From the Archive | Cuba Libre

This is the second of a two-part series, which details an exchange between American poet and activist LeRoi Jones – later known as Amiri Baraka – and Fidel Castro in Cuba, 1960.

What is important to note about LeRoi Jones’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. 

Cuba became a central node in the formation of a US tricontinental left – it represented an actual site of transnational solidarity. Activists in the US 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 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.

After enduring a 14-hour-long train, truck and bus ride, Jones makes it to the platform from which Castro is about to give a speech. 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 US imperialism. 

This is a lightly edited excerpt from LeRoi Jones, “Cuba Libre” in The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, ed William J Harris (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1991), originally published in Viewpoint Magazine.  

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, teenage girls, elderly campesinos [peasant farmers], 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 barrelling 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 at the 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 recognised 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.

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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 10 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.

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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 10 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 20 minutes crying “Venceremos, venceremos, venceremos, venceremos, venceremos, venceremos, venceremos, venceremos.” The entire crowd, 60 000 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 relit his cigar. When the speech ended, the crowd went out of its head, roaring for almost 45 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 got 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 the 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-mâché 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 flood lights 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 diarrhoea and a fever, and the model had walked around without her hat too often and had got a slight case of sunstroke. She was resting up in the medical shack now, and I began to envy her small canvas cot.

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It was a very strange scene, about 3 000 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 6am to pull out, but when morning came we loitered around again till about 8 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 9am, 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 lukewarm 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 centre 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 centre 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 travelled, 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 in one place 20 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 14 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 15 or 16 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.

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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.

Part one:

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