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Castro's former comrades greet news with suspicion

They were young then, some still teens, when they were swept up in the heady promise of revolution. There was bloodshed, hunger, fear -- and finally victory.

But for many of the soldiers and militants alongside Fidel Castro in his days as a charismatic guerrilla leader, there was also, in the end, a sense of grand betrayal as their one-time hero embraced communism.

Castro stepped aside as head of Cuba's government, but for many exiles who first fought for -- and later against -- his revolution, the news was bittersweet at best.

Huber Matos, one of Castro's trusted original commanders before they fell out, said Tuesday's letter in Granma ``doesn't sound like him at all.''

Matos, now 89, arrived in Miami in 1979 after spending 20 years in Cuba's prisons. ''That he would give up and abandon the revolution doesn't make any sense at all. That's not Fidel. He is a person who is in love with himself,'' he said.

Castro has swapped his trademark fatigues for a red-and-blue track suit since taking ill in 2006, but his letter to the Cuban people was rife with military rhetoric -- and allusions to the early days of the revolution.

He wrote that the country is fortunate to still be able to count on the ''old guard'' and those who were ``very young, almost children, when they joined the fight in the mountains.''

Matos said the two were always at odds, but that Castro needed Matos, who first came to his attention by supplying arms to the Cuban rebels in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

'The day we met -- March 30, 1958 -- I had delivered to him the weapons we had smuggled from Costa Rica, and he ordered me to go back and get more. I said I was staying in Cuba. He said to me, `You know, I'm in charge here,' '' Matos remembers.

Jorge Castellón was 16 when he joined the group of fighters in the Escambray mountains of central Cuba, known as the Second Front. He worked as a bodyguard for leaders of the revolutionary forces, coming into close contact with Castro on several occasions.

''Change in Cuba is not going to come that easy. There are a lot of people who lived very well after the revolution, and their bellies are full,'' said Castellón.

Castellón was among those who early on realized that Castro was turning increasingly toward communism. After the revolution's triumph, Castellón joined the opposition, and, eventually, fearing for his life, went into hiding for a year.

''We used to be the people who surrounded the majors to keep them safe,'' said Castellón, now 66. ``We were young kids, and he got rid of all of us.''

Castellón finally fled to the Brazilian embassy in Cuba, and managed to get to the United States in 1961.

`THERE WAS . . . HOPE'

Miami remains command central for the dwindling ranks of those early fighters who hope, even after nearly five decades, for the democracy they believed the revolution would bring.

Castro was barely 30, a rebel who led his small band in the Sierra Maestra mountains of eastern Cuba during the late 1950s while other fighters joined the Second Front in the Escambray mountains in an attempt to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista.

By late 1958, revolutionary forces -- joined by university students and others who opposed Batista -- began to take control in Santa Clara in central Cuba. On Jan. 1, 1959, Batista fled the country. Seven days later, a victorious Castro and his forces arrived in Havana.

Ernesto Diaz Rodriguez was a high school student in Havana when he joined the fight against Batista.

''There was faith and hope among the Cuban people. Ninety percent sympathized with Fidel Castro's revolution,'' said Diaz Rodriguez, who did not fight alongside Castro but nonetheless thought the revolution would restore Cuba's 1940 democratic constitution. ''They made a lot of promises that never came true,'' he said.

After the revolution, Diaz Rodriguez quit his jobs as a fisherman and bus driver and moved to Miami. He joined forces with Alpha 66, the anti-Castro militant group, and as head of naval operations made several trips into Cuba. On Dec. 4, 1968, Diaz Rodriguez was caught and spent more than 20 years in prison. He is now the secretary general of Alpha 66.

''I don't think this is a fundamental change, but this is the beginning of the end of Fidel Castro,'' Diaz Rodriguez said.

For Carlos Franqui, Tuesday's announcement was déjà vu.

In June 1959, Franqui was a revolutionary journalist drafted by Castro to continue work on Revolución, the guerrilla movement's clandestine newspaper. Castro, in a move historians say was designed to put pressure on then-Cuban president Manuel Urrutia, announced he was resigning his post as prime minister.

''He read his resignation to me and gave me the manuscript. He made me guarantee there would be no leaks,'' Franqui said by phone from Puerto Rico.

Castro's ''resignation'' was short lived. Urrutia, publicly chastised as a traitor by the then-popular Castro, resigned himself.

''In 1959, like today, the resignation was a tactic,'' Franqui said. ``Everything Fidel Castro does is a tactic and a strategy.''

Franqui said he believes Fidel Castro could never be alive and give up power for good. ''Raúl Castro will be president,'' he said, ``and Fidel will be behind the throne.''

ON THE INSIDE

Not all of the erstwhile revolutionaries have remained in exile. Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo says he's been waiting for this resignation for 50 years. He led the revolutionary Second Front in Escambray and later served more than 20 years in prison for criticizing the Castro government.

While living in Miami, Gutiérrez Menoyo earned the scorn of many in the Cuban community for advocating dialogue with the communist regime. He returned to Cuba four years ago, he said, to fight from the inside.

''Fifty years is enough. Now it's time for someone else to come and make the changes Fidel could not bring himself to do,'' said Gutiérrez Menoyo by phone from Havana on Tuesday. ``What's next for Cuba is for people to take the reins of sovereignty that were kidnapped so many years ago, so they can choose their own leaders.''

"Everyone who fought with me in battle should feel very happy today."

Miami Herald staff writer Frances Robles contributed to this report.