He led a one-party communist state by himself. He participated in leading the world to near nuclear crisis. He was in power for quite a long time and the feelings are mixed about him, but one thing is certain: Few world leaders, living or dead, have occupied history’s center stage as long as Fidel Castro, whose death shocked the world today. He dictated over Cuba for nearly half a century.
Castro tended to keep the press at arm’s length. As you’ll learn below, one exception was our first playboy Interview with him, in 1967, in, which he discussed the early days of the Revolution and the 1962 missile crisis. But things change, and Castro clearly came to believe that the time had come to launch a new dialog with the American public. Hence his second playboy Interview, first printed in August 1985 and presented in its entirety here, on the occasion of his death at age 90.
Few world leaders, living or dead, have occupied history’s center stage as long as Fidel Castro, the Cuban Caudillo, whose words and deeds have irritated or enraged seven American Presidents and whose Revolution, in 1959, electrified the world. The political history of the years since is well known, so we thought we’d use this space to tell you just how this extraordinary “Interview” came about.
For the past two decades, with rare exceptions, the 58-year-old Castro has kept the press at arm’s length. (One exception was Playboy’s own first “Interview” with him, in 1967, in which he discussed the early days of the Revolution and the 1962 missile crisis.) But times change, and Castro clearly believes that the time has come to launch a new dialog with the American public. And herein lies the rub: Although Castro’s talkativeness is legendary, after sifting through the transcripts of the most extensive interview Castro has granted, it is difficult to imagine anyone engaging in a true back-and-forth dialog with him. It isn’t that he doesn’t listen to other viewpoints–he does and, though dogmatic about his political beliefs, he seems genuinely curious about everything–but that his answers are long and repetitive, complicating the usual process of editing the spoken word for the printed page. Those film clips of his five-hour speeches to stadiums full of people are not exaggerated: Even in a less formal interview setting, answers are ten, 15, 20 minutes long, and follow-ups become academic. He waves away interruptions as his answers pile on one another. So we want to let our readers know that even though this “Interview” with Castro may well be the most faithfully rendered ever, it has undergone extensive cutting as well as interruptions to break up the text.
The questioners themselves are an unusual team, since the interviews were conducted by free-lance writer and political-science professor Dr. Jeffrey M. Elliot and U.S. Representative Mervyn M. Dymally (who also holds a Ph.D.), a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the president of the Caribbean-American Research Institute. Because of these credentials, and because of the tradition of Playboy’s “Interviews,” Castro sat for what he called the longest and most far-reaching interview ever with a North American journalist. Ten days after Elliot and Dymally returned, Kirby Jones, an expert on Cuba and a co-author of a 1975 book on Castro published by Playboy Press, raised several additional topics with the Cuban leader that were incorporated into the “Interview.” Jones was in Havana to assist with the filming of a documentary for Public Broadcasting Corporation/WNET, produced by Carol Polakoff and Suzanne Bauman and directed by Jim Burroughs, to be aired on PBS this fall.
The intense interest that Castro took in the playboy project may be unusual in scope, but reporters agree that he is no less committed when he engages in other enterprises, bringing his considerable charm and energy to bear on anything he gets caught up in. This is part of the enigma of the man, of course: The leader who can passionately talk about his Marxist beliefs, scathingly criticize U.S. society and rationalize away Soviet aggression can also admit, as he does in this “Interview,” that he missed the funeral of Soviet leader Chernenko because–in so many words–he had pulled two all-nighters in a row.
