link to Castro interview photos: 1 2
Conversations with Fidel Castro
"It's not my fault that I haven't died yet," Fidel Castro shoots back at me with a droll smile. "It's not my fault that the CIA has failed to kill me!" I had made a cautious foray around a delicate subject. Isn't he tired of playing David and Goliath with his superpower neighbor? "Isn't it time to retire?" I ask, beginning a troubling silence that ends with Castro locking eyes with mine. "My vocation is the revolution. I am a revolutionary, and revolutionaries do not retire," he says, "any more than writers." And then he laughs.
It is Year 36 of the Revolution, as the government documents proclaim. Moscow has fallen. The Eastern bloc is in ruins. His own country is in economic free fall, but Fidel Castro continues to proudly trumpet socialism.
"I feel like it all began yesterday, " he says. "You could say that from the time I was nineteen years old I have been engaged in an intense struggle. For fourty-eight years. And in spirit I feel just like I did when I began. Some people say I am stubborn, but in reality I have been tenacious, persistent. I think that if I could live my life over again, I would do things exactly the same way."
I think of the recent spate of purse snatchings in Old Havana, of the buildings crumbling along the Malecon, and remind him of Thomas Jefferson's recommendation: a revolution every twenty years. Castro admires Jefferson, but the words don't sit well. He shakes his head. "I think it is better to have one every 300 years. Life needs to renew itself," he says. "I am not here because I have assigned myself to this job for a lengthy period of time. I am here because this job has been thrust upon me, which is not the same thing." He leans forward, his face close to mine. "There are times when we really cannot be masters of our own destinies." Does he see his life as a calling or mission? "No, I've never thought that. I can say that I have enjoyed a certain privilege - like people who live to be 100 - not because of an accident of nature." Have the Western media demonized him for four decades? Is he a devil? He smiles. "If that is the case, then I am a devil who has been protected by the gods."
Castro has suggested that he doesn't care how he will be remembered. "I feel no fear about myself personally. Glory and my place in history do not worry me. All the glory in the world can fit into a kernel of corn," he said, invoking the 19th-century Cuban patriot Jose Marti. "More people know about Napoleon because of the brandy than because of the battle at Austerlitz. We should be more concerned about the fate of ideas than the fate of men."
On January 1, 1994, Fidel Castro celebrated the 35th anniversary of his Cuban revolution, having outlasted eight American presidents, assassination attempts, the collapse of his Russian patron state, and a daily barrage of predictions heralding his imminent demise. And although he hinted that he would retire if the U.S. Embargo is lifted, it does not seem likely that this formidable man will be disappearing from the world stage anytime soon.
Cuba may be the last chapter of the Cold War, but judging from the awesome vigor of Castro, it looks to be the longest. Dressed as always in a crisp olive-green uniform and black combat boots, the imperially tall Castro seems younger than his sixty-seven years. The trademark cigar is gone (Castro gave up smoking eight years ago), but age has brushed him generously: his hair and beard have grayed, a few sunspots dot his long, almost delicate hands. Only his mouth, with dry lips of purplish gray, betray time's passing.
We discuss the most recent Clinton imbroglio- the president's alleged Arkansas girlfriends. Castro is faintly amused. "But look at how machismo works in Latin America," he says. "There are many countries where it is a good idea for the candidate in order to be elected to have a lot of girlfriends, where being a womanizer is a virtue." As he speaks, his empathy for Clinton seems to grow. "It's an interference in his personal life," he protests. "A violation of his human rights. Or is love not human?" Then he laughs. "Anyway, it has no logic," he says, then gallantly offering an exaggeration. "Clinton's wife is a beautiful woman."
Castro is artful on the subject of Clinton. "My personal impression of Clinton is a positive one, but if I say something good about him, then people in the administration complain because they have enemies who complain that they are `soft on Castro,'" he said. "If I say evil things, then the situation will be worse. So it is better for me not to say anything." But, at a private dinner last fall with some visiting American businessmen, Castro spoke of being more uncertain of Clinton than of Bush and Reagan, who made no bones about their hostility. While conceding that the atmosphere is less venomous under Clinton, Castro mused as to whether the president had his own political philosophy or was simply a "reactor" to events. In short, he wondered whether Clinton had the "right stuff."
Cuba today is a country of lunatic paradoxes. The nation leads Latin America in education and health care and has virtually eradicated illiteracy. Ordinary people - hotel chambermaids, taxi drivers, street children - speak with a startling breadth of knowledge. Jerry-built satellite dishes, often made from fan grids and map poles, dot Havana's rooftops, snatching signals from CNN and other stations. Equally impressive are Cuba's achievements in medical research, the development of vaccines for hepatitis B, meningitis, and a host of tropical diseases. However, Cubans today are hungry for food and the basics. With gasoline unaffordable, Cuba's roads are empty. Its hyper-educated people are hard-pressed to find books to read. In public restrooms, toilet paper is nowhere to be found, lest it be stolen. Soap and pens are luxuries. Perhaps most troubling is the ongoing erosion of the revolution's center piece - its health and education systems. A doctor is always available, but frequently no aspirin or insulin is to be found. Families eat two meals a day - if they're so fortunate. Stray, skinny dogs roam the streets. With people scrambling for food, there is nothing left for animals.
The 35th anniversary was hardly festive: 1993 had been the worst year since the revolution. "El periodo especial" - the special period - is the continually heard euphemism to describe the most severe food and fuel shortages endured since "the triumph of the revolution," the other mind-numbing buzz phrase. Last summer, Fidel Castro, his hand forced by the collapse of his Soviet patron and the ever crippling U.S. embargo, legalized what has been the law of the streets for years - the dollar. The practical coin of the realm is once again the currency of Uncle Sam. The result is a new class system: those who have dollars and those who don't.
Multiplying the country's woes, a hurricane - "the storm of the century," - struck the island last March, destroying thousands of homes, submerging parts of Havana under twenty feet of water, and decimating more than a third of the sugar harvest. The year crawled to a particularly sour finish when more than 40 of Cuba's 900 champion athletes defected in Puerto Rico at the Central American and Caribbean Games in November, having been greeted by Cuban exiles chanting from the stands, "Quedate aqui!" Stay here! Then, only days before Christmas, Fidel Castro's illegitimate daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta, a 37-year-old former fashion model and dissident, made a dramatic exit to the States and took to the airwaves with an emotional appeal for her daughter, who soon followed.
"Alina's a bit of a ding-dong," says a State Department source living in Havana who befriended her, "a real character, but basically she's a good egg. She has a good relationship with her daughter who really plays more of the mother role." Several months before her flight, I asked one insider about Castro's relationship with her. "There was none. He never spoke to her," she said half jokingly. "I think that's why she became a dissident."
Contrary to the howls of some Miami exiles, Castro still enjoys considerable backing, albeit diminished, in Cuba. "There is an underlying support for Fidel throughout the country," an American intelligence agent living in Havana tells me, "especially in the eastern part of the country. People forget that twenty percent of the country had absolutely nothing before the revolution. Zip." Castro's biggest threat, the agent believes, comes from "Cuba's yuppies - upper-middle-class professionals - the nomenklatura - like engineers, doctors, and lawyers whose peso salaries are now virtually worthless." A Cuban dissident adds that, "the strongest support for Fidel comes from the poorest, the less educated and sophisticated."
In Santiago de Cuba, on the southeastern coast of this sumptuously fecund island, an elderly woman, who describes herself as mulata, tells me Castro's secret weapon: "Los negros," she says, tapping her brown forearm. "Not me. I am fed up, but the others are not. And we are many more than los blancos." Of the more than one million Cuban exiles now living in South Florida, approximately 95 percent are white, while, unofficially more than 58 percent of Cuba's 10.7 million people are black, mulatto, or some shade in between. "That's why there's paralysis in Cuba," the State Department analyst explains. "When Cubans look at white, right-wing Miami, they're afraid. Castro has been very successful in convincing Cubans that the most extreme batistiano element in Miami has a stranglehold on U.S. policy." In any event, few can argue with Castro's own analysis of U.S. policy toward his country. "Cuba is not a foreign-policy issue for America," he thunders. "It's domestic policy." Actually, it's a Miami-policy issue.
A week before I interviewed Fidel Castro, I spent an afternoon with his old comrade turned enemy Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo in the shabby Miami office of Cambio Cubano, his alternative exile group. Prior to Gutierrez Menoyo's emergence, Miami's Cuban politics had been dominated by the ultimatums of the confrontational exile millionaire Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation.
The Spanish-born Gutierrez Menoyo joined the revolution against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the mid-50s. "I commanded the Second National Front in Escambray," he said. "Castro talked about a revolution as Cuban as the palm trees . . . of bread without terror, and that is the revolution that 90 percent of the Cuban people backed. But then Fidel separated himself from that revolution and carried on his personal caudillista revolution. As we see it, he became the first dissident of the Cuban Revolution."
Outraged by Castro's dictatorial governance, Gutierrez Menoyo fled to the U.S. in 1961, where he founded Alpha 66, an anti-Castro terrorist group, whose activities he has since disavowed. Four years later, the ragtag troop was captured in as they attempted to lead an uprising against the government. After a few days of interrogation, Gutierrez Menoyo had a visitor: Fidel Castro. "The first thing he told me was, `Eloy, I knew you would come and I knew that I would catch you. You know, we're going to shoot you.'" Gutierrez Menoyo paused for a puff of his ever lit cigarette. "I told him, `I'm aware of that.'" Gutierrez Menoyo reminded Castro that one of his brothers had died fighting Franco and that another was killed during the 1957 storming of Batista's Presidential Palace. "'So I think I have won the right to rest, and if you would shoot me, I would thank you.' After that, Fidel said, `Well, wouldn't you want to save your own life?' I said, `No because I would have to pay too high a price.' He said, `You are imagining that.'"
Castro set only two conditions: that Gutierrez Menoyo declare on television that the farmers of Escambray had been hostile to his insurrection and, second, that Manuel Artime, once the CIA's choice to replace Castro, would never lead a similar insurrection. Gutierrez Menoyo said he was untroubled by either statement. "I was delighted," he said. Castro's reaction? "Fidel said he had to go eat."
Gutierrez Menoyo was sentenced to 30 years in prison, plus an additional 25 years for leading counterrevolutionary activity while there. In all, he spent 22 years behind bars. "I always thought I would die in prison," he said flatly. "I lost the sight of one eye and the hearing in one ear and have several broken ribs from the beatings."
