Tuesday, March 31, 2009
KUTV'S Man in Havana
I've never met Fidel Castro.
But I'm only one degree of separation away from him.
I’ve met Evelio, a translator and English teacher, who was once called upon to translate for the Cuban President.
"I peed in my pants," he said.
And at the Sundance Film Festival, I interviewed Oliver Stone, who spent some time with Castro while filming his documentary "Looking for Fidel."
Stone said Castro didn't impress him as a ruthless dictator, but "a very warm, very bright, very driven man, very moral man..."
The film was temporarily shelved after Cuba jailed dozens of dissidents in 2003.
I've been to Cuba twice. Once on a cultural exchange trip, once to go to music school.
And I never really felt like I was behind enemy lines.
Between music classes, I shot a short feature story for KUTV...and it was a clandestine operation.
I used an inconspicuous home video camera. I hid my tripod in a book bag. And when a security guard approached, I stopped tape and moved on.
Not because I thought I’d end up in a jail cell with the dissidents, but because I didn't have a journalist's visa or permission from the music conservatory bureaucracy and I was afraid someone might confiscate equipment or tape.
I didn’t really see much of Castro.
The late revolutionary Che Guevara was everywhere. On buildings, billboards, t-shirts.
At the Museum of the Revolution, in a glass case, I saw Che's socks.
But I never saw Castro’s socks.
I saw a picture of him in our music rehearsal room.
And in journalist Jorge Miyare's (another one degree connection) parent's house.
The same way many Utah homes feature images of the Salt Lake Temple, this one had Fidel and Che, framed, side by side.
And sightings of Castro, himself, people said, were rare. He shuffled between several residences, perhaps to avoid poisoned cigars and exploding mollusks, so no one could say where he was at any given time.
Evelio said Cuba had two problems.
The second was Castro's politics. That, he said, was bad. (He used a different word.)
The first problem was the economy.
Cuba didn't feel like a Forbidden Island.
It felt like a very poor one.
Where being called "fat," we were warned, was a complement. (Hint: Don't go to Cuba for the food.)
Where buildings were falling apart. One did, in fact, a few feet away from me. The cornice of a decrepit Old Havana high rise collapsed onto the street. Luckily, someone's parked car broke the fall.
A country where, by necessity, car owners drove crumbling American collectibles.
Where everyone seemed anxious to attach themselves to Americans and their money. After one double date, a fellow American got a marriage proposal from a Cuban Olympic silver medalist.
People didn’t seem to be as eager for an end to Castro’s rule, as they did for an end to the American embargo.
The last time I was in Cuba and saw Fidel Castro, he seemed in fine health.
That was in the Havana airport, waiting (hours) to pass through immigration. Castro was on the TV, lecturing to the people.
Also in line was a Californian who had a Cuban girlfriend and child and visited often.
This, he explained, was Castro's regular Friday night broadcast.
It was followed by the Friday night movie. Often an off-the-new release-shelf American VHS tape. Everyone, he said, tuned in. For a brief escape from reality.
Though sometimes, he said, Castro went on (as he had a reputation for doing) for so long, he preempted the movie.
And left an entire country crestfallen.
Cubans weren’t concerned about Castro.
They just wanted to watch a movie.