One of Latin America’s biggest literary figures pays tribute to the 26th of July Movement, also known as the day of the Cuban Revolution
(Translated by Zubaer Mahboob)
Before the Revolution, I had never been curious about Cuba. Latin Americans of my generation thought of Havana as a scandalous brothel for gringos where pornography had reached its peak as a public spectacle, long before it became fashionable in the rest of Christendom. For the price of a dollar, it was possible to see a man and woman actually make love on a bed on stage. That paradise of the pachanga dance breathed out a devilish music, a secret language of the sweet life, a way of walking and dressing—indeed an entire culture of enjoyment that exerted a happy influence on daily life in the Caribbean.
But those who were better informed knew that Cuba had once been the most cultured of Spain’s colonies—the only culture, in truth—and that the tradition of literary salons and poetry contests remained incorruptible even as the gringo sailors pissed on the statues of heroes, and the gunmen of the presidents of the republic carried out armed attacks on the courts in order to steal trial records. Besides La Semana Comica, a smutty magazine that married men hid from their wives and used to read secretly in the bathroom, there appeared the most sophisticated literary and arts journals in Latin America. Mawkish radio serials lasted for interminable years and kept the continent drowned in tears; alongside them were created the fiery, delirious sunflowers of artist Amelia Pelaez and the hermetic, mercurial hexameters of poet Jose Lezama Lima. These brutal contrasts helped to confuse rather than clarify the reality of an almost mythic country whose eventful war of independence had not yet ended, and whose political direction, even in 1955, remained an unpredictable enigma.
It was that same year, in Paris, that I heard the name of Fidel Castro for the first time. I heard it from the Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen who was then grinding out a hopeless exile in the Grand Hotel in Saint Michel, the least sordid in a street full of cheap flophouses where a gang of Latin Americans and Algerians used to sit around waiting for a ticket to return home, keeping themselves fed all the while on rancid cheese and boiled cauliflowers. Guillen’s room, like almost all others in the Latin Quarter, was merely four walls of discoloured drapes, two armchairs of worn felt, a sink, a portable bidet, and a single bed where two lost lovers from Senegal had once found happiness before killing themselves.
However, after twenty years, I can no longer evoke the image of the poet in that room. Instead, I remember him in circumstances in which I had never actually seen him: fanning himself in a wicker rocking chair, at the hour of the afternoon siesta, on the terrace of one of those sugarmill mansions straight out of the wonderful Cuban paintings of the 19th century. At all times, even in the cruelest Parisian winter weather, Guillen kept up the very Cuban habit of waking up at cockcrow (though there were no roosters around), and of reading the newspapers by the firelight of a café, lulled by the wind running through the scrub along the sugarmill and by the plucking of guitars in the fragile dawns of Camagüey. He then opened the window of his balcony—just as in Camaguey—and woke up the entire street by shouting out the latest news from Latin America, which he had translated from the French into native Cuban slang.
The situation of the continent in that era was best expressed by the official portrait of the national leaders who had met at a summit in Panama the previous year. One can barely glimpse any wretched civilians amidst the rumble of military uniforms and medals won in battle. Even Dwight Eisenhower, who as president of the United States used to hide the smell of gunpowder in his heart under the most expensive suits from Bond Street, had posed for that historic photograph in the finest togs of a soldier at ease.
So that when, one morning, Nicolas Guillen opened his window and shouted out a single headline—“¡Se cayó el hombre! The Man is down!”—a commotion stirred up in the sleepy street because each one of us thought that the fallen Man was his own. The Argentines thought that it was Juan Domingo Perón, the Paraguayans thought it was Alfredo Stroessner, the Peruvians thought it was Manuel Odría, the Colombians thought it was Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, the Nicaraguans thought it was Anastasio Somoza, the Venezuelans thought it was Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the Guatemalans thought it was Castillo Armas, the Dominicans thought it was Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, and the Cubans thought it was Fulgencio Batista.
