When President Barack Obama announced last December that it was time to “cut loose the shackles of the past”, and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than 50 years, the news brought back floods of Cold War memories for one of Africa’s leading journalists of our time, our Associate Editor Cameron Duodu. He recounts some of his experiences covering Cuba in those years.
To be a well-known journalist in Africa in the early 1960s was like being a beautiful maiden whose hand the richest and most eligible bachelors around were falling over themselves to win.
As more and more African countries won their independence and united at the United Nations to cultivate a strong voice the UN could not afford to ignore, it became the objective of all the Great Powers to cultivate contacts among media practitioners in the developing countries, in order to win sympathy for the case(s) their home countries were presenting at the UN.
As editor of Drum, the most popular magazine in Ghana at that time, I was among the would-be “brides” who were wooed by the Cultural and Information Officers posted by foreign nations to our countries.
We were often invited to embassy parties, where we were wined and dined and our names sent back home as potential “contacts”, who might, with time, even become informers or “intelligence assets”. Certainly, no effort was spared to bend our ears to the particular message the countries of the diplomats wanted to propagate in Africa. A fully paid-for trip by the local journalist to the diplomat’s home country was the ultimate prize that was never far from the minds of either the diplomat or the journalist who was his “target”. Few bones were made about this, for it was the “Cold War” era. I was, however, always wary of the propaganda that the diplomats sought to purvey.
My trips abroad, organised directly by embassies in Accra, began after I had become editor of Drum. I went to East Germany, then Bulgaria, then Hungary and the United Kingdom on official visits.
And then, the Cubans came calling
My relationship with the Cubans came about as a result of my friendship with an African-American writer, Julian Mayfield, and his wife, Ana Livia Cordero, a Puerto Rican medical doctor who worked at a clinic where my mother-in-law was the matron. She heard of me and invited me to her house and I became a good friend of her husband. Ana happened to be a very good friend of the Cuban Ambassador to Ghana, Armando Entralgo, and she arranged for us to meet at her home.
It was not long before an invitation to Cuba would follow.
And the date Armando chose for me to be in Cuba was an auspicious one in Cuban history – 26 July. This date was a day of great celebration by the Cuban people, for it marked the emergence of the romantic heroism that underlay the character of their leader, Fidel Castro.
It was on 26 July 1953 that Fidel Castro, an impecunious lawyer with a background in radical student politics, who had been fruitlessly trying to use legal means to challenge the suppression of human rights and trade unions by a military dictator called Fulgencio Batista, led a small group that attacked a military barracks at Moncada, in Santiago de Cuba, in Oriente Province, and it became the launch-pad to a revolt that would overthrow Batista.
Castro’s speech to his 165 fellow revolutionaries on the eve of the attack on the Moncada barracks was an example of the fearless idealism that would propel him to power as one of the leading revolutionaries of the 20th century. He told his followers:
“In a few hours, you will be victorious or defeated. But regardless of the outcome – listen well, friends – this Movement will triumph. If you win tomorrow, the aspirations of Jose Martí [a national hero in Cuba who had fought against the Spanish colonisers] will be fulfilled sooner. If we fail, our action will nevertheless set an example for the Cuban people, and from the people will arise fresh new men willing to die for Cuba. They will pick up our banner and move forward… The people will back us in Oriente and in the whole island. As in 1868 and 1892, here in Oriente, we will give the first cry of ‘Patria o muerte:’ Liberty or Death!”
The 26 July attack failed miserably: six of the rebels were killed and 15 injured, whilst the army suffered 19 dead and 27 wounded. But eventually many of the rebels were rounded up, and 22 were executed without trial. Castro and other captured rebels were transported to a prison north of Santiago.
On 21 September 1953, Castro and 121 other rebels were put on trial at the Palace of Justice, Santiago de Cuba. Appearing in his own defence, Castro so embarrassed the military authorities with his exposure of the torture they had used on the defendants and other unconstitutional aspects of the trial that they tried unsuccessfully to prevent him from testifying.
