Fidel Castro was tapping my shoulder, trying to get my attention, then pointing across the room at some newly arrived friends. That would not have been on my list of likely life experiences, nor would chatting with Castro at a buzzing cocktail party when US-Cuba relations were as cold as the ice in my rum.
At the time, the communist Castro was Lucifer in the eyes of the United States. But there we were in Havana, with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the iconic French environmental champion whose underwater exploits made him a hero to millions, including Castro. I was a writer and policy advisor with Cousteau, and we would soon be circumnavigating Cuba with Cousteau’s legendary ship, Calypso, to make a historic documentary. Whole generations had grown up watching Cousteau films: Caroline Kennedy once told me her brother, John-John, sat her down with their mother, Jacqueline, each Sunday night in the White House to tune in.
Thrilled by Cousteau’s visit, an ebullient Castro had lavished unprecedented rights of free access to sea, land and air – including a laissez-passer for our seaplane, Papagallo – and threw this surprise cocktail party to declare his official welcome.
Jacques Cousteau, 1953. Photograph by DDP, Camera Press London.
Castro kicked things off with a toast to Cousteau, “I’ve been waiting for years for you to come to Cuba.”
“I’ve been wanting to come for years!” Cousteau toasted in return. The two then began threading genially among the crowd, erasing geopolitics with the clink of a glass.
We do not hear much about Castro anymore – he voluntarily relinquished power in 2008. Although, he is still a national figure enough to receive Pope Francis in 2015 and occasionally write articles for the Communist party newspaper, Granma.
Castro’s fiery oratory had gained him world fame as he led a revolution to depose the brutal Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Then, once in power, in the early 1960s, he poked a sharp stick in the eye of the US, declaring himself a Marxist-Leninist and putting Cuba in the Cold War camp of the Soviet Union.
In return, the US severed all commercial and diplomatic relations with Cuba. During this time, no US citizen could legally visit Cuba, and no Cuban could visit the US. No US ship or airplane offered routine passage or cargo transfer. No letter or package could reliably arrive. The US imposed a trade embargo, forbidding any US business in Cuba and pressuring US allies to likewise stay away.
But while the US was busy trying to keep the curtain down on Cuba, the fact that Castro, Jacques Cousteau and I ended up at the same cocktail party testifies to the fact that nations and people do find a way to get on with humanity’s business, despite inherited suspicions and futile foreign policies. And, as our expedition went on, we would tackle some key problems of the day, such as environmental degradation and what makes for a strong society. We also negotiated the release of 50 Cuban political prisoners.
Photo inscribed to Paula DiPerna by Fidel Castro, taken at Protocol House #29 in Havana.
The great Cuban national poet Nicolas Guillen immortalised the beautiful island he loved as the “long green lizard” – seductively reclining in twists and turns on the transparent Caribbean Sea, only 90 miles from Key West, Florida. Cousteau wanted to see it for himself.
First of all, Cuban waters were reportedly still almost pristine. The economic isolation of Cuba had held back industrialisation, meaning little pollution had occurred. Cuba’s tourism industry had had its heyday pre-revolution, and Cuba’s coasts still remained free from high-rise sprawl and hurly-burly. This virgin feeling, plus a natural endowment of steep underwater shelves and vast thriving coral reefs, promised that Cuba offered exquisite diving sites few had seen before.
Yet Castro’s outlier status was still such a dominant foreign policy concern for the US that when, in 1985, news reached the US State Department of Cousteau’s planned Cuba trip, Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state, wrote Cousteau a personal letter. Citing evidence that Cuban authorities were complicit in illegal drug trafficking in the Caribbean and supporting M-19 guerrilla forces in Colombia, Abrams wrote, “I sincerely hope that after considering the above, you will decide not to visit Cuba.”
Cousteau, a citizen of France but also a self-professed “citizen of the world”, had been received by every US president since John F. Kennedy, who awarded him the US Medal of Freedom. He did not reply to Elliott Abrams.
My job meant that I arrived ahead of the expedition to set up, and, given Castro’s personal authorisation for the Cousteau visit, all bureaucracies fell away.
Letter from US State Department to Paula DiPerna confirming immigration status of released Cuban prisoners.
