Cuba Libre (1960)

cuba-libre

On July 21st, 1960, LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, vis­ited Cuba with a remark­able group of eleven intel­lec­tu­als and activists, includ­ing Robert Williams, Harold Cruse, John Hen­rik Clarke, and Sarah Wright. The trip, orga­nized by the Fair Play for Cuba Com­mit­tee and spon­sored by the Casa de las Améri­cas in Cuba, coin­cided with the anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tion of the July 26th Move­ment. Upon return­ing to the United States, Jones and other mem­bers of the del­e­ga­tion pro­duced a series of crit­i­cal essays and arti­cles on their brief time in rev­o­lu­tion­ary Cuba. Jones first pub­lished “Cuba Libre” in the fall issue of Ever­green Review, a beat poetry jour­nal.

In many ways, “Cuba Libre” charts a con­ver­sion nar­ra­tive: Jones would later say in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy that the “Cuban trip was a turn­ing point in my life.”1 By his own admis­sion, he was forced to recon­sider his avowedly antipo­lit­i­cal, bohemian stance as a poet and enter into the “world of polit­i­cal com­mit­ment,” ener­gized by the “dynamic of the rev­o­lu­tion.” Jones would later recall about how he titled the essay: 

I remem­bered that the Cubans had changed the name of the Hilton Hotel in Havana to Havana Libre, and a U.S. tele­phone oper­a­tor, in mak­ing the hookup of a call there, insisted the hotel was still the Havana Hilton, but the Cuban oper­a­tor would have none of it. “Havana Libre!’ she shouted. “Get used to it!” That was the spirit I wanted to invest in the essay.2

In the third sec­tion of the essay, reprinted below, we find Jones awed by the crowds and enthu­si­asm he encoun­ters dur­ing a 14-hour train ride (“could there be that much excite­ment gen­er­ated through all the peo­ple?”) from Havana to Ori­ente province where the anniver­sary cel­e­bra­tions are to take place, capped with a speech by Fidel Cas­tro. Jones details a brief exchange with the Cuban leader on the train plat­form right before the speech; he is able to ask three gen­eral – even naive – ques­tions about the future of the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion before a throng of peo­ple comes between them. Castro’s skill as an ora­tor, under­scored by Jones, would be on full dis­play in New York City two months later when Cas­tro would famously move the Cuban United Nations del­e­ga­tion to Hotel Theresa in Harlem and deliver a four-hour long speech on the need to com­bat U.S. impe­ri­al­ism.

What is impor­tant to note about Baraka’s polit­i­cal awak­en­ing in Cuba is that it was not unique to those years among black rad­i­cals in the United States. Dur­ing his three-year exile in Cuba, Robert Williams was able to main­tain close links with activists in the black lib­er­a­tion move­ment, espe­cially those in Detroit. Cur­rent and future mem­bers of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Action Move­ment and the League of Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Black Work­ers made trips to Cuba in the early 1960s; Gen­eral Gor­don Baker, who would go on to help found the League, called his Cuba visit a “real sober­ing expe­ri­ence” – a place where one could take part in a “labor of rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor” and inter­na­tional cur­rents of thought and action freely cir­cu­lated.3 Cuba became a cen­tral node in the for­ma­tion of a U.S. tri­con­ti­nen­tal Left – it rep­re­sented an actual site of transna­tional sol­i­dar­ity.4 Activists in the U.S. viewed anti-impe­ri­al­ist efforts and inde­pen­dence move­ments in Latin Amer­ica, Africa, and Asia as con­nected to their own strug­gles for civil rights and self-deter­mi­na­tion. In the debates over the con­tra­dic­tory char­ac­ter of Cuban social­ism com­ing in the wake of Fidel Castro’s death, we should not lose sight of its marked effects on Amer­i­can rad­i­cals. The fight against “Yan­qui impe­ri­al­ism” began at home, no doubt, but inter­na­tional sol­i­dar­ity raised the stakes of domes­tic strug­gles.


It was late at night, and still Habana had not set­tled down to its usual quiet. Crowds of peo­ple were squat­ting around bus stops, walk­ing down the streets in groups headed for bus stops. Truck­loads of mili­tia were headed out of the city. Young men and women with ruck­sacks and can­teens were pil­ing into busses, trucks, and pri­vate cars all over the city. There were huge signs all over Habana read­ing “A La Sierra Con Fidel . .. Julio 26.” Thou­sands of peo­ple were leav­ing Habana for the July 26th cel­e­bra­tion at Sierra Maes­tra all the way at the other end of the island in Ori­ente province. The cel­e­bra­tion was in honor of Fidel Castro’s first onslaught against Mon­cada bar­racks July 26, 1953, which marked the begin­ning of his drive against the Batista gov­ern­ment. Whole fam­i­lies were pack­ing up, try­ing to get to Ori­ente the best way they could. It was still three days before the cel­e­bra­tion and peo­ple clogged the roads from Habana all the way to the East­ern province.

The night of our depar­ture for Ori­ente we arrived at the train sta­tion in Habana about six p.m. It was almost impos­si­ble to move around in the sta­tion. Campesinos, busi­ness­men, sol­diers, mili­cianas, tourists – all were thrash­ing around try­ing to make sure they had seats in the var­i­ous trains. As we came into the sta­tion, most of the del­e­gates of a Latin Amer­i­can Youth Con­gress were com­ing in also. There were about nine hun­dred of them, rep­re­sent­ing stu­dents from almost every coun­try in Latin Amer­ica. Mex­i­cans, Colom­bians, Argen­ti­nes, Venezue­lans, Puerto Ricans (with signs read­ing “For the Lib­er­a­tion of Puerto Rico”), all car­ry­ing flags, ban­ners, and wear­ing the large, ragged straw hat of the campesino. We were to go in the same train as the del­e­gates.

