March 10, 1937
Víctor Dreke Cruz is one of the heroes of Cuba's African story. Born in 1937 to a working-class family in the town of Sagua la Grande in Cuba's Villa Clara province, he joined the struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista (1952–1958), rising to the rank of captain (the second highest rank, immediately below commander) in Fidel Castro's rebel army. After Castro assumed power in January 1959, Dreke served in the country's elite antiguerrilla force. In December 1962, at age twenty-five, he was promoted to the rank of commander.
In April 1965 Dreke left Havana on a secret mission. Cuba's interest in sub-Saharan Africa had quickened in late 1964. This was the moment of the great illusion, when the Cubans (and many others) believed that revolution beckoned in Africa. Guerrillas were fighting the Portuguese in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique, while in Congo Brazzaville a new government was loudly proclaiming its revolutionary sympathies. Above all, in Congo Leopoldville (the Democratic Republic of the Congo), an armed revolt had been spreading with stunning speed, threatening the survival of the corrupt pro-American regime that Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had laboriously put in place. To save the Congolese regime, the Lyndon Johnson administration raised an army of a thousand white mercenaries in a major covert operation that provoked a wave of revulsion even among African leaders friendly to the United States. The Cubans saw the conflict as more than an African problem; as Che Guevara put it, "Our view was that the situation in the Congo was a problem that concerned all mankind" (Guevara, p. 41).
At the request of the Congolese rebels, Castro agreed to send a group of military instructors. (The Cuban approach to guerrilla warfare required instructors to fight with their students.) Che Guevara led the column, and Dreke was his second in command. But Central Africa was not ready for revolution. By the time the Cubans arrived in the Congo, the mercenaries had broken the resolve of the rebels. The story of Che's column is not one of great battles, but of 120 people thrust into an impossible situation in a totally alien world, who retained their humanity until the end. Guevara could only preside over the agony of the rebellion until the rebels' collapse left him no choice but to withdraw in November 1965. A few weeks later, in a secret document in which he assessed each of the men who had served under him in the column, Che honored Dreke with unusual praise: "He was, throughout our stay, one of the pillars on which I relied," he wrote. "The only reason I am not recommending that he be promoted is that he already holds the highest rank" (Gleijeses, p. 88).
After returning from the Congo, Dreke headed the bureau that trained Cubans going on military missions abroad and foreigners who came to Cuba for instruction in guerrilla warfare. In 1967, he left on a second African mission. By then the main focus of Havana's attention in Africa was Guinea-Bissau, where rebels were fighting for independence from Portugal. They were "Africa's most successful liberation movement," according to U.S. State Department reports (Gleijeses, p. 185). Until the colony won its independence in 1974, Cuban instructors helped operate the rebels' more sophisticated weapons, plan military strategy, and conduct military operations on the ground. Their contribution was, in the words of Nino, the senior rebel commander, "of the utmost importance." Dreke headed the Cuban military mission in Guinea-Bissau in 1967–1968 with great distinction, and he left a lasting impression on the men who served with him, Cubans and Guineans alike. "Dreke has always been a role model," a Cuban volunteer recalled, "very simple, very austere." He was, said Nino, "an exceptional leader" (Gleijeses, pp. 191, 196).
After returning to Cuba, Dreke held several high positions in the army, while also earning a law degree in 1981. After retiring from the army in 1990, he worked in Africa for two Cuban government corporations involved in trade and construction, and he was appointed ambassador to the Republic of Equatorial Guinea in 2003.
Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Dreke, Víctor. From the Escambray to the Congo: In the Whirlwind of the Cuban Revolution. New York: Pathfinder, 2002.
Gálvez, William. El sueño africano del Che. Qué sucedió en la guerrilla congolesa? Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1997.
Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Guevara, Ernesto. Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria: Congo, edited by Aleyda March. Barcelona: Grijalbo, 1999.
piero gleijeses (2005)