Incredible Photographs by Burt Glinn of the Cuban Revolution as it Happened

“At 11pm on December 31, 1958, I decided to fly to Cuba. At daybreak, I was sharing the streets of Havana with hundreds of delirious Cubans. Within four days, I had found Fidel, and by January 10 this project was completed.” 

The narrative of Cuban corruption in popular culture is one of very few that has escaped embellishment and idolisation: the visual violence in documentaries and fiction films pierce through the bones like arsenic. Now, achingly captivating and almost vertigo-inducing photographs from Glinn’s archives are brought to surface as a first hand account of the revolutionary idealism, mayhem and excitement of 1959’s Cuba.

On New Year’s Eve 1958, young Magnum photographer Burt Glinn was celebrating at a black tie party in New York. All the talk that evening was of corrupt Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, rumoured to be ready to flee for his life from Havana and said to have already backed his army trucks up to the treasury. Glinn borrowed $400 from Magnum president Cornell Capa, grabbed his camera gear, raced to La Guardia just in time to make the last flight to Miami. He arrived just after dawn in Havana, Batista had fled, Fidel was still hundreds of miles away, nobody knew where, Che Guevara was on his way to Havana and nobody seemed to be in charge.

As Glinn said “you just can’t hail a taxi and ask the cabbie to take you to the revolution”. Glinn’s photojournalistic fervour ensured he made it to the middle of the action to capture the Cuban Revolution as it unfolded on the ground. As Glinn said, “I could get up as close as I wanted.”

The exhibition features some of Glinn’s most iconic Cuban photographs, as well as unseen shots, in both black and white and colour. Che had arrived in Havana to cheering crowds, Camilo Cienfuegos was on his way as were the real “Barbudos” who poured into Havana from the surrounding hills. Castro supporters emerged from hiding. Photographs of gunshots being fired, chaos on the streets, the rounding up of the Batista Secret Police, the prominent women rebels, ecstatic reunions between mothers and sons as the revolutionaries returned home. The “abrazo” embrace was the gesture of the day for everyone as Cubans celebrated their liberation. Fidel, his aide Celia Sanchez and their escort of 11 ‘bearded ones’ had travelled from the Sierra Maestra through Santiago, Santa Clara, Camaguey, Cienfuegos towards Havana gathering tanks, jeeps, buses, bicycles and thousands of supporters along the way. The jubilant crowds were calling for Fidel.

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Glinn captured these iconic and unique moments from the day Havana fell, including Fidel Castro’s triumphant entrance into Havana, his stepping down from the platform to mingle with the crowd to speak to his people, talking about families, farming and the rebirth of Cuba. These were scenes reminiscent of the liberation of Paris.

All images © Burt Glinn / Magnum

Cuba 1959: Photographs by Burt Glinn RRP £40 / $60, published 23 November 2015 by Reel Art Press.

The release will coincide with an exhibition at Serena Morton II, 345 Ladbroke Grove London W10 6HA from 28 October  – 20 November 2015.