As we moved through the crowds towards our train, the stu­dents began chant­ing: “Cuba Si, Yan­qui No … Cuba Si, Yan­qui No … Cuba Si, Yan­qui No.” The crowds in the ter­mi­nal joined in, soon there was a deaf­en­ing crazy scream that seemed to burst the roof off the ter­mi­nal. Cuba Si, Yan­qui No! We raced for the trains.

Once inside the train, a long mod­ern semi-air-con­di­tioned “Sil­ver Meteor,” we quickly set­tled down and I began scrib­bling illeg­i­bly in my note­book. But the Latin Amer­i­cans came scram­bling into the train still chant­ing furi­ously and some­one handed me a drink of rum. They were yelling “Vencer­e­mos, Vencer­e­mos, Vencer­e­mos, Vencer­e­mos” (“we will win”). Crowds of sol­diers and mili­tia on the plat­form out­side joined in. Every­one was scream­ing as the train began to pull away.

The young mili­tia peo­ple soon came trot­ting through the coaches ask­ing every­one to sit down for a few sec­onds so they could be counted. The del­e­gates got to their seats and in my coach every­one began to sing a song like “two, four, six, eight, who do we appre­ci­ate … Fidel, Fidel, Fidel!!” Then they did Ché (Gue­vara), Raul, Pres­i­dent Dor­ti­cos, etc. It was about 1,000 kilo­me­ters to Ori­ente and we had just started.

Young sol­diers passed out ham sand­wiches and Maltina, a thick syrupy sweet bev­er­age that only made me thirstier. Every­one in the train seemed to be talk­ing excit­edly and hav­ing a wild time. We were about an hour out­side Habana and I was alter­nat­ing between tak­ing notes and read­ing about ancient Mex­i­can reli­gion when Olga Fin­lay, our inter­preter, came up to my seat accom­pa­nied by a young woman. “I told her you were an Amer­i­can poet,” Olga said, “and she wanted to meet you.” I rose quickly and extended my hand, for some rea­son embar­rassed as hell. Olga said, “Señora Betan­court, Señor LeRoi Jones.” She was very short, very blonde and very pretty, and had a weird accent that never ceased to fas­ci­nate me. For about thirty min­utes we stood in the mid­dle aisle talk­ing to each other. She was a Mex­i­can del­e­gate to the Youth Con­gress, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eco­nom­ics at one of the uni­ver­si­ties, the wife of an econ­o­mist, and a mother. Finally, I offered her the seat next to mine at the win­dow. She sat, and we talked almost con­tin­u­ously through­out the four­teen-hour ride.

She ques­tioned me end­lessly about Amer­i­can life, Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, Amer­i­can youth – although I was jok­ingly cau­tioned against using the word Amer­i­can to mean the U.S. or North Amer­ica. “Every­one in this car is Amer­i­can,” she said. “You from the North, we from the South.” I explained as best I could about the Eisen­how­ers, the Nixons, the DuPonts, but she made even my con­dem­na­tions seem mild. “Every­one in the world,” she said, with her fin­ger, “has to be com­mu­nist or anti-com­mu­nist. And if they’re anti-com­mu­nist, no mat­ter what kind of foul per­son they are, you peo­ple accept them as your allies. Do you really think that hope­less lit­tle island in the mid­dle of the sea is China? That is irra­tional. You peo­ple are irra­tional!”

I tried to defend myself, “Look, why jump on me? I under­stand what you’re say­ing. I’m in com­plete agree­ment with you. I’m a poet … what can I do? I write, that’s all, I’m not even inter­ested in pol­i­tics.”

She jumped on me with both feet as did a group of Mex­i­can poets later in Habana. She called me a “cow­ardly bour­geois indi­vid­u­al­ist.” The poets, or at least one young wild-eyed Mex­i­can poet, Jaime Shel­ley, almost left me in tears, stomp­ing his foot on the floor, scream­ing: “You want to cul­ti­vate your soul? In that ugli­ness you live in, you want to cul­ti­vate your soul? Well, we’ve got mil­lions of starv­ing peo­ple to feed, and that moves me enough to make poems out of.”

***

Around ten p.m. the train pulled into the town of Matan­zas. We had our blinds drawn, but the mili­tia came run­ning through the car telling us to raise them. When I raised the blind I was almost star­tled out of my wits. There were about 1,500 peo­ple in the train sta­tion and sur­round­ing it, yelling their lungs out. We pulled up the win­dows. Peo­ple were all over. They ran back and forth along the train scream­ing at us. The Mex­i­cans in the train had a big sign painted on a bed­spread that read “Mex­ico is with Fidel. Vencer­e­mos.” When they raised it to the win­dows young men leaped in the air, and women blew kisses. There was a uni­formed march­ing band try­ing to be heard above the crowd, but I could barely hear them. When I poked my head out of the win­dow to wave at the crowds, two young Negro women gig­gled vio­lently at first, then one of them ran over to the train and kissed me as hard as she could man­age. The only thing to do I could think of was to say “Thank you.” She danced up and down and clapped her hands and shouted to her friend, “Un amer­i­cano, un amer­i­cano.” I bowed my head gra­ciously.

What was it, a cir­cus? That wild mad crowd. Social ideas? Could there be that much excite­ment gen­er­ated through all the peo­ple? Damn, that peo­ple still can move. Not us, but peo­ple. It’s gone out of us forever. “Cuba Si, Yan­qui No,” I called at the girls as the train edged away.

***

We stopped later in the town of Colon. There again the same mobs of cheer­ing peo­ple. Cam­aguey. Santa Clara. At each town, the chant­ing crowds. The unbe­liev­able joy and excite­ment. The same idea, and peo­ple made beau­ti­ful because of it. Peo­ple mov­ing, being moved. I was ecsta­tic and fright­ened. Some­thing I had never seen before, explod­ing all around me.

The train rocked wildly across and into the inte­rior. The del­e­gates were singing a “cha cha” with words changed to some­thing like “Fidel, Fidel, cha cha cha, Che Che, cha cha cha, Abajo Impe­ri­al­ismo Yan­qui, cha cha cha.” Some Amer­i­can stu­dents whom I hadn’t seen ear­lier ran back and forth in the coaches singing “We can­not be moved.” The young folk-song politi­cians in blue jeans and pig­tails.

About two o’clock in the morn­ing they shut the lights off in most of the coaches, and every­body went to sleep. I slept for only an hour or so and woke up just in time to see the red sun come up and the first early peo­ple come out of their small grass-roofed shacks beside the rail­road tracks, and wave sleep­ily at the speed­ing train. I pressed my face against the win­dow and waved back.

The folk singing and war cries had just begun again in earnest when we reached the town of Yara, a small town in Ori­ente province, the last stop on the line. At once we unloaded from the train, leav­ing most lug­gage and what­ever was con­sid­ered super­flu­ous. The dirt streets of the town were jammed with peo­ple. Prob­a­bly every­one in town had come to meet the train. The entire town was dec­o­rated with some kind of sil­ver Christ­mas tree tin­sel and stream­ers. Trees, bushes, houses, chil­dren, all draped in the same sil­ver hol­i­day tin­sel. Tiny girls in brown uni­forms and red berets greeted us with arm­fuls of flow­ers. Pho­tog­ra­phers were run­ning amok through the crowd, includ­ing an Amer­i­can news­reel cam­era­man who kept fol­low­ing Robert Williams, a mem­ber of our group. I told Robert that he ought to put his big straw hat in front of his face Amer­i­can gang­ster style.

From the high hill of the train sta­tion it was pos­si­ble to see a road run­ning right through Yara. Every con­ceiv­able kind of bus, truck, car, and scooter was being pushed toward the Sierra, which was now plainly vis­i­ble in the dis­tance. Some of the campesinos were on horses, dodg­ing in and out of the slug­gish traf­fic, scream­ing at the top of their lungs.

The sun had already got­ten straight up over our heads and was burn­ing down viciously. The big straw campesino hats helped a lit­tle but I could tell that it was going to be an obscenely hot day. We stood around for a while until every­one had got­ten off our train, and then some of the mili­tia peo­ple waved at us to fol­low them. We walked com­pletely out of the town of Yara in about two min­utes. We walked until we came to more rail­road tracks; a short spur lead­ing off in the direc­tion of Sierra Maes­tra. Sit­ting on the tracks were about ten empty open cat­tle cars. There were audi­ble groans from the Amer­i­can con­tin­gent. The cars them­selves looked like mov­able jails. Huge thick bars around the sides. We joked about the Amer­i­can cam­era­man tak­ing a pic­ture of them with us behind the bars and using it as a Life mag­a­zine cover. They would cap­tion it “Amer­i­cans in Cuba.”

At a word from the mili­tia we scram­bled up through the bars, into the scald­ing cars. The metal parts of the car were burn­ing hot, prob­a­bly from sit­ting out in the sun all day. It was weird see­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple up and down the tracks climb­ing up into the cat­tle cars by what­ever method they could man­age. We had been told in Habana that this was going to be a rough trip and that we ought to dress accord­ingly. Heavy shoes, old clothes, a min­i­mum of equip­ment. The women were told specif­i­cally to wear slacks and flat shoes because it would be dif­fi­cult to walk up a moun­tain in a sheath dress and heels. How­ever, one of the Amer­i­can women, a pretty young mid­dle-class lady from Philadel­phia, showed up in a flare skirt and “Cuban” heels. Two of the Cubans had to pull and tug to get her into the car, which still def­i­nitely had the smell of cows. She slumped in a cor­ner and began furi­ously mop­ping her brow.

I sat down on the floor and tried to scrib­ble in my note­book, but it was dif­fi­cult because every­one was jammed in very tight. Finally, the train jerked to a start, and every­one in all the cars let out a wild yell. The del­e­gates began chant­ing again. Wav­ing at all the peo­ple along the road, and all the dark bare­foot fam­i­lies stand­ing in front of their grass-topped huts call­ing to us. The road which ran along par­al­lel to the train was packed full of traf­fic, barely mov­ing. Men sat on the run­ning boards of their cars when the traf­fic came to a com­plete halt, and drank water from their can­teens. The train was going about five miles an hour and the campesinos raced by on their plow horses jeer­ing, swing­ing their big hats. The sun and the hot metal car were almost unbear­able. The del­e­gates shouted at the trucks “Cuba Si, Yan­qui No,” and then began their “Viva” shouts. After one of the “Vivas,” I yelled “Viva Calle Cuar­anta y dos” (42nd Street), “Viva Sym­phony Sid,” “Viva Cinco Punto” (Five Spot), “Viva Turhan Bey.” I guess it was the heat. It was a long slow ride in the boil­ing cars.

***

The cat­tle cars stopped after an hour or so at some kind of junc­tion. All kinds of other coaches were pulled up and rest­ing on var­i­ous spurs. Peo­ple milled about every­where. But it was the end of any tracks going fur­ther towards Sierra. We stood around and drank warm water too fast.

Now we got into trucks. Some with nailed-in bus seats, some with straw roofs, oth­ers with just plain truck floors. It was a wild scram­ble for seats. The mili­tia peo­ple and the sol­diers did their best to indi­cate which trucks were for whom, but peo­ple stag­gered into the clos­est vehi­cle at hand. Ed Clark, the young Negro abstract expres­sion­ist painter, and I ran and leaped up into a truck with leather bus seats in the back. The leather was too hot to sit on for a while so I put my hand­ker­chief on the seat and sat lightly. A woman was try­ing to get up into the truck, but not very suc­cess­fully, so I leaned over the rail and pulled her up and in. The face was rec­og­niz­able imme­di­ately, but I had to sit back on the hot seat before I remem­bered it was Françoise Sagan. I turned to say some­thing to her, but some men were already help­ing her back down to the ground. She rode up front in the truck’s cab with a young lady com­pan­ion, and her man­ager on the run­ning board, cling­ing to the door.

The trucks reared out onto the already heav­ily trav­eled road. It was an unbe­liev­able scene. Not only all the weird trucks and busses but thou­sands of peo­ple walk­ing along the road. Some had walked from places as far away as Matan­zas. Whole detach­ments of mili­tia were march­ing, rout step, but car­ry­ing rifles or .45’s. Women car­ry­ing chil­dren on their shoul­ders. One group of mili­tia with blue shirts, green pants, pis­tols and knives, was car­ry­ing paper fans, which they ripped back and forth almost in unison with their step. There were huge trucks full of oranges parked along the road with lines of peo­ple cir­cling them. Peo­ple were sit­ting along the edge of the road eat­ing their lunches. Every­one going a la Sierra.

Our trucks sped along on the out­side of the main body of traf­fic, still hav­ing to stop occa­sion­ally when there was some hope­less road­block. The sun, for all our hats, was bak­ing our heads. Sweat poured in my dry mouth. None of us Amer­i­cans had brought can­teens and there was no water to be had while we were rac­ing along the road. I tried sev­eral times to get some oranges, but never man­aged. The truck would always start up again when we came close to an orange ven­dor.

There was a sign on one of the wood shack “stores” we passed that read “Ninos No Gus­tan Los Chi­cle Ni Los Cig­a­r­ros Amer­i­canos Ni El Rocan Rool.” It was signed “Fondin.” The traf­fic bogged down right in front of the store so sev­eral French pho­tog­ra­phers leaped off the truck and raced for the orange stand. Only one fel­low man­aged to make it back to our truck with a hat full of oranges. The oth­ers had to turn and run back empty handed as the truck pulled away. Sagan’s man­ager, who had strapped him­self on the run­ning board with a leather belt, almost broke his head when the truck hit a bump and the belt snapped and sent him sprawl­ing into the road. Another one of the cor­re­spon­dents sud­denly became vio­lently ill and tried to shove his head between the rough wooden slats at the side of the truck; he didn’t quite make it, and every­one in the truck suf­fered.

After two hours we reached a wide, slow, muddy river. There was only one nar­row cement bridge cross­ing it, so the trucks had to wait until they could ease back into the reg­u­lar line of traf­fic. There were hun­dreds of peo­ple wad­ing across the river. A woman splashed in with her child on her shoul­ders, hang­ing around her neck, her lunch pail in one hand, a pair of blue can­vas sneak­ers in the other. One group of mili­tia marched right into the brown water, hold­ing their rifles high above their heads. When our truck got on the bridge directly over the water, one of the Cuban news­pa­per­men leaped out of the truck down ten feet into the water. Peo­ple in the trucks would jump right over the side, some­times paus­ing to take off their shoes. Most went in shoes and all.

Now we began to wind up the nar­row moun­tain road for the first time. All our pro­gress since Yara had been upgrade, but this was the first time it was clearly dis­cernible that we were going up a moun­tain. It took another hour to reach the top. It was after­noon now and already long lines of peo­ple were headed back down the moun­tain. But it was a nar­row line com­pared to the thou­sands of peo­ple who were scram­bling up just behind us. From one point where we stopped just before reach­ing the top it was pos­si­ble to look down the side of the long hill and see swarms of peo­ple all the way down past the river seem­ing now to inch along in effort­less pan­tomime.

The trucks stopped among a jum­ble of rocks and sand not quite at the top of the last grade. (For the last twenty min­utes of our climb we actu­ally had to wind in and out among groups of peo­ple. The only peo­ple who seemed to race along with­out any thought of the traf­fic were the campesinos on their bro­ken-down mounts.) Now every­one began jump­ing down off the trucks and try­ing to re-form into their respec­tive groups. It seemed almost impos­si­ble. Detach­ments of campesino mili­tia (work shirts, blue jeans, straw hats and machetes) marched up behind us. Mili­tianas of about twelve and thir­teen sep­a­rated our con­tin­gent, then herds of uni­formed, trot­ting boys of about seven. “Hup, hup, hup, hup,” one lit­tle boy was call­ing in vain as he ran behind the rest of his group. One of the girls called out “Hup, hup, hup, hup,” keep­ing her group more orderly. Rebel sol­diers wan­dered around every­where, some with long, full beards, oth­ers with long, wavy black hair pulled under their blue berets or square-topped khaki caps, most of them young men in their twen­ties or teen-agers. An old man with a full grey beard cov­er­ing most of his face, except his sparkling blue eyes and the heavy black cigar stuck out of the side of his mouth, directed the com­ings and goings up and down this side of the moun­tain. He wore a huge red and black han­dled revolver and had a hunt­ing knife sewn to his boot. Sud­denly it seemed that I was lost in a sea of uni­forms, and I couldn’t see any­one I had come up the moun­tain with. I sat down on a rock until most of the uni­forms passed. Then I could see Olga about fifty yards away wav­ing her arms at her lost charges.

There was a pub­lic address sys­tem boom­ing full blast from what seemed the top of the hill. The voice (Celia Sánchez, Fidel’s sec­re­tary) was announc­ing var­i­ous groups that were pass­ing in review. When we got to the top of the rise, we could see a large, aus­tere plat­form cov­ered with all kinds of peo­ple, and at the front of the plat­form a raised sec­tion with a dais where the speak­ers were. Sánchez was announc­ing one corps of mili­tia and they marched out of the crowd and stopped before the plat­form. The crowd cheered and cheered. The mili­tia was com­mended from the plat­form and then they marched off into the crowd at the other side. Other groups marched past. Young women, teen-age girls, elderly campesinos, each with their own mili­tia detach­ment, each to be com­mended. This had been going on since morn­ing. Hun­dreds of com­men­da­tions, thou­sands of peo­ple to be com­mended. Also, since morn­ing, the offi­cials had been read­ing off lists of names of campesinos who were to receive land under the Agrar­ian Reform Law. When they read the name of some farmer close enough to the moun­tain to hear it, he would leap straight up in the air and, no mat­ter how far away from the plat­form he was, would go bar­rel­ing and leap­ing towards the speaker. The crowd delighted in this and would begin chant­ing “Viva Fidel, Viva Fidel, Viva Reforma Agraria.” All this had been going on since morn­ing and it was now late after­noon.

After we walked past the dais, intro­duced to the scream­ing crowd as “intel­lec­tual North Amer­i­can vis­i­tors,” we dou­bled back and went up onto the plat­form itself. It was even hot­ter up there. By now all I could think about was the sun; it was burn­ing straight down and had been since early morn­ing. I tugged the straw hat down over my eyes and trudged up onto the plat­form. The plat­form itself in back of the dais was almost over­flow­ing, mostly with rebel sol­diers and young mili­tia troops. But there were all kinds of vis­i­tors also, the Latin Amer­i­can del­e­gates, news­men, Euro­pean writ­ers, Amer­i­can intel­lec­tu­als, as well as Cuban offi­cials. When we got up on the plat­form, Olga led us imme­di­ately over to the speak­ers’ dais and the lit­tle group of seats around it. We were going to be intro­duced to all the major speak­ers.

The first per­son to turn around and greet us was a tall, thin, bearded Negro in a rebel uni­form bear­ing the shoul­der mark­ings of a Com­man­dante. I rec­og­nized his face from the papers as that of Juan Almeida, chief of the rebel army, a man almost unknown in the United States. He grinned and shook our hands and talked in a swift com­bi­na­tion of Span­ish and Eng­lish, jok­ing con­stantly about con­di­tions in the United States. In the mid­dle of one of his jokes he leaned back­wards, lean­ing over one man to tap another taller man on the shoul­der. Fidel Cas­tro leaned back in his seat, then got up smil­ing and came over to where we were stand­ing. He began shak­ing hands with every­body in the group, as well as the many other vis­i­tors who moved in at the oppor­tu­nity. There were so many peo­ple on the plat­form in what seemed like com­plete dis­or­der that I won­dered how wise it was as far as secu­rity was con­cerned. It seemed awfully dan­ger­ous for the Prime Min­is­ter to be walk­ing around so casu­ally, almost hav­ing to thread his way through the surg­ing crowd. Almost imme­di­ately, I shoved my hand toward his face and then grasped his hand. He greeted me warmly, ask­ing through the inter­preter where I was from and what I did. When I told him I was a New York poet, he seemed extremely amused and asked me what the gov­ern­ment thought about my trip. I shrugged my shoul­ders and asked him what did he intend to do with this rev­o­lu­tion.

We both laughed at the ques­tion because it was almost like a reflex action on my part: some­thing that came out so quick that I was almost unaware of it. He twisted the cigar in his mouth and grinned, smooth­ing the strangely grown beard on his cheeks. “That is a poet’s ques­tion,” he said, “and the only poet’s answer I can give you is that I will do what I think is right, what I think the peo­ple want. That’s the best I can hope for, don’t you think?”

I nod­ded, already get­ting ready to shoot out another ques­tion, I didn’t know how long I’d have. Cer­tainly this was the most ani­mated I’d been dur­ing the entire trip. “Uh” – I tried to smile – “What do you think the United States will do about Cuba ulti­mately?” The ques­tions seemed weird and out of place because every­one else was just try­ing to shake his hand.

“Ha, well, that’s extremely dif­fi­cult to say, your gov­ern­ment is get­ting famous for its impro­vi­sa­tion in for­eign affairs. I sup­pose it depends on who is run­ning the gov­ern­ment. If the Democ­rats win it may get bet­ter. More Repub­li­cans … I sup­pose more trou­ble. I can­not say, except that I really do not care what they do as long as they do not try to inter­fere with the run­ning of this coun­try.”

Sud­denly the idea of a secu­rity lapse didn’t seem so press­ing. I had turned my head at a weird angle and looked up at the top of the plat­form. There was a sol­dier at each side of the back wall of the plat­form, about ten feet off the ground, each one with a machine gun on a tripod. I asked another ques­tion. “What about com­mu­nism? How big a part does that play in the gov­ern­ment?”

“I’ve said a hun­dred times that I’m not a com­mu­nist. But I am cer­tainly not an anti-com­mu­nist. The United States likes anti-com­mu­nists, espe­cially so close to their main­land. I said also a hun­dred times that I con­sider myself a human­ist. A rad­i­cal human­ist. The only way that any­thing can ever be accom­plished in a coun­try like Cuba is rad­i­cally. The old has been here so long that the new must make rad­i­cal changes in order to func­tion at all.”

So many peo­ple had crowded around us now that it became almost impos­si­ble to hear what Fidel was say­ing. I had shouted the last ques­tion. A young fash­ion model who had come with our group brushed by me and said how much she had enjoyed her stay in Cuba. Fidel touched his hand to the wide campesino hat he was wear­ing, then pumped her hand up and down. One of the Latin Amer­i­can girls leaned for­ward sud­denly and kissed him on the cheek. Every­one milled around the tall young Cuban, ask­ing ques­tions, shak­ing his hand, tak­ing pic­tures, get­ting auto­graphs (an Amer­i­can girl with pig­tails and blue jeans) and, I sup­pose, com­mit­ting every­thing he said to mem­ory. The crowd was get­ting too large, I touched his arm, waved, and walked towards the back of the plat­form.

I hadn’t had any water since early morn­ing, and the heat and the excite­ment made my mouth dry and hard. There were no water foun­tains in sight. Most of the masses of Cubans had can­teens or vac­uum bot­tles, but some­one had for­got­ten to tell the Amer­i­cans (North and South) that there’d be no water. Also, there was no shade at all on the plat­form. I walked around behind it and squat­ted in a small booth with a tiny tin roof. It had for­merly been a soda stand, but because the soda was free, the sup­ply had given out rapidly and the stand had closed. I sat in the few inches of shade with my head in my hands, try­ing to cool off. Some Venezue­lans came by and asked to sit in the shade next to me. I said it was all right and they offered me the first cup of water I’d had in about five hours. They had a whole chicken also, but I didn’t think I’d be able to stand the lux­ury.

There were more speak­ers, includ­ing a lit­tle boy from one of the youngest mili­tia units, but I heard them all over the pub­lic address sys­tem. I was too beat and thirsty to move. Later Ed Clarke and I went around hunt­ing for water and finally man­aged to find a small brown stream where the sol­diers were fill­ing up their can­teens. I drank two coca-cola bot­tles full, and when I got back to Habana came down with a fear­ful case of dysen­tery.

Sud­denly there was an insane, deaf­en­ing roar from the crowd. I met the girl econ­o­mist as I dragged out of the booth and she tried to get me to go back on the front plat­form. Fidel was about to speak. I left her and jumped off the plat­form and trot­ted up a small rise to the left. The roar lasted about ten min­utes, and as I got set­tled on the side of the hill Fidel began to speak.

He is an amaz­ing speaker, know­ing prob­a­bly instinc­tively all the laws of dynam­ics and elo­cu­tion. The speech began slowly and halt­ingly, each syl­la­ble being pro­nounced with equal stress, as if he were read­ing a poem. He was stand­ing with the campesino hat pushed back slightly off his fore­head, both hands on the lectern. As he made his points, one of the hands would slide off the lectern and drop to his side, his voice becom­ing tighter and less warm. When the speech was really on its way, he dropped both hands from the lectern, putting one behind his back like a church usher, ges­tur­ing with the other. By now he would be rock­ing from side to side, point­ing his fin­ger at the crowd, at the sky, at his own chest. Some­times he seemed to lean to the side and talk to his own min­is­ters there on the plat­form with him and then wheel towards the crowd call­ing for them to sup­port him. At one point in the speech the crowd inter­rupted for about twenty min­utes cry­ing “Vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos, vencer­e­mos.” The entire crowd, 60 or 70,000 peo­ple all chant­ing in unison. Fidel stepped away from the lectern grin­ning, talk­ing to his aides. He qui­eted the crowd with a wave of his arms and began again. At first softly, with the syl­la­bles drawn out and pre­cisely enun­ci­ated, then tight­en­ing his voice and going into an almost musi­cal rearrange­ment of his speech. He con­demned Eisen­hower, Nixon, The South, The Mon­roe Doc­trine, The Platt Amend­ment, and Ful­gen­cio Batista in one long, unbe­liev­able sen­tence. The crowd inter­rupted again, “Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel, Fidel.” He leaned away from the lectern, grin­ning at the chief of the army. The speech lasted almost two-and-a-half hours, being inter­rupted time and again by the exul­tant crowd and once by five min­utes of rain. When it began to rain, Almeida draped a rain jacket around Fidel’s shoul­ders, and he re-lit his cigar. When the speech ended, the crowd went out of its head, roar­ing for almost forty-five min­utes.

***

When the speech was over, I made a fast move for the plat­form. Almost a thou­sand other peo­ple had the same idea. I man­aged to shout some­thing to Cas­tro as he was being whizzed to the back of the plat­form and into a car. I shouted “A fine speech, a tremen­dous speech.”

He shouted back, “I hope you take it home with you,” and dis­ap­peared in a host of bearded uni­forms.

***

We were told at first that we would be able to leave the moun­tain in about three hours. But it had got­ten dark already, and I didn’t really fancy shoot­ing down that moun­tain road with the same exu­ber­ance with which we came … not in the dark. Clark and I went out look­ing for more water and walked almost a mile before we came to a big pavil­ion where soft drinks and sand­wiches were being served. The soft drinks were hot and the sand­wiches took too long to get. We came back and lay down at the top of a hill in back of the speak­ers’ plat­form. It driz­zled a lit­tle bit and the ground was patently uncom­fort­able. I tried to go to sleep but was awak­ened in a few min­utes by explo­sions. The whole sky was lit up. Green, red, bright orange: the sol­diers were shoot­ing off fire­works. The plat­form was bathed in the light from the explo­sions and, sud­denly, flood­lights from the rear. The pub­lic address sys­tem announced that we were going to have a show.

