Obituary: Antonio Nnez Jimenez

Nick Caistor
Monday 21 September 1998 23:02

SPELEOLOGY AND revolution may at first sight seem strange bedfellows. But Antonio Nnez Jimenez managed to combine a love of cave exploration with a passion for the Cuban revolution that saw him on the one hand publish many books on Cuba's geography, and on the other to occupy a number of high-level posts in the Castro government.

He was born in the Alquzar district of the Cuban capital. His love of cave exploration led him to his choice of career, and he studied geography at Havana University. In 1940 he became a founder member of the Cuban Speleological society, while at the same time joining student groups opposed to the regime of the then dictator Fulgencio Batista.

It was for these student opposition activities that, when one of his early books, A Geography of Cuba, was published in 1954, it was seized and burnt by the authorities. Jimenez was himself later captured and tortured by the security forces.

These experiences led him to seek to join the revolutionary struggle then taking place in the mountains of Cuba, led by Fidel Castro and the Argentine Ernesto "Che" Guevara. It was with the latter that Jimenez fought, taking part in the decisive battle for the city of Santa Clara in December 1958, and entering the capital in triumph with Guevara on 2 January 1959.

The close friendship he had developed with Guevara continued after the success of the revolution, and Jimenez followed the Argentine in his career as the guerrilla fighters attempted to govern rather than fight. In 1960, he was put in charge of the key area of agrarian reform, while Guevara looked after industrialisation. In 1962 he followed Guevara into the economic sphere, taking over from him as president of the Central Bank.

At the same time however, Jimenez never gave up his scientific interests, and in the late 1960s returned to that domain when he was named President of the Academy of Science of Cuba. He also continued to teach, as Professor of Geography and Speleology in Havana University. As such he explored much of the interior of Cuba, and studied its history and first inhabitants, many of whom had lived in caves.

Jimenez was convinced the first peoples of Cuba had come to the island from the Amazon region of South America, and in 1987 led a historic expedition in which for over a year he and his colleagues travelled in dugout canoes from the Amazon basin down along the Orinoco River and out into the Caribbean and across to Cuba to try to prove his theories.

Among other positions Jimenez held were deputy minister of culture and ambassador to Peru, and more recently the post of head of the Cuban Foundation for Nature and Man. He published more than 20 books, which vividly illustrate his twin passions, varying as they do between Cuba with a Knapsack on My Back and Caves and Pictographs, to On the March with Fidel and Fatherland or Death, as well as several on Che Guevara, and The Tobacco Book, a history of cigars, published in 1994.

He had just finished writing a complete biography of Guevara when he died. At his funeral attended by Fidel Castro and numerous other dignitaries, the official historian of Havana, Eusebio Lel, summed up Nnez Jimenez's many passions when be spoke of his love for "Cuba, for its land, its mountains, its solitary caves".

Antonio Nnez Jimenez, geographer, politican and writer: born 1923; married (two daughters); died Havana 12 September 1998.

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