Close Calls : Che Guevara

I came this close to meeting Che Guevara, to having breakfast with him. I was staying at the Havana Riviera, the hotel that Meyer Lansky built. Every morning I had breakfast with approximately the same group of people, although they were usually finishing up when I arrived, being then as now a late sleeper.

“You missed Che!”


“Che was here, he sat and had breakfast with us. He was here about an hour. Left maybe fifteen minutes ago. Why do you sleep so late?”

It wasn’t so much that I slept so late. It was the water. They told us not to drink water from the tap but every morning I woke up thirsty as the devil. I couldn’t stop myself. I drank a tumbler full of cold water from the bathroom sink. Then I got a terrible stomach cramp and waited for it to pass before heading down for breakfast. I should have died but I didn’t.

“Damn! Is he gone? Did he leave the hotel?” For all anyone knew he was gone. Damn!

I came so close to meeting Che that years later I occasionaly nudged the truth over an inch or two and said yes I met Che – I had breakfast with him. Listen, people enjoyed thinking I met Che so it was good to lie about it to certain ones. It added a little something to their lives and I never personally profited – it never got me laid or made me any money – so what’s the dif?

I did meet Fidel, though. It doesn’t seem as big a deal but I did, in fact, meet him. Three or four times. Fidel liked to hang around with the people. Once in Havana, twice in Pinar del Río Province, and in Santiago de Cuba he came roaring up the mountainside in a jeep to where I was hanging out with Ricardo Arrowsmith and others. We all rushed over and Ricardo introduced us. He made a point of my being Canadian because Cubans loved us. We stood up to the Yanquis and traded with the Cubans. We sent them doctors and engineers. And pigs. On a visit to a farm I saw pigs the size of horses that came from Canada. Fidel gave me a vigourous handshake and welcomed me. A few days later he made a four-hour speech in Santiago, on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of the first shots fired in the Revolution, on July 26, 1956. I shot two or three rolls of film that day. Of Fidel, the crowds, and especially a beautiful young dark-skinned Cuban girl, no more than fifteen or sixteen, sitting under the bleachers to stay cool next to a militiano with a machine gun. She smiled the sweetest smile as I snapped the two of them and that image is forever in the album in my mind. That’s where it is because later, back in the States, the gringo pigs took my camera, film, two boxes of cigars, etc., so I have only the memory of the scene in my camera’s viewfinder of that glorious revolutionary socialist paradise smile.

I also really did meet Maria Rosa Almendros. Earlier, in New York, Howie Schulman gave me about ten copies of the magazine he edited for the League of Militant Poets, Pa’Lante – a collection of revolutionary Cuban and American writing. He asked me to give them to whomever I like but to give most of them to Maria Rosa. I found her at the Casa de las Américas, a cultural institute, where she worked. She was wonderful. Her English was perfect and for the time I was in Cuba we were friends. I’d visit her at the Casa, we’d chat, and she gave me some great Cuban art books, magazines, and some terrific posters. One time she invited me to come back in the evening — she had guard duty and we’d have more time to relax and talk. It wasn’t exactly a date — she was married — but I like to think of it as a date during which we sat talking in the warm Caribbean night, she in her military fatigues, a machine gun in her lap.

(Many Cubans joined the Militia and did occasional guard duty, protecting schools, factories, neighbourhoods, and the like, from potential counter-revolutionary attacks.)

I met the parents of Camilo Cienfuegos. I shook their hands and we smiled at each other but that was all. I was one of hundreds who filed past them, as at a receiving line, shaking hands and smiling, maybe saying a few words in Spanish, which I couldn’t speak. Their son was a great, revered hero, a commander of the Rebel Army whose plane disappeared over the ocean during a night flight from Camagüey to Havana in 1959.

I became pals with a young Communist from Colombia who thought that if we wanted to go to the Soviet Union, the Russians would fly us there and put us up for free. We spent an afternoon walking to the Soviet Embassy and when we got there and asked them to send us to the U.S.S.R. they looked at us as if we were complete lunatics.

I had dinner with a dashingly handsome Chinese correspondent for the New China News Agency and his stunning wife, discussing the Sino-Soviet ideological split, which he claimed was a figment of America’s imagination. Hey, if I could lie about meeting Che, he could lie about that, I suppose.

I hung out with a guy from India named Jain, who was of the Jain religion, although he didn’t practice his faith. The Jains believe in not harming any living thing and so, for example, sweep the ground before them as they walk so as not to inadvertently step on bugs and things. They are, of course, vegetarians, and the more seriously devoted Jains wear no clothes. This guy wore clothes, was a laugh a minute and tried giving a little kiss to every beautiful girl we saw. The Cuban equivalent to standing around saying Hey, good lookin’ to passing girls was to say, Adios, Linda! (Linda meaning something like “pretty girl” in Spanish.) Jain was shouting Adios, Linda every time he turned around. The Cuban girls of that African/Indian/Spanish mix, were the most beautiful anywhere – or so it seemed at the time. Often, walking down the street he’d take my hand and hold it, as others did there – it was a sign of friendship and trust and these people were obviously not as uptight as North Americans in that department.

I hung out with a young Jamaican lawyer, Dennis Daly. He was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. Friendly as could be, cool as a cucumber or papaya milkshake, great sense of humour, always joking, and inviting me to come visit Jamaica and stay at his place as long as I wanted. But once at dinner I complained about the flies, the endless countless numberless flies buzzing all over the food and my face and hands as I was eating. Daly blew up. “You North Americans have it so easy and comfortable – you have no idea – not the slightest idea – how we live – what it’s like for us every day every year – poverty and heat and disease – a few flies make you crazy.” I was stunned and said nothing, or half-assedly agreed. But that was the end of it and we were chums again.

The hundred people I met might equal one Che. Or more likely they equaled a hundred Che’s. I filled up my address book and had my future mapped out. Taking these people at their word, I’d spend my life visiting them all – staying as long as I liked.

Five years later Che was dead, murdered in Bolivia, possibly by CIA agent Félix Rodríguez, whom I haven’t yet met.

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