My Long Night With Fidel Castro

Memories from a 2006 visit to Havana, where the dictator plied his American guests with food and propaganda and several of us fell asleep.
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night with fidel castro

Fidel Castro. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Fidel Castro’s fingers were long, slender, and smoothly curved—not manicured, but not rough like you would expect a revolutionary’s hands to look. Of course, by the time I met him in July of 2006, he was just six weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

Fidel’s revolution began in January 1959 and nearly half a century had passed since he, Ché Guevara, and their compañeros had taken Havana. When we met, Fidel was carrying the mantle of communism in near solitude. There were a few remaining old-school communists in China and North Korea, but China had sold its soul to globalization and North Korea looked ready to begin the equivalent of the 21st-century Cuban Missile Crisis. There were neo-socialists in power like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, but he was just a Fidel wannabe with oil and money. Fidel, by now, stood alone.

In this sense, the Cuban martyrs like Camilo Cienfuegos had it easy: They made their sacrifices for the revolution and then had cities, streets, and monuments erected in their honor. Even Ché couldn’t handle the challenge of re-building a nation; he left Havana in 1965 to spread revolution elsewhere. Executed in Bolivia in 1967, Ché is rewarded now with his face plastered on T-shirts and Andy Warhol-style knockoff paintings in the Féria in Old Havana.

Only Fidel knew what it meant to fight for the revolution and then try to live up to the principles it espoused. In defense of his 1953 rebel uprising, Fidel famously declared that history would absolve him of any wrongdoing committed during the revolution.

Had I just witnessed a miracle? In the world of politics, this is about as close as you get to an apology. Was Fidel apologizing for his use of force during the revolution? For acting as a pawn of the Russians during the missile crisis? For the mistreatment of political dissidents? For all of the above and more?

But had history absolved him of everything that subsequently occurred? Wearing his standard army-green uniform, Fidel walked casually into the government building where we were awaiting his arrival. He extended his hand to greet each of us warmly, 12 Americans who were visiting Cuba to learn more about its exemplary public health system. (Since we were health professionals, it was legal for each of us to visit Cuba in our professional roles; I was there as an assistant professor of public health at Emory University; others were representing other health organizations in the United States.)

Meeting most heads of state, you are quickly overwhelmed—adrenaline pumps and the moment passes quickly. The handshake and smile you share are over before you even realize what is actually happening. This was not the case with Fidel.

He grasped my hand and held onto my forearm while our American representative introduced me. As his eyes dissected me, he asked: “So many degrees and titles, but what do you do?”

When Fidel Castro asks you a question, you better be prepared with an answer. It was at that moment that I understood why people say that Cubans speak in statistics. I had witnessed this phenomenon on my previous visits to Cuba, when I had brought groups of graduate public health students from the U.S. to study the Cuban public health system.

In Cuba, you can walk into any family doctor’s office and the physician on duty can recite off the top of her head how many patients she serves, how many have high blood pressure, how many have diabetes, how many are pregnant. It is a statistician’s dream to have instant access to such data. And now I know the reason why: One day Fidel may pay a visit to your office and want to know what it is that you do.

Fidel turned to Daniel, one of the physicians in our group and studied him. (For the protection of their privacy, the names of some individuals have been changed.)

I looked across the table at the Minister of Health sitting right next to Fidel. He was sleeping.

“Tell me,” he said, “what do you know now about the practice of medicine compared to what you knew when you graduated from medical school?”

“I know much more practically speaking now,” Daniel replied.

“Exactly. You learn more and more each day. Politics is like this too. Some people think politics is a science, but really it is an art. When I think about some of the things I said years ago, I can’t believe it.” Fidel said.

Had I just witnessed a miracle? In the world of politics, this is about as close as you get to an apology. Was Fidel apologizing for his use of force during the revolution? For acting as a pawn of the Russians during the missile crisis? For the mistreatment of political dissidents? For all of the above and more?

He didn’t say outright that he was sorry—he didn’t say he regretted any of his past actions—but it sure felt like it. History hasn’t absolved him of his crimes and missteps, and it appears he might be acknowledging as much.

After the round of handshakes, I expected Fidel to make some brief remarks and then say his goodbyes—it was incredibly late—but, again, he surprised us all.

“I usually have a snack at about 2:30 in the morning,” he said. “It consists of oats, barley, and whole wheat. You can put a little milk in there or a stick of cinnamon. But, cinnamon is an aphrodisiac and since I knew you were all coming, I didn’t put it in. At my age I wouldn’t want to invite you here and then disappoint you,” Fidel smirked.

The next hour was a whirlwind of food and appliances, which was kind of like watching Fidel host an hour on the Home Shopping Network.

He invited us to a conference room with a large table in the middle. It was clear that this was going to be a working meeting: We were going to hear about the Cuban public health system straight from the country’s leader.

“There are 100,000 medical students in Cuba; 35,000 are Cuban and between 60 and 70,000 are from across Latin America.”

Pads of paper were placed on the table in front of each of us. At first, I was too afraid to write anything down. What if there were cameras in the room recording what I wrote? After an hour’s barrage of statistics, I gave in.

“The cost of training a student at the Latin American School of Medicine for six years including room and board is less than $5,000 U.S. dollars,” Fidel recited. “Cuban salaries are low, but the population doesn’t pay for education or health care.”

I looked across the table at the Minister of Health sitting right next to Fidel. He was sleeping.