All-night sessions were also on the minds of Dr. Elliot and Representative Dymally upon their return to the U.S., when they filed this report:
“Few interviews could have been as bumpy in the making as our eight-day marathon with Fidel Castro. It’s no wonder that a Sixties documentary about a film crew’s frustration over a promised-but-not-delivered interview with him was titled ‘Waiting for Fidel.’ Castro’s acquiescence to our request for an interview was preceded by two earlier meetings with Dymally. In June 1984, Dymally accompanied the Reverend Jesse Jackson–then a presidential candidate–to Cuba. As a result of his meeting with them, Castro offered to release 27 Cuban political prisoners and 22 Americans who had been arrested for illegally crossing into Cuban waters or for engaging in drug trafficking. In December 1984, Dymally again traveled to Cuba, that time on a humanitarian mission on behalf of two constituents in order to help reunite their families. It was on that trip that Dymally proposed an in-depth interview, to which Castro agreed. Dymally then proposed a March 21 date, to which Castro also agreed.
"That was the last simple thing that happened. On the appointed day, Elliot, Dymally, technician Kenneth Orduna (the Congressman’s chief of staff) and photographer Gianfranco Gorgoni met in Miami and flew to Havana in a twin-engine Cessna.
"Upon landing, we were met by two guards, protocol officer Armando Amieba and Alfredo Ramirez, the minister of exterior relations. We were offered lime daiquiris while our papers were processed. We had been instructed by Cuban officials not to arrive prior to 10:30 A.M. After that, we assumed that we would go directly to the Presidential Palace for the interview. Our plan was to spend three days in Cuba.
"Upon arriving at the hotel, we were told to wait in our suite and that we would receive a call when the president was ready. We assumed, with wondrous optimism, that we would receive an early call and then begin the interview. Ten hours later, sitting in our hotel rooms, we had yet to receive the call. We finally were told that the interview would begin the next day. Here is a kind of journal of what happened next:
"Saturday. We awaken at seven A.M., expecting an early call. After all, we’re scheduled to leave Havana on Sunday evening. We hover again by the telephone, waiting anxiously for the call. Afraid to leave the hotel, for fear we’ll miss the call. At 11 A.M., Amieba informs us that the session will not begin until after one P.M. and that they have scheduled a tour of old Havana. After sightseeing in the company of Havana mayor Oscar Fernandez Mell–a comrade and close friend of Ché Guevara’s–we eagerly return to the hotel in anticipation of the call. Again, we wait. At seven P.M., Ramírez appears. He informs us that the president will see us later that evening but not for the interview: It will be a get-acquainted session. Ramírez says a driver will come for us at eight P.M. We’re skeptical and start a betting pool as to what hour the driver will actually arrive. The telephone rings at 11 P.M. Castro is ready!
"We are sped to the Presidential Palace. As we enter, we are met by an armed guard. He stops us and clears us for entry. The door opens and there is Fidel Castro.
"He is a tall man, lean and fit, dressed in his usual military garb, boots highly polished. His eyes are piercing. He greets us warmly and asks us to be seated. Through an interpreter (this session and the entire 'Interview’ are conducted in Spanish), he raises a series of questions about the project. We respond. He listens attentively. Following our presentation, Castro rises, then sits and proceeds to lecture us for nearly an hour on the shortcomings of the media, chiding U.S. journalists by name for their lack of knowledge and integrity. Calming down, he asks us to explain the project again. We do. Half an hour later, Castro rises, waves his hands and tells us that he will do the interview–but on Sunday, the next day. We leave the Presidential Palace at four A.M., buoyant and confident.
"Sunday. After a few hours’ sleep, we arise, eat breakfast and are met by Amieba. We are informed that the interview will not begin until late afternoon; would we like to explore Havana a bit more? Yes. An hour later, we are driven back to the hotel. We are told that Ramirez would like us to meet him by the pool. We arrive shortly before he does. Ramirez then tells us that the president has been up most of the night, that he is extremely tired but that he hopes to see us late in the afternoon or the early evening. We politely stress the time pressures weighing on us: For one thing, Dymally must be in Washington on Tuesday to vote on the MX missile. We return to our suite and begin yet another wait. The betting pool grows larger. Hours pass–and no call. We begin to worry. Dymally has to fly out on Tuesday morning.