While Calypso steamed toward the island, the principal film land team joined me in Havana, including Cousteau himself. To wait for our first meeting with Fidel Castro, we received VIP treatment and were ensconced by the authorities in Protocol House #29, a private villa expropriated in the 1960s by the Cuban government and where, we were proudly informed, the most recent guest had been the then president of Iraq. Our host told us to make ourselves comfortable until we got news on what would happen next.
The graceful rococo mansion was a paradise, set among towering palm trees and sumptuous gardens where bougainvillea cascaded everywhere and the banana trees had leaves the size of oars. A maid handled our laundry, a cook prepared our meals, and a butler oversaw it all – no doubt also keeping an eye on us, but we had nothing to hide.
We wanted for nothing, and killed time for several days rereading our research, cleaning and re-cleaning cameras, and concocting other distractions. Yet waiting for Castro began to lose its charm. Cousteau, however, remained cheery. One afternoon, he joined us on the patio as we whined to each other about the time being wasted. Turning our attention from the absence of Castro, he told us that our being cooped up reminded him of a trip he had taken once in Calypso’s tiny submarine, confined and stressed out.
The sub was the size and shape of a squashed Volkswagen beetle, with just enough room for two people to lie flat on their stomachs, their chins in a chin rest as they peered straight ahead through small windows. Cousteau had pioneered the use of this type of sub for deep water filming, and in the early years often went down solo to test the new risky apparatus himself.
Castro listened intently and said, “I’ll give that some thought. I never considered applying the laws of nature to society before.”
Cousteau had settled the sub deep in the sea, but when he was ready to return to the surface and put the sub into gear to rise, the sub didn’t move. He revved the engine again, but no movement.
While he was stuck, Cousteau could speak by a crude telephone with Calypso, but the mother ship had no equipment that could pluck the sub from the depths, so the only salvage possible was for the sub to rise on its own.
Cousteau upped the thruster and the submarine shuddered, rising a bit before falling back again. It was hilarious to see Jacques Cousteau, his face thin as a rail, puff out his cheeks to emphasise the power he pumped into the engine. “I just kept feeling something pulling me back.
“I just had to blast the engines. Full power. I felt the sub loosen. I was free and rising fast. I looked down below me,” he said, his eyes now widening, “and saw hundreds of shining green emeralds. Incredible. Then I realised what they were,” he said. When he had settled the sub down in the first place, he had landed on a nest of octopuses. Scores of them had wrapped around the sub and each other on the bottom. The sub had been held in a glued suction-cup embrace until Cousteau jolted the creatures with the hot jets of the engine and the swarm let go. And the emeralds? Scores of green bulging octopus eyeballs…
Cousteau’s own eyes glowed with the glee of having lived to tell the tale.
A day later I spotted, through a lace curtain, a soldier in green fatigues gingerly crossing the garden. Then another, and another.
The crew raced for the cameras and we rushed to the lawn. Cousteau and Castro embraced, and then in a flash we were off. Castro led the way with Cousteau in his jeep, highlighting this and that in a first-hand tour of Havana. We whisked along through the arcades of the old Spanish colonial city, to a high school playing field, to the enormous Plaza de la Revolucion, and then straight to the surprise welcome cocktail party.
Once our expedition really got going, we would cover the whole island, staying in Cuba for nearly half a year, sailing its entire coastline, diving at will, visiting other schools, art centres, clinics and farms, and flying from place to place over Cuban territory with privileges that no other entity had had before.
The waters of Cuba did prove to be sublime, and at Turquino Point, where we were anchored for several days under piercingly blue clear skies, even the most blasé seasoned divers were bedazzled.
Castro was an ardent student of the seas, and in our numerous conversations with him, he fired knowledgeable questions at Cousteau on such topics as the rate of production of whale milk, reverse osmosis potential for desalinisation, and the use of salinity gradient differentials to generate electricity in ocean-based hydropower plants. On the matter of the seas, Cuba was holding its own.
We had our chance to interrogate Castro on domestic subjects at the small island of Cayo Piedra, his presidential retreat, where he went skin diving and had invited us to join him. Cayo Piedra was an island version of Protocol House #29, and we anchored there for several days, waiting at sea. Again, with no advance notice, a Cuban military helicopter appeared in the sky, escorting two military launches, and there was Castro at the helm of one, waves splashing all around. His flotilla came alongside Calypso, and soon we were filming a long interview with him in Cousteau’s private cabin.
Cousteau said, “You know, Mr President, you remind me of Henry Ford, who told the public they could have any colour car they wanted, as long as it was black.” He went on, “In nature, only diversity is stable.”
Castro listened intently and said, “I’ll give that some thought. I never considered applying the laws of nature to society before.”
He left, and we continued feeling our way along the coast that Christopher Columbus had called “the most beautiful land I have ever seen”.
Castro then made a bold ask: Would Cousteau provide Cuba with the blueprint and design of Calypso’s submarine so the Cubans could copy it?
After months of filming, a key matter hung in the air – that of Cuban political prisoners. Since the Cuban Revolution, many human rights organisations had reported that the torture of political dissidents was routine, with hundreds of executions and unjust incarcerations.
Cousteau had received various letters, even before the expedition had started, asking him to intercede on behalf of prisoners. In my preliminary meetings with Cuban officials, I had said that the matter of Cuban prisoners was likely to come up during Cousteau’s stay.
But we did not expect that after the filmed interview on Calypso – which had touched on diversity of views in society – Castro would take the initiative and promise Cousteau he would release 50 prisoners to commemorate his visit. Contrary to some news reports, Castro did not ask Cousteau to make any public statement praising this gesture. In fact, he asked nothing in return, and nothing was given.
Cousteau and I discussed the arrangement privately, as we were both novices – to say the least – in the matter of releasing Cold War political prisoners. Earlier, Castro had briefly authorised any Cuban who wanted to leave the island to do so in what became known as the Mariel boatlift, and many common criminals were allowed to leave along with prisoners of conscience. But we had faith that Castro would not seek to embarrass Cousteau and that 50 freed human beings was worth the risk.
Castro set out his conditions for the release in a meeting we had later in his private office: the Cuban government would select the prisoners and release them in Cousteau’s name. The prisoners would be informed of Cousteau’s role, but he could not ask for any specific prisoner.
The conditions I suggested, to which Castro agreed, were: Cousteau would write each prisoner a letter in his own words, uncensored; that the Cuban government would deliver the letters ensuring they were received; that, once freed, the prisoners would not be harassed by the authorities if they stayed in Cuba; and that the prisoners be allowed to leave Cuba if they wished, including to the United States.
On hearing the latter condition, Castro eyed me and said, “Well, their entry to the United States is not up to me. It’s up to the US State Department, so since you are an American, it will be up to you to get them a visa to enter.”
A diver uses a crane to launch a research submersible, France (Photo by Luis Marden/National Geographic/Getty Images).
I could only nod, thinking I would cross that bridge when the time came. There was no turning back now.
Later that year, the expedition completed, Cousteau and I flew back in our seaplane to Cuba to finalise the prisoner release. We arrived at our hotel, and settled in. But first there was another bit of business Castro also wanted us to handle. We were soon whisked away to the harbour by our handlers so that Cousteau could give his opinion on one of the president’s pet projects. Castro had told us when we had first arrived that he was preparing a research vessel to be named Ulysses after the Greek mythological hero who had been enraptured by the nymph, Calypso, just as he, Fidel Castro, had been so captured by Cousteau’s ship that he wanted to copy every detail.
We had taken the idea with a pinch of salt. But, less than a year later, there was the ship, docked in Havana harbour, almost finished, equipped with what looked like the trappings of science and ready for Cousteau’s blessing.
The next day found us back in the presidential office. Castro immediately asked Cousteau what he had made of Ulysses. Cousteau flashed an encouraging smile. Castro then made a bold ask: For Ulysses to be complete, he said, and truly a sister of Calypso, it needed a submarine. So, would Cousteau provide Cuba with the blueprint and design of Calypso’s submarine so the Cubans could copy it?
Cousteau was reluctant to share the plans, he would later tell me, because our type of sub – the same type as that of the octopus episode – was no longer state of the art. He did not want to become embroiled in helping Cuban engineers copy what had been largely experimental, let alone be responsible for its safe operation. But Cousteau, ever the gentleman and ever smooth to get out of a fix, sidestepped the request.
“You know,” he said to an all-ears Castro, “the Canadians have good subs, and so do the Russians. Why don’t you ask them to give you a sub?”
Castro, without missing a beat, declared, “That would just make it more complicated – a second or third country involved – and anyway I would never go down to the bottom in a Russian submarine!” We all chuckled, including Castro, and changed the subject. So much for Cuba’s confidence in Mother Russia.
