Secret Cuba

Winston Churchill in Cuba

    Britain's greatest World War II hero - and one of the most famous statesmen in history - went to Cuba as a young man, in 1895 - in an episode that many of today's visitors to Cuba don't know about.  This was just before the Cuban - Spanish war of independence; Churchill was an army officer, and went to Cuba on a 'working holiday', to view the fighting, by becoming an 'embedded' war reporter on the Spanish/colonial side.

  Immediately afterwards ,  he  took sides more or less completely with the Spanish, and against  the Cuban 'Rebels' who were fighting for independence from Spain.  Much later in his life, Churchill stated that he had secretly admired the Rebel side more; but because of having accompanied the Spanish occupying army into battle, he had felt unable to criticise them as being his hosts.  He rode alongside Spanish general Surez Valds, on 30 November 1895, to a battle near Arroyo Blanco, in the centre of Cuba.  Although very close to the  action, he still remained an observer only and did not fire any shots, or take part in the battle in any way.  Churchill later wrote a book "My Early Life", in which he devoted a chapter to the Cuban experience.

   If the people of the subsequent independent Cuban republic felt offended that Churchill had in  his youth, sided with their colonial Spanish rulers - they never showed this.  In 1941 when Churchill was wartime prime minister, the Cuban Tobacco promotion commission sent Winston Churchill a present of cigars. Churchill often received cigars from Cuba - as a lifelong cigar smoker, this was to be expected. But the 1941 cigar gift was a bit special. What arrived at Churchill's house was a beautiful mahogany cabinet, packed with no fewer than 2,400 of the finest Cuban cigars. This cabinet still exists - it may be seen in Churchill's former painting studio at his home, Chartwell in Kent. Today it serves to house, not cigars, but tubes of oil paint.

   In 1946 Churchill made his second - and last - visit to Cuba; arriving in Havana with his wife Clementine and daughter Sarah, in February 1946 and staying at the posh and exclusive National Hotel.  How must he have felt, returning to the island after 51 years?  This time, not arriving by sea in a troopship - but flying in to the airport. This was to be a true holiday, of relaxing and getting away from post-war austerity Britain. Churchill now was one of the world's most famous statesmen, and he was feted by the press and met many of the local celebrities. One day, Churchill just disappeared for several hours; no-one, not even his wife, could find him. When he returned to the hotel, it was without any explanation. In Cuba, stories still persist that he had gone to a clandestine romantic encounter with a Cuban woman; or that he was re-visitng someone he had met, on his first visit. What really happened?  Surely scope here, for some imaginative novelist or screenplay-writer? 




Below: Winston Churchill as a young army officer, in the 4th Hussars, taken in the same year (1895) that he went to Cuba. Below: The 1941 Cuban cigar cabinet gift, at Chartwell today (now used for storing oil paints)


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