Canadian icon Leonard Cohen and Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro died a few days apart last November. The following account of Leonard Cohen’s trip to communist Cuba in 1961 – a time when the Caribbean island was a hot spot of the Cold War – is taken from a 1996 presentation by Ira Nadel, a UBC professor of English and Cohen’s first, “benignly tolerated” biographer. A recording of the full presentation is available below.
In the early spring of 1961, Leonard Cohen left Canada to explore the socialist revolution of Cuba – only to find himself entangled in the Bay of Pigs invasion. The result of this adventure was not only several poems, a beard and a new appreciation of a seersucker suit (more on that later), but a completely altered set of values. “Poetry,” as he would later admit, “is no substitute for survival.”
Cuba had been of interest to the Cohen household for years. Cohen’s parents had gone there on honeymoon, as did his sister, Esther, and her husband in 1957. Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet Cohen had idolized since he had first read him at the age of 15, made a trip to Havana in 1930, and part of Cohen’s attraction to the island may have been that it had so excited his literary mentor.
The danger of a tropical island that was led by someone the world considered a mad man and that was nearly at the point of war with Yankee imperialists was simply too thrilling for Cohen to resist.
After Castro came to power in January 1959, the danger of a tropical island that was led by someone the world considered a mad man and that was nearly at the point of war with Yankee imperialists was simply too thrilling for Cohen to resist. He wrote: “I’m wild for all kinds of violence.”
By the spring of 1961, he was ready to test his declaration, although he later confessed that he went not so much to support Castro as to pursue a fiction. “I have this mythology of this famous civil war in my mind,” he said. “I thought maybe this was my Spanish civil war. But it was a shabby kind of support; it was really, mostly, curiosity and a sense of adventure.”
When Cohen arrived in Havana on the 30th of March, he found a splendid city in decay. The skyscrapers of Vedado, the business centre west of the old city, were falling into disrepair, with cracking facades and broken windows. The once striking pastels of the elegant homes in Cubanacàn and El Cerro had faded, and the peasant families who now lived in them did not know, or care about, how to maintain them.
Walls were crumbling, paint was peeling and weeds were sprouting everywhere. Manicured lawns had turned brown, and goats grazed alongside the swimming pools. Elegant cars had been replaced by barely-running taxis, the Havana Country Club was the new National School of Art, and the Prado, an imposing high-ceilinged, European-style building – once an elite Spanish heritage club – was filled with gym mats for its new use as a gymnastics centre and fencing club.
But the labyrinth of the old city, with its famous Cathedral Square and its old mansions and fortresses, reflected Havana’s colonial Spanish past; its narrow cobbled streets and tiled roofs still evoked a glorious Spanish architecture.
Once praised as the “Paris of the Caribbean,” Havana now boasted a modest night life, but the city had also been called the “whorehouse of America,” and boatloads of prostitutes once greeted tourists as they travelled up the narrow waterway that separated Morro Castle, at the harbour entrance, from the city.
Under Batista, the government disguised these profitable prostitution rings as dance academies. When Leonard Cohen arrived, a program to reform the nearly 11,000 prostitutes of Havana was underway. It was difficult, however, to rid each neighbourhood of its local brothel. Gambling, once a source of great revenue, had now become a back street affair, but the exotic appeal of the sensual Cuban world could not be erased. Not even by socialism.
The exotic appeal of the sensual Cuban world could not be erased. Not even by socialism.
Despite the new reforms, a certain lasciviousness still hovered about the city, and Cohen rapidly fell into what he ironically remembered as his old Bourgeois ways, staying up late to explore the night scene. (This habit began in his teenage years and continued throughout his life; he would often be up writing, drinking or talking at 3:00am, his favourite morning hour.) He also adopted the fashionable rebel garb: khaki shorts and the fresh stubble of a new beard.
But very few citizens were on the streets, and certainly not the East Bloc and Soviet technicians and aids, nor the Czech translators, members of Polish trade delegations or Russian workers who made up the then transient population. Only the prostitutes appeared, those that congregated along the Malecón, the broad boulevard that edged the ocean, or those he met in the old city that kept company with him. Of black and Spanish heritage, these chocolate-skinned women with marvellous figures expressed an eroticism that Cohen found irresistible.
