Cuba: Face-to-face with Fidel, December 1993

On the highway in Cuba, 1993. People waiting for a ride.
photograph of old car in Cuba
Old car in the streets of Havana.

They emerged from the smoke like angels looking for their ride back to heaven. Bodies appeared, waving arms issued from the smoggy dark, faces looked meaningfully at the car’s headlights. “Mira,” I shouted, “Watch out!” “No problema, mujer,” the driver responded, not looking in my direction. He careened towards one of the observers, but missed him by moments.

We were going down the main Cuban thruway, Ocho Vias, in our Mercedes Sedan, the only car on this two-lane highway. Every five miles or so, a disheveled group of people appeared at the side of the road, hovering in the midst of the fumes from the burning sugarcane stalks. Like the rest of Cuba, they were waiting patiently for something to move them forward, to assist in their future. This carload of Americans had no more room, though, and just drove on by.

Ingrid and I had hired a driver for the day to take us from Havana, where we were writing about the Latin American Film Festival, out to Pinar del Rio. We’d heard that things were less desperate in the country; those who raised animals and grew food had started making money off urban folk. A pig brought in lots of cash. We needed to see the other side of this complex country to understand the full picture of the socialist revolution.

Back home in San Francisco, I had left a different kind of social revolution: A digital revolution pushing for the mass-market use of computers. As an editor at a computer magazine, I found all sorts of hopes for the future there – a desktop in every home and the emergence of a global community. But the more hardware reviews I plowed through, the more I remembered about my youthful fascination with the Cuban revolution. A longing to meet a role model who offered danger but was driven by a cause crawled under my skin.

I wanted to find those hiding in the hills – not on the 21st floor of a Silicon Valley high-rise. My access to all that power seemed too easy, too pat, without a sublime purpose. The more RAM I stuffed into my computer, the faster the fax modem, the more determined I became to meet Fidel.

So I signed up for a tour of Cuba from the Center for Cuban Studies. Although I planned to write about the Latin American Film Festival, my ultimate mission was to meet Fidel at the closing night party. Rumor had it that he was a big film fan, and, like many politicians, enjoyed parading in front of guests at one of Cuba’s largest international receptions. I would make sure that I was there to greet him.

*****

As we began to experience the festival, I realized that everything in Cuba existed in some past tense. Staying at the Havana Libre, we felt like we were time tripping into another era. Nothing had changed since 1959 – they had the same streamlined furniture, bar stools and fixtures. The programs for the festival were printed on cheap recycled paper that was yellowed before we even got it. The old offset machines left the type raised and uneven and the rules were crookedly pasted on. The movie posters were silk-screened with inks an inch thick. Beautifully rough ridges outlined the imperfections of human handiwork.

Ingrid, a tall, redheaded, sharp-witted actress from Boston, and I spent most of our time socializing with the group and visiting old Havana. Walking with our newly found friend Phil, we surveyed the collapsed and abandoned 17th-century buildings that decorated the streets. Every blue facade, church and tiled hallway seemed carved by age. No corner had been spared by salt-water corrosion.

We met Pedro in front of the Plaza de las Armas, the governmental office. Unemployed Pedro, with the telltale scattered facial hair of a twenty-year-old, was a willing guide and marketer of the revolution, recounting the history of Cuba, rambling off the statistics of the recent sugar harvest and the number of people who could read. But soon Pedro told us that the only problem was that he couldn’t buy a bicycle for his nephew. This was a recurring theme in our conversations with the people we met: The waitresses and chefs in the hotel asked us to buy them clothes for their children and get aspirin, soap and food from the tourist-only stores.

Phil, a socially aware graduate student from Wisconsin, took to Pedro’s story and bought him a blue Taiwanese bicycle (a child’s bike with the tiny tires and a big banana seat). When I saw Pedro gleefully riding the bike, I imagined the Bianchis zooming through the streets of San Francisco. Oh, the hundreds of dollars worth of tools, tires and gadgets used to repair these bikes. Pedro celebrated his success by inviting us to his house for some homemade brew, a cross between vinegar and gasoline. His uncle sat in the kitchen and played dominoes, oblivious to the foreigners in the next room; his nephew had disappeared from the conversation.

*****

That night, Ingrid and I spent some time at the Hotel Nacional, the four-star hotspot catering to foreigners with its computers, pork dishes and Mojitos. We ran into another traveler, Don, a retired banker who wore a jacket with loads of pockets stuffed with all sorts of things as if he were going on an African safari. He had met a Cuban dancer, Jaime, and pianist, Marisol, earlier in the day, and we joined them for drinks.