Jacques Cousteau’s handwritten first draft of personal letter that he would send to each prisoner, written in Paula DiPerna’s notebook on the flight back from Cuba after arranging the prisoner release.
Next, Castro wanted to know about medusas, and asked Cousteau whether it was true that some venoms could kill a man. Cousteau, also not missing a beat, took from the pocket of his sleeve a Paper Mate Flair felt tip pen – he carried a rainbow selection, always. He asked for a piece of paper, and neatly drew a particular type of jellyfish complete with thin hairy tentacles. He put the drawing right under Castro’s nose. Then, very seriously, Cousteau said, “If this even just stings your lips, you could die.”
Castro’s eyes fixated on the squiggly drawing. Then he smiled and said, “Better not tell the CIA, or they will send it after me and fill the waters around Cuba with them.” We all laughed and shifted a bit in our seats.
Just then, an aide rapped on the door and summoned Chome, the secretary, outside. Quickly, he returned, bent down, and whispered in Castro’s ear. Castro listened, turned to us, his face now grave, and said, “Excuse me for a while. It seems that the US has just bombed Libya.” He rose and left the room.
Indeed at 7 pm Eastern Standard Time, on the 14th of April, 1986, the US had sent bombers over Tripoli as retaliation for Libya’s support for terrorists, hitting the headquarters of Muammar Gaddafi, but not killing him.
Cousteau and I sat silently, waiting to see what would happen.
In what felt like only a few minutes, Castro returned, saying nothing further about the bombing. We returned to discussing the prisoner arrangements and Castro reiterated his promise that Cousteau would be permitted to write a letter to each released person. We composed the letter on the plane going home. It read:
I had the opportunity to meet Fidel Castro in a friendly and serene atmosphere, and I suggested that, at the occasion of the two-month expedition of our ship, Calypso, in the Cuban waters, Cuba’s president would consider releasing some of the prisoners held for political reasons. He reacted positively. We both agreed that his generous decision had no other intention than humanitarian feelings and that no public announcement would be made.
I am extremely happy to announce to you that you will be soon liberated, and to wish you good luck in your new life. You will, certainly, need courage, but freedom is worth an effort. Cuba’s president personally promised that you would be given a fair chance.
The Cuban government provided us with the names of the released prisoners, their family contacts and duration of sentence. Most had many years still to run.
“Excuse me for a while. It seems that the US has just bombed Libya.”
Even though we had gone to Cuba against the State Department’s wishes, Kenneth N. Skoug, Jr., director of Cuban affairs for the State Department, worked meticulously with me to be sure no prisoner’s name slipped between bureaucratic cracks in either country and that all the prisoners had indeed been released in Cuba. The US State Department decided to whom they would grant visas, based on their own processes to which we were never privy, but a formal report issued on the matter in September 1986 by the Cuban government stated that all 50 had entered the US.
To my knowledge, there have been no untoward incidents and none of the prisoners requested any further help from Cousteau. Few even thanked him.
‘Trunk’ - 9/29/70, Chronicles the exotic undersea explorations of Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his crew aboard the ex-Royal Navy minesweep, The Calypso. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images).
The US restored relations with Cuba in 2015, and tourists, as well as businesses, eye the vivacious island with fresh curiosity. The Cuban people, pawns in the Cold War for more than 50 years, can at last come into their own.
In Castro’s high-stakes standoff with the US, which was David and which Goliath, historians will long debate. For certain, history will pass its judgment on Castro and the regime he moulded in Cuba. Bloodthirsty tyrant? Idealist turned dictator? Drug trafficker? Torturer? All these charges have been levelled.
But the US reaction to Cuba was unquestionably disproportionate to Castro’s faults, and more than half a century of deadlock between Cuba and the US seems a dreadful and unimaginable waste. Above all, surely, the Cuban example shows that, especially in the face of so many tangled international problems to solve, engagement and dialogue remains democracy’s most effective fortification.
I was the last to leave Cuba of the Cousteau group after all loose ends had been tied up, lifting off in Papagallo to finally head back home. We drifted through the air, above that beautiful long green lizard, then over water – a mere 90 miles of ocean that for decades had been a barrier to understanding, exchange and dialogue, and which a spirit of goodwill and adventure had finally turned into a bridge.