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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 17 September 2009
Nicola and her brother Kit in Cuba in 1960 with members of the local police
Nicola and her brother Kit in Cuba in 1960 with members of the local police
All photos courtesy of
Cuba Solidarity Campaign
Photographing Che

Dan Carrier talks to Nicola Seyd about her experience travelling in Cuba in the 1960s and her chance encounter with the legendary leader of the revolution

HIS face is one of the most iconic images the world has ever seen: Che Guevara’s bearded visage topped with a beret no longer simply represents a hero of the Cuban Revolution, it has come to be a global trademark of 1960s progressive politics.
And it makes the discovery in a cupboard in the Camden Town home of Nicola Seyd all the more extraordinary.
Nicola, a retired trade union campaigner who helps organise the London Socialist Film Co-Op and has worked for Camden’s Trades Council, found two old photo albums with pictures she had taken while working as a volunteer with her brother in Cuba in 1960.
And there, standing before her in the grounds of a new school she was helping to build, is Che Guevara. Flicking through the album, she found a record of her time on the island as a young woman.
The find coincided with a visit to Britain of Che’s daughter Aleida. Nicola was able to show Aleida previously unseen photographs of her father.
Nicola’s trip during the early days of the Cuban revolution came about unexpectedly. She had been attending World Youth Festivals, organised by students, throughout the 1950s, as a singer with the London Youth Choir. They took her to Bucharest, Warsaw, Moscow and Vienna.
It was as a maths student at the Northern Poly that she became involved in international student movements – always politically conscious, her family background was one of progressive politics, her father being a teacher at the Devon school Dartington, and both of her parents were members of the Communist Party.
Out of the blue, the festival organisers asked Nicola and her brother Kit whether they would be interested in visiting Cuba as part of a volunteers work programme.
“They gave us virtually no notice at all,” she recalls. “They asked: ‘Would you like to go? The trip is organised for next week.’”
And while the Cuban revolution had been international news, Nicola admits she knew little about the political situation on the island.
“I did not know anything about Cuba – I was totally unaware of the situation there,” she said.
They flew from Madrid – it was the only European city with planes heading to Havana – and shared a cabin with the Cuban minister for education. Aged just 26, he had been touring the Soviet Union to garner information about how to organise an education system. It stuck in Nicola’s mind as a sign of the inexperience and youth of the new administration – but with it their vitality, enthusiasm and determination that Cuba would become a fair and just society, with education a cornerstone of the new world they were trying to create.
“They were all so young,” recalls Nicola. “Fidel was only around 32 back then. Che was a little older but Raul was just in his late 20s.”
Nicola and her brother, along with other students from around the world, headed east from Havana to the Sierra Maestra, the mountains region from where the revolution had sprung. Castro and his group had used the mountains as a base to overthrow the Batista dictatorship and had received the support of the peasants living there.
Castro had promised to improve health and schools in the area – and Nicola found herself travelling along a dirt road into the mountains to help build a “school city”. This would be a boarding school for local people so they could have their children educated.
“The idea of the school city was to serve the whole area,” she recalls.
“It would provide education for little children through to the technical college level.
“The school was to be self supporting – as well as lessons, pupils would farm crops and learn about agriculture.”
While they had hoped to help with heavy construction work – and some of the volunteers from other countries were trained architects and surveyors – the plans for the buildings had not yet been finished in Havana, so they were set to work doing landscaping jobs around the buildings and pathways that were finished. And it was after a couple of weeks of hard work in exceptionally hot weather that they were informed the school had a special visitor heading their way.
“Che had been to the school before, spending two days working there to help build some of the first class rooms and dormitories,” Nicola recalls.
“He had been attending a rally at another town nearby when he came to the school to see how the work was getting on. We were told they had a visitor and then there he was – Che.
“He could only stay for a short time: so much so that he spoke to us in Spanish and asked a translator to tell us what he was saying afterwards.
“When we knew he was coming they were all very excited. He was always interested in meeting young people form other countries. He stayed at the end for pictures and I snapped away.”
But Nicola admits that while taking the pictures she was not quite aware of how important Che was to become in the history of the revolution.
She recalls: “At the time, he was not particularly well known – Fidel and Raul were the main people.”
She has since returned to the island and gone back to the school she helped build. The current pupils and teachers knew Che had visited in the past – the revolutionary had taken photos himself there and they had seen them – but they had no images of Che actually at their school.
“They were thrilled to see the photographs,” says Nicola.


All photos courtesy of Cuba Solidarity Campaign

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