The show was a strange mix­ture of pop cul­ture and main­stream high­brow haute cul­ture. There was a choral group singing a mildly atonal tone poem, a Jerome Rob­bins­esque bal­let about Hol­ly­wood, Calypso dancers, and Mex­i­can singers and dancers. The last act was the best, a Mardi Gras scene involv­ing about a hun­dred West Indian singers and dancers, com­plete with floats, huge papier-mache fig­ures, drum­mers, and masks. The West Indi­ans walked through the audi­ence shout­ing and danc­ing, their many torches shoot­ing shad­ows against the moun­tains. When they danced off and out of the amphithe­atre area up towards a group of unfin­ished school build­ings, except for the huge flood­lights on stage, the whole area was dark.

***

Now there was great con­fu­sion in the audi­ence. Most Cubans were still going to try to get home that night, so they were get­ting them­selves together, round­ing up wives and chil­dren, try­ing to find some kind of trans­porta­tion off the moun­tain. There were still whole units of mili­tia pil­ing into trucks or walk­ing off down the hill in the dark. The del­e­gates, our group and a cou­ple more thou­sand peo­ple who didn’t feel like charg­ing off into the dark were left. Olga got all the Amer­i­cans together and we lined up for what was really our first meal of the day: beans, rice, pork, and a small can of fruit juice. At that time, we still had some hopes of leav­ing that night, but soon word was passed around that we weren’t leav­ing, and it was best that we slept where we were. “Sleep wherever you want,” was what Olga said. That meant the ground, or maybe cement side­walks around the unfin­ished school build­ings and dor­mi­to­ries of the new “school city.” Some of the Amer­i­cans started grum­bling, but there was noth­ing that could be done. Two of our num­ber were miss­ing because of the day’s fes­tiv­i­ties: a young lady from Philadel­phia had to be dri­ven back to Habana in a sta­tion wagon because she had come down with diar­rhea and a fever, and the model had walked around with­out her hat too often and had got­ten a slight case of sun­stroke. She was rest­ing up in the med­ical shack now, and I began to envy her small can­vas cot.

It was a very strange scene, about 3 or 4,000 peo­ple wan­der­ing around in semi-dark­ness among a group of unfin­ished build­ings, look­ing for places to sleep. The whole top of the moun­tain alive with flash­lights, cig­a­rette lighters, and small torches. Lit­tle groups of peo­ple hud­dled together against the sides of build­ings or stretched out under new “street lamps” in tem­po­rary plazas. Some peo­ple man­aged to climb through the win­dows of the new build­ings and sleep on dirt floors, some slept under long alu­minum trucks used for haul­ing stage equip­ment and some, like myself and the young female econ­o­mist, sat up all night under dim lights, finally talk­ing our­selves excit­edly to sleep in the cool grey of early-morn­ing. I lay straight back on the cement “side­walk” and slept with­out mov­ing, until the sun began to burn my face.

We had been told the night before to be ready by six a.m. to pull out, but when morn­ing came we loi­tered around again till about eight o’clock, when we had to line up for a break­fast of hot milk and French bread. It was served by young mili­tia women, one of whom wore a big sidearm in a shoul­der hol­ster. By now, the dysen­tery was begin­ning to play havoc with my stom­ach, and the only toi­let was a heavy thicket out behind the amphithe­atre. I made it once, hav­ing to destroy a copy of a news­pa­per with my pic­ture in it.

By nine no trucks had arrived, and with the sun now begin­ning to move heav­ily over us, the crowds shifted into the few shady areas remain­ing. It looked almost as if there were as many peo­ple still up on the moun­tain as there had been when we first arrived. Most of the Cubans, aside from the sol­diers, stood in front of the pavil­ion and drank luke-warm Maltina or pineap­ple soda. The del­e­gates and the other vis­i­tors squat­ted against build­ings, talk­ing and smok­ing. A French cor­re­spon­dent made a bad joke about Mus­solini keep­ing the trains run­ning on time, and a young Chi­nese stu­dent asked him why he wasn’t in Alge­ria killing rebels.

The trucks did arrive, but there were only enough of them to take the women out. In a few min­utes the sides of the trucks were almost burst­ing, so many females had stuffed inside. And they looked ter­ri­bly uncom­fort­able, espe­cially the ones stuck in the cen­ter who couldn’t move an inch either way. An Amer­i­can news­pa­per­man with our group who was just about to over­stay his com­pany-sanc­tioned leave began to panic, say­ing that the trucks wouldn’t be back until the next day. But only a half-hour after the ladies pulled out, more trucks came and began tak­ing the men out. Clark, Williams, another mem­ber of our group, and I sat under the tin roof of an unfin­ished school build­ing drink­ing warm soda, wait­ing until the last truck came, hop­ing it would be the least crowded. When we did climb up into one of the trucks it was jammed any­way, but we felt it was time to move.

This time we all had to stand up, except for a young mili­ciano who was squat­ting on a case of warm soda. I was in the cen­ter of the crowd and had noth­ing to hold on to but my com­pan­ions. Every time the truck would stop short, which it did every few yards we trav­eled, every­one in the truck was slung against every­one else. When the truck did move, how­ever, it lit­er­ally zoomed down the side of the moun­tain. But then we would stop again, and all of us felt we would suf­fo­cate being mashed so tightly together, and from all the dust the trucks in front of us kicked up. The road now seemed like The Exo­dus. Exactly the same as the day before, only headed the oppo­site way. The trucks, the peo­ple on foot, the fam­i­lies, the mili­tias, the campesinos, all headed down the moun­tain.

The truck sat one place twenty min­utes with­out mov­ing, and then when it did move it only edged up a few yards. Finally the dri­ver pulled out of the main body of traf­fic and honk­ing his horn con­tin­u­ously drove down the oppo­site side of the road. When the sol­diers direct­ing traf­fic man­aged to flag him down, he told them that we were impor­tant vis­i­tors who had to make a train in Yara. The truck zoomed off again, rock­ing back and forth and up and down, throw­ing its rid­ers at times almost out the back gate.

