For the last few years it has seemed inevitable, but it was still a bit of a shock and certainly rather sad when it actually happened. The remarkable Fidel Castro died. He was 90. In a strange sense we almost assumed he would live forever.
His legacy will probably live forever. He transformed Cuba for the better and became a beacon of hope for millions battling oppression.
Years ago I was fortunate to meet Fidel Castro in La Habana and I actually made him chuckle with a joke at Ronald Reagan’s expense. Fidel’s recent death and all the chattering about his life and accomplishments (and shortcomings) got me to thinking about that memorable encounter with Fidel all those years ago.
It was in 1982. I was a fulltime journalist and I went to La Habana to write about the Havana Film Festival. I tagged along as part of a group of progressive Chicano filmmakers who were participating in the festival. When I got to Cuba, frankly, I was as much Gulliver as Edward R. Murrow. I was as much wide-eyed tourist as hardened journalist as I took in the sights and spoke to everyone I could. I spoke constantly to everyone from street vendors (whose jolting shots of espresso are aptly named “infusiones”), to students to cops to waiters to writers to government officials. I have to admit I was a bit giddy about it all. I was fresh from graduate school. This place sure was, well, different.
You have to remember that in 1982, 23 years after the thunderous Cuban Revolution and the blockade that followed, it was still pretty rare for people from the United States to visit Cuba. Hey, Canadians and Germans had been going to post-revolutionary Cuba for years, enjoying the predictable sunshine, beautiful beaches and cheap prices. But for people in the United States, oooh Cuba was a scary, forbidden place.
All the while, the United States government and corporations routinely went about their business, trading with China, Vietnam and even that big bad bear, Russia.
But change is clearly in the air because of the talks President Obama began with Raul Castro. The United States re-opened its embassy in La Habana, just as Cuba re-opened its embassy in Washington, D.C. But the blockade is still in place. That will take an act of Congress to dismantle.
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became somewhat attractive political symbols for many of us in the early days of the Chicano Movement. We’re talking about the 1970s. I realize that seems like the Pleistocene to the Smart Phone Generation. Lots of politically active Mexican Americans embraced the imagery of Fidel and Che. Most of us Chicano activists weren’t communists, of course, and we weren’t well schooled in the intricacies of Marxist/Leninist theory. (Most of us were more familiar with the works of Groucho Marx and John Lennon.) But the notion that Che and Fidel represented a struggle for equality and fairness appealed to early activists in California. Most Cuban Americans view all of this quite differently than Chicanos, of course.
When I was in Cuba in 1982, a lot was going on in the world. Nicaragua and the Sandinistas were heroes at the festival. Remember, these were Latin American filmmakers and artists. Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity in the United States – not so much in Latin America. Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez had just been announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and I got to meet him in Cuba where he stopped for a few days on his way to Stockholm to pick up the prize. I was lucky enough to be invited to a little party at the house of the minister of culture. My friend Jesús Treviño and I got the chance to talk with García Márquez about literature; how cool was that!
I had interviewed the Cuban minister of culture and he invited me to a couple of soirees. That’s how I got to meet García Márquez. And I got to meet Fidel, the man some regarded as a hero and whom many in Miami regarded as The Devil.
I can’t forget the party where Fidel Castro showed up. It was a small party, maybe 40 people. They were all filmmakers and artists from different countries in Latin America. There were clusters of folks: the Nicaraguans over there, the Peruvians over there, the Mexicans in that corner. I was a fly on the wall, walking quietly behind Castro as he strolled from one group to another. I recall vividly that the moment he got to a particular group, he would immediately delve into the literature and culture of that huddle. He knew their national poets, their artists. He made instant conversation effortlessly with each group.
At one point I was at his elbow when someone mentioned that Ronald Reagan seemed to claim an inability to hear as reporters on the White House lawn peppered him with questions as the Marine One helicopter thump-thumped in the background. I said to Castro, “Presidente Reagan no más se hace sordo cuando le conviene.” (“President Reagan only acts heard of hearing when it suits him.”) Not a Richard Pryor-quality line, I concede. But Castro looked at me and chuckled, smiled broadly and shook his head from side to side. I remember smiling at making him smile. Hey, this guy is a big political and cultural icon – no matter what your ideological proclivities.
Then he turned and asked a U.S. filmmaker about the New York Yankees’ chances of getting to the World Series in the coming season. I was there. I looked carefully, but I didn’t seem to find any horns coming out of Fidel Castro’s head. Still, I think some people along Calle Ocho won’t believe me.
Rest in peace, Fidel.
Luís Torres is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and the author of the book “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian