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Triumphant Return: Churchill’s 1946 Visit to Cuba

Finest Hour 171, Winter 2016

Page 26

By Hal Klepak


In the winter of 1945–46, the first after the war, Winston Churchill was still an exhausted man. Having just celebrated his seventy-first birthday in November, and with his Lake Como rest holiday in August already a mere memory, Churchill found his doctor less than sympathetic with the level of his activity as Leader of the Opposition, not to mention his devotion to his writing.

Medical pressure and his own desire to travel for pleasure after so much wartime movement for necessity made Churchill decide to take two months off from his always ferocious schedule to rest and recuperate. Even though he knew that there would be considerable speculation over such a lengthy period away from the House of Commons, and that some would see it as a prelude to his retirement from political life after his stunning electoral defeat of July 1945, there was little choice but to take a rest, and a lengthy one after his doctor insisted.

After so many wartime winters in England, Churchill wanted to take his break somewhere in the sun where he could paint and relax. The perfect solution arose when a Canadian friend invited Churchill to use his winter home near Miami. Colonel Frank Clarke was a retired Canadian Army officer who appears to have first met Churchill at the Quebec Conference in 1943 and had invited the then Prime Minister to stay a few days at his chalet at Les Chutes de Montmorency and at his lodge in the forest nearby. Churchill had accepted with alacrity the offer on the wartime occasion and did so again that winter of 1945–46.

The Sunshine State

So it was that after the challenges of getting the arrangements made for such an excursion in “austerity” Britain (including certain exemptions from limitations on spending money abroad) and a trans-Atlantic winter crossing, the party accompanying Churchill, including his wife and secretary, arrived in Florida in early January 1946. The weather was not as good as Churchill would have liked, but the hospitality was excellent and the life congenial, with the free world’s greatest hero able to relax at last and do some painting. Churchill also periodically enjoyed himself by going onto the veranda of the Clarke’s house and waving to passers-by.

As the old Churchill reasserted himself, the plan evolved temporarily to include a trip to Mexico, another to Brazil, and perhaps even one to Trinidad and Tobago. Additionally Churchill had taken on the invitation of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, to give a speech there in March. As if this were not enough to interrupt his holiday, he planned meetings with President Truman as well.

All of the trips much farther south were soon abandoned, despite Churchill’s keenness and that of the potential host governments. He had as usual thought big and tried to do much more than he should, given the fact that the whole idea was for him to have a real holiday with rest as the main objective. Even before leaving home there was little likelihood that he would actually go to Trinidad, and the Mexican and Brazilian visits were cancelled, despite Mr. Truman’s offer of a special aircraft to take him to those places.

Meanwhile both the highly influential Cuban newspaper Diario de la Marina and the manager of the great traditional Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Mr. H. C. Houghton, had discovered the presence of Churchill in nearby Florida. The newspaper suggested twice, first early in January and again later on that month, that Cuba should invite the great man to visit the island and re-establish his old connections.

Churchill had of course first visited Cuba in 1895 when, accompanied by his lifetime friend Reggie Barnes, a fellow 4th Hussars subaltern and later a major-general of great achievement, he observed the Spanish campaign attempting to put down the second great revolution against Spain in that colony. I have tried to show in my book that this first adventure, in its preparation, carrying through, and sequels, constituted the “coming of age” of the young Churchill. This was not only because it included his twenty-first birthday on 30 November 1895 but also because it was his first trip outside northern Europe, his baptism of fire, his first experience as a war correspondent, his declaration of independence from his mother, his first dicey diplomatic incident, his first notoriety in the press, his first proper sketching, his first military operation, his first and much appreciated medal for bravery under fire, and many other “firsts.”

In 1895 Churchill was an obscure second lieutenant, unknown except as a son of the famous Lord Randolph. When the son returned almost exactly fifty years later it was as probably the best-known figure in the world, having led Britain, its Commonwealth, and Empire in their “finest hour” leading to the victory that had marked him as the man who had, in William Manchester’s delightful words, “saved civilization.”

