Now that Fidel Castro has resigned to his position, I believed it would be timely to present this journal entry that I wrote a few months ago. It is not related to the current situation, although it pertains to him, in a sense. History has yet to absolve him. In my case, this little story will, perhaps, condemn me.
Something about Fidel
Fidel Castro has arisen from his deathbed, apparently to show the world that the Cuban health care system fulfills state-determined expectations or, in the most likely case, that he may have inherited the genes allowing his grandfather to have lived over one hundred years. Evidence of his vitality—or what some argue is a propagandistic resurrection—emanates from a recent video recording that has circulated global media. The certainty of Castro’s longevity, the video contends, is unequivocal, although this medium may give a sense of artificiality to the assertion. After all, as opponents argue, Castro could already be dead and the image campaign may very well be his last megalomaniacal effort to rule
Whether fabricated or real, this video caused me to experience a rather strange double sense of déjà vu. On the one hand, it forced me to recall a Julio Córtazar article about a faint and anonymous cough overhead during a Beethoven concert Furtwängler directed in 1947. Concerned about the fantastic side of reality, Córtazar ponders more about the identity of the interrupter than about the historical concert itself, a recording of which was discovered 30 years after the event. Was his acknowledgement of the cough a bridge between two different eras? Was it an extension of the life of the person who could not withhold a cough during an important event? On the other hand, and in conjunction with Córtazar’s contemplations, the video in question reminded me that there may be a recording out there, yet to be discovered, capturing my clumsiness when I interrupted Castro himself during a speech in 2001.
Castro’s vitality plays a crucial role in this exercise of reminiscence because my impression of the man, as he directly faced me from his seat in the
Back in the auditorium, Perez Roque continued to speak even though it was evident that he had lost the attention of over half of the audience. In the few moments after my return, the murmuring filling the place resonated in my head like the chirping of birds I had expected earlier. “Fidel has arrived,” I told Maribel, one of the Cuban student volunteers serving as guide to my group.
-How do you know?
-I don’t know it for certain, but I feel it.
-I have never seen El Comandante.
Maribel uttered her remark with a contrite tone that touched me. She had proven to be an incomparable pragmatist during our conversations, almost to the point of cynicism, but as she desperately turned in all directions attempting to corroborate what everyone was murmuring about, she revealed a passionate side, for whatever reasons, that I had never expected. When Fidel finally entered the room, the audience received him with a full standing ovation. He was surrounded by an entourage of tall secret service men with muscular torsos draped in white guayaberas who, more than protecting him, revealed the head of a taller Fidel Castro dressed in full military regalia—except for his new pair of blue adidas tennis shoes, which El Comandante, for medical reasons, had recently replaced for his signature boots. I cannot deny that I felt some excitement, perhaps for historical reasons. The year before I had had seen the Pope and had chatted with Ralph Nader and Gore Vidal. At that point, I was even willing to meet Bush, for historical reasons, if only to nag about his dubious election.
Fidel waved his arms and the audience roared. With a vigorous sense of determination, he wavered his way to the podium. Perhaps out of custom, the fact that he may have forgotten about the event, the possibility that he may have not been informed at all, or out of sheer megalomania, he was ready to take over, but a dignitary intercepted him and whispered something in his ear. Fidel looked bewildered, almost infantile, revealing a sense of vulnerability inconsistent with the image of the man some of us had expected to see. Like a parent leading a child, the dignitary directed Fidel to an empty seat located precisely in front of my first-row seat. Forgetting my own sense of puzzlement at the scene I had witnessed moments earlier, I grinned like a monkey. The amateurish photographer within me crawled out and I, his master, was about to exploit him until death in socialist
The extensive duration of Fidel’s introductory remarks, in which he vigorously pounded at the podium with his right index finger, gave me a sense of entitlement after he opened the floor for questions. I lifted my hand with the intention of exercising that assumed right, which he acknowledged, but before I could mutter anything about my wonderings of the political criticisms to his government and his reactions to it, someone yelled out a question about drug use in
I showed respect for as long as I remembered that I was supposed to show respect, which is never enough time when carrying an ADHD condition with a full bladder. Although I should have been thinking that by that time it was permissible to go to the bathroom, I mainly worried about the fact of having lost the privileged location I had to photograph Fidel from the comfort of my seat. At the podium, he was well beyond the reach of my camera for a decent shot. Concerned about this, I lost the opportunity to ask my question when he finally completed the first reply. Before growing inpatient with what I expected to be an even lengthier second response, I left my seat in search of a better place to take my pictures. Maribel looked at me disapprovingly. I pointed to the official photographer, who was freely moving around the place, but Maribel frowned. “It’s OK,” I said. “Nothing will happen.” She looked away.
I found a vacant place in front of the podium. Carefully reclining the seat in order to prevent any noise and distraction, I sat for a few moments pretending to listen and then started shooting. Seconds later, I ran out of film, causing the camera to activate the self-rewind mechanism. I embraced it to shield the noise, which worked well with the audience, except with Maribel, who fired a lacerating look. My sense of remorse lasted enough to take my digital video camera out of the bag. With a digital zoom, it proved to be a better option than my film camera. I took several shots and, in a state of complete flow, I got up in search of a better angle. The reclining seat sprung up and the pounding noise startled the audience. Fidel turned to me without stopping his speech. I began to sweat. We made eye contact for a few seconds and, just as he scantily acknowledged me with the interruption, he easily disregarded me when turning away to continue his speech. I remained frozen in place, nevertheless, thinking about the best option to get out of the embarrassing situation, which I was certain Maribel would never forgive. Ultimately, I decided that there would be no better moment to finally go to the bathroom. On my way out, I heard a few recriminating comments. Maribel’s scorching eyes followed me all the way, but I refused to acknowledge her wrath.
Three hours later, when Fidel decided to stop, a third of the audience was all over him, pleading for a handshake. I was hoping to take a more decent photograph, but this never materialized. On his way out, Fidel acknowledged my presence again, looked at my camera, lifted his arms with a childish demeanor, and smiled.
If there is a recording out there of the event, more than anything, this is the moment I would have liked Córtazar to have written about.