A Photographer's Eye on Fidel
By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Timing is everything. When Roberto Salas, an 18-year-old budding
photojournalist, decided to follow Cuban leader Fidel Castro from New
York to Havana in January 1959, he made the career decision of a
lifetime. It began, he explained over tea at the Madison, with a "journalistic
attraction to the place."
Born and raised in New York to a Cuban-born father who came to the
United States when he was 14 and stayed for another 34 years, Salas
arrived in the Cuban capital on the second day of the revolution, went up
to shake the bearded leader's hand and within days had become his
personal photographer, globe-trotting with him and shooting amazing
snapshots of the world's last communist dictator. Eventually, Salas was
joined by his father, Osvaldo, also a photographer, and together they
amassed a portfolio that has just been published here in a book titled
"Fidel's Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures." It has photographs capturing
Castro in private settings and historic public scenes never printed before:
Fidel lying in a hammock in his undershirt; Fidel without his shirt, offering a
piece of meat roasted on a long stick in the forests of Turquino, Cuba's
highest peak; Fidel sharing a moment of complicity with Ernest Hemingway
at a fishing tournament; portraits of Fidel in a trance of mesmerizing oratory
or waving from a hotel balcony across from Grand Central Station after he
won the revolution or huddling late at night with Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Three boxes of negatives that were supposed to go into a book called
"Cuba 1959" disappeared mysteriously from an apartment Salas rented in
Manhattan at 60 W. 76th St. in 1959, with no traces of a break-in.
Suspecting the U.S. government had a hand in their disappearance, he has
filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to get them back, he
Salas recently returned to the United States for the first time in 40 years
a photo exhibition tour. His timing could not have been better, coinciding
as it does with small steps by Washington to adjust an obsolete Cuba
policy and a growing debate acknowledging the anachronism of sanctions
against the island nation. Salas said he does "not regret anything I've done,"
but he would have liked the prolonged problems between both his
countries to be over. "I am a little in the middle of it all. I live in Cuba and I
love both countries. If in any small measure this book can help, I would be
happy," said Salas, a dapper man with silver hair and clear green eyes who
has kept a New York accent and his American citizenship. "If we have
normalized with Vietnam, why not with Cuba?"
Salas said he had no reason to return to New York before. "I identified
with the revolution. But when I was 18, I did not know nickels from dimes
in politics. [Dictator Fulgencio] Batista was bad; the objective was to try to
do something good. When these guys won, I showed up in Havana," he
said of the Castro revolution. "For me, this was a big adventure," he
added, noting that times in New York were hard then, when he was an
unknown photographer taking the subway to work every day.
When he finally returned, he was overcome with nostalgia: "I cried like
baby when I saw the skyline, thinking about my father and wishing he was
still around." His father died in 1992. "I wish my father were alive to see it,"
he said of the book.