Encased in a glass box on one of the main plazas in old Havana is a small and ordinary fishing boat called “El Granma.” Sixty years ago a young group of socialist militants led by Fidel Castro crossed the Gulf of Mexico on it, igniting a revolution that would affect the region for decades to come.
Today, “the Grandma,” as it translates into English, is part of the revolutionary mythology of Latin America. Among other things, the main daily newspaper of Cuba’s communist party is named after it. And according to Mexican journalist Jacobo Zabludovsky, the man who helped set it all up was a Mexican Jew named Jorge Besquin.
In 1956 Castro, whose death last Friday is currently being both mourned and celebrated around the world, was living in exile in Mexico City, where he fled in 1955, after having spent two years in prison for a failed coup. It was there that he published his manifesto, trained his troops, and plotted to return to Cuba via an assault on the island to start a revolutionary movement.
Little is known about Besquin, except that he was an oil engineer and friend of Castro and that––together with Antonio “El Fofo” Gutierrez––he played an integral part in funding the purchase. Eventually it was Antonio el Condo who bought the boat in Tuxpan, Veracruz.
On November 25, 1956, 82 revolutionaries––including Raul Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara––set off from that coast of Veracruz with one goal in mind: getting rid of Fulgencio Batista––the American-friendly dictator that had abolished political and constitutional rights in Cuba since 1940— and establishing a socialist society that would take the country back.
Two years after the Granma expedition, the fighting was still going on. Jacobo Zabludovsky––who was a friend to both Besquin and Gutierrez –– was coming back from spending a New Year’s Eve dinner with them when he got a call from the office. Batista had fallen.
In a 2014 column Zabludovsky, who was himself part of a prominent Mexican Jewish family, remembered having called Besquin immediately to tell him the good news. The columnist, who was one of Mexico’s most prominent journalists until his death last year, wrote of the exchange: “He hung up on me, he thought it was a bad joke.”
The Jew Who Gave Castro a Boat (and Helped Launch a Revolution)
Alan Grabinsky writes about cities, media and globalization from Mexico City. He is the Director of the qualitative consulting firm INTERseccion.