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

Related Topics

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'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Payroll Officer - Part Time

£12047 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Part Time Payroll Officer required for t...

Recruitment Genius: Event Management and Marketing Admin Support

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

Recruitment Genius: Lettings Negotiator

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Central London based firm loo...

Day In a Page

Read Next

If I were Prime Minister: I'd champion the young and hold a cabinet meeting on top of Ben Nevis

Bear Grylls

i Editor's Letter: The five reasons why I vote

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot