The curiosity and romanticism surrounding Cuba's revolutionary hero Che Guevara has refused to abate, even slightly, in the 43 years since his death. Victor Dreke Cruz, who served as Che's number two in Africa, is one of the very few who can lay claim to a special personal relationship with the man. Dreke, 74, a former rebel fighter and army commander, is in London to mark the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the disastrous attempt by CIA-backed Cuban exiles to overthrow Fidel Castro's communist government, that severely embarrassed President Kennedy.
But Dreke is more than a Che memory bank; he is living Cuban history. His belief in the socialist system remains resolute; his disdain for the US unchanged; his pride for what he, Che, the Castro brothers and the revolution achieved intact. To some, he is a revolutionary hero in his own right.
Dreke was born in March 1937 in Sagua la Grande, a town on the northern coast of central Cuba, the youngest of nine children in a poor family descended from African slaves. His father eked out a living from several jobs – carpenter, fishmonger and musician – his mother was a housewife. Unlike most pre-revolutionary black Cubans, Dreke attended school. He grew up wanting to be a fireman until becoming politicised as a student.
"My revolutionary struggle started on my 15th birthday when we went out to protest against Batista's coup d'état on 10 March 1952. "I didn't know who Batista was but we'd heard that he was cruel, so many students went to the streets to protest. The police came and beat us, and one of them said: 'Who has ever seen a black revolutionary? Black people are only chicken thieves.' "
If the young Dreke needed any encouragement, that casual racist remark, commonplace in pre-revolutionary Cuba, did the trick.
After that he joined and led various rebel groups and underground militia across Cuba, living a precarious life, always "looking for trouble". He narrowly escaped capture and almost certain death at the age of 20, after one member of his group was captured, tortured and gave away his hiding place. Dreke managed to escape hidden in a wardrobe.
Dreke first met Che just weeks before the revolution. "It was 21 or 22 October 1958. I was with a guerrilla group, recovering from gunshot wounds after being attacked by police a few days earlier. Che arrived with his fighters, wearing ragged, torn clothes, exhausted after walking for miles from the east in the pouring rain – it was hurricane season. But someone told him there was an injured man, and so he came immediately to check on my wounds: he was a doctor and a tender man."
The two men fought together in the coming weeks as their units carried out joint operations, most notably taking the city of Santa Clara on 31 December 1958. It was this victory that caused Cuba's President, General Batista, to flee to the Dominican Republic on 1 January 1959. Communist Cuba was born.
Dreke describes Che as a "great leader" who led by example. "He was always looking for the most dangerous places, he was very demanding of himself. He suffered from asthma and had very bad attacks, but still he would go on walking, doing everything that we did – in fact, he did more. Good leaders can't be separate from their men and he was always with us."
Two years later – and 50 years ago today – Dreke, by this time an army captain, sped towards the coastal town of Giron upon hearing the country was under attack as the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion began.
He led two units, about 150 men, who clashed with invaders in the narrow roads around Giron. After three days of fighting and just hours before victory, Dreke was wounded and briefly captured by mercenaries. Shot in the arm and leg, his life was saved by his driver, who remains a friend, by shielding him from further fire.
The abortive invasion forced the resignation of the CIA's director, Allen Dulles, and deeply embarrassed the new US President, John F Kennedy. American discomfort was compounded by the support the raid generated for Castro's government. As Che said in a note to JFK five months later: "Thanks for Playa Giron. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it is stronger than ever."
Dreke insists their victory was also important for other countries fighting for independence. "We defeated the American imperialists for the first time in Latin American history and showed that people could live independently and with dignity."
Having proven himself as a trustworthy leader, Dreke, a commander by this point, was chosen by the Castro brothers to serve as Che's number two in the country's first international military mission. They left Cuba secretly in April 1965 for the Democratic Republic of Congo, to train independence fighters struggling against the CIA-backed forces of General (later President) Mobutu.
The journey was an unforgiving one, first by sea and then trekking hundreds of miles overland from Tanzania. "We didn't know Africa, the terrain was completely different, and there were wild animals – lions, elephants, snakes – and so many diseases. We lived in the forest, no houses, no tents and, at first, no hammocks. We didn't speak the language; it was tough."
