06 August 2007

Fidel Castro

A notorious embrace: Fidel and Bill, April, 1996
Original Photo by Patrick Pagnano for CBS News

Fidel Castro turns 81 on 13 August. This may come as a surprise, given his parlous state of health in recent years — already we suspected he was severely ill when we met him, 11 years ago. When he greeted Dan Rather with one of his trademark hugs, Dan seemed startled. Later he turned to the rest of us and said, “Does he seem puffy to you?”

Since I’d never been hugged by Castro before, I had no point of reference. The closest I’d ever gotten to Castro had been the far side of the newsroom one day when he came for a studio tour, in the course of a visit to New York to address the United Nations. So throughout the rest of the week we spent with him in Cuba, I kept looking for signs of illness and frailty.

We’ve since had proof of his illness, albeit with scant detail on what, precisely, he’s been suffering from. His public appearances are very rare now. But he endures. And that may come as a surprise, too, to those who actually believed the U.S. government’s persistent nonsense about the efficacy of its embargo, which was guaranteed to drive the man out of power, and possibly into an early grave, 40 years ago. I have sometimes wondered if the most fervent anti-Castro activists in America weren’t all double agents of some sort, since their insistence on continued hostility toward the Cuban President has made it so much easier for the old boy to retain his power: he could always blame his failures on the big bad neighbor, and rally his people against the American menace.

Even now, the U.S. pushes Castro and Hugo Chávez ever closer, and Cuba builds stronger ties to China, effectively filling the gap left when the Soviet Union crumbled, leaving the island without a patron. Although the state of Cuba was dire when I went there in 1996, Castro has rebounded since, and it’s worth asking whether the outcome might have been different, had the U.S. tried a different policy at the moment when Cuba was at its weakest and most isolated.

But instead the United States Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened and deepened the embargo, in March 1996. There’s no doubt that Castro was worried by this move and its implications. Instantly, there were “spontaneous demonstrations” in the streets of Cuba, protesting the new American law. He was in hot water already, since a few weeks earlier the Cuban air force had shot down two planes operated by Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro organization from Florida. The Brothers deliberately provoked Castro, and though any sovereign nation would have taken action against such intruders, the incident made Cuba — and therefore Castro himself — look bad. Ever a wily media manipulator, Castro knew he needed a new PR campaign. So when CBS News proposed an hour-long documentary, timed to his seventieth birthday, Castro accepted.

He granted us extraordinary access, three full days of his time. This struck some of us as difficult to understand, and at one point somebody asked him whether he didn’t have better things to do with at least some part of his time. “Oh, no,” he replied, “this is my vacation.” He got to know most of us by name, and he bestowed on me a nickname: el Novelista. Or, in his accented Spanish, “el Nobelita.”

Dan had interviewed Castro many times before. One of the Cuban officials assigned to us reported that, according to their calculations, Dan had spent more time than any other American journalist with the Presidente. Contrary to what some on the far right may think, often the conversations between Dan and Fidel were less like an interview and more like an argument in a barroom, two crusty old debaters going at it over many glasses of scotch, late into the night. They respected each other, and they resembled each other: they were both wily survivors who had overcome many obstacles to endure, despite the predictions (and active hostility) of many. Their relationship reminded me of that between Dan and Bob Dole, and I mentioned it to them. Fidel just stared at me.

Dan pressed forward, however, and quoted Faulkner, to the effect that enduring is not the same as prevailing. “You didn’t say we prevailed,” he said.

“It was an accident,” I replied.

Unquestionably, Fidel enjoyed himself, frequently turning to our producer, the CBS News vice-president Linda Mason, and saying, “Well, what do we do next?” as if he were a newsroom intern. And with the practiced charm of an expert seducer, he answered Linda’s instructions: “We must always do what Lindas [pretty girls] tell us.”

He took us to the Sierra Maestra mountains, where he commanded guerrilla attacks against Batista; to the Museum of the Revolution, where he showed us the yacht, the Granma, that brought him and his warriors back to Cuba from exile in Mexico; and he took Dan (but not me) to the Bay of Pigs and walked him through his campaign there. Those were, in their way, happier times for him, when he was young and victorious, and the memories energized him.

He enjoys being the center of attention, and he doesn’t need an American news team to get it. He has only to get in his Mercedes and drive — anywhere — and the people will flock to him. His every public appearance is a rally. I can’t imagine a political figure, or a rock star or television anchor, who wouldn’t envy him at least a little.

Of course, he’s a dictator, and his people turn out because they’re ordered to do so. That their love may not be completely trustworthy is made clear by the Kalashnikov he keeps strapped to the back of the driver’s seat of that Mercedes, in case he needs to defend himself. Nevertheless, in the rural areas we visited together (a sugar factory, a country school), the people’s enthusiasm seemed more sincere: alternative forms of entertainment are few. What else are you going to do for a good time? But in Havana, I got the unavoidable feeling that a lot of the people were there because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t turn out.

If Fidel himself made that distinction, he didn’t show it. It looked like love, it sounded like love, and he accepted it as love.

With a gun beside him, and a battery of security people around him.

(Sometimes their presence was reassuring to me. If I got swept away in the crowds, or lost in the streets of Havana, I knew that Cuban security wasn’t going to leave me stranded: eventually, they’d track me down. The American President’s security, by contrast, doesn’t really care where you wind up, so long as you don’t get near the President. At one point I noticed one of the Cuban security guys smiling at me in greeting, and one of our producers, Kristina Borjesson, said, “He’s probably assigned to you — he’s studied your case file so long, he feels as if he knows you personally.”)

Fidel is a tall man, taller than Dan, taller than anyone else in his (or Dan’s) entourage. He has the face of an El Greco saint (though let it be remembered that Greco got his models from madhouses) or a Renaissance artist — Michelangelo, for example, without the broken nose. During the long sit-down interview on our penultimate night in Havana, I slipped out my sketchpad and drew that face, as I sat in the shadows and listened. (A pity I don’t have a scanner, or you could see that picture now.)

His hands are large and well-shaped, and he gestures constantly, even for a Latin, with grace and precision. One particular gesture indicates the depth of the thought he’s expressing, the length of time he’s considered it, the philosophical value of it: he points his index finger and raises it, backward, to his forehead, then pulls it away sharply.

For a while, I tried to incorporate that gesture into my own repertory, but it is too much work. Fidel is a very great actor, and although people tend to wonder what would have happened if he’d gone into baseball for a living, I wonder what would have happened if he’d gone into theater. I’d pay any amount of money to see his Prospero. He was born to play that part. (Actually, he does play that part, exercising rough magic to dominate a tropical island.)

In the Sierra Maestras (but not with me)

His charisma (which I’ve discussed here) is dazzling. Nothing could have prepared me for that, even though, logically, I tell myself that of course he’s charismatic, because he must be. He wouldn’t have attained or held his position if he weren’t.

He is also funny, and it’s unfortunate that I wasn’t able to take notes while I was with him, because the jokes are lost now: I’m working from 45 pages I wrote the week I got back to New York. I didn’t expect the humor, either, perhaps because the Cold War propaganda I received in public school could permit no admirable traits to dilute its portrait of a Communist. But Fidel is a complex guy.

I’m prepared to believe, for example, that he sincerely wanted to change Cuba for the better, to eradicate the spiritual and economic prostitution of Cuba’s society. Under Batista and for too long in Cuba’s history, too many people would do just about anything for a Yankee dollar. Fidel wanted to change that. He wanted to eliminate crime, especially the American mafia, and he wanted to give Cuba’s mostly non-white population opportunities to prosper with dignity. He wanted to bring literacy and medical care to the people.

