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The real Fidel

Lee Lockwood’s mission to interview Cuba’s elusive Maximum Leader

Castro on Varadero Beach, near Havana, 1964.
Castro on Varadero Beach, near Havana, 1964.
“We Support Fidel,” 26th of July, Revolution Square, Havana, 1959.
“We Support Fidel,” 26th of July, Revolution Square, Havana, 1959.
Castro speaks with workers, 1965.
Castro speaks with workers, 1965.
“I returned to Cuba in May 1966, and spent three days with Castro in the mountains of Oriente Province, during which he read every word of my manuscript. He made a number of changes, most of them either slight adjustments of wording for greater clarity or minor corrections of fact. At the end, he pronounced himself satisfied with the result.”
“I returned to Cuba in May 1966, and spent three days with Castro in the mountains of Oriente Province, during which he read every word of my manuscript. He made a number of changes, most of them either slight adjustments of wording for greater clarity or minor corrections of fact. At the end, he pronounced himself satisfied with the result.”
Between 1959 and 1969, photojournalist Lee Lockwood documented Cuba and its new leader Fidel Castro with unprecedented freedom. His writings, interviews, and a stash of unpublished images come together in Castro’s Cuba, a remarkable double portrait of the island and its victorious revolutionary.

“I will see you again very soon, and we will have our talk,” Fidel Castro had promised in May. Now it was August, and I was still waiting. I had come to Cuba intending to stay only about two months, and I was beginning to run out of time and money and, most of all, patience. My most vexing problem was that I had lost all contact with the top. I had no way of finding out when my interview would be, or whether it was even going to take place at all.

It is a general characteristic of countries where one man rules that there are no “normal” channels through which one may gain access to him. This is especially true in Cuba, where the process of institutionalization has been lagging, and where the leaders carry on their affairs with studied informality, as though they were still guerrillas in the mountains.

Moreover, because the regime has been troubled throughout its seven years in power by defections and betrayals of people in key positions, and because he himself is so busy, Castro has come to guard his channels of approach more and more jealously.

The only sure way of reaching Castro while I was in Cuba was through one of two people: René Vallejo, his aide-de-camp, or Celia Sánchez, his secretary. They are both old, infinitely trusted comrades from the guerrilla days, Fidel’s right and left arms and his closest personal friends. Vallejo, a gifted surgeon, doubles as Castro’s physician, while Celia includes among her multiform duties that of keeping house for Fidel. Both of them are in motion all day long, attending personally to an enormous range of details on Castro’s behalf, many of which, in an atmosphere permissive of greater trust, might easily be delegated to others. Castro, who himself works an average twenty-hour day, expects his associates to do likewise.

The problem of direct access to Castro would not be so crucial if ministers, heads of departments, and other officials were able to make important decisions on their own authority or at least to transmit requests to the top and report back the decisions. But such is the chaos and the insecurity in Cuba’s ever-shifting administration that most officials, like the general public, must reach Castro through either Celia or Vallejo, sometimes for even the most minor requests. Thus, the information chief of the Ministry of Foreign Relations, Ramiro del Río, a capable and intelligent man who should have been my normal channel to Castro, was totally unable to find out anything about the status of my interview. (Most of the time he couldn’t even get Vallejo on the telephone.) While I was feeling frustrated, the thought occurred to me that there might be thousands of Cubans in a similar predicament, unable to get satisfaction from lower authorities and equally impotent in their efforts to communicate with the Maximum Leader. Take, for example, the case of Celia Sánchez’s telephone.

Celia is a hardworking, warmhearted woman with a sympathetic ear for everybody’s problems. As a result, she has long been the person in Cuba to go to when direct intervention without red tape is imperative. The problem is, how to reach her? Because so many people call her all day long (and much of the night too), she has an unlisted telephone number. It is given out to individuals only with her personal permission and only after a solemn pledge of secrecy is extracted. But Cubans are notoriously unable to keep secrets. So, every few months, when the volume of calls rises to an uncontrollable level, Celia is forced to change her number without notice.

Moreover, once you have obtained her number and dialed it, you are given a final chance to reconsider the urgency of your call. A professional radio announcer’s voice recites the following tape-recorded admonition: “If you are calling to discuss a personal matter—about a home, an intervened farm, a house at the beach, furniture, refrigerators, automobiles, accessories for the same, scholarships, exit from the country, or prisoners— direct yourself to the appropriate organization. I do not work in any of those departments. After seven o’clock at night, do not call me. If it is not urgent, do not call me.”

My own contact was with Comandante Vallejo, whom I knew from prior visits to Cuba. With him I had worked out the arrangements for my trip by phone and letter from New York. Before I left, he had assured me that I would have an interview with Fidel Castro—not a “press” interview, but a longer, informal conversation extending at least two or three days. Soon after I arrived, over a convivial luncheon at his own home, Vallejo had reconfirmed Castro’s enthusiasm for the idea. “In a very few days,” he promised, “you will be sitting down with Fidel, and you will have as much time as you want.”

Since then I had made two trips with Fidel and spoken with him briefly on half a dozen other occasions. Each time there had been some reason for not starting the interview at that moment, and each time he had promised, “I will see you very soon,” after which weeks would go by during which nothing happened. I called Vallejo frequently; he always assured me, in the same enthusiastically cheerful tone, “It’s going to be very soon now. Be ready.” And after that, each time, silence.

By mid-July, Vallejo wasn’t even coming to the telephone anymore when I called (out of embarrassment at not being able to give me a definite answer, I later learned).

It was not difficult to find reasons for Castro’s seeming unwillingness to talk to me. There were extenuating circumstances. A week before my arrival, the United States had sent troops into the Dominican Republic, only one hundred miles away from Cuba’s southern shore. This “Yankee aggression” reawakened memories of the Bay of Pigs and made Cubans bitter and uneasy. The island was in a state of official alert when I arrived.

Two weeks later, the United States suddenly began bombing North Vietnam, Cuba’s sister Socialist republic, with whom Castro and most Cubans feel a militant solidarity that is remarkably personal in tone—given the distance between the two countries. At this moment the vilification of the United States by Cuba’s leaders and press, already at a shrill pitch, grew even louder and more vituperative.

Finally, when Castro, on a steaming hot afternoon at the 26th of July celebration in Santa Clara, devoted part of his speech to a tirade against the “false and cynical reporting” of the resident AP and UPI correspondents, denouncing them as “paid lackeys of the Yankee press,” I gave up hope. In such an atmosphere, I decided, Castro would hardly be in the mood to sit down for a long interview with an American journalist. As soon as I returned to Havana, I set about winding up my affairs and booked a seat for the following Monday on the weekly flight from Cuba to Bermuda.

The Friday night before I was to leave, I went to a movie and afterward, joined some friends at El Carmelo, a swank outdoor restaurant famed in prerevolutionary times for its ice cream. Around midnight, I began walking back to the Hotel Nacional, about a mile away. The summer night was warm and sultry. Walking down Twenty- First Street, I stopped for a moment to wipe the perspiration from my face and was suddenly aware of a pair of large white eyes peering carefully at me out of the darkness. It was one of Castro’s bodyguards, posted on the street corner, a tommy gun slung over his back. Across the street was the Hotel Capri. In the hotel’s angled driveway I saw Fidel’s fleet of Oldsmobiles gleaming under the light of the neon signs. Other bodyguards were lounging against the cars and in the hotel doorway, smoking and laughing and eyeing the passing girls. Their presence was a sure sign that Castro was somewhere inside the hotel, and their relaxed state indicated that he was not expected to emerge very soon.

My own hotel was only two blocks away. I decided to make one last try to arrange the interview. I went back to my room and quickly wrote a letter to Castro. I reminded him of his many promises to talk with me and of the long time I had been waiting. I opined that he was about to forgo an unusual opportunity to communicate directly with the American public, the long-range advantages of which, I thought, ought to outweigh any rancor that he might be feeling at the moment over present US foreign policy. I said that he had a reputation of being a man of his word and voiced the hope that he would keep his word to me.

Lockwood on the baseball field with Castro, 1964.
Lockwood on the baseball field with Castro, 1964.

Back at the Hotel Capri, the bodyguards were still deployed. I struck up a conversation with one of them, who informed me that Fidel was meeting with a trade delegation from Spain who was quartered in the hotel. More than an hour passed. Finally, shortly after 2 a.m., there was a flurry of activity, the guards quashed their cigarettes and manned their posts, and Castro then pushed energetically through the glass doors leading from the hotel lobby, preceded and followed by other green-clad guards moving in particlelike trajectories toward the automobiles. Two strides behind him came Vallejo. I called to him and gave him the letter.

“Fine,” he said, “I’ll read it to him in the car right now!” and he ran to catch up with Castro’s automobile, which was already moving out of the driveway, one rear door still open, and jumped in.

The next morning at eight o’clock, Vallejo woke me with a phone call, his voice excited. “Fidel liked your letter very much! Don’t go anywhere! Be ready for a car to pick you up anytime after noon!” Two weeks and six postponements later, at precisely one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, I stood under the porticoed entrance of the Hotel Nacional as a guard-laden Oldsmobile eased across the slowdown bump at the mouth of the driveway, roared down the long approach, and shrieked to a stiff halt in front of me.

