Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Something about Fidel

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 Cuba from the underworld.

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 Cuban Palace of Conventions, was that of a confused and senile man connected to a wireless life support system ready to drop dead at any moment. Minutes earlier, however, his arrival to the place had been vigorous. It occurred during the closing ceremony of a Youth Exchange between Cuban and the U.S.—which I attended under a licensed trip, just in case anyone would like to turn me in for having violated the Trading with the Enemy Act. I left the auditorium on my first trip to the bathroom that day, for I had drunk over two liters of green tea, as Perez Roque, the Cuban foreign minister, was at the podium. In the hall, when the voice of the minister became more audible as the regular city noise receded, I started to think that something big was about to happen. For some reason, although hurricanes are nature’s preferred method of weather inclemency in Cuba, I thought that a tornado would hit the city. I looked outside a nearby window expecting to see gloomy clouds and chirping birds announcing the tornado’s arrival, but what I saw was a caravan of modern vehicles entering the facility. “Fidel has arrived,” I thought. Although organizers had informed us that there was a very slight possibility that Castro would make a special visit, which was not at all certain because “El Comandante” had a very busy schedule, I was convinced he would arrive. How could he miss the opportunity to certify the sovereignty of the Cuban Revolution in front of American youth? I searched for clues. The atmosphere in the place had evidently been altered, but, although perplexed, every person I asked did not venture to share their knowledge or hypotheses about the change. A burly Afro-Cuban man, who I later learned was a secret service agent, confirmed Fidel’s arrival: He ordered my immediate return to the auditorium and no amount of supplication persuaded him to allow me to finish my trip to the urinals. On my way back, I noticed that all action in the hall had stopped. Even Cuban filmmakers working on a documentary about the Youth Exchange, in which I was supposed to participate upon my return from the bathroom, had begun packing their equipment. After hundreds of assassination attempts, it did not seem surprising, however exaggerated, for Castro to take his precautions.

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 Cuba, right in front of Fidel and using his image for that purpose. I checked my camera: Almost out of film. Video Camera: Almost out of battery. Mini Disc audio recorder: Plenty of battery, but only one Mini Disc left. “What a lousy luck!” I thought. Maribel saw me in despair and laughed: She had warned me about the excessive use of my trinkets in recording the Cuban experience. “I told you so,” she said while I asked for socialist support, but no one had extra supplies or did not care to share them. I longed for room service, but that was out of the question. Where the hell is capitalism when you need it? I looked at Fidel, right in front of me, and, unwilling to loose the opportunity for a decent photograph with my meager point-and-shoot camera, readied myself for the first shot, but my inner photographer gave way to my inner voyeur: The man started nodding off. As Perez Roque was providing what seemed like an unrehearsed introduction to his chief—or perhaps because of it—Fidel appeared to be sound asleep. I also noticed that his body was trembling, which, in my mind, reeked of Parkinson’s disease. For all practical purposes, I thought, the old man would die there very soon. “Should I become a tabloid photographer?” I thought. Like Thurber’s Walter Mitty, I began to imagine the many ways in which I, a nonentity, would suddenly become somebody after revealing to the world that Fidel Castro suffered from such illness. My sense of delusion had already reached the point of rebutting official Cuban complaints about my discovery on Spanish television when another round of applause extracted me, as well as Fidel, from my waking dreams: Perez Roque had finished his introduction speech and Castro was next in line. Fidel lifted his body from the chair and firmly walked to the podium. “Shit!” I thought. Fidel had moved and I, succumbed in my stupid dreams, had not taken a decent confrontational photograph, in the etymological sense, from the position we had shared for a few minutes. Also, my bladder was about to explode.

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 Cuba. Fidel’s reply—a 45-minute soliloquy packed with historical data and elucidation of contemporary difficulties in Cuban drug control—overwhelmed me. It was not the content, but its lengthiness. My ADHD tendencies kicked in and I became distracted and hyperactive. Mostly, I wanted to forget about my full bladder. I moved around impatiently, not paying complete attention to the reply. After all, I was recording it on audio and was certain that the transcripts of the conference would become available the following day. Maribel increasingly became annoyed at my fidgeting. When I finally did the unthinkable—dropping my pen—she angrily reprimanded me: “Please, show some respect.”

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.

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