Cuba – 50 Years in 50 Books

In Cuba: A New History, Richard Gott looks at the history of Cuba and illuminates the island’s entire revolutionary past as well as the decades of the Castro regime.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Richard Gott describes his first visit to Cuba in 1963 where he met Che Guevara in Havana.

This extract is from the prologue of Richard Gott’s Cuba: A New History

Image source: public domain

I first travelled to Cuba in October 1963, at a time when one of the great hurricanes that periodically flagellate the Caribbean cut a swathe through the centre and east of the island. Hurricane Flora wiped out the coffee crop, destroyed homes and farmland and took many lives. Roads, railways and bridges were swept away. Fidel Castro, like a true revolutionary leader but also like a typical captain-general of the Spanish colonial era, took personal charge of the relief efforts. On television each night battling tirelessly against the floodwaters, he encouraged his afflicted people with the thought that ‘a Revolution is a force more powerful than Nature’. Another unhappy event recorded that month was the funeral in Santa Isabel de las Lajas of Beny More, ‘el Barbaro de! Ritmo’, a singer still universally acknowledged as one of Cuba’s greatest performers. His coffin was carried by a platoon of soldiers, with thousands of mourners thronging the village street.

Havana in those days was still a wealthy and prosperous capital. Its colonial buildings were already crumbling, but its immense suburbs – with small palaces filled with scholarship children from the countryside – were not so different from the flamboyant cities of the American South. The colourful and imaginative political posters for which the Revolution was already famous were allegedly produced by graphic designers from the US advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson, whose Havana branch had gone over in its entirety to the Revolution. To a visitor from decadent and still war-ravaged Europe, the attraction of ‘Communist’ Cuba had much to do with its surviving capitalist veneer. I recorded my first guarded impressions for Tribune, a London leftist weekly:

“Amazing self-confidence is reflected in every facet of the Revolution, now about to enter its sixth year. Many things make one unhappy about Cuba, but one can never get away from the central fact of the Revolution, that it is still wildly popular. Five years of centralised government, more enthusi­astic than competent; five years of self-acknowledged mistakes; five years of growing hostility from the United States, culminating in the present blockade; five years of increasing scarcity; none of these apparently have dampened the ardour or spoilt the charm of the Cuban Revolution.”

Image source: ‘Havana‘ by Pedro Szekely licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

The flight from Europe to Cuba took 24 hours in those days, the turbo­prop British-built Viscount of the Spanish airline Iberia touching down at most of the islands in the mid Atlantic on the way. With me, I had two volumes of the collected works of Thomas Balogh, the Hungarian-born British economist, required reading for all progressive Latin American econo­mists at the time, as well as a small Stilton cheese in a china jar.

‘Carlos Rafael Rodríguez’ EcuRed, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cheese, purchased at Paxton and Whitfield, the famous London cheese shop in Jermyn Street, had been given to me by Claudio Veliz, my Chilean colleague at the Royal Institute of lnternational Affairs, where he ran the Latin American programme. Having himself just returned from a visit to Havana, Claudio thought that a ripe Stilton would be a suitable present for Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, the brains behind the Cuban Communist Party. Latin American Communists of that generation (Rodriguez had joined Batista’s cabinet in 1942) shared the tastes of the bourgeoisie, as I discovered later with Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, who enjoyed receiving homage from his admirers in the shape of crates of whisky and tins of caviar.

The officials at Havana airport paid nervous attention to the Stilton, prodding it with knitting needles lest it should turn out to be a bomb. ‘Operation Mongoose’, the US campaign to destabilise Cuba in the wake of the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion, had recently been abandoned, but terrorist attacks against the island from exile groups in Miami were still frequent. In November, the month after my visit, according to a CIA report later made public, an agent gave a pen-syringe to a Cuban contact in Paris to be used to assassinate Castro – on the day that President Kennedy was shot. The Cubans were understandably careful with unannounced visitors bearing gifts.

When in Havana, Veliz had commissioned Che Guevara, then the Cuban minister of industries, to write an article for International Affairs, the quarterly magazine of Chatham House, and one of my tasks was to collect his manuscript. I had introductions to several Latin Americans working in Guevara’s economic ministry, and soon, with their help, I was able to travel around the island and to observe the Revolution at first hand, while waiting for an opportunity to meet Guevara.

Image source: ‘Che Guevara Mural, Havana Cuba‘ by darkroomillusions licensed under CC BY 2.0 DEED

I drove to Pinar del Rio, I flew to Santiago and I journeyed into the hills of the Sierra Maestra to inspect Castro’s former guerrilla encampment. The road from Havana to Santiago was blocked by the flood damage, and it was only possible to travel outside the city in a four-wheel-drive jeep, a present from the Soviet Union. Returning to Havana, I saw Castro climbing out of his car at my hotel, and I spent an evening listening to him speak at a meeting in the Plaza de la Revolucion. I interviewed Antonio Nufiez Jimenez, the guerrilla professor who had introduced Guevara to the problems of Cuba’s peculiar geography. I met Nicolas Guillen, the Afro-Cuban poet from a radical family, and I was eventually able to present Carlos Rafael with the now rather sweaty Stilton cheese before we went on to discuss the latest agrarian reform – the vibrant topic of the hour. I even gave a lecture on the European Common Market to bemused officials at Guevara’s ministry.

Not until the last evening was there any sign of the man I had come to see. I was taken to a reception in the gardens of the Soviet Embassy, one of those routine diplomatic occasions that were held each year to celebrate the anniversary of the October Revolution, exciting in its novelty to the Cubans invited. Guevara strode in after midnight, accompanied by a small coterie of friends, bodyguards and hangers-on, wearing his trademark black beret, and with his shirt open to the waist. He was unbelievably beautiful. Before the era of the obsessive adulation accorded to musicians, he had the unmistakable aura of a rock star. People stopped whatever they were doing, and just stared at the Revolution made flesh. ‘If he entered a room, everything began revolving around him … ‘Julia Costenla, an Argentine journalist who had had a similar experience, told Jon Lee Anderson when he was researching his biography of Guevara. ‘He was blessed with a unique appeal … He had an incalculable enchantment that came completely naturally.’ That was how he was.

Guevara had a charismatic attraction in real life, long before he became a Mantegna icon in death and a hypnotic image on a pop art poster in the age of Andy Warhol. Like Helen of Troy, he had an allure that people would die for. In Havana, on that warm autumn night, he was found a seat in a corner of the embassy garden and everyone gathered round. Introductions were made, and the conversation flowed. I have not much memory of what was discussed. I was merely a youthful neophyte with little knowledge and less Spanish, attracted moth-like to Cuba in those years – like hundreds of other rebels and adventurers from Europe and the Americas – by the incandescent flame of Revolution. Guevara told me, somewhat roughly, that he had not finished the article I had come to collect. The text would arrive in the post in London a few weeks later.

The Revolution was not having an easy time. The fidelistas had been in power for five years, but many of the people I met, working in the economic ministries and at the University of Havana, were in a state of despair. The old order was visibly crumbling, but the new era was still failing to be born. In Santiago, I talked to a young professor from the East German city of Leipzig who gave a course of lectures on Marxist philosophy at seven o’clock in the morning. He was depressed to find no Cuban student awake at that hour. Yet to a revolutionary tourist, the country’s state of flux was itself both attractive and hopeful. The Cubans wore their new Marxist-Leninist clothing with unseemly abandon. A Cuban acquaintance visiting Prague, I noted, had been shocked to find chat Kafka was not a national hero. Revolutionary free­thinking was still permitted in Cuba. ‘Abstract art flourishes in a way that would give Khrushchev cause to wince,’ I wrote, ‘and La Dolce Vita plays to full houses in Havana.’ After five years of dramatic upheaval, the Revolution’s future course still seemed largely unmapped. Blank pages were there to be written on.

Che Guevara I was never to meet again – though on another October day just four years later I had an almost accidental rendezvous with his dead body. At five o’clock on a Monday afternoon in October 1967, I was present at the airstrip of the Bolivian hill town of Vallegrande when a helicopter landed with a stretcher strapped to its landing rails. Guevara had been shot a few hours earlier, on the orders of the Bolivian army’s high command. Tipped off about his capture the previous evening, by an American officer at a military training mission near Santa Cruz, I had driven for many hours in the darkness to Valle­grande, the forward base of the Bolivian army. There I was told by a jittery commander that I would not be allowed to travel on to La Higuera, the village further on where Guevara was being held. Without a military permit, it was impossible to move outside the towns chat year in Bolivia.

By late afternoon, the entire population of Vallegrande was assembled at the airfield, and when the helicopter arrived, the dead guerrilla’s body was transferred to a small Chevrolet van. Driven off into the village, the van turned into the grounds of the tiny local hospital and the body was laid out on the flat basins of a laundry hut open to the elements. The operation was under the control of a Cuban-American agent of the CIA, known to us then as ‘Eduardo Gonzilei, one of two such agents operating in the guerrilla zone at the time. When I asked where he came from, his enigmatic reply was ‘From nowhere’. He and I were the only two people present who had seen Che Guevara alive, and could testify that this was indeed him.

Crowds of villagers pushed into the laundry yard to get a glimpse of yet another dead guerrilla, and for half an hour or so I joined them, captivated by his haunted open eyes. Later I made the long, eight-hour journey back through the night by jeep to Santa Cruz, seeking a means of communicating the news to the outside world.

The death of Guevara in 1967 ended many people’s romantic association with the Cuban Revolution, a development accentuated the following year when Castro spoke out against the Prague Spring of Alexander Dubrek and formally enlisted the Revolution in the ranks of the supporters of the Soviet Union. As a journalist, I continued to visit Havana during the 1960s, pursuing my own research into the history and struggles of Latin America’s guerrilla movements. Like many others, I retained the memory of my early enthusiasm for the Revolution as well as an abiding affection for Cuba’s people and their unequal struggle, and a continuing interest in their island’s long history. I returned to Havana thirty years later to write it down.

About the author

Richard Gott, a British journalist and historian with many years’ experience in Latin America, first visited Cuba in 1963 and has reported from the island many times since. He is the author of the classic work on post-Castro revolutionary movements, Guerrilla Movements in Latin America, and of In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela.

About the book

A New History
Richard Gott

British journalist Richard Gott casts a fresh eye on the history of the Caribbean island from its pre-Columbian origins to the present day. He provides a European perspective on a country that is perhaps too frequently seen solely from the American point of view.

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Further reading

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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