A Portrait of the Cuban Revolution


On a trip to Cuba in 1999 I bought a black and white photograph from one of the book sellers on the Plaza de Armas in La Habana. Book vendors there commonly traded in the remnants of family albums and black and white photos that had been taken from scrapbooks. They were an emotional reminder of families who fled the island at the revolution and left behind much of their personal history. Searching through a box of photos one day I came across a black and white Information Ministry picture of Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos standing on a dais with the revolutionary poet Nicolás Guillén, and the new Cuban Republic’s first President, Osvaldo Dorticós.

A 1959 portrait of the Cuban Revolution

A 1959 portrait of the Cuban Revolution

The photograph was probably taken in 1959 on the Plaza de la Revolución, either for the worker’s holiday on May 1st or perhaps for the first post-revolutionary July 26th celebration commemorating the Moncada Barracks attack. All four in the photograph had endured periods in exile during the Fulgencio Batista era. Both Cienfuegos and Guillén were from poor backgrounds, Guillén, from Camagüey in central Cuba and Cienfuegos from an immigrant Spanish family from the La Habana suburbs. His  family had been anarchists in Spain.  Dorticós and Castro were both from educated, wealthy, landowning families.  They were students together at the Havana University Law School in the 40’s and were baptized early in the often violent civil resistance movement.

Cienfuegos and his small plane disappeared mysteriously in October of 1959 on a routine flight returning from Camagüey. He had been sent there by Castro to arrest Huber Matos, the revolutionary commander in Camagüey who had been accused of counter- revolutionary activities. The plane was never found but there is at least one account of a meeting in Varadero at a small airport where both Cienfuegos and his plane had been identified. That informant testified that Cienfuegos had been shot due to his reluctance to carry out the arrest orders against his friend, Matos. Cienfuegos was probably the best liked of the Sierra Maestra revolutionaries. He had a salt of the earth personality and an incorruptible sense of honesty that set him apart from Castro and Che Guevara.

The photograph is remarkable for the clarity with which it captures each man. Guillén on the far right is the only one looking at the camera.  He was a populist poet, whose direct appeal to Cuba’s new, class of literate blacks, was just beginning to take off. He was their social and artistic voice. His glaring presence reaches beyond the celebratory moment. His best known poem, Tengo, became a kind of poetic anthem for the revolution. It told the story of a man waking overnight to his new-found status as a citizen and full-fledged participant in a remade Cuba. After twenty years in exile, Guillén returned to Cuba in 1959 as a fierce partisan for the revolution, and remained there until his death in 1989. His poetry celebrated Cuba’s African heritage and finally gave Afro Cubans a place at the cultural center of Cuban society. In the photograph you get a sense of his profound purpose and commitment.

Standing stiffly on the other side of Fidel Castro is Dorticós, distant and uncomfortable in his suit and heavy, black framed glasses. He has no idea how to play to the crowd. His wave seems apologetic. He was a bureaucrat who had been an architect of the new Cuban constitution and had drafted much of the Revolution’s agrarian reform legislation.  Sandwiched between Castro and Cienfuegos, Dorticós looks almost comically formal and out of place.

Standing on Fidel’s right is Camilo Cienfuegos. Of all the first rank revolutionaries, he was the most genuine but also the most naïve. He could have been the “hombre sincero” of Jose Marti’s Guantanamera verses. When he was dispatched to Camagüey to arrest Matos he was perhaps unaware that his position in the Revolution was beginning to unravel. His political skills were no match for those of Guevara and Castro. In the photograph, he is laughing and looking away over his shoulder. He gives the impression of someone beyond the reach of intrigue but in just a few months he would be dead at 27. I look at the photo and see a man who may not have understood how his style and popularity might have been a threat to the grasping political ambitions of Guevara and Castro.

Fidel is the unquestioned focus of the photograph. The notation on the back of the photograph says: Cmdte Fidel Castro. The others are not even mentioned.  He is dressed in his fatigues, pistol strapped to his waist, and sporting the trademark beret and beard, the whole revolutionary nine yards. He seems to own the moment, looking beyond the camera and the crowd as if admiring his own future in a timeless, all-purpose photo op. In the early 50’s before he was imprisoned on the Isle of Pines he gave a fiery speech at his trial saying that history would absolve him for his revolution and violent attempt to remake Cuba. In his four hour rebuke of the Batista regime, he invoked Marti as the intellectual author of the Castro revolution. “La historia me absolverá”, Castro had shouted as he wagged his finger at the court. Seven years later, under a sunny, cloudless Havana sky, it was hard to argue with his prediction or the way things had turned out.

Steven Woodruff                                                                                                                            3/13/2013

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