“No, people haven’t gone to sleep, Comandante,” the moderator asserts, before adding helpfully, “Besides, you received more than 99 percent, and the Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces [Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother] did too.”
Fidel notes with satisfaction that another Castro brother, Ramón, who also ran for the Asamblea Popular, came up with exactly the same percentage, right up to the fraction, as he did, and after congratulating him on this happy coincidence, the moderator says, with what one can only assume is a certain desperate briskness, that it is time to change the subject. What, he would like to know, is Fidel’s personal impression of the Pope [whom Fidel met last year in Rome]?
The audience perks up here: there is great curiosity about John Paul II, but Fidel’s answer takes up one succinct paragraph: the Pope has “a noble face,” he inspires respect, he speaks Spanish fluently, he is “a precise man, he knows how to listen, and listens very attentively.” Perhaps having glanced at his watch at this point, Fidel then says that he is obliged to be briefer in his replies, “although if I have to extend myself [in answer to a given question] I will do so, of course.”
The opportunity to extend himself presents itself forthwith. The same journalist who asked the evening’s second question now wants to know what might be new or unusual about this particular papal tour. A six-page, or approximately three-hour-long, response is what he gets in reply. The history of revolutionary Cuba’s relations with the Church; the Pope and the cold war; the tremendous historical error that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty represented for international socialism; the losses suffered by the Soviet army during World War II (80 percent of its officer corps, among other things); the desertion of German soldiers in Japan; why Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope; and John Paul II’s deep anticapitalist conviction, documented with an entire page-worth of quotes from two papal speeches, are all glossed by Fidel, in order to explain how it is that the anti-Communist Wojtyla is actually a friend of the people. A single murmur from the moderator (“[you are quoting from] two different speeches”) is the only interruption.
It is now nearly three in the morning, and Fidel’s audience, which has to rise at dawn to negotiate the tortuous bike-and-bus marathon that getting to work involves these days for most Cubans, is by and large no longer with him. This is a pity, because the Comandante is about to touch on the one issue that lifelong fidelistas find most troublesome about the Pope’s impending visit: How are they to greet a man who is the very incarnation of what vanguard revolutionaries know as “religious superstition”? Are they, in fact, supposed to greet him at all? “I remember,”Fidel starts,
when Lucius Walker [the US Protestant pastor] has come here on several occasions to Cuba: more than once I’ve gone to the church at La Lisa, where they have their temples, I’ve listened to them and I’ve even spoken to them. When [Jesse] Jackson came here once, since he’s religious…I, without any prejudice, went inside the church, and I even spoke to them….
Therefore, after nearly forty years of official state atheism and vilification of religious believers, Fidel instructs his followers:
What should be the most sacred duty of each one of us? This is truly a key point: we invite all the people [to attend the papal Masses] …but no one must take a single poster, no one must shout a single slogan…no one must cheer a single leader of the Revolution; no one must express the slightest displeasure with any word or pronouncement that might displease or seem unjust to us…. Let the television networks transmit to the world that image so that Cuba may be known; this Cuba where 98.35 of the electorate voted, 95 percent of whose votes were valid, of which 94.39 percent were cast [for the Cuban Communist Party].
Fidel! The Comandante has issued the marching orders at last. It is almost 3:30 AM. The Cuban national television network, which normally broadcasts only six hours a day, has given him an extra three and a half hours of its time. The exhausted moderator and two panelists have managed to ask a total of four questions. Fidel—ailing or no—is chipper and about to meet with a few foreign correspondents who have been dozing outside the studio, whom he will keep scribbling in their notebooks nearly until dawn. The moderator thanks him.
Fidel Castro: There are many who have been sleeping for a while now…
Moderator: But it was worth it.
Fidel Castro: Do you [the other panelists who have yet to be heard from] have anything to say?
Renato Recio [who never got to ask a question]: You have really answered the doubts that even we had considered, and in my opinion, it was very complete. In that sense, there is nothing to add.
And so the nationally televised press conference by Fidel Castro ends.
Weeks later, in Mexico, I commented to a Cuban friend my surprise at the Comandante’s woolliness. Was he, in fact, seriously ill? Did he not understand the purpose of a press conference?
My friend laughed. “No one is better than Fidel at talking forever about nothing when there is something he doesn’t want to say.”
