At the Jose Marti Airport 17 miles outside Havana, the first sign of Castro’s regime is a huge banner stretched across the heavily taped windows of the airport terminal. It reads: “Fatherland or Death”.
Inside, “Fatherland” is represented by an immigration official shuffling passports like a tired card-sharp.
“Death” is presumably represented by two young soldiers lounging nearby.
Once carried a battered sub-machine gun, the other a brand-new machine pistol. They readily produced the weapons for inspection when I showed interest. They identified the sub-machine gun as Belgian, the machine-pistol as Czechoslovakian (the maker’s marks had been filed from both).
“Where are you staying?” the immigration official asked.
“The Havana Hilton Hotel,” I said.
“There is no Havana Hilton,” he corrected. “You mean the Havana Libre (Free Havana).”
The hotel had the air of one waiting for the ball to begin. Bellboys swarmed in the glass-domed foyer, the service desks were packed with idle staff, bartenders leaned gloomily on bare bars.
Apart from the Russian Embassy staff on the 18th floor – an austere, busy lot – the hotel is virtually empty. At night, the huge building which dominates the skyline, is just a black rectangle.
Although the staff has so little to do, the service is slow, the food poor.
In two breakfasts, according to my waiter, I wiped out the last stock of American breakfast cereal. With the American trade embargo now in effect there will be no more.
At the Cuban capitol, the immense bronze doors, which swung closed when Castro took power, are firmly locked. From the doors a gallery of Cuban heroes in bronze relief – with here and there a gap where an ex-hero has been chiselled from his place in history – peer at trash-littered steps.
In the palace
I walked over to a bearded soldier guarding a side door. He whipped out a pistol, poked it in my face and asked with a smile – “American?” I said “No.” “Czech?” “No.” “Russian?” “No – Australian.” He holstered the pistol and passed me over to a grey-uniformed policeman.
The shuttered, dark, dusty building is now an echoing barn. The Senate and House of Representatives are used only for meetings of militia and Government approved groups.
I decided to bluff my way into the presidential palace (not to hear President Osvaldo Dorticos echo Castro’s phrases, but simply to look over the Presidential set-up).
At the gates the guards told me firmly that Americans were not wanted. My Australian passport took me as far as the captain of the guard, a young man with shoulder-length hair, elegantly trimmed to match his carefully waved beard.
The President was away, he said, and, anyway, Australia was a “friend of the Yankees.” Then, out of conceit, I believe, he offered to show me the precautions against “imperialist-inspired terrorists.”
Outside the first-floor reception-room a bearded youngster sat on the stool of a grand piano – his sub-machine gun scratching the gold leaf that decorated the top of the instrument. On the roof, where my guide proudly pointed out that a machine-gun covered three approaches to the building, an adolescent in a skimpy beard sat beside the gun while the rest of the squad played dominoes.
On the way downstairs I “blundered” through a side door into what was apparently the presidential pantry. The American embargo on trade hadn’t been felt there. The room looked like a Chicago supermarket – crammed floor to ceiling with tiers of American canned foods.
My guide didn’t like my “mistake” and I swiftly found myself back at the main gates.
I tried the same technique at Morro fortress, from which 15 prisoners had recently escaped. After the officers of the guard had leafed through my passport several times to satisfy themselves I was not American, I was admitted to a section of the fortress.
I was shown a chamber of horrors, all attributed to ex-President Fulgencio Batista which included finger-nail-pulling equipment, other torture devices, and a ghastly gallery of corpses.
As I was led past a heavily barred series of windows on the lower level of the fortress, I noticed a mound of fairly new clothing – slacks, shirts, shoes, a suitcase – which appeared to have been thrown there. I stepped across to look at a name stencilled in white on the suitcase, but my guide had other ideas.
He spun me around and told me the visit was over.
On the way out he led me into a dungeon in which the only furniture was a board bench, a stool and a small desk. With his flashlight he proudly pointed out a vivid red “Viva Fidel” scrawled on a wall.
“Fidel wrote that in his own blood when he was imprisoned here,” he said.
When I started to laugh at the “bloodstain” that had stayed crayon-red for more than two years I found myself ushered very swiftly back through the tunnel entrance to the fortress an outside the gates.
Castro was scheduled to appear that night at a rally of the Association of Young Rebels in the sports palace.
I arrived to find my way blocked by an adolescent with a sub-machine gun, and I was searched for weapons.
Girls aged 11 to 15 streamed by wearing daggers in their belt, shrieking for Fidel… boys of 14 to 17, wearing .45 calibre pistols, stopped to watch as the corporal felt the tops of my socks for a knife.
For three hours the children chanted for Fidel. But their leader didn’t show up – he had taken his helicopter to a minor crisis in Camaguey.
Born in Sydney, Mr. McCrohon joined the Sydney Morning Herald in 1950. Two years later, he was sent to New York as a foreign correspondent. He went back to Australia in 1955 but returned to the United States in 1955 to work for the Tribune Co.’s Chicago American, which sent him to Havana.
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