I told Gutierrez Menoyo that during a visit to Cuba in October, Ricardo Alarcon, a high-ranking Cuban official, had told me that the Cubans were planning talks with exile groups for some time this year. Would Gutierrez Menoyo sit down with Castro and hammer out solutions for Cuba and reconciliation for its approximately one million exiles? "I can imagine this because I have talked Fidel many times - although we are adversaries." I asked if he had a message for Castro should I see him during my stay in Cuba. "The only way out . . . is to bring democracy to the country," he said quickly, almost angrily. "That is the most noble way for him to close this page in history." Perhaps there was something else he wanted to say? He pushed his cigarette into the ashtray on his desk. "I send them best wishes," he said, "so that they know that time has passed. And it is time now to speak of peace and not of war." Fidel Castro has just dazzled another audience, a group of visiting Americans that includes East Hampton matrons, a cadre from Hollywood, and a handful of Club Red types. The setting is the Palacio de la Revolucion, one of the few buildings in Havana that don't look as if they may collapse momentarily.
Afterward, Castro - flanked by Cuba's top brass - answers questions. Only his brother Raul, chief of defense and, to some, the heir apparent, is missing. Rumors swirl around Raul. The most persistent is that he is an alcoholic who not infrequently requires treatment. A government spokesperson denies this.
On the far right side of Fidel is 37-year-old wonder boy Roberto Robaina, who landed Alarcon's former, high-glamour job as foreign minister. Feisty, mustachioed, and partial to pastel blazers, Robaina is a favorite of Castro, who calls him by the affectionate diminutive "Robertico," and one of the leading candidates for succession. Only a year ago, Robaina held the pedestrian job of running the Union of Young Communists. His claim to fame is the brainstorm to billboard Cuba with arty propaganda.
Sitting next to Robaina is economic czar Carlos Lage, a former doctor who faces the unenviable task of bailing out the Cuban economy. Beside Castro are the urbane Ricardo Alarcon, perhaps Cuba's most well-known politician, and his Englis and Romance language translator of more than twenty years, Juanita Vera, savvy and pretty. To the left of Castro is Alfredo Guevara, head of Cuba's Film Institute, a friend of Castro's since their student days.
Gesticulating with his long, slender hands, Castro fulminates with revolutionary rhetoric and cliches. Tonight, as always, there is the litany of the achievements: the war against the infant-mortality epidemic, the cradle-to-grave health and educational systems, the assault on racism. The list goes on never changing.
"I tell you that capitalism has no future," he booms. "Capitalism has destroyed in 100 years almost all the oil that it took millions of years to create. What would happen if every Indian, every Eskimo had a car to drive?" he asks, cracking up the hall." Environmental abuse by the first world is a recurrent Castro theme. The horrific pollution form Cuba's industrial chimneys and Hungarian-built buses is never mentioned.
Castro loves to flirt; his monologues are filled with cornball sexual suggestion reminiscent of the 1950s. But the Cubans, for all their passions and machismo, are quite puritanical. The unspoken rule is that no one, is to query El Jefe about his love life, despite his legendary romantic conquests. One visitor, however, feigning interest in Cuban family values, asks Castro how many children he has. "Well, I don't have a tribe," he laughs. "Not that much. Fewer than a dozen." He pauses. "I think." Others believe there are more. "I see people all over Cuba who look just like Fidel," says one longtime Cuba watcher. "Then I realized they are his kids." The eldest, Fidelito, has kept a low profile since Castro dismissed him as head of the country's nuclear-power program, amid rumors that the 44-year-old was caught with his hand in the till.
When questioned about the droves of Cubans seeking escape to the U.S., Castro dexterously spins: "A large part of the Cuban migration to the United States is an economic migration, like the Mexican migration," he says. Mexico has plenty of oil, he continues, as if thinking aloud, faces no U.S. blockade, is not going through a "special period," yet thousands of Mexicans cross the U.S. border illegally every day. "In comparison, we have all these problems and only a few people leave illegally." Moreover, Mexico is not blasted by Radio Marti (the exile propaganda network financed by the U.S. Information Agency), which he trashes "as 500 hours of psychological warfare." He omits the obvious: that it's considerably easier to walk across the Tijuana border than it is to sail five days through shark-infested waters on an inner tube. Finally, he reaches for a sound bite. "If a Mexican goes to the U.S. illegally, he's expelled," he says. "If a Cuban enters illegally, he's given a house." Asked why he did not foresee the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Castro charges with both guns blazing. "If the CIA, after 35 years of surveillance and $10 billion in research, did not see it coming," he asks with mock incredulity, "how were we, a tiny island nation, to have known?"
Virtually every Castro speech builds to an impassioned denunciation of the American embargo, always referred to in Cuba as the "blockade" because of U.S. attempts to limit Cuba's other trading partners. In fact, America's Cuba policy, riddled with inconsistencies, is made-to-order material for a champion debater and former lawyer like Castro. "Those who blockade us have [had] good relations with South Africa, excellent relations with Chile, where thousands of people have been killed . . . and Argentina, where thousands of people are missing." There is the conspicuous absence of China in his litany, the strongest example he could draw upon, but China happens to be one of Cuba's biggest trading partners. Calling U.S. demands to improve Cuba's human rights a "cynical" maneuver, he fumes, "Never does the U.S. mention the word 'democracy' when discussing the Middle East. It discusses only one thing: oil, never democracy."
