This is the story of a scoop, the sort of scoop we never see these days.

In November 1963, Marc Riboud and Jean Daniel, a feature reporter with the weekly news magazine L’Express, went to Havana. While waiting to see Fidel Castro, they traveled around the island, meeting farmers and workers, activists and counter-revolutionaries, ministers and artists. They visited a dance school, a rehab center for former prostitutes, and more, until one evening, at 10 pm, they saw Castro who came to their hotel and stayed until the early hours of the morning, firing questions at Jean Daniel and relating his own vivid rendition of the missile crisis which, just the year before, had almost set the world on the path to another major war. There was great intensity as the conversation went on late into the night, for, just a few days earlier, Jean Daniel had been at the White House, and President John F. Kennedy had given him messages to convey to Fidel Castro. For hours, Castro listened to Kennedy’s messages, querying words, having them repeated, checking expressions, hearing the intonation patterns. At 4 o’clock in the morning, still sparking with energy, he took Jean Daniel, Jean’s wife Michèle, and Marc Riboud out for a drive in his American car. Castro, seated next to his driver and with a Kalashnikov beside him, took them around the island, all the while asking questions about France’s president, General de Gaulle.

The next evening, Castro came to visit again, and embarked on another unbridled and impassioned conversation. The following day (by which time Marc Riboud had flown back to Paris as his sister had been seriously injured in an accident), Jean Daniel was having lunch with Castro when a telephone call came through with the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Jean Daniel, there on the spot, reported Castro’s reaction, and his article, When Castro Heard the News, was published with Marc Riboud’s photos in magazines around the world.

The photographs of those extraordinary days in Cuba show the country as it was in 1963, in the early days of the revolution, just four years after the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown. Messages of peace painted on walls are seen alongside posters announcing a recital by a Chinese pianist, and pictures of Mao Zedong and Lenin next to portraits of El Líder Maximo. Most importantly, the photos show the beauty of the generously proportioned women, of bodies moving freely, the lights of Havana Harbor, and Cadillacs with headlights shining through the night, taking us back in time to scenes now viewed through our own indulgent haze of nostalgia.

Catherine Chaine

Marc Riboud

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