Actually, it was Perón. Later, when we were talking it over, Guillen painted us a desolate picture of the situation in Cuba. “All I can see in the future is a guy who is causing a ruckus along the Mexican frontier.” He then paused like an oriental seer, and said: “His name is Fidel Castro.”
Three years later, in Caracas, it had seemed impossible that that name would break through so rapidly, and so forcefully, to command the continent’s attention. At the time, no one would have thought that the first socialist revolution in Latin America had been brewing in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra. Instead, we were convinced that it would start off in Venezuela, where a vast popular conspiracy had scuttled General Marcos Perez Jimenez’s powerful apparatus of repression in a mere 24 hours.
Viewed from the outside, it had been a highly unlikely coup because of the simplicity of its approach and the speed and devastating efficiency of its results. The people were given a single signal: at midday on the 23rd of January 1958, all the car horns would sound in unison, interrupting work and calling everyone out on to the street to overthrow the dictatorship. Even in the newsroom of a well-informed journal, this had been seen as a childish signal, though many of its own staff were involved in the conspiracy. At the appointed hour, a deafening clamour of car horns erupted, unanimous in their racket, a tremendous gridlock broke out in a city already legendary for its traffic jams, and numerous groups of workers and university students took to the streets, armed with little more than stones and bottles, to confront the forces of the regime. From the neighbouring hills, decked out in colourful branches that resembled Nativity cribs, descended a rampaging horde of the poor, turning the entire city into a battlefield. At nightfall, amidst the scattered shootings and the wails of the ambulances, a rumour circulated through the papers: Perez Jiménez's family, concealed in army tanks, had taken refuge in a foreign embassy. Shortly before dawn, there was an abrupt silence in the sky, and suddenly a shout exploded from the wild crowds, church bells and factory sirens and automobile horns all let loose, creole songs blasted out of every window, playing on and on almost non-stop through the next two years of false illusions. Perez Jimenez had fled his rapacious throne and, accompanied by his closest accomplices, was flying off in a military plane to the Dominican capital Santo Domingo. The airplane had been on standby since noon at La Carlota airport, a few kilometres from the Miraflores presidential palace, but no one had thought to bring out a gangway when the fugitive dictator showed up, closely pursued by a convoy of taxis which failed to catch him by just a few minutes. Perez Jimenez, who looked like a big baby in tortoiseshell glasses, was winched up to the cabin by a rope, and it was during that costly manoeuvre that he forgot about his attaché case still on the ground. It was an ordinary briefcase, made of black leather, in which he had stashed away the dough for his pocket expenses: thirteen million dollars in cold cash.
From that moment on and through the entire year of 1958, Venezuela was the freest country in the world. It looked like a genuine revolution: every time the government spotted a danger, it immediately reached out to the people via direct channels, and the people took to the streets against any attempt at backsliding. The most delicate official decisions were out in the public domain. There was no affair of state beyond a certain size that was not resolved with the full participation of the political parties, with the Communists leading from the front, and at least in the first few months of the revolution, the parties were conscious that their strength originated from the pressure of the streets. If this was not to be the first socialist revolution in Latin America, it must have been because of the dark arts of the double-dealers, because never had the social conditions for revolt been more propitious.
A certain collusion was established between the government of Venezuela and the Cuban rebels in the Sierra Maestra, a complicity without any deceit. Prominent members of the 26th July Movement in Caracas delivered public propaganda through the organs of mass media, organized massive fundraisers, and dispatched help to the guerrillas with official sanction. Venezuelan university students, who had fought ferociously in the battle against the dictatorship, sent women's panties by post to their fellow students in Havana University. The Cuban students swallowed down the impertinence of this cocky gift, and when, within a year, the revolution in Cuba had triumphed, the panties were returned to the original senders without comment. The Venezuelan press became the legal mouthpiece of the Sierra Maestra rebels, the wishes of the newspaper owners overridden by domestic pressures. One had the impression that Cuba was not a separate country, but a part of Free Venezuela that was yet to be liberated.
The New Year of 1959 was one of only a few in the entire history of Venezuela to be celebrated free of tyranny. Already married during those happy months, Mercedes and I returned to our flat in the San Bernardino neighbourhood at first light, only to find that the elevator was out of order. We climbed the six stories on foot, pausing to rest on the landings; we had barely entered the apartment when we were shaken by the absurd feeling that a moment that we had already lived through the year before was now repeating itself: suddenly in the sleepy streets, a shout exploded from the wild crowds, church bells and factory sirens and automobile horns all let loose, and through every window came the surge of strings and voices singing glorious joropo songs celebrating the victory of the people. It was as if time had gone into reverse, and Marcos Perez Jimenez was overthrown a second time. Since we had no telephone or radio, we strode down the stairs fearfully wondering what kind of crazy booze they had given us to drink at the party, when someone running past in the bright light of dawn stunned us with the ultimate, unbelievable coincidence: Fulgencio Batista had fled his rapacious throne and, accompanied by his closest accomplices, was flying off in a military plane to Santo Domingo.
Two weeks later, I arrived in Havana for the first time. The opportunity came up sooner than I had expected, but the circumstances were rather unexpected. On January 18, I was tidying my desk before heading home when a representative of the 26th July Movement showed up, breathless, at the deserted offices of the magazine looking for journalists who might be willing to travel to Cuba that same night. A Cuban airplane had been dispatched for the purpose. Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza and I had been the most resolute advocates of the Cuban Revolution, and we were the first to be chosen. We barely had time to go home to pick up a travel bag, and I was so used to thinking that Venezuela and Cuba were the same country that I forgot to look for my passport. It didn’t matter; the Venezuelan immigration agent, more Cuban than a real Cuban, asked for any kind of ID that I might have on me. The only piece of paper that I could find in my pockets was a receipt from the laundry. Laughing his head off, the agent stamped it on the back for me, and wished me a happy journey.
A more serious problem raised its head when the pilot discovered that the plane did not have enough space for all the journalists, and that the weight of the equipment and baggage was above the acceptable limit. Of course, no one wanted to stay back, nor did anyone want to sacrifice an item of their luggage, and the airport official himself was determined to send off the overloaded plane. The pilot was a mature and serious man, wearing a salt-and-pepper moustache and the uniform of the former Cuban Air Force—blue with gilt trimmings—and for almost two hours he stolidly resisted all our reasoning. Finally, one of us hit upon the lethal argument:
“Don’t be a coward, captain”, he said, “[Fidel’s boat] the Granma was overloaded too.”
The pilot looked at him, and then turned to us all in suppressed rage. “The difference”, he said, “is that none of us is Fidel Castro.”
But he had been mortally wounded. He stretched out an arm over the counter, tore off the sheet from the flight order book, and crumpled it into a ball in his hand.
"Fine," he said, "we're leaving as we are, but I won’t record that the plane is overloaded.”
He stuffed the paper ball into his pocket and motioned us to follow him.
We were walking towards the plane; caught between my congenital fear of flying and my desire to see Cuba at first hand, I asked the pilot in an ashen voice:
“Captain, do you believe we will arrive safely?”
“Perhaps,” he answered, “with the blessing of Our Lady of the Charity of El Cobre.”
It was a rickety twin-engine airplane. A story circulated in our midst—that the plane had been hijacked and flown to the Sierra Maestra by a pilot who had deserted Batista's airforce, that it had been abandoned to the elements until that very night of my misfortune when it was sent to seek out suicidal journalists in Venezuela. The cabin was cramped and stuffy, the seats were broken, and there was the unbearable stink of urine. Everyone settled down as best as they could, some even sitting on the floor of the narrow corridor between the parcels and packages and the film and TV gear. Jammed into a corner against a tail window, I felt I couldn’t breathe, but I was somewhat comforted by the poise of my companions. Suddenly one of the calmest among them whispered to me between clenched teeth: "Lucky you, you have no fear of flying.” It was then I reached an extremity of horror; I had just realised that everyone else was as terrified as me, that they too were faking it behind masks as brave as mine.
There is an empty hole at the heart of our fear of flying, a sort of eye of the storm where one achieves a fatalistic insensibility. It is the only thing that allows us to fly without dying of fright. On my endless, sleepless night flights, I only reach this state of grace when I spy through the window that orphaned star which accompanies airplanes across the lonely oceans. In vain did I search for it on that dreadful night over the Caribbean, in that soulless twin-engine that traversed rocky storm clouds, crosswinds and abysses of lightning, flying blind with only the encouragement of our timorous hearts. At dawn we were struck by a ferocious burst of rain, the plane rolled on its side with an interminable creak like that of a sailboat adrift, and finally landed, shivering with chills and with its motors bathed in tears, at an emergency landing spot in Camaguey.
However, as soon as the rain stopped, a spring day broke out, the air turned to glass, and we flew the last leg almost flush with the scented fields of sugarcane and the saltwater ponds filled with striped fish and phantasmagoric flowers lurking in the depths. By noon, we had landed among the Babylonian mansions belonging to the richest of the rich in Havana, at the airport of Campo Columbia (later rebaptised Ciudad Libertad or Freedom City), the old Batista fortress where just a few days before the rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos had camped with his band of bewildered peasants. The first impression was rather a comic one, as the officers of the former military air force who came out to greet us had joined the Revolution at the last minute and were now holed up in their barracks while their beards grew long enough to make them look like grizzled revolutionaries.
For those of us who had lived in Caracas the previous year, the febrile atmosphere and creative disorder prevailing in Havana in the early days of 1959 did not come as a novelty. But there was a difference: in Venezuela, an urban insurrection pushed by an alliance of antagonistic political parties, and supported by a large segment of the armed forces, had overthrown a despotic cabal, whereas in Cuba it was a rural avalanche that had defeated—in lengthy, arduous battle—a hired military that functioned as an occupying army. It was a vital distinction, which perhaps helped to define the divergent futures of the two countries, and which on that splendid January day was apparent at first sight.
To give his gringo buddies proof of his dominance and of his confidence in the future, Batista had turned Havana into an unreal city. The peasant patrols, only recently shod and smelling like tigers, carrying antique shotguns and wearing military uniforms much too large for them, sauntered about like sleepwalkers among the vertiginous skyscrapers and the marvellous machines and the almost naked gringos who arrived on the New Orleans ferry captivated by the legend of the barbudos, the bearded rebels. At the main entrance of the Havana Hilton, which had opened only recently, there stood a blond giant in the braided uniform and plumed helmet of a fictitious field marshal. He spoke Cuban slang mixed up with Miami English, and he carried out his sad job without the slightest scruple. One of the journalists in our delegation happened to be a black Venezuelan; the guard picked him up by his lapels and threw him into the middle of the street. The Cuban journalists had to intervene with the hotel management before the guests who had come from all over the world were allowed free rein without discrimination. That first night, a bunch of kids from the rebel army, dying of thirst, walked through the first doorway they found, which led straight into the bar of the Havana Rivera hotel. All they wanted was a glass of water, but the bar manager, with all the power at his disposal, dumped them back on the street. A few of us journalists, with a gesture that at the time seemed demagogic, made them come back in and sat them at our table. Later, the Cuban journalist Mario Kuchilán, who had come to know of the incident, told us of his shame and anger: “This won’t be fixed without a real revolution, and I swear to you we’ll make it happen.”
* This essay appeared in the 100th issue of the Casa de Las Americas literary magazine, published in Havana in January 1977. It was later included in the fourth volume of Garcia Marquez’s Collected Journalism (1984). It is translated here from the original Spanish.
Zubaer Mahboob is a writer and translator. He translates into English both from the Bengali and the Spanish.