Castro stands to acknowledge the applause, and with security men dressed in pale guayabera shirts hovering on all sides, he and his fellow politburo members are led out. Juanita Vera catches my eye and nods for me to follow them "backstage" to what can only be described as a glorified greenroom, where I begin talking with Castro. Across the long room, Alarcon, Robaina, and Lage are shooting the breeze over coffee but frequently glance toward us. Moments later, Raul Castro comes bounding into the room. A small, trim man, tonight he is wildly ebullient and plants kisses on my cheeks. "Kiss me. Don't bother kissing him," he says, waving toward Fidel, who is not amused.
I read to Castro from Gutierrez Menoyo's brief, conciliatory message. Castro says nothing, betraying no thoughts or feelings. I prompt him for a response. Finally, he says, "I did not expect to receive this message from Gutierrez Menoyo. I feel these are positive words which require some reflection." He says he wants to discuss it with his "closest collaborators," a reference to Robaina, who is said to be working on a possible upcoming summit between Miami exiles and the Cuban government. However, he says the issue is "so delicate" that he doesn't want improvise a response. Indeed, Castro's rhetoric towards the exiles has softened somewhat. However, he will always be suspicious and, one senses, unforgiving.
"I really don't want to deliver an off-the-cuff message to the Cubans living in the United States right now," he says. "I can say that there is no lack of good will on our part," adding quickly, "nor of our resolve to defend our ideas and principles."
He launches into the venomous history of Cuba and the United States. "After the revolution, the first to arrive [in Miami] were the batistianos, war criminals, [corrupt] politicians . . . The U.S. let everyone in, even criminals. . . Every possible method has been used against us, from plots to assassinate the leaders of the revolution and myself through biological warfare, which is why we have been so distrustful."
Castro is particularly irked by the bad press Cuba gets concerning the balseros, the rafters, who risk life and limb to get to Florida. "We don't place any restrictions on leaving," he says, which is patently untrue. "The ones who are imposing the restrictions are the U.S. authorities," which is to some extent true. The actual situation is more complicated. The U.S. Interests Section office grants 5,000 visas each year to Cubans who want to leave, but authorizes up to 20,000 people a year for travel with the intent to return. Many more enter through other means; the desperate ones take to the seas on their own. "If these people go legally to the U.S. Interests Section office, they are denied a permit," Castro argues, "but if they arrive illegally, they are received as heroes. They are responsible for the people who die during the journey." In fact, the immigration issue is an elaborate charade for both countries. The U.S. has taken in every Cuban who has arrived on its shores since 1959. However, with things as bad as they are in Cuba, much of the island's population might very well leave if they could, creating an immigration crisis for the U.S. and a searing embarrassment for the Cubans. Consequently, both countries conspire to throw obstacles in the way of immigration and divvy up the public-relations rewards.
Attempting to steer him off away from rhetoric, I ask him about Celia Sanchez. said to have been his "eyes and ears," and, it's thought, in the beginning, his lover. Like Castro and many of his earliest cohorts, Sanchez, who died in 1980, came from the upper class. She ran vitally needed supplies and intelligence to Castro's guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra during the Revolution. "Cuba has never been the same since Celia died," Alfredo Guevara tells me. "She kept Fidel in touch with the people. She was a thousand times more effective than any intelligence organization. She was one of the few people who could give him news he didn't want to hear." Castro responds with the formality of a eulogy. "She was like a guardian angel for all the revolutionary fighters whose problems she took care of. She died prematurely," Castro says, his voice softening, "and so she never knew these difficult times."
Has he then developed other confidantes? "Yes," he answers immediately. "I always tend to develop ties of personal friendship and affection with my comrades." I press him again on whether there is anyone brave enough to argue with him, tell him he's wrong. "I don't really need them to tell me things," he says in a flush of arrogance, "because I am always the one who takes the initiative and asks other people. It has always been that way."
But is anyone comfortable enough to tell him the truth? After all, Cuba's political prisoners aren't behind bars for whistling Guantanamara. "If you had seen the last meeting of the National Assembly, you would realize that nobody is afraid of me. There is respect and consideration but no fear." (Actually, I did watch some of the televised meetings of the National Assembly, and the few I saw challenging Fidel were historicos - the Old Guard, who are hardly reform-minded.) "People come up to me and speak about anything," he continues. "Some people get nervous or emotional. Visitors [who say,] `I've been waiting 30 years to say hello.' The fact is . . . I inspire confidence rather than fear."
Earlier in the day, I had seen a screening of Fresa y Chocolate [Strawberry and Chocolate], a film co-directed by the great Tomas Gutierrez Alea, which had just won first prize at the Festival of New Latin-American Cinema. To many Cubans, the fact that the film even got made is a watershed event, dealing as it does with the persecution of gays in Cuba and the government's use of informers. The most damaging criticism of Castro's Cuba from the international community has always focused on human rights - in particular, its treatment of gays and other so-called "deviants" in the 60s and 70s. In fact, it was Cuba's persecution of homosexuals that generated the unthinkable: the union of the American Left with hardline right-wingers in a joint attack on Fidel Castro.
I ask Castro to talk about the changes in attitudes toward gays in Cuba, and remind him that he himself expressed doubts about gays. His response is as fast as a bullet. "I don't remember that and I have never had that idea." Not true. In 1966, Castro told journalist Lee Lockwood, "We could never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary."
In fact, such opinions were not so rare at the time, but Castro denies his comments and describes revolutionary homophobia as merely a by-product of Latin-American machismo. It's a good argument and, no doubt, a factor. "[Machismo] is a historical and cultural tradition dating back no one knows how far," he says. "I must tell you, however, in all honesty, that I have never shared these feelings, despite having grown up in the same macho society . . . I think there could have been an era when this machismo was very powerful, but this was not a product of the revolution but of the social milieu we were living in. We can't talk about a time as you described in your question because, really, there has never been persecution of homosexuals here."
