Saturday Night with Fidel Castro (Part I of III)

Editor's note: After a daring escape attempt in 1989, celebrated Cuban journalist Norberto Fuentes was imprisoned by his former friend Fidel Castro. Twenty years later, Fuentes has gotten his revenge: by telling the history of the revolution in Castro's own voice. Fuentes' new book, "The Autobiography of Fidel Castro", has just been published. This three-part series describes how he came to write it.

Fidel had four black telephones on his desk, off to the left. They delivered his orders, appointments, commitments, and--few are privy to this--he often used them to communicate with members of Congress, his tone taking on all the vehemence of "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?," to tell them about his yearning for peace and the end of injustice on Cuban soil. Entire nights were devoted to this activity. "Senator, excuse me. Long distance. From Havana. He says he's Fidel Castro. No. It's no joke. Fidel Castro."

On a couple of occasions, when I was on the other side of that desk, I had the opportunity to witness his clumsiness with the machines. He has long, thin fingers with carefully groomed and polished nails, as only mafia Dons in 1950s Havana would allow themselves. At the moment a call is received he pushes the button, tapping the keypad, nearly pecking, so not to damage the nails.

"This piece of shit," he said to me one of these times, telephone in hand.

In the adjoining cubicle, manning the switchboard, was Lieutenant Colonel Cesáreo, a veteran member of Fidel's security detail, who had done me the honor of turning his back while I spoke with el Comandante, a gesture that suggested I either enjoyed the utmost trust or was not viewed as a potential threat.

This piece of shit, I came to know, referred to every telephone whose keys had to be pressed. It had been quite an evening. I felt very close to him, but my admiration for him and his achievements didn't seem to be enough. He wanted something else. This was on a Saturday in either February or March of 1984. Fidel showed me his latest trophy: a huge cigar, about a meter long, placed on a wooden base, sent by the union at a cigar factory. "What do you think? Hmm? They surpass their goals and send me this big cigar. How noble of them."

There was something more than childish pride at stake. Something that, you'll excuse my saying so, was not only disturbing but required compassion. By that time, I had learned Hemingway's lesson that a writer has to become used to his solitude. Fidel was no writer; he was a killer, as ruthless as he was temperamental. He could not be a writer because he lacked any real capacity for abstraction and, as such, could not conceive of morals. In the coming years, there would be reasons enough for us to become deadly enemies--to the death, compañero--but on that night, I with my standard-issue Levi's jeans and jacket and he with his ever-present jungle fatigues, we were two shipwrecked men exchanging desperate greetings across a vast ocean.

"Goddamn," I said to myself, "this man's solitude is vast."

He returned his cigar trophy to the bookcase behind him and--having failed to awaken the admiration in me he desired--he gave a deep sigh and asked me, authoritatively, "What time is it?"

As if he didn't have a watch.

I calculated that I needed to give him room for his next move.

"Seven o'clock, comandante."

"Around seven," he said, reflective.

Apparently the hour was too early still.

"Well, soon enough it will be around nine, Saturday night, and here I remain, working!"

It's very difficult to respond to a statement like that without falling into the most absolute--and unnecessary--adulation, to ignore a person of this caliber, asking you to praise him, to tell him that he is sacrificing himself for the people and that there is no end to his devotion to his country, in reality, to all of humanity. He was desperate to be fussed over. For me to fuss over him, over Fidel Castro.

"That's a bitch, Comandante," I said, as if offering condolences. Then, lost in my thoughts, pensively, almost involuntarily, I found the necessary declarative precision and said: "No one in the world would believe this."

Oh, how he liked that sentence.

In reality, I was thinking that no one in the world would believe that I was in the situation of not knowing how to flatter Fidel Castro and I accidentally uttered the phrase out loud.

"Really?" He exclaimed, his face lit up.

"No one," I insisted, convinced.

"Saturday night and here I am, working, while the people are out and about, partying. Really, no one would believe it."

No one. No one believed it. Or even knew of it. But, in any event, that night I became aware that banality, despite occupying such a high percentage of our existence, is never acknowledged in History. The problem then was whether I'd be able to write about it.