From the Archive | Cuba Libre

In part one of a two-part series, LeRoi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, writes about his political awakening in Cuba as he travels by train, truck and bus to see Fidel Castro in 1960.

On 21 July 1960, LeRoi Jones visited Cuba with a remarkable group of 11 intellectuals and activists, including Robert Williams, Harold Cruse, John Henrik Clarke and Sarah Wright. The trip, organised 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 Autumn issue of Evergreen Review, a beat poetry journal.

In many ways, “Cuba Libre” charts a conversion narrative: Jones would later say in his autobiography, the “Cuban trip was a turning point in my life”. By his own admission, he was forced to reconsider his avowedly anti-political, bohemian stance as a poet, and enter into the “world of political commitment”, energised 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 US telephone operator, in making the hook-up 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.

In the third section of the essay, 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. 

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.  

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 buses, trucks and private cars all over the city. There were huge signs all over Habana reading “A La Sierra Con Fidel … Julio 26” [To the Sierra with Fidel]. 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 honour of Fidel Castro’s first onslaught against Moncada barracks 26 July 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 6pm. 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 900 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.

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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 Castro, President Dorticos, etc. It was about 1 000km 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 30 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 14-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 US 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 10pm 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.

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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 who 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 got 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 got 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 10 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 recognisable 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 travelled road. It was an unbelievable scene. Not only all the weird trucks and buses 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 .45s. 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 à 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” [“Children do not like chewing gum or American cigars or Rock ‘n’ Roll”]. 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.

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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 10 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 20 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 12 and 13 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 teenagers. An old man with a full grey beard covering most of his face, except his sparkling blue eyes and the heavy black cigar sticking 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 50 yards away waving her arms at her lost charges.

Part two:

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