"Monday. We eat breakfast early. The food is becoming monotonous–we dine every day in one of two hotel restaurants, so we won’t be far from our phones. We are anxious and nervous. We stay that way all day. This is the low point of the trip. At seven P.M., Dr. José Miyar (referred to as Chomy), Castro’s closest advisor, arrives. He is accompanied by Ramirez and interpreter Juanita Ortega. They offer their apologies on behalf of the president, informing us that he has been extremely busy–that he worked through the morning. However, they assure us that he will see us later that evening–but only for a photo session. He is too tired to do the interview. Finally, the call comes at 11 P.M. and we are sped to the Presidential Palace.
"We are escorted into Castro’s office. He is talkative and begins yet another long discourse, which meanders to the origin of his beard. He tells us that while they were in the Sierra Maestra Mountains, he and his comrades took to growing beards because there was little need or time to shave, then kept them as practical symbols: If Batista’s forces had tried to infiltrate, they would not have had time to grow beards and would have been spotted. Castro then calculates, to the minute–with pen and paper–how much time was saved by their not shaving.
"The formal 'Interview’ begins and our spirits are high. But after that first session, Dymally makes his plane trip to Washington and gets to cast his vote just in time–against the MX–and returns the next day to more delays. By now, the pool of one-dollar bets has grown to a size that would probably get us expelled from Cuba.
"Thursday. The 'Interview’ resumes, and this time we keep our momentum. One night, we tape from ten P.M. until four A.M., with a tired Castro reviving as the hours pass. Armed with his favorite Cuban cigar, a Cohiba, and a glass of Chivas Regal, he speaks in a precise, didactic manner, treating each question as if it were the only one. He struggles not to be misunderstood and builds his responses brick by brick by brick. When the session ends, Castro is exhausted–and so are we.
"Friday. We sleep until ten A.M. Although we have made Herculean progress, we’re not finished. Castro wants to get to all our questions, regardless of the time it takes. It has been eight days. We wait for the call. Just 11 hours later, the phone rings. Castro is attentive, effervescent. We tape until four A.M.–another seven hours. At last, we are finished. Twenty-five hours on tape. We express our appreciation; he expresses his. As we depart, he extends his hand, withdraws it and tells us that he has thought of one additional point he wishes to make–so it’s back to the table, where Castro adds an afterthought to an earlier answer. Despite the hour, he appears energized and poised. We are wrecks. Our charter flight is scheduled to leave within the hour. This time, we say farewell–for real–and return to our separate worlds.”
People know Fidel Castro the public figure, but few know the man. We’ll be taking up many issues, but let’s begin, Mr. President, with some personal questions. After 26 years at the center of controversy and history, what still motivates Fidel Castro?
That’s a very difficult question. Let me start by stating the things that do not motivate me: Money does not motivate me; material goods do not motivate me. Likewise, the lust for glory, fame and prestige does not motivate me. I really think that ideas motivate me. Ideas, convictions are what spur a man to struggle in the first place. When you are truly devoted to an idea, you feel more convinced and more committed with each passing year. I think that personal selflessness grows; the spirit of sacrifice grows; you gradually relinquish personal pride, vanity … all those elements that in one way or another exist in all men.
If you do not guard against those vanities, if you let yourself become conceited or think that you are irreplaceable or indispensable, you can become infatuated with all of that–the riches, the glory. I’ve been on guard against those things; maybe I have developed a philosophy on man’s relative importance, on the relative value of individuals, the conviction that it is not the individual but the people who make history, the idea that I can’t lay claim to the merits of an entire people. A phrase by José Martí left in me a deep and unforgettable impression: “All the glory of the world fits into a kernel of corn.”
Then you don’t think certain men are destined for personal greatness? It’s a matter of time and circumstance?
