To talk about Comrade Alfonso is to talk about love.
After enjoying her smiling, friendly and warm welcome, I proceed to explain to Victoria Sandino the reason for my visit. Manuela and Laura had just left the room with a farewell tone until the next day, and I consider I’m lucky to have picked this hour to storm in. She is usually very busy and I feared that she wouldn’t have time to receive me.
We’re in Havana, on the onset of a warm moonlit night of October, and the anniversary of the death of Comrade Alfonso is approaching. My intention is to speak to those of the Peace Delegation who were very close to him, in order to listen to the version of each one about the unforgettable leader. Victoria could not be missing, and it’s with her I decide to start.
She started working with him in ’94 and until his death she was part of his closest team. We must go back many years ago. Yes, it’s the same Victoria that I met earlier in the year ’95, when she was sent to Magdalena Medio to teach about Propaganda. Aside from a few extra kilos, which give her the appearance of a respectable matron, she hasn’t changed much.
I’ll never stop being amazed by her smiling face of eternal youth and profound look, always decorated with a pair of glasses of showy color. In the final years of Comrade Alfonso´s life, she was in charge of his organizational unit, directly dependent on him and with daily communication, amid the inferno of military operations.
She recalls having asked him, during the last of the few conversations they had back then, on why he didn’t move to another area from where he was. The Army raids in southern Tolima were growing, accompanied by frequent bombings of the Air Force. There were combats almost every day. And where should I go; where there is no confrontation? he replied.
For Victoria it’s clear that when it comes to admire someone in such a way, what is really felt for that person is deep love. Not that selfish love of couples, but that intimate feeling of affection that comes from recognition of brilliance, of the astonishment of what that person is capable of performing and the way of doing it, the dazzle that their personality renders.
She has no difficulty in expressing how much love she felt for Comrade Alfonso, how much she cherished him. On more than one occasion she was surprised and at the same time surprised him when she would unconsciously answer to his call with the word dad, as if the secret force of the enormous affection that he inspired transmuted him into being her father in some part of her soul.
In the FARC, the most important leaders constitute their guard units with the guerrillas that inspire most confidence, and often have them next to them for many years. That ends up generating an almost family kind of relationship that somehow is perceived as such by the subordinate. But the leader is clear that he is not conforming a family; he is educating his guerrillas.
So after six, eight, ten or twelve years, any day the leader calls them to his office to entrust them a mission of responsibility elsewhere, with the possibility that they may not see each other again, or not very often. That’s when tears come up. In Victoria´s case, after a decade by his side, the Comrade sent her away one day, but not too far away, so she was glad they could still meet each other.
She talks with authority about those years of daily coexistence in the unit of Alfonso. She still cannot explain to herself how he managed to get so much out of time. He read a lot, talked almost every day for hours with the leaders of various units he received and had them stay there for up to one or two months.
He received and sent countless mailings, of which he would make detailed accounts to his staff in their daily conversations. He liked people to know what was happening in the other units, particularly the faults and errors of the comandantes, and he always drew precise conclusions in order to educate. He liked to describe in detail the combats that were reported to him.
He would also dedicate time to explain the progress in the organizational work and topics of the civilian population. Victoria and others were always overwhelmed by the perfect knowledge he showed regarding even the smallest details of everyday life in the camp. Perhaps it was due to the location of his sleeping area.
He would prefer the highest place, from which he could have a view of the whole place, but also caring to not be too far away from the sleeping areas of the rest and other facilities. He seemed to be attentive, despite his occupations, of how much the duty officer would talk to the troops in the formation centre, as well as what each one would do.
It was not surprising that when the officer showed up before him in the morning to give him the daily report, the chief would be even more aware than the officer himself about the newest developments. One time, due to the joy shown by a girl who found two eggs in her breakfast, the Comrade found out that the ranchera (cooker) was serving a double portion to his girlfriend.
All the dishes were the same, almost equal, which is why the girl had picked up a dish that wasn’t hers, which was precisely the dish owned by the girlfriend of the ranchera. Apart from using the case for the corresponding educational talk, the Comrade henceforth assumed the habit of going to the kitchen when serving meals.
Victoria doesn’t forget the moment when one of the most important leaders of the Comando de Occidente [Western Block], received Comrade Miguel Pascuas [a founder of the FARC-EP] to give a general report. When arriving to Comrade Alfonso’s place to provide the general report, Pascuas was received with military honors. Although Alfonso’s rank was superior, he didn’t want a man who deserved so much respect and who had been in the FARC for so many years like Migue, tol report before him.
