First Look at Cuban Revolution

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Many who criticize the communist regime in Cuba compare it with the halcyon days before the Revolution. However, Cuba of Col. Fulgencio Batista was no picnic either. In 1952, when he staged a coup, Cuba was relatively prosperous country, whose GDP per capita was roughly equal to that of Italy. However, the society was deeply unequal — as it is often the case in many one-crop economies. Landlords, plantation owners, and union bosses controlled all the wealth and power. Batista tackled the problem by introducing a service economy in the form of legalized gambling. Havana became a centre of gambling, prostitution, and drugs. Meanwhile, Batista was never coy about his own extravagance ; he used a gold-plated telephone presented to him by the United States. He and his wife were exempt from all taxes.

Fighting this capitalist system was a group of guerrillas in Sierra Maestra mountains, for long a bed of insurgency; their leader was a bearded, bespectacled figure largely unknown to the outside world. Fidel Castro was an illegitimate son of a wealthy farmer, who had already spent time in jail for an attack on a barrack. As Cuba’s press was censored, Castro contacted foreign media to spread his message. After 1957, his fame was on its ascendant; a New York Times journalist came to interview him for a story which would become widely publicized.

Also in Castro’s hideout was a young photographer from Madrid. Enrique Meneses spent a few weeks in Havana unsubtly asking about the rebels before finding  someone to take him to the rebel-occupied area. He spent a month photographing the rebels; a young woman, smuggled his film out of Cuba to Miami in a petticoat. His editors at Paris Match were pleased. On the cover on the magazine on April 19, 1958 was a gun-toting Castro, taglined “the Robin Hood of the Sierra” and “Le Maquisard” (a French resistance fighter during the Nazi Occupation). Batista and his feared secret police were less pleased; they arrested and tortured Meneses.

But his sultanistic regime was now in its final months. The U.S. government ceased supplying him weapons. General strikes surrounded him, and many of his soldiers had defected to Castro. By November, the rebels controlled half of Cuba. On New Year’s Eve, Batista fled, taking with him $300 million from the treasury. 

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Enrique Meneses died in January 2013. His work was credited with introducing the world to the Castro Brothers, Che Guevara, and the Cuban Revolution.

Sammy Schulman | Cuba

Politics and revolutions are often cyclical. Just ask those intrepid yet forgotten reporters who covered the Cuban Revolution of 1933 — will this generation’s photographers and correspondents be better remembered? 

Elected in 1925 in Cuba was Gerardo Machado, who began his political career as a reformer determined to modernize his country, but ended up becoming a paternalistic dictator. But in August 1933, in a political watershed that’s seldom remembered today, Machado’s rule was rocked by a series of industrial strikes as rival factions fought in the streets of Havana.

Anticipating this, International News Photos’ manager Walter Howie had already dispatched their star photographer Sammy Schulman to Havana. On Saturday, August 12, Schulman and newsreelman Jimmy Pergola were walking along the Prado when they heard a burst of gunfire. They ran towards the action and found a dignified-looking old fellow lying on the pavement, mortally wounded. Schulman recognized him as Colonel Antonio Jiminez, head of the Cuban Porra, or secret police. He was President Machado’s strong arm, and the most hated man on the island because of his brutality to those who criticized the President.

Standing over him, Schulman recalled how he captured the moment above — the “spark” that fired the Cuban Revolution of 1933:

l cleared a little space in the crowd and made several pictures while he gasped his remaining breaths, at the same time asking what had happened. Jiminez had gone out for a stroll and had been followed by a number of youthful hecklers. To get rid of them, he whipped out his revolver and fired a few shots into the air. The kids scattered. As he fired again, a truckload of soldiers swung into the street. The truck stopped. A ragged soldier jumped out, backed Jiminez to a wall and shot him through the stomach. It blew him half apart.

People came running and, when they recognized the dying man as the much-hated Jiminez, went wild with joy. Someone called for a cheer for the soldier, who stood close by watching me work. A couple of wild-looking men picked up the hero and the clamorous mob went down the street to the Prado. I followed. The crowd pulled a statue off its pedestal and boosted the soldier in its place. He loved it, and struck statue-like poses while I banged away at him. Then someone yelled. ‘To the palace!‘ The soldiers jumped into their truck and led the mob. I ran along with them.”

After making a flock of other shots with my Speed Graphic, I got back to the Havana Post, where INS had its office. Bill Hutchinson, bureau manager, had made arrangements with Miami to fly a special plane over to pick up my films. Hutch had a tip a mob was headed for the Post Building to burn it. I quickly went to the seaplane base, waited for the plane to arrive, give the pilot the exposed film, and told him to get out as fast as he could.”

