freebooters bent on seizing political power? "Those who have fought for freedom," Lieutenant Don declares gravely, "would fight hardest to keep it."
The guerrillas training here with such seriousness and application are not an elite force and probably never will be. They are, however, a tough band of irregulars no Cuban or Soviet troops in their right mind would want as an enemy.
They could be hailed as the liberators of Cuba, feted with flowers, and showered with kisses in innumerable dusty villages. But if Fidel Castro crushed their hoped-for rising, they could just as easily be put up against a wall and shot.