Yesterday marks nearly 16 years to the day that I met Fidel Castro while visiting Cuba in December of 2000. His death has sparked numerous articles analyzing his contributions and his mistakes, as well as decrying his despotic measures, and it has inspired countless posts on social media that range from sentimental displays of solidarity with the Cuban people (on both sides of the political spectrum) to unbridled enthusiasm for the passing of their leader. The man who had seized power and held it for nearly fifty years engendered both pride and revulsion, as is evidenced today by the reception of his death. Sifting through the jeers and the words of praise, I have been trying to come to terms with my own feelings about the man I encountered so many years ago in Havana, a man I had read and even written a great deal about as a student of international affairs. Rather than the sinner or the saint, however, it is the spirit of a revolutionary that has always been most memorable for me about Castro, and it is this spirit that I feel will be missed.
In the fall of 2000, I had the immense fortune of studying abroad with Semester at Sea, and during our 3 ½ months we sailed west from Vancouver and stopped in 9 countries on our way to New Orleans, where we finally disembarked at the end of our voyage. Havana was our final stop, the second time in a row that Semester at Sea had procured a special educational visa from the US Treasury Department, and I am told that students went back one final time in the spring of 2001 before the Bush administration canceled even these special visas to the island nation 90 miles off the Florida coast.
Now, when I say that I met Castro, I don’t mean that I was enjoying an ice cream while walking along El Malecón, Havana’s gorgeous esplanade, and happened upon the man who had defied the United States for over forty years. Nor did I have a private meeting with him to discuss global political strategies and the economic revitalization of our respective countries. It was not exactly a personal chat, in other words, but in no way do I mean to say that what transpired was not an intimate affair.
My shipmates and I only had about four days on the island, as opposed to the usual five that we enjoyed in most of the other ports of call, and that is hardly enough time to get to know any place, even a relatively small one. We had spent five days in China, for example, and to this day when someone asks me if I’ve ever been to China (or any of the other countries we visited), I feel compelled to reply that I was once in Shanghai for five days. I cannot claim to know China well, nor do I claim to know even a country the size of Cuba well after so short a stay.
I will be the first to admit that my personal and direct experience of Cuba is limited to the capital, Havana, and that mostly to the tours we took of local schools and hospitals. I point this out in case there are those waiting to jump on this and say that my time there was manipulated by the Communist regime to give me a favorable view of the country and its advances. I concede on this point fully and without hesitation, and although they did a remarkably good job, you don’t need to take my word or theirs for it. Independent analysts from the World Bank, UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and others attest to some of the remarkable progress that Cuba made under Castro. The country boasts the tenth highest literacy rate in the world at just under 100%, as well as a high school graduation rate of 94%. Meanwhile, the US ranks 45th in literacy with an 81% graduation rate. The life expectancy in Cuba, at 78 years, is on par with the United States, health care is free, and Cuba has the highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world. There is also very little violent crime, and although cash poor, the Cuban people tend to have their basic necessities met.
Sixteen years ago, I walked the darkened streets of Havana, striking left and right through the barrios in search of an authentic sense of the place, and I had no fear of being robbed or attacked as I might on the streets of a city in another, “more-developed” country. I would later learn that my sense of safety was likely due, at least in part, to the fear of reprisals by the police if an American was hurt or robbed, and in part due to the fact that Cubans want to attract people to their country, not scare them away. Nevertheless, it was a singular experience visiting a place where the people, although poor, seemed so happy.
And yet, this all comes with a price, as we are aware. Political dissidence is forbidden, and Castro was known for harsh repression of ‘counter-revolutionaries,’ those who spoke out against the regime and his rule. He was, and this is without question, a dictator who was at times brutal and who always took a hardline approach to any who opposed him or the revolution. He jailed dissidents, restricted travel, made life very difficult for homosexuals (including sending many to jail or labor camps), and allowed the execution of around 500 officials from the regime that preceded his. The last move, Castro remarked at the time, was one of necessity for the safety of the revolution. Fulgencio Batista, the dictator from whom Castro seized power in 1959, had presided over the torture and execution of those who opposed him, and Castro saw the extermination of Batista loyalists as the only way forward. We may judge this decision as we wish, but we must look at it in the context of American apathy toward the Batista regime and the atrocities committed under Batista’s rule that Castro was fighting against.
