Gunning Birds With Commie Dictators

By Edgar Castillo

Just hearing the name Fidel Castro conjures up images of revolution, communism, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the tense Cuban Missile Crisis, and plain old dictatorship. He was a charismatic leader and master manipulator who duped the Cuban populace for decades as he fought a constant battle against “American imperialism.”

But this is not a discussion of Castro’s regime or political ideals. On the contrary, it’s a look at his pursuit of wingshooting. Born in 1926, Fidel was the son of a wealthy landowner and lived a privileged lifestyle. He was often seen toting a shotgun on his father’s estate as a boy, hunting Cuban bobwhite quail, shore birds, and waterfowl with his bird dog, Napoleon. 

Then it seemed Fidel went on a personal sabbatical from the mid-1940s until the beginning of his reign in 1959. During which time he bought into the Marxist-Leninist ideology, overthrew the government, and declared himself as supreme ruler over Cuba. After settling in as “El Jefe,” he resumed his semi-secret affair with bird hunting. You see, Castro portrayed to the people that the revolution left him with no possibility for any leisure time—far from the truth. Castro would often sneak away to hunt ducks several times a year at various “fincas” (estates) that he seized upon taking power, including his personal favorite chalet, Pinar del Rio. He often boasted about the abundance of species of ducks he shot at these locations.

Despite all the time Castro spent stirring up his people to rail against the Americans, and adamantly despising the bourgeois concept of a vacation, he was quick to accept a personal invite to take a break. In 1964, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was able to tempt Castro to visit and to “rest and become acquainted with the winter landscape and to hunt in the snow-clad forests” of Mother Russia. Yes, maybe there was some talk between both dictators about their country’s relationship and world domination, but it was not at the top of the list. Hunting was.

With the Soviet press agency in tow, Castro’s visit became a propaganda-fueled film called, “The Guest from the Island of Freedom.” After some obligatory scenes visiting key military and industrial locations, the majority of the footage was centered around Castro and Khrushchev shooting various guns and hunting. Donning a furry Ushanka hat, Russian military winter garb, and puffing on a Cuban cigar, Castro and Khrushchev patterned 12-gauge side-by-side shotguns for the next morning’s duck hunt. The guns were most likely crafted at the Soviet-esque sounding Central Design and Research Bureau of Sporting and Hunting Arms in the city of Tula.

The following day the two leaders, along with KGB agents, boarded a pair of small boats and hunted a shallow marsh. The two dictators shot five fully plumed drake mallards. Khrushchev was regarded as an excellent hunter and shooter and was surprisingly impressed by Castro’s marksmanship skills.

Day three found the pair skimming across the lake as they traveled to a nearby forest. Hidden in a ground blind, Castro peered through a forest opening at a trio of black grouse “dancing” in the middle of a wooden glade. He fired, killing two large birds. At day’s end, Castro and Khrushchev were observed talking as the camera captured a line of dead black grouse and giant capercaillie. Castro’s hunting trip behind the Iron Curtain was a diplomatic success and solidified Cuba’s relationship with the USSR.

In May of 1972, Castro traveled to the Soviet satellite state of Romania. There he rubbed elbows with communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Sporting an athletic track suit and rifle, he hunted boar and found time to squeeze in a hunt for hazel grouse in the Southern Carpathians…i.e., Transylvania.

In 1984 photographer Eddie Adams was in Cuba and was ghosted by Castro for nearly two weeks. Finding disdain in not being able to interview the president, he left. Castro caught wind of this and sweet talked Adams into returning to Havana. Upon landing Adams was whisked away to a lavish countryside retreat to duck hunt to make amends.  

Castro, being a masterful shot, killed 76 ducks in just three hours. “He only missed one, he was really upset,” said Adams in a later interview. Adams memorialized the day with a portrait of Castro decked out in Cuban “elm leaf” camo, standing with a semi-auto shotgun poised over a ground littered mostly bluewing teal. That evening, they feasted on duck. Castro took an instant liking to Adams and the two continued to duck hunt for over 20 years.

It’s hard being a dictator—there are people to oppress, rivals to liquidate, and the media to silence. But if Castro’s experience proves anything, there’s always time to bird hunt.

From the FE Films Archive

See More Films from Field Ethos

You May Also Like