Yes. Very much so. Let me give you some examples. If Lincoln had lived today, he might be a simple farmer in the United States, and nobody would have heard of him. It was the times in which he lived, the society in which he lived, that made a Lincoln possible. If George Washington had been born 50 years after independence, he might have been unknown, and the same holds true if he had lived 50 years earlier. Lenin, with all his extraordinary abilities, might have been an unknown, too, if he had been born at another time.
Take my case, for example. If I hadn’t been able to learn how to read and write, what role would I have played in the history of my country, in the Revolution? Where I was born, out of hundreds of kids, my brothers and sisters and I were the only ones who had a chance to study beyond the first few grades. How many more people were there, among those hundreds of kids, with the same or better qualities for doing what I did if they’d been given the opportunity to study?
One of the 100 best poems in the Spanish language tells of how often genius lies dormant in one’s innermost soul, awaiting a voice that will call out, “Arise and walk!” This is true; I believe this deeply. This is why I believe that the qualitiesrequired for being a leader aren’t exceptional; they are to be found among the people.
Why am I saying this? Because I’ve noticed, especially in the West, a great tendency to associate historical events with individuals; it’s the old theory that men make history. There is also a tendency in the West to see the leader of any Third World country as a chieftain; there’s a certain stereotype: Leader equals chieftain. From that, there is a tendency to magnify the role of the individual. I can see it myself in what you say about us: Castro’s Cuba, Castro did this, Castro undid that. Almost everything in this country is attributed to Castro, Castro’s goings, Castro’s perversities. That type of mentality abounds in the West; unfortunately, it’s quite widespread. It seems to me to be an erroneous approach to historical and political events.
You may feel that the West magnifies the role of the individual, but aren’t you under intense scrutiny here in Cuba? Don’t you live in something of a fish bowl?
Actually, I’m never even aware of it. There may be something that explains this: My activities are almost never reported in the press. I may be doing a lot of things for 15 days, yet none of it comes out in the papers. You may have noted that by and large, all countries have what’s called a press office. Everything a leader does throughout the day is published in the papers and reported on television and radio. In a sense, ivory towers and fish bowls are built around these people. I haven’t created a fish bowl for myself. I go out and visit factories, schools and the various provinces and towns. It’s true that I visited them more often in the past, because I had more time then. But there’s never been any protocol or welcoming ceremonies for me, as is customary for leaders in many other countries.
Yet crowds gather where I go. How long is it since I last went to a restaurant? Why? A new Chinese restaurant has just been opened in old Havana, which is being restored. It’s small and cozy, in an old building. For some time now, I’ve wanted to go there; but if I do, it will mean eating while people wait to see me in the street. Well, these are the minor inconveniences of my job. I have ways of getting around them. If I want a rest, if I want to relax, I go to the sea. I go to a small cay out there to scuba dive. There are some marvelous bottoms, fish and coral reefs, and I’ve grown accustomed to those places. When I was a student, nobody ever thought of scuba diving in the ocean as a sport. There were all those stories about sharks….
Not even war justifies a lie or the exaggeration of a victory. This has been an important element in our Revolution.
Considering all the traveling you have done around Cuba, how would you describe the relationship between the people and Fidel Castro?
I think that the people’s feeling is one of familiarity, confidence and respect; it’s a very close relationship. I think it’s a family relationship. The people look on me as a neighbor, as one more person. They aren’t overpowered by positions, by public figures. No one ever calls me Castro, only Fidel. I believe that that familiarity is based, among other things, on the fact that we’ve never lied to the people. Ours has been an honest Revolution. The people know we keep our word–and not only Cubans in Cuba but also those in Miami; that is, people who don’t have any feelings of affection but trust our word. They have known ever since the Revolution that there will be no tricks, no betrayals or entrapments: When we told them they could leave from Mariel, they could–even if they are our worst enemies, even if they’re terrorists. We are like the Arab of the desert who welcomes his enemy in his tent and doesn’t even look to see which direction he takes when he leaves. Of course, this is based on the fact that the Revolution never lied. Never! This is a tradition that dates back to the war. Throughout the entire war, all the information we released on the fighting, the number of casualties, the munitions captured, was strictly accurate. We didn’t add one single bullet or rifle. Not even war justifies a lie or the exaggeration of a victory. This has been an important element in our Revolution.