The Cuba under Batista, we should remember, did not enjoy a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It has been described as a playground for the American wealthy, and US companies had strong ties to the Batista regime due to favorable trade deals and lucrative private industry in the country, much of which involved keeping Cuba dependent on the sugar trade. Before railing against Castro’s dictatorship, it is important to look at Batista’s as well. This is not to excuse Castro’s repressive measures, nor is it to justify his treatment of his own people. Instead, it is to better understand the man who died yesterday and understand why he did what he did, even if the corruption of power substituted its own agenda for that of the revolution along the way.
But my visit to Cuba took place over forty years after the especially harsh measures that followed the revolution. The Havana that I saw was full of music and laughter, and the stories I heard were compelling. One man showed me where he had hidden American dollars under his mattress, telling me that he loved Cuba and everything about it, except that there was no opportunity to make money. “I will go to America,” he said, “and I will make lots of money because in America you can make money.” “So you would rather live there?” I asked. “No, no,” he smiled. “I will make money in America, and then I will return to Cuba a rich man. Cuba has everything I want. Just no money. I don’t want to live in America for long. Just long enough to make money and come back here.” The man sold cigars to tourists for dollars and hoped that one day they would be legal in Cuba again so that he could finance his trip north. According to him, at least, money was the only thing that kept Cuba from being paradise. I doubt he was the only one who felt this way. I told him that money was part of why the United States isn’t paradise either, just the other way around, and he smiled and said, “Socialism is better! I will take money from the capitalists and use it here. That is the best way!” And what could I do but wish him well.
Castro himself is something of an unseen entity in Cuba. I expected to see posters of him everywhere, along with giant billboards and signs praising him. Instead, I only saw images of Che Guevara, “el espíritu de la revolución,” now immortalized in Cuba (and in the dorm rooms of many American college students). Castro’s face was nowhere to be found, and all references to the revolution and the spirit of the people were made about Che. Che, the man who was to spread the revolution in Africa and South America, only to die at the hands of Bolivian authorities when his mountain hideout was discovered (tipped off, so the theory goes, by Castro himself once he became paranoid that the beloved Che would one day usurp him). It was a clever move, I realized, making a martyr into the face of the revolution. As a fallen warrior, Che’s memory could never be tarnished, and Castro could play the humble servant of the people who ruled for the sake of Che’s ideals. In the land of “sand, sun, and socialism,” as the locals call it, Castro could wrap himself in modesty and almost be convincing.
But if he truly thought he was fooling anyone, he did not show it. The man who survived at least 8 CIA assassination attempts (and hundreds more, according to the Cuban government), and thumbed his nose at the United States for over fifty years from just 90 miles off shore, had a swagger and a penchant for bombast that belied any pretense of shyness. His speeches regularly went for hours, and it was a truncated, 2 ½ hour speech that prompted rumors that he might be ill.
This returns me to the night we met him. We had been told throughout the semester that there was a chance that he might speak to us, though the likelihood was slim. Upon arrival in Cuba, we again heard that the administration of Semester at Sea was in contact with Castro’s office and that there was the possibility of an appearance, although no confirmation could be given. And on the night in question we were told that we would be received as official guests of the Cuban government in the National Assembly, and that Castro might attend, but due to security concerns they would leave us in suspense. If nothing else, our staff informed us, there would be a dinner and a performance, and it seemed foolish to risk missing a glimpse of the world leader and major force of the Non-Aligned Movement, so we all boarded local buses at dusk and made our way to the reception.
We were greeted in the hall of the National Assembly by representatives of the youth council, and as luck would have it, I managed to find myself in the first row. The two chairs at the front of the stage were occupied by a man and a woman of roughly college age who introduced various officials arrayed at the flanking tables behind them, but Castro was not among them. The two students at the front explained how the National Assembly functioned and occasionally pointed back to one of the men or women who was responsible for a particular office. One chair, at the edge of one of the back tables, remained conspicuously empty, and I kept my eyes open for its would-be occupant, rewarded before long as Castro himself emerged from the wings and casually took his seat. The students continued speaking, and Castro sat with his legs folded, hands in his lap, and an expression of sincere attention on his face as he listened to them finish their speech.
Any minute now, I thought, Castro was going to get up and start doing his thing. He would begin running the show. But the students kept talking, and Castro kept listening. The translator dutifully continued the task of rendering Spanish into English, and no one seemed to think that anything was out of place. Finally, one of the students signaled behind them, and Castro rose, grinning and even blushing, to step forward. Dressed in his familiar military greens, he looked all the part of El Comandante. He then took about half an hour to tell us that he was not going to give us a speech. He laughed and said that we had all had the opportunity to hear him drone on and on at length, but that on that night he wanted to do things differently. The students remained seated at their table at the head of the stage, and they were to be in charge of fielding questions from us Semester at Sea students, which Castro would then do his best to answer. What followed was over three hours of questions and answers, in which the students, from start to finish, assumed the responsibility of calling on people and adding their own thoughts into the mix. The feeling that they were in charge and Castro merely an expert tasked with relaying information may have been an illusion, but it was an illusion that had a remarkable effect. Their leader appeared magnanimous and gracious as he held sway over his 800-member audience, as he surely intended.
What does one ask a septuagenarian dictator, you may ask? Given that his responses lasted around 45 minutes apiece for most questions, we only made it through about five or six. The simplest question, with the shortest answer, was: “What is your favorite color?” “Rojo, claro!” Castro replied. Red, of course! The rest were more serious, including one that referenced a political crisis that we were facing at the time. The Supreme Court had just called for a stop to the Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election, and Al Gore had conceded to George W. Bush, prompting many to begin referring to the latter as the “president-select.” The symmetry of this story coinciding with one such tumultuous election and Castro’s death coinciding with another is hardly lost on me. But although Castro’s response was longer this time, his answer to the question was fairly concise: it was not for him to weigh in on our elections. He felt it best to remain neutral—another interesting parallel to the events of today, given the foreign meddling that has come to light.
His answers tended to meander, this I remember well. Castro would mull the question over for only a moment, and then he would begin to respond. It was always a very direct and relevant analysis of the question and its answer that would initially take shape. For five or so minutes it would seem that he would have little more to say than what might be obvious. And then he would leave things open, the question still unanswered, and begin to tell a story or wander a bit out loud with us though his own history and his country’s. Each time I caught myself thinking that I was watching a true politician at work: restate the question, pay it lip service, and then move on to something else that was relevant enough to fool people into thinking they’d gotten an answer. And each time Castro appeared to be doing just that. He would spend 30-40 minutes discussing various other things, constructing theories and beginning claims that he then left hanging and unfinished, and this prompted me to wonder if his mind was as sharp as it once had been. But then, in the last few minutes, these thoughts would be plucked back to the forefront, the theories knitted together and the claims substantiated with minimal further explication, and his closing thought on the subject returned us precisely to the question originally posed. Every moment of his rambling tale was then proved to be a salient point in his discussion, and the answer stood before us.
