My life and time with Fidel Castro

An aging Fidel Castro delivers a speech with the image of Che Guevara in the background.

The not unexpected news that Fidel Castro lay near death, the one certainty that awaits us all, undoubtedly evokes mixed emotions in Americans who grew up in his time but especially those who bear the same last name as that of the former Cuban strongman.

In the late 1950s, Fidel’s early military campaign and victories in Cuba made me the most popular kid in my elementary school in Texas. The day that Castro’s uprising came to prominence in the news media, the principal of the school made a surprise visit to my classroom.

She asked me to stand up, and there in front of all my classmates, the principal carried on about this heroic man she likened to the American revolutionaries and how he and I had the same name.

I was one of two Latino kids in my class, and the other one was even more vaguely Hispanic than I. America hadn’t really discovered the Latinos in the country until World War II when they became readily disposable fodder for the military’s front lines. At the time, Hispanics represented a little more than five percent of the nation’s population, and their political power was as unnoticeable as their presence.

Was I related to Fidel, my principal wanted to know. I had no idea. I had never heard my family speak of him. I explained to her that my family was Mexican and Spanish, and that Fidel Castro was Cuban.

I’ve remembered the principal’s next words all these years as if they were tattooed on my skin: “Oh, I’m sure you’re related from back in Spain somehow.”

Over the following days, sometimes I did wish I was related to Fidel so that I could brag to anyone who asked if I was – and there were many – and tell them that, yes, he’s my long distant uncle or something.

All that changed one day, however, when the principal returned to my classroom and informed us all that Fidel hadn’t been the hero she and everyone thought he was. Instead, she said, Fidel Castro was a communist.

My classmates felt sorry for me. I might be related to a communist – and in the 1950s, there was no worse thing you could be in America than a communist. Hollywood black balled any directors and actors suspected of being communists. The country was caught in the vice of a Red Scare, and a demagogue U.S. senator even held congressional hearings to ferret out communists throughout America.

Fidel Castro was no longer my long lost relative, and I tried to put him out of my mind, though it was difficult. The disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion kept him front and center in the news, as did his visits to New York and the United Nations. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis had us all checking out bomb shelters in our neighborhoods as we feared there might soon be guided missiles being sent to destroy our cities from tiny neighboring Cuba.

Through it all, I never once thought about visiting Cuba or meeting Fidel – that is, not until after my freshman year at college when, as a young reporter, I attended a 1967 rally in Austin, Texas, that leftists were holding in support of Castro’s Cuba.

There I met another young Texan who would become one of my closest friends until his death two years ago. His name was Carlos Guerra, and he had been a founder of the Chicano movement in Texas and later of La Raza Unida party.

This rally eventually led to a meeting for students interested in surreptitiously visiting Cuba through Mexico. In 1963, the U.S. had imposed regulations in its embargo of Cuba that effectively banned travel by Americans to the island. But U.S. citizens continued to travel there, though for reasons other than what they did during the pre-Castro era when Cuba boomed as a tourist and gambling destination.

Most of the Americans traveling there after 1960 were students, many of them activists. Carlos happened to be at the same meeting in Austin, along with a handful of others from the fledgling MAYO group.

Late that summer, we were among three dozen or so young men from the Austin meeting who flew from Mexico City into a small airstrip outside Havana on a ten-day “information mission,” as it was called. Most in the group were from the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society.

All but Carlos, myself, and a Chicano activist from Colorado were white. But it was hard to tell about anyone’s ethnicity. Everyone’s skin was heavily tanned from the scorching sun, and many of the New Leftists spoke Spanish.

It was a watershed period for sympathizers of the Cuban revolution. In those first years after Fidel Castro came to power, more than a million Cubans learned how to read and 50,000 new homes were built. So many new doctors were being produced by the revolution that the country claimed there was one physician for every two hundred and fifty residents – a 400 percent improvement over the last years before the revolution.

Carlos was suspicious of everyone in our travel party, believing that at least several were FBI undercover agents. It made sense. The FBI had infiltrated most of the activist groups of the 1960s. That was to be expected, Carlos said. The trick was to steer clear of anyone openly advocating violence or the overthrow of the U.S.

“I’m just here because I wanted to interview Che Guevara,” I reminded Carlos.

“We stick together, carnal, and don’t trust anyone we don’t know,” he said.

So we did. We anticipated that there would be a hard-sell indoctrination, but we were wrong. It was like a vacation as we toured farms and nationalized plantations, spoke to peasants, visited schools, interviewed students, and spent evenings eating with local Cubans.

This was Cuba only five years removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis and eight years after the revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had unseated the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. The U.S. economic boycott was already in place, but Cuba was still some time away from appearing to be a country whose time had stopped in the 1950s.

We had been assured that we would also have a chance to talk to government officials, including some of the leaders close to Fidel Castro, and we wondered if this would ever happen. Finally, on our sixth day in the country, we were given a tour of El Capitolio, which had been the pre-revolution seat of government. It was empty and in need of repair, and the guide said it was being converted into a Cuban institute of arts and sciences. We moved on to the National Library, to the gray marble tower monument to Cuba’s national hero, Jose Martí, in the Plaza de la Revolucion, and then behind the memorial to the offices of Castro himself.

I don’t know why I thought we would get a private audience with him – that came with some two-bit deputy ministers of education, health, and agriculture – but we met Fidel in what seemed like a long assembly line of guests, possibly not altogether different than what any head of state must endure with visitors. I thought there would be some reaction from Castro when the aide introducing the guests mentioned my name.

Surprisingly there was none.

“He didn’t hear,” Carlos muttered as we passed. “He’s hard of hearing.”

“Are you serious?” It hadn’t occurred to me that Carlos was putting me on.

“The price of all that gunfire from the revolution.”

I don’t know what we were really expecting to see or experience. We weren’t revolutionaries, nor did we want to join the Cuban revolution. But in our own way I suspect we were like many who fall in love with the romance of revolution – little of which was to be found in the Cuba we visited.

Carnal, I thought it would be different,” Carlos said toward the end of the trip. “Didn’t you think it would be different?”

“Well, I came for Che,” I said.

“He’s not even Cuban, carnal!” Carlos shot back.

And Che had not been in Cuba. There had been reports of Guevara in several places, including Bolivia where he would be killed later that year.

I don’t know what I had intended to find in Cuba or if I seriously thought there would be a connection with Fidel. And I came away feeling that we had missed something – that there was an entirely different side to Castro’s Cuba and the revolution that had been hidden from us.

There really wasn’t, I would later learn in studying about Cuba and the Soviet Union and reading the accounts of defectors who usually maintained that all you saw was all there was – that spare parts were almost non-existent and that so much of the threat was little more than smoke and mirrors held together by Band-Aids. Castro and the Russians had had great poker faces, as it were, and for years we were so afraid of the threat of nuclear war that we hadn’t had the cojones to call their bluff.

Years later, on one of my visits back to Texas, I tracked my old elementary school principal to a nursing home where I paid my respects. I wanted to tell her what I had learned about this man who had brought me to her attention, how I had met him and that we had been like ghosts to each other.

But I didn’t say anything. She was still with us, but her mind wasn’t.

Her nurse kept repeating my name to her without getting much response.

“On one of her good days, tell her that a former student came by to say hello,” I said, giving the nurse my business card.

She looked at it curiously.

“Mr. Castro,” she said, looking up. “Are you, by any chance,  related to…”