A Visit With Castro
There were fantastic shrimp and spectacular pork, dream pork, Cubans being famous for their pork. (Castro, however, ate greens, intending to live forever.) Our group sat intermixed with Cubans, government ministers and associates, several of them women. Styron sat alongside Castro and his fabulous instantaneous interpreter, a woman who had been in this work the past quarter-century. Surrounding the table was a plastic tropical garden beautifully lit, possibly to suggest the sort of jungle from which the Revolution had sprung.
It quickly became clear that instead of a conversation, we were to have what seemed a rather formalized set of approaches to various ideas springing from the Leader's mind. Most of these have left my memory (after seven or eight months), but I can recall Castro suddenly looking severe as he spoke of the Russians' dumb stubbornness in all things, and his imitating their basso voices as they stuck to some absurd proposition despite all contrary evidence. What he seemed to hold against them primarily was their disloyalty amounting to perfidy--they had not stuck it out as real revolutionaries had to. But Luers, who next day would have a private conversation with him lasting hours, learned that his principal beef was the Soviets' refusal to back his attempts at starting revolutions in various Latin American and other countries. They wanted no confrontation with the United States and in his view were contemptibly unrevolutionary.
At the dinner he also took a few stabs at the CIA and its numerous assassination attempts against him, but here he affected to be more amused than angry, if only because they had blown back in American faces. And one couldn't miss a certain air of settled or even haughty confidence vis-à-vis America; it was almost as though Cuba were the great power and America some sort of unpredictable adolescent who periodically threw stones and broke his windows. However, he is said never to sleep twice in the same house, and his private movements are known to very few. What I do clearly recall is his leafing through a book of Inge's photographs, given to him that evening, and on seeing them promptly ordering an underling to return her her camera. And he had no objection to her photographing him the rest of the evening.
We had sat down at about 9:30. At 11:30 I began to wilt, and I recalled that Castro, who was clearly gaining strength with every passing moment, enjoyed staying up all night because he slept during most of the day. I was hardly alone in my deepening exhaustion; clearly his retinue, having no doubt heard his stories and remarks numerous times before, were cranking up their eyelids. Now it was 12:30, and then inevitably it got to be 1:30, and Castro was filling with the energy of his special vitamin pills, perhaps (a bag of which he later gave to each of us). I saw that García Márquez was, as far as one could tell, in a deep doze sitting upright in his chair. Castro was now in full flight, borne aloft by a kind of manic enthusiasm for sheer performance itself. Be it some perfectly well-known scientific discovery or somebody's intelligent perception of whatever sort, he spoke of it as though personally exposing it for the first time. But charmingly, not without ironical self-deprecation and some wit. He was remorselessly on, obviously anxious to occupy as vast a space around him as he possibly could. And how, I realized, could it be any different, when he had been the chief of state for close to half a century, longer by far than any king or president in modern times, except perhaps Emperor Francis Joseph of Austria. And what effect had his endless rule had on Cubans, most of whom had not even been born when he came to power? Indeed, I had asked at our meeting with the writers how the country was going to move from Castro to whoever or whatever was to follow him, and the uneasiness in the audience was palpable and no one would venture a reply. As we were leaving that meeting one man came up to me and said, "The only solution is biological."
At around 2 in the morning I realized that this veritable human engine of sheer joy might well expect us to stay until dawn. Desperate for sleep, before I could really think it through, I raised my hand and said, "Please, Mr. President, forgive me, but when we arrived you will recall that you said I was eleven years, five months and fourteen days older than you." I paused, struck by his sudden brow-lifted look of surprise or even some small apprehension at the interruption. "It is now fifteen days."
He threw up his hands. "I have transgressed!" He laughed and stood up, ending the dinner. When our group departed we were applauded in the street by the grateful retinue.