Joining the hookers, the pimps, the gamblers, the small-town criminals and the black marketeers who prowled Havana all night, Cohen roamed the city from urban slums to swank waterfront suburbs, from back alleys to little bars in old Havana, and indeed even to the once renowned Tropicana, which had claimed to be the largest dance hall in the world. In this crowd of revellers, as in a crowd of fellow travellers in late-night Montreal, Leonard Cohen felt elated because he was the centre of attention – literally becoming, as his poem says, “the only tourist in Havana.”
Disconnected from his Canadian past, he found new liberty in a tropical present. But late one night, at his small downtown Havana hotel, the past caught up with him. An official from the Canadian government knocked loudly on his door, politely but earnestly telling Cohen that his presence was requested immediately at the Canadian embassy.
Disconnected from his Canadian past, he found new liberty in a tropical present. But late one night, at his small downtown Havana hotel, the past caught up with him.
Looking back on the incident, Cohen remembered that he felt apprehensive but excited: “I was Upton Sinclair! I was on an important mission!” Feeling feisty and emancipated, Cohen accompanied the dark-suited figure to the embassy, to be ushered immediately into the office of the Vice-Consul, who took an instant dislike to him, his beard and, of course, his khaki outfit. The official disdainfully conveyed some dramatic but anticlimactic news to the pseudo Montreal revolutionary: “Your mother’s worried about you.”
It turned out that Florida-based Cuban exiles had flown three bombers from Nicaragua and staged a minor attack on the Havana airport (exaggerated in the world press as an all-out war on the country). Cohen’s mother had worriedly contacted Laz Phillips, a Canadian Senator who was her cousin. He was to find her son quickly and confirm his safety. The Canadians did so, to the chagrin of Cohen and the Canadian Vice-Consul.
The threat of invasion, however, put everyone on alert. One evening, soon after arriving at hotel Miramar at Playa de Varadero, a world-famous beach of pure white sand 140 km East of Havana, Cohen went out walking. Wandering about late at night, wearing his khakis and carrying a hunting knife, he was suddenly surrounded by 12 soldiers with Czech sub-machine guns; they were convinced they had caught the first of the American landing team.
He was suddenly surrounded by 12 soldiers with Czech sub-machine guns; they were convinced they had caught the first of the American landing team.
Speaking a language he could not understand, the soldiers promptly marched Cohen to the local police station, while he repeated the only Spanish he knew, a slogan of Castro: “La amistad del pueblo” (friendship of the people).
This made little difference to his captors; they were even more convinced he was American since he said it so badly. After an hour-and-a-half interrogation, however, he convinced them that he was not a spy but a fan of the regime who wanted to be there.
Shortly after he persuaded them of his intentions, Cohen and his captors embraced, brought out the rum, and started a party. The soldiers were milicianos and, to confirm their good will, they placed a necklace of shells and a string hung with two bullets around Cohen’s neck.
He spent the next day with them and gladly accepted when they offered him a ride to Havana. As they were walking down the street in Havana later that afternoon, Cohen wearing his khakis and his necklace, a photographer snapped their picture. After the picture was developed, Cohen stuffed it into his knapsack.
Following his adventure on the beach, Cohen returned to the Havana night scene, meeting more artists and writers and arguing with them about how they could sustain their artistic freedom in the face of political oppression.
He also ran into a number of American communists and he quickly disagreed with their views. He had a violent argument with one, who spat at him and declared that he would denounce the Canadian poet, who was clearly nothing more than a mere bourgeois.
Cohen decided to accept the tag and play the part. He shaved his beard, he removed his khakis, and he put on his best Canadian seersucker suit. He kept meeting members of this group at numerous cafes, where they congratulated each other on the confirmation of their suspicion that Cohen was a bourgeois individualist.
The danger that existed throughout Cuba for foreigners was intensified by the January suspension of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba and by the constant rhetoric of anti-imperialism. The Bay of Pigs invasion on the 17th of April 1961 confirmed the Cubans’ fears, although Castro’s unexpected success in defeating the 1,300 US-trained Cuban invaders solidified his power and stature.
Despite such upheavals, Cohen found the official attitude of the government “impeccable,” even towards someone as “ambiguous and ambivalent as myself.” The novelty of the visit, though, was wearing off as daily life became more perilous for foreigners. Tourists were arrested daily without explanation.
The day after the invasion, Cohen wrote to publisher Jack McClelland, ostensibly to thank him for his first literary contract, ironically adding as a post script to the letter: “Just think how well the book will sell if I’m hit in an air-raid. What great publicity! Don’t tell me you haven’t been considering it.” He then gave this report of the events the night of the invasion: “There was a prolonged round of anti-aircraft fire tonight – an unidentified (but we know Yankee) plane. I think the guns were in the rooms next door. I looked out the window, half a platoon running down the Prado then crouching behind an iron lion. Hopelessly Hollywood.”
A number of American communists congratulated each other on the confirmation of their suspicion that Cohen was a bourgeois individualist.
Soon after, Cohen tried to get out – only to discover that most of Havana’s middle class was also trying to get out. Daily visits to the shell-struck Jose Marti airport 25 km southwest of the city to get a seat became a fruitless ritual, although he soon befriended others in the waiting line, including the editor of the Monthly Review, a socialist magazine, who was also pretty eager to leave.
No seats were to be had on the one or two daily flights to Miami. Nevertheless, Cohen eventually managed to get a reservation. But standing in line on April 26th, the day he was to depart, he was astonished to hear the officials call the name of the person in front of him and the name of the person behind him, but not his own.
Looking at the officials’ list he saw a line had been drawn through his name. Ordered to go to the security desk, he was then courteously informed by a Cuban official that he could not leave the country. The reason? A picture of him, dressed as a miliciano and standing with two other soldiers, had been found in his knapsack. The officials thought he was an escaping Cuban. The fact that he also had with him a copy of Castro’s Declaration of Havana, which condemns American exploitation of Cuba, did not help his claim that he was a foreigner, while his Canadian passport was thought instantly to have been a forgery.
Cohen was taken to a security area outside the waiting room, where he was guarded by a 14 year old with a rifle. Arguing with the youth about his detention and his rights as a Canadian citizen had no effect.
Suddenly, a commotion on the runway distracted the truculent guard. Several Cubans were being evicted from a plane. When they resisted, a tumultuous argument broke out. Cohen’s guard instantly ran to the scene. For a moment, Cohen was unwatched. He quickly repacked his bag and calmly, but nervously, walked to the plane in the middle of all the confusion, repeating to himself: “It’s going to be okay. They don’t really care about me.”
Purposefully he climbed on board, telling himself not to look back. He took a seat and didn’t move. No one asked for tickets. After a few anxious moments, the doors shut, the engine started and the plane began to taxi down the runway. It was soon airborne and he was on his way to Miami.
In a five-page letter written 18 months later, during the Cuban missile crisis, Cohen explained to his brother-in-law, Victor Cohen, why he went to Cuba. A politicized Cohen emphatically declared that he opposed all forms of censorship, collectivism and control, and that he rejected all hospitality offered by the Cuban government to visiting writers during his stay. Furthermore, he wanted his brother-in-law to understand that he went to Cuba “to see the socialist revolution, not to wave a flag or prove a point.”
Cuba, however, was a time for writing as well as revolution. In addition to poems, Cohen began a novel, of which five pages survive. At one time, it was called The Famous Havana Diary, although in the text the narrator says it might also be called Havana was No Exception. It opens like a Raymond Chandler mystery: “The city was Havana. That’s about all in the way of detail that you’re going to get from me.”
“All my life I have suffered from unreserved opinions. They have forced me to take intolerable positions.” ~ Leonard Cohen
The story quickly moves into a very self-conscious, and at times comic, account of his Cuban adventures. But beneath the comedy is a distinctly autobiographical voice: “Reader, may I ask you to reserve your opinion of me? All my life I have suffered from unreserved opinions. They have forced me to take intolerable positions. I always wanted to be the lover of some woman who I did not surround with an opinion, a woman who did not live between the stones of my perfectly ordinary world.”
The unfinished text provides some flashes of the authentic Cohen with a touch of surrealism as he describes a Havana newspaper stand, and a taste of the moralist as he rhetorically asks: “who can deny the pleasure of seeing lies? Detecting them? Catching them?”
By the 3rd of May, Leonard Cohen was back in Montreal, after stopping in New York to see a friend of his named Yafa Lerner. Yafa remembered him as profoundly changed by his Cuban experience, but also, for the first time, more aware of his role as a Canadian poet grounded in the international scene.
Listen to the entire presentation by Ira Nadel: