Fidel Castro was four hours late.
"Fidel is always late," remarked a hairy barbudo, sitting next to me on a small table that usually holds daiquiris by the pool at the Habana Hilton.
"How about in the mountains?" I asked.
"In Sierra Maestra he was also late," he said, fondling his rifle. "But never on raids."
Ordinarily, when Castro appears at the Hilton it is at 3 a.m. He comes in not through the automatic doors, and the fountain and mosaic-studded lobby, but through the kitchen. He grabs a bite to eat, and retires to his private suite on the 24th floor, ready to bounce out next morning on his unscheduled tours of the country.
It was still early for Castro, only 12:40 a.m. We had been waiting since nine, but some government officials have been waiting since February to talk with him. A member of his public relations staff, a young divorcee, had taken a special interest in my article and promised that she would get me in to see Fidel. She gave me the number of his suite, the private telephone number, and the name and number of his chief bodyguard--information, she assured me, which Trujillo agents would pay dearly to get I stayed in touch with her for three nights while she waited for Castro's return.
The opportunity to meet him came as he was wending his way toward the pool-side bar to make a short speech to the American students of Operacion Amistad, a government and Havana University sponsored program which brought 200 members of the National Student Association to Cuba free of charge. My public relations girl grabbed me firmly by the wrist, plowed through his retinue of friendly brigands and their assorted hardware, and deposited me in front of Fidel.
As he stood there with a fat cigar in his mouth he was almost as surprised as I. I put out my hand, which he shook firmly, and I told him that he looked more tired than when I saw him at Harvard, which may or may not have been true, but which gained his attention for the moment. He admitted to keeping late hours since his American tour in April.
"Your English is much better," I said to him.
"But you Americans must study Spanish," Castro urged. "It is very important for Latin American relations that you students learn Spanish and come down here to speak with my people."
I asked what he considered most important for American students to see in Cuba.
"It is most important for students to see that in our country there is no fear," Castro said, with a gleam in his eyes that was more than the reflection of the flashbulbs popping around us. "You can speak with every Cuban to know why he is so happy. You must understand us. We want mutual understanding, for you young people will be future leaders."
Fidel often talks in these vague, general terms. Fidel is an idealist, an "emotional idealist," he will tell you. For years he ran his revolutionary machine on little more than idealism. But now, there is danger that idealism may become the tragic flaw of over-fanatic belief in his revolution and in his sole ability to guide the country, and the result could lead to downfall of Cuba and of Castro.
There are many things which Castro is not, though he if often accused of them. Fidel Castro is not a Communist; he has accepted a few communist ideas, and has fallen for parts of the local communist line, but by no stretch of the definition is he a Communist. Fidel Castro is not merely an incompetent guerilla leader; though his executive abilities are questionable he works harder than almost any other chief of state in the world. Fidel Castro is not a god; Cuba's popular magazine, Bohemia, printed a sketch of him, brows furrowed, eyes cast upward, with a light halo about his curly locks, but in the story made a point of denying that he was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
The question of what Castro is and what he stands for is a vital one. It must be answered before one can understand Cuba or the Revolution, because for the next few years the course set by Castro will be that taken by Cuba. And in the eyes of most Cubans, Fidelis the Revolution.