Cuba's era of persecution began in 1965 and flourished for some years before losing steam. Grounds for persecution were any form of perceived decadence - be it sexual, ideological, or simply style of dressing. "My sense was that it had more to do with public behavior than with private behavior," says Sandra Levinson, who heads the Center for Cuban Studies and has traveled and done research in Cuba since 1969. "Sometimes it was about appearances." However, as documented by the late Nestor Almendros' films and the posthumously published autobiography of the brilliant, anguished writer, Reinaldo Arenas, thousands of homosexuals were singled out.
Castro says, "We concentrated on the struggle for women for equality, against discrimination of blacks. I mean, homosexuals were not a high priority, but we did not permit persecutions of homosexuals. There were a number of cadres, I can tell you, who were very male-chauvinistic. I shall concede that." He continues on about well-known Cuban homosexuals, "whom we have appreciated greatly," and alludes to the artist Rene Portocarrero. When I mention the name of his old mentor, Alfredo Guevara, Castro blanches and says in the steeliest of voices, "None of Alfredo's companeros regard him as a homosexual. Alfredo Guevara has never been considered a homosexual in our country." "No?" I ask incredulously. "No," he answers, poker-faced. "In my country he is," I say, quite reflexively.
Earlier in the day, I had visited Alfredo Guevara, the head of Cuba's prestigious Film Institute for almost twenty-five years. Guevara is one of Castro's closest friends and confidants. In their early days, years before Castro's conversion, Guevara, a prominent student leader, was already an avowed Marxist. Respected and feared, Guevara is as well known for his brilliance as for his tempestuous, prickly temperament. He is also the only known homosexual in Castro's inner circle.
Baby-faced and balding with smart tortoiseshell glasses, Guevara looked decades younger than his 73 years as he coddled his six- year-old hyperactive Yorkshire terrier, Bacchus, on his lap.
These days, he told me, Cuba "is playing with every card it has to survive. If we had followed Che's methods, perhaps we would have avoided some of these problems," an allusion to Che Guevara's admonition to stay clear of the Soviet-style bureaucracy. "Che was always very worried about the bureaucrats," Guevara said, "and I agreed with him." Guevara said he sees less of his old friend Fidel these days, although he remains one of the few people with personal access to him. "Fidel used to sleep here in my office," he said. "He would come here all the time. Unannounced at strange times. We spent our youth together."
It is the close bond between the two, many say, that spared Guevara any hardship during Cuba's purge years in the mid-60s, when thousands of homosexuals were marched off to work camps. Over the gates of one such camp in Camaguey was the admonition WORK MAKES YOU MEN, a curious variant on the words emblazoned on the gates at Dachau, WORK MAKES YOU FREE. Blame for the purges has been dished out by some to Raul Castro, who was said to be impressed with how Bulgaria had dealt with its "undesirables."
When I query Castro about his brother's alleged involvement, he becomes livid. "It's absolutely false from beginning to end," he says with growing intensity. "I have never in my life heard Raul speak about that! It's not something I can take seriously." I asked Guevara whether it is true that the purges ended after he marched into Castro's office, exclaiming, "Do you know that people who fought in the revolution are being carted off to jail!" Guevara took a moment to assemble his thoughts. "Yes, I played a role but I hope you will be careful with what I say because I do not want to be a hero." Placing Bacchus on the floor, he leaned across his desk towards me. "There were many of us, including Vilma [Espin] and Celia [Sanchez], who opposed it, but perhaps I did the most radically. I talked to Fidel."
Noting the presence of numerous gays among Cuba's political elite, I ask Reynaldo Gonzalez, director if Cuba's Cinematique, to explain how people who were singled out for persecution a decade earlier rejoined the ranks. "Gays felt so strongly about the revolution," Gonzalez says, "and the aggression of the United States. It made everyone come together. Like the Mexican adage goes, 'So far from God but so close to the U.S.' We made a beautiful revolution and then we got trapped in the Cold War.
"In a country where one talks about heroes all the time, homosexuality presents many difficult complexities," he continues. Many Cuban gay men don't even believe that they are homosexual unless they take what they call "the passive role." Chino, a Cuban gay now living in the States, expresses incredulity that any gay man would want to be with another gay man. "Its like girls going out with girls," he says. All his lovers, he claims, are heterosexual. Moreover, Cuba machismo is such that it is inconceivable to many that lesbians actually exist.
Perhaps the trickiest issue for Cuban gays today is the government's policy of quarantining anyone who tests positive for H.I.V. Simply put, the government does not see AIDS as a civil-rights issue but rather as a health crisis. Yet however Draconian the means, Cuba has stemmed an epidemic that rages only fourty-three miles away in Haiti.
Castro artfully steers the conversation away form gays towards women's rights, an area in which Cuba, in fact, has an impressive record. He tells me about starting the first all-female fighting troop during the revolution. "It wasn't an easy task," he says, "and I personally trained the first female combat unit in the war of liberation. Some people asked me why I was giving arms to women when there were men who didn't have any. I told them, 'I'll tell you why: they're better soldiers than you.'"
I am reminded of my visit with Vilma Espin, founder and chief of the Federation of Women. Known as the First Lady of Cuba, she is the wife of Raul Castro, and formidable in her own right. She is such an asset for Castro that the gossip has it that he nearly came to blows with his brother when Raul took up with another woman and wanted a separation. "Fidel was so enraged," one source says, "that he ordered his brother back to Vilma." [A government spokesperson denies this story.] An attractive women in her sixties, Espin came from wealth, like most members of the Castro inner circle. "We had an easy life," she said, "but we had principles." She did post-graduate work at M.I.T. in 1955 before hooking up with Raul and Fidel Castro in Mexico. Later she joined the Castro bothers in the Sierra Maestra. "At the time," she told me," I was the head of the underground for all the province of Oriente. The role of women was very important. They lost their lives. Women were tortured, women were assassinated."
She told me that after the revolution Castro urged her to start the Women's Federation. "I thought I was going to a factory. I was a chemical engineer," she said. "That was a big surprise." She reported that women today make up 50 percent of university students and 60 percent of all doctors. They have access to contraception and abortion, she said, if needed. "Women work," she said. "They do not want five or six children like before." How many kids do they have, I wondered. Three? Two? "No, one and a half," she answered like the scientist she is. "In some places maybe more."
The big challenge, currently, is the swelling ranks of putas (prostitutes), some of whom are college graduates and professionals desperate for dollars. "It is terrible, but with this fast development of tourism, it's a price we have to pay. Some of them we can save, others we cannot."
As I was leaving the Women's Federation, I saw the legendary dancer Alicia Alonso, who had defended her "boys" at the Cuban National Ballet during the gay urges, had hobbled into the grand mansion. With her legs turned completely outward in a wrenching first position, Alonso, 72 now, looked as if she was in terrible pain. She can barely walk, but like her country, she insists that she can dance.
The headline news in mid-October that never made it into a Cuban newspaper was the arrest of Norberto Fuentes, a Hemingway biographer and one of Cuba's most famous writers. Reports told of a bungled escape attempt on an inflatable boat carrying Fuentes, his young wife, two others and an Italian photographer. In January, when a representative of the Writer's Union (UNEAC) was asked about Fuentes, he failed to mention that the writer has been under house arrest since October.
What amazed everyone was how Fuentes had managed to get as far as he did. Fuentes had been one of those denounced by the brilliant poet Heberto Padilla, who was arrested in 1971 for his anti-government sentiments. Compelled to confess his sins at a meeting of the Writer's Union, Padilla then denounced many friends, including Fuentes, as counterrevolutionaries.
"Norberto was like Padilla," said Jose Rodriguez Feo, the great Cuban essayist and critic, who died late last year. "They were both very clever and ambitious. They were famous as writers, but they wanted to be powerful." Two of Fuentes' closest friends were Tony de la Guardia and his twin brother, Patricio, both of whom were colonels and held powerful jobs in the Ministry of the Interior. Both were convicted in connection with cocaine trafficking in the Drug Trials staged in 1989. Four top officials, including Tony de la Guardia, war hero General Arnaldo Ochoa, were executed. Ten others were jailed.
I ask Fidel about the execution of Ochoa, one of the heroes of the Revolution, and de la Guardia, once regarded as a favorite. There is plenty of scuttlebutt that Castro simply used the drug charges to eliminate potential opposition. Why weren't they granted clemency? After all, neither murder nor espionage was involved. "Because the country felt truly betrayed," he says. "There is a great difference between Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia. There is no comparison between their crimes. I mean, in personality, in historical merits, there is no comparison. Tony de la Guardia, because he was the organizer, was an irresponsible individual who risked his country's security, and Ochoa knew everything going on and let himself be carried away by crazy ideas about converting drug money into a resource for the country. He sent an aide to meet with Escobar! Can you imagine what it meant for a captain in the Cuban army to be making that contact in Columbia?" Later he continues: "The case of Ochoa was very moving, you know. It was hard for all of us, but it was an unavoidable decision. 'Unavoidable.' That is the right word."
Did he personally feel betrayed, I ask. "Personally, no," he snaps. "The country felt betrayed. I don't concern myself with whether someone has betrayed me, but whether they have betrayed the country or the revolution." Having heard that Castro has developed an interest in Santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion of the island, I ask him whether he was concerned by the admonition from the babalaos (the bishops of Santeria) never to separate twins, much less kill one. Justice cannot be guided by the babalaos," he says.
Castro maintained that he is particularly sensitive about the Ochoa case because it marred Cuba's stellar record on drugs. In fact, drug use, other than homegrown marijuana, is negligible. "There is no room for doubt. Just look what is happening in the rest of the world," he says. "If every country had acted with the same courage and energy as Cuba, there wouldn't be drugs in the world."
Cuba is thoroughly egalitarian in its shabbiness. Unlike many bankrupt countries, the government spends the bare minimum on keeping up appearances. I try to conceal my shock when I arrive at the National Assembly to interview its president, Ricardo Alarcon. Housed in a 1950s boxy shell furnished along the lines of an Elks Lodge during the Eisenhower years, the Assembly is an elected body, but, of course, has no veto power over its leader. While I wait, I watch a two-inch long water bug trudges its way across the room.
Alarcon, for many years Cuba's high-profile foreign minister, fuels our four hour talk with continual infusions of high-octane Cuban coffee and several Cohibas. Light-skinned and blue-eyed, he is, like Fidel, from solid Spanish stock, in contrast to the overwhelming majority of Cubans. While Cuba has achieved what appears to be a truly color-blind multiracial society, there is one notable exception: Castro's inner circle.
I ask Alarcon if the billboard on the Malecon, proclaiming ESTA TIERRA ES 100% CUBANA! (This land is 100% Cubana), is, in fact, true anymore, in light of Cuba's aggressive pursuit of foreign investment. He surprises me with his candor, admitting, "It's not true. Because of the economy, it's definitely not true." It's a concession he's willing to make. Although he hastens to add that Cuba is leasing, not selling, its land, at least not yet, in joint ventures primarily involving hotels and tourism with the Canadians, Spanish, Mexicans and Panamanians. It's a paradox, he says, but there are is no alternative but to move to a more mixed economy. In fact, dollar-based tourism is the great white hope for Cuba. Last year, revenues from tourism totaled nearly $400 million. Varadero, the tourist mecca two hours east of Havana, and home to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, thrives on a booming, dollar-driven economy, resulting in the highest standard of living anywhere in Cuba. Its very success is a stinging indictment of Communism.
Bio-technology also looks promising, Sam Dryden, who has started up numerous American bio-technology companies, reports that the Cuban program is "world-class. Most Third World countries are desperate for biotechnology," says Dryden, who has inspected the Cuban facilities, "but they can't compete because bio-tech needs an educated populace, which Cuba has. Already they are very successfully manufacturing interferon. This could conceivably be a very lucrative cash crop in the future."
For now, Cuba has basically three things to sell: sugar, nickel, and tobacco. Everything else needs to be imported. With fuel at subsistence levels, Alarcon says, there has been a newly intensified drive to scour for home grown oil. He claims that, last year, Cuba produced one million tons of oil from the central part of the island, adding that they are very hopeful about offshore drilling. Countering my skepticism, he says, "Why not? Both Mexico and Venezuela have a lot of oil and Cuba lies between the two." How much worse will things get, I ask Alarcon. "We have hit the bottom," he claims, saying Cuba's current woes are the result not only of the loss of $7 to $8 billion worth of trade with the Soviets but also of the increased strangulation of the U.S. embargo due to the Torricelli Bill (the Cuban Democracy Act, implemented last year, prohibits American foreign subsidiaries from doing business with Cuba, and the docking of ships in U.S. harbors for six months after leaving Cuba). Next year, he predicts, "there will be modest improvements. At this moment, hunger is not a problem," he says treading on thin ice.
Last October, a few weeks before our interview, I chatted with Castro at a reception for 175 visiting Americans intent on challenging U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba. I asked him his thoughts on China. He rambled on about the skill and integrity of the Chinese, concluding cheerfully, "We like the Chinese." What about the Tibetans, I asked him. "Do you like them?" Castro argued that each country has its own domestic problems. "But Tibet was a sovereign country at the time of the Chinese invasion," I reminded him. He hemmed and hawed, then, lightning-quick, made an unusual surrender. "Well, perhaps I don't know so much about China," he said with a shrug.
While talking with Castro at that time, I noticed a slight red rash on his face - notably around his eyebrows, nose, and mouth. Later I was told that he suffers from periodic bouts of dermatitis. There were other rumors afloat, though the Cuban government says that Castro is active and in good health. A friend of Castro's tells me, however, that El Comandante travels these days with a doctor and a defibrillator (which regulates the heart-beat). In late summer, gossip had it, Fidel had suffered a slight stroke while working. "They kept him in the basement clinic [of the Palacio de la Revolucion) for two weeks," one source, a well-connected Cuban, told me. "No one but his doctors and three babalaos were there."
Castro's relationship with Santeria is a curious and complicated one. Initially, he tried to undercut its influence, despite the fact that Celia Sanchez, was a santera herself. Eventually, realizing the futility of his efforts (Santeria far exceeds the Catholic Church in its influence), he declared a truce and is now said to dabble in the religion himself.
Natalia Bolivar, a descendant of the famed liberator of Latin America , Simon Bolivar, has written several books on Afro-Cuban religions. Though she says that animal sacrifice is central to the rite, she is irritated by references to white magic and black magic. "All Santeria is done for the good," she says impatiently. "Anybody who says they do it for the bad, doesn't know what they're talking about."
I ask her whether she is a dissident. She smiles coyly, saying "I am only a student of the dissidents." She reminds me that she fought for the Revolution when she was a student at University ("I was in the same resistance group as Alarcon,") before being captured by Batista's secret police, who tortured her. When I tell her that I have just seen Fidel, she scowls and warns, "You better wash yourself with white flour and honey." When I press her, she waffles, then says, "People say bad things happen to people after they're with Fidel. They go kaput." Who says so? "I don't know," she says. "The babalaos say so."
In the last few years, things have loosened up considerably not only for Santeria but for religion in general, which appears to be having a renaissance. In the late 80s, Castro seemed to reconcile himself with the Catholic Church, although skirmishes continue. Last September, the bishops published a letter chastising the regime, and the government responded in kind. Still, Communist Party members can now openly practice a religion, and a surprising number of crosses are to be seen dangling from the necks of habaneros.
"There is no opposition in Cuba," says Saul Landau, a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington D.C., who says he has spent more time with Fidel Castro than any other American. "They're all in jail or in Florida. Fidel demands unity and loyalty. It's a war.They say that they will democratize, but only after they get it together economically. The Cubans think Gorbachev's big mistake was glasnost before perestroika".
