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Inside Castro’s Cuba

With Fidel Castro dead at 90, a new insider's account of his years in power promises a fresh perspective

We don’t like Castro, so we close our eyes and hold our ears. Yet if he really is our enemy, as dangerous to us as we are told he is, then it seems to me we ought to know as much about him as possible.

Charting the often controversial history and the usual subsequent stigma associated with any country that has succumbed to communist rule strikes up a notably homogenous pattern. Be it big, small, landlocked or a drop in the Caribbean ocean, such as in the case of the Republic of Cuba, the governing belief that ousting the very concept of different social classes and, so it goes, entrusting all methods of production to all members of a society, to then be commonly owned and controlled in the ultimate aim of a collective allotment of what is received by each individual; the very apparatus of communism is a hotbed of socioeconomic principles and theories.

The endless thought and fascination owed to communist ideology and its many varying structures is essentially what links any state who takes a crack at being entirely governed by social ownership of any means of production. Transcending world news and current affairs toing and froing between playground politics and economics to an almost stupefying degree, even the suggestion of a life controlled by such an establishment never fails to go down conspicuously in history. 

We don’t like Castro, so we close our eyes and hold our ears. Yet if he really is our enemy, as dangerous to us as we are told he is, then it seems to me we ought to know as much about him as possible.

Photojournalist Lee Lockwood was granted unprecedented access to Fidel Castro’s life from 1959 to 1969, resulting in a remarkable portrait of life  behind the Cold War’s iron curtain.

When Cuba, the Caribbean’s largest island nation, first took a shine to the idea of becoming a unitary sovereign state in the late '50s, following numerous lifetimes of colonisation resulting in political radicalisation and dictatorship that contributed to a fragile republic, ensuing instability in its democratic system gave a political platform to one man with his eye set firmly on the prize, to lead. Vying to monopolise power in a country led by the harsh dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, elected President from 1940-44 and dictator from 1952 onwards, was Fidel Castro, the politically versed Marxist–Leninist and Cuban nationalist working to overthrow Batista with no time to spare.

Achieving this feat in January 1959, the July 26th Movement that heated Cuban summer accorded Castro to assume military and political power as Cuba’s Prime Minister. The new-fangled establishment created under the leadership of Castro has, since that fateful dog day of summer and in the lead-up to the founding rule of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, left the culturally diverse nation simmering in oscillating contention enshrined in the constitution. 

Having been accepted into Castro’s inner-circle, Lockwood enjoyed a freedom to document rarely afforded to a foreign journalist.

Polarising opinion the world over, Castro, the son of a farmer, is perhaps a natural born leader.  The kind that binds all to stand up and listen, rigidly and with ears wide open, Castro’s prolific legacy has cemented his standing as an immensely divisive world figure. In the one breath, here is a man who once confessed himself  “politically illiterate” when studying law at the University of Havana and getting his feet wet in student activism, is heralded as a champion of socialism, anti-imperialism, and humanitarianism, granting his country independence from the American imperialism doing it wrong under Batista’s say.

Here is a revolutionist with flawed totalitarian leanings, or as photojournalist Lee Lockwood puts it quite succinctly, “We don’t like Castro, so we close our eyes and hold our ears. Yet if he really is our enemy, as dangerous to us as we are told he is, then it seems to me we ought to know as much about him as possible.”

Making it a considerable portion of his life’s work to do just that since his first introduction to the Cuban livewire of a leader in 1958, Lockwood, the photojournalist placed on the frontline of Castro’s victorious revolution, is now credited as the camera-handy mastermind behind the single most extraordinary recorded profiles of Cuba.     

In Castro’s Cuba, a newly released book published by Taschen, Lockwood’s photographic documentation of Cuba’s political climate and the man who raised it to boiling point over the course of just 10 years, from 1959 to 1969, reveals a remarkable double portrait of the state of the island nation and its Maximum Leader. Forging a bond with Castro like no other could or since has, Lockwood succeeded in ingratiating himself to Castro, granting him unprecedented freedom and access in being able to depict what he saw from the collapse of Batista’s reign onwards.

Initially arriving in Cuba just one day prior to Castro taking the ramshackled reigns, Lockwood soon found he had the upper hand when he struck up a curiously reciprocated rapport with Castro after a week spent canvasing the island in his attempt to track down the one man political powerhouse. Eventually presented with the unheard of in the form of special access to Castro’s inner circle and free reign to explore the island without the usual restrictions imposed upon American journalists, the bond between the leader, lapping up the glorious, yet attentive, public glare, and Lockwood, the man that got behind the Cold War’s iron curtain, was able to flourish amicably.

Over the turmoil that would erupt during the years that connected the two unlikely compadres, almost nothing was off limits. An iconic seven-day interview triumphantly snagged by Lockwood, perhaps the best example of this, occurring in 1965 and covering such hot topics as racial issues in America to the Cuban Missile Crisis in uniquely rare and in-depth detail serves, to this day, as one of the most penetrating portraits of the Cuban leader.

In light of Lockwood’s many journalistic coups, originally published in 1967 and now republished in Taschen’s refreshing new publication, featuring hundreds of candid colour photographs, many never published before, Castro’s Cuba is an essential for any eruptive history buff and advocate of legendary liberty alike.

Much akin to Mel Gibson’s no-nonsense photojournalist, Guy Hamilton, in Peter Weir’s Academy Award winning The Year of Living Dangerously, Lockwood’s determined interviews and observations on a country in fraught transformation encapsulate a decade lived dangerously, in indomitable company. In addition to the eye-opening glimpses of military encampments in the Sierra Maestra Mountains and politically-tensed Havana street life, a foreword and afterword by Latin America expert Saul Landau further contextualise Lockwood’s work at a moment in history when US-Cuba relations take centre stage once again.

So, what now of Cuba and Castro, the man that gave the nation its most binding yet often besmirched lifeline? It’s future only hints at some development at present, establishing increased links with a world always so fascinating by its foibles and boasting a planned economy still chiefly dominated by the exports of sugar, tobacco, coffee and skilled labour. Hot on the well-trodden heels of the supermodels who paraded Chanel’s Cruise 2016/17 Latino-inspired resort confections in the country’s capital on May the 3rd, the less strained changes to come are more than likely afoot. 

As for Castro, Cuba’s revolutionary leader whose presidential retirement orders were delivered to him in 2008 and tenure as the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba ceasing in 2011, he has given the world actions and writings that have significantly influenced the politics of various individuals and oppression-resisting groups across the world. Lockwood, the man who saw and felt it all and left behind a legacy, following his passing in 2010, that put an indelible mark on the lasting importance of photojournalism and selflessly made a munificent career out of purposefully and skilfully not taking anything to the grave. 

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