No scurrying flunkies rushed in ahead of the President. Nor was there any stomp of boots or smart salutes to herald his arrival. Only about a dozen relaxed-looking but neatly turned out youth leaders preceded him into the room. They sat down on one side of the long table, on either side of the chairs meant for the President and his interpreters — both came and left with him.
It was a conference room. Neat, large, but sparse. Bauhaus in design. A view of fabulous green tropical shrubbery through large windows, but one didn’t see anything ornate within the president’s palace.
When Fidel Castro walked in, he looked more like a CEO than a dictator. There was an aura about him. His clear eyes and frank air came across as businesslike yet warm. It was a weekend, but Castro’s interaction with us was almost a conference. He could easily have opted for an informal chat over drinks. Instead, he had invited us for this interaction at 2 pm, five hours before a banquet.
Frankly, the invitation had fooled me. Since it simply invited us to a banquet at 2 pm, I figured that el comandante had eased the concept of a banquet so that it had metamorphosed into a late lunch. That was a bad miscalculation. I was starving by the time the first course began. I must have stared with great devotion at that half a grapefruit as I waited longingly for the president to raise his spoon.
The fare was relatively simple for a presidential banquet. But there were enough courses — perhaps five — to satisfy even my starving self. In the meeting room, a notebook and pen had been placed before each of us. His youth leaders were on his side of the table — a row of neatly white-sheeted tables actually. Those of us on the other side had been at an international conference in Havana through that week.
The conference schedule had been packed, and I for one had looked forward to going to the beach that Saturday.
Several of us did, but only through the morning. For, the evening before, the invitation to the 2 pm banquet had turned up unexpectedly.
Decent life and work
This was in the spring of 2001, and Fidel was still very much in the saddle. There was already talk of his brother Raul possibly succeeding him, but that seemed like a long shot at the time. For, interactions with people in shops and on the streets made it obvious that they saw Fidel as a towering leader, Raul as no more than his brother. Raul’s reputation was, like his middle name, modest - if at all.
Of course the regime did not tolerate opposition, but one never got the impression that Fidel was reviled. Most people were tired of having to turn out on Sundays to listen to his long harangues at public rallies, but didn’t seem to resent it too much. To most citizens, it was a bit of a picnic rather than a serious political exercise.
Opulent wealth wasn’t visible, but nor was hunger or homelessness. There was none of the obvious poverty one had seen in Nicaragua 15 years before that - when Daniel Ortega and his romantic band of revolutionary leaders first ruled with lilting anthems of liberty amid Reagan’s gallingly successful economic blockade.
In fact, the compromises Ortega has been forced to make over the past three decades are an excellent foil for Cuba’s half-century of political, diplomatic and economic buoyancy under Castro.
In that first spring of a new century, the cars were old, large, and sometimes cranky, but Havana seemed efficiently run. Neat, if a tad run-down. Happy enough, if a little tired. Working conditions were obviously decent in the cigar factory we visited, but the touristy ancien regime too lived on in the spiffy cabaret and the sprawling President Hotel. A beach shack offered top drawer Che T-shirts for twenty US dollars.
Sprightly at 75
The president asked a lot of questions during the five hours of our interaction, and then at the banquet too. He was curious to know what was happening across the world. For instance, he asked about how much of a challenge AIDS was in India at that time, and what the country was doing to cope. He was open to our questions too, and encouraged his youth activists to answer questions about Cuba.
After 42 years in the job, he didn’t seem tired or cynical. Rather, he seemed open to learning new ways. He walked erect, exuding quiet confidence. Nothing about him gave the impression that he was 75. He was informal too. A couple of the visitors mentioned casually that they had hoped to take back a little more than the single box of cigars that Cuban customs allowed. The restriction used to be very strictly implemented.
We were at the airport at dawn the next morning, but it was obvious that instructions had been issued; there were no restrictions for those who had been at the banquet a few hours before.
An era has gone
With Fidel’s death this weekend, an era has passed.
His comrade Che embodied the romance of the egalitarian world-changing dream. But in the corridors of international power, Fidel ruled with steadfast skill. Physically, he was a tall, imposing figure. Yet, on the world stage, he was the little guy who stood up to the bully — charismatic, disarming, resolute.
The poise with which he did it became apparent through that afternoon and evening. He had more grace than the kings and reigning queens one has come across.
Fidel was not only resilient. He was intelligent.
Rulers of all sorts tend to have dark and devious sides. And yet, when one left his palace that night, one felt one had met a good man.