I have a little story to tell you. It’s not a big story. It’s a little one. When I was a girl of 26 or 27. I turned 27 that year, the year I lived in Havana.
Before we moved there, I had fallen in love with the Cuban singer and poet-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez and his song “La Era esta Pariendo un Corazon” (The Times are Giving birth to a Heart).
Silvio’s voice was high and full of feeling, and the style was like nothing I’d ever heard. I knew people who had participated in several weeks of sugar cane harvests with the Venceremos Brigades, who returned to the States with stories of a glorious revolutionary consciousness taking hold in Cuba. But it was Silvio’s voice and song which made me to think there was something special going on.
In Havana, our fellow radio journalist Joan Gandini invited me and Lincoln to her house. Their friends Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez were stopping by for the evening too. We could all hang out. No performances, just a friendly visit. Though, perhaps they sang that night. I don’t remember.
Silvio was slender and young like a boy, not like the mature-looking man at the end of this video. I was a very young 26 or 7 and gob-smackingly shy, not to mention easily star-struck. But… this is not my story.
Every day in the tiny broadcasting studio Lincoln and I sat at a small square blonde wood table, the news stories of the day typed on light brown paper before us. The old-fashioned “mic” hung from the ceiling between our two faces. Flaco (Skinny) or was it Feo? (Ugly) (both men worked at RHC, both were skinny, neither one ugly. I can’t remember now which one was our recording technician). Anyway, one of them stood behind the big plate-glass window recording our voices, using well-worn reel-to-reel tape, which on a regular basis he had to stop to repair and re-splice.
Each day we read the news that came to us from Radio Havana’s central newsroom. Being the consummate news writer, and despite the fact his Spanish was extremely limited, Lincoln did a masterful job of translating the news from Spanish into English. He was not however granted the power to edit. So at the beginning of every news story about the Soviet Union, the inevitable opening line would be “Beloved Comrade Brezhnev…” Lincoln and I alternated reading each news story. If it was Lincoln’s turn to read, his misery was undisguised. He would almost choke the words out. If it was my turn, well, I was no ideologue and if the Cuban Central Newsroom thought Brezhnev beloved, who was I to say different?
Perhaps I was a pawn. Some people will think so. We all have our opinions. Truth is usually a lot more complicated. Though I considered myself an anti-imperialist revolutionary at the time, I had questions and criticisms about the Cuban government, not so much because of Fidel, but because of the whole concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. From what I could see I felt people were treated well in Cuba. They were well-educated, loving, and bright. Highly communicative. For the most part they seemed happy. For shortages and economic stress, one could always blame the US blockade which was real and had a terrible effect on the economy. I loved Cuba’s priorities of education and health care, of women’s rights, and internationalism. I could clearly see that the people loved Fidel. What I didn’t see, and didn’t understand, and wondered about was what happens to a political opposition in a dictatorship, even a dictatorship of the proletariat. This concerned me.
But… that’s not my little story either. Here’s my little story. En fin!
Brezhnev was visiting the island nation and there was a parade throughout Havana so that people could welcome Brezhnev to Cuba. All the streets in the Vedado neighborhood where Lincoln and I both lived and worked were lined with people awaiting the cavalcade, especially the car that carried Brezhnev and Fidel. I was with my Cuban friend Tania, a medical doctor who was married to another friend of ours, Juan, another doctor.
All of the sudden a car without a top and with a horizontal bar welded in place above the top of the front seat came into view. I saw Fidel, standing tall, a mountain of a man, straight, strong. and handsome to beat the band. He steadied himself by holding the bar in front of him and looked out at the adoring crowd. Nothing between him and the people. No security men armed to the hilt, no bullet proof shields. My eyes were locked on him for the several seconds it took his car to pass us. As they drove away, I noticed Brezhnev’s back.
I turned to Tania and said, I forgot to look at Brezhnev.
Smiling, she replied, Don’t worry. All the Cuban women come out just to see Fidel.
And that, my friends, is my little story.
Cuba is a complicated place. Against the greatest odds, Fidel guided his people toward a greater humanity. It was not a flawless guidance, but there was greatness in it and it was received with genuine gratitude and love by most Cubans. In 1953, Fidel gave a four hour speech defending himself in court after the attack on the Moncada barracks. The speech ended with the statement “History will absolve me.”
Fidel died this past Saturday. History, in time, with her wise hindsight and perspective will have the last word.
Mine will simply be. Comrade Fidel — Presente!
As always, I would love to hear your comments or reflections.