Graham Greene on Cuban Time

By: Ciro Bianchi - Published on: No. 3, 2014 - Under: Society -
Graham Greene on Cuban Time

HAVANA._. ¨A shot, please.¨ The bartender heard the order and smiled. He knew that the tall man with thinning silvery hair and pale blue eyes was asking for his usual shot of aged rum, the spirit which he said, “tasted of ship’s wood, an ocean voyage.¨

He was wearing a blue linen shirt and grey pants but despite his splendid appearance, he looked ungainly, as if he had dressed without bothering to remove his clothing from the hanger.

He was a regular customer, a guest who always returned, a repeat tourist, if such adjectives could possibly describe Graham Greene, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.

The author of “The Power and the Glory” was in Cuba many times, and except for his last two visits, when he was a guest of president Fidel Castro, with whom he would chat for hours, he always stayed at the Hotel Nacional.

Greene was here in 1959 with actor Alec Guinness and a film crew, shooting a number of scenes for “Our Man in Havana,” based on the novel by the same name.

In prior visits he had been fascinated by the daiquiri served at The Floridita, the delicate taste of Stone crab (Menippe mercenaria) and the nebulous atmosphere of Havana´s Chinatown, which he somehow captured in that novel where he mocked intelligence services.

He returned in 1963, enroute to Haiti, and again in 1966, to write a series of articles about Cuba. That year, accompanied by narrator Lisandro Otero, poet Pablo Armando Fernández and photographer Ernesto Fernández, he toured the island, insisting on viewing the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo firsthand, from the border, a short distance away.

Cuba´s Border Battalion gave him an unexpected welcome, with live music included. Later he wrote in the visitor´s book:

Thank you very much for your hospitality to someone who comes from another island. You are just a few meters away from your enemy. In 1940 we were 50 kilometers away from fascism. That is why we sympathize with one another.


In his autobiography (Ways of Escape), Greene recalled his visit to Cuba in 1957 and his desire to ascend into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra to interview Fidel Castro. Lisandro Otero, in his own memoirs, ¨Llover sobre mojado,¨ (Raining Over the Wet), also recalls that desire of Greene’s.

Greene never managed it, although he did visit the city of Santiago de Cuba, in the attempt. However, through his press reports, he did succeed in getting England to suspend the sale of Sea Fury planes to the Fulgencio Batista regime.

One day, the ethnologist Natalia Bolívar turned up at the house of historian and journalist Nydia Sanabria, and asked her to come out to the street to meet someone waiting outside. Indeed, seated there in a convertible parked in the street was Greene himself, insisting on an interview with Fidel.

Some time later the three met at a rural restaurant after taking all necessary precautions, since the writer suspected that a U.S. journalist accredited in Havana knew of his plans and that this same journalist was also an FBI agent.

It was in that restaurant where it was agreed that on the following day, Greene would travel to Santiago de Cuba, accompanied by Nydia. They would meet at the airport in Boyeros, where both in the terminal and during the flight, they would keep their distance from one another and refrain even from exchanging greetings. Both were greatly surprised when they saw the journalist/spy at the airport and realized that he was going to board the same flight.

Once in Santiago de Cuba, Greene stayed at the Casagranda Hotel, while Nydia tried to put him in touch with Armando Hart, through members of the July 26 Revolutionary Movement cell to which she belonged. Hart, who kept his identity fully concealed, identified himself as Jacinto Pérez and was in hiding at the home of Dr. Enrique Ortega. In her talks with Greene, Nydia used the pseudonym of Lidia Hernández.

Nydia made the necessary arrangements and then informed Greene. For his meeting with Hart, he would need to walk alone down Pío Rosado Street, where Nydia would be waiting for him on the corner intersecting with San Francisco Street. From there, they would then walk together to Ortega´s home. Greene would enter alone without Nydia and after the interview was concluded, they were to meet back at the Casagranda Hotel.

The writer insisted that he had managed to evade the U.S. journalist/spy and said he was sure that he had not been followed by Batista´s informers. They weren’t necessary. From the passageway outside Ortega’s home, Nydia could see that the reporter/spy was seated in the living-room.

Now she couldn’t be sure whether Greene had managed to meet Hart or not. But following Hart’s direction, Greene was told that he should postpone his trip to the Sierra Maestra. The area surrounding Marimón, the route usually taken to get to the mountains from Santiago de Cuba, was tightly controlled by Batista´s army and the military´s light aircraft, which people from Santiago called the ¨neighborhood gossips,¨ and which machine-gunned any movement below. With other pressing commitments, Greene decided not to wait and returned to Havana.


In an interview with Cuba magazine in 1963, the writer recalled a moment from that visit.

¨One morning I went out to the street. The streets of Santiago de Cuba were filled with children. Boys and girls were everywhere, some silent, with serious faces. It seemed that no child had gone to school that morning. I asked ‘What´s going on?’ and then someone told me. The night before Batista´s policemen had seized three girls between the ages of 8 and 12 from their homes. They were in their nightgowns when they were taken to the police station. They were hostages. Their parents were fighting in the Sierra Maestra on the side of the revolutionaries.

The following morning, the news about the three imprisoned girls reached the schools, no-one knows how. But without consulting anyone, the students simply walked out of their classrooms and began to wander the streets as if they were staging a silent strike. The police were powerless. The girls were released. The students went back to school. It was a victory, a battle against Batista won by the children of Santiago de Cuba. As far as I know, no media ever reported this event. And it is a beautiful story.¨

That beautiful story, however, existed only in the imagination of Graham Greene. Nothing like that ever happened in Santiago de Cuba, says Nydia Sanabria, adding that what most likely happened was that the writer confused something she told him about which had occurred before his visit: the killings of William Soler and other revolutionary youth. Those murders shocked the local population. Hundreds of mothers took to the streets to demand that the regime stop killing their sons and the city´s schools were closed.

But there is one thing that remains beyond any doubt, and Greene himself mentioned it in an interview when he said: During the period of the Revolution, I felt very close to the struggle led by Fidel.

Greene finally met Fidel in 1966. One night, Lisandro Otero took him to Ciudad Deportiva (a concentration of sports facilities in Havana) to watch an interesting basketball game, where he was greatly surprised to find the Cuban leader playing in center court.

During one of Greene´s last visits to Cuba, Fidel praised the writer´s fine appearance and Greene commented that it was thanks to his habit of drinking a liter of whisky daily and a bottle of wine with every meal. He added that when he was very young he had played Russian roulette, which encouraged Fidel to make a quick calculation of Greene’s chances of killing himself with that game.

But if you think about it more carefully, wrote Gabriel García Márquez, Graham Greene practically never stopped playing Russian roulette: the fatal kind of Russian roulette as a writer with his feet on the ground.

And in that respect, pointed out the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the great British writer who never received the Nobel Prize because the Swedish Academy always considered him to be too popular, holds great interest for Latin Americans because of his books set in their part of the world, from “The Power and the Glory” to “The Honorary Consul” and “Getting to Know the General,” his account about the Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos.


Greene´s favorite Cuban writers were Lisando Otero, Pablo Armando Fernádez and Virgilio Piñera, whom he always referred to as ¨my friends.¨ He said he enjoyed reading Alejo Carpentier´s works and that Carpentier deserved the Nobel Prize. Of the artist René Portocarrero´s, he recalled the emotion generated by the colorful movement within his paintings and the passionate line of his drawings.He said he enjoyed reading Alejo Carpentier´s works and that Carpentier deserved the Nobel Prize. Of the artist René Portocarrero´s, he recalled the emotion generated by the colorful movement within his paintings and the passionate line of his drawings.

Greene saw the numerous hunting trophies that adorned the walls of Hemingway´s residence in Havana and was horrified. In 1957 Havana, he bought a small envelope with cocaine from a taxi driver. When he tried it, he realized the man had sold him bicarbonate. A few days later the taxi driver tracked him down to return his money. The driver had been deceived too. According to Greene, it was the consummate illustration of Cuban honesty.

In his ¨Llover sobre mojado (Raining Over the Wet), Lisandro recalled a marvelous anecdote about the British writer. He was staying at the Colony Hotel, on what was then called the Isle of Pines, and Greene mentioned that a gentleman never drinks before noon.

On the following day, very early in the morning, Lisandro went to fetch Greene for breakfast and found him already nursing a glass of whisky. Lisandro reminded him of what he had said the day before. Greene replied:

“Well, my friend, the thing is, I keep to London time.”

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