You couldn’t have grown up in the time of Fidel Castros revolution and not have had a special interest in Cuba and the romance of its revolution, especially sharing a surname with the Cuban dictator and being asked by almost everyone you met, Are you related to ?
No, I wasnt. And I wasnt Cuban.
But I was curious and wanted to visit Cuba — and finally did when I was an undergraduate in college along with my friend Carlos Guerra, a Chicano movement student leader who later founded La Raza Unidas political party.
Visiting Fidel Castro in 1967
We had to travel via Mexico City, and on a late summer day of 1967 — four years after the U.S. had imposed regulations in its embargo of Cuba that effectively banned travel by Americans to the island we flew into into a small airstrip outside Havana.
Our group of Chicano movement activists and New Left radicals on our 10-day information visit included three dozen or so young men, most of them from the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society. All but Carlos, myself, and a Chicano activist from Colorado were white. But it was hard to tell about anyones ethnicity. Everyones skin was heavily tanned from the scorching sun, and many of the New Leftists spoke Spanish.
This was a watershed period for sympathizers of the Cuban revolution. In those first years after Fidel Castro came to power, more than a million Cubans learned how to read and 50,000 new homes were built.
The luster of Fidel Castro’s revolution
So many new doctors were being produced by the revolution that the country claimed there was one physician for every two hundred and fifty residents a four hundred percent improvement over the last years before the revolution.
By nature Carlos was suspicious, and he was especially leery of everyone in our travel party, believing that at least several of our fellow travelers were FBI undercover agents. It made sense. The FBI had infiltrated most of the activist groups of the 1960s. That was to be expected, Carlos said. The trick was to steer clear of anyone openly advocating violence or the overthrow of the U.S.
Im just here because I wanted to interview Che Guevara, I told Carlos. I was a young journalist fixated on profiling the revolutionary who had become such a romantic figure to many young Americans in the Sixties.
We stick together, carnal, Carlos said, and dont trust anyone we dont know.
We anticipated that we would be the targets of a hard-sell indoctrination, but we were wrong. Instead, we found our visit to be more like a vacation, as we toured farms and nationalized plantations, spoke to peasants, visited schools, interviewed students, and spent evenings eating with local Cubans.
This was Cuba only five years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis and eight years after the revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that had unseated the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
The U.S. economic boycott was already in place, but Cuba was still some time away from appearing to be a country whose time had stopped in the 1950s.