Sometimes back in the early 80s I used to go with my closest friends, all of us in our teens, to the hill known as Esperón, situated just between the small towns of Caimito and Guanajay to the west of Havana. We spent many weekends running around Esperón, looking for adventure in the abundant hillsides and caves in the area.
Once on one of those visits, we discovered the perfect campsite. Scattered through the middle of the wild overgrowth were these solid concrete foundations, completely abandoned and protected only by a strand of barbed wire from which hung a battered aluminum sign, similar to our lunch trays at Ceiba 4, the college prep school nearby where we were enrolled. Bright red letters said “Do Not Enter. Military Zone.” For us, the warning was hardly effective - more like an invitation to enter. At the time we had no idea what it was all about and without further ado, set up our campsite right on the spot.
Years later, we learned what it was all about from people who lived in the area and knew the role this entire area played in a significant chapter of Cuba’s history, which we Cubans refer to as the “October Crisis.” This was where some of the missiles with nuclear warheads had been placed, along with their accompanying ground and anti-aircraft troops.
October 2017 will mark the 55th anniversary of this event, which many consider the peak of the Cold War, but I won’t go into the details now of those 13 days between October 15 and 28, with which most people are already generally familiar.
Recently I did a quick Google search for pictures having to do with the Missile Crisis – as the Americans call it – and the first to appear were the photos taken by the U2 spy plane of the nuclear weapons in Pinar del Rio, and then of the U2 itself, downed by Soviet anti-aircraft fire, an event that went on to nourish speculation about who might have ordered the shootdown.
Other photos appeared of the Soviet ships stopped on the high seas when President Kennedy declared a naval blockade around Cuba. And photos of the Cuban militia and anti-aircraft emplacements on the Malecon in Havana, as part of the defense mobilization during those days. But I never actually found the photos that also ought to be part of the collection.
Many of the Cuban militia were ordinary people; students, workers and campesinos with a great deal of courage but very little military training. Perhaps they would never come to realize the true magnitude of the events underway, and how close millions of people in the world, including they themselves, came to dying, were it not for history taking a turn for the better – even despite the political costs that those involved would face for having reached the agreements that put an end to the crisis.
My father, Raúl Corrales, played a leading role in Cuba at the time, one that can be much better appreciated many years after the fact, thanks to these photos that we’re publishing now. The photos are the result of his photo-journalism, at its peak during those years. With his sharp and focused eye behind the lens, his strong heart and agile limbs, he managed to be everywhere at once, including just at the right moment to take these pictures.
When the October Crisis was in full swing, my father already knew what it was all about thanks to his close relationship with the principal leaders of the Cuban Revolution, and his trusted position as the head of photography at INRA, the institution carrying out post-revolutionary land reform in Cuba. This position gave him advance access to the events that were to come. He even told me that on two or three occasions, he crossed paths with the caravans of Soviet troops and camouflaged missiles that moved stealthily toward their emplacements in the middle of the night. My father was on constant assignment, under orders from Fidel himself, to move freely and continually throughout the archipelago in search of stories that could be published in INRA’s newspaper and magazine (later known as Cuba).
For my mother and brothers – not being born until 1963, I was still on the way – our father’s comings and goings were completely normal. He’d appear in the middle of the night after a number of days away, in order to spend some time with them, take a shower, put on some clean clothing and rest a bit. At dawn, he’d head out again on another assignment, jumping in his 4x4 Land Rover with the INRA logo on its doors, which served as an all access pass to practically any spot throughout the country.
It was during those days, when as we say, “things really heated up,” that his farewells, in some ways similar to the rest, became more passionate, perhaps expressed in longer kisses, or a more tender embrace, of the kind from a person who knew that each farewell might be the last.
One of his assignments took him to the area of Santo Domingo and Manacas, in Las Villas, at the very height of the crisis. Cuban troops were deployed throughout the zone along defensive lines meant to protect the nuclear missile emplacements near Sagua la Grande.
I have no doubt that once he arrived at the site, he must have made the relevant inquiries with someone in charge in order to figure out where he was and how to reach his destination, and that this person knew that he was on a reporting assignment and his movements would need to be facilitated as discreetly as possible. That is, if you can call someone discreet who suddenly appeared out of nowhere as though he were some kind of senior officer, with cameras hanging from his neck and a shoulder bag containing film, lenses and photo accessories. He wore the typical garb of a militia member: pants with abundant pockets and an olive green beret in the very best Spanish Republican style.
I don’t know the specific motive that carried him to that place; I don’t recall ever having asked him, but I do believe that what he saw there, from his perspective as a trained photographer, obliged him to stay awhile and follow his keen instinct to set up a shot before looking through his viewfinder and stopping time.
He saw a group of musicians carrying their instruments and quickly stepping into the undergrowth as though they didn’t want to be noticed. He followed them, from a combat position, with his camera in hand and began to shoot conservatively so as not to run out of film. The narrow path he followed led to the place where these militia had been assigned and where, surely, they had already spent months hunkered down, and yet despite their understanding (or not) of the seriousness of the situation, were carrying out their duties with the carefree nature so characteristic of exuberant, joyful Cubans.
He noticed though, that these musicians were also soldiers and that along with their musical instruments, each carried a weapon and ammunition, revealing that they were not there simply to entertain their companions at arms. It was a complete orchestra, with drums, trumpets, saxophones, clarinets and congos, along with M1 Garand carbines, Czech Sa 25 “machine-guns” and the Belgian Fals that gave the band a different sort of rhythm.
During that period my father used the excellent Nikon SP and Leica M1, both compact 35 mm cameras that allowed him to move freely, especially in smaller spaces, where they were equipped with a wide angle lens which allowed him to obtain close-up shots from just a few meters away. He went directly for the most important shots, he couldn’t waste his already increasingly scarce ammunition. He concentrated on details: an instrument alongside a weapon, the hands of a soldier/musician, the sheet music, their clothing, their faces, their hands, even the rope improvised to create a carrying strap for the machine-gun and the holes in the conga player’s undershirt worn as a dress shirt, that reveal his extremely humble origins.
I know that this day was shining like no other; possibly the circumstances of the moment obliged the artists to express themselves in a way that could never be repeated, or maybe the experience my father had gained over the years as a reporter, or perhaps even both at once, but it’s evident that he didn’t waste the moment. In my humble opinion, this was his best reporting, both for the circumstances and the results and once I even told him so, only to have him respond with a taciturn, “If you think so.”
A contact sheet containing just 36 shots came out of this magical moment and the most amazing thing is that he managed to achieve a score of truly fine images, when just a single one might have been considered a good result. My father’s classic selection were the photos titled Tumbadora, Trombone, and Clarinete, with the first being his favorite in the series. The Saxophone, another excellent photo, was later included in “The Band With a New Rhythm,” the title by which the series is known, very possibly due to the way it features a landscape that breaks with the sequence of the previous pictures. From this, one can deduce that from the photographer’s artistic point of view, the main idea was that these pictures be shown as a conceptually coherent series rather than by format or titles.
Luckily for their creators, and newer audiences, that’s no longer the case and nowadays these photos are considered some of the gems among historic photos of the Cuban Revolution.
“The Band With a New Rhythm, Awaiting the Atomic Bomb,” was the original title that Raúl Corrales gave the photo essay; an irrefutable complement to the grandeur of the Cubans who experienced those memorable moments during the October Crisis.