Two hours later, at nearly four in the morning, I, too, was exhausted. Fidel was still lecturing. I had tried everything to stay awake: I drank the glass of cold water on the table before me. I got up to go to the bathroom multiple times (something Fidel did not do the entire night). I made lists of things to do. I bit down on the inside of my cheek. Maybe it was a test, I thought. Maybe he would only stop talking when a certain number of us fell asleep. Finally, I succumbed. And apparently I wasn’t the only one.

A few minutes after I finally let my eyelids droop, I could hear what he was saying as if through I dream.

Fidel apologized, “Well, she is sleeping,” he indicated pointing to Kathryn, one of my companions at the end of the table, others told me later.

“And she is sleeping,” he said, referring to me. “I am sorry for keeping you so long. You are tired. We should have a snack.”

Just then, a large bowl of the oatmeal concoction he told us about earlier appeared on the table in front of Fidel.

As I stumbled back through the hotel lobby around 7 a.m., still dizzy from the experience, the hotel staff snickered. Little did they know I had spent the evening with Fidel.

“Bring some extra spoons,” he commanded an attendant.

One by one, he dipped each spoon into the bowl and handed it across the table. It reminded me of the parable of Jesus feeding fishes and loaves to the masses. It is, after all, rumored that Fidel is a Santeria priest—in part because of the 604 assassination attempts he has survived in his lifetime.

The next hour was a whirlwind of food and appliances, which was kind of like watching Fidel host an hour on the Home Shopping Network. He calculated aloud the cost of producing his midnight snack, which, he proudly told us, “includes eight amino acids.” He whipped out the stock report and cited the current cost of oats, barley, and wheat. One hundred grams of his snack costs just over 15 cents to produce—not including the energy it takes to boil the water.

“This is the year of the energy revolution in Cuba,” he proclaimed. He demonstrated the MacGyver-like inventiveness of Cubans who had invented a hot-water heater using little more than a bottle of deodorant and a wire. He paraded portable fans, rice cookers, hot plates, cooking pots, light bulbs—all while rattling off the energy efficiency of each item as it appeared.

In order to prevent us from taking any additional naps, Fidel kept us plied with food and drink. He served us hot chocolate, banana, and tutti-frutti-flavored soy yogurt while recounting the nutritional properties of each major ingredient. He described his mostly macrobiotic diet, which consists of daily servings of spinach, olive oil, and hibiscus flower infusions. Harkening back to his days as a baseball pitcher, Fidel tossed Ginseng tea bags across the table to each of us. They had been given to him by a recent North Korean delegation.

“There are more Cuban doctors per capita than any other country in the world and 25,000 Cuban health professionals are working in almost 70 countries around the world,” Fidel continued. “What time is it? Who is awake now? Call Frank in East Timor.”

Then: “Why did the tune to Miss America just pop into my head?” He sang: “There he is, Commander in Chief.”

On a direct call to East Timor, he asked: “Frank, what is the situation there? How many days’ worth of food supply do you have? How many refugees are there? Have you seen any violence?”

As he stood in his signature army fatigues grilling his medical officer on the phone from half a world away, I could imagine Fidel commanding his guerilla army as they attacked the Moncada barracks.

It was almost six in the morning, and Fidel had barely paused in eight hours.

He continued without breaking stride: “We are in a decisive period. We still need to see if the human species will survive or not. We are born with instincts, but no one is born kind. The only living being that is able to fight their instinct is man. If we are to be saved, then we will be saved by ideas, which should be disseminated. What is the use of money beyond what we need? What people need the most is dignity and it costs nothing.”

There it was: the take-home message of Cuban humanism. And the realization passed as quickly as our first handshake. The clock struck six, and we queued onto our tour bus en route to our hotel—laden with gifts of Cuban rum, cigars, and roses.

As I stumbled back through the hotel lobby around 7 a.m., still dizzy from the experience, the hotel staff snickered. Little did they know I had spent the evening with Fidel.

The next morning, as I was gathering my things, I decided to give Fidel’s half-dozen roses to the hotel maid. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was not going to allow anything to enter the U.S. from Cuba—much less Cuban roses from Fidel himself.

Along with bath towels shaped like swans, Marisol, the maid, had been leaving me little notes in my room all week. I approached in her in the hallway outside my room. In my broken Spanish, I stuttered: “I am leaving today and I can’t take these with me, so I thought I would give them to you.”

Astonished, she thanked me profusely. I had never seen a rose in Havana and I am sure Marisol wouldn’t have been able to afford one even if they were available for purchase.

“I have a secret,” I whispered, “they are from El Jefe.” Marisol’s face blushed slightly as her brow wrinkled.

A month after my visit, Fidel would cede power to his brother, Raul. It was the first time in 47 years that Fidel gave up control over anything in Cuba.

In December 2014 I traveled to Cuba again; this time it was with several Congressional members. The day after I returned, President Barack Obama made his intention to normalize relations with Cuba.

As formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume, including a recent trip by Secretary of State John Kerry, I am left wondering if I met the last living revolutionary that night. Some say he was a monstrous dictator; others claim he was a benevolent head of state. Could he be just a harmless old man? I don’t know. I do know the long night of his soliloquy on Cuban public health was hypnotically intriguing.

Whatever labels people use to describe him, I saw a man who, at nearly 80, slept only four hours a day; who has outlasted nine U.S. presidents; who watches the Discovery Channel and loves Gone With the Wind; who dyes his beard and wants to know if Bill Gates is sick of counting all his money. Fidel’s crimes brought the world to the edge of nuclear war, and sent a generation of Cuban refugees scrambling to the U.S. in search of a better life. Maybe, that night in 2006, he was beginning to think about his own mortality and the legacy he will leave behind.

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