A Visit With Castro

A Visit With Castro

Brilliant, spirited, but he’s stayed too long.


Like a lot of other people’s feelings toward Cuba, mine have been mixed in the past decades. Apart from press reports, I had learned from film people who had worked there that the Batista society was hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners. So Castro storming his way to power seemed like a clean wind blowing away the degradation and subservience to the Yankee dollar. What emerged once the smoke had cleared finally turned into something different, of course, and if I chose not to forget the background causes of the Castro revolution, the repressiveness of his one-man government was still grinding away at my sympathy. At the same time, the relentless US blockade at the behest, so it appeared, of a defeated class of exploiters who had never had a problem with the previous dictatorship seemed to be something other than a principled democratic resistance.

The focus of all these contradictions was Castro himself; this man, in effect, was Cuba, but when my wife, the photographer Inge Morath, and I were invited in March 2000 to join a small group of “cultural visitors” for a short visit, we went along with no thought of actually meeting the Leader but merely to see a bit of the country. As it turned out, soon after our arrival he would invite our small group of nine to dinner and the following day, unannounced, suddenly showed up out in the country where we were having lunch in order to continue the conversation.

By March 2000, the time of our meeting, the future of Cuba was the big question for anyone thinking about the country. Our group was no exception. We were, apart from my wife and myself, William Luers, former head of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and ambassador first to Venezuela and later to Czechoslovakia, and his wife, Wendy, a committed human rights activist; novelist William Styron and his wife, Rose; book agent Morton Janklow and his wife, Linda; and Patty Cisneros, philanthropist organizer of a foundation to save Amazon culture. The only nonspeakers of Spanish were the Styrons, Janklows and I.

Expecting to simply wander in the city and perhaps meet a few writers, we were surprised our second day by the invitation from Castro to join him for dinner. Later, it would come clear that “Gabo” (Gabriel García Márquez), Castro’s friend and supporter as well as a friend of Bill Styron, had most probably been the author of this hospitality. I was greatly curious, as were the others, about Castro and at the same time slightly guarded in my expectations.

Having had a certain amount of experience with Soviet and Eastern European officialdom in the arts, particularly as head of International PEN for four years, I expected to have to do a lot of agreeable nodding in silence to statements manifestly silly if not at times idiotic. Unelected leaders and their outriders are unusually sensitive to contradiction, and the experience of their company can be miserably boring. However, Castro was mythic by this time, and the prospect of an hour or two with him was something to look forward to.

I’ll mention only two or three observations I had made in Havana before our dinner. The city itself has the beauty of a ruin returning to the sand, the mica, the gravel and trees from which it originated. The poverty of the people is obvious, but at the same time a certain spiritedness seems to survive. Poor as they are there is little sense of the dead despair one finds in cities where poverty and glamorous wealth live side by side. But this is all appearances, which do count for something but not everything. A guide I happened upon with whom I had a private chat–answering my questions, I should add, and not volunteering–said that it was simply not possible for anyone to live in Cuba on a single job. Educated, clearly disciplined, he could not keep his deep frustration from boiling over as he explained that he worked for a government tourist agency that charged large fees to foreign clients for his services while he received a pittance. If this was not exploitation he did not know the meaning of the word.

But there may be another dimension to unhappiness like his. I walked around near the lovely old Hotel Santa Isabel, where we were staying, and a few blocks away sat down on a park bench facing the pleasantly meager traffic on the Malecón, the broad road around the harbor. Presently, two guys showed up and sat beside me, deep in discussion. They were exceedingly thin, neither had socks, one wore cracked shoes and the other disintegrating sandals, their shirts were washed and unironed with shredded collars, they were both in need of a shave. They had a way of sitting crouched over crossed knees while sucking on cigarettes and staring at the flowing away of time as they talked, reminding me of street people in New York, Paris, London. A taxi pulled up to the curb in front of us and a lovely young woman stepped out.

She was carrying two brown paper bags full of groceries. Both men stopped talking to gape at her. I saw now that she was beautiful and tastefully dressed and, more noticeable in this proletarian place, was wearing high heels. One white tulip arched up from one of the bags and drooped down from its long slender stem. The woman was juggling the bags to get her money purse open, and the tulip was waving dangerously close to snapping its stem. One of the men got up and took hold of one of the bags to steady it, while the other joined him to steady the other bag, and I wondered if they were about to grab the bags and run.

Instead, as the woman paid the driver, one of them gently, with the most tender care, held the tulip stem between forefinger and thumb until she could get the bags secured in her arms. She thanked them–not effusively but with a certain formal dignity, and walked off. Both men returned to the bench and their avid discussion. I’m not quite sure why, but I thought this transaction remarkable. It was not only the gallantry of these impoverished men that was impressive, but that the woman seemed to regard it as her due and not at all extraordinary. Needless to say, she offered no tip, nor did they seem to expect any, her comparative wealth notwithstanding.

Having protested for years the government’s jailing and silencing of writers and dissidents, I wondered whether despite everything, including the system’s economic failure, a heartening species of human solidarity had been created, possibly out of the relative symmetry of poverty and the uniform futility inherent in the system from which few could raise their heads short of sailing away.

The poverty is apparently close to catastrophic. On this same lively harbor road are stoplights that, when they turn red, are a signal for a dozen or so young women and girls to approach the halted cars as though out of nowhere. They are not garishly dressed and their makeup is subdued. I asked our driver what they were doing, and he said they were “hitching rides.” He did not turn to meet my gaze but kept his eyes straight ahead, obviously unwilling to pursue the subject. This kind of display was forbidden during the Soviet-dominated years, probably because the economy was not quite so desperately bad and perhaps as well out of deference to Soviet puritanism. Now the pressure of outright hunger was too great to hold back.

I met with an acting class in the theater school after they had shown me a beautifully modulated performance of a surreal student play in which a crucifixion suggests a symbolization of the HIV/AIDS anguish. On the lawn outside, I faced about a hundred of them, young and avid and bursting with hope and energy, wanting to know all about “Broadway.” When I told them that “Broadway” had been captured almost exclusively by musicals and pure entertainment and that the few straight plays were limited runs for stars, they looked unhappy and really didn’t want to hear the bad news. Nothing, it seems, can tarnish the success and hopefulness that most things American convey. One thing is sure, given the chance they’d have rushed in a body to Times Square.

On arriving in the Palace of the Revolution for our dinner, my wife was immediately required to give up her Leica before meeting Castro. The man taking the camera promptly dropped it from a high bin to the stone floor. The palace is pre-Castro, very modern and aggressively opulent, with gleaming black stone walls and checkered floors, all of it immaculately kept. We entered an anteroom leading into the dining room and suddenly there was Castro, not in uniform as one always sees him in photographs but in a blue pencil-striped suit that, unpressed as it was, must not have been worn very often. Despite the suit, my quick impression was that had he not been a revolutionary politician he might well have been a movie star. He had that utterly total self-involvement, that need for love and agreement and the overwhelming thirst for the power that comes with total approval. In this crowded antechamber his retinue, as with most leaders everywhere, were supremely agreeable and one sensed immediately their absolute submission to the Leader. Whatever else he is, Castro is an exciting person and could probably have had a career on the screen.

Luers, in effect our senior shepherd, introduced our members in Spanish, and Gabo added a few words of explanation to identify us for Castro. García Márquez is quite short and the rest of us men are six feet or over, so that he stood looking up at Castro and the rest of us like a new younger boy in school. His friendship with Styron and his English started things off fluently, so that between them and Castro’s conversations with Luers and Wendy, his wife, and Patty Cisneros and Inge, a loud hubbub banged against the walls. Suddenly Castro looked at me over the heads of the others and nearly shouted, “What is your birthday!”

“October 17, 1915,” I replied, pretending I was not astonished at the question.

He now pointed his long index finger at his right temple. All went silent. An expression of deep-delving sagacity settled over his face as he kept the finger pressed against his head. I sensed hambone overacting, but then recalled paintings of Cervantes’s Knight of the Sad Countenance, the heaven-directed gaze, the scraggly beard, the slanty eyebrows, the immemorial dark Spanish mournfulness, and Castro began to look normal. Now he raised the finger to point upward like a censorious teacher. “You are eleven years, five months and fourteen days older than I.” (I can’t recall the exact figures, but this will do.) Congratulatory laughter burst out and brightened the air. There was something almost touching in this childish demonstration of his calculating ability, and one recognized again his boyish hungering for the central distinction in a group. I thought of his idolization of Hemingway, another star who I am sure had felt the same driving need in himself. It was easy to imagine how they must have appreciated each other.

Now, with a wicked look in his eye, he turned to Wendy Luers. In midafternoon she had gotten us all out of the minibus the government had provided and into taxis that had taken us to the home of a dissident, Elizardo Sánchez. There we learned what was rather obvious–that despite the man’s having been jailed a number of times for writing and distributing antigovernment publications, he was presently free but without any detectable influence. Knowing that his house was bugged he felt free to say whatever he liked, since his positions were already well-known. And if any of us had imagined that the visit was secret, we were disabused by the friendly TV cameraman who photographed us out in the street as we left. So much for our taking taxis instead of the government bus.

Now, addressing Wendy Luers primarily, Castro leaned forward and said, “We hear you were all missing for a couple of hours this afternoon! Were you shopping?” A flash of fierce irony crossed his face before he joined in our laughter. And so to dinner.

A meeting had been arranged the previous afternoon, no doubt through the writers union, with some fifty or so Cuban writers. Initially the organizers had expected only a few dozen on such short notice, but they had had to find a larger space when this crowd showed up. We encountered a rather barren auditorium, a speaker’s platform and an odd quietness for so large a crowd. What to make of their silence? I couldn’t help being reminded of the fifties, when the question hanging over any such gathering was whether it was being observed and recorded by the FBI.

