Taking advantage of my dual U.S./French citizenship, in the summer of 1963 I flew to Cuba on a dare from the French photo-weekly Paris-Match to do a "portrait' of Fidel Castro.
After the story was published, lavishly illustrated with photos of Fidel scuba-diving by the French photographer Roger Pic, I was invited back, having momentarily broken a Western media anti-Cuba mold that began with the 1959 revolution and was exacerbated by the Missile Crisis the year before.
While making arrangements with an Italian publisher for the book
I wanted to write (were the barbudos Communists before they made
the revolution or not?), I was interning at Paris-Match. We
had just put the week's issue to bed when news came of President
Kennedy's death. We stayed up all night redoing the magazine,
and I made up my mind to cash in my open invitation as soon as
A week later I was on a flight to Havana from Prague. As sometimes happened in those days, the plane developed engine trouble and we spent two days in cold, rainy Shannon, Ireland, the wheel of French cheese I was bringing for Fidel smelling up my hotel room. Fidel's doctor, friend and tireless aide de camp, Commandante Rene Vallejo, met me at the airport and took charge of the cheese. A few days later, he and Fidel, plus a couple of security guards, woke me at 1 a.m. at the Habana Libre.
[[FidelCastro, December, 1963]]
About ten days before the Kennedy assassination, Fidel had met
with French journalist Jean Daniel, editor of l'Observateur (now Le
Nouvel Observateur), and reports of that meeting had held out the
hope of a truce with Kennedy. (Eighteen years and I got into
an argument with Daniel over socialist France's new-found
fascination with the United States - but that's another
In the fifty years since JFK's assassination, including my
ten-year stay in the U.S. in the seventies, and the thirteen years
since I returned again, I've never had the impression that the
American public was aware of what we Europeans had found so tragic:
that JFK's death came shortly after that fateful meeting with a
prominent French journalist to whom Castro had entrusted a message
for the American president (or maybe it was the other way around,
memory fails me on this point today).
Anyway, here was I sitting on the edge of my sofa-bed in my
bathrobe as four men with beards found chairs and lit up their
cigars. They had just come from watching the Italian film
"Divorce Italian Style' and Fidel was imitating Mastroianni's
rendition of the maritally handicapped husband's tics.
If I had thought we would zero in on the assassination of the
American president, I was mistaken - as was often the case when
trying to predict what the Cuban leader would do. He made
relatively short shrift of the subject:
"Kennedy was an enemy that we knew. But Johnson has to
think about the elections."
I interjected: "That's why I'm worried that he might do
something spectacular that would put him on an equal footing with
Fidel disagreed: "He's trying to win over the liberals. I
don't think he'll try an invasion." He was glad that the
Cuban consulate in Mexico happened to deny Oswald a Cuban transit
visa to travel to the Soviet Union. Had the visa been
granted, the accusations against the "Castro-Communists' would have
been a lot more worrisome.
Vallejo mentioned a UPI report that Oswald had made a previous
trip the Soviet Union for the CIA.
And that was that. What Fidel really wanted to talk about
was cyclone Flora, that had devastated the island a few weeks
earlier. He wanted me to be sure to hear about it from
those most affected. The next day I viewed the newsreels
showing the barbudos participating in the relief efforts, before
going on a tour of the island with Alberto Korda. You can
read all about this and other events that took place during the
year 1963-64 in my book "Cuba 1964: When the Revolution was
Young'. Pictures from my Cuban archive are on-line at