I have been in the same room with Fidel Castro only once. It was years ago, when he was still Cuba’s No. 1, and even though it was not an accident, it was still something of a surprise.
Some friends and I had managed to get tickets to a VIP reception at the Karl Marx theater in Havana celebrating the 26th of July anniversary of the disastrous Moncada attack, which is, paradoxically, the centerpiece of the Cuban Revolution’s mythology.
We had crashed the party out of simple curiosity. I’m not sure what I thought I’d see, or what I expected, but what we experienced on arrival was pretty staid: Hundreds of party loyalists -- mostly older, mostly male and mostly white -- hanging around as if at a cocktail party, chatting amiably. The curtain on the stage was still drawn, the lights up.
We didn’t know very many people, though we spotted the minister of culture up front, and a few minor bureaucrats and senior writers who’d been recent recipients of national awards and whose presence there was de rigueur. We stayed as far away as possible but managed to get involved in conversations with folks around us anyway.
I had my back turned, I remember well, when Fidel entered the room. Or more precisely, when he was about to enter. It’s the stuff of legend -- among both his supporters and detractors -- that the man has a kind of magic, for good or for evil, depending on your point of view.
What I know is that I suddenly felt an incredible urge to turn around, and that when I pivoted, the person I had been talking to reached out, thinking something was wrong. It may have been a full minute before the room convulsed, heads turning in waves, as Fidel came in to view.
As he strolled through the crowd, he came within a few yards of us. And, yes, he is a man of incredible poise. And charisma, it’s true. It was nearly impossible to take my eyes off him.
Then one of my friends -- in many ways, the most revolutionary of the bunch -- grabbed my arm. “We have to go,” she said, her voice panicky.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because ...” she said, stumbling, her hand at her throat, “because all I want to do is scream, ‘Viva Cuba Libre’, and if I do, who knows what will happen.”
And so we left. And outside, running through the streets as if we were being chased, she confessed to all the other words that had been smothered by fear in her mouth, a long litany of mantras for freedom.
“I’d never even thought those things,” she confessed, “until I saw ...” Her words trailed off as she nervously looked around, then touched a pair of fingers to invisible epaulets on her shoulder.
Her reaction was inexplicable. She’d seen him in the flesh, though not so close, innumerable times. She continues to live in Havana, though we have never spoken about this again.
Saturday is Fidel’s 85th birthday, and in Cuba there will be celebrations. In Miami, headquarters for those who fled his government, and all over the world where Cuban exiles gather, there will be all sorts of markers, from comedy to ranting to reflection and even willful dismissal.
His role in Cuba is much diminished now, the reins of power in brother Raul’s hands. In Cuba and in exile, people excuse or accuse Raul of not doing enough to change the island out of respect for Fidel. Among Cubans, there’s a joke that asks what Raul and Miami have in common.
The answer: They’re both waiting for Fidel to die.
Love him or hate him, no one is indifferent. How could we be? He inspires incredible devotion and the most terrifying fear. His shadow looms over the history of our cursed little island for more than half of its sovereign life.
But fifty two years after the revolution, Fidel is still there, and --whether out of admiration or loathing or just plain curiosity -- we can’t keep our eyes off him.