Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Once Upon a Time in Havana... Guest post by Rennie Airth

Today I welcome back Rennie Airth. Rennie Airth wrote a guest post (A Cautionary Word) in 2014 for Mystery Fanfare. Rennie Airth  grew up in South Africa and after starting out as a journalist turned his hand to writing fiction. The first novel in his Madden series, River of Darkness, was published in 1999. Three others followed and the fifth in the series, The Death of Kings, was just published January 3. He is the winner of France's esteemed Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. His works have been nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity Awards, among many others.

Rennie Airth:
Once Upon a Time in Havana...

Before I took to writing mysteries I had another life as a foreign correspondent working for Reuters. For years I wandered about the world and although the glamour that is sometimes associated with those two words – foreign correspondent – sadly eluded me I had some experiences that even in retrospect still strike me as being better suited to the realms of fiction than hard fact. This was one of them.

Accompanied by a more senior colleague I had flown down from New York to Cuba – via Mexico City, since there was no direct air link -- with instructions to re-open the Reuters bureau in Havana, our previous correspondent having been expelled a year or so earlier on the bizarre and wholly fictitious grounds of being a gun-runner and the invitation from the Cuban authorities to return had been accompanied by the lure of an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro. Why were the Cubans being so friendly all of a sudden? It’s a long story which I won’t go into now and had to do with some buses which the British government had agreed to sell to Castro over strong American objections. Suffice to say, on the appointed day we sat as instructed in the lobby of one of Havana’s once plush but now fading hotels waiting for our host to make his appearance.

And there we continued to sit – throughout that afternoon and the two that followed. It was my first intimation that dictators not only march to a different drummer – they stick to their own time tables.

Finally my irate superior informed the Cuban Foreign Ministry that not even the President of the United States would keep a pair of journalists kicking their heels in this manner and if Castro had not appeared by the following day he himself would return to New York leaving me to deal with the situation as best I could.

Whether this had an effect or not I don’t know, but the following afternoon, as we sat in our accustomed chairs in the lobby, we heard the sound of approaching sirens and within seconds a posse of military cars drew up outside the hotel. Within moments the lobby was filled with armed guards, a precaution that struck us at the time as exaggerated given that there was no conceivable threat to the Maximum Leader anywhere in the vicinity. We were informed that Castro was waiting in a car outside and that we were to accompany him to a baseball game. The interview would take place later. Given no choice in the matter, we quickly piled into one of the other cars and were whisked through the city, sirens screaming, to the stadium where we were finally introduced to the man himself. Dressed in his customary military fatigues, and somewhat distant in manner -- Fidel had a curious gaze that always seemed fixed on the middle distance rather than on what or who was in front of him, as though he had some other picture in his mind – he nevertheless graciously offered us a cigar each and presently I found myself seated in the bleachers one row below him puffing away contentedly as the game got under way.

Castro’s attachment to baseball was well documented and was perhaps the only facet of American life or culture he had any time for. I couldn’t say the same for myself. Although I had attempted to familiarise myself with the national game during my time in Washington, where I’d been posted earlier, my efforts had been hampered by the perennially dismal performance of the hapless Senators (Washington! First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.), and it was only with difficulty that I was able to mask my boredom with the proceedings on the field which, to be fair, seemed of little interest to the spectators either. They were far more excited by the presence of Fidel among them.

At last the game ended and I rose to my feet. I assumed the promised interview would now take place and wondered where it would be conducted. It was some minutes before I realised that while others had also risen to stretch their legs, no one was going anywhere. Only then did the grim truth dawn on me. We were in for a double-header.

It was growing dark by the time we left, our departure having been delayed by the crowd that had gathered outside the gates to catch a glimpse of their idol. All around us we heard the murmured words. ‘El caballo…el caballo.’ Later I was to learn it was a nickname the locals had for their leader. Superstition still held sway over many and the horse was among the most potent symbols in the Cuban version of voodoo, santeria.

Neither I nor my colleague could muster much Spanish between us, and before we left the stadium a question was put to us by Fidel’s interpreter, a charming man called Rene Vallejo, who was also his doctor. Castro wished to know if we were interested in agriculture? Given the circumstances, it was a question to which there was only one possible answer and before long, still in the same military convoy, we were speeding out of the dimly lit city deep into the even darker countryside. Our journey continued for an hour or so and then came to an abrupt halt on a small dirt road. We were directed to climb out of the car onto a narrow grass verge where presently Fidel joined us. Flashlights were produced and we saw there was a barbed wire fence beside us and beyond it the unmistakable shape of a cow. While two guards held the strands apart Castro clambered through the fence and then invited us to join him. Standing there in the pitch dark he proceeded to treat us to a long discourse on the results of an experiment he had been conducting with this particular animal and two others of its kind, all three of which had been fed a special diet of hay and alfalfa plus other ingredients which had resulted in them producing an unusually large yield of milk. Armed with this knowledge, he said, it was his intention to transform the Cuban dairy industry. Within a few years the whole island would be awash in rich creamy cow juice with all its associated dairy products. It was my first experience of Fidel the Fantasist, but by no means my last.

I won’t burden you with how the rest of the evening passed, except to say that it was far from over. We got our interview in the end. It took place in the early hours in a small house in the suburb of Vedado, one of several Fidel used, switching his living quarters from day to day we were told as precaution against the CIA’s plans to assassinate him (something we didn’t believe then, but which the world was later to discover was true – hence all the bodyguards). And although it produced little in the way of news it did give me a further insight into the mind-set of this extraordinary man. Fidel could never tell you anything once: he had to repeat it three or four times, and this more than anything explained the astonishing duration of the speeches for which he was famous, orations of Wagnerian length that could go on for three or four hours yet appeared to hold his huge audience spellbound; indeed there was more than a hint of grand opera about these performances. I can still see him standing before a bank of microphones fondling their twisted, snake-like heads in an openly sensuous manner as the words poured out of him.

Nor was that day the only time I saw him close up. Quite often he appeared at the embassy receptions to which members of the foreign press corps – there were only a handful of us – would also be invited. These evenings followed an unchanging routine. Having met with the ambassadors of various nations – always in a private room -- he would announce that he was ready to talk to the capitalist press. And so we would sit there in front of him, trapped for hours on end, yet another captive audience (one among us at least thinking glumly of all the delights even a socialist Havana still had to offer in the shape of beautiful girls and disreputable bars) while he drank glass after glass of brandy and rambled on, inveighing always against the wicked Yankee imperialists but also confiding to us his plans, or rather dreams, for the future. How one day he would change Cuba from the sugar farm it basically was into a throbbing industrial nation: how different the future would be from the past.

By a curious coincidence, the last time I saw him in the flesh, like the first, had a baseball connection. We of the foreign press had received a tip that he was playing in a pick-up game somewhere on the outskirts of Havana, and when we got there we discovered that not only was it true, but that his younger brother Raul, now Cuba’s president, but then a seldom seen figure, was also present. They were on opposing teams and Raul was pitching. Possessed of a venomous slider – or so one of my more knowledgeable colleagues informed me – he was making short work of the batters facing him and it wasn’t long before the Commandante himself was striding to the plate, bar in hand.

Sadly, we saw little of him that afternoon. Three balls, three swishes and it was over. The last glimpse I had of Fidel he was on his way back to the dug-out looking far from pleased.

Junior had struck him out. 


Susan Bernhardt said...

I have a friend who was part of the secret exodus, a mass migration of children from Cuba, known as Operación Pedro Pan in the early 1960s. Since our friendship began close to ten years ago, I have been fascinated with Cuba.

It was interesting to read this post and get a bit into the mind of Fidel Castro.

Susan Bernhardt

Marni said...

Thanks for this fascinating look into your experience with Fidel and Cuba. Enjoy your mysteries for their complexity and real sense of character and setting.