I landed at Jose Marti International airport in May of 1960, 17 months after a young, bearded man and his fellow barbudos had captured control of the island and sent a hated dictator fleeing. Musicians played a lively tune as the passengers deplaned, a young woman pushed a rum-flavored drink into my hand and I spotted a young, uniformed man with lieutenant’s bars on his shoulders. I gave him the note that Raulito Roa (of the Cuban UN delegation) had given me in New York, saying I was a young progressive writer and to provide me with help in understanding the revolution.
Richard’s velocity of speech outpaced my meager comprehension of Spanish, but I did understand that “the revolution had opened the prisms of hope in the eyes of the Cuban people,” and that I should wait outside the Hotel Presidente at 8 a.m. to get picked up for a trip to eastern Cuba. I spent a few hours walking around Havana and trying to engage people in conversations. I had a rum drink at Club Red and heard a singer called La Lupe. I saw a sign for Bola de Nieve performing at the Hotel Nacional where Meyer Lansky ran Mafia operations until January 1959. I saw the sign Habana Libre, flashing from the hotel that used to say Havana Hilton.
I didn’t hear explosions and shooting in the street, although the CIA’s terrorist campaign from Florida was well underway. I walked along the Malecon (the ocean walk), passing couples necking, others fishing.
In the morning, a jeep stopped in front of the hotel, a young man asked my name, introduced himself as Julio, grabbed my suit case and motioned for me to hop in. I shared the ride with three Chileans back to the airport, bound for Santiago de Cuba, some 500 miles to the east.
What kind of revolution is this, I thought, filled with music and dancing in a Catholic country — I hadn’t yet realized that Santeria played a more powerful role in the spiritual life of the island than the Church.
Marta, one of the Chileans, questioned Cuba’s growing connection to the Soviet Union as well as the ever advancing role of the Cuban Communist Party in revolutionary decisions. In the October 1959 election for head of Cuba’s National Labor council Fidel personally had stepped in to prevent the victory of David Salvador who was an outspoken anti-communist. In the same time period, Fidel personally arrested Huber Matos, who commanded Camaguey Province. Matos had objected to the sweeping land reforms and to the growing relationship with Moscow.
The militant anti-imperialist and anti-Yankee language of Che Guevara, for example, and Raul Castro’s past links with Cuba’s Communist Youth movement had provoked U.S. newspaper columnists and Congressmen alike to question Fidel’s commitment to the very axioms of the Cold War: anti-Sovietism uber alles.
By June 1960, we cruised the countryside outside Santiago de Cuba and saw the revolution’s new construction and slum clearance projects; I heard only praise for the Soviets from revolutionary cadre. Marta’s skepticism increased.
The Manzana de Gomez , a slum neighborhood in Santiago, seemed endless as we trudged through mud and slime, rickety shacks made of every leftover substance one could imagine on either side. A trickling stream filled with garbage and feces wound its way through the center of the makeshift street. One middle aged man, seemingly drunk, offered a girl, of about 13 or 14, to the Chilean men and me. His daughter? The Cuban guides said something harsh to him. He laughed. Some women seemed intent on sweeping their dirt floors; some even looked clean, with ironed dresses. Mostly, I recall the barefoot kids, the emaciated dogs, my sense of being inside chaos and cacophony.
It had seemed like hours of watching a live horror show. My watch indicated that we had only walked for ten minutes.
“Seen enough?” one of the guides asked.
One of the Chilean men shook his head, his complexion slightly green. Marta looked angry. “It should not be permitted for human to live like this,” she said, “but in Chile there are similar shantytowns. I would imagine that almost every city in Latin America has them.” By the end of the visit Marta had become convinced that Cuba could not rely on any help from the United States, and had no option but to turn to Moscow.
“This one won’t be here long,” one of the Cubans pledged. “The plans to raze it and construct new housing are well underway. But under the old regimes no one cared to do anything about such conditions. This is why we’re showing it to you, so you’ll understand why we had to make a revolution.”
The jeep took us about a thousand feet up into the Sierra Maestra where the guerrillas successfully operated for two years between late December 1956 and their successful capture of the island in January 1959. I asked Julio how a few hundred men could possibly have defeated an army that numbered some fifty thousand.
He smiled. “We had will, determination, the cooperation of a large underground organization and the vast majority of the people. The Batista government had no support, except from Washington. They not only tortured and murdered; they did nothing for the people. Look around. Moreover, Cuba’s institutions did not function, which made it ripe for revolution.”
The villages we saw had neither electricity nor running water. Kids ran barefoot. I saw no school or a church in most of the villages. In two, I noticed a crude, hand painted sign: “El Dios se encuentra aqui. (God is here)”
“Protestants,” explained our guide. “Some kind of primitive religion,” said Julio.
The sun seemed to toast the ground. The villages had no electricity or running water. The thatched-roof houses, bohios, had existed even before Columbus, one guide asserted. I didn’t ask how he knew. The rocky dirt roads worsened as we climbed. Patches of corn and malanga, clusters of coffee trees and unhealthy farm animals dotted the landscape. The villagers filled sacks with ripe coffee beans, loaded them on burros and brought them down the dirt roads to market.
Dark-skinned peasants, in dirty yellowish hats and weathered faces waved or nodded as we passed their caravans of animals with jingling bells on their necks. Often the men rode on horseback; their wives — I presumed — walked next to them.
“Seen enough?” Julio asked, as one Chilean complained of physical discomfort — kidney exercise in the jeep.
Then the guides brought us to the place near Manzanillo where the yacht Granma landed in early December 1956. I tried to imagine Fidel and his bearded men disembarking to face an ambush, cries of betrayal amidst rifle and machine gun fire, the sight and smell of human blood on the road lined with white shelled crabs, crawling to and from the swampy grasses on either side of the road.
Fidel and a small group of sick, wounded and exhausted guerrillas somehow escaped and climbed to the high points of the nearby mountains. One of the guides told us of Fidel peering across the island and commenting to the weary survivors: “The days of the dictatorship are numbered.”
As we drove downhill, I wondered whether President Eisenhower, who had supposedly authorized the CIA to organize anti-Castro Cuban exiles to in the near future invade the island and overthrow the revolutionary government, had any idea of the already living legend he would be facing.
Julio talked of plans to redistribute wealth to and make investment in the impoverished countryside. The revolutionaries had already expropriated large estates and many other businesses, including major U.S. companies.
Shortly after I returned to Havana, in July 1960, Fidel took over the U.S.-owned oil refineries, which had refused on orders from Washington to refine imported Soviet oil. Eisenhower retaliated by cutting the Cuban sugar quota, depriving Cuba of badly needed cash and credit as well.
Walking from the bus to the Tropicana to hear a jazz combo, we ran into Guillermo Cabrera Infante, then editor of Lunes de Revolucion, the cultural supplement of Revolution, the government’s newspaper, and passed a demonstration denouncing Ike. “Sin cuota pero sin amo” read the placards carried by chanting marchers.
Cabrera Infante sneered: “Sin cuota pero sin ano.” (Without a quota but without an ass). I chuckled at his wit. I also feared both slogans might be right. (Lunes de Revolucion was closed in 1961. Cabrera Infante served as Cuba’s cultural attachÃ© in Belgium. He defected in 1964 and in England wrote several acclaimed novels before his death.)
When I left Cuba in February 1961 I saw young men hoisting four barreled anti aircraft guns onto the roof of the lobby of the Hotel Riviera. Others planted dynamite under bridges. All of Cuba awaited the U.S.-backed invasion that finally came in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. When the battle ended, Cuba had symbolically lost its boss and still had its ass. Over the next decades it struggled to keep it.
Landau sent this dispatch from Cuba. His new book is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film on Mexico (WE DON’T PLAY GOLF HERE) is available on DVD from [email protected]