Do you have many close friends? Can a man in your position have friends?
Well, I have many friends who are not Cubans, whom I’ve met through different activities–some of them outstanding personalities: for example, doctors, writers, film makers, scientists, friends from abroad. But my friends in the Revolution are all my revolutionary comrades, all those who work with me, all those who hold important responsibilities in the state. We have a friendly relationship.
I don’t really have what you might call a circle of friends, because for me a circle of friends is a very broad concept. I don’t have the habit of meeting always with the same group of eight or ten friends. I visit one friend one day, another another day; with some I talk more because of work relations–that’s logical. However, I’ve tried to avoid–because it’s not good practice, from the viewpoint of my responsibility–cultivating just one group of friends I see every Sunday.
What we were getting at is whether or not people feel intimidated, whether or not they can argue with you.
As a rule, any of the comrades who work with me in the state or party can come to me in total familiarity and state any concern or problem he may have. In general, my relations with comrades are excellent. But since you’ve asked me, there are two or three people with whom I work closely who would tell you I’m a big headache to them. Comrade Chomy, who is sitting here with us, is the prime example. He has the unrewarding task of showing me the list of people I must see, who ask for meetings…. He is the one I can grumble and complain to.
[Castro and Chomy laugh. Moments later, Chomy leaves the room and as Castro is making a point, the tape recorder Castro’s aides are using for their own verification clicks to a stop. In exasperation, Castro shouts for Chomy, who rushes back in.]
As a rule, I do not let myself get agitated or obsessed by problems. If I didn’t have a sense of humor, if I couldn’t joke with others and even with myself, if I weren’t able to let go, I wouldn’t be able to handle the job. Because I also ask myself the same questions others do: How’s my blood pressure? How’s my heart doing? How have I been able to stand it for so many years?
I meet people who I immediately know are going to die young. I see them all worked up, bitter, tense, but that’s not my case. Exercise and moderate eating habits have helped. And why not? Nature and luck have also helped.
Unlike most political leaders, you do much of your important work late at night–often into the early hours of the morning. Why the odd hours?
On a day like today, with conversations that go on this long, the schedule goes out the window, gets out of control, and this is frequently the case. A lot of visitors come to Cuba: ministers of foreign affairs, party representatives, a great many people. If I were to set an exact date and hour for each one of the visitors asking for an interview through Comrade Chomy, through the party, through the ministry of foreign affairs, through the executive committee, through all channels, I’d be tied up all the time. I dislike purely protocol meetings; they’re a waste of time. I prefer to talk about interesting things with visitors, and I dislike keeping an eye on the clock. As a rule, I tell the people who have arranged someone’s visit here, “Make up the schedule; I only want to know where he is and when he’s free.” This has, of course, its inconveniences. Many times they tell me, “Minister so-and-so is leaving tomorrow,” and then I’m forced to meet him at night, very late.
On the other hand, nobody upsets my life as much as interviewers and journalists.
Have you ever given any thought to marriage, a family, settling down and retirement?
I’ve always been allergic to gossip-column publicity about the private life of public men. I believe that’s part of the few intimacies that one has. That’s why I maintain discretion–until one day. Someday, the things you’re asking about will be known, but not with my cooperation. I can tell you that everything’s perfectly well with my private life–no problems. [Grins]
One more question in the personal vein: You are one of the last of the great orators, with your booming speeches to stadiums full of people; you are known as an effective communicator. Is there any difference between that public figure and the private man?
