28 Days in Communist Cuba by Rene Burri, 1963

In October 1962, right after the Cuban missile crisis, Che Guevara, then the Minister of Industries for Cuba, was in New York for a UN General Assembly Meeting. He had been a frustrated man lately — the principle architect behind the plan to bring to Cuba the Soviet nuclear missiles, he was disappointed that the Soviet Union had backed down. He noted to the British communist newspaper the Daily Worker that millions of atomic war victims would have been worth it in a war against global “imperialist aggression.”

At the UN, Guevara met Laura Bergquist, a star reporter. Bergquist joined Look magazine in 1954, serving as a political correspondent, editor and contributor specializing in Latin and South American affairs until the magazine went out of business in 1971. She had Guevara so much that he told her: “If you get permission from the CIA or the Pentagon, you are invited to Cuba, and I will show you what is really going on.”

Bergquist and her photographer, Paul Fusco, were detained under suspicions about their connection with the Lucky Luciano gang on a similar visit to Cuba in 1960, but were eventually released. Having secured the neccessary permissions, this time, she took the photographer Rene Burri to Havana in January 1963. Burri remembered the visit:

We arrived at Che’s office on the eighth floor of the Hotel Riviera in Havana. At that time he was the number-two man in Cuba – he was the minister for industry, and director of the Banco Nacional. His face was on the two peso note. I saw the blinds were drawn and, after we were introduced, I asked him in French: “Che, can I open the blinds? I need some light.” But he said no. I thought, well, it’s your face, not mine.

Immediately, Bergquist and Che started a furious ideological dogfight. She had to take back a story for the Americans, who were still angry about the revolution, and he was trying to convince her that what happened had to happen. For two and a half hours I could just dance around them with my camera. It was an incredible opportunity to shoot Che in all kinds of situations: smiling, furious, from the back, from the front. I used up eight rolls of film. He didn’t look at me once, he was so engaged with trying to convince her with maps and graphs. She was a chain-smoker, and he occasionally lit up one of his cigars.

We went back to New York, and Look ran a 16- or 20-page story.

Burri’s photoessay appeared in Look on 9th April 1963, accompanied by a photo that would become the iconic image of Che Guevara. Look interview was Che’s last big interview. In fact, by the time it appeared, he had made a speech critical of the Soviet Union, had been marginalized in Cuba and had gone underground. He won’t resurface again for years.

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