I met with Fidel Castro in 1990 in Havana. The capital city had more than ever become his cocoon — sheltering him from all that was going on around him. I was struck by his unflappable devotion to the revolution’s ideals. At the time, socialist principals – never mind its extreme cousin ‘communism’– were as out of fashion as bellbottoms and silk flowered shirts.
I was inspected for weapons, explosives, poison pills and/or whatever else they conjured that I might be hiding in a body cavity. It was the unique price I had to pay for the Cold War pall that has long hung like a worn drape over Cuba-U.S. relations. I paid well.
I belong to a very small group of American journalists who’ve had an audience with “Fidel.” However, what makes my presence there that day with him even more rare is that I’m a Cuban-born American. Castro and his revolutionaries despise my kind. We are worms – gusanos – the designation Castro personally stamped on all of Miami’s Cuban exiles.
There were but a handful of international journalists invited to meet with Castro, but I received by far the most scrutiny. Members of Cuba’s security forces from MININT, Ministry of the Interior, tailed me from the moment I arrived at Jose Marti International Airport. They seemed unabashed, if not outright obvious.
In the historic lobby of El Nacional Hotel, they waited for me. In the elevator, they would suddenly appear. There were also the clicking sounds on my phone, an obvious sign that someone might be listening to my every word. But none of that was quite as blatant as what was to come.
On the day of the meeting and subsequent interview with President Castro, I was received not by his staff — but rather his security detail. They asked me to follow them into another room where I was asked to remove my clothing — all of it. I was inspected for weapons, explosives, poison pills and/or whatever else they conjured that I might be hiding in a body cavity.
It was the unique price I had to pay for the Cold War pall that has long hung like a worn drape over Cuba-U.S. relations. I paid well.
The setting for our meeting was contained in two general themes: Glasnost/Perestroika and TV Marti. Castro detested them both and wanted the world to know. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who I would later interview about his dealings with Castro, was pushing market reforms and openness. Castro wanted nothing to do with it.
It was a strange time in both Cuba and Miami, as both cities were filled with a sense of optimism and confusion from the mixed messages coming from Moscow and Havana. Now, in hindsight, I ask myself, what was it really? It was the beginning of a long, dismal and boring end to Castro’s once flashy revolution. As an economic governing model, it was doomed to failure and everyone – save Fidel Castro – seemed to know it.
On that day, Castro did what Castro does best. Standing before me dressed in his trademark olive green military uniform, he resorted to the role of revolutionary combatant. His six-foot-four frame seemed mis-measured when combined with his fiery passion, scraggly beard and seemingly monstrous arms.
I was seated, he was standing and all I could see was not the man, but rather what he represented to hundreds of thousands like me who sought refuge in America because of him. The angry giant standing over me was the reason my parents had escaped from Cuba, the reason I had grown up an American and the reason I had once boyishly dreamed of killing Castro to please them.
On that day, I immediately realized that Gorbachev’s vaulted ideas of market reforms and true openness would come to Cuba only over Castro’s dead body. Castro immediately tied Glasnost and Perestroika to TV Marti, the U.S.-produced broadcast to the Cuban people from the Florida Keys. To Castro, it was all part of a plot to take him down, and Gorbachev was in on it.
Not long after that, Gorbachev, his lofty plans and his entourage was encouraged to leave Cuba. Asked about it years later when I caught up with the former Soviet leader, he snapped – “Why are you asking me that – why are you asking me about Castro?” He continued, “You Cubans are always obsessed with Castro.” He was right. We are.
That day in Havana, I got closer to understanding the historic revolutionary icon most will only know as “Fidel.” He was as impressively stubborn in his commitment to his ideals as he was completely mistaken on how to make them work! His passion and oratory repelled and yet somehow attracted. He was, unlike his brother Raul, a magnet for all that Cuba was and wasn’t.
I do not judge my fellow Cuban-American exiles that are taking to streets to celebrate his death, but neither to I feel the urge to join in. Maybe, it’s because that day in Havana I met their monster and realized he was just another horribly flawed man.