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Fidel in the Evening

Fidel Castro y la religion: Conversaciones con Frei Betto

Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores, 379 pp., (out of print)

Memorias de un soldado cubano: Vida y muerte de la Revolución

by Dariel Alarcón Ramírez, by (“Benigno”)
Barcelona: Tusquets, 354 pp., 2,900 pesetas

1.

If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life. Perhaps you saw him first in the Plaza of the Revolution, when doves landed on his shoulders as he made his first speech in power. Even if you weren’t there you remember this event as if it had happened to you, because the photographic image of that moment has become part of the national memory. Fidel visited the shiny new infant nurseries and kindergartens and dandled you on his knee and patted your teacher on the back and told you in his papery voice that you were the future of the Revolution. Later he would spread his solemn soaring gaze over Cuba like a protective mantle and you saw him on every poster and wall mural in your barrio. “With Fidel, our whole life!” “In every barrio, Revolución!”

You think of Fidel when you get your Young Pioneer red bandanna, and your Communist Youth credential. You cling to him for dear life when he is the only solid object standing between you and the great hazy wall of death ninety miles away. Invasion. Nuclear disaster. Total annihilation at the hands of blue-eyed destroyers. Fidel protects you from it all. You are a child, but you are moved beyond words at his courage, which becomes your courage, at his grandeur, which is yours, at his historical inevitability, which you, with your own small courage and your insignificant sacrifice, make possible. Later, when you cut cane against the clock for grueling months on end you do it to meet his goal: Ten Million Tons! That endless, agonizing harvest of 1969-1970 turns the island upside down and mobilizes nearly every able-bodied youth in Cuba. It produces barely eight million tons of sugar, and Cuba’s productive infrastructure is nearly destroyed as a result of the effort, but when he offers to resign you are in the Plaza, weeping and shouting No! With Fidel, even unto death! You donate blood for Fidel when he demands your international solidarity for disaster victims overseas, and you are awed and moved to tears again at the endless generosity, the espíritu de sacrificio with which his words fill you. Your voice thunders through the actos, the revolutionary gatherings where faith is rekindled, “Fi-del! Fi-del! Fi-del!” Such a small island, such a great role in history.

Fidel never visits Angola but he is there with you in spirit. You are not among the several thousand internacionalista martyrs who died in Africa, and for this, although you would not confess it, you are grateful. This is a new feeling, and you may or may not want to dwell on it: martyrdom used to be a blessed gift, a grail Che finally found within his grasp, but after the aventura africana you are not sure that this is the destiny you seek. What was it again that your compatriots gave their lives for? Better not to question, better not to ask. Once again, it is time to gather at the Plaza and renew your fervor. “Fi-del! Fi-del!” After all, he needs you more than ever. It’s time to throw stones at the eighty thousand Marielitos who have decided to flee the Revolution. It’s time to remind yourself that the true Revolutionary does not question decisions whose intricacies and true causes cannot be revealed: information is the coin only Seguridad del Estado can trade on.

That is why you watch the television screen, transfixed, when the trial of the regime’s most popular military commander along with three other officers plays itself out. Drugs, treason, obscene accumulation of privileges are among the charges. When Fidel demands the death penalty for the daring, dashing General Arnaldo Ochoa, humble son of campesinos, Hero of the Republic, commander at the legendary battle that crippled the South African invading army in Angola, you swallow hard. Fidel’s hand does not tremble, his voice does not shake, his gaze is as firm and soaring as ever. He knows something you don’t.

And really it is not a moment to stint on loyalty, because the frail canoe that is the Revolution is about to go under in the tidal wave that history has seen fit to unleash on the world. The Soviet Union is no more, socialism has collapsed everywhere. But not on your besieged island, because, once again, Fidel has determined that he, and through him, you, will be greater than any man, will defy history, defy the odds, live for a dream so that others may dream too, dream of a world of perfect equality and perfect justice such as Cuba will one day produce. Socialism will not be defeated! This is a new adventure: Cuba, this beloved and fragile vessel, will ride out the ominous storm. With Fidel at the helm, there is no cause for fear, and yet you are, for the first time, unconsolably afraid. Suddenly, the Comandante is looking very old.

It is January 16, 1998—nearly ten years after the demise of the Soviet Union, only twelve months shy of the fortieth anniversary of Fidel Castro’s Revolution. At nine o’clock, Cubans throughout the island prop chairs in front of the television set or nestle into bed, cushions against their backs, to watch the screen. The Comandante en Jefe de la Revolución is about to give a televised press conference—one of the very few formal press conferences to take place live in Cuba, and exclusively with members of the Cuban press, in memory. Because the press conference is taking place only days before the arrival of Pope John Paul II in Havana, and because Fidel is said to be ailing, attention is focused on the political significance of the event (is it a sign of glasnost on the eve of the Pope’s arrival?). And on his appearance (he has not been looking the picture of health).