After a cou­ple of miles, about five Mex­i­cans got off the truck and got into another truck headed for San­ti­ago. This made the rest of the ride eas­ier. The mili­ciano began open­ing the semi-chilled soda and pass­ing it around. We were really liv­ing it up. The del­e­gates’ spir­its came back and they started their chant­ing and wav­ing. When we got to the train junc­tion, the cat­tle cars were sit­ting, but com­pletely filled with sol­diers and farm­ers. We didn’t even stop, the dri­ver gunned the thing as fast as it would go and we sailed by the shout­ing sol­diers. We had only a few more stops before we got to Yara, jumped down in the soft sand, and ran for the big sil­ver train marked “CUBA” that had been wait­ing for us since we left. When we got inside the train we dis­cov­ered that the women still hadn’t got­ten back, so we sat qui­etly in the lux­u­ri­ous leather seats slowly sip­ping rum. The women arrived an hour later.

***

While we were wait­ing in Yara, sol­diers and units of mili­tia began to arrive in the small town and squat all around the four or five sets of tracks wait­ing for their own trains. Most of them went back in box­cars, while we vis­i­tors had the lux­ury of the semi-air-con­di­tioned coach.

The ride back was even longer than the four­teen hours it took us before. Once when we stopped for water, we sat about two hours. Later, we stopped to pick up lunches. The atmos­phere in the train was much the same as before, espe­cially the Mex­i­can del­e­gates who whooped it up con­stantly. They even made a conga line up and down the whole length of the train. The young Mex­i­can woman and I did a repeat per­for­mance also and talked most of the fif­teen or six­teen hours it took us to get back to Habana. She was gen­tler with me this time, call­ing me “Yan­qui impe­ri­al­ist” only a few times.

Every­one in the train was dirty, thirsty, and tired when we arrived in Habana. I had been wear­ing the same clothes for three days and hadn’t even once taken off my shoes. The women were in mis­ery. I hadn’t seen a pocket mir­ror since the cat­tle cars.

The ter­mi­nal looked like a rear out­post of some bat­tle­field, So many peo­ple in filthy wrin­kled clothes scram­bling wearily out of trains. But even as tired as I was I felt excited at the prospect of being back in the big city for five more days. I was even more excited by the amount of think­ing the trip to the Sierra was forc­ing me to. The “new” ideas that were being shoved at me, some of which I knew would be painful when I even­tu­ally came to New York.

The idea of “a rev­o­lu­tion” had been for­eign to me. It was one of those incon­ceiv­ably “roman­tic” and/or hope­less ideas that we Norteam­er­i­canos have been taught since pub­lic school to hold up to the cold light of “rea­son.” That “rea­son” being what­ever repug­nant lie our usu­ri­ous “rul­ing class” had paid their jour­nal­ists to dis­sem­i­nate.

The “rea­son” that allows that vot­ing, in a coun­try where the par­ties are exactly the same, can be made to assume the grav­ity of actual moral engage­ment. The “rea­son” that per­mits a young intel­lec­tual to believe he has said some­thing pro­found when he says, “I don’t trust men in uni­forms.” The residue has set­tled on all our lives, and no one can func­tion com­fort­ably in this coun­try with­out it. That thin crust of lie we can­not even detect in our own think­ing. That rot­ting of the mind which has enabled us to think about Hiroshima as if some­one else had done it, or to believe vaguely that the “coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion” in Guatemala was an “inter­nal” affair.

The rebels among us have become merely peo­ple like myself who grow beards and will not par­tic­i­pate in pol­i­tics. A bland revolt. Drugs, juve­nile delin­quency, com­plete iso­la­tion from the vapid mores of the coun­try – a few cur­rent ways out. But name an alter­na­tive here. Some­thing not inex­tri­ca­bly bound up in a lie. Some­thing not part of lib­eral stu­pid­ity or the actual filth of vested inter­est. There is none. It’s much too late. We are an old peo­ple already. Even the vital­ity of our art is like bright flow­ers grow­ing up through a rot­ting car­cass.

But the Cubans, and the other new peo­ples (in Asia, Africa, South Amer­ica) don’t need us, and we had bet­ter stay out of their way.

***

I came out of the ter­mi­nal into the street and stopped at a news­stand to buy a news­pa­per. The head­li­nes of one Miami paper read, “CUBAN CELEBRATION RAINED OUT.” I walked away from the stand as fast as I could.

 

This is an excerpt from LeRoi Jones, “Cuba Libre,” in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed. William J. Har­ris (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), 145-60. 


  1. Amiri Baraka, The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of LeRoi Jones (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1984), 243. 

  2. Ibid., 246. 

  3. Cited in Bill V. Mul­len, Afro-Ori­en­tal­ism (Min­neapolis: Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press, 2004), 105. 

  4. For three dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the impor­tant of Cuba for the polit­i­cal imag­i­nary of black rad­i­cals in the U.S., see Cyn­thia Ann Young, Soul Power: Cul­ture, Power, and the Mak­ing of U.S. Third World Left (Durham, NC: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2006), Chap­ter 1; Bese­nia Rodriguez “‘De la Esclav­i­tud Yan­qui a la Lib­er­tad Cubana’: U.S. Black Rad­i­cals, the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion, and the For­ma­tion of a Tri­con­ti­nen­tal Ide­ol­ogy,” Rad­i­cal His­tory Review 92 (Spring 2005): 62-87; Brenda Gayle Plum­mer, “Cas­tro in Harlem: A Cold War Water­shed,” in Rethink­ing the Cold War, ed. Allen Hunter (Philadel­phia: Tem­ple Uni­ver­sity Press, 1997), 133-55. 

Author of the article

(1934-2014) was a poet, playwright, critic, and revolutionary.

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