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Max Lesnik, who fought with Gutierrez Menoyo against Batista and who now helps him run Cambio Cubano, resists such far-reaching comparisons. But he does agree that his old friend views himself as a martyr to the Cuban cause. Sitting in the office of Replica, the Spanish-language news magazine he edits, Lesnik pulls out a back issue containing a story about the funeral of Cesar Chavez, the revered organizer of migrant farm workers. Lesnik's daughter is married to Chavez's son; both he and Gutierrez Menoyo were invited to the funeral. In one photo accompanying the story, Gutierrez Menoyo stands with Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, and Cardinal Rogelio Mahoney. "Eloy listened to Cardinal Mahoney speaking about Chavez's life," says Lesnik. "He was very impressed and he whispered to me, 'That is my destiny A to suffer for others.' He wasn't trying to compare himself to Chavez and he would never say something like that to a journalist. It was a spontaneous outburst that shows what I would call his deep need for sacrifice." The key to Gutierrez Menoyo's self-image is his family history, Lesnik adds: "Eloy's family is one of tragedy, and he is a man of tragedy."
Born in Madrid as the youngest of six children, Gutierrez Menoyo grew up during the horrible aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. His father, Dr. Carlos Gutierrez Zabaleta, was a general practitioner and a militant Socialist before becoming a major in the medical corps of the Republican army fighting Franco. The dictator's victorious forces jailed him for several months in 1939 and then stripped him of his livelihood by prohibiting him from practicing medicine. "The war ended when I was five," Gutierrez Menoyo remarks. "From that time on I learned what it was like to live in a country that has gone through a very bloody war. I know from memory what it's like to live in a country in which there isn't even a rat or a cat or a dog to eat. My infancy was one that was very hard, very violent."
Compounding the physical suffering was the pain of loss. Gutierrez Menoyo's oldest brother Jose Antonio was killed in the battle of Majadahonda, near Madrid, after volunteering to fight the Franquistas when he was just sixteen. Franco's triumph led the family's second-oldest son, Carlos, to flee Spain to join the Free French Second Armored Division of Gen. Jacques Leclerc; he fought under both Leclerc and Gen. George S. Patton in Europe during World War II. After the war he began working to rescue his family from Franco's oppression, immigrating to Cuba in 1946 and bringing his loved ones to join him A first his mother and his three sisters and finally his brother Eloy and his father.
On March 10, 1952, a coup d'etat brought former dictator Fulegencio Batista back to power in Cuba. As the oldest of two remaining brothers, Carlos maintained the family tradition and marched onto a new field of political combat. He began organizing resistance to Batista, embarking on a path that led to his death. He was killed in 1957 along with dozens of other combatants inside Batista's presidential palace in Havana, after leading an assault to bring down the dictator. Eloy, then 22, had provided logistical support to the rebels, running messages and guns as well as operating several safe houses. Gutierrez Menoyo's involvement remained undiscovered by Batista's forces, which granted him a lone visit to a Havana morgue to identify the bodies.
"I faced a difficult moment," he says, his voice lowered in understatement. A hint of old pain subtly undermines his habitual stoicism. "They had thrown all of those who died in the palace on the floor. I went in and identified my brother and a great number of friends who had fallen. It was an ugly matter, but the mind immediately seeks its equilibrium."
After his brother's death, Gutierrez Menoyo initiated his own guerrilla movement. "It's a question of not allowing yourself to become paralyzed," he affirms. "The struggle is inconclusive. Well, then, we must continue it. It all made me feel useful in the same cause for which my brother had died, and that helped calm my mind. I had always seen my brother as a model to follow. I was very young, but I did fulfill my role."
He did so first as the head of a revolutionary student organization, and then as a rebel leader in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba. When Batista finally fell, Gutierrez Menoyo's force of more than 3000 men entered Havana several days before Castro's arrival. Although Gutierrez Menoyo held no position in the new government, he did initially support Castro as the leader of the revolution. But he says he became disillusioned as his former ally against Batista began moving that revolution further and further to the left, and in January 1961, Gutierrez Menoyo and thirteen others fled Cuba in a small fishing boat, landing in Key West after nineteen hours at sea.
He spent the next six months at a U.S. detention center in McAllen, Texas. Once freed, he settled in Miami and married his first wife, Tania Salas. And he wasted no time in forming his own paramilitary organization, naming it Alpha 66ASecond Escambray Front, after the brigade he had led in Cuba. On December 28, 1964, nearly three years after he had left Cuba, he and three other men infiltrated the island, an action that would determine the course of his life for the next two decades.