The Cuban Photo Crisis

Many have seen the images of Castro playing Guevara, but none have solved their mystery

No one can ascertain the date when the photos were taken. No one knows why they were playing. It’s possible this was the only time Fidel Castro and Che Guevara played together, but that can’t be confirmed either. Were the photos doctored in some way? Perhaps! For an island as famous for its secrets as its cigars, it’s fitting that the mysteries surrounding this round of golf between the Cuban dictator and the Marxist revolutionary may never be solved. 

The Cuban Photo Crisis No. 25

In 2009, The New York Times conducted an exhaustive examination of the photos and came up with more questions than answers. Here’s what we do know: After the Cuban revolution ended in 1959, Castro denounced golf as a “bourgeois” hobby.

And he was serious—golf essentially dried up on the island for decades. Castro visited Washington, D.C., shortly after coming to power, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not meet with him, citing other business. Castro met with Vice President Richard Nixon instead, and was furious about the snub. We also know that Eisenhower adored golf, reportedly playing 800 rounds during his time in office from 1953 to 1961. Many, including this magazine, credit him with helping bring the golf cart into prominence in America. 

Now things get murky. There are some accounts of Castro’s Washington visit that say Eisenhower ditched the meeting to play golf, which made the Cuban leader even angrier. Castro himself told a Cuban television station in 2007 that the round with Guevara was staged as retribution: “The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower.” This should have cleared things up, but accounts from others over the years have done the opposite. 

Alberto Korda, the legendary photographer who shot these images and a lifetime of others with Castro and Guevara, said the round was a response to an article Castro saw in the Times celebrating Eisenhower’s first hole-in-one. Castro knew that Guevara grew up caddying in his native Argentina (one of the few details we can confirm here), and “in jest” asked Guevara to take him out to play. But some facts counter this claim: Ike didn’t make his first ace until 1968, and by late 1961 the course Castro and Guevara played on was being converted into an art school. 

The Cuban Photo Crisis No. 25

So maybe Castro was right after all. Two separate accounts of Korda’s images, including the published contact sheets, peg the round as being played in early 1961 (one claiming January, the other March). This would make it nearly two years since Castro’s ill-fated D.C. visit. And Eisenhower left office in January 1961. The timing seems odd to poke fun. He should have been worrying about the newly sworn-in John F. Kennedy, right? 

One observer who claimed to be there said the round of golf was indeed a message to Kennedy, not Eisenhower. José Lorenzo Fuentes, described by The Wall Street Journal as Castro’s “former personal scribe,” told the paper in 2008 that the round was “shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis” and “was supposed to send a friendly signal to President Kennedy.” So, is Fuentes correct? Probably not. The Cuban missile crisis was in 1962, well after the course had been converted. 

It’s possible Fuentes wasn’t even there. Some enterprising photo sleuths note in the Times article that in one image there appear to be several other revolutionaries watching the action. Yet in the more famous one, it’s just Castro and Guevara in similar poses. Was the photo manipulated? And if so, why? As with many things from that era in Cuba, perhaps it’s best not to ask. Maybe we’ll never know why and when the round was played. Did anyone keep score? Do we know who won this battle of the revolutionary titans? Comrades, we do not. According to First Off the Tee by Don Van Natta Jr. (who also reports the round—assuming this is the only round the two played together, which by this point cannot be counted on—as being played during Kennedy’s presidency), “An enterprising Associated Press reporter extracted the truth from a 16-year-old caddie, who had carried Castro’s golf bags. Castro’s score easily exceeded 150, the caddie said. Guevara defeated the dictator by shooting a 127.” But Korda saw it differently. He appears briefly in the opening of Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary about Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club, looking through images of those wild days, including Castro and Guevara on the course. “Who won?” Korda is asked from off-camera. “Fidel,” he answers, “because Che let him.”