In Cuba that winter, the government of President Grau San Martin was going through the usual difficulties of running the country that had existed since independence in 1898. Dominance by the United States of Cuba’s politics and economy was the rule, and governments came and went as desired by the US ambassador and not through any true electoral process. The government grappled not only with a difficult financial situation but also with traditional university unrest, teachers’ discontent, and widespread corruption at all levels of the state, government, and bureaucracy. The young Fidel Castro, a lifetime admirer of Churchill and nineteen at the time, was already making political waves at the University of Havana.

As Leader of the Opposition, Churchill could not be invited to Cuba as a head of government but most certainly could as a distinguished statesman, and Grau San Martin did not long hesitate to invite the world hero to revisit the island, this time as guest of the Republic. It was good politics to be seen with the man who was the symbol of democracy around the world, but the President was also an ardent admirer of Churchill. Thus in January the invitation was issued, and Churchill took little time in responding that he would be delighted to come with Clementine, his daughter Sarah, and Colonel Clarke as an unofficial aide-de-camp. This last feature of his party was typical of Winston because, of course, as Leader of the Opposition he had no right to an ADC, much less a Canadian one.

Return to Cuba

For the flight down from Florida, Churchill did avail himself of President Truman’s offer of a US aircraft. Thus it was that Churchill and Clementine, with Clarke in uniform accompanying them, arrived on 1 February 1946 at the José Marti International Airport of Havana, fifty years, one month, and twenty-four days after he left the island by sea after his first visit. On his arrival by small modest steamer in 1895, Churchill had been received only by the British consul-general in the colonial capital, whereas this time he arrived in a US Naval Air Service bomber and was met not only by the British Minister to Cuba, Mr.  J. L. Dodd, but by Cuba’s Foreign Minister and a large, enthusiastic crowd of well-wishers and admirers. The Foreign Minister, Carlos Prío Socarras, led the official welcoming party, but there was no guard of honour, since Churchill was not there as a head of government or even in an official capacity. The welcome at the airport, where police had difficulty controlling the enthusiasm of the crowd, was merely an introduction to the triumphant welcome the city and country were to give the Churchills this time.

The party (a flight delay caused Sarah to arrive late) were whisked through the airport and in an escorted cavalcade made their way to the Hotel Nacional, not the Hotel Inglaterra where young Winston and Reggie had stayed in 1895. The flight had taken less than two hours, so Churchill was in top form, gave his first “V” sign to the cheering public from the window of the plane, and, after briefly settling in at the hotel, was taken to the Presidential Palace to be received and to have a first conversation of twenty minutes with President Grau San Martin.

Although Churchill was not supposed to do any public speaking on the trip, a large crowd had assembled spontaneously outside the palace in the public square to its front. Winston was prevailed upon to step onto the balcony and there gave a short speech to the public, which he ended in a fashion that delighted the assembled habaneros below: “Viva la Perla de las Antillas!” (Long live the Pearl of the Antilles), Cuba’s much-loved nickname and one Churchill used often, even in official correspondence, to refer to the island he so much loved.

From the Palace the couple returned to the hotel, and Churchill prepared for a press conference he was to give that afternoon. Such were the poor arrangements, and the vast number of people wishing to get in to see the great man, that some 150 people crammed into the small press room of the hotel and the halls around it. The result was that it took some twenty-five minutes for Churchill to reach a room that was only a few yards from the hotel lift out of which he stepped. Much frustration was the result, with the press particularly angry that by the time he arrived he had little time to answer questions. Nonetheless, he did answer a few, including ones of great interest to Cuba and on which he had strong views, such as the role that smaller countries should have in the new United Nations given the veto power of the “Big Five,” the need to maintain a hands-off policy on domestic affairs in Franco’s Spain, and especially the requirement to retain allied unity in the post-war era, including close cooperation with the Soviet Union, if peace were to be maintained in the new atomic age.

