MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The man who helped a young Fidel Castro set sail for revolution said on Saturday he was speechless over the death of his old friend, 60 years after he furnished him with a weapons-filled yacht for his historic voyage to Cuba.
Mexico City gun dealer Antonio del Conde, nicknamed “The Friend,” met Castro in the 1950s and bought him Granma, the boat he used to sail from Mexico to start the insurgency that toppled U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista two years later.
“I have no words,” del Conde said in an interview at his home in Mexico City. “He changed my life, like he changed the lives of many people in different countries around the world.”
Cuban leader Raul Castro said his brother died late on Friday, exactly 60 years since Fidel and a band of armed comrades left from the port of Tuxpan on Mexico’s Gulf coast.
Fidel was 90 years old, the same age as del Conde.
“When my friend told me ... I was silent,” del Conde said, speaking from his modest apartment in southern Mexico City. He was imprisoned for a year for helping the revolutionaries, but eventually made it to Cuba to celebrate with his friends.
A sepia-toned photograph hung on the wall of del Conde drinking malt beer over dinner with a bearded Fidel, Raul and left-wing icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara after the revolution.
Del Conde first met Castro in 1955, when the young revolutionary walked into his arms shop in the Mexican capital saying he wanted to buy something.
“I replied, ‘Sir, I don’t know who you are, but I’m going to help you,’” del Conde said. “It was Fidel Castro.”
Del Conde bought the Granma from an American couple for the Cubans and loaded it with weapons and fuel.
The yacht, only designed to hold a few people, was said to have been named after the grandmother of its original owner. It later gave its name to Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper.
The 82 insurgents, including Raul and “Che” Guevara, left Mexico in the early hours of November 25, 1956, to land in Cuba a week later. They overthrew Batista in just over two years.
This week, before news of Castro’s death was announced, a group including del Conde gathered in Tuxpan in Veracruz state to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the boat’s departure.
“I asked for a round of applause for ‘The Commander’ Fidel Castro; we all stood up and clapped,” del Conde said.
The original yacht now sits inside a glass case outside the Museum of the Revolution in the Cuban capital, Havana.
“We have to keep his image alive, as if he were with us, very close to us,” del Conde said.
Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Dave Graham and Jonathan Oatis