Return to My Life

Cuba 1963

Fidel chatting with our student group, summer 1963

(Continued from College (4))

The federal government’s ban on travel to Cuba had put an end to direct flights.  Although Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, you had to take a detour to get there.  And what a detour!  The student group I joined for the trip, nearly 60 strong, divided in half for the first leg.  Some of us went to Paris, some to London.  We came together in Prague, Czechoslovakia.  There we traveled by bus for a few days in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), a spa resort, where we waited for our connecting flight.  Then the long haul:  Prague to Shannon, Ireland, for refueling; back across the Atlantic to Gander, Newfoundland (Canada) for refueling, and then down along the American coast to Havana. We had taken a week and flown 9,500 miles.

The Cuban revolution was then four years in power.  It had begun in 1953, when a group of students outraged by Fulgencio Batista’s military coup of 1952 attacked the Moncada Barracks.  Most were killed, the rest were captured and put on trial.  In a famous four-hour speech at his trial, student leader Fidel Castro outlined a program of wide-ranging political and social reforms.  He was condemned to prison.  Popular agitation forced his release via an amnesty two years later, and Fidel’s small group fled to Mexico, where they trained and organized.  The Argentine doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, joined them there.  They landed in Cuba on the ship Granma in 1956.  Again, most were killed, but a handful survived and began a three-year guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra mountains, with widespread support in the cities.  In January, 1959, Batista fled, and Fidel’s forces marched into Havana and formed the government.

Unlike so many other reform movements, which abandoned their radical agenda once in power, the Cuban revolution stayed true to its promises. It carried out an immediate land reform, expropriating the huge landholdings owned mostly by foreign corporations, and converting them into cooperatives.  It followed through with similar expropriations in Cuba’s industrial and mining sector.  The U.S. government, following the program of the expropriated interests, responded with economic sanctions and then, in 1961, with the Bay of Pigs invasion.  These measures drove the Cuban revolution further to the left, into an alliance with the USSR and China, and into an embrace of Marxism-Leninism.  When we arrived in Havana in July 1963, the Cuban revolution had declared itself frankly socialist, and Fidel had become the first secretary of the newly organized Communist Party of Cuba.  The worst nightmare of the American power elite had materialized in three dimensions and in vivid color, right on the doorstep.

The Cubans worked hard to show off their achievements, and they had a lot to show.  Among the most vivid memories that have stuck in my mind, nearly 50 years afterward, are these:

  • The anti-illiteracy campaign.  Directly following the land reform, students from the cities had fanned out across the countryside and taught the farmers — adults as well as children — how to read, write, and count.  As we traveled by bus in the countryside, we saw alfabetización posters everywhere, saw the classrooms and school supplies, and talked to many dozens of people who testified to the reality of this campaign.  Already in a few short years, Cuba had become the most advanced country in Latin America with its nearly universal literacy rate.
  • The scholarship students.  The wealthy upper stratum of Cubans had mostly fled to Miami, leaving behind their magnificent sprawling estates in the hills.  The revolutionary government converted many of them into schools and dormitories for scholarship students (becados).  Kids who would have been street urchins and beggars under the old regime — and in practically every other country —  were living in the best residences on the island, wearing simple but clean clothes, studying in well-equipped classrooms, learning, making art, playing music, doing sports, and to all appearances thriving.
  • The medical system.  This was just beginning when we were there, but the goal was clear: to make medical care available as needed to every Cuban.  They were training not only full-fledged doctors but health workers with basic skills who could provide immediate primary care for the most common conditions in the countryside.  New clinics were opening weekly.  Today, the vision is international.  Havana’s ELAM, the Latin American School of Medicine, is probably the largest medical school in the world, training thousands of students (including dozens from the U.S.) with the aim of having them provide medical care to communities where it is most needed all over the world.
  • The popularity of the government.  We had read in the U.S. press that Fidel’s government was a police state hated by the Cuban people.  That turned out to be a fantasy.  The police were unarmed and were  mostly directing traffic.  Troops of paramilitary police with automatic weapons, such as I had seen in Paris and also in Italy, were not in evidence.  At the 26th of July revolutionary festival on the main square in Havana, while Fidel was giving one of his three-hour lectures, our group got places on the review stand.  If there were not a million people on the square, which was the official estimate, it was certainly in the high hundreds of thousands.  I climbed off the stand and wandered through the crowd for over an hour.  I saw no evidence of coercion.  The people were casual, relaxed, paying close attention to the speech, laughing at his jokes, responding to his rhetorical questions, having a good time.

We saw plenty of problems also.  Stores were down to basics; there was none of the enormous abundance of different commodities that we were used to seeing at home.  American cars were already showing signs of age, and Cuban ingenuity was being challenged to keep them running without a supply of spare parts.  Air quality suffered.  Buildings were going without paint and grout.  We heard stories of repression against homosexuals and political dissidents.  This was no Shangri-la.

