Memories of a Photographer Who Visited Fidel in the Sierra Maestra

Fernando Ravsberg

Fidel Castro was furious with Meneses because he reported that his guerrilla forces included communists. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Spanish photographer Enrique Meneses arrived in Cuba in 1957, and taking advantage of his stay on the island, he proposed climbing up into the Sierra Maestra Mountains to do a story on the guerrillas led by the young lawyer Fidel Castro.

Coming after his own experiences in a country in a state of emergency, Enrique made it to Santiago de Cuba and got in contact with the head of clandestine commandos, “Debora,” who later became the president of the Federation of Cuban Women.

“I saw Vilma twice, once in Santiago and the other in the Sierra when she came up for a meeting of all the leaders of the movement nationwide. She was very attractive and young in the photo that I took in the Sierra, and she was the only person who looked into the camera,” recalled Enrique.

After waiting 15 days, Meneses headed out “following a path constructed by the Spanish in the seventeenth century, one known as the ‘Camino Real.’ A guide took me to Fidel Castro’s camp, where he was waiting for me like he did for every visitor who came to the Sierra.”

Meneses was able to get the negatives out of Cuba by hiding them in the slip of a young woman who sent them from Miami to the French magazine Paris Match, where they were published before he left Cuba. This was why he was arrested, beaten and eventually deported.

Meneses took hundreds of pictures of Fidel during his stay in the mountains.

Enrique Meneses spent four months living alongside the “maximo” rebel commander, even sleeping close to each other.  “Actually, I hung my hammock under Fidel’s to take advantage of the plastic sheet that covered his hammock from the rain,” said the photographer.

“The bad thing was that Fidel would start talking and he wouldn’t let me sleep, asking me about the revolution in Egypt and whatever else that was going on.” But the biggest pains were the walks: “We had to walk with Fidel all damned day, so as not to sleep two nights in the same place.”

His housing situation improved when they reached the camp of Commander Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who gave him a hut by himself – on which they put up a sign that read “Foreign Press Club.” Enrique added, “The Argentinian had a great sense of humor, very caustic.”

Meneses showed a photo in which there appears Fidel Castro waiting to fire the first shot, “because he always initiated any combat.” That day he saw Che fighting, sitting in the middle of a shootout and as pumped up as the rest of the fighters who were all glued to the ground.

Total freedom of the press

“Fidel didn’t put any condition on me for doing my job” Enrique said, and he was allowed to participate in meetings. “I was even there when the communists came to negotiate their participation in the war, but Fidel replied to them saying, ‘I’m not going from one imperialism into another one.’”

Meneses gazing at a photo in which he’s talking with Fidel and Raul Castro in the Sierra Maestra. Photo: Raquel Perez

“I participated in meetings in which they decided to sabotage the sugarcane harvest, and I remember Fidel saying that the first farm torched should be the one owned by his own family,” recalled Entique, adding that, “His brother warned him that this was going to break his mother’s heart.”

The photographer insisted that representatives of the Bacardi family also went up into the Sierra to warn that if the guerillas kept burning the sugarcane fields, they wouldn’t be able to produce rum. However the guerillas responded that this didn’t matter, and today the Bacardis are among the most hostile enemies of the revolution.

Fidel seemed pleased with the photographer’s presence; “When I ran out of film he would order the troops to turn over all the rolls they had squirreled away for taking pictures for their girlfriends and families – so I was working with all kind of brands.”

But relations between Fidel Castro and Enrique Meneses didn’t end very well. After the triumph of the revolution he wasn’t allowed to return to the country anymore, not even the year when photos taken by him and other Spanish colleagues were exhibited in Havana.

Vilma Espin, who was head of the movement in Santiago de Cuba and the person who got him up into the Sierra, was described by him in his report for Paris Match as “passionate.”

While in Cairo in the 1960’s, he ran into Che, who had become the minister of Industries. Speaking to the photographer, Che said that “Fidel is pissed off with you because you said there were communists in the Sierra, but I replied that the first one was him, followed by Raul, Escalante and Carlos Rafael.”

Enrique said that he didn’t have much of an interest in returning to the island anyway. He doesn’t believe that the political system that was established there is democratic, though he acknowledges that his story maintained its notoriety over the past 50 years – otherwise “it wouldn’t have even served for wrapping up fish.”

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.

5 thoughts on “Memories of a Photographer Who Visited Fidel in the Sierra Maestra

  • They have to do with the Cuban Adjustment Act.

  • Luis, I am not talking about the economic failings of the Cuban leadership. Choosing to blame that disaster on the embargo is academic. I would argue that Fidel’s many flights of fancy, currently the Moringa tree, are at least equally to blame for Cuba’s ecomomic holocaust. If the revolution was originally intended to free the Cuban people from the bondage of a cruel dictatorship and an overreaching colonial power, then why replace it with the totalitarian regime that exists today? Why must Cubans ask permission to travel abroad? Why are Cubans prevented from owning boats that are seaworthy? Why, why, why do these prohibitions exist having nothing to do with the embargo? Because Fidel is afraid to lose control, that’s why. God will have his say soon enough and the Cuban people will finally be free.

  • Grady, the Cuban Revolution has not been allowed to work properly with the USA doing its best to destroy it with 50 years of Terrorism American Style
    Nelson Mandela Loves Cuba

  • My answer to your very relevant question, Moses, is that the political leadership thought that socialism is the state owning everything productive. By disrespecting private property rights, and attacking the property and honor of the small bourgeoisie, the Cuban Revolution split the proletariat from their potential small business allies. This doomed the economy to choking bureaucracy. It was all well-intentioned, but it was the application of an incorrect core economic principle.

  • Nice article. These recollections confirm the legitimate well-intentioned beginnings of the Cuban Revolution. How has what started out so right has become so wrong?

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