While the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 ultimately led to a break in relations between Cuba and the United States, the mysterious explosion of the French ship “La Coubre” at the port of Havana on March 4, 1960, set the two countries on a collision course that continues today.
As tensions rose between the newly-minted Castro government and the Eisenhower administration, the Cuban government was set to receive 76 tons of Belgian munitions to protect themselves from a perceived American invasion. Eerily resembling the suspicious explosion of the USS Maine in 1898, which dragged the U.S. into the Spanish-American War, the French freighter “La Coubre” arrived at Havana Harbor and began unloading its cargo right at the dock. Cuban law forbade the practice and required dangerous cargo to be offloaded to barges from the middle of the harbor and ferried to shore. For some unknown reason, this law was ignored with devastating results.
The first explosion killed dozens of stevedores and sailors, but it was the second explosion half an hour later that injured and killed the most. The death toll was estimated at about 100 with many more injured and the United States was immediately blamed. The following day, Fidel Castro held a memorial service that included French officials onstage, along with 31-year-old Argentinian revolutionary, Che Guevarra.
Castro’s personal photographer at the time, Alberto Korda, shot a roll of film that day that contains several images of Castro and the Frenchmen that were used by the state-run newspaper “Revolucion.” Returned to Korda were the unused images of Guevarra, which did not resurface until seven years later when Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli requested images of Che. He was directed to the studio of Alberto Korda who immediately pointed to a framed image on his wall saying, ‘that’s my best photo of Che.” The lighting, mood and intense expression lasted mere moments that day and Korda would later say “This photograph is not the product of knowledge or technique. It was really coincidence, pure luck.”
The Maryland Institute College of Art agreed, calling the picture a symbol of the 20th century and the world’s most famous photo. Feltrinelli ran with it and began spreading the image around the world, ultimately making lots of money. Korda received nothing from his work, but later said he didn’t care since Feltrinelli’s actions had furthered the Cuban Revolution and made the image world-famous. In 2000, Korda successfully sued Smirnoff vodka for using the image in an ad campaign. The case was settled out of court and Korda was awarded $50,000, which he donated in full to the Cuban health care system. He died in 2001.