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Leonard Cohen: Cuba, idealism and getting caught in the 'Bay of Pigs' invasion

When one thinks of the late Canadian songwriter, poet and novelist, Leonard Cohen, you picture an incredibly dense life wherein Cohen lived many separate mini lives separated by romance, time, and environment. In fact, his life is screaming to be adapted into a biopic. Just like any great wordsmith, Cohen’s existence was one of many twists and turns, a meandering presence that leant the subtle beauty to his words. 

Starting off as a poet in the 1960s and a one-time fringe figure of Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, the story of Cohen’s life reads in a manner that is not dissimilar to that of Dante Alighieri, mainly in the way that he left his home country of Canada, swapping it for a life of constant movement and personal introspection. When we take in biographer Jennifer Warnes’ reading of his life, this point rings true: “Leonard acknowledges that the whole act of living contains immense amounts of sorrow and hopelessness and despair; and also passion, high hopes, deep love, and eternal love.”

It is from this seemingly innate sense of progression that we get our story today. Cast off are the tales of Joni Mitchell or his romantic idyll on the Greek island of Hydra, but today we revisit the moment Cohen ditched the cool climes of Montreal for the surreal warmth of revolutionary Cuba. At the onset of spring 1961, Cohen left the shores of Canada to explore the socialist revolution of Cuba, and he arrived in the capital, Havana, on March 30th.

In 1959, military dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by the communist revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro, and understandably, in 1961, when Cohen arrived, the country was going through somewhat of a blood transfusion. Prime Minister Castro was seen as public enemy number one by the global political community, as, after all, this was right in the middle of the Cold War’s tensest period. The country offered a thrilling escape from the complacency and mundanity of western civilisation, and in his diary, Cohen even wrote: “I’m wild for all kinds of violence.”

The Leonard Cohen who would return to Canada later that year would not be the same as the man who had left. He returned a more worldly figure, now acutely aware of his role as a Canadian poet within the international scene. His friends would notice a stark change in him, a maturity, and this would make a great impact on him developing into the iconic artist we all know today.

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During his time in Cuba, Cohen also cuts a figure similar to the 20th century’s premier adventurer-cum-wordsmith, Ernest Hemingway, just without all the futile alpha-male bravado that the For Whom the Bell Tolls author exuded. Interestingly, Hemingway would hold residence in Cuba throughout the 1940s and ’50s, but that is a story for another day. Not drawn to this tumultuous era of Cuba by his job as a war correspondent or by unwavering political ideals, it seems as if Cohen took off to Cuba driven mainly by excitement. When he arrived, the image he perceived was a stark contrast to the heavily romanticised city of Havana that had once been deemed the ‘Paris of the Caribbean’. Cohen found the colonial splendour in total decay. The facades were broken, lawns burnt out, the pastel colours faded, and he found a largely apathetic peasant class who were more concerned with the challenge of living day to day rather than with the upkeep of this once vibrant city. The war had left no facet of Cuban life untouched. 

The war wouldn’t quell all of the city’s characteristic lasciviousness, though. Quickly, Cohen found himself living life as a true bourgeois. He would spend many nights up until the early hours smoking, drinking and talking with locals about anything and everything. Being a western cultural tourist, Cohen even adopted a look typical of the country’s rebels; khaki shorts, stubble and all. During this time, he would cut across town with hookers, pimps, petty criminals and anyone of slight interest that he came into contact with. Covering every inch of the city, from the poorest areas to the most affluent, akin to any hedonistic author from the roaring 1920s, in one of his poems from the period, Cohen wrote that he felt he was truly “the only tourist in Havana”. Of course, this state of sensory revelry wouldn’t last for long. As the rest of the country knew, the revolutionary war and Cuba’s stature within global politics meant that life there was not all roses. In fact, it was only Cohen’s capacity there as a tourist that he was able to enjoy the city without having to really pay too much attention to the implications of the Cold War that coloured his surrounding. However, one evening his blissfully ignorant literary paradise would come crashing down.

Cohen received a knock on his door from a Canadian government official, who swiftly escorted him to the embassy. Recalling the event, Cohen remembered the excitement of this random occurrence: “I was Upton Sinclair! I was on an important mission”. He wasn’t about to moonlight as some Hemingway/Bond figure, though. It was revealed that a group of Florida-based Cuban exiles had staged a minor attack on the Havana airport. The severity of the attack was greatly embellished in the media, and so, Cohen’s mother had contacted her cousin, Laz Phillips, a Canadian Senator and asked him to confirm Leonard’s safety. Cohen’s dreams of espionage came crashing down when the Canadian vice-consul told him: “Your mother’s worried about you”.

