Living under Fidel: A very personal account

Vilified or adored, the longtime Cuban leader was undoubtedly one of a kind, especially in Latin America.

Lucia Newman and Fidel
Lucia Newman in a heated discussion with Fidel Castro [Al Jazeera]

For nearly a decade, I lived and worked in Cuba as a television foreign correspondent, leaving just as Fidel Castro was suddenly forced by illness to step aside in July 2007.

During that time Fidel Castro, or just Fidel, as we all knew him, was ever present.

Yet for nearly 10 years I was obliged to chase down interminable rumours that Fidel had died or was dying.

Sometimes he would disappear for weeks on end, just to finally reappear to taunt his Cuban-American foes  with his presence.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” he once said, clearly relishing the moment.

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“The day I really do die, no one will believe it.”

Fidel was not wrong. Although his health had been steadily waning since his intestinal surgeries in 2006, when his life finally was extinguished, it came as a shock to millions of people in and out of Cuba, including me.

Like 70 percent of Cubans born with Fidel Castro as their leader, I can barely remember a time when he did not exist.

I was very young when my father, a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, went to Cuba to interview Castro after the triumph of his revolution.

He brought me back a doll and a record of a catchy popular tune called Cuba Si! Yanqui No!

I was furious. Our family doctor was a Cuban exile, from whom I heard only terrible things about Castro.

But my Chilean mother’s closest cousin admired Castro so much that he had moved to Havana to assist him as an economic adviser.

READ MORE: Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s mixed legacy

The family was split. Then came the Cuban missile crisis, which found me living in New York, practising nuclear air raid drills at school. Castro was always somehow a force.

Then I grew up, became a journalist myself and finally met the bearded leader in the flesh in 1986.

As a war correspondent in Central America, I was invited, along with other colleagues based in Nicaragua, to visit Cuba, and at a reception in the Palace of the Revolution I was introduced to him.

Castro’s tall physique and larger-than-life reputation was impressive, but not as much as the adulation he received from our minders. I had never seen anything like it.

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Countless mass protests

Ten years later, I was transferred to Cuba with my family and regularly ran into El Comandante.

There were news conferences, inspections of preparations for hurricanes, chance encounters at embassy receptions, and a few exclusive interviews.

In every crisis and  important event – from Pope John Paul II’s historic visit, to countless mass protests in front of the US diplomatic mission, to the jailing of scores of dissidents – Fidel was in charge.

No detail was too small. He once spent three consecutive days on television explaining the best way to cook a good pot of beans as he announced that pressure cookers and electric stoves would be distributed to each family.

He was a firecely proud man with  a temper, and did not take kindly to unflattering reporting. He could not be challenged.

There were times when he would not speak to me for months, and as long as he did not, neither did anyone else in the government.

That was called “being put in the freezer”.

‘Put in the freezer’

Eventually Castro would come around, because I am convinced that he enjoyed being questioned by foreign correspondents, perhaps because we asked the difficult questions that the state-controlled media dared not.

Castro’s memory and his encyclopedic knowledge of an incredible range of subjects were legendary.

But as the years passed, and the hardships of ordinary Cubans continued to spur tens of thousands to leave the island, he seemed to be increasingly disconnected with the day-to-day problems and the wishes of his people.

His younger brother, Raul, by contrast, knew the price of beans.

Vilified or adored, Castro was undoubtedly one of a kind, especially in Latin America.

READ MORE: Castro – The making of a legend

He embodied dignity and defiance in a region scarred by decades of US political and economic interference and military interventions.

When I moved to Cuba, my youngest daughter was just turning three. Castro was the first real-life president and all-powerful person she had ever seen or heard of.

By the time we left, she still did not understand much about politics, but when she heard the news of Fidel’s death, she was shocked.

“I knew it would happen one day, but it means the end of an era,” she told me.

Even for her, it is difficult to believe that this man who was a presence in our lives, who determined the destinies of millions of Cubans and influenced revolutionary movements around the globe, is now no more.

Source: Al Jazeera