[Laughs] I have a great rival as a communicator–and that is Reagan. But let me tell you something that people may not believe: I have stage fright. Whenever I’m about to speak in public, I go through a moment of tension. I don’t actually like making speeches. I take it more as a responsibility, a delicate task, a goal to be met. The huge rallies are difficult. I may have the basic ideas–you might call it a mental script of the essential ideas–and more or less the order in which I’m going to present them. But I work out and develop the ideas–the words, phrases and forms of expression–during the speech itself. People prefer that to a written speech. It seems to me that they like to see a man’s struggle, his efforts to elaborate ideas.
This year, you have granted several interviews besides this long conversation. Why? And why now?
It’s true that I’ve granted several interviews in the past few months. I thought it would be useful to do this now. I’m not trying to launch a publicity campaign, much less improve my image. I’m not running for office in the United States. Rather, I’m doing this because this is a special time in the international field.
For instance, there has been tension in Central America, and I believe that there’s a really critical situation in Latin America, both economically and socially. There is great international concern over the problems related to the arms race, the danger of a war; at the same time, there are conflicts in southern Africa. If these problems are better understood, some contribution may be made to solving them.
You’ve had a chance to see the results of your earlier interviews; what do you think of your press so far?
I believe that the PBS interview was a serious one, on interesting, complex topics. After PBS, there was an interview with Dan Rather of CBS. I don’t think very important problems were discussed in that interview. It was more anecdotal, containing personal views about Reagan and other topics. But television’s possibilities for spreading information are, by definition, very limited. Rather wanted to know why I hadn’t attended Chernenko’s funeral. Sometimes you make a great effort and put a lot of time into something, and then reporters take up anecdotal rather than essential matters. That’s why, as I said to you before we began, if you want to express your point of view in depth, you have to have the space to develop it.
You may consider it anecdotal, but we saw the Rather interview and, like him, wondered about the Chernenko funeral. Why did you skip it? You didn’t really answer Rather.
Look, I was present at Brezhnev’s funeral; I was present at Andropov’s funeral; I’ve attended the two most recent Soviet Party Congresses, that is, almost all the most important occasions of that type that have taken place in the U.S.S.R. One must bear in mind that the distance between Cuba and the Soviet Union is great; the other socialist countries are two hours away from Moscow, sometimes less.
Now, the death of Chernenko–a man whom I held in great esteem, whom I’d known for some time and who was very friendly toward Cuba–occurred at a time when I had an enormous amount of work. On the day of his death, we had just concluded a women’s congress to which I had devoted several days’ intense work.
I’m going to tell you something else, since you force me to. Between the end of the Federation Congress, where I delivered the closing address–that was Friday evening–and eight o'clock Sunday morning, I worked for 42 consecutive hours. No rest or sleep. Since I had other visitors in town in the following days and I was worried about keeping them waiting–and you are exceptional witness to the fact that I don’t begrudge time or energy in attending to visitors, regardless of their political rank–I decided to ask my brother Raul to represent me at the funeral.
Fulfilling a formal obligation isn’t the only way to show affection, appreciation and respect for a friend. I can tell you in all frankness, our relations with the Soviet Union are excellent, better than ever; and precisely because of the confidence they have in us and the confidence we have in them, I knew they’d understand.
What the Soviets feel for you is one thing, but it’s no secret that attitudes in Washington have hardened in recent years. President Reagan has characterized you as a ruthless military dictator, one who rules Cuba with an iron hand. There are many Americans who agree with him. How do you respond?
Let’s think about your question. A dictator is someone who makes arbitrary decisions on his own, one who is above all institutions, above the law, and is subject to no other control than his own will or whims. If being a dictator means governing by decree, then you might use that argument to accuse the Pope of being a dictator. His broad prerogatives for governing the Vatican and the Catholic Church are well known. I don’t have those prerogatives. Yet no one would think of saying that the Pope is a dictator.
President Reagan can make terrible decisions without consulting anyone! Sometimes he may have to go through the purely formal motions of securing the Senate’s approval when he appoints an Ambassador, but Reagan can order an invasion, such as the one against