Excerpted from “Cuba: A Diary of the Revolution: Conversations with Fidel, Raul, Che and Celia Sanchez”, by Deena Stryker
January 24, 1964
About a hundred people gathered on wooden chairs in the TV studio to hear Fidel report on his trip to the Soviet Union. At the door, ministers in their best olive garb greeted each other, chatting animatedly in small groups. Fidel stopped for several minutes to talk with President Dorticos as people stood to greet him, then he walked between the two rows of chairs as they applauded, arriving on the podium like a horse uncertain of whether he wanted to run.
A few minutes later, an aide went through the public asking if anyone could lend Fidel some paper. A young American woman married to an Italian technician offered her pad. Seated at the table in the middle of the podium, Fidel began to write diligently, indifferent to the fact that thousands of listeners had been watching Russian shorts for half an hour, waiting for him to come on the air. The movie theaters and clubs were closed, thus every Cuban could and was expected to be at the appointment with the “Lider Massimo.” Fidel wrote for about five minutes, while the ministers took their seats in the front row. Che wore his usual blue beret with the lone commanders’ star, instead of two on the lapels. There was also an Eric Von Stroheim look-alike. I asked my neighbors who he was. It was General Bray, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and was an expert in guerrilla warfare. Fidel hired him in Mexico to train his troops for the 1956 invasion. Now, still dressed in olive green, he was retired from the Revolutionary Army.
As soon as Fidel began to speak, it became clear that he wasn’t his usual self. His face was shiny, and he often shook his head as if to dispel some discomfort. Either he hadn’t digested his dinner, or ten days of Russian food had got to him. He seemed desperate to be free of the camera. Halfway through the report he quoted a figure, then hesitated, obviously not knowing whether it was right, looking to one of the commanders seated among the public for confirmation. He spoke the same way as when he was huddled in the corner of a sofa, talking to one or two people. He would hesitate, look for the right words, doodle on the tablet, check to make sure he was following the plan. He’d stop in the middle of a sentence, letting it trail off, then land on the key word. There was no need for more except for the syntax. He’d scratch his head, taking the speaker as witness. Finally, during the last half hour, he seemed to revive, deciding he could speak a little longer. He’d already explained in detail the long-term sugar treaty with the Soviet Union and what it would mean for the Cuban economy. He didn’t say much about the Russian welcome, just a few short phrases, head down, in a soft voice. It might have looked as though he was trying to gloss over it, but perhaps some things are so obvious that to dwell upon them would betray their essence.
He began to talk about Panama, and obviously enjoyed making fun of the Americans. He said the situation was so clear that you could see right through American imperialism. You didn’t have to raise your voice; this was a dual you could fight from an armchair. The adversary was a mere skeleton. He said the Americans were trying to blame the Cubans for the events in Panama, but no one would believe that the Revolution, a child of five, could do more harm to a country like Panama, than the sixty year old grandaddy of American Imperialism. He said the counter-revolution was anachronistic, like a bathing suit from the 1880s.
“I remember yesterday, in the Tupolev, flying about fifty miles from the American coast. It was a clear morning, you could see Miami very well, and we were at the windows. Coming from a cold climate, so different from ours, we were eager to arrive in Cuba, to see the green, feel the sun and the warmth, and I was thinking about the people who had renounced all this and were condemned to live in an eternal winter, that of nature and of morality, because that place is a moral North Pole. I thought about them and about this whole business, and I thought: ‘You’re so wrong! But good luck in your misfortune.’” Then, adding: “That’s all I have to tell you,” and he rose and stepped down from the podium like a student who's been to the blackboard.
I had dinner with Vallejo, who told me his version of the trip to Russia. It seems they played a lot, like kids on vacation, horsing around and competing with Nikita to see who was a better shot. “What vigor for a seventy-year old!” The Cubans were thrilled to discover the snow; they picnicked in the woods, with big fires. During Fidel’s first trip to Moscow, Nikita had pressed him to come in winter, and every so often, he would say to Vallejo: “What do you think? Should we go? It’ll be cold, won’t it? What do you say, shall we go?” And finally, they had enjoyed the cold, and Nikita had spent all his time with them. Last year, Fidel had said to me: “You’ll see what a fun guy Nikita is!” - as if he and I were common friends, bound to meet up some day. On the way back in the Tupolev, one of the commanders came out of the pilot’s cabin wearing a life jacket and yelling: “We’re going down!” There was a scramble to locate the life jackets under the seats.