Our Graham Greene in Havana

The author’s trips to Cuba had an impact on more than just literature.

Graham Greene (left) and Alec Guinness on film location at Sloppy Joe’s bar, Havana, 20 April 1959 © Peter Stackpole/LIFE/Getty Images

In adolescence, Graham Greene found relief from ‘boredom’ by playing Russian roulette. In the 1950s, he sought distraction from his manic depression through multiple foreign trips to turbulent spots around the world. These trips provided the background to what critics have termed Greeneland: ‘The seedy, politically unstable, and dangerous world said to be the typical setting in the novels of Graham Greene.’

Greene discovered Havana in 1954, enthralled by its cocktail of capitalist vice, casinos, burlesque cabarets, drug peddling and prostitution. He made multiple visits, including a key one in November 1957, when he began writing Our Man in Havana. This trip had a possible secondary focus, keeping his eyes and ears open to Fidel Castro’s year-old insurrection against Fulgencia Batista’s military regime on behalf of his wartime employer, MI6.

His visit to Cuba would actually make a modest contribution to Batista’s downfall on 1 January 1959. Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government embargoed British arms sales to Batista just two weeks before the Cuban Revolution, a full nine months after Washington had halted its military exports to the increasingly repressive dictator. The British arms embargo only came about thanks to Greene.

As screenwriter for a cinematic version of Our Man in Havana, he had visited the city again in October 1958 with the director Carol Reed to reconnoitre filming locations. Within two hours of returning to London, Greene wrote to the Labour Party MP Hugh Delargy to ask him to table a parliamentary question about British arms sales to Cuba’s dictatorship. Unlike the head of the American Department in the Foreign Office, who had ‘very little reason’ to suppose that Fidel Castro would ‘come to power in the foreseeable future’, and approved continuing arms sales, Greene judged the opposite. He also wanted to hedge his bets because Columbia Pictures needed permission from the local authorities (whoever was in charge of Cuba) to film a third of Our Man in Havana in the city itself.

In the rowdy debate in the House of Commons on 15 December 1958 that resulted from Greene’s letter, an embattled foreign minister in Macmillan’s government finally ceded to opposition demands to halt the arms exports. While tanks already shipped arrived too late for Batista to deploy them, they did parade in Castro’s military caravan of bearded rebels when it rumbled into Havana on 8 January 1959 to celebrate the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. With permission from the new revolutionary government, Greene subsequently returned with Reed in April 1959 to oversee early filming of Our Man in Havana.

Meanwhile, one of the Hawker Siddeley Sea Fury aircraft sold by the British to Batista in late 1958 proved instrumental in halting the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Under direct orders from Castro, a Cuban pilot fired rockets from his Sea Fury fighter-bomber to disable and partially sink two of the invading forces’ main supply ships.

When Greene wrote a new introduction to Our Man in Havana in 1963, he described how, during his November 1957 visit, he made a trip to the heart of insurrection in eastern Cuba carrying warm clothing for Castro’s guerrillas in the hills. He omitted to mention, however, the other reason for his November 1957 visit.

He defined the episode as an absurd ‘comedy of errors’. Two guides accompanied him to Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, one a Cuban woman from the propaganda arm of Castro’s rebel movement and the other an American local correspondent for Time/Life magazine. Although she knew about the correspondent’s presence, he never knew about her. Indeed, they all sat apart on the same Havana to Santiago flight.

Comedy played out in the midst of terror. Santiago was a besieged city under an unofficial evening curfew. Batista’s police patrolled the streets, arresting and often torturing suspected rebel sympathisers and dumping their bodies around the city. Meanwhile, the dictator’s spies tapped the phones of the Casa Granda Hotel where Greene was staying. After answering a knock on his hotel room door one morning from the American journalist and a local Castro-supporting businessman, the phone rang. It was his Cuban guide. Greene asked the men to leave while he took the call, but when they returned they demanded to know who had phoned him. Greene refused to tell them and they accused each other of being agents for Batista.

Greene’s Cuban guide had given him the address of a Castro movement safe house for him to visit and discuss meeting the rebel leader. When he eventually tracked it down, Greene could not admit to the American guide and his companion how he knew about the house. They later confirmed that he hoped to travel into the Sierra Maestra hills to meet Fidel Castro at his rebel headquarters. Given the perilous security situation in and around the city, however, the plan did not materialise. His published account of the trip never even mentioned it. When he wrote in 1963 about the visit, Cuba had recently transformed from a capitalist playground into a communist stronghold and thus a locus of Cold War superpower rivalry.

His previous full-length novel, The Quiet American (1955), anticipated tragic US military entanglement in Vietnam a decade later. Meanwhile, his Havana-based story would prove remarkably prophetic about another key Cold War episode. Using an Atomic Pile vacuum cleaner as a model, the charlatan Secret Service agent fools his bungling bosses in London with sketches of ‘big military installations under construction’ in the mountains of eastern Cuba, including a ‘large concrete platform’ and ‘strange machinery in transport’.

Four years after the publication of Our Man in Havana, the Cold War’s most perilous episode ensued when an American U2 spy plane photographed the construction of Soviet nuclear missile sites on the island. During 13 perilous days in October 1962, Soviet Premier Khrushchev and US President Kennedy stood eyeball to eyeball in an East v West standoff that threatened thermonuclear Armageddon.

On the one hand, Greene’s real contribution in October 1958 to the embargo on British arms sales played a small part in Fidel Castro’s revolutionary success. On the other, his fictional story published at the same time described secret military installations in Cuba three years before the realisation of the Cold War’s hottest moment.   


Christopher Hull is Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Chester and the author of Our Man Down in Havana: The Story Behind Graham Greene’s Cold War Spy Novel (Pegasus, 2019).