Juan Almeida Bosque

Article excerpt

Cuban vice-president who fought alongside Castro and Guevara

When Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and a ragtag band of revolutionaries trundled victoriously into Havana on 8 January 1959, Juan Almeida's was the only black face at the head of their convoy. To the majority of the Cuban capital's residents - poor, black or mulatto (mixed race) - the sight of a black man in one of the leading jeeps was a comforting signal that the revolution would finally give them a voice.

Almeida was one of 80 revolutionaries who had sailed from Mexico to Cuba with Castro and Guevara in December 1956 on board a rickety motor boat, the Granma, to launch the revolution. He was one of only a dozen who survived the rough, week-long crossing and the initial battles with the forces of the dictator Fulgencio Batista. Soon after their landing, vastly outnumbered, a Batista officer shouted to them to give up. Almeida reportedly yelled "Aqui no se rinde nadie!" ["Nobody here surrenders!"], a slogan that became one of the most famous and lasting of the revolution and can be seen on posters around Havana to this day.

For his bravery, Almeida became the only black commander of the revolutionaries who forced Batista to flee the country on New Year's Day 1959, and who entered the capital a week later. Castro had put him in charge of the revolutionaries' Third Front, in the province of Oriente, as the revolutionaries pushed west across the Sierra Maestra mountains towards Havana.

When he died of a heart attack aged 82, he was one of several vice-presidents under Castro, a member of the communist party politburo and one of only three remaining men who held the honorary title "Commander of the Revolution" - second in rank to only El Jefe Maximo himself. Until he suffered from heart problems he was one of the most visible members of Cuba's ruling elite, often appearing alongside Castro or his brother Ral at public events or diplomatic parties, and regularly representing Cuba at meetings abroad. He was something of a right-hand man to Fidel Castro and, latterly, to Ral, who has been running the country since his brother's illness.

To younger Cubans, and in the Spanish-language music world, Almeida was best known as a composer of bolero songs - he wrote more than 300 of them - many of them love songs or ballads about his days as a guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra. Songs such as "Que le pasa a esa mujer?" ["What's going on with that woman?"] or "La Lupe" (about a girl called Lupe) - can regularly be heard on radio stations throughout Latin America or in Spain.

A descendant of African slaves, Juan Almeida Bosque was born in a run-down neighbourhood of Havana on 17 February 1927. …