Like it or not, he did all those things, too: that’s one reason I believe he was sincere in at least some of his ideals. When we visited him, the cutoff of Soviet aid had forced Cuba to return to the tourist trade — in reluctant, localized doses — and you could see that Fidel didn’t like it, not only because there’s really nothing more capitalist than tourism, but because it made his people subservient to strangers. It troubled him visibly to know that bellboys earned more than doctors. He knew, as well as we did, that if we wandered outside the Hotel Nacional in the evening, we wouldn’t have to walk far before we’d be offered the sale of cigars and rum, smuggled out of the factory by workers who couldn’t survive on the state-regulated wage. And cigars and rum weren’t the worst: you could buy a girl, too, or a boy, or several.

He didn’t really talk about these things much. You could see it in his eyes, though. He wasn’t defeated, but he was, in a way, grieving.

How to reconcile that with the man who has violently suppressed opposition, jailed dissidents, brutalized and killed so many of his people? It’s not enough to quote Lord Acton, though it’s clear that power corrupted Fidel. He traded Yankee influence for Soviet influence, and Cuba remained poor and weak. He taught his people to read and write, but he censored their books and newspapers — and when I was in Cuba, there was hardly any paper at all. He educated them in politics, but they weren’t allowed to disagree. (“In our society, we need unity more than dissent,” he told Dan.) He gave them health care, but not medicine. He promised his people freedom of all kinds, but he jailed homosexuals, too, and people of religious faith.

There’s a fine movie called Strawberry and Chocolate in which a gay Cuban, an early and avid, very idealistic supporter of Fidel, tries to reconcile the promise of the revolution and the later repression. He can’t do it. Surprisingly, the film was made in Cuba, under Castro’s regime. When we returned to Havana for John Paul II’s visit, in 1997, the protagonist’s apartment had been turned into a restaurant, part of the limited privatization of the new Cuban economy.

Throughout our visit, Fidel was accompanied by a translator, a woman about my age, named Juanita Vera. She was a prodigy, giving rapid-fire translation of everything Fidel and Dan said, though both were champion talkers, especially in each other’s company. During the long sit-down interview, she asked for a pad of paper, and got it. We assumed she wanted it, as most translators would, to take notes. In fact, one of the cameramen picked up the pad after the interview was over, and he found it covered with doodles. At another point in that interview, one of the cameramen swore that Juanita Vera had fallen asleep. Yet she never missed a word.

The presence of a translator had a couple of curious effects. One was that her voice became Fidel’s, and you forgot she was there at all. Yet she was there, and for hours at a time she and I engaged in a sly, silent second conversation, underneath that of our bosses: raised eyebrows and smiles reacting to what the two men said. I felt a real affinity for her, but I realized later that we’d hardly exchanged two words directly.

She was reading Primary Colors, and she asked us who we thought had written it, and how much of it was true: precisely the cocktail party guessing game that all Washington and most of New York were playing. Fidel was eager to read the book, just as soon as Juanita Vera translated it for him.

We were drinking cocktails, too, as we talked about the book: “This is a mojito, a Cuban specialty,” Fidel said to me. “I hope you like it.”

A few minutes later, Dan mentioned that someone needed balls to do something. Juanita translated everything except “balls,” and so I pitched in, “Cojones.” Only to realize that, although it’s a word used by everyone you ever saw in New York City, in Havana cojones is not a word for nice people like Juanita (or Fidel, for that matter, who looked at me as if to say, “Yes, I understood without your help, thank you”).

Back at the hotel, Dan remarked that every time he came to Cuba, he found Fidel surrounded by an entirely new group of people. (That’s not always, or not any longer, quite true: his chief of staff at the time, so young that people called him “Fidel’s Stephanopoulos,” was Felipe Pérez Roque, who is now foreign minister.) We wondered what would become of Juanita Vera. I don’t know: I fear it would be impolitic to inquire.

During the long sit-down interview, Dan asked Fidel about his hobbies. We had heard that he liked to cook. Fidel got a bit wistful, and said that the press of his official duties was such that he no longer had time to cook. (Never mind that plenty of people, in Cuba and the United States, would be happy to help him find the time and lose the duties.) However, he said, it was possible that at dinner that night we might be served one of his old recipes.

