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.