Fidel chatting with our student group, summer 1963

Fidel dropped in twice to chat with our group, once in Havana, once somewhere in the countryside.  He was informal, easy to talk to.  He was dressed in military fatigues. Several people in our group spoke Spanish and translated for the rest of us.  He said the usual things: that the American government’s policy  had been hostile, but he believed that the American people were friends, and he hoped that in time relations would improve.  He shook hands with all of us.

Che as Minister of Economics, 1964 (Deena Stryker photo, Archive of Documentary Arts, Duke University)

A highlight of the trip was a meeting with Che Guevara.   He was then Minister of the Economy.  Like Fidel, he was dressed casually; he was in shirtsleeves.  He began by telling a joke on himself.  He said after the revolutionaries marched into Havana, they were sitting around a table and Fidel asked, “Is anyone here an economist?”  Che raised his hand, and Fidel made him Minister of the Economy.  Che said, “Wait a minute, you said ‘economist’?  I thought you said ‘communist’!  We laughed.  Che gave us a short history of the land reform and the nationalizations, the American boycott and embargo, and the new economic relationships with the USSR and China.  In four short years the Cuban economy had gone through a wrenching transformation.  He had a plate full of problems.  After his short talk,  he opened it up for questions, specifically asking for our views of Cuba’s shortcomings.  One member of our group, a Trotskyite, asked about reports that the Trotskyite organization in Cuba had been refused permission to publish a newspaper.  Che began, “Nosotros somos una dictadura” — “this is a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and I see no reason why there should be a Trotskyite paper…. The Trotskyites whose main platform is immediate invasion of the U.S. Guantanamo naval base do nothing and criticize everything.”[ref]As quoted verbatim in the New York Herald Tribune Aug. 27 1963.[/ref]   I asked Che, “What was harder, making the revolution, or governing afterward?” He answered without hesitation, “Governing afterward.”  We all laughed again. As we filed out, he shook our hands and wished us well.

Another highlight was meeting with the Vietnamese.  A small group of representatives of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam gave us talks and showed films on the history of their struggle and their objectives.  By this time, press reports in the U.S. had featured the Diem regime’s atrocities and its manifest incompetence, and there was debate within the U.S. administration about how to continue.   To hear about the struggle from flesh-and-blood representatives of the people on the other side, who were fighting for their country’s independence and unity, stirred my feelings.  The Vietnamese were so small, so soft-spoken, so very articulate, cool, poised, and totally confident of victory.

We also visited the Chinese embassy, where we heard talks and got gifts of Mao pins and top-of-the-line Chinese cigarettes.   I smoked in those days and found those cigarettes excellent.

We had no contacts with Russians or other Eastern European folks.  In a few places in the countryside during our bus tour, Cuban kids asked us if we were Russian engineers — the only other kind of foreigners they had seen recently — but I don’t recall seeing any.


Robert F. Williams teaching armed self-defense

Another memorable encounter was with Robert F. Williams, then in exile in Cuba.  He was an Afro-American veteran of the Korean war.  When he came home to Monroe, North Carolina, the Klan was active in the town.  Together with other black Korean vets, Williams organized a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and a chapter of the National Rifle Association (NRA).  In 1957, after an incident, the Klan rode through the black part of town brandishing rifles and shotguns, shooting at store windows.  They got a rude surprise from Williams’ organization, which fired back with modern weapons.  The Klan scrambled away in panic, but afterward the white authorities framed Williams on trumped-up charges, and he fled the country.  He wrote a book, Negroes With Guns.  He published an occasional newsletter, The Crusader, and broadcast from Havana over Radio Free Dixie.  He spoke to us softly and, I thought, a bit sadly at his distance from the action.  But his uncompromising voice reverberated in the conscience of the civil rights movement. Williams counted both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X among his friends, and found an influential disciple in the person of Huey Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party.

We spent nearly two months in Cuba, visiting many parts of the island, seeing lots of schools and factories and farms, a prison, a mental hospital, churches, and much else.  We spent a morning hoeing weeds on a sugar cane farm, but we were not in shape for farm labor.  Occasionally we had an afternoon off at the beach.  We had our own crisis:  one of our members, Hector Hill, an artist and poet from Brooklyn, drowned in a motel swimming pool.  We had political arguments and identity politics; there were African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and whites; women and men.   One of my molars crumbled from too much rum and sugar, and a Cuban dentist, trained in Detroit, chiseled out the root; there was no Novocaine but plenty of aspirin.   At least two long-term romances began on the trip, including my own.  I met and fell in love with Barnard student Viki Ortiz.  We married a year later.

Getting home from Cuba was an adventure in itself.  By this time, the U.S. press had got hold of us.  We were bad boys and girls, traveling where we weren’t supposed to go, seeing what we weren’t supposed to see, talking to people we weren’t allowed to talk to.  Bad, bad, bad.  John F. Kennedy was asked about us at a press conference, and said, according to the Cuban press, “When they get back, we’re going to lock them up and throw away the key!”  (The US press version was a bit more restrained.)

The flight home was via Madrid, with a refueling stop in Bermuda.  In Bermuda, one of our group members (long known as creepy) unmasked himself as a government agent and got off the plane to catch a direct flight to New York from the island.  Still on the ground in Bermuda, we evacuated the plane while the crew searched it for bombs.  Hours later we resumed our flight in darkness.  We flew through a thunderstorm.  We saw flashes of lightning, heard claps of thunder, felt the plane drop thousands of feet into air pockets, then struggle for altitude.  Landing in Madrid felt like resurrection from the dead.

At Idlewild Airport after State Department backed down on seizing passports (NY Journal-American photo and caption)

At the airport in New York, the State Department was out in force, waiting for us.  They weren’t going to lock us up — that was just bravado on JFK’s part, there was no legal basis for it.  But they were going to take away our passports.  We decided to stage a sit-in on our side of the gate, refusing to go in.  The press was also out in force, but on the far side of the gates where we couldn’t reach them.  This was before cell phones.  We decided to send spokespeople through the gate to talk to the press.  I volunteered because my passport, obtained originally for the semester in France, was expiring at midnight anyway. I went through the gate and explained our sit-in to the press.  The sit-in continued and led the evening TV news shows.  Shortly before midnight, the State Department backed off; instead of taking passports, they handed everybody a long legal letter.

Ten of the group, not including myself, were also served with subpoenas to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  I read about the hearings in the press.  Witnesses defied the committee, attacked its Southern segregationist ties, and refused to testify in anything but generalities.  Police forcibly removed witnesses and spectators, with cameras flashing.  Headlines said “Wild Melee Breaks Up Hearing on Cuba Trip.”

NY Journal-American photo and caption

On September 13, there was a big meeting at Town Hall in Manhattan where we reported on our trip.  I was one of the speakers.  The place was full with about 1500 people, standing room only.  The atmosphere inside was vibrant, instructional, peaceful.  Outside, a crowd estimated at up to 3,000 anti-Castro exiles from up and down the East Coast (gusanos, the Cubans call them) screamed with fury and rioted.  More  than 500 New York police on foot, motorcycle, and horseback held them back.  The press called it a “Cuba riot,” a “bloody pitched battle,” “the Cuban war,” “wild anti-Castro riot,” and the like.

During the following school year, I spoke about the Cuba trip dozens of times to audiences in New York and New England.  I had taken photographs on the trip and put together a slide show.  I am distressed that those slides have been lost somewhere; they were worth keeping.  It was a special privilege to return to Wesleyan to report on the trip.  Press clip.  Our trip had been high profile and generated widespread interest in a second trip for 1964. Under the auspices of the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba, I helped to publicize and promote that second trip, which took place in the summer of ’64 with 80 students.

At that time I lived in an apartment in Cambridge.  The FBI parked in an unmarked black sedan with government plates outside my house, and stopped my roommates as they left to ask if they were me.  Meanwhile I went out the back door and hopped over the fence.  My phone had a hollow sound and made strange clicks.  The attention was flattering and gave me a certain romantic aura among my fellow students and friends.

As a result of my organizing efforts for the ’64 trip, I had the honor of being indicted by the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Joseph P. Hoey, in September of 1964, on the charge that with eight other defendants, I did “unlawfully, willfully and knowingly conspire and agree to induce, recruit and arrange for a number of American citizens to depart from the United States for the Republic of Cuba,” in violation of 22 C.F.R. 53.2 and 53.3, being the travel ban.  Well, that was certainly true, but it was symptomatic of Mr. Hoey’s myopia — he was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier — that he did not in the indictment cite a single “overt act” to connect me with the conspiracy.  He could have cited dozens.

Leonard Boudin

With the indictment, our group of ’63 Cuba travelers shifted into fund-raising mode for the legal defense.  We had the very best constitutional law attorney in the United States representing us, Leonard Boudin of the famous law firm of Rabinowitz & Boudin.  We met with him several times and were soon on friendly terms.  I spoke to yet more groups about the Cuba trip and raised money for the defense.  Under the terms of the indictment, I was confined to the Eastern District of New York, which is New York City and Long Island.  Viki and I made the best of it, taking weekend tours of Long Island, stopping at each restaurant to sample and rate the clam chowder. I had to get a court order each time for permission to leave this territory.

I saw Boudin argue on just one occasion.  He hugged himself and stooped slightly, taking a few steps this way and that, measuring his steps to his argument.  He was thoroughly prepared, knew the law and the case forward and backward, and argued with a calm, controlled voice that hinted ever so slightly at the passion beneath.  Boudin convinced Judge Zavatt of the District Court to throw the case out on the ground that travel to Cuba was not a crime.   Mr. Hoey took an appeal directly to the United States Supreme Court, a shortcut made possible because the interpretation of a federal regulation was at issue.  Boudin filed a brief in the Supreme Court in October 1966.

On January 10, 1967, Justice Fortas delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court, affirming Judge Zavatt’s ruling, and holding that we “were charged with conspiracy to violate a nonexistent criminal prohibition.”   The case was over.  I no longer had to worry about jail.  I got a new passport.  All I had to worry about then was being drafted and sent to Vietnam and killed.  But I’m getting ahead of my story again.

(Continued as Grad School (1))


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