Steve Smith: Any day now I should hear back from El Comandante

The BBC correspondent tells how he set about having a chat with Fidel Castro
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The Independent Online

With the resignation of Fidel Castro, men and women engaged in a shady and ruthless occupation have been deprived of a target that they've had in their sights for decades. Yes, it's come as a cruel blow for us hacks.

While the CIA rues its failure to blow up the Cuban leader despite an entire humidor's worth of exploding stogies, reporters are coming to terms with the end of one of the great journalistic assignments: bagging an interview with Fidel.

"There are many who dream of a private interview, especially the foreign journalists, who never consider their work finished until they can carry away the trophy of an interview with him," wrote the novelist Gabriel Gàrcia Marquez, a former news reporter himself, who became something of a court scribe to Castro. "There is always a journalist waiting in a Havana hotel after having appealed to all kinds of sponsors to see him. Some wait for months."

A Brazilian priest, Frei Betto, who eventually spoke to Castro in 1985, came close to cracking under the strain. "I stayed at home, waiting for his office to phone me. Nobody called, and the day dragged slowly by, weighing in on the harsh agony of my secret anxiety." At last, there would be a summons late at night, the augury of an even more ungodly limousine ride to fortified catacombs beneath the Plaza de la Revolució*.

Castro's audiences in the wee small hours cemented his reputation as an indestructible polymath, who broke off from his schedule of nocturnal meetings with eggheads and laureates to answer questions before doing with a few laps of the pool.

The interviewer invariably rehearsed in print how tough he had been on Fidel. This muscle-flexing sometimes turned out to be the warm-up for a sucker punch, however. Tomas Borge, the former minister of the interior of Nicaragua, met the Cuban leader in 1992. He wrote: "This time I was approaching him as a journalist, with the role of stirring him up." Borge was as good as his word. His opening question would have stirred up a lesser man than El Comandante to the point of calling for the sick bag. "What do you feel, now that your immortality is assured?"

I finally got my interview with Castro the old-fashioned way, by doorstepping him; finding out where he was going to be one day and shouting my questions in his direction. There were municipal elections, and the president always voted at the same polling station. From among the startled onlookers, I quoted back at Castro the boast he'd made in the dock in the 1950s as a young revolutionary: "Do you still believe that history will absolve you?"

He said: "Yes, now more than ever, because at that moment we hadn't done even 5 per cent of what we've done now." His security guards were moving him on, but I was ready. I'd written a list of other questions in a letter which I handed to Castro. That is, I raised the hand which had the letter in it; a thicket of highly trained arms pinned mine to my side. I said: "It's OK. It's a letter." I couldn't think of the Spanish for explosive (it's explosivo), so I said: "It's not explosive!" – with hindsight, an incautious thing to cry without having established how well the presidential bodyguards spoke English. Fortunately, one of them said: "Carta, carta," and I watched Castro take the letter and slip it into the pocket of his familiar warrior weeds.

I might get a reply from him now that he has more time on his hands – now that he's no longer the Maximum Leader. But it won't be the same somehow.

Stephen Smith is a BBC 'Newsnight' correspondent and author of 'Cuba: The Land of Miracles'