Connections: Revolutionaries and Explosions

In 1898, the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor. The American press immediately formulated the notion that the ship was blown up by Spanish authorities, since the American press favored the Cuban rebels in their insurrection. Later investigations by American agencies, public and private, have concluded that the explosion was accidental, though they do not all agree on the nature of the accident. The official version in Cuba now is that the Americans blew the ship up themselves in order to facilitate US intervention in the Cuban conflict, which is sort of okay since it was done to get rid of the Spanish and free Cuba.


In 1960, on March 4, the French freighter la Coubre blew up in Havana harbor while unloading munitions sent from Belgium. A hundred people were killed and many injured including firefighters and rescue workers who were caught in a secondary explosion. Che Guevara was on the scene and used his medical training to help the injured. The official Cuban version is that the CIA, using William Alexander Morgan as an agent, engineered the event. The CIA’s account of the incident is sealed but most American reports note that unloading a munitions ship directly onto the dock was against Havana harbor’s own regulations and suggest that sloppy handling of the munitions was the cause of the explosion.

A victim of the la Coubre explosion.

A victim of the la Coubre explosion.

The next day, there was a memorial ceremony at Havana harbor honoring the dead. Che Guevara attended and the photographer Alberto Gutierrez, known as Korda, snapped two pictures of him. The paper Korda worked for selected a photo of Castro to run with their story and returned the unused pictures to Korda.

uncropped photo of Che Guevara taken March 5, 1960 at Havana harbor by Korda

uncropped photo of Che Guevara taken March 5, 1960 at Havana harbor by Korda

The American adventurer William Alexander Morgan, who was the only foreigner besides Che Guevara to become a commandante, the highest rank in the Cuban revolutionary army, was discovered to be smuggling weapons into Cuba to anti-Castro forces. He was executed by firing squad in 1961. Che Guevara went to Bolivia to organize a revolution there.

Memorial ceremony for la Coubre. Castro at left, Che toward center, Morgan on the right (circled).

Memorial ceremony for la Coubre. Castro at left, Che toward center, Morgan on the right (circled).

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher, had discovered Che through the writings of Regis Debray and decided to do something that featured the man. Feltrinelli had been a Communist, but split with the party in 1956 or ’57. He had picked up Doctor Zhivago while it was still a secret and, after some clandestine correspondence with Boris Pasternak, published an Italian edition in 1957. He also published Lampedusa’s The Leopard in that year and, during the 1950s and ’60s, a number of other important books by writers such as James Baldwin and Carlos Fuentes, as well as revolutionary materials such as manuals of the Uruguayan Tupamaros that inspired Italian groups such as the Red Brigades.

Korda with Che and Che

Korda with Che and Che

Feltrinelli had gone to Bolivia to effect the release of Regis Debray. Later, he tried to track down Che but was expelled by the authorities. In Cuba in 1967, Feltrinelli visited Korda and asked him if he had any pictures of Che Guevara. Korda pointed to one that he had taken at the la Coubre ceremony and hung on his wall and said, “That’s the best one that I have.” Feltrinelli offered to buy it but Korda said that, because Feltrinelli was a friend of the revolution, he would give it to him. Feltrinelli left with the picture. Shortly thereafter, Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia by American operatives. Feltrinelli copyrighted the picture, published it, and sold about 200,000 posters in six months. The image has been reproduced a zillion times since. Feltrinelli made a lot of money. Korda never got a nickel from the photograph. Feltrinelli also published Che’s Bolivian Diaries, given to him by Castro. Later, he supplied a pistol that was used to assassinate Bolivian colonel Quintanilla, who was supposed to be one of Che’s killers.

Feltrinelli and Castro, 1967

Feltrinelli and Castro, 1964

Feltrinelli's corpse.

Feltrinelli’s corpse.

In 1970 Feltrinelli founded his own leftist group Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana (GAG), which was dedicated to something or other. Two years later, his body was discovered at the base of a high voltage tower near Milan. He had been blown apart by a bomb. There were a good many leftist revolutionary groups in Italy in those days and the newly formed Red Brigades, later famous for the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro among others, investigated Feltrinelli’s death. Their conclusion was that he died when the dynamite bomb he was trying to arm at the base of the power pylon went off accidentally because of a defective timer. The official Italian government version is that Feltrinelli failed to wire his bomb properly. There are rumors that his death was arranged by Italian authorities.



2 comments on “Connections: Revolutionaries and Explosions

  1. elisabeth bird says:

    I am writing a book about Cuba and La Coubre is especially interesting and difficult to research. The shipping line, CGT, has a 150 year delay on releasing info to public. They were absorbed into a partly state-run line in 1977. CGT were also owners of Mont Blanc, which exploded in Halifax in 1917. There also are 3 small documents at George Washington University, for students only. Really want to find any evidence possible – any ideas?

    • mikulpepper says:

      Sorry. I’d like to be able to help but have found very little except for the few places cited in the post. Good luck! (A hundred and fifty years! What are they trying to cover up? Besides destroying Halifax and Havana, I m ean.)

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