Elizardo Sanchez , a prominent dissident, spent eight of the last twelve years behind bars for his efforts as the head of the Democratic Socialist party and a human-rights group. Sanchez argues that the U.S. embargo punishes only the Cuban people, not the government, and worse yet provides the government with a credible excuse as to why the economy is floundering.
Many Cubans know their country's problems run much deeper. "Our economy is collapsing for the same reasons it collapsed in Russia," says another dissident. "Fidel says, 'Cuba is different,' but we're not. We have the very same problems they have: a bankrupt economy, corruption and a bureaucracy worse than theirs. We call it a 'burrocracy.'" Nevertheless, this dissident, wants the Embargo ended. He claims that it causes misery with no political pay off for anyone other than Fidel Castro.
Juan Ruiz, a pseudonymous 42 year old dissident, would leave tomorrow if he could get a U.S. visa for himself and his family. Ruiz has no nostalgia for the good old days. His mother and many other relatives already live in Miami. "Our family fought against the corruption of Batista, but we were never Communists," he tells me over a small cup of coffee that his wife has cooked over a flame created by a wad of cotton drenched in alcohol, in lieu of cooking gas. "Almost immediately, they knew they were cheated."
Because of his anti-Castro passion, I assume that Ruiz would be a supporter of Jorge Mas Canosa, the controversial exile leader in Miami. "Let me tell you something," Ruiz says, his voice smoldering. "Even those of us who hate this government, we don't want Mas Canosa. He is like a freak. He is like Batista. Each day, more and more people give up on Fidel, but everyone hates Mas Canosa." Ruiz muses over his country's dilemma. "Fidel is a leader with great charisma. Thirty, forty thousand people listen to him, transfixed. Someone like him comes along once every thousand years. He can convince you of anything - but he's wrong."
"The only chance for someone like Mas Canosa to come to power in Cuba," says Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, "is a complete and total collapse of the country, probably civil war. Mas is hoping that the Embargo will lead to this."
Between my two visits to Cuba, I phoned New Jersey congressman Robert Torricelli, perhaps Mas Canosa's most prized disciple and a recipient of Cuban PAC money. Since the passage of Toricelli's eponymous bill, now called the Cuban Democracy Act, his profile has blossomed as a relentless anti-Castro pit bull and as the boyfriend of Bianca Jagger. Never mind that the U.N. has twice condemned his legislation. In mid-October at a gathering on Cuba at Georgetown University, Torricelli informed the group, "I want to wreak havoc on that island."
On this day, however, Torricelli was more interested in my trip. "What's it like down there?" he asked, fishing for bad news. "Things are tense, aren't they, very tense?" I informed him of the acute shortages and hardships but also of the continuing, albeit eroding, support for Castro. "That's not true," Torricelli interrupted, "Those people wouldn't dare tell you the truth." When I reported that even Castro's opponents had called for the end of the Embargo and the repeal of his legislation, he yelled, "I meet Cubans in my office all the time and every one of them wants the Embargo in place. Look, I can tell this conversation is not going to be profitable."
Across the sitting room at the Palacio do la Revolucion, Alarcon, Robaina, and Lage are still chatting, evidently waiting for Castro to finish his interview with me so they can resume working. It is almost three in the morning. I report to him that Ted Turner's biographer, Porter Bibb, describes Castro as "one of the two major influences on Turner." Castro seems genuinely touched and says he's "honored," admitting "from the time we met, I became friends with him very fast. He's a sportsman, a sailor, a lover of nature who loves life and beauty, including the beauty of women."
"I admire him for marrying Jane Fonda," Castro says. "We have a lot of fondness for her, so now we have two friends. I would really like to see him become president of the United States, but I shouldn't say that or he'll never be elected." Later he revises his thinking and advises Turner "to keep doing what he's doing and stay away from politics. It's better to be someone who elects presidents than to be president."
What would happen, I ask him, if an accident or illness should befall him? Who would lead Cuba? "You can ask the CIA that question, since it was a part of all their plans to eliminate me," he quips. "Candidly, I don't really think anything would happen. The government would very quickly adapt to that situation. We have all the political and legal mechanisms in place .The life of the country wouldn't be halted for even a minute."
"Well, perhaps during the funeral, which might be an unpleasant time for some people. It certainly won't bother me since I won't be able to participate - except as a body. That is, if anything is left. If I don't get eaten by a shark or disappear in a plane that blows up. What happens to my remains is a matter of complete indifference to me. It will be a problem that everyone else will have to solve without my help." The thought makes Castro laugh, a deep rolling rumble. "No man is indispensable in this world. I have the right to enjoy a well-earned rest."
Our interview concluded, I ask Castro if he's heard a certain joke popular in Cuba. He asks me to tell him. "What are the triumphs of the revolution? Education, health care, and athletics. And what are the failures of the revolution? Breakfast, lunch and dinner." To my surprise, Castro is laughing. "See, when you have too much breakfast, lunch and dinner, it's bad for your health," he improvises instantly.
"It has been my fate to lead a life full of fascinating events and experiences. I was nineteen when I began my political struggle," he says, beginning to sum up his life. "I was twenty-six during Moncada (the first battle of the revolution in 1953), thirty-two when the revolution was won. I was over sixty when the socialist camp disappeared," he adds. "I faced my greatest challenge after I turned sixty," he concludes, speaking in the past tense as if the current crisis were already over, and he had already triumphed.