Forty years ago this coming New Year's Day, Fidel Castro rode in triumph across the island of Cuba, mobbed by euphoric Cubans, having forced dictator Fulgencio Batista to flee the country. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the 36-year American embargo on Cuba, and the tarnishing of many of Castro's communist ideals, we have forgotten what Cuba was like then: how its people loved the Bearded One for bringing 500 years of foreign domination to an end; how the U.S. at first supported the Cuban revolution and invited Castro to the U.N. to speak; how Castro was later the victor after the CIA-supported Bay of Pigs invasion.
Two prize-winning Cuban American photojournalists, father and son Osvaldo and Roberto Salas, were there through it all, and their work, much of it appearing here for the first time in the U.S., can be seen in Fidel's Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures (Beyond Words Publishing/Thunders Mouth Press). The pictures show Castro and island history in a way not seen for decades -- from a Cuban perspective. There are portraits of Castro, beardless, striding through Central Park when he was raising funds for his revolution and next to an American flag, waving to crowds at Grand Central Station; night shots of Che Guevara and Castro planning their new society; a unique picture of Castro with Hemingway; stark photos of Cuban American prisoners after the Bay of Pigs. This is not a political book; though the Salases clearly believed that a change in Cuba was necessary, their focus was on capturing the spirit of the time in human terms.
Many of the pictures originally appeared in Revolucion and Granma, two of Cuba's state newspapers, where both Salases worked. They had never been seen abroad until an Oregon businessman, Ted Anderson, visited Cuba two years ago and met Roberto Salas, now 58, and offered to bring a sampling of prints to the U.S. for show at a gallery. Once in Oregon, Anderson showed the prints to Beyond Words publisher Richard Cohn and editor Cindy Black, and the idea of a book was born.
The project was tricky. "We had to put it together in record time in order to make the anniversary deadline," said Black. Roberto Salas, who has not returned to the U.S. since G-men stole thousands of negatives from his New York studio after Castro's disastrous U.N. speech in 1960 (coincidentally, the U.S. government has just agreed to return them), did not want to leave Cuba to do the book. Anderson had to bring him high-quality photo materials not currently available in Cuba in order to print the pictures, and writer Gregory Tozian had to visit Roberto in Havana to capture the flavor of the man and the era (his father, Osvaldo, died in 1992).
The effort paid off. Fidel's Cuba, which contains a foreword by Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, is putting the work of the Salases back on the map. Newsweek bought first serial rights, and German rights have been sold to Aufbau. Simultaneous showings of the Salas prints in both New York and Los Angeles at the Fahey/Klein Galleries are slated to coincide with the anniversary of the Cuban revolution. And there's one favorable review from a rather unexpected source: Fidel himself saw and liked the book, and asked for several copies.