HAVANA – Juan Almeida Bosque, one of Fidel Castro’s commanders during the revolutionary struggle and a mainstay in Cuba’s communist government, has died of a heart attack. He was 82.
Almeida, who was born in Havana on Feb. 17, 1927 and was one of several vice presidents in the Council of State, the island’s supreme governing body; and a member of the Communist Party’s politburo, died Friday night in the Cuban capital.
He also had been named “Commander of the Revolution,” a title only held by three other surviving members of the revolutionary struggle: Fidel Castro, who officially stepped down as head of state in February 2008 due to illness, ceding his office to younger brother Raul; Telecommunications and Information Minister Ramiro Valdes; and Guillermo Garcia Frias.
A low-profile figure, Almeida was most often seen in public – always dressed in his olive-green army uniform – performing the duty of welcoming newly accredited ambassadors to Havana.
His absence from the latest welcome ceremony, when first Vice President Manuel Machado replaced him, led many in Havana to suspect that his health problems had worsened.
Cuba’s official media recalled Almeida’s humble beginnings as a bricklayer and noted that he first joined the revolutionary struggle in 1952 and was “always in the first line of combat alongside the commander in chief of the revolution (Fidel Castro).”
He was also the only black commander among the rebel leadership.
In addition to his political facet, Almeida also was a musician who composed more than 300 songs, including “La Lupe,” in honor of a Mexican woman he met while in exile in Mexico; “Dame un traguito” and “Que le pasa a esa mujer,” which have been performed by leading Cuban musical figures such as Omara Portuondo, Elena Burke, Juan Formell, Chucho Valdes and La Charanga Habanera.
Almeida went to Mexico along with other revolutionary comrades after being released from prison following the disastrous 1952 attack on the Moncada military barracks, an action that nevertheless served to launch the revolutionary struggle which eventually toppled dictator Gen. Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
In 1990, his name was mentioned among possible conspirators in an attempted coup d’etat in the early 1960s, but then-Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodriguez denied that he had ever been arrested and said he was never involved in the plot. And indeed Almeida never faced any reprisals nor lost any revolutionary honors.
But his son, Juan Juan Almeida, had a falling out with the regime in recent years and was arrested in May on charges of espionage and attempting to smuggle people out of the country. A book about his experiences and the Cuban revolutionary elite was recently published by Spain’s Espuela de Plata.
In “Memorias de un guerrillero cubano desconocido” (Memoirs of an Unknown Cuban Guerrilla), Juan Juan Almeida provides insights into the Castro regime and the personality of his father.
The elder Almeida was always considered a faithful servant of the revolution by Castro, who in the biography “Cien horas con Fidel” (One Hundred Hours with Fidel), includes him “among a list of men incapable of betraying the revolution” and someone who “lived decisive moments without ever losing spirit.”
Parliament speaker Ricardo Alarcon told reporters that Almeida was “one of the main architects of the Cuban revolution” and “was with Fidel throughout this revolution.”
“He was a man of very humble origins, a bricklayer, black. All his life he worked with his hands, with the sweat of his brow, but he was a man with great sensibility, a musician, a poet.”
The Cuban government has declared Sunday to be a national day of mourning and ordered all flags flown at half-staff.