USnews.com | By Mortimer B. Zuckerman
Several years and many requests went by before I was finally granted my first one-on-one interview with Fidel Castro. But it was well worth waiting for. When we first sat down, we began talking at about 8 p.m. and didn’t finish till 5 the next morning, with Fidel’s translator, Juanita, providing brilliant support throughout. For the first four to five hours, Fidel pumped me for all kinds of information about America, from the role of the news media to race relations, from politics to the economy. Once he had exhausted his curiosity about the United States, he began answering my questions about Cuba, all of them.
The interview took place about 15 years ago, and we focused intently on two subjects. One was the Cuban missile crisis; the other was Fidel’s experience with the Russians and their military advisers, whom he utterly disdained.
Balls and strikes. To my surprise, as I was touring a medical research center after we finished talking, Fidel showed up and offered to serve as tour guide. We spent the rest of the day together, and the next two days after that. Each night, we sat down for dinner at about 8 or 9 p.m. and talked for seven or eight hours. At one point, I asked Fidel what was the biggest mistake he had ever made. He answered immediately: aligning himself too closely with Moscow.
To this day, I have one regret from that first visit. On my last day in Havana, Fidel invited me to join him at the Cuban World Series, which was to start the next day. In our younger days, both of us had been pitchers, and we both still keenly enjoyed the game. I had pressing business back home, however, and decided to leave. Terrible call. What a gas it would have been to sit next to Fidel in the Havana sunshine, talking balls and strikes.
We met many times after that, each time talking deep into the night about what was going on with our respective countries and about the prospect of improved Cuban-American relations. During my last visit, just a few months back, Fidel brought up the Cuban missile crisis again and mused sadly about how it had had such an awful effect on relations between our countries.
Fidel is one of the most intellectually curious men I have ever met, and, despite his advancing age, he showed no sign of flagging when I saw him last. In fact, he was consumed by two issues. Cuba’s energy grid had failed in three provinces during last year’s hurricane season, and Fidel had ordered a top-to-bottom review of the system and its reliance on old Soviet-bloc generators. He decided the old generators had to go, replaced them with smaller ones, and allocated funds to begin providing Cuban families with new energy-efficient appliances—all purchased from China. As he was explaining all this, he escorted me to a room next to his office filled with the new Chinese gadgets and began citing from memory Cuba’s hour-by-hour consumption of energy, the energy efficiencies of the new generators, and the cost savings from reduced energy imports. Without pausing for breath, he then segued into a description of another new program, to reward Cubans who use less energy rather than assessing everyone the same consumption cost. I told Fidel he was becoming a capitalist, but he disagreed. He was no capitalist, he said; he was just approaching the subject rationally. But Fidel, I replied, that’s what capitalists do. Our conversation was filled with moments like that. Indeed, as I reflect on the 150 to 200 hours of conversations with him, I am impressed that a man who maintained such iron-fisted control over such an authoritarian regime could be possessed of such a roving, inquisitive mind.
One of the things that amused me about Fidel was that he gauged his political strength not by the number of votes he won but by his opposition—the number of ballots destroyed, left blank, or marked with a “No.” From the limited view I had as I strolled around Havana, I had little sense that Fidel’s opposition has increased; if anything, Cuba’s improved economy, thanks to its surge in tourism, has led to a relative degree of contentment in the country.
It has been my experience in all walks of life, and in all the activities I have been involved in, that you meet people in the most unusual of circumstances, and either you do or don’t strike a bond with them. Fidel Castro was somebody with whom, despite our deep political differences, I was able to establish an extraordinary bond, with a remarkable ease of conversation. I look forward to talking with him again soon.
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