Taking a dip with Fidel during the Cuban missile crisis
By Vesa Kaartinen
The trip began with some difficulties. The European students had to wait in Prague for two weeks before the transatlantic flight to Havana could take place. There were cancellations; once a Russian plane was denied permission for a refuelling stop en route, or the Cuban plane did not get the spare parts it needed.
The students' international sports conference had already begun when the group finally landed in Havana. Four Finns were there: Johan von Bonsdorff, Urho Mäntynen, Clas Olin, and Jorma Routti, representing the National Union of University Students in Finland (SYL).
The visit was organised by the International Union of Students (IUS), which the socialist countries had set up to mirror the International Student Conference (ISC) of the capitalist world.
SYL was in Cuba as an "observer member" of the IUS, which had also paid for the trip.
On Sunday, October 21st, the conference took a day off. The Cubans took their guests to Varadero, about two hours away from Havana. The students were shown the holiday paradise formerly frequented by American millionaires. The pearl of the resort was the Xanadu castle built by the Du Pont industrial family.
The Finnish students decided to go swimming on the magnificent beach.
Then it happened.
Suddenly people started to wave their hands: a familiar bearded figure walked to the beach, accompanied by two security men. He shook the hands of those who were nearest and jumped into the sea. A moment later the head of Fidel Castro bobbed to the surface right next to the Finns.
Jorma Routti understood that the moment needed to be recorded for posterity.
"I had a Kodak Retina pocket camera that I had borrowed from my mother. I asked Olin to snap a few pictures as a memento", Routti recalls.
One of Olin's pictures was especially successful. In it, Fidel's head sticks out of the waves, and the picture also shows Jorma Routti, a Cuban security guard, and Johan von Bonsdorff.
Cubans on the beach also started passing their cameras to Urho Mäntynen and asked him to take pictures.
Castro and the Finnish students started to chat.
"We exchanged pleasantries - whatever popped into our minds while we were there in the water", Clas Olin recalls.
"Castro left a very positive impression as a private individual. Even a casual foreigner was able to have a conversation with him without the interference of his bodyguards", Urho Mäntynen says.
Then the Finns began to ask about the security situation in Cuba.
"Castro assured us that we can be completely in peace there on the beach, and elsewhere in Cuba as well. He did not seem to think that the situation in the country was especially alarming", Olin says.
The students had no idea how alarming the situation actually was. US spy planes had noticed that the Soviet Union had built a missile base in Cuba.
At the very moment that Castro was having a chat with the Finns by the beach in Varadero, the United States was preparing an ultimatum to the Soviet Union, demanding that the Soviets stop their nuclear missile construction projects in Cuba. The Third World War was perilously close.
Already before the excursion to Varadero the student delegation had heard Castro speaking to an audience of 12,000 at a graduation ceremony for doctors and nurses. During the three-hour speech there were people with the task of waking up anyone who fell asleep.
"He certainly chastised the Americans. He especially warned the Cuban doctors that if they go to the USA, there will be no coming back. Now and then Fidel would take a sip of water and continue to preach", Urho Mäntynen recalls.
In the middle of the speech, the Finns slipped out to watch boxing at a competition for Latin American students.
Guests at the conference were housed at the Habana Libre, the top hotel in the city, which had opened in 1958 as the Habana Hilton.
After the revolution, Castro had held his headquarters in the hotel's presidential suite.
Cuba was a stage in the conflict between great powers, but the atmosphere in the city was not frightening in any way.
"We took an almost amused attitude toward the buxom militia women who could be seen just about everywhere in the city. And after all I had been in the army, so the weapons that could be seen were not frightening", Urho Mäntynen says.
Once the bus carrying the students was guarded by a man whose submachine gun would point right toward Clas Olin on the bumpy road. Olin asked the man with the gun if it had live ammunition inside. "What would be the point if it didn't?" he answered.
"I said that a Finn, if anyone, knows what a gun is used for. The man's face brightened up. He listed the key words that tourists learn in Finland, from composer Sibelius to Olympic runner Paavo Nurmi. The two figures were embedded in the mind of the man who had taken part in a communist youth festival in Helsinki", Olin says.