We had secured a table in the far corner outside since the Cubans weren’t supposed to be in the hotel. In their twenties, they had no hard dollars and had never been in the Nacional before. They feared that the waiters would realize they were Cuban and kick them out. So we quietly bought them drinks and listened as they whispered jokes about the incompetent comrades and corrected my California Spanish.

Our offerings of drinks plied them with enough assurance to open them up. Marisol explained how they had to lock the door to their bedroom because their roommates stole their food. Even when they did this, though, they broke in – climbed over the walls, snapped the lock – to get to the rice and eggs hidden in their closet. Born after the revolution, they laughed about the changes promised and propagated: “Just tell me where a dancer or pianist can work in Cuba.”

When the bar closed down, we didn’t bounce around the check to see who would pay like we used to do in the high-tech world. Don paid, got up, quite toasted after several drinks, and unknowingly dropped a large wad of 20s on the ground. Ingrid couldn’t hide her disgust as she picked up the wad and handed it to him. He stuffed it in one of his small safari pockets.

*****

Several days later, the closing night party – and Fidel – finally arrived. The queue to get in was interminable, as everyone had to abandoned their goods at the door: purses tumbled with cameras, wallets and everything else behind the counter.

Inside, the Plazas de Armas was decked out in all sorts of splendor – shrimps, pork, pineapple, and sweet cakes of all types. Lovely ladies and men decorated the room, and, of course, some of Fidel’s guards, clearly marked by their leather jackets and high-riding pants, haunted the aisles. There was an air of anticipation as everyone waited for him to show – the only celebrity rumored to appear. And he entered just as any celebrity might: quickly walking through the room, approaching the most beautiful woman standing alone by a pole and chatting with her through his interpreter. He was a notoriously brilliant speaker, known to keep crowds listening to his colorful rhetoric for hours. A group gathered around him, but Ingrid and I were too far off. As we approached him, he disappeared back into the hideaway.

With no music or even people watching, we quickly became bored, hovering by Castro’s door, hoping that he would emerge one more time. Suddenly, he walked out the door as if he owned the room. Ingrid, towering over the others in her brocade outfit inadvertently lured El Comandante our way. As he approached, I pictured his fearless moves through the Sierra Maestra Mountains, “Where are you from?” he asked, using a pick-up line on Ingrid hallowed by many men across the world. I gave him a good once over: His neatly trimmed greying beard and hair, his unremarkable green jacket and leather boots. But my glare landed on his fingernails: perfectly manicured, every cuticle a rounded half-moon (perhaps with a sheen) – a protected coat on top? He was a manicurist’s dream.

I stuck out my hand to shake his as we locked gazes. He returned my gesture with uncertainty. My nails were cracked and brittle. My writer’s fingers, fat and rough. My interests, suspect. This bloated Fidel couldn’t find the appropriate column to log me under. It’s no wonder: How many twenty-something, female American groupies had he met? As his stare met mine for those few moments, he came into focus: fear was the only fire in his world-weary eyes. I had seen this look before in the faces of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley who thought someone got to market with an idea before they did. Or those threatened by the outcome of a bad review. My mind locked as I searched for an explanation on why I’d come almost 3,000 miles to meet this man. His soft skin against my rough hands belied my fantasy, and I was forced to let go without achieving my desired epiphany.

As I let go of his hand, he turned to continue chatting up Ingrid. But a roughshod reporter interrupted quickly before the affair would evolve. “If a man catches a fish in his own boat, who owns that fish?” Fidel stood for a moment, perplexed, “Is this a trick question about Hemingway?” “No,” the reporter insisted, “I want to know who owns the fish – the state or the man?” Fidel laughed with polished political acumen, “Tonight we are here to celebrate movies; no one wants to talk about politics.” With that, the crowd followed him as he moved on to another lovely lady who spoke to him in Spanish and danced for a moment. The circle of people continued through the room for a while longer until Fidel had sprinkled the crowd with enough diversion to make the party worthwhile.

*****

On our walk back to the hotel, Ingrid and I came across Quixote Park, where a life-sized metal sculpture of Don Quixote rides naked on his hag of a horse Rocinante. That the statue was in disrepair didn’t surprise us. Perhaps Fidel let it go because he was ashamed of his own resemblance to Cervantes’s character, a mad epic hero caught between two worlds. Quixote’s nostalgic convictions drive his legendary crusades and illusions: He fights windmills thinking they’re giants, falls in love with maidens who are actually prostitutes and dons a basin as his helmet. My final photos were of Ingrid in front of this withered man wasted beyond death but unable to give up his battle between faith and reason, this dreamer holding on to a past long-gone.

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