Without a word of greeting, Gonzales, the crusty second-in-command of the bodyguards, motioned me into the backseat. I got in, juggling cameras, tape recorder, and knapsack, between two tough-faced soldiers who paid no attention to my efforts to squeeze into the narrow space. On one side, a submachine-gun bolt was digging into my ribs; on the other, a bulky pistol prodded my kidney. My knees were drawn up tightly, cramped by the heavy leather sling across the back of the front seat, which bulged with tommy guns, pistols, bullet clips, grenades, and a large quantity of ammunition.

We raced down onto the Malecón, the picturesque drive that girdles Havana’s splendid harbor, and headed with urgent speed toward Nuevo Vedado. The silence in the car was broken only by instructional grunts from Gonzales to the driver: “Doble aqui… A la izquierda… No, por allí por allí!”

After about fifteen minutes we turned into a secluded side street and halted in the driveway beneath Vallejo’s modern, splitlevel home. The driveway was already filled with other Oldsmobiles, parked at different angles for fast exit to the street. The guards shoved open the doors, leaped out like paratroopers, and headed for the house. “Shall I come with you?” I called to Gonzales. “Stay there—don’t move!” he shouted over his shoulder.

Shortly, the door of the house next to Vallejo’s was opened, and Castro strolled out onto the porch alone, a long tan cigar in one hand and a gold snap-top lighter in the other. He sniffed the air and peered contemplatively at the uncertain sky. As he was about to light his cigar, a large charcoalgray dog streaked out of the house behind him and hurtled against his calves with such force that Castro jackknifed backward, dropping the lighter, and almost fell flat. The dog, a young German shepherd, bounded around the lawn in high spirits, then ran back to Castro’s side, panting and frisking its tail. Fidel, recovering from his surprise, laughed and patted its flank, talking to it affectionately.

I got out of the car. Castro saw me, picked up his lighter, and came down the steps. As we shook hands, we were knocked apart by a dog, which then leapt onto its hind legs and put its forepaws on the jefe’s shoulders, moaning with excitement. The dog minuetted with Castro, who staggered backward, laughing and fighting it off as it exuberantly tried to lick his beard.

“His name is Guardián,” Fidel shouted proudly, ducking as the dog leapt again. “He is not very well-trained yet! I got him as a puppy and raised him myself. I think he will make a good watchdog, no? Heel, Guardián!” he ordered sharply. The dog paid no attention. “Heel! Heel!” But Guardián only redoubled his efforts to kiss him. “Come,” Castro said finally to me, giving up. “I must not stand outside here. It is too exposed. Let’s get into the car.”

We got into the backseat of Fidel’s automobile— the three of us. The dog occupied half the seat, hulking and shifting nervously leaving the premier and me jammed together. Our thighs and shoulders were locked so tightly that as we talked we were forced to look straight ahead, unable to turn.

“A conversation with Castro is an extraordinary experience and, until you get used to it, a most unnerving one.”
“A conversation with Castro is an extraordinary experience and, until you get used to it, a most unnerving one.”

“I want to apologize,” Castro said seriously. “I am very sorry about all the delays we have had in getting together. There have been many problems. Lately there were so many delegations arrived for the 26th of July whom I had to see… And then there was the international situation… Your letter was very good, very good. It reminded me about you, what kind of a person you are, and so I decided to do the interview, not for myself, but for you, because you are trying to do an honest piece of work… So now we are going to the Isle of Pines, where I am hoping to get a little rest. We will have all of tonight to talk, as late as you wish, and then perhaps a little time tomorrow morning if there are still some questions. We have a plane ready to take you back to Havana tomorrow so that you can make your flight.”

I thanked him. “But,” I said, “I really feel that one night will never be enough. I think we are going to need two or three days. So if you are going to stay on the Isle of Pines a while, and you wouldn’t mind my being there, I could postpone my departure one more week and we could talk whenever you have the time.” Castro pursed his lips and frowned.

“Very well. But you must understand that I am going principally because I need to relax. I want to do some hunting and fishing. Also, I have a great pile of books to read. But I have no objection if, perhaps when I have an hour before breakfast, or sometimes in the evening… Only you must make a pact with me. You can stay at my house, but you must be there as simply one more guest and live like everybody else. You can go fishing or hunting with us, take pictures if you want to. But I don’t want to feel any pressure… I must not feel pressure when I look at you and think, ‘Well, he is waiting for his interview.’ Do you agree?” “Of course,” I said. “In fact, I would prefer it.”

© all images Lee Lockwood