That recipe turned out to be lobster, and Fidel, waxing nostalgic again, talked of his student days, when he and his friends would cook dinner and talk politics and dream of revolution, long into the night. I thought of Rena Grant, and I pointed out that in the U.S., very few revolutionary students I knew could afford lobster, even if they cooked it themselves. But Fidel ignored my irony.

The sit-down interview had lasted several hours, during which Dan played Fidel like a fiddle, making a provocative remark whenever the older man’s energy seemed to fail. Now it was quite late, but we drank our cocktails and then seated ourselves at a long table in a reception room in a parliamentary building. (I can’t remember which.) It was a terrific meal, and though the lobster may have been counter-revolutionary, it was delicious.

The complete menu: salad, then soup, then lobster tail, then a pork dish with potato purée, then ice cream with cookies. And a lot of wine.

Much of the conversation tended, naturally, to a dialogue between Dan and Fidel, opposite each other in the middle of the table. The other Cubans remained respectfully silent, at the far end of the table, or spoke softly in Spanish among themselves, but in the true democratic spirit of CBS News, the other Americans piped up quite often in the “grownups” discussion.

At one point, Fidel told Dan that he’d been requested to grant an interview to John Kennedy, Jr., who had recently launched his political magazine, George. Did Dan think this was a good idea, Fidel wanted to know, and what did Dan think of Kennedy?

Dan rose to fame with his coverage of the assassination of John’s father, and Dan’s son worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office with John. His feelings for the two Kennedys were profound and somewhat romanticized, as he demonstrated by launching into an aria of praise for the younger man. John was very intelligent, Dan said, hardworking and admirable, devoted to his mother, kind to small animals, and also very witty.

Now, I’d known John in college, and although he was a great guy, and treated me very kindly despite sleeping with half the women I had crushes on, you wouldn’t call him witty. That was too much for me — I burst out laughing.

Fidel perked up. “Que dice el Novelista?” he said to Juanita Vera.


But I rallied, and in what may prove to be the most diplomatic statement of my life, I compared John to Prince Hal ("Enrique Cinco"), saying that though he may have been too much interested in his own pleasure as a young man, we all believe he was maturing and would be a great king, one day soon.

Very often when I was included in the conversation, we talked of Shakespeare that trip. Fidel displayed a familiarity with the major works, though he preferred Cervantes and, among English-speaking authors, Hemingway, whom he knew personally.

The evening wore on. It was long past midnight now, and dessert was followed by digestifs and cigars. Fidel no longer smoked, he said, out of concern for the health of his staff — and not, by implication, out of any concern for his own health. But he encouraged us to smoke. In those days, Dan needed little encouragement to smoke a good cigar, and since Cuban cigars were outlawed under Helms-Burton, he seized the opportunity and lit up. I’d given up cigarettes a few years earlier, but I figured this didn’t even count: I was with Castro in Cuba, for pity’s sake. I chose a cigarillo, but I didn’t like it, and put it out after a couple of puffs. Dan, however, was smoking like a chimney.

Quietly, Felipe Pérez Roque, who was seated between Dan and me, pushed back from the table and took an inhaler from his pocket.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

"Oh, it is nothing," Felipe said in English. "I am asthmatic."

"I can see that," I said. “Do you want to trade places with someone? Do you want me to ask Mr. Rather to stop?”

“No, no, it’s all right,” Felipe said.

Dan took no notice of this, and Felipe suffered in silence.

Since I wasn’t partaking of the tobacco, and since the mojito turned out to be pretty spiffy, I thought I would try whatever Fidel was drinking. I signaled one of the waiters and asked what it was.

“Fra Angelico, señor.”

Damn. I was hoping for something exotic and Cuban. I sent the waiter away again, then thought better of it, then thought better again.

Talk of the Kennedys had gotten to Dan, and he addressed Fidel. “We’ve known each other a long time,” he said in a thick voice, “and I’m asking you, as a man. Did you have anything to do with the assassination?”