The Cuban Revolution
The trial ended on 5 October 1953, with the acquittal of most defendants. Castro was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. At his sentencing, he made a speech which made, and still makes, waves in world revolutionary annals. Entitled History Will Absolve Me, it stands as one of the most widely-read political testaments. The optimism in the speech gained it even more potency, after Castro and his fellow revolutionaries, having ended up in the Sierra Maestra mountains, eventually managed to overthrow Batista on 1 January 1959 and set up a revolutionary government in Cuba.
I had read about the Cuban revolution, and was anxious to go to Cuba. But the date chosen for me coincided almost exactly with the deadline by which I should airfreight my copy to the Drum office in London, to be made up and printed and shipped back to Ghana. When I told Armando of my problem, he gave me an answer that only the ambassador of a country ruled by revolutionaries could have given: “Write as much as you can,” he said, “then take it to Madrid, Spain. You will have 24 hours to spend there, before you board the plane to Havana. That should give you enough time to finish everything. When you have finished, call the Cuban embassy in Madrid. I shall make sure they collect it from your hotel and send it to London for you by diplomatic bag.”
Hence, I spent the most miserable time of my journalistic career in any 24-hour period, in a hotel room in Madrid. I worked all night and all day and did finish the edition of Drum. But it meant I had all my meals in my room, and did not set foot on Madrid’s famed streets, except to get in and out of the hotel to airport bus!
Coming to Havana
The flight on Cubana Airlines that took me from Madrid to Havana was one of the most enjoyable I have ever been on. This was because I was totally exhausted by the time I got on board: it is bad enough writing a few thousand words to meet a deadline, but when one has only got a few hours in which to edit copy for a whole magazine -including the stodgy output of the less gifted contributors – then the workload can become onerous. Having endured my ordeal, I flopped into my seat and slept for seven straight hours.
I was woken up and told to put on my safety belt when we began our descent into Gander Airport in Newfoundland, Canada. Gander was the only point between Europe and Cuba at which Cubana Airlines was allowed to land, due to an embargo the United States had placed on Cuba. The Canadians, for once, had defied the US, and so the Cuban airplane could land at Gander and refuel. We must have touched down at Gander at around two in the morning, as the airport was totally dead – nothing to buy, nothing to eat or drink. It didn’t matter much though, for after about an hour, we were airborne again, and this time, we went straight to Havana.
Havana had a strange look for a world traveller like me. Everything seemed subdued. The airport was less busy than most; the traffic into town was thin; the hotel was not the usual bustling place that one associated with the capitals of countries with as lively a reputation as Cuba.
Definitely, the US embargo, which prevented countries like France and Britain from selling ordinary vehicles like street buses to Cuba, was hurting Cuba greatly. The Soviet Union, upon which Cuba depended for many of its essential imports, was not exactly teeming with consumer goods itself, and in any case, it was more interested in supplying Cuba with weapons to defend itself against the great “monster” only 90 miles away (the US) than in keeping Cuban shops filled with lifestyle goods.
I discovered, though, that although Havana was starved of consumer goods and that life there was as governed by ideology as it was in Eastern Europe, there was one thing the Cubans had which the Eastern Europeans could never match. The Cubans loved fun. The radio stations played wonderful Cuban meringue and rumba and Latin American numbers all day; one meringue song I heard only once on a car radio titled Mozambique, has stayed in my mind for donkeys’ years, although I have never been able to obtain it.
If the radio was good, nightlife was even better. The famous Tropicana nightclub had apparently been allowed to remain its uninhibited self, despite the solemnity that was associated with life in socialist Cuba.
Scantily-dressed young beauties wriggled hips that moved as if they were constructed out of rubber, not human flesh. The music was superb and some of the sets totally stunning. I particularly remember one which simulated life on treetops.
The most popular drink was a ”Cuba libre” (Free Cuba) of rum, lime and coca cola and under its influence, it was not difficult for me to wish to visit the Tropicana every night for the rest of my life.
