When the news broke of Fidel Castro’s death last month, I had only been back in Key West for four days. Still worn out and hardly recovered from my trip to Cuba, the first thing to be done was to contact the embassy in Washington, D.C., for a D-6 foreign press visa. Thankfully, no, miraculously, my contact at the Cuban Consulate replied immediately and within days, I was good to go.
While Havana would certainly see a lot of action during the nine-day mourning period, it was Santiago de Cuba, known on the island as “The Cradle of the Revolution,” where the action would be. A friend of mine, Sven Cruetzmann, a German photographer who has lived in Cuba for more than 20 years, graciously guided me in the right direction and before I knew it, I was “on island” and shooting the city with both him and Getty Images shooter Joe Raedle. They are both extremely talented and fun to hang out with quite frankly, I stand in awe of them both.
Saturday morning found roughly 300 journalists from across the planet, all clamoring for information and access. Shortly thereafter, we climbed into a taxi and headed to Parque Cespedes, the beating heart of Santiago de Cuba. It was on a small balcony here, on Jan. 1, 1959, that a young Fidel Castro declared victory over President Fulgencio Batista’s army. From here, Castro and his troops marched northward, enjoying a hero’s welcome from towns both big and small, ultimately arriving in Havana on Jan. 8, 1959.
On Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016, a flag-draped coffin, carrying the ashes of the Cuban leader, left the Capitol’s Plaza of the Revolution, retracing the route, southward, some 58 years after his rise to power. Now I had to find a good location from which to shoot. In situations like this, you have to pick your spot and live or die by it. That morning, I ran smack dab into Patrick Oppman, CNN’s real “Man in Havana.” He couldn’t have been nicer when he suggested I stake out the Hotel Casa Granda at Parque Cespedes. This seemed too easy, so I pushed on, further into the former Cuban capital, near the Moncada Barracks, where, on July 26, 1953, Castro and his men made their first move against Batista. The attack was a failure, but the movement was born. Sounds like a good location, right? Well, there were certainly better.
So about 11 a.m. on Saturday, I planted my keister at the corner of the Moncada Barracks and waited. Then, I waited some more, then, a lot more. There was no set schedule for the military caravan to arrive, so several thousand school children, all chanting “Yo soy Fidel!” (I am Fidel), their teachers and I, simply roasted in the uber-hot southern Cuban sun. Having left all my provisions at my apartment, I watched in extreme envy as people guzzled bottles of semi-frozen water and ice cream. By hour two, I was starting to panic a bit. Was I gonna “stroke out” in the heat and miss the parade containing Castro’s ashes? It wasn’t really an option, but the thought was there. As non-masculine as it would have looked, I’d have given just about anything for an umbrella to block the sun. Sadly, my umbrella, water, granola bars and rain gear were at home. Perfect. By this time, I was screwed. I had plenty of camera gear, the drive to follow through, but nothing more than a box of Wintergreen Tic Tacs to suck on as the sweat literally burned my eyes.
Perhaps the lowest moment was when a lady next to me was guzzling from a newspaper-wrapped bottle. I had to have something, it was time to beg. “Dame un poco por favor,” I said in a pathetic, cracked voice. I just needed a few drops of water in my hands to douse my salty face. She obliged, I splashed, then she quickly exclaimed “no, no, es refresco limon!” That’s right, I had just slathered myself in luke-warm Cuban Sprite. Lovely, I was truly on a roll.
Finally, after three nightmarish hours, the tell-tale helicopter used to videotape the procession could be heard in the distance. Fidel was imminent. The crowd’s excitement grew and the throngs of people tightened. At last, after a few false alarms, the military vehicles began to pass by. And in a matter of seconds, the jeep-drawn trailer carrying Castro’s coffin passed by. Click clack, it was over. The next 30 minutes were spent in search of water and another amazing “Cuba moment” had come to a close. I have to wonder, what on Earth will be the next?