Schulman’s photographic record of the revolution was considered one of the great visual reporting jobs in the newspaper business then. However, the turn of events would soon overshadow his work. Staring the next month, a loose coalition of radicals, students, intellectuals, and lower-rank soldiers tried to stage several coup attempts against the wobbly provisional government which survived until January 1934, when it was overthrown by an equally loose and unstable anti-government coalition of right-wingers supported by the United States. Leading them was a young sergeant named Fulgencio Batista.

Elian Gonzalez Affair

In November 1999, 5-year old Elian Gonzalez, his mother and 13 other Cubans had tried to flee across the Florida Straits, and their boat sank. Elian, who had been lashed to an innertube, was rescued by fishermen, and taken to his relatives in Little Havana, Miami. (Only two other adults survived). By April, the Clinton administration was demanding that Elian be turned over so he could return to Cuba with his father, but his Miami relatives refused.

For months, photographers and reporters camped out outside the front pouch of Gonzalez’s refuge in Little Havana. They were not allowed inside the fence nor speak to Elian. Freelancer Alan Diaz who was soon hired by AP to cover the Elian Gonzalez Affair was one of the first photographers to be on the scene.

In the pre-dawn darkness of April 22nd 2000, the United States Border Patrol was authorized to break into the house and take Elian away to be reunited with his father. Diaz heard heavy boots stampede the backyard. “It’s going down,” Diaz yelled as he grabbed his camera, which he’d placed beneath a towel to protect it from the early morning dew. He jumped the fence; a family member let him in and locked the door behind him. Pandemonium awaited him inside; Elian’s frantic relatives were scurried around the living room, and after a few minutes of searching, Diaz found 6-year-old Elian held in the closet by Donato Dalrymple, who helped pull the boy from the ocean five months earlier.

From inside that room, Diaz took the photograph of a federal agent with an assault rifle confronting a screaming Elian and a stunned Dalrymple. That photo would win Diaz a Pulitzer, and would later become the defining moment of the entire saga. In moves reflective of the nation’s divided opinions over Elian, some magazines showed a joyful photo of Elian being reunited with his father, while others ran Diaz’s photo. Time magazine showed both photos on its cover, but the caption which says “Papa!” revealed where the editorial staff’s real sympathies lay.

The aftermath of the raid was equally tumultuous. “Assassins!” yelled protestors who attempted to stop the federal agents. An American flag were ripped apart and burnt, and riots and demonstrations ensued. Juan Gonzalez, Elian’s father, became a national hero for resisting the Americans and was elected to Cuba’s National Assembly, in 2003. As for Elian Gonzalez, he would routinely appear up at government events next to Fidel Castro who also dedicated a museum for him.

The biggest loser of the entire saga seems to be Al Gore, the-then Vice President. His retraction of initial support of a legislation to give the boy and his father permanent residence status angered the Cuban community in Florida, and lost him the Cuban American vote Bill Clinton got in 1996. Gore would go on to lose Florida by 537 votes and consequently the November 2000 election.

See Slate’s analysis of the photo and events surrounding it here.

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Castro at the Lincoln Memorial

Between April 15 and April 26 1959–a few months after he took power in Cuba–Fidel Castro went to the United States, invited by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In one of those forgotten episodes of the Cold War, Castro went to the US for loans. Castro hired one of the best public relations firms to present his new government. Castro answered impertinent questions jokingly and ate hot dogs and hamburgers. His rumpled fatigues and scruffy beard cut a popular figure easily promoted as an authentic hero.

However President Eisenhower did not believed Castro’s talk of neutralism in the Cold War. Instead of meeting Castro, Eisenhower left Washington to play golf. Vice President Nixon met Castro in a 3-hour long meeting. Nixon asked about elections, and Castro told him that the Cuban people did not want elections. Nixon complained that Castro was “either incredibly naive about communism or under communist discipline.” His guess, he said, was the former.

Fidel Castro laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial–where the moment was immortalized by his photographer Alfredo Korda–and he met the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and told them that he would not expropriate the property of Americans and that he was against dictatorships and for a free press. He went back to Cuba denying that he was a communist because communism was the dictatorship of a single class and meant hatred and class struggle. After his visit to the United States, he would go on to join forces with the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, signing into law many Communist-inspired laws starting the next month.

Fidel Castro remained an admirer of Abraham Lincoln for the next half a century. He had a bust of Lincoln in his office, and wrote that Lincoln was devoted “to the just idea that all citizens are born free and equal”, and once even saying, “Long Live Lincoln!”