Leonard Cohen — 'The last tourist in Havana'

Historian Karen Dubinsky describes the late Leonard Cohen's 1961 trip to Cuba and the inspiration he drew from the political turmoil he witnessed there.

Cohen arrived when Cuban revolution was just a couple of years old and things were chaotic and uncertain

Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen at his hotel during a break in his British Tour, Dec. 6 1979. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Pierre Trudeau's Havana visits were legendary, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may follow suit with his trip to Cuba this week. Canadians might not know that another famous son of Montreal made the same voyage in March 1961 — just to slightly less fanfare. 

Leonard Cohen, who died last week at the age of 82, visited Havana at a most unusual time. His sister, Esther, had honeymooned there before the 1959 revolution, and Cohen was curious to see the place. He was also following the route of his literary mentor, Garcia Lorca, who preceded him in Havana.

When Cohen arrived, the Cuban revolution was just a couple of years old and things were chaotic and uncertain. He told biographer Ira Nadel, "I thought maybe this was my Spanish civil war, but it was a shabby kind of support. It was really mostly curiosity and a sense of adventure."   

Cohen grew a beard and searched for Havana nightlife, which was rapidly diminishing as the revolutionary government closed the casinos and fun-loving Americans turned their vacation sights elsewhere. Cohen described himself at that moment as "the last tourist in Havana." 

The next month, in April, the U.S.- led Bay of Pigs invasion was underway. As Havana prepared for war, it became apparent that — despite his beard and khaki — a boy from Montreal was a bit of an anomaly there.  As international news broke of bombing in Havana, Cohen's mother dispatched a family member attached to the Canadian embassy to check on her son's safety. Cohen was stopped by military police one night during a walk on a beach, and after being detained with a group of "suspicious" foreigners, he left.

Fidel Castro, in glasses, sits inside a tank near Playa Giron, Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs invasion, in this April 17, 1961. (Raul Corrales/Granma/Canadian Press)

Not surprisingly, after all that, Cohen was no fan of the Cuban revolution. But on later he defended his visit and explained what he learned from his time in Cuba: "I'm one of the few men of my generation who cared enough about the Cuban reality to go see it," he said. But he concluded that, "Power chops up frightened men. I saw that in Cuba." 

Cohen was, of course, wrong to think of himself as one of the few of his generation who cared about Cuba. After successfully fighting off the invaders, Havana became a cosmopolitan meeting ground for thousands of supporters including artists, students, and other activists who shared the political ideals of the 1960s. The Cuban Revolution quickly gained iconic status the world over. 

For Cohen, the experience was not so politically romantic. Indeed, it would have been hard for anyone to maintain any sort of utopian thinking while taking cover by the lion statue on Havana's famous Paseo del Prado, as warplanes flew overhead. But Cohen managed to channel his experience into a poem about the politics of his own country — a work that captured the irreverence, anti-authoritarianism and dark humour that characterized Cohen's work for decades. 

"The Last Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward" from Flowers for Hitler.

Come, my brothers,

let us govern Canada,

let us find our serious heads,

let us dump asbestos on the White House,

let us make the French talk English,

not only here but everywhere,

let us torture the Senate individually

until they confess,

let us purge the New Party,

let us encourage the dark races

so they'll be lenient

when they take over,

let us make the CBC talk English,

let us all lean in one direction

and float down

to the coast of Florida,

let us have tourism,

let us flirt with the enemy,

let us smelt pig-iron in our back yards,

let us sell snow

to under-developed nations,

(It is true one of our national leaders

was a Roman Catholic?)

let us terrorize Alaska,

let us unite

Church and State,

let us not take it lying down,

let us have two Governor Generals

at the same time,

let us have another official language, 

let us determine what it will be,

let us give a Canada Council Fellowship

to the most original suggestion,

let us teach sex in the home

to parents,

let us threaten to join the U.S.A.

and pull out at the last moment,

my brothers, come,

our serious heads are waiting for us somewhere

like Gladstone bags abandoned

after a coup d'état,

let us put them on very quickly,

let us maintain a stony silence

on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

-Havana, April 1961

This column is part of CBC's new Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Karen Dubinsky is a historian who teaches at Queen’s University. She teaches a joint Queen’s/University of Havana course for Canadian students annually in Havana. Her latest book is Cuba Beyond the Beach: Stories of Life in Havana (2016).