May 17, a date of homage and commitment

campesino, holguin, Modesto
Modesto Vargas Guerra. Photo: Courtesy of Arnaldo Vargas

Whenever May 17 approaches -the date on which the Day of the Peasant is celebrated in Cuba-, I remember the life of sacrifice of my grandfather Modesto Vargas Guerra, a hardworking, simple, responsible and exemplary family man who, when the National Revolutionary Militias (MNR) were created, led an organized group, whose weapons he guarded in his own home.

May 17, a date of homage and commitment

Modesto Vargas Guerra. Photo: Courtesy of Arnaldo Vargas

He taught his children to toil the land he owned in the place known as the Arsenal (Crucero de Felton), near the community of Vuelta Larga, about five kilometers from the port town of Felton, and when the sugar harvest began, several oxen and carts were driven to Cueto to pull the canes from the fields to the cranes that deposited them in the railroad cars.

As the consecrated country man that he was, the respected and beloved old man, who lived up to his name, Modesto, was always aware of the news broadcast on the radio about the benefits conferred to the farmers since the signing, in La Plata, Sierra Maestra, of the Agrarian Reform Law, that historic May 17, 1959, promised by Fidel Castro during his courageous defense plea after the assault on the Moncada barracks, which transcended as History will absolve me and in which he denounced such abuses:

“(…) farm workers who live in the miserable huts, who work four months a year and go hungry the rest sharing misery with their children, who do not have an inch of land to sow and whose existence should move more to compassion if there were not so many hearts of stone (…. ) to the hundred thousand small farmers, who live and die working a land that is not theirs, always contemplating it sadly like Moses to the promised land, to die without ever possessing it, who have to pay for their plots like feudal serfs a part of their products, who cannot love it, nor improve it, nor beautify it, plant a cedar or an orange tree because they ignore the day that a bailiff will come with the rural guard to tell them that they have to leave”.

Although his cultural level was limited, through his little radio station RCA-Víctor, Modesto had felt in his own flesh such abuses and knew about the assassination of Niceto Pérez (1946), in whose homage May 17 was instituted as the Day of the Cuban Peasant. This was also the date on which the National Association of Small Farmers (ANAP) was established in 1961, which Cuban peasants will celebrate with great joy and the commitment to get more fruits from the land for the benefit of their people.

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