How I got mixed up in the Cuban revolution

I packed no gun and grew no beard, but I did get a cloak-and-dagger view of opera-loving rebels— and I invited Fidel Castro to come to this year's Stratford Festival

TOM PATTERSON February 14 1959

How I got mixed up in the Cuban revolution

I packed no gun and grew no beard, but I did get a cloak-and-dagger view of opera-loving rebels— and I invited Fidel Castro to come to this year's Stratford Festival

TOM PATTERSON February 14 1959

How I got mixed up in the Cuban revolution

I packed no gun and grew no beard, but I did get a cloak-and-dagger view of opera-loving rebels— and I invited Fidel Castro to come to this year's Stratford Festival


TOM PATTERSON, the former magazine editor who founded the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, is a man who believes that actors, singers and musicians can make better ambassadors between nations than professional diplomats can. As planning consultant for the Festival he headed a delegation of Canadians who went to Russia last year at the invitation of the Soviet minister of culture. A proposal to exchange the festival company for a group of Russian musicians, under the sponsorship of the two governments, was discussed. In between trips to the West Indies, where he signed

up the I ittle Carib dancers for 1958, a visit to the White House where he talked about the Festival and swings around the luncheon circuit in Canada and the U. S. where he also talked about the project closest to his heart. Patterson has had time for more dreams. One of them had to do with an abandoned CNR roundhouse in Stratford which he thought would make a wonderful movie studio. I.ured by the music of a recorded Cuban operetta he recently flew to that strifetorn country. The story of that adventure, the first trip he has made to a revolution in search of talent, is told here.

One afternoon late in December, only a few days before Cuba’s government was overthrown and its leader General Batista fled, I sat in a secret meeting of rebel leaders held in the office of a Havana psychiatrist. There were ten revolutionaries, all of them professional men—doctors, lawyers and scientists—who had risked discovery, and possibly death, at the hands of the dreaded SIM, secret police, to come and tell their story to a visiting Canadian. One of the conspirators slipped out halfway through the meeting to return to his government office where he held a responsible post with the Batista government as chief geologist.

No names w'ere revealed except mine. For days I had been John Anderson, a name I had borrowed on impulse from a man I know in Stratford because he is the kind of conservative, correct person you would least expect to find at a revolution. This day I w'as using my real name as a gesture of my good faith. Only a lew' days before two of Batista’s men had secured an interview with Fidel Castro in his jungle headquarters by posing as U. S. newspapermen. On their return to Havana they gave details of the location of the hideout to Batista but by this time their deception had been detected and the rebel chieftain and his staff had moved to a new hideout in Oriente province.

Because Cubans w'ere forbidden to have any dealings with foreigners without reporting the contact to the government and because I spoke little or no Spanish I had been brought to the meeting by another doctor as a patient. When we entered the waiting room of Dr. Niguel Bustamante, the psychiatrist, I was presented to the receptionist, for the benefit of the other patients who were there, as a disturbed man who had lost the power of speech.

For a time we talked in low voices about the struggle for freedom being waged, and soon to end so dramatically on New Year's Eve, by the revolutionary movement which had the support of the great majority of Cubans.

First they wanted to know if I was really interested in their cause or was I a journalistic sightseer anxious to turn a fast dollar. I told them I had been overseas for five years as a Canadian soldier in a war against another dictator. As for my journalistic credentials 1 showed them a copy of Maclean's.

They talked of the aims of the revolutionary movement, aims that have become well known to many Canadians who like myself knew Cuba, until recently, only as a place sugar came from and gamblers went to. One of them told me how Castro himself had answered a visitor's query about his men’s Communist leanings. “Open your shirts,” the bearded leader commanded a squad of his freedom fighters. At each man’s chest dangled a small cross.

Another, a doctor, told me of the torture and killing of rebels and those who helped them. Two thousand had been killed in Havana in the past six months, he said. He and his fellow' doctors had seen many of them because the secret police through a desire to be legal and correct had required death certificates for their victims. One rebel's body, he said, had been punctured scores of times with a sharp instrument (an ice pick, he had been told) in an attempt to make him talk before death silenced him. A messenger was sent out from our meeting to get me a folder of atrocity pictures of other torture victims. Some of the men had been emasculated, women had been cruelly whipped. This, he said, was the work of Batista’s bully boys. They warned me it would be dangerous to try to smuggle the pictures out of the country so I brought them out in full view, stuffed in a pocket of my jacket.

Toward the end of the three-hour meeting, which was still being conducted in an atmosphere of caution, my sponsor, Dr. Constantino Zayas, who ran a chemical laboratory, told

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When the Stratford Festival was mentioned the air of tension among the rebels quickly eased

his fellow revolutionaries something about the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, of which I am now planning consultant. The effect on the group was instantaneous. Men moved back from the edges of their chairs. Smiles flashed around the room and tension went down with the suddenness of a tropical sun at nightfall.

Soon I was answering questions about Stratford’s part and telling them what 1 could about our plans for the future. Would it not be a good idea to present as one of the added attractions the operetta Cecilia Valdes, a Cuban classic much beloved by the islanders? Indeed it would he a good idea and ever since I had first heard a recording of the music a year before I had been interested in bringing a Cuban company to Canada to play it for festival visitors.

So, for a while we forgot about the rebellion and talked about the Stratford Festival which seemed only right for it was at Stratford that my journey to Cuba’s revolution began. Last summer at a party following a performance of The Winter’s Tale 1 was asked by a friend if I would like to meet a Cuban rebel. When 1 said I would 1 was introduced to Telma Zayas, a pretty brown-haired young woman from Havana, who would soon he going back home to run her beauty salon, which I later discovered served as a cover for her work with the Castro organization in the capital. Without knowing too much about Cuban politics I was interested in the fight to overthrow the dictator Batista and 1 was even more interested in the possibility of arranging some kind of a cultural exchange between the two countries. I had heen in the U.S.S.R. earlier in the year and would soon return to Trinidad on a similar mission. I believe that by bringing the Little Carib Theatre dancers from Trinidad to the festival last year Canada gained as much good will as she got from the gift of a ship to the West Indies. I’m a strong believer in the power of the arts to bring nations closer together in understanding.

I would he in Trinidad late in November to help celebrate the tenth anniversary of the theatre, perhaps I could go to Havana then? Miss Zayas agreed that would he a good time to make the trip. We arranged to meet in New York in a few weeks. In the meantime, I later discovered, checks were made on me through Castro sympathizers living in Toronto. But the rebels weren't always so thorough or they would never have given those two phony newspapermen a chance to reach Castro himself and possibly assassinate him. Later, at a restaurant in the country outside Havana, 1 overheard two of Batista's police, connoisseurs of rebellions because they had been through the earlier one that brought their leader to power, laughingly mock the Fidelistas as a bunch of amateur revolutionaries.

In New York Telma assured me the trip was still on and told me to get in touch with her when 1 arrived in Havana. Then we went to see the musical West Side Story and the next day I left for

Louisiana on a speaking engagement on my way to the West Indies. In Trinidad I found that it was impossible to go direct to Cuba without a visa, which I didn’t have, so I had to double back to Miami and make the hundred-mile flight from Florida since Canadians and Americans are allowed to enter without restriction from the mainland. On my way up from Trinidad we stopped in Caracas, Venezuela, where there was another uprising brewing. There were post-election riots the afternoon after we left.

Because the Batista government had. in its propaganda, made so much of the charge that the rebels were Communistinspired and of the fact that Fidel Castro's brother Raul had been to Russia I wondered how the immigration man in Miami would regard my Soviet visas. He flipped past them, however, and even put his stamp of approval on one of the pages devoted to my Russian trip.

I landed at Havana's airport about eight in the evening and had my first glimpse of the graft that was supposed to be one of the evils of the Batista regime. As they entered the customs shed each of the Cuban passengers handed the inspector some money. Their hags were immediately cleared, unopened. Mine was the last to he processed and it was thoroughly examined.

A meeting was arranged

As I rode into the city past the dark shapes of palm trees and the faintly rustling fields of sugar cane it was hard to believe that I was entering the heartland of a country torn by revolution. My taxi driver, by tradition the staunch friend of foreign correspondents looking for a quote, refused to talk about the rebellion or anything else. At the Hotel Rosita (in which Telma's salon is located) the hotel clerk was grumpy and seemed hesitant about giving me a room even though, I learned later, the place was almost empty.

My cable to Telma had gone to her shop which was of course closed. I consulted the telephone book but gave up in the presence of so many Zayas. She hadn't given me her father's initials, which was pretty loose cloak-and-dagger work. 1 showered and changed my clothes and went out for a walk which ended at the hotel bar where 1 w*as the only customer. I went to bed early. The only warlike signs I had seen had been at the airport where a few armed police lounged about looking at the clock to see when their shift ended.

The next morning I met Telma at her salon and we had a lengthy breakfast while she told me about her plans for me. A friend of hers, Julia Dunois, a druggist whose job it was to collect and ship medical supplies to Castro and his men. would arrange a meeting with the rebel leader of Havana who in turn would try to get me through the lines to Castro himself. She said that I w'ould be staying at her family's home, a short distance out in the country. We arranged to go out later in the afternoon.

At the Canadian embassy I toid them

1 was in Cuba on a holiday and the official I talked to seemed relieved. They weren't anxious to bail any more Canadians out of rebel custody. Before Dr. Zayas' chauffeur-driven car came to pick us up I had a chance to look at Havana's newspapers which seemed to be well stocked with stories about the crisis in West Berlin and accounts of Russian atrocities but completely bare of any mention of the revolution.

The Zayas' comfortable, luxurious home, complete with swimming pool, was in a beautiful setting of tropical foliage. I was greeted by the doctor, a stocky fair-haired man who was inclined to be a little brusque, a little suspicious as were most of the rebels at first, but later we became good friends and when we were alone he would attempt to speak English with me. When there were others around he depended on Telma as an interpreter. 1 met Mrs. Zayas and Telma’s brother Enio who asked me half in jest, “I suppose you Canadians think we are all a bunch of niggers down here?”

Dr. Zayas told me that I had been checked with the Canadian embassy in Havana. "We didn't go through official channels, though. We have our own man there," he told me.

When I asked him about the government men reaching Castro's hideout he shrugged. “This is a people’s revolution. We’re not professionals. Not long ago some rebels came here and stuck a gun in Mrs. Zayas’ ribs and ordered her to give up our sporting guns. When she told them we were on their side they laughed and put away their guns but took the rifles anyway. We were glad to let them have them."

When I asked him about the servants he explained they had been in the family for years and besides they all came from

Oriente province where everyone was a Castro supporter and it was safe to talk in front of them. The longer I was in Cuba, two weeks altogether, the more 1 marveled that the revolt had lasted as long as it had. for there seemed to be no support at all for the government. Apparently this fact eventually filtered through to Batista himself, who had been reported as saying to some American businessmen a few days earlier "What revolution?” and when it did he just packed up and left.

Several days passed pleasantly for me as a guest at the Zayas house while I waited for Julia to make contact with the Havana rebel chief. Several times I went with Telma into the country to meet members of her organization and one afternoon I went to a cockfighting club with her. Although we could occasionally hear the sound of gunfire throughout the city I never had the feeling of being in danger quite as clearly as 1 did that afternoon. One of Batista’s senators with a revolver stuffed into his belt gave me a close scrutiny and asked some questions about me. Dr. Zayas was annoyed that his daughter had been taken to a place frequented by Batista supporters although there were no repercussions.

Another night Telma and I went to the Havana Hilton to dine. We were the only guests in the elegant El Caribe room for dinner. A band of eleven musicians, imported from Spain for the season, played for us while idle waiters arranged and re-arranged chairs and silver that no one came to use. The scene reminded me of the main street of Stratford the day after the festival ends. Later that night about thirty people turned up to hear another band, this one was Cuban, play for Lilo the French singer. The gambling casino was equally de-

serted. Croupiers and dealers, who traditionally act as though they were born bored, seemed to have trouble staying awake. All the bettors seemed to be penny-ante plungers like ourselves.

Outside, the city was going through the motions of being the pleasure capital of the Caribbean, but the few people abroad didn't have their hearts in it. For a city that was soon to be twisted by the final spasm of a revolution Havana gave no sign of smoldering torment.

The neon lights glowed and the bands played but life moved at half-speed.

But everywhere the rumors grew and flourished. The United States was about to step in and bring the two parties together so that the sugar crop could be harvested. Batista, who was reported to have two hundred million dollars in U. S. banks, was losing his mind. With a blackout of news about the revolution lying darkly on the Cuban radio, television and press we had to depend on the Miami newspapers.

Finally contact was made through Julia with the Havana rebel leader, i went to the rendezvous in the Zayas car and the

chauffeur waited for me outside her apartment while we talked. At the time not even his associates knew the leader’s name but 1 have since learned that he was Ismael Suarez and he has been acting recently as aide to the rebel military commander of Havana.

He was young, in his early thirties, like so many of the rebels and spoke some English. Julia interpreted for the most part. And like many other Cubans on the Castro side he gave me the feeling that he was ashamed that his country had acquired a reputation for instability and corruption. He spoke as though he and his associates must purge Cuba of its reputation for gambling and prostitution. He spoke bitterly of the arms sales Britain had made to Batista. "But 1 know this has nothing to do with you Canadians. You have your own foreign policy,” he said. The rebels had declared a boycott against British shops and goods as a result of their action, he said. He and many of his colleagues had forsworn Scotch whiskey for the duration.

He added that he hoped Cuba would emerge from its ordeal with a reputation as a democratic middle power. "We want to be like Canada, respected by all. dependent on none.” he said.

1 asked him if it would he possible to persuade Castro to come to Stratford’s opening night. He nodded thoughtfully. That might be arranged, but right now Castro was very busy, he said with a smile.

Now Castro is busier than ever—at last report liquidating his enemies singly and in groups. But I have been talking to my friends in Havana by telephone and they have not forgotten our scheme, hatched in the middle of a revolution, to bring a Cuban operetta to the Stratford Festival ★

The first hurrah

Hurrah for those who want to race With others into outer space. They’re staunch, they're brave, they’re pioneers; They'll make more room for our careers. 1 cannot wait till they embark So 1 can find a place to park. JONAS CLIFTON