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.