"No — nothing," came the answer. "Many things have been said about me, but never that I was crazy. I was trying to improve relations between Cuba and the United States. What would killing your president do to advance my goals? I knew that the political philosophies would outlast one man. Why would I kill Kennedy? Solely for vengeance? That vengeance would cost me too much. No, I had nothing to do with it!"

He and Dan were staring each other in the face, and it was as if Juanita didn't exist, although of course it was only her voice they understood.

Fidel went on, talking about his belief that Oswald could not have acted alone. He knew the kind of rifle Oswald was said to have used, he said, and the scope, and he didn't think Oswald could have fired all the shots in the time allowed. Fidel pointed out that he was a pretty good marksman in his day, and during the revolution they would welcome new recruits by using them in target practice: they'd set up an object a foot away from the recruit and Fidel would fire. Sometimes recruits would bring the target even closer to themselves, to demonstrate their faith in Fidel, "even between their legs," he said.

"Dan does the same thing for new hires at CBS," I said.

"What I cannot understand is why Oswald wanted to come to Cuba," Fidel went on. Dan ascribed the motivation to Oswald's being crazy, to Marina's refusal to sleep with him, and so on. I offered that the desire to come to Cuba was quite logical. "If one is, as Oswald probably was, a bit crazy and very much desirous of a certain kind of attention, in those days he might have expected to get that attention by defecting to the Soviet Union. When he didn't get the attention he thought he deserved, he defected back to the United States. Still he didn't get the attention. So the next logical step, Mr. President, was you."

Surely that had occurred to him already, but Fidel nodded thoughtfully. He told us that he felt a strong connection to the Kennedys, as if he were unaware of the reports of bad feeling they bore him, and he asked more questions about Jackie, Caroline, and John.

At last it was time to leave, and Fidel escorted us to the front entrance of the building. Standing at the top of a flight of steps, he hugged each of us in full revolutionary comrade-style. Yet as he embraced me, I thought not of revolution but of my grandfather, an old man bidding me farewell after a good meal.

You talk about charisma.

And he said to me in Spanish what was, as near as I could make out, "I look forward to reading your novel."

The next morning we were all pretty worn out. Fidel had proposed a trip to his hometown, but mercifully we’d decided against that. We went to a hospital that specialized in heart surgery, both so that Fidel could tout his universal health care and Dan could tout the lack of medicine. (Fidel blamed that on the embargo.) After touring the facility and talking a bit longer, the last interview was complete, and it was time to say goodbye. Fidel approached me, and because he had embraced me the night before, I knew what was coming: one last hug.

Over his shoulder I saw Patrick Pagnano, the photographer working for CBS, with his camera at the ready, and I knew in that instant what my dad was going to get for Fathers Day: a big picture of his elder son getting hugged by a Communist dictator. Patrick clicked off three pictures, in fact, and they’re great — me with a shit-eating grin and Fidel looking like a Fidel Castro impersonator, in his green fatigues, his own icon.

Those pictures are among the few from my CBS career in which Dan, not I, is obscured in the background. Patrick gave me not only prints but also color Xeroxes on poster-sized paper, which I put up wherever I go. When the press attaché from the Cuban Mission to the U.N. visited my office at CBS, he squawked, “Why do you have a picture like that? I don’t have a picture like that!”

My dad worked in the Office of Naval Intelligence during the Cold War, and he’s no fan of Communism. I took one of the poster-sized pictures and mounted it on a larger piece of paper with the caption: “The threat of International Communism has not abated! Warning: Your child could be next!” He hung it in his office.

When we returned to Havana for the Pope’s visit, Fidel was being coy with the press. There were vague assurances that maybe he was thinking about possibly granting one interview, and that perhaps Dan might get it, but really, the Presidente didn’t want to upstage the Pope, but on the other hand he might turn up at the Habana Libre Hotel one night, or on the other hand he might not.

Then Monicagate broke out, and every American news crew dashed back to Washington. Fidel himself had been upstaged — and he was probably kicking himself.

He was one of the most fascinating and most troubling characters I'll ever encounter, and I'll never meet him again.