Cubans were especially interested in knowing when Britain would reopen its cigar market to Cuban cigars, as the economic austerity regime in place at the time did not allow such luxury imports. Needless to say, the person keenest on seeing that regulation relaxed was Churchill himself, although the need for such a gesture was lessened when at the first informal dinner at the hotel suite, a luxury affair to be sure, some 500 of Churchill’s favourite Romeo y Julieta cigars arrived, to his evident glee. The public interest in Winston’s smoking habit was great, and he was at pains to ensure the more dubious of Cuban observers that he really enjoyed them and did not use them merely as a prop or a politician’s gimmick. Many Cubans were saddened that he was not going to visit the great cigar-producing region of Pinar del Rio, although he did visit a cigar factory in Havana. Thus his observation went down especially well when he commented, “I simply enjoy them. They quietly improve my temper.” Certainly he was showered with them while on the island, bringing out a United Press comment, “It won’t be Cuba’s fault if Winnie is seen at any time here without a cigar.”

Even more winning of Cuban hearts was when, again referring to his love for one of the island’s most famous products, he said, “Cuba will always be on my lips.” Churchill was radiating charm and pleasure throughout the visit except for one day when, as in Florida, a “norte,” that cool and cloudy condition that occasionally hits the northern Caribbean in the winter, occurred and spoiled his swimming and painting (the Diario de la Marina said Churchill did “more floating than swimming” while at the beach). But he was soon back in form, and with Clementine seemed to be enjoying the stay completely.

After three days in Havana, Churchill moved on to the great Varadero beach, some distance to the east. There he stayed over two days and enjoyed sea, beach, luxury, and somewhat greater privacy. Coming back to Havana, there were still two more days to enjoy the city before returning to Miami. His first night back in the capital, he was received as guest of honour at a private dinner at the sumptuous United States embassy residence by Ambassador Henry Norwed. This was to sound out Churchill as to what he intended to say at Fulton. There could be no surprises that might embarrass the president, who would be introducing the former prime minister, given the vast prestige Churchill enjoyed in the United States and around the world.

Churchill was fêted on his last day in the city with a lunch at the Havana Yacht Club. Unfortunately, it appears that the regular fixture there, Ernest Hemingway, was away at the time. The same day, the Ministry of Health Building, which Churchill had admired, received him and he was left alone to paint its magnificent colonial, colonnaded patio. Throughout the visit Churchill wore either a light suit or a sports jacket with his distinctive bow tie.

An indication of the extent to which Churchill’s previous visit to Cuba was, and still is, misunderstood by Cubans is that Foreign Minister Prío Socarrás, much to his embarrassment when the press picked up on the error, announced Winston’s return after fifty years when he had been a fighter with the Cuban rebel forces struggling for independence. Of course Churchill had in fact been there as a military observer, as we would now say “embedded” with a Spanish column, and remained pro-Spanish and dubious about Cuban independence for a very long time afterwards, despite his great affection for the island.

Triumph

Cubans were well aware that this was the most important visitor the island had ever had, and the Cuban press followed the visit in detail, publishing the daily programme each day. Even the communist daily Hoy hailed the visit, although it naturally changed its tune after the “Iron Curtain” speech the following month.

The costs of the visit were not small. Press cartoons showed desperate bill collectors, receipts in hand, watching with concern as Churchill drove off in his luxury car (loaned by a wealthy businessman, since the Cuban state had none considered sufficiently grand for the Churchills). Some American journalists who arrived with the Churchill party on the aircraft even tried to get the Cuban state and the Hotel Nacional to pay not only for their rooms but also for their meals and even their drinks.

The great statesman was intended to have a good time, and he did. The trip was undoubtedly a resounding success for Churchill and for the Cuban government which invited him. If the 1895 visit was Churchill’s “coming of age,” the 1946 welcome by the Cuban people gave proof of the astonishing career that had followed and given us the “man of the age.”


Hal Klepak is the author of Churchill Comes of Age: Cuba, 1895, published by The History Press, 2015, reviewed in this issue of Finest Hour on page 39.

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