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

Share
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

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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own