The Refit That Sparked Revolution, by Peter Swanson (continued)
1950-55, ROBERT ERICKSON
Once described as “an inventive, intellectual businessman who spoke seven languages,” Robert Erickson makes his fortune in lead smelting and processing lead as a gasoline additive. In 1940, he moves his family and businesses, Schuylkill Products Company and Schuylkill Lead Corporation, to Baton Rouge, near Lousiana’s oil-refinery industry.
Schuylkill Products is listed as Granma’s owner when she first appears on U.S. Coast Guard documentation records in 1950. Cuban records show that Granma visited Havana twice in the period of 1950-51, so Castro’s 1956 voyage will be her third “cruise” to Cuba.
Erickson’s cruising also includes the Gulf Coast of Mexico, along with the port city of Tuxpán. He and his wife like Tuxpán so much that they decide to buy land and build a house overlooking the river. During construction they anchor out and sleep aboard. One night thieves row up in a launch, enter their cabin, threaten to kill them, and escape with their valuables.
The crime sours the Ericksons on life in Tuxpán; he and his wife move across the mountains to Mexico City. According to accounts written decades after these events, Granma is wrecked during a hurricane in 1952, but examination of storm tracks suggests it actually happens when Tropical Storm Florence lands a direct hit on Tuxpán in 1954. The Ericksons make no effort to recover their damaged yacht.
At last, Erickson’s granddaughter returns my phone call. Maris Harry is 74 and remembers being on her grandfather’s boat at St. Petersburg, Florida, when she was six. She lays to rest the assumption that Granma is named for Erickson’s grandmother. “Granma” is Erickson’s affectionate name for his second wife. Think about it: If Erickson’s sensibilities had been slightly more conventional, Cubans today might be getting their news from a paper named “The Hazel.”
1955, THE FRIEND
Castro engages in anti-government activities throughout the early 1950s, culminating in a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks. He is imprisoned with a group of leftist followers, including a navy war hero named Norberto Collado, who is of African descent. In May 1955, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista releases the lot of them as a publicity stunt, which later will prove to be his undoing.
Threatened with re-arrest, however, Castro and his brother Raul flee to Mexico in late May 1955. Things are worse for Collado, who lacks the protection of an affluent white family like the Castros. He is repeatedly beaten and tortured by police. Collado, too, flees to Mexico, whose capital becomes a hub of anti-Batista activism as more Cuban leftists arrive.
Antonio Del Conde owns a gun shop in Mexico City and does a little gun smuggling on the side. Castro needs guns and visits his shop in June 1955. Del Conde is smitten. “I offered to help him—and from the beginning it was something sincere, I could say on a personal level,” Conde writes in his book Memories of Granma’s Owner. “His need for help was so great that I could perceive it. I was not just going to help him a little bit, or partially. No, it had to be my complete and absolute help.”
Del Conde helps arm, hide, fund, feed, and train Castro’s growing rebel band. For his efforts he is eventually excommunicated from the Catholic Church and serves time in a federal prison. Del Conde’s code name is El Cuate, slang for “the friend,” and he turns out to be quite the swashbuckler in service of the Cuban Revolution.
While away from the city doing errands for the rebels, Del Conde passes through Tuxpán, where the Ericksons had lived. There in the marsh on the edge of the Tuxpán River, he spies a wrecked white hull. The name on the transom is Granma.
“She was big … alone and abandoned. I don’t know if I felt sorry for her because even though abandoned, she looked beautiful,” Del Conde writes. He is inspired. He imagines himself at the helm, cruising through the Panama Canal and north all the way to the Sea of Cortez. He learns the identity of the owner and visits Robert Erickson at his Mexico City apartment. In early 1956, Erickson agrees to sell Granma for $20,000, half up front, and Del Conde plans to restore the boat over time. The diesels are inundated, her keel is broken—the boat is a mess.
Castro, according to Del Conde, learns about Granma’s existence while they are on a drive through Tuxpán after shooting practice. Castro sneaks up behind Del Conde, who has excused himself to go down to the river to check on his recent purchase. Only recently Castro had failed in an attempt to buy a surplus PT boat in the U.S. Now he smashes Del Conde’s cruising dreams.
“I was a bit surprised since I hadn’t realized he’d followed me,” writes Del Conde. “I told him that it was a boat I had purchased in payments, that I was going to fix her little by little because she was in very poor condition. ‘If you fix this boat, then on this boat I will return to Cuba,’ he said. I got up like a rocket, and I told him, ‘Sir, the boat does not work. I must even replace the keel. Everything is useless!’ And again he repeated himself, more slowly as if to hear and understand himself better: ‘If you fix this boat, then on this boat I will return to Cuba.’
“He could not be any more clear. It was an order he knew I could fulfill. He had known me for more than a year now. I did not say anything. I turned around and started walking towards the car.”
Like Granma, Del Conde lives. He is 92, still residing in Mexico City.
On the phone, Del Conde insists on speaking English. He lived in New York City until he was five when his family moved back to Mexico. Now, his hearing is bad, and he doesn’t want to talk long. He has one point that he insists on making, however, because it is important to him to correct a common misunderstanding.
Del Conde insists he is not a straw buyer for Castro. He bought Granma for himself. He alone owns Granma right up until the day she is summarily conscripted for the Revolution. “My yacht Granma,” he says.