Guest Columnist

A long evening with Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro speaking to American college students in 2001. (Carroll McKibbin photo)
Fidel Castro speaking to American college students in 2001. (Carroll McKibbin photo)

Part two of two. Read part one: An early visit to Castro’s Cuba

Motorcycle policemen blazed ahead with screaming sirens and flashing lights. Our three buses followed. We were on our way to meet with Fidel Castro.

Cars pulled to the side as we sped along the narrow highway leading from the Bay of Pigs Museum back to Havana. We participants in the Semester at Sea program, students and faculty alike, were excited about seeing the Cuban leader. Our long-shot request to meet with Castro had borne fruit.

Seated in the front of the lead bus with our guide, Eliza, I noticed young men occasionally darting across the highway. “Who are those people?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re stealing sugar cane,” Eliza replied. “It happens all the time. The police sirens must have frightened them.”

“Do you know where we are going and what will happen?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “The police captain just said ‘President Castro will meet with you. You must hurry. Follow me.’ “

As it turned out, our trip to Havana ended at a large assembly hall. Several officials greeted us as we stepped off the buses and gathered in a group. “Please go inside and wait for President Castro,” we were told. “You will be joined by students from the University of Havana for a presentation by the president.”

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I stepped forward and asked, “Do you know when President Castro will appear? It’s five o’clock and I have a lot of hungry students.”

“Please go inside,” I was told. “The president will join you in fifteen minutes.”

I heard “in fifteen minutes” in every communist country I had visited, including the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and now Cuba. It seemed to be an unofficial code meaning “I don’t know when,” or “I don’t care how long you wait,” or “It’s not gonna happen.” I had experienced all those possibilities and was on the alert.

“Let’s move along,” I told the students. “We are supposed to meet with President Castro in fifteen minutes ... but don’t hold your breath.”

The interior of the assembly hall impressed with an ornate, towering ceiling and marble floors. But chairs, or benches, or any kind of seating did not exist. Our group of several hundred, including me, sat on the hard, cold floor.

Fifteen minutes passed. Another fifteen minutes. And then an hour. “When are we going to eat?” students asked.

“I wish I knew,” I offered wistfully.

As it turned out, the so-called “fifteen minutes” became three hours when our tired (our day began at 5 a.m.), hungry group was finally admitted to the auditorium at 8 p.m.

Eliza, my wife Lynn, and I were given seats in the middle of the second row. The setting reminded me of a smaller version of the United Nations General Assembly, with straight back chairs behind long benches and earphones for the simultaneous translation.

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Fidel Castro walked onto the stage with no introduction, no lectern, no teleprompter, and no written speech. Dressed in starchy olive drab fatigues creased to a razor’s edge, he stood so close I could almost count the whiskers in his beard.

Since Castro would be ad-libbing, I assumed the session would be short. But I was wrong, very wrong.

Castro began by recounting the accomplishments of his regime in monotonous detail. How, I wondered, could he remember all those statistics? And did the audience care how many doctors practiced in Havana or how many teachers graced the classrooms in Ciefuegas?

Eye-level with Castro’s polished combat boots, I noticed how they never moved, as if he were glued to the stage. Seventy-five years old at the time, he stood rigidly erect with occasional gestures. But his feet, unlike his mouth, never moved.

Time passed, as did my enthusiasm. How long would he talk? Castro hardly took a second breath as nine o’clock came and went. Government officials seated on the stage behind him yawned and shifted in their seats. I did likewise.

“How long will this last?” I asked Eliza.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I have never seen him in person before, but he’s pretty long-winded on television.”

“At least you can turn off the television,” I whispered.

Eliza hid her amusement with a hand over her mouth. “I have two small children at home and can’t even call my husband. He doesn’t know where I am.”

“Why don’t you leave?” I suggested. “I can take it from here.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dare. My boss told me to stay with your group until you return to the ship.”

Castro paused. A little girl ran out on the stage. She sang. She danced. Ten o’clock passed. Surely this ended the program. Wrong again!

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Now Castro opened the floor for questions. Time had worn on and our students had worn out. They asked no questions. Unfortunately, some of the Cuban students did. And the simplest of queries, such as anticipated sugar production, received lengthy, encyclopedic responses.

Some in the audience fortunate enough to sit in the back of the auditorium began to slip out. I yearned to join them. But trapped by my sense of courtesy and responsibility, I yawned and endured.

Midnight approached. Castro seemed, at last, to be winding down with concluding remarks. But instead of saying “good night,” he announced, “I have arranged a banquet on the back patio for my American friends. Please enjoy.”

With that the indefatigable Fidel Castro left the stage, his combat boots finally moving, his mouth closed for the first time in four hours!

Perhaps Castro’s evening was over. Mine wasn’t. I needed to herd my charges onto buses and back to our ship for an early morning departure for Miami.

I searched for the bus drivers and found them in the buffet line. “I need to get the kids back to the ship right away,” I pleaded.

“In fifteen minutes,” they replied, almost in unison.

I knew they meant an hour or more.

“We can’t wait all night for the buses,” I shouted to the students. “You’ll have to take cabs. Just cram in as many as you can.”

Fortunately, taxis were available in the area. We piled in, six, seven, or eight at a time as the cabbies shuttled back and forth to the ship.

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Later that morning a shipload of very tired passengers set sail for Miami. True, it was exciting to spend time with Fidel Castro. But I also thought of the adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.

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