One afternoon without warning, two Communist Party “guides”’ showed up at our room in the Hotel Riviera in Havana and whisked us away. Within minutes, we were in the inner sanctum of the Palace of the Revolution, shaking hands with Fidel Castro.
For the next five hours, my colleague Roberto Fabricio and I were given an up-close lesson about how el comandante en jefe was a master of control, with occasional bursts of charm.
This happened in the late 1970s, in perhaps the longest interview Castro ever gave Miami journalists during his half-century in power. We both had taken a leave of absence from The Miami Herald to go to Cuba to research our book, The Winds of December, about the downfall of Fulgencio Batista and the coming to power of Castro.
We had already interviewed more than 100 people outside Cuba and had spent a month inside the country, talking to persons close to Castro about what had happened. But any time we asked about an interview with Castro himself, we were told it was only a distant possibility.
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Then suddenly we were there. We had our questions prepared, of course, and we had a tape recorder. But when we asked an innocuous first question, Castro launched into a discussion of Cuba’s attempts at gaining independence from Spain in the mid-1800s. Slowly, he worked his way through Cuban history, to 1898, to 1904.
He paced as he lectured, jabbing his finger into the air occasionally for emphasis. Fabricio and I sat on a couch.
As he droned on, I had this sinking feeling. We had no idea how much time we had for our interview — 30 minutes? An hour? Surely he had been briefed that our book was covering only a few weeks in 1958 and 1959.
Several times we tried to interrupt, but we quickly learned that no one interrupts Fidel. He charged along, through 1933, when students rebelled against an evil dictator, only to see their victory snatched away by right-wing Cubans.
Through all of this, he was conveying a message: For 100 years, every time that Cubans had attempted to become truly independent, the United States had conspired with right-wingers to stop the process. Castro’s 26th of July Movement had been dedicated to achieving true independence and breaking the U.S. stranglehold.
That sentiment was perhaps worthy of a few sentences in our book but did nothing to answer the pages of questions we had. I worried that what might be the most important interview of my life was slipping away without being able to ask anything.
Then, after what seemed like an hour, he suddenly stopped. “And now I will answer any questions that you have.”
And he did.
I don’t remember him sitting down for even a moment. He moved around his office, talking, sometimes bellowing, occasionally flashing a warm smile. Several times, his assistant, Celia Sanchez, brought in large scrapbooks with newspaper clippings to support his points.
He was excellent at some details — where he had been when he learned that Batista had fled, what he did next and why he did it. He was intelligent in his answers, and occasionally he threw in a subtle dig, as when he mentioned “Morgan y compañía,” a reference to William Morgan, an American fighting with another anti-Batista group that Castro believed was supported by the CIA — “The Company.”
He did not, however, deal with a larger, looming question. Finally, late in the interview, we asked: Before his victory, why had he insisted to Cubans and foreign journalists that he favored a liberal democracy? Why had he persistently denied any Communist leanings?
His rambling, impassioned answer came down to this: He always had “the essence of a Marxist mentality,” but it was not fully formed before he took power.
Still, why had he not talked about this “essence” before Batista fled?
“Our people could not understand a larger plan.” If he revealed this essence to the Cuban people before gaining power, “that would not have had a practical result.”
When we finally left, his brother Raúl was waiting patiently in the anteroom, munching on snacks from a food cart. He had a folder under his arm. We figured it contained a report of the day’s fighting in Angola.
At that moment, I felt elation and gratitude for all of the time he had devoted to us. Only later, in going back over the tapes, did I understand that we had witnessed the quintessential Fidel: totally dominating, energetic, obsessive, self-absorbed.
He had controlled our time with us, just as he controlled a country for more than 50 years.