Olin and his colleagues were quite familiar with the Helsinki festival; the rioting that took place was one of the main news items in Finland in the summer of 1962. SYL had been forced to explain its relationship with the event, and announced that it would stay clear of both the festival itself and the activities organised against it.
"To my surprise the man with the gun was inspired to praise the courage of the Finns in the Winter War. And I had imagined that the very word would have been banned in Cuba. The man even compared Cuba and Finland with each other. Each one has a gigantic neighbour that they have to try to get along with."
Olin is amazed at theencounter to this day.
The situation started getting serious only on the day after the visit to the beach. Demonstrators with signs and flags appeared on the streets.
They drove around in trucks, shouting patriotic slogans and singing revolutionary songs. Marches were played over loudspeakers. Armed guards appeared in front of the hotel, and outside there were lorries full of soldiers.
Even the local lecturers at the seminars put on their olive-green uniforms and carried pistols.
"Not even the topics of the speeches were limited to sports", Jorma Routti says.
There were fears of a US invasion at any moment.
A rumour spread around the city that President John F. Kennedy would make an important television speech that same day. In the evening, conference guests in the lobby of the hotel heard that the United States had imposed a blockade on Cuba.
Kennedy warned that the United States would retaliate against the Soviet Union if an attack were launched against the US from Cuba.
Then Castro declared a mobilisation.
"The people were clearly accustomed to mobilisations. Everything went very smoothly. We foreigners were always treated with the utmost courtesy", Urho Mäntynen says.
The Finnish honorary consul Lauri Matikainen asked the four students to move into the consulate for security reasons.
"We felt a bit amused when we saw that Matikainen had painted a Finnish flag on the roof of the consular building for protection. We decided to stay in the hotel. It was easy to look from the 22nd floor out to sea in case there were any warships", Olin says.
The danger of a major war nevertheless grew so great that the delegation decided to go home already the very next day. Mäntynen, Routti, and Olin managed to get seats on an evacuation flight organised by the Soviet Embassy, which took off at midnight to Moscow via Senegal.
Only the fourth member of the group, Johan von Bonsdorff, who had begun his career as a journalist, decided to stay behind and follow the situation.
His reports were later printed in Helsingin Sanomat.
The three others landed in Helsinki on October 25th. Their arrival was big news. The media at home had followed the surprising turns of events during the seminar trip during the whole week.
The only Finnish eyewitnesses of the Cuban missile crisis had returned straight from the brink of a nuclear war.
"There was a huge crowd of journalists at the airport. The pictures were still in the camera. I gave the camera and the film to a journalist from Hufvudstadsbladet", Routti says.
Thus began the world conquest of a Finnish amateur photographer. The picture of Castro swimming in the sea appeared in the next day's paper.
A couple of days later it appeared on the pages of a number of large European newspapers.
Finally it was also published as a full spread in Life magazine, the flagship of photojournalism at the time.
The Finns had been rudely cropped out of the Life version. Next to the picture was the caption "How long will Castro stay afloat?". The picture was published later in the book Life 50 Years.
The direct hit of people's journalism scored by Clas Olin and Jorma Routti ended up being examined by tens of millions of pairs of eyes.
But where are the film and the original pictures now?
"I handed over my camera at the airport, and I haven't seen the film or the original copies made from it since. Pressfoto paid me 80 markka for the film, and sent the material on to the Associated Press and from there around the world", Routti says.
When he later asked Life about fees that they would pay, it came out that the magazine might have paid as much as 15,000 dollars for exclusive rights for the picture.
Adjusted for inflation, this would be the equivalent of about EUR 90,000.
"However, there were no additional fees for pictures that came through picture agencies. Life nevertheless felt that the situation was so unfair that they sent a cheque for 1,000 dollars as a consolation prize", Routti said.
The Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28th, when Nikita Khruschchev announced that he would pull the Soviet rockets out of Cuba.
As a result of the crisis, the great power leaders opened a hot line between the countries as a way of averting a nuclear war.
For Routti and von Bonsdorff, the swimming encounter with Castro provided some additional material for their unofficial resumés.
In the captions of some publications that published the picture, they had been promoted to the rank of Castro's bodyguards.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.4.2008