He recalls how, en route from Tanzania, they had only one loaf of bread to eat. "Che asked me to slice this one loaf of bread for 16 hungry, huge men. It was only after everyone had eaten, he took the last slice, that's the kind of man he was."
During one ambush, Dreke feared Che was dead or kidnapped, only to discover that he had gone ahead alone and was fighting on the front line. "He was very audacious, very brave. He didn't go to Congo to hide or wait for time to pass before he went to Bolivia or Argentina. He went to help."
On their return to Cuba in November 1965, Che wrote of Dreke in his report to Fidel: "He was ... one of the pillars on which I relied. The only reason I am not recommending that he be promoted is that he already holds the highest rank."
Dreke led similar military missions in both Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, and it was while serving in the former that he heard about Che's murder in Bolivia.
"This was a very difficult moment. There were rumours Che had been killed, so I was asked to go to Conakry to see if it was true. I read the dispatches and one mentioned there was a scar on the man's right hand. When I read that I knew it was him. When Che smoked, the way he held his pipe meant you could see the scar, and I had seen him do that many times. It was a very painful moment... he was my boss, my comrade, my brother."
For Dreke, the achievements of the revolution are enduring. Illiteracy was wiped out in a year and ever since there has been universal, free education and healthcare. Racial and sex discrimination, endemic pre-1959, were outlawed almost immediately. He concedes that some things could have been done differently, but sleeps easy at night, he insists.
Dreke is adamant that there is no question of Cuba coming into the American fold, or embracing capitalism, even when Fidel eventually dies. In fact, he believes the global financial crisis is causing people across the world to look for alternatives to capitalism, for governments that choose ordinary people over bankers.
"When Obama was elected many people were very happy because he was a black man; they thought he would be different. To me, he is neither black nor white, he is a capitalist; skin colour has nothing to do with who you are in Cuba ... I'm not disappointed in Obama because I never had any great expectations. The Cuban people now realise Obama is no different to all the others."
He insists that Cuba's socialist future is secure despite Fidel having stood down in favour of Raul: "They are one and the same, united always." Fidel is important for Cubans and for poor people around the world, he says, but Raul is in charge now.
Of Dreke's four university-educated children, only one, his eldest daughter, a doctor, has chosen a military career. Dreke, meanwhile, retired from active military service 20 years ago. He subsequently studied for two degrees, and most recently served as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea. Doing nothing isn't for him.
He is serious and unwavering about the potential of revolution, but still has a cool sparkle, inviting me to go dancing next time I'm in Havana.
"Fidel will die, I will die, we [revolutionaries] will all eventually die, but Cuba will never go back to capitalism. The young people didn't live it, but they know how it was, they have values."
A life of action
10 March 1937 Victor Dreke Cruz born in coastal town of Sagua la Grande, youngest of seven boys and two girls.
1953-55 Works as a carpenter, studying business at night school, and organising student and workers protests in his home town.
1957 Helps form the student-based rebel unit of Revolutionary Directorate in Escambray mountains.
21 October 1958 Comes under the command of Che Ernesto Guevara.
19 April 1961 Two of his men die as their jeep is ambushed just hours before victory at the Bay of Pigs.
1962 Promoted to commander – highest rank in Cuban army; leads the Lucha Contra Bandidos (Fight against Bandits) – special units set up to "wipe-out" CIA-backed anti-communist forces.
1 April 1965 Leaves Cuba for Democratic Republic of Congo as Che's number two.
1972 Graduates with a politics degree from Maximo Gomez Military Academy.
1973 Made chief of Youth Army of Labour, working on agricultural projects.
1981 Graduates from University of Santiago de Cuba with a law degree.
1986-89 Heads the Cuban military mission in Guinea-Bissau.
1990 Retires from active military service.
2000 Made Illustrious Son of Sagua la Grande.
2002 Publishes From Escambray to the Congo. Tours the US.
2003-08 Serves as ambassador to Equatorial Guinea.
2011 Lives with wife in Havana, near his children. Officer of the Cuba-Africa Friendship Association.
Victor Dreke Cruz was hosted by the Cuban Solidarity Campaign