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Web Exclusive: A Cuban adventure with Lee Lockwood

Web Exclusive

In July 1967, I met Lee Lockwood at the Mexico City ticket counter of Cubana de Aviacion. He had black curly hair, a confident almost smug look and he toted camera bags. “I loved your book, the best, most honest book on Cuba,” (Castro’s Cuba; Cuba’s Fidel which he later updated) I told him. “Brilliant photos,” which he had taken for Life Magazine. “Thanks,” he snorted.

He had recently returned from Hanoi. He told me he’d run into the street just before U.S. planes bombed to get shots of Vietnamese civilians heading for air raid shelters–man hole covers. (“North Vietnam Under Siege,” Life Magazine, April 7, 1967)

Lee had another assignment from Life and I, with Richard Moore and Irving Saraf, had a contract for a public television film on Cuba (Report from Cuba).

We checked in for the flight and engaged the CIA-designed ritual imposed on Cuba-bound travelers–with consent of the Mexican government. A CIA agent (Mexican), in the uniform of a Mexican immigration official, typed a six-page questionnaire (on ancient typewriters) for each passenger, followed by an obligatory photo (“Hold the number against your chest”). Then wait. Then walk (pity those who had heavy carry-ons) to the other end of the airport to board a Soviet-made plane. On board, I imagined summer in Baghdad. The passengers took seats. A uniformed Mexican finally appeared, pretending to check something, and nodded. The pilot started the engines. Cold air whistled in.

Lee laughed. “Now you know the ritual.”

Barely settled in Havana, we and hundreds of other invited folksingers, artists, and foreign journalists got herded onto airplanes and flown to Santiago de Cuba. Lee told me about three days he spent watching Fidel play dominoes with former guerrilla comrades in a tent waiting for the rain to stop. “I snapped photos. Fidel won. He proved he had the greatest stamina for dominoes.”

In Santiago, after one night of almost sleep in quickly arranged quarters ­ shared with people we didn’t know and mosquitoes that became intimate. Calls of “de pie” rang out. 4:00 a.m. Groans and grunts. Cuban guides herded us onto buses bound for Gran Tierra. “Tierra incognita,” quipped Lee, “since no one knows where it is.”

Aboard air-conditioned buses, guides passed out cans of warm mango juice and things they called ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The buses passed Guantanamo and kept going eastward. An eternity–four or five hours–later, the buses stopped. The paved road met a dirt road. We climbed onto flatbed trucks. “Merde alors” cried French intellectuals as we bumped along the trail amid skinny pines. Streams of red dust blew into our faces. I didn’t recognize Lee, next to me, with red hair. Suddenly, the trucks stopped at a clearing. We jumped down. The back door of a semi with a freezer container attached flew open. Cubans carrying ice creams handed the goodies to amazed red-faced travelers. The surreal had become sur-realer; better than warm mango juice.

“It’s not over Chico,” said Lee. He called me Chico from then on. In late afternoon the exhausted hundreds arrived at Gran Tierra, a brand new settlement on the Windward Passage facing Haiti.

Lee examined his red-dusted camera bag. “Fidel should open a travel agency: ‘Tropical adventures with personal comfort’.”

The sun set. Fidel arrived in a helicopter with Stokely Carmichael (The FBI called him a dangerous revolutionary. We had set up our camera; Lee’s Leicas hung from his neck.

Scores of singers and guitar players ascended the stage, played and sang. Uh Uh. The telephoto lens showed they were not singing, but lip-synching to recorded music. Lee smiled. “Good show, huh?” Fidel spoke, apologized for the rough journey, and promised to keep it short. He did, only an hour.

The weary travelers headed for mosquito-ridden dorms only to encounter a long (several blocks) table covered with white cloth, filled with beer and rum. Waiters in tuxedos served arroz con pollo. The startled guests ate and drank as sur-realer became sur-realist. Fidel kibbutzed with a few lucky ones.

Four a.m. “De pie.” Back onto trucks went the weary, their skin mottled with scratched mosquito bites. “Follow me,” Lee ordered. He negotiated with an army man who led us to the jeep that led the procession back to the paved road. We listened to orders crackling on the short wave radio.

Lee fell asleep. The jeep hit brutal bumps. I saw him rise a foot from his seat without opening his eyes. He didn’t complain. No red dust.

Over the next decade, we shared other adventures, including co-founding (with Bob Silvers, co-founder and editor of the NY Review of Books) the Center for Cuban Studies.

“History always favors the intrepid,” Fidel told him during the domino marathon. “He also liked to quote Napoleon’s ‘With audacity one can undertake anything, but not do everything.’ Fidel liked the first clause,” Lee said. “Hey, he changed history.”

Lee Lockwood died July 31, 2010. A great photographer and writer–a friend. I stare at his photo of Fidel, relaxed, lighting a Cohiba on my wall.

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. His Fidel films are available on DVD at roundworldproductions.com.

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