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Why did Communist heroes Castro and Guevara play the bourgeois game?

By Gary Morley, CNN
  • Communist icons Fidel Castro and Che Guevara pictured playing golf in Havana in 1959
  • Golf traditionally shunned by hardline socialist regimes as a symbol of capitalism
  • Rare images up for auction, among seven from Castro's personal photographer
  • The pictures have caused much debate, with contradictory stories about the event

London, England (CNN) -- Were two of communism's most iconic figures trying to mock the U.S. President when they fronted up for a game of golf clad in military fatigues and combat boots?

Or were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara sending a message of peace when they were pictured embracing a sport derided by hardline socialists as a decadent symbol of the bourgeoisie?

The debate has been rekindled following a British auction of rare photographs showing Cuba's longtime leader Castro playing a round with his Marxist revolutionary counterpart.

The two pictures were both taken by Guevara's personal photographer, the late Alberto Korda, but no-one seems certain exactly when the bizarre occasion took place and what inspired it.

The images of Guevara lining up a putt and Castro watching the progress of a shot down the fairway while playing at a course in Havana were part of a collection of Korda's Cuban photos under auction at Dominic Winter in Cirencester, England.

The golf game was a photo opportunity. The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower
--Fidel Castro
  • Fidel Castro
  • Che Guevara
  • Cuba
  • Communism
  • Golf

Dominic Winter listed them as dating from 1959 shortly after Castro took power, but other reports place the event in the following decade.

One of Castro's first acts as Commander in Chief was to plough all but one of Cuba's golf courses, leaving just a nine-hole venue.

Golf is seen by many to be a sport for the rich, and not the people.

Even today, Venezuela's socialist president Hugo Chavez is shutting down luxury golf courses and using the land for community projects.

One report, from the Golf Digest, said Castro and Guevara played in 1959 ahead of the Cuban leader's planned meeting with U.S. President and avid golfer Dwight D. Eisenhower, which never eventuated.

But a blog in the New York Times speculates that Castro set up the match after Eisenhower refused to meet him in Washington, having chosen to play golf instead.

Korda further muddied the waters before his death in 2001, telling the New York Times: "One day, President Eisenhower made the front page of the New York Times after scoring a hole-in-one during a golf match. In jest, Fidel asked Che to teach him how to play. Che knew how to play golf from his childhood in Argentina. Fidel asked me along to take some photos."

However, as the Times blog The Lede later pointed out, Eisenhower sank his first hole-in-one in 1968, by when the course Castro and Guevara played on had been turned into a school.

Britain's Independent newspaper reported last year that the match in fact took place in late 1962 shortly after the Cuban missile crisis.

It said Castro had intended sending a message of peace to President John F. Kennedy at Cuba's historic course at Colinas de Villareal.

The Independent quoted journalist Jose Lorenzo Fuentes, Fidel's personal reporter, as saying: "Castro told me that the headline of the story the next day would be 'President Castro challenges President Kennedy to a friendly game of golf'."

Castro himself once recalled that he had been mocking Eisenhower, but gave no specifics of the date.

"One day, Che and I went to play golf. He had been a caddie once to earn some money in his spare time; I, on the other hand, knew absolutely nothing about this expensive sport," he said in quotes published on Cuba's Television Camaguey Web site in 2007.

"The United States government had already decreed the suspension and the redistribution of Cuba's sugar quota, after the Revolution had passed the Agrarian Reform Law. The golf game was a photo opportunity. The real purpose was to make fun of Eisenhower."

For the record, Guevara apparently thrashed his great friend after going around the course in 127 shots -- Castro tallied more than 150.

Fuentes wrote in the communist party daily Granma that Fidel had lost, the Independent reported, and was sacked the next day and fled the country.

The two Korda photos both had a reserve price of around $600-920 in the auction at Dominic Winter, but went for substantially higher.

The shot of Guevara putting sold for $4,340 and the image of Castro on the fairway snared $3,040, both from European buyers.

A picture of Guevara on a fishing trip had the highest reserve, set at $2,200-3,000, and sold for almost $9,700.