Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fidel and I

Towards the middle of April 1959, when I was still an elementary schoolboy, I had a chance meeting with a personage who has just died. Many years later that person still affected the world. It happened more or less like this.

At that time, my father served was a diplomat in Washington, D.C., sent by the government of President Arturo Frondizi of Argentina.

Given my age I was not told too much about my father's work. It was, as always, something to do with economics. My father had taught me the law of supply and demand and in a children's history book I had read something about a certain Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin who had caused a stir in the world of adults.

We were all in the middle of a Cold War with the Soviet Union, with the possibility of nuclear war. All this was very complicated, interesting and frightening at the same time.

Years before in New York, where I was born, I had startled the nuns in my school the day the teacher asked us what our Daddies did, as part of a lesson on the idea of ​​working, and I replied "he's a Communist." My mother asked me about it and managed to make out that I had meant "economist." At my age the two words were very similar. My father was not a Communist, not by long shot.

But that was before the episode about which I write, which was in 1959, months after the triumph of the Cuban insurrection led by Fidel Castro (and, curiously enough, equipped by no less than the Central Intelligence Agency). In April, Fidel came to Washington for 11 days to meet with officials, but also to visit the capital.

It should be understood that in April 1959 Fidel Castro was not known as a Communist. He was a hero to almost everyone. Richard Nixon, who had debated with Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR, pronounced him "almost naive in ideological matters" after interviewing him.

Fidel had overthrown a dictator, one those of the 1940s and 1950s in Latin America. The dictator had been one of those more or less demagogic leaders, megalomaniacs, who censored the press and barred criticism, ideologically eclectic, some accomplishing socioeconomic improvements and some not. Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Marcos Pérez Jiménez of Venzuela, the three Somozas of the dynastic dictatorship in Nicaragua, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, François Duvalier of Haiti and, of course, Fulgencio Batista of Cuba.

At that time, my family was looking for a house and meanwhile we were staying in a hotel where many diplomats and foreign groups came. I was a multilingual kid who talked to everyone and I met a group of young Cubans, young men and women in their 20s, who adopted me as their mascot and invited me everywhere.

Fidel arrived in the city and my Cuban friends were ecstatic, telling me that they were going to go in the caravan of cars that would accompany the new Cuban president to visit George Washington's home in Mount Vernon, Va., about an hour from Washington.

I got caught up in the excitement and ran with one of them to beg my mom for permission to go with them. My mother had doubts but I convinced her. The day arrived and she made me put on a suit, used gel on my hair to make it stiff as a rock, and I left, riding on the hood of a convertible like parade model, me feet held to the back seat by two of my Cuban friends.

We arrived at Mount Vernon and after waiting in line I found myself in front of a bearded man who seemed to me very tall. I told him what my mother had told me, that my parents and grandparents extended the congratulations of Argentina. He told me something else that I don't remember and urged me to tell him something of what I thought.

And then my request came out: "I would like a uniform like yours."

He smiled, told some of the men around him to take my information and send me a uniform. I was happy. Fidel Castro would send me another outfit to play in, along with my cowboy clothes and my civil war soldier and baseball uniforms.

My family did not have much occasion to receive the uniform. Meanwhile, my father became an advisor to Frondizi in the Pink House, Argentina's version of the White House. In that position he participated in a private meeting with Che Guevara, the latter in his capacity as Minister of Industry of the Republic of Cuba, and in a more protocolary encounter with Fidel Castro in Punta del Este, Uruguay. No one told me, still a boy, what was said in such high level gatherings.

Years later, around 1990 I found myself, as spokesman for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, making the case on television for ending the useless economic blockade of Cuba, a reality that has not yet come to pass, despite the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.

From my point of view, Fidel was less nefarious than those who hate him say, but also less spectacular than those who adore him think.

Undoubtedly, as Brazilian economist Celso Furtado explained, Cuba's socio-economic success in eliminating the extreme poverty that still afflicts much larger Latin American countries is an example that should inspire shame in all the governments of the continent. On the other hand, there should be some way to achieve similar achievements without a Stalinist regime.

Today, as news of Fidel's death reached me, I have different complaint: he never sent me the Cuban guerrilla uniform I had asked for!