Cuba says ‘Commander of the Revolution’ Juan Almeida Bosque dead of heart attack at 82

By Will Weissert, AP
Saturday, September 12, 2009

Cuba’s Juan Almeida Bosque dead at 82

HAVANA — Juan Almeida Bosque, a comrade-in-arms of Fidel Castro since the start of his guerrilla struggle more than a half-century ago, has died of a heart attack. The 82-year-old was one of several Cuban vice presidents and had been among only three surviving rebel leaders who still bore the honorary title “Commander of the Revolution.”

A statement in government media on Saturday said Almeida will “live on forever in the hearts and minds of his compatriots.” It said Almeida died around 11:30 p.m. Friday night in Havana.

Cuba declared a national day of mourning for Sunday and ordered all flags flown at half-staff.

A bricklayer who began working at age 11, Almeida was the only black commander among the rebel leaders. He was one of the most important and decisive voices in the battle to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, as well as in the early years following the Jan. 1, 1959, triumph of the Cuban revolution.

Born Feb. 27, 1927, Almeida was often seen at public events in his uniform alongside the Cuban leader until Castro fell gravely ill in the summer of 2006 and finally resigned the presidency in February 2008. Almeida then became a mainstay beside Castro’s younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro.

With his full head of white hair and mustache, Almeida was a highly visible member of Cuba’s ruling elite, sitting on the Communist Party’s politburo and serving as a vice president on the Council of State, the country’s supreme governing body.

Along with Ramiro Valdes and Guillermo Garcia, he had been among only three men still alive distinguished as a “Comandante de la Revolucion” — a title reserved for top leaders of rebel troops under Fidel Castro’s command in the 1950s.

The government statement called him “a paradigm of revolutionary strength, solid convictions, bravery, patriotism and service to the people.” It said Almeida’s body would not lie in state, in accordance with his wishes, and funeral arrangements would be announced “at a later date.”

Authorities were organizing a ceremony Sunday in his honor at the monument of Cuban revolutionary hero Jose Marti on Havana’s Revolution Plaza, as well as at other locations around the country, including on Isla de la Juventud, an island off Cuba’s mainland where Almeida once was imprisoned with the Castro brothers.

Almeida joined the fight against Batista’s dictatorship in March 1952 as a young law student at the University of Havana, where he met Fidel Castro, another aspiring attorney.

Almeida was at Castro’s side a year later, on July 26, 1953, when Cuba’s future president led an armed attack on the Moncada, a military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. It was a disaster and Almeida and both Castros were sent to a prison on Isla de los Pinos, or Isle of Pines, later renamed Isla de la Juventud. But that failure launched the revolutionary battle that triumphed 5 1/2 years later.

Almeida and other survivors of the offensive were freed in May 1955 under an amnesty granted to the young revolutionaries. He accompanied the Castros and others comrades to Mexico, where they formed a guerrilla army.

They returned to Cuba in December 1956 on the American yacht “Granma” and launched their battle from the island’s eastern Sierra Maestra.

Almeida, the Castro brothers and Argentine-born Ernesto “Che” Guevara were among only 16 who survived the landing, in which most of the rebels were killed by government troops.

“No one here gives up!” Almeida shouted to Guevara at the time, giving the Cuban revolution one of its most lasting slogans and ensuring his place in Cuban communist history. As a guerrilla leader, Almeida later headed his own front of military operations in eastern Cuba.

After Batista fled Havana on New Year’s Day 1959, Almeida served in various military posts, ranging from head of motorized units to chief of the Rebel Army’s Air Force. He later was named a vice minister and chief of staff of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.

Almeida was a member of the Communist Party of Cuba’s Central Committee since its creation in October 1965.

His duties included welcoming new foreign ambassadors to Cuba and greeting other visiting dignitaries. However, Almeida cut back on public activities in December 2003, announcing he was suffering from heart problems.

Almeida also composed traditional Cuban music and wrote about his years behind bars and in the mountains.

Details of his personal life were always closely guarded, and it was not clear how many survivors he had.

will not be displayed