TOPICS > Politics

Forty Years of Fidel Castro’s Cuba

January 1, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHIL PONCE: Welcome, Mr. Salas. Just very quickly, your own personal background, your father immigrated to the United States from Cuba. You were born in New York, and that’s how you – and the two of you started working together.

ROBERTO SALAS: Yes. We started working, and my father had a photographic studio in Manhattan, and I – at an early age — I didn’t finish high school – I went to work with him, and to help out with, you know, the family economy, as you might say.

PHIL PONCE: And your father passed away a few years ago.

ROBERTO SALAS: My father passed away in 1992.

PHIL PONCE: And the – some of the earliest pictures in the book were taken by your father.


PHIL PONCE: And one of the first images in the book is an image of Fidel Castro that one normally doesn’t associate with him, Fidel Castro in Central Park. What was he doing in Central Park?

ROBERTO SALAS: Well, the thing is that this time he had just returned from – he came to the United States — he had just been released from the prison under the Batistat Regime.

PHIL PONCE: This is in 1955.

ROBERTO SALAS: This is in 1995. And he went to the United States – he came here specifically to drum up support for the revolution that he expected to make.

PHIL PONCE: And to raise money.

ROBERTO SALAS: And to raise – basically to raise money from Cubans who were living here.

PHIL PONCE: In fact, one of your – one of the other pictures that your father took is – is of Mr. Castro at a fund-raiser and there are – what is that pile in front of him? What is it?

ROBERTO SALAS: That’s a pile of money. Unfortunately, that picture is not the last one. The pile grew a little bit larger than that. But that was collected – that was in Palm Garden – a meeting that they had there where there was an enormous amount of Cubans there where they collected – the money that was collected there was then later used to purchase equipment and weapons, et cetera, in Mexico.

PHIL PONCE: And all this went towards his revolution, which, obviously, was ultimately successful. He came back to the United States.

ROBERTO SALAS: Already when the revolution finished in 1959.

PHIL PONCE: We have a picture of him at the United Nations. Tell us about this picture.

ROBERTO SALAS: Well, this picture was a visit he made to the U.N., and this one is mine. This was taken in ’59, in April of 1959. He sat at the position where Cuba sits because at that time I figured, just like now, the UN was not in session. But in other words, they made it sort of a courteous visit there, and he sat there and for the press and to take some pictures there, et cetera.

PHIL PONCE: Moving on to Cuba, you were at the Bay of Pigs when that happened, and we have a picture here. Describe what it is we’re seeing.

ROBERTO SALAS: Well, this image in particular, this was taken after the invasion of the Bay of Pigs was finished. All those people that are in the background there, these were all the – the invaders that came that were captured.

PHIL PONCE: These were prisoners of war.

ROBERTO SALAS: These were the prisoners – more than a thousand and some odd – that he had a meeting with all of them and then there was a sort of a cross-fire of he asked them questions, they asked him questions.

PHIL PONCE: What kinds of questions?

ROBERTO SALAS: Really, I don’t really – you know, some of the questions were what did he expect to find in Cuba, and questions of the prisoners – what they used to ask him – no, they thought that the situation was this way or that way, and they understood that it wasn’t the way they thought it was.

PHIL PONCE: It was a nature of exchange or a debate?

ROBERTO SALAS: It was a sort of an exchange and a debate, et cetera, with all of them. That was – oh, I’d say at about a week after the invasion was over.

PHIL PONCE: And a picture of Fidel Castro that you took, along with Che.

ROBERTO SALAS: That’s right. That one in January, 1959.

PHIL PONCE: Oh, that’s earlier then.

ROBERTO SALAS: That is the first picture I ever took of Che – coincidental.

PHIL PONCE: Their relationship.

ROBERTO SALAS: Their relationship – really, there has been so many stories about that relationship – some people say that they tried to – for obvious reasons – they tried to separate them in the sense that there was — that Che had left Cuba because there was a sort of a power struggle, et cetera. But actually from my personal point of view and I think the point of view of many people it wasn’t that way.

PHIL PONCE: And, of course, when we say Che, we’re talking about Che Guevera, the number 2 person in the revolution.

ROBERTO SALAS: That’s right. And the thing was that Che had left Cuba because one of the conditions that he had with Castro in ’55 when he came was that one day eventually he would keep on moving on to start his revolution that he wanted to do in his own country – was Argentina.

PHIL PONCE: Your personal favorites in the book, the pictures you like the most in this edition.

ROBERTO SALAS: Well, I would say that it’s a little bit divided. I would say some are favorite because I took them; some are favorite because my father took them.

PHIL PONCE: Your father took one of Fidel Castro with Ernest Hemingway.

ROBERTO SALAS: That’s right. That’s one of them.

PHIL PONCE: Tell us about this picture.

ROBERTO SALAS: Now this photograph is – believe it or not — is the only time that Hemingway and Castro ever met – even though Castro had mentioned even before that many times that he had been inspired by Hemingway’s writings, especially the book on the Civil War of Spain. Yet, for reasons unknown, that was the only time they ever met. And my father was fortunate to get the picture. And that is one of his – can we say one of his most famous ones.

PHIL PONCE: And your father also took of a fairly well-known profile of again Che Guevara?

ROBERTO SALAS: Of Che smoking. I would say in my father’s – retrospectively of his work – those are the two most photographed that he personally liked the best.

PHIL PONCE: And he enjoyed the extreme close-up. Like there’s one of – there’s an extreme close-up of Fidel Castro with a cigarette.

ROBERTO SALAS: That’s right. That is another one. My father was a portrait photographer. He started as a portrait photographer, as I mentioned in the studio. And in an obituary that was written a couple of years ago when my father died, somebody brought to my attention the fact that you can take a photographer out of the studio but you cannot take the studio out of the photographer. My father loves the head shot; he loved the close-up; and – but he had a very peculiar way of doing it. In other words, there was a little bit more of an informal sense to those photographers – in other words, these portraits, that you can see in the book, in a couple of places are very, very close, very close shots of different personalities, but, yet, they are very – snaps – you know –

PHIL PONCE: There’s one picture that’s not a close-up that’s sort of -almost a monumental photograph of Fidel Castro, certainly from a low angle – this is it.

ROBERTO SALAS: Yes. This is mine. This was taken in Caracas, Venezuela. This was the first visit that Fidel made outside of Cuba at the beginning. And this was January 17, 1959.

PHIL PONCE: And you took this when you were sort of lying flat on the bed of a truck, yes?


PHIL PONCE: I mean, it was kind of a serendipitous shot. You weren’t planning it or anything.

ROBERT SALAS: No, I wasn’t planned. As a matter of fact, I, really, I don’t know how I even got on the truck, because when the plane arrived, the plane was mobbed by people, and the soldiers were there all the way up to the stairs. Castro shows up in a door. I pushed my way in front of him. I try to get down the stairs. And I’m on the bottom of the stairs to get him as he’s coming down, you know, that classical shot.

PHIL PONCE: And I understand you got sort of stuck with a rifle in your stomach and you sort of staggered to the truck with the help of some friends.

ROBERTO SALAS: They really butted me in the stomach and I fell to the floor. I didn’t know what I was seeing. And somebody pulled me up on the truck. And I was laying on the bed of the truck, and Fidel had been on top of the truck and from the bottom up I was looking up, and this is the image that I saw.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Salas, you’ve been taking pictures of Fidel Castro for almost 40 years. What are your thoughts about the person?

ROBERTO SALAS: He’s a very charismatic person. For me it’s been – you might say it’s been sort of a – now – as you see when the book comes out – you start to recognize or feel a sort of a pride that you’ve been able to do this. It’s an honor for me. It’s been a privilege to be able to be a part of the history of the country, and to be able to record and leave something behind me, not only what I left – in other words – leave what I have done and leave what my father has done, so other people can see a part of a – a fraction of what a history of a country is.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Salas, I thank you very much for being with us.

ROBERTO SALAS: Thank you very much.

PHIL PONCE: This anniversary attention on Castro comes at a time when there are some calls to re-think American policy towards Cuba. Castro has been in power through nine U.S. presidents, and despite an American economic embargo and numerous attempts to remove in. In September, a group of former Republican officials and politicians, including Henry Kissinger, Lawrence Eagleburger, Howard Baker, and Senator John Warner urged President Clinton to establish a national bipartisan commission to review U.S. policy towards Cuba. We take that up with two leaders in the Cuban American community in Florida. Rafael Penalver is president of the San Carlos Institute in Key West, a Cuban cultural education center; Raul de Velasco is president of the Cuban Committee for Democracy.

PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, thank you for being with us. Mr. De Velasco, how do you react to this call for a bipartisan commission to re-think American policy?

RAUL DE VELASCO: Well, I think that after 40 years of a policy that has not achieved its intended purposes, I think it’s reasonable to – this is the time to look at it and see what can we do about it. I don’t think it has achieved its purposes. I wanted to make it clear that our organization is in opposition to the Communist government of Cuba and that we’re certainly not sympathizers of the president of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Penalver, your reaction to the cause for re-thinking of U.S. policy.

RAFAEL PENALVER: Well, I think any policy has to withstand examination, but I caution, I caution the motives of what’s really being done here. We have a situation where a number of Republican leaders might incredibly be providing the political cover for President Clinton to soften his position on Cuba, and it would be tragic, it would be a tragic betrayal of principle to the Cuban-American community that has really built up the Republican Party in Florida from a party that was non-existent a few decades ago to a party that next Tuesday is going to be inaugurating Jed Bush as its Republican governor, and based in large part to the support that Cuban-American community for some Republicans to make this call providing political cover for President Clinton. Nonetheless, I think we have to look at Cuba not in terms of softening to Castro, but in terms of bringing freedom and democracy to the Cuban people.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Penalver, you talked about your concern about the motives. What do you think the motives might be?

RAFAEL PENALVER: The motives could be very well be economic, and unfortunately, Fidel Castro is no Communist; Fidel Castro has no ideology other than what it takes for him to remain power. A brutal dictator, I’m really upset by some of the comments in the earlier segment about the pictures of Castro because if the Cuban people had to present to you the pictures of Castro during the 40 years, they would present some very different pictures. They would present pictures of Castro murdering the Cuban people, Castro denying the most basic human rights, a Castro that has forced over 2 million Cubans out of a population of 6 million when he took power into exile. So it seems like we are in a way creating a legend here based on facts that are not there. Castro is a totalitarian dictator who will do anything to stay in power. Now, if it takes for him to become a capitalist and to sell Cuba to capitalist interests, parcel by parcel, giving them sweet deals in order for him to remain in power, he will do so.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. De Velasco, will Fidel Castro turn to capitalism as a way of staying in power?

RAUL DE VELASCO: Well, I think he will probably change if he wants to stay in power, but I think Mr. Penalver articulated very clearly one of the reasons why this policy has failed for over 40 years, and it’s because we are looking at it in the terms of what is important for Florida and the Cuban-Americans and not what is in the interest of the United States and more importantly the interest of the Cuban people.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. De Velasco, what is in the interest of the Cuban people, in your opinion?

RAUL DE VELASCO: The interest of the Cuban people is to maintain the Cuban sovereignty, national reconciliation, and peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. I think there are policies in the United States and policies in Cuba, which are directed by the Cuban government, will interfere with that. In our organization we’re trying to do the best that we can to change those policies to allow the three basic principles that we believe in: national reconciliation, Cuban sovereignty – respect for Cuban sovereignty, and peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. Certainly a policy that its intent purpose is to create a situation in Cuba that is a violent – violence — and that will cause the change is certainly not a policy that will lead to a peaceful transition to democracy.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Penalver, have there been any positive changes in your opinion? There have been – I mean, we’ve seen the –

RAFAEL PENALVER: This week, for example, if you want to call it a positive change, I think the fact that Castro for the first time has officially legitimized the celebration of Christmas – now Cubans are given this great gift — Santa Fidel is going to allow them to celebrate Christmas. That shows you the degree of repression, the degree of suppression of that people.

PHIL PONCE: So you do not see that as a positive change?

RAFAEL PENALVER: It’s a positive change, but it’s a minimal change, when what the Cuban people really want is a free Cuba without Castro. We should not do anything that will permit Castro to remain to maintain his hold to power. I agree with Dr. De Velasco when he says about that peaceful transition-we all want that – we all want changes in Cuba. But let’s not be naïve in the process. What some of the persons who are calling for a review of U.S. policy really want is not a Cuba for the Cuban people; it’s a Cuba where the capitalists’ interest of the world are going to become partners with Fidel Castro and his cronies, keeping the Cuban people in the enslaved condition that they have been the past 40 years. Let’s look at what has happened with European investment in Cuba over the past decade. There have been many countries that have built hotels and other facilities in Cuba; those facilities are off limits to the Cuban people; they cannot —

PHIL PONCE: So, you’re saying that the Cuban people, themselves, have benefited very little from foreign investment. Dr. De Velasco, your response to that?

