Havana, 1968

Andrew Sinclair

The secret policeman who met me off the plane was charming, black and experienced. His declared name was Carlos.

‘We are so glad that you are giving your son to the Revolution, Dr Sinclair.’

‘If it is a son.’

‘He will be. And he will fight for the Revolution.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘For the Revolution. The revolution in my country, which needs it even more than yours. We are still capitalists, you see.’

Carlos looked at me with amusement.

‘Let us take your passport,’ he said. ‘I will attend to all the formalities. You are our honoured guest for all the time you will stay here.’

Marianne, my pregnant French wife, was very friendly with Carlos. All was open and free here, she told me, although of course we couldn’t leave Cuba. She was nearly eight months pregnant, and no airline would accept her as a passenger. The baby would be born on the island unless I could find a way.

We were already in trouble, because of her friendship with the Black Panthers. Whenever one of them hijacked a plane from the US and forced it to land in Havana, the Cuban police put the kidnapper into a work camp for six months to interrogate him and evaluate whether he was a planted American agent or a genuine black radical. One Panther had broken out and reached their leader Eldridge Cleaver’s apartment. When the authorities demanded his surrender, they were met by wild black revolutionaries, flourishing automatics and accusing them of racism and exploitation and treating their fellow freedom fighters like slaves. The Panthers were now being threatened with deportation. What a good way out of Cuba, I thought, saying nothing to Marianne. To be thrown out might be the only solution, if we could provoke the government into it.

Marianne took me to meet the Panthers in their barricaded rooms. Cleaver was a natural in his role as urban guerrilla. He contained the extremes of behaviour without achieving the golden mean. The internal wars needed to overthrow American society had polarised his contradictions. Cool and explosive, large and light on his feet, slow-moving and quick in riposte, deadly serious and very funny, lucid and fantastical, sympathetic and lethal, he dominated without diplomacy.

His misunderstandings with the Cubans were more a matter of street wit than substance. They took his asides as true statements. Given an old crone to act as a cook and spy on the apartment, he said: ‘If I got to have a cook, make her young, white and willing.’ This was reported as wants a young white slave. When he saw a black Cadillac in the street, he observed: ‘I want to get me a big black Caddie for this big black ass.’ This was reported as wants big american car. When he bought some grass to smoke in Oriente province and was asked his source, he said: ‘Fidel gave it to me.’ This was put down as says he got marijuana from castro. And when he sang in the lobby of the Havana Libre hotel, ‘I guess I’ll have a ball with Haydée Santamaría,’ his dossier read: wants also to rape cuban official women.

Actually, the Black Muslims and the Panthers behaved worse towards their women than any White Male Pig. With his dangerous wit, Cleaver was hilarious about their efforts as Muslims to reduce women to kitchen slaves behind a veil. He told of a time in Oakland when the men had gone out on the streets with their berets and truncheons, and their women had taken over the armoury in their absence. When they returned, they found their wives and lovers with their automatics and hunting rifles, yelling that they would blow the men apart unless they got their equality. Women’s rights before black male dominance. ‘Honey, honey,’ Cleaver had begged his wife, who had actually followed him to Havana, ‘don’t shoot me! You’ll be free and equal. Just take your pretty finger off that there trigger.’ And so she did, and most of the Muslims left the faith and became socialist Panthers instead. One of Cleaver’s companions was still a Black Muslim, but this failing was dismissed lightly. ‘You see, Andrew, he only eats pork between meals.’

Trying to broker peace with the Cubans, Marianne and I had dinner with Carlos in the Havana Libre, where the huge menus now had only a lack of choice to offer. Through the windows, summer lightning flickered over the peeling stucco colonnades of the Malecón facing the scimitar of the bay. Carlos was indignant and accused the Panthers of being counter-revolutionary. He was black, he had risen from the cane fields, he was living proof that there was no racism in Cuba. ‘All the Panthers want from the whites,’ he declared, ‘is their women.’ Cleaver had, indeed, called Carlos a white nigger, and perhaps that remark had been reported to him. Sexual jealousy about the Panthers had been compounded by one of them taking a radical French journalist off a commandante. This was no way to respect rank and the Revolution on the island.

The Panthers, for their part, just wanted to stay long enough in Cuba to arm themselves and invade Mississippi in a rubber boat, five of them to conquer a continent, rather fewer than even Cortés or Che had used. Their attitude put me finally face to face with reverse racism. When I was younger, I had believed in biting the hand that fed me, in case it might pat me on the head. But this was ridiculous. To flee the homeland of America and condemn it as racist, to arrive in socialist Cuba and assert it was more racist, what did this say about the accusers?

If Marianne gave birth in Cuba, the child would become a Cuban citizen. He might end up working on a sugar plantation, a victim of his mother’s revolutionary delusions. So I went back to the Panther apartment, feeling that provocation was the only solution. The Cubans could kill us or deport us. Either was better than detention and later blackmail through the baby. Cleaver was compelling and paranoiac and under pressure from the other Panthers to storm into the streets and shoot it out with the militia. ‘There’ll be tanks coming down these avenues soon,’ he said. ‘I heard they’re coming in from Oriente to get us.’

‘You would be better off here,’ I said. ‘Do you mind if I join you? I know how to work those.’ I was looking at the old Bren guns and bolt-action rifles that littered the floor, out-of-date British army issue, which had somehow turned up here. ‘I can strip and use them,’ I said. ‘I also know the right fire positions when the Cuban army comes to get us. I used to be an officer in the Coldstream Guards. I was very good at guarding Buckingham Palace. Though we didn’t expect an attack from Fidel and the boys.’

Cleaver began to laugh, and his cackle set off his dour friends. ‘Marianne tells me you used to teach history,’ he said, ‘American history. So tell this convict here’ – his happy name for his soul brothers – ‘just why he shouldn’t have landed in Haiti on his way to Cuba. You know what he did? Get off that hijacked Boeing, kiss the runway and say: “This be a free black republic for two hundred years. This been free since the American Revolution, where we’re going to have a proper one.” So those local cops, what do they call them?’

‘Tontons Macoutes,’ I said.

‘They take him to a quiet place and they reckon to shoot him. But he says he’s crazy, so they send him on here. I say he don’t know no history. You tell him.’

So I found myself teaching American and African history in that apartment in Havana, while we waited for the attack of the commandantes. I explained, or tried to explain, why Haiti had become a black dictatorship and why so many African republics had done the same. And then we stripped the Bren guns and put them together again. And I assigned fire positions from the windows and the balcony, choosing one for myself.

But news had spread of our preparations for armed resistance, and Marianne had carried a personal letter from Cleaver to Castro. It was clear that we were more trouble than we were worth. Castro had no intention of provoking another Bay of Pigs by allowing the Panthers to invade Mississippi in their rubber boat, but also knew the damage that would be done to the Cuban image if foreigners were eliminated in a firefight. Our passports were restored to us. Places were found on the Cuban airline to Madrid for Marianne and me, although she was only a couple of weeks from giving birth; and the Panthers were booked to Algeria, which had agreed to accept them, rather too far away for them to mount any invasion of the United States overnight. We were all taken for a last day on the beach at Santa María del Mar, the perfect finale to our Cuban excursion.

Cleaver joked as usual, as he looked towards Miami beyond the horizon. ‘Guess I’ll swim across,’ he said. Not having to invade America was, I suspect, a relief for him. Deportation by Cuba was the answer to his commitments, as it was to my prayers. Before our permitted flight, I affirmed to Carlos that we would continue the revolution in our own countries. Lorrimer Publishing, my firm, would print the trials of Fidel Castro and Régis Debray and a book against the American war in Vietnam. I kept my bargain. My small experience with secret policemen is that they don’t do you in, as long as you refuse to take their money.

Marianne did not go into labour on the turbulent journey over the Atlantic. She would proceed to Paris to have the child in France. She made one last concession to my feelings. If it were a boy, it would not be called Che or Inti, one of Guevara’s lieutenants. He would be called Timon, who had become a recluse because of the faithlessness of those he trusted.

Within a month of Timon’s birth, Marianne flew out on a free ticket to Pyongyang, where Cleaver and the Panthers had also been invited. In a way, we were all paying the price of our deportation from Cuba. We were being honourable revolutionaries, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. It was to depress my political future that Cleaver was now travelling under my name; Algeria was soon to deport him to France, finding him as unwelcome a guest as Cuba had. But briefly, as Andy Sinclair, he was roaming Pyongyang with Marianne. This black farce was almost done for.