This would be Cohen’s first taste of the conflict ruining his ideals. The attack had put Cuba on alert of invasion from those opposed to the communist regime, who were being backed by the US. One evening after that deeply humbling experience at the embassy, Cohen was walking on the white sandy beaches of Playa de Varadero about 140 km east of Havana. Still donning his pseudo-revolutionary garb and carrying a hunting knife, he quickly found himself surrounded by 12 soldiers of the Castro regime all pointing their sub-machine guns at him – they thought they’d caught one of the first American landing teams. 

He was marched to the local police station, and not being able to string a Spanish sentence together, Cohen repeatedly spoke the only words he knew, which ironically, was a Castro slogan: “La amistad del pueblo”, which translates as “friendship of the people”. Even more hilariously, Cohen spoke the phrase so poorly that it only helped to confirm to the soldiers that he was indeed an American. Given his natural gift of the gab, after an hour-and-a-half interrogation, Cohen had managed to convince his captors that he was not an American, but Canadian, and that he was a friend of the Castro regime. 

Quickly the rum was brought out, and a party ensued. Cohen had won his captors over so much that they placed a necklace of shells and string hung with two bullets around his neck. The next day, after the party, they then gave him a lift back to Havana. Cohen would then resume his Bourgeois existence and would immerse himself back in the city’s night scene, rubbing shoulders with artists and writers. He even found himself involved in a violent tussle with an American communist, who spat in his face and denounced him as a phoney and nothing more than a bourgeois impostor. 

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Cohen would then cast off his pseudo-revolutionary aesthetic and put on his best Canadian seersucker suit. Embodying the decadence of the ’20s, he decided to embrace the character that the American communist had devised for him and visually came to embody the individualist that he had become. This was a dangerous way to live in revolutionary Cuba. Thankfully, for Cohen’s safety, the back and forth between America and Cuba had been carrying on in the background, with each volley ramping up the heat. Come April 17th, and the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion had occurred. Castro’s forces fended off 1,300 American trained Cuban exiles, which only served to cement his place as the country’s leader, reflecting his claims of American imperialism in the Caribbean. Times were getting dangerous. Tourists were starting to be kidnapped, and this was not the idyll Cohen had found it a month prior. The day after the invasion, Cohen even wrote to his publisher, saying: “Just think how well the book will sell if I’m hit in an air-raid. What great publicity! Don’t tell me you haven’t been considering it.” In typical Cohen fashion, he described the events as “hopelessly Hollywood”.

Cohen knew his time in Cuba was up. However, it wasn’t just he who felt he had to depart, so did the entirety of the country’s middle classes. This led to days of failed attempts to board one of the two daily planes out of the country to Miami. Seemingly a cat with nine lives, he managed to book himself a seat on a plane for April 26th. Typically, that day his dreams were once again in tatters, as he was told that he couldn’t leave the country. Officials had found in his bag a picture from the evening with the soldiers, where he looked like a Cuban citizen and a soldier of Castro.

Furthermore, the copy of Castro’s Declaration of Havana that he had on his person did not help his case. The airport officials even thought his Canadian passport was a forgery. He was held in a detention cell by a 14-year-old holding a rifle, whom he argued with about his rights as a Canadian citizen to no avail.

Luck would again appear on Cohen’s side. A commotion on the runway caught the guard’s attention, who left Cohen unguarded. Our protagonist quietly packed his bags and told himself: “It’s going to be OK. They don’t really care about me.” Then, he managed to quietly slide onto the plane, and after a tense couple of minutes, the doors closed, and the plane was airborne.

The Cuban experience would profoundly affect Cohen for the rest of his life. It would inform his political ideals, and upon returning to Canada, he would find himself more of a realist than the green idealist that had reached Havana in March. Afterwards, he would become heavily politicised, and for the rest of his life, would oppose all forms of censorship, collectivism and control.

Some 18 months after his experience, Cohen wrote to his brother-in-law, Victor Cohen, and told him that he travelled to the Caribbean “to see the socialist revolution, not to wave a flag or prove a point.” Whilst the truth of this is debatable, in one of his unfinished texts from the period, Cohen made a brilliant point. Indicative of the time period and the man who wrote it, he opined: “Who can deny the pleasure of seeing lies? Detecting them? Catching them?”. A surprising tale, this is one of many lessons that should continue to be told; it offers up an image of Leonard Cohen that is completely different to the one we’re often met with in the media and discourse.