On the anniversary of the 26 July uprising, I got up very early and made my way to the square where Fidel Castro was to give his customary commemorative speech. This was expected to be lengthy, and I was warned to have a good breakfast before going. By 10am, the place was packed.
When Fidel began to speak, I found to my surprise that he allowed the crowd to half-heckle him! He apparently enjoyed that, for he was very good at repartee. At one stage, when he likened the Cuban revolution to a ”train”, someone in the crowd shouted that the train had stayed at the station for “too long”! Fidel was not non-plussed at all, but retorted that “Everyone must come to the station, then, so that we can all push the train to make it go where we want it to go!”
Fidel’s relaxed manner and the absence of any obvious security measures around his person impressed me – this was a man whom the CIA had attempted to assassinate with poisoned toothpaste and even diving equipment that had been tampered with. Yet there he stood, visible to any sniper who dared to come to the square.
His speech was a well-structured but extempore exposition of the stages through which the Cuban revolution was taken. Each stage, he said, presented its own difficulties, but which would be overcome. And they would be overcome by the efforts of the Cuban people themselves: “For we have enough endurance, we have enough heroism here, to enable us to achieve whatever goals we set ourselves to achieve.”
The declaration that “we have enough heroism here” was a coded way of telling the Cubans not to worry that their revolution would be sold out to the Russians, as US propagandists claimed.
It was important for Castro to tell his people that they were not going to be the vassals of the Russians, for in 1962, the Russians had made the terrible mistake of stationing nuclear missiles in Cuba. When the US detected the missiles by satellite, it put a naval quarantine around Cuba, and turned away Russian ships. If the Russians had not responded positively to the American request to turn their ships round, the world could have been ushered into a nuclear Third World War in which Cuba would have been the first country to be utterly demolished.
Maybe undue pressure was put on Castro to accept the missiles. But even if he had asked for them, agreeing to station them on Cuban soil was a grave mistake that enabled President John F Kennedy to claim a moral victory.
So in drawing the attention of the Cuban people to local heroism, Fidel was reminding them that the Moncada Attack of 1953 had demonstrated that he had an independent head on his shoulders and one who was extremely courageous to boot.
The troubled relationship between the US and Cuba (which as I have pointed out, nearly caused World War III) had its origins in America’s use of Cuba as a playground for its rich citizens in the years preceding the Castro revolution. The Batista regime, which Castro overthrew, was in league with Mafia-type gangsters who ran casinos in Havana. Rich Americans brought their yachts from nearby Miami, Florida, and parked them at seaside resorts with carry-ons that reflected a decadent American lifestyle. Hugely wealthy writers like Ernest Hemingway made Cuba their second home.
The Bay of Pigs
When Castro deposed Batista, these powerful Americans used their influence to get the US government to revive the Monroe Doctrine, which decreed that no hostile country would be allowed to exist within the American geographical “sphere”. Cuba, only 90 miles away from Florida, fell into that “sphere” neatly, and the CIA evolved plan after plan to reverse the Castro revolution.
The most notorious of these attacks against Cuba was one that occurred at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 when CIA hirelings landed on a beach in Cuba and were ordered to fight their way to Havana and overthrow Castro. But the CIA miscalculated both the support Castro had on the island, and the potency of the ragtag army it had recruited for the job. Castro’s forces captured most of the invaders and made short work of them. And, ironically, the invasion drew Castro closer to the Russians into whose arms the Americans, ostensibly, didn’t want to drive Cuba. The last time I went to Cuba was in September 1979, when I attended the Non-Aligned Nations Summit in Havana. I found that economic conditions had deteriorated even more than on my earlier visit, due, of course, to the US embargo against the island.
Cuba deserves to chart its own path of development – like any other country in the world. After all, it’s not Cuba’s fault that it was placed only 90 miles from Florida. The civilised way to treat close neighbours is to offer them a hand of friendship – irrespective of their predilections – and not try to stifle the life out of them, just because they don’t live in the style one wishes them to adopt!
So it was with great gladness that I heard that President Barack Obama had taken steps to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, and that it may be abandoned altogether by the time Obama leaves office next year.