RAUL DE VELASCO: Well, certainly when there is limitation that the engagement that the Cuban government can make – and I’m not defending the Cuban government – I’m defending the – what we want to have engagement with just a certain type of investors in Cuba – which actually are investors that will look for a rapid return on their money. I don’t that is in benefit of the Cuban people for certainly, and that is why we want to favor a policy of widening the possibility to invest in Cuba. I think that when we look and say that there is a hidden agenda that the agenda is just for American capitalists going to Cuba and exploit the Cuban people and make money. I think that occludes and tries to cloud the issue, and the issue is that the policy has not succeeded, that the policy is not succeeding in bringing peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba. I think it’s best to look at the policy and at its merits and not to really try to identify who is behind that, for example, what is behind the intention of the Pope in doing the same thing. Certainly, it’s not to increase capitalist investments of church in Cuba.

PHIL PONCE: How about that, how about the Pope’s visit, Mr. Penalver?

RAFAEL PENALVER: The Pope’s visit definitely created an air of expectation in the Cuban people. The Pope expected Castro to make changes that have not happened. In fact, the Vatican, itself, has issued its — this appointment at the changes that were supposed to take place and were expected to take place and have not taken place.

PHIL PONCE: Has there not been an increase in freedom of religion, people more freely allowed to go to church, and that sort of thing?

RAFAEL PENALVER: Yes, again, some people are allowed to go to Church – as long as they do not criticize in an way the regime – just like in those pictures that were shown earlier, Castro talking with some of the prisoners and given the impression that he allows room for debate — while that picture was being taken, there were thousands of Cubans being placed — being taken to prison just for expressing the most minimal dissent in Cuba, and those political prisoners are still in jail. I think what we need is to express strongly, help the Cuban people in Cuba to get rid of Castro, help the Cuban people by making a determinant effort, just like we did in South Africa, like we have done in other areas around the world. Let’s help the people of Cuba have Cuba, their homeland, for them to enjoy and for them to benefit, not for others to exploit it.

PHIL PONCE: Dr. De Velasco, how about that, the suggestion that if there’s going to be a change in U.S. policy, there should be a – there should be a corresponding commitment to democracy in Cuba?

RAUL DE VELASCO: Well, I don’t think that that necessarily has to be a pro quo like this, but I think I would like to make just a little comment in the sense that whenever you make religion and politics together, and what Mr. Penalver was saying, that they allow them to go to church but not to protest the policies of the government, that would be a sure way of impeding progress of religion, freedom of religion too; you have to appreciate that it is a totalitarian or authoritarian government in Cuba; nobody disputes that. We want to have an evolution of what is in Cuba to a more open society. And I think that that has to be done in a way that is different with hostility, as has been done up to the present time.

PHIL PONCE: Dr. De Velasco, should the United States – the Clinton administration be engaged in a dialogue, a direct dialogue with Fidel Castro?

RAUL DE VELASCO: I think so. And I think that many people say who should begin. And I look at it this way: when there is a conflict between two people and we want the conflict to be resolved, I think the first step has to be made by the person who is the strongest; that is the person who has least to lose. And I think certainly the most powerful nation in the world, the most powerful nation in the history of the world right now should be – it would be easier for them to make this first step and see what happens. PHIL PONCE: Mr. Penalver, should the United States be the ones to – to initiate this dialogue?

RAFAEL PENALVER: We have taken so many steps over the past five years; that Castro has been basically given a red carpet around the world with the blessings of the United States and including the Papal visit to Cuba. For him to begin the – a process of peaceful transition, he has not done so. Unless we force with our economic element, this is our only bargaining card — if Castro makes vocifercral moves and opens Cuba to democracy, yes, we open up investments. Otherwise all that we are doing is giving Castro the money, the economic means of increasing his suppressive regime on the Cuban people. We are going to be further financing his repressive apparatus that keeps him in power.

PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, I’m afraid that’s all the time we have. I thank you both very much.