I had long been curious about the relationship between Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro. The great Latin American Nobel Laureate, and the dictator. An odd couple, to say the least.
So when I found him, drink in hand, alone at a coctail party, I was determined to get to the bottom of that friendship. It was in October, 1996 at a meeting of the Inter American Press Association in Los Angeles.
After some brief small talk, I asked him, “It is very awkward, don't you think? Here you are talking about a free press, promoting your journalism academy in Cartagena, but when you sit with Fidel to smoke cigars, drink mojitos and talk for hours you are with a man who shut down all free newspapers and persecutes independent journalists and kicks out of the country foreign correspondents!”
I spoke softly, not aggressively.
“Do you ever talk to him about freedom, the press, those journalists in his jails?” El Gabo, as he was called, took a long sip from his Scotch on the rocks. “ Coño, you are like all the Cubans from Miami, you can't let go of that bitterness,” he told me.
I expected him to bolt, to excuse himself and run for cover. But to his credit he stood his ground and we went at it in a very civilized but candid conversation. And I gave him room to talk, so we established a journalist to journalist relationship that permitted a dialogue.
García Márquez felt that Fidel was bigger than his sins. He had become infatuated by the man who was the embodiment of an ultimate character in one of his novels.
“The man has been able to endure and survive 37 years of hostility from the most powerful country in the history of mankind under their very noses.” That statement says more about your own morality than about Fidel, I told him. And I added, “So at the heart of your relationship is the hatred of the Americans.”
He smiled. He had a home in Cuba where he spent quite a bit of time.
It was obvious that he admired the revolution at a literary level. As a surrealistic, out-of-this-world place where the rules were different. A kind of tropical, anti-gringo Macondo. And he thrived in the access to the bigger than life patriarch-dictator.
I told him that his groupie-like admiration for Fidel and the Cuban revolution was a stark contrast to his novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, where he mocks a Caribbean tyrant who dies of old age trying to hang on to power. “I have to find my ideas some place,'” he said with a smile.
That was a cynical and disingenuous statement. A disconnect that told me that he felt he was above the morality reserved for mere mortals. A moral snob.
Oddly enough at the conference we were attending, García Márquez had delivered a lecture on a pet project he had developed in Cartagena, the Foundation for a New Ibero-american Journalism. He started as a reporter in Cartagena, and was helping young journalists sharpen their skills and become advocates for probing, hard reporting.
I was there representing El Nuevo Herald and as a vice chairman of the Freedom of the Press Committee to deliver a report on the persecution of journalists in Cuba.
As much as I disagreed with his moral compass, I admired his wit, and his willingness to engage with me in a conversation where I held his feet to the fire. And I walked away knowing it was an experience I would always remember.
Roberto Fabricio was a journalist and editor for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald.