I admired Castro’s buttocks, clad in combat fatigues of the finest parachute silk

In 2001, I invited myself to Cuba to see my favourite rock group, Manic Street Preachers, play a one-off show at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The allure of communism was a big thing for my generation. Born in the Sixties, cynical about US foreign policy, we loved our Soviet iconography: badges featuring Eastern Bloc leaders were so common that at one point it seemed like every clod had a silver Lenin. I am still deeply attached to the Russian space programme. And the Warsaw Pact countries were ever present in my life, like a mirror-world behind a concrete wall. As a law student, I spent a week in Moscow studying Soviet law, and as a music journalist I spent a week with Queen when they played Budapest in 1986.

After 1989, European communism was suddenly confined to ironically displayed Trabants and warm hats on market stalls. Yet some nations held out, most notably Cuba, whose leader, Fidel Castro, and his ally Che Guevara still had a prominent place in the imagination of idealists everywhere. Cuba’s romance – a Caribbean socialist paradise, full of great music and beautiful old cars – was enhanced by US blockades and Fidel’s defiance.

In 2001, I invited myself to Cuba to see my favourite rock group, Manic Street Preachers, play a one-off show at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana. To get there, I’d found it easiest to book a package holiday with Saga, the tour company for the over-fifties, but while my flight companions prepared for a week of sunbathing and cheap rum, I was looking forward to a night of scaled-down stadium rock and agitpunk. Which I got, as the Manics made no concessions to an audience unfamiliar with Nineties British guitar music and played their rock set. The only distraction was the arrival of Castro himself, who watched several numbers and afterwards told the delighted band members that their show was “louder than war”.

Having had no thought of meeting any big leaders, I was excited to be asked to board a coach to a primary school some miles from Havana which Castro was visiting the next day. As my journalistic colleagues and I lined up behind the Manics, Castro and his entourage arrived. I noticed two things at once – that the entourage were all carrying sinister flat suitcases that were surely somehow weaponised; and that Castro’s trademark combat fatigues seemed to be made of some kind of iridescent parachute silk, making him look more like a mid-Seventies Roxy Music backing singer than a revolutionary demagogue.

Castro chatted with the band for a second time. With nothing else to do, I got nervous. Faced, as it were, with the backside of a legend, the man who had scared Kennedy and kept the CIA at bay, all my friend and I could do was get the giggles and make vague groping motions at Castro’s behind. Perhaps it was because we were in a primary school, but suddenly we felt nine years old

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

Free trial CSS