Forty years of political intercourse do not necessarily lead to intimacy, but on a small, lively, gossip-loving tropical island, where everybody who is anybody knows Fidel, and where almost everyone knows somebody who knows someone who does, intimacy of the sort Cubans experience with their leader is inevitable. They are on to his tricks. They gossip about his love life, laugh at his foibles—bitterly often enough—refer to him familiarly as Fidel even if they happen to be among those who loathe him, and remain in steadfast awe of him. In August of 1994, when the Habanazo—or first full-fledged riot against the regime—broke out on the streets of downtown Havana, he stopped the rock-throwers in their tracks by appearing, on foot, in the very thick of the fray. As the observant and thoughtful correspondents of the Mexican weekly Proceso2 noted at the time, the protesters’ tune changed the moment Fidel appeared on the scene. “This is over, el Caballo [The Horse, a favorite name for Fidel] has arrived,” someone said, and another man was heard to murmur, “He really has balls, coming here.” Yet another: “The Old Man doesn’t change. There’s no overthrowing him.” The ability to inspire feelings of intimacy and awe in equal measure are what have kept Fidel Castro in power even through the years of awful hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they will, foreseeably, keep him in power as long as his remarkable energies remain.
How well anyone in Cuba knows Fidel is another matter entirely. The gossip about his love life does not mean that anyone outside his immediate circle of Party faithful and bodyguards knows who he sleeps with. He is reported to be shy, and to mask this he fills his private conversations with the same torrent of statistics, historical ruminations, and revolutionary exhortations that overwhelm his public discourse. He has not been forthcoming with his biographers, and he is elusive even in the two book-length interviews with him that have been published. One is with the Brazilian activist Frei Betto, the other with the Nicaraguan sometime revolutionary leader Tomás Borge.3 In the conversation with Borge the two comandantes feed each other spoonfuls of revolutionary treacle. Fidel plies Frei Betto with sugar and percentages too, but at least Betto, the cheerful friar, is genuinely curious and persistent. Reluctantly, Fidel gives a portrait of his childhood that is unexpectedly emotional.
He is the son of Angel Castro, a prosperous and nearly illiterate immigrant from Galicia, in northern Spain, who acquired large amounts of land in the district of Birán (near the city of Santiago) through less-than-transparent business deals. The finca of Birán, where some three hundred families worked for or rented land from his father, is where Fidel was born. Fidel tells Betto that, although the family was prosperous, he suffered hardship in his youth: along with an older sister and a brother, he was sent to Santiago to board with the family of a schoolteacher. Fidel remembers bitterly that the teacher stinted on the children’s food, and that he was always hungry. He was five at the time, and, although his relations with his family were apparently always affectionate, he would never again live at home. He also remembers that at the age of seven he was sent away to boarding school, but his recollection sounds like a particularly Fidelian reinterpretation of history. In his telling, he decided that life at boarding school would be preferable to life with the schoolteacher, and so, one day, having perceived that he was “the object of injustice…I deliberately refuse to follow all orders, disobey all the rules, all the discipline. I shout, I say all the words it seemed to me were forbidden, in a conscious act of rebellion so that I shall be sent as an intern to school” [my italics]. In other words, he is in charge of his destiny.
He is in charge of it because he is alone. In general, Fidel speaks fondly of his days in three different Catholic schools and of his idyllic vacations back at the finca, but there is no mention of childhood friends or teenage pals, nor is there much about his parents or any stories about him and his brothers—just Fidel setting himself challenges: climbing the highest mountain in the region (“I didn’t imagine that I was preparing myself as a revolutionary”), physically attacking a priest—a school officer—who had slapped him twice on the face (“It was something unworthy and abusive”). When he was allowed to go to boarding school he was always happier than when he was sent to stay with a family: there he could not help observing that there was “a certain different relationship. [We] weren’t their children, they couldn’t treat [us] as their children.”
It is a father’s absence he feels most, although he never says so in so many words. Rather, he expresses sorrow at the fact that, “really, I never had a mentor.” Later, talking about his religious education and how little influence it had on his politics, he says it again: “I have really had to be, unfortunately, my own mentor throughout my life.” And later still, when he reflects on his first incursion into politics: “I say that I never had a mentor. It must have been a great effort of reasoning in such a little time to elaborate my ideas and put them into practice.”
But although he is unusually candid with Frei Betto, he is by no means candid enough to be truly illuminating. Indeed, he leaves out one of the most critical facts of his biography, which is that, like so many other revolutionary leaders—César Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, both Eva and Juan Perón in Argentina, among others—Fidel Castro was born out of wedlock to a poor woman and her wealthy and lighter-skinned lover or attacker.