Comrade Alfonso was very demanding with the staff in relation to the revolutionary mentality and the discipline that they should maintain, but even more with the group of comandantes and still more with those of even higher hierarchy. He would not raise his voice or grunt, but with his overwhelming logic and incisive questions he could corner and shame the recipient of his critique.
If there was something with which he was sensitive, it was in relation to the expenditure of resources of the organization. Those who were sent to the village or the city to do errands -a task that he always thought women were more capable of – had to take account of their expenditures in a detailed manner and with the respective receipts.
He would not tolerate what in his opinion was improper waste of money incompatible with the proletarian mentality that should characterize the revolutionary. Once, a girl invited two people for breakfast in a restaurant in northern Bogota and for nearly three years he reproached her for such behavior. A FARC guerrilla had no right to spend the money in that manner.
That is why he took the necessary time to personally review the expense reports that were sent from different Command units. By the receipts he knew the exact price of items and he would quickly detect overruns and mismanagement. He was implacable with the authors of such misdeeds.
However, no one can syndicate him of being a cheapskate. With the troops under his command he developed an excellent human relationship and was never reluctant to address their requests no matter how strange they might seem. Like order an expensive treatment for hair loss at the express request of a combatant who feared he was going bald.
Or to treat the skin of women affected by weather, or even, as happened once, viagra for a combatant of certain age who had problems because women left him after living with him for a while. And at the risk that those responsible for buying medicine, thought that [the viagra] was for him, generating confusion in the end and the most humorous situations.
Nobody like him to open one´s soul and talk about the illusions or pains residing in the heart; Comrade would stand beside those who did it and would try to help them within his possibilities in order to make that person happy. Just like with affectionate spirit of solidarity he would serve as a shoulder to cry on when someone would tell him their pain resulting from a bad romance.
Victoria even remembers her fights with him. She, with anger and furiousness would loudly argue her reasons, and he, sententious and cutting, calling for sanity and refusing to accept any arguments expressed in bad terms. Perhaps it was from such a situation, where the best talk of her life about the gender problem emerged.
She, rebellious, was practically insubordinated as a result of what she judged a “macho management” by the service officer when resolving a problem in which a girl was involved. Insubordination is a serious matter in the FARC, Alfonso Comrade sided with the officer and she was sanctioned.
She spent a week digging the ground with a shovel, occasionally aided by the solidarity of boys whose arms drew in a few minutes more land than she could in an hour; lonely raging against what she deemed an unexpected attitude on part of her idolized boss. He also lasted an entire month without speaking to her.
By then she was saddened. To have lost the closeness and trust with Comrade Alfonso was the worst event that could have happened in her life. She was a guerrilla, a cadre, and therefore aware that she had badly mismanaged the situation that afternoon. She could have just waited for the Party meeting and openly express her criticism for the official.
Or she could have even personally complained about his decision before Alfonso himself. There was in fact another way of doing things. But insubordination completely lacks of any defense in the FARC. No one that did that could claim anything in their favor before any other unit. In addition, she was embarrassed because she had even argued against the Comrade himself that afternoon when he spoke.
Then one day, he called her into his office. And with the usual affectionate treatment that he always kept for everyone, he asked her about the reasons for her rampant behavior. It was not difficult for them to understand each other this time. But then she heard him talk about the actual situation of women in the FARC and all that was needed to improve it.
To that end, he traced the origins of the force, the debate that took place soon after the organization was founded around the contemplated possibility of women entering the ranks. How the first women who entered didn’t do it as combatants but as companions of those who brought them and how they were opposed to being guerrillas. A struggle was needed for that to change.
The entire process lived in the organization up to the 6th, 7th and 8th Conferences in which women finally obtained full recognition of their rights and duties as combatants equal to any man, and how hard they had to work in order for the written to become true through the facts through an educational process of teaching people.
Not only leaders, or men, but even women themselves, who came from civilian life with a mindset prepared for submission to man. It was a fight that had to be fought within the organization, a fair fight, but it had to be given in the proper manner. It was not against a particular leader or any woman in particular, it was for everyone.
Victoria listened. Sunken by the clarity of Alfonso about the problems of women and the difficulties of linking them first to the fight [of gender equality] and then men, in a careful process of generating consciousness. She understood well, and many years later in Havana, made into a national benchmark for gender struggle, she’s still grateful to him.