This remains to this day one of the most marvelous things I have ever experienced. A master orator, Castro displayed one of the few simple acts of brilliance I have ever had the pleasure to witness first-hand. It was a flawless performance, and regardless of what any may say about the power of charisma, for he certainly had it, there was a magic about that man that went much deeper than his ability to manipulate. He had a keen and capacious mind, and each of his answers was a work of beauty, crafted to perfection. They were not especially partisan, and I doubt anyone was converted to Cuban communism that day, but this had as much to do with the questions as they did with the answers. His audience was there to play hardball, for the most part, and Castro took this in stride. His attitude was more that of a historian than a politician, and he was as quick to poke fun at his foibles as he was to laud the courageous spirit of the Cuban people.
Another question I remember well from that night was especially pointed. “Why did communism fail?” someone asked. If I expected El Jefe to bristle at this, I was to be disappointed. Certainly, he contended that it had not failed, that it was in the process of being realized, but his answer slowly developed into the nuanced, multi-layered treatise that we had so quickly come to expect. Whether it was an attempt to convince us that communism had not failed or merely a way of presenting what Castro saw communism to truly be, I do not know, but his tone was not that of a lecturer or even of a teacher. It was rather that of a parent discussing a child, and here it was that we truly saw a glimpse of this man as the father of the revolution. In that moment, he seemed truly humbled. The next question, and indeed the last, if memory serves, was perhaps the perfect follow-up.
“Is there anything that you wish you had done differently?”
Castro grinned and nodded and thought for a moment. “I would not have been so quick to align with the Soviet Union,” he said. Perhaps I should not have been, but I was rather stunned. He went on to explain why he felt that this was such a mistake, what led to his decision, and how he felt things might have been different. “We became much too dependent upon the Soviet Union,” he continued, “and when it collapsed, we had nowhere to turn.” What followed this was a frank discussion of the Cuban economic downturn of the 1990s, along with a lengthy coda on why the future of Cuba was something to be positive about. In between, however, came a degree of contrition that I had not expected. He deplored the trade embargo placed upon Cuba by the United States, but he also said that the US government had not had a choice. It had been a different time, he noted, and quick decisions often spelled the difference between continued peace and the terror of renewed hostilities between nuclear powers. He mentioned what we call the Cuban Missile Crisis and said that he should never have accepted the nuclear arsenal that the Soviets stationed there, adding that this poisoned the waters for a long time to come and made negotiations with the US impossible. He pointed to the failure of the Cuban economy after the Soviet collapse as a direct result of his mistakes, and he apologized to the people, saying that he should have been better prepared. In the end, he said, the blame lay with him.
It ended on a high note, of course, with promises that the Revolución Cubana would continue and would thrive again. Castro even expressed desires that he would see come to fruition shortly before his death. He spoke of his hope for an improvement of relations with the United States and for greater bilateral partnership. He boasted of Cuba’s impressive health sector and admonished us that we had a lot to learn and that Cubans would help us do so if we asked. But mostly he said that he wanted to see more brotherhood between nations. He hoped that Cubans and Americans could be friends and grow together, making the world better for communists and capitalists alike. Sentimental? Perhaps, but we can forgive an aging dictator a mawkish parting remark, I believe.
I write this not to salute Fidel Castro, nor to condemn him. I hope that any who read this see in it a measured take on a man who straddled the rupture of a world order whose aftermath we are still at odds to define. A despot? Surely. A tyrant? Perhaps that as well. But ultimately, Fidel Castro was a man of his time, and a man who outlived that time. The last century saw myriad revolutions all over the world, and although his was not the last, Castro himself was the longest lasting of those revolutionaries. He overthrew one oppressive regime, and although he implemented another, he also dramatically increased the quality of life for poorer Cubans. There are untold stories here, to be sure, but this is an account of my glimpse of Cuba and my brief encounter with one of the most reviled and most respected leaders of the last sixty years. If the adage holds true that no one is truly loved who is not also truly hated, then Fidel Castro has certainly earned his place in the hearts of his people and in the history of both his country and the world. He will be remembered by more than those who miss him, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that his loss will not be felt for what it is. In many ways, Fidel Castro was the last revolutionary, and his death marks the end of an era.