Neil Shea

writer | photographer | story consultant

The Revolution is

Castro's Cuba at 50 | in VQR | Winner of the Silver Lowell Thomas Award

On November 25, 1956, Fidel Castro and eighty-two revolutionaries crammed aboard a small yacht, slipped out of the Mexican port of Pozca Rica, and steered for Cuba. The yacht, called the Granma, is all white paint and leisure, a decadent vessel. It now resides in a glass cage at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, where it is guarded by bored soldiers. Perhaps it is the glass, or the flash of tourist cameras, but the Granma looks less like a rebel blockade-runner than the S.S. Minnow—the boat from Gilligan’s Island.

So it seems natural that, after a week at sea during which the overloaded yacht nearly sank, the revolutionaries ran it aground off Cuba’s southern tip. They were forced to wade into history, dragging revolution along with soaked guns and sand-coated supplies.

Fifty years later a walkway leads through a stinking mangrove swamp to a small concrete monument where the rebels stumbled ashore. You can stand with your back to the sea and consider their path—no walkway in 1956—through the labyrinth of slick trees and deep, standing muck. Crabs shuttling beneath the roots, flies biting. A few miles away another bit of concrete marks the spot where Christopher Columbus landed. Scattered across the landscape near the monuments are piles of rubble, the ruins of houses smashed by a hurricane in 2005. Violent change enters Cuba through here.

Just after Fidel and his comrades reached dry ground they were ambushed and routed by troops of the American-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The survivors, including Ché Guevara and Raul Castro, fled into the forests. Fidel and two others hid in a sugar cane field while the army hunted them. The men lay still for five days, praying the soldiers, known for torturing rebels, would not find them. Fidel was confident. He whispered plans for the new Cuba to his companions. We will win! he was saying. We’re fucked, they thought. And Fidel is mad! Bellies pressed to the dirt, search planes whining overhead, sucking cane juice for sustenance, they hoped just to survive.

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