Fidel Castro, 1963

Taking advantage of my dual U.S./French citizenship, in the summer of 1963 I flew to Cuba on a dare from the French photo-weekly Paris-Match to do a ‘portrait’ of Fidel Castro.  After the story was published, lavishly illustrated with photos of Fidel scuba-diving by the French photographer Roger Pic, I was invited back, having momentarily broken a Western anti-Cuba mold that began with the 1959 revolution and was exacerbated by the Missile Crisis the year before.

While making arrangements with an Italian publisher for the book I wanted to write (were the barbudos Communists before they made the revolution or not?), I was interning at Paris-Match.  We had just put the week’s issue to bed when news came of President Kennedy’s death.  We stayed up all night redoing the magazine, and I made up my mind to cash in my open invitation as soon as possible.

A week later I was on a flight to Havana from Prague.  As sometimes happened in those days, the plane developed engine trouble and we spent two days in cold, rainy Shannon, Ireland, the wheel of French cheese I was bringing for Fidel smelling up my hotel room.  Fidel’s doctor, friend and tireless aide de camp, Commandante Rene Vallejo, met me at the airport and took charge of the cheese.  A few days later, he and Fidel, plus a couple of security guards, woke me at 1 a.m. at the Habana Libre.

About ten days before the Kennedy assassination, Fidel had met with French journalist Jean Daniel, editor of l’Observateur (now Le Nouvel Observateur), and reports of that meeting had held out the hope of a truce with Kennedy.  (Eighteen years and I got into an argument with Daniel over socialist France’s new-found fascination with the United States – but that’s another story.)

In the fifty years since JFK’s assassination, including my ten-year stay in the U.S. in the seventies, and the thirteen years since I returned again, I’ve never had the impression that the American public was aware of what we Europeans had found so tragic: that JFK’s death came shortly after that fateful meeting with a prominent French journalist to whom Castro had entrusted a message for the American president (or maybe it was the other way around, memory fails me on this point today).

Anyway, here was I sitting on the edge of my sofa-bed in my bathrobe as four men with beards found chairs and lit up their cigars.  They had just come from watching the Italian film ‘Divorce Italian Style’ and Fidel was imitating Mastroianni’s rendition of the maritally handicapped husband’s tics.

If I had thought we would zero in on the assassination of the American president, I was mistaken – as was often the case when trying to predict what the Cuban leader would do.  He made relatively short shrift of the subject:

“Kennedy was an enemy that we knew.  But Johnson has to think about the elections.”

I interjected: “That’s why I’m worried that he might do something spectacular that would put him on an equal footing with the Republicans.”

Fidel disagreed: “He’s trying to win over the liberals.  I don’t think he’ll try an invasion.”  He was glad that the Cuban consulate in Mexico happened to deny Oswald a Cuban transit visa to travel to the Soviet Union.  Had the visa been granted, the accusations against the ‘Castro-Communists’ would have been a lot more worrisome.

Vallejo mentioned a UPI report that Oswald had made a previous trip the Soviet Union for the CIA.

And that was that.  What Fidel really wanted to talk about was cyclone Flora, that had devastated the island a few weeks earlier.  He wanted me to be sure to hear about it from those most affected.  The next day I viewed the newsreels showing the barbudos participating in the relief efforts, before going on a tour of the island with Alberto Korda.  You can read all about this and other events that took place during the year 1963-64 in my book ‘Cuba 1964: When the Revolution was Young’.  Pictures from my Cuban archive are online at duke.edu.