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.
Who is Fidel Castro?
On July 26th, 1953, in Oriente Province 125 youths attempted to storm the Moncada army post, manned by over 1,000 soldiers. Their leader, Fidel Castro, was counting upon the elements of surprise and timing to overwhelm the garrison, and later claimed that if a group of 45 men had not made a wrong turn on the outskirts of Moncada he would have succeeded.
Eighteen of the rebels, including Castro, fled to the unknown terrain of the hills and promptly got lost. Possibly 20 rebels were killed during the fighting. When they were brought to trial, the rebels numbered only 27, over 70 of the captured and wounded, with innocent townspeople, having been assasinated by the berserk soldiers.
"In the Centro Gallego they broke into the operating room at the very instant when two of our critically wounded were receiving blood transfusions," Castro said. "They yanked them off the tables and, as the wounded could not remain upright, they dragged them down to the basement where they arrived as corpses."
Several of the wounded had air and camphor injected into their veins. The morning after the futile revolt groups of men were taken out into the countryside, tied, gagged and disfigured by torture, and murdered in cold blood. Death warrants read, "Shot while attempting to escape." Many were compelled to dig their own graves, some buried alive, their hands bound behind them.
Five of the wounded survived. They were brought to trial with the others, who were surprised one morning in the hills. Castro was forced to call on his experience as a lawyer and his talent for oratory to defend his fellow prisoners, for no counsel was supplied.
That experience was gained while Fidel attended Havana University Law School beginning in 1945. One of his classmates said recently that others were in awe of his ability at oratory, his intensity and his idealistic dedication. He broke off his studies temporarily in 1947 to take part in an abortive attempt to overthrow Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, escaping capture by swimming across a shark-filled bay with a machine gun and ammunition on his back.
A year later in Bogota, Colombia, Castro was involved in a student congress which had a core of well-organized Communists. The congress issued a protest against American policies. There can be no doubt that Castro then had anti-American, if not Communist sentiments.
Havana University was saturated then, even more than today, with politics. Among the students I met it seemed that their central concern at the University was politics; studies were only incidental. One of the sponsoring organizations of Operacion Amistad, the Federacion Estudiantil Universidad (F.E.U.) has always played a significant political role in Cuba. In fact the F.E.U. held the balance of power in some of the Provisional governments after the fall of hated dictator Gerardo Machado in 1933.
When Castro graduated from Havana University in 1950, students were sharply split politically; the Leftists were Communist, the Rightists only radical. Undoubtedly he absorbed at the University some of the Communist ideas and phrases; many of his programs, as well as statements of his brother Raul and of revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara, coincide with the Communist line today.
Unforutnately many of the Cubans lack the political sophistication to identify the ideas as communist. However, Americans fail to realize that in some cases, especially in the purely economic realm, communist ideas may coincide with the best interests of Cuba and of most Cubans.
After graduation from Havana University, Castro spent much of his time defending poverty stricken peasants caught in the snares of the intricate Cuban laws. Cuban law is derived from the Spanish, rather than Anglo-Saxon, tradition, which accounts for some of the misunderstanding incurred between Americans and Cubans, especially over the question of trials. The Latin American conception of justice includes not only objective considerations of evidence, but human factors, personality and prevailing emotion.
The judges at his trial permitted Castro to act as counsel for himself and the accused rebels. But after only the second session, two doctors showed up at Castro's cell one night and signed a certificate stating that he was sick and couldn't attend the court sessions. He was held in solitary confinement for 76 days, then brought to a secret trial at Civil Hospital, with neither the press nor counsel permitted.
The author visited Cuba this summer under the auspices of "Operacion Amistad," a program sponsored by the government and by Havana University. Planned tours took him to cooperatives and conferences, unplanned tours to the offices of journalists and government officials.
Castro made one of the most startlingly audacious speeches ever heard in a courtroom. Secretly printed and distributed throughout the island under the title La Historia Me Absolvera (History Will Absolve Me), it combined the tragic hopelessness of Daniel Webster debating the devil before a jury of condemned souls in Benet's short story, the irony of Marc Antony's appeal to the Roman mobs, and parts of the political theory of John of Salisbury, John Locke, Thomas Paine, and the Cuban national hero, Jose Marti. Had the Cuban island more significance in world affairs, Castro's 60,000 word speech would be a famous document.
All his previous experiences surged together in a denunciation of the dictator Batista's regime; his vague ideas materialized into specific proposals, set down for the first time at his trial. He devoted scarcely five minutes to his own defense, which his accusers had hoped would occupy most of his time. Instead he pleaded that the judges, corrupt Batista stooges, redeem themselves by following him, Fidel Castro, in overthrowing the Batista regime. He still believes in the program he outlined at that trial in 1953; it forms the ideological basis of the Revolution.
Castro's Revolutionary War
Castro told the judges, "There are five revolutionary laws that would have been proclaimed immediately after the capture of the Moncada barracks and would have been broadcast to the nation by radio.
"The First Revolutionary Law would have returned power to the people and proclaimed the Constitution of 1940 the supreme Law of the land...and punished those guilty of all crimes against the republic and against humanity.
"The Second Revolutionary Law would have granted property...to all planters and squatters who hold parcels of less than five caballerias (166.7 acres)...and the state would indemnify the former owners over a period of ten years. (The bonds of Castro's Agrarian Reform are actually 20 year bonds).
"The Third Revolutionary Law would have granted workers the right to share in 30 per cent of the profits of all the large industrial, mercantile and mining enterprises, including the sugar mills...
"The Fourth Revolutionary Law would have granted all planters the right to share 55 per cent of the sugar production...
"The Fifth Revolutionary Law would have ordered the confiscation of all holdings and ill-gotten gains of those who had committed frauds during the previous regimes...and to implement this, special courts with full powers would gain access to all records...to investigate concealed funds of illegal origin, and to request that foreign governments extradite persons and attach holdings (illegally removed from Cuba."
Castro further proposed the nationalization of electric and telephone companies, the return to the people of all exorbitant amounts paid for electricity and telephones, the reform of the educational system (including making Camp Columbia, the military headquarters of Havana, into a school,