It’s not as though the viewing audience has been out of touch with their leader in recent times. He is, as always, everywhere—inaugurating seminars, commemorating fateful events, attending receptions, and meeting with world leaders at home and abroad. But a press conference, with its spontaneous give and take, promises to be a novelty. Never mind that the representatives of the press on this particular evening are hardly likely to ask irreverent or troublesome questions. In addition to the moderator, Héctor Rodríguez, a news presenter for the government TV channel, they are four high-level journalists: one each from the National Television Newscast, Trabajadores, the official workers’ paper, and Granma, which is the Communist Party paper; and someone who represents both Radio Havana Cuba and Cuban Television. Probably very few people among those now settling in with a cup of coffee in front of the screen would ever imagine that a troublesome or probing question could be asked on such an occasion.

The first question, from Loly Estévez of the National Television Newscast, sets the tone. She requests Castro’s opinion of the results of the national elections staged on the previous Sunday, January 11. Castro’s answer (as it appears in the official transcription published by Granma five days later) is relatively brief: eleven paragraphs in which he extols the people’s satisfaction in their own victory. They have, he points out, decisively elected representatives of the Cuban Communist Party to occupy 95 percent of the 494 seats in the Asamblea Nacional (the Cuban legislative body) despite the hardships Cuba is undergoing. “A miracle,” Fidel says of the election in conclusion. “That is my impression. I won’t fundamentarlo, I hope I will have to [provide my arguments later on], but you asked me for my impression.”1

No news so far, but Cubans have had the opportunity to study their leader in greater close-up and at greater length than usual. The quaver in the Comandante’s silvery voice, the thick white spittle that keeps forming at the corners of his mouth, the odd pout that deforms his lower lip and distorts his pronunciation, have all been noted. Fidel, always upright, always gallant, was also always very handsome. Now, at seventy-one, even his wispy beard denotes infirmity. His viewers pay close attention: Fidel’s soaring gaze has been replaced by the hollow fearful stare of the very ill, as if someone within were peering out behind bars. Is it really true that he’s sick?

After the initial discussion of the elections there is a little exchange, in the half-bantering, half-grumpy tone Cubans are so familiar with:

Fidel Castro: The other compañeros can ask questions, or you, Héctor, who are part of the panel; you’re not just going to be the boss here, giving orders.

Moderator: No, I’ll ask too.

Fidel Castro: So I’m waiting for your questions.

Moderator: Martínez Pírez has asked for the floor.

Fidel Castro: On the same subject?

Moderator: Yes.

Fidel Castro: Please, on the point we were just on: don’t change the subject.

Martínez Pírez dutifully comments that before the Sunday vote there had been all sorts of dire predictions in the foreign press about possible electoral sabotage.

Fidel interrupts:

Listen, Pírez, if you all aren’t pressed for time, before I go on to the subject of abstentions and all that, I’d prefer to explain some aspects of what I was talking about before, and then, maybe, in part we’ll make some progress [on your topic].

What Fidel is so eager to explain can be summarized in a couple of sentences for a non-Cuban audience: for the first time in these elections Cuban authorities discounted from the total of valid votes those which were not cast at the polling booth where the voter was registered. A total of 119,000 votes were invalidated this way, which means that the valid votes cast did not amount to 99.80 percent of the possible total, but to a mere 98.35 percent. In the transcript, this explanation takes up two entire tabloid pages and then some of the special issue of Granma (which, normally, because of the paper shortage, puts out an eight-page newspaper every other day). Fidel reviews the history of the Cuban Revolution, the US economic embargo, the heroic role of the teenage Pioneros who patrolled the polling booths (“In our electoral system, in our democracy, why would soldiers have to guard the booths?”), in order to mull irritably over the lost 1.45 percent which, he insists, by right should have been included in the total, to the greater glory of Cuban democracy. Too bad the electoral officers decided to be so punctilious.

Do I make myself clear?” Fidel interrupts himself at one point.

Perfectly,” the moderator assures him, but Fidel returns obsessively to his percentages and fractions for an additional two full pages of the transcript before interrupting himself again.

Do you think people have gone to sleep on me?”

  1. 1

    Granma, Suplemento especial, Tuesday, January 20, 1998.

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