It was hard to tell whether Styron’s or my work was known to this audience, almost all of them men. In any case, with the introductions finished, Styron briefly described his novels as I did my plays, and questions were invited. One man stood and asked, “Why have you come here?”

Put so candidly, the question threw my mind back to Eastern Europe decades ago; there too it was inconceivable that such a meeting could have no political purpose. Styron and I were both rather stumped. I finally said that we were simply curious about Cuba and were opposed to her isolation and thought a short visit might teach us something. “But what is your message?” the man persisted. We had none, we were now embarrassed to admit. Still, as we broke up a number of them came up to shake hands and wordlessly express a sort of solidarity with us, or so I supposed. But in some of them there was also suspicion, I thought, if not outright, if suppressed, hostility to us for failing to bring a message that would offer some hope against their isolation. But back to the dinner with Fidel…

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.

Next day we were lunching far out in the country, on the porch of a reforestation institute that over the years had planted hundreds of acres of various species of trees on the rolling hills that surround the rustic headquarters building. The air was pure and the silence refreshing. Suddenly, the roar of engines, and in a cloud of dust three large, recent-model Mercedes raced to a halt and the door of the middle one swung open and there was Castro, this time in his green uniform. He mounted the porch to our general greetings and took a chair and settled in.

Styron seemed to be the center of his interest today, and Castro asked him for the names of the best American authors, but of the nineteenth century, explaining with a grin that he wanted to avoid arousing our competitive instinct.

He had never really studied American literature, he said, and knew very little about it. This admission seemed strange, given Hemingway’s iconic position in Cuba, with his home a veritable holy site. In fact, it made one wonder whether for Castro there was something almost forbidden in the idea of the enemy’s even having a literature, or for that matter a spiritual life, at all. As Styron, unprepared for this display of Castro’s remoteness from the culture he was unceasingly castigating, tried to improvise a brief lecture on American literature’s high points, I wondered whether Castro might have been as remote from his own country as from ours. One is forever attributing informed wisdom to power, but in the face of the privation around him, should not a wise ruler who even in a free election would doubtless be re-elected, nevertheless recognize that after almost fifty years in supreme control the time had come to make way for a regime with new people and possibly more effective ideas?

Watching him at lunch–he ate two leaves of lettuce–one saw a lonely old man hungry for some fresh human contact, which could only get more and more rare as he ages. He might very well live actively for ten years, perhaps even longer as his parents reportedly had done, and I found myself wondering what could possibly be keeping him from a graceful exit that might even earn him his countrymen’s gratitude?

The quasi-sexual enchantment of power? Perhaps. More likely, given his history, was his commitment to the poetic image of world revolution, the uprising of the wretched of the earth with himself at its head. And in plain fact, as the chief of a mere island, he had managed to elevate himself to that transcendent state in millions of minds. The more so now, after all other contestants had fallen away and conditions in Latin America and Africa gone from bad to worse, the possibility needed only its right time to erupt again. After all, he had thrown Cuban forces into action in many countries around the world despite his country’s poverty and the obstinate resistance of his main sponsor, the now-abominated Soviet leadership.

It would have been too much to expect that after half a century in power he would not become to some important degree an anachronism, a handsome old clock that no longer tells the time correctly and bongs haphazardly in the middle of the night, disturbing the house. Notwithstanding all his efforts, the only semblance of a revolt of the poor is the antimodern Islamic tide, which from the Marxist point of view floats in a medieval dream. With us he seemed pathetically hungry for some kind of human contact. Brilliant as he is, spirited and resourceful as his people are, his endless rule seemed like some powerful vine wrapping its roots around the country and while defending it from the elements choking its natural growth. And his own as well. Ideology aside, he apparently maintains the illusions that structured his political successes even if they never had very much truth in them; to this day, as one example, he speaks of Gorbachev’s dissolution of the Soviet Union as unnecessary, “a mistake.”

In short, there was no fatal contradiction inherent in the Soviet system that brought it down, and so there is nothing in the Castro system or in his take on reality that is creating the painful poverty of the island. The US embargo created this island’s poverty out of hand, along with the Russians by their deserting him. It is Don Quixote tilting at windmills which, worse yet, have collapsed into dust.

The plaza before the Hotel Santa Isabel is lined with some fifteen or twenty bookstalls displaying for sale battered old Marxist-Leninist tracts, which two caretakers stock each morning and empty each evening, their positions on the shelves undisturbed during the days. Is it possible that someone in the government–Castro, perhaps–imagines that sane persons will be tempted to buy, let alone read, these artifacts of another age? What, one wonders, is keeping it all alive? Is it the patriotic love of Cubans, conformist or dissident, for their country, or is it the stuck-in-cement manic hatred of US politicians, whose embargo quite simply gives Castro an insurance policy against needed change, injecting the energy of rightful defiance into the people? For it is the embargo that automatically explains each and every failure of the regime to provide for the Cuban people. It will need the pathos of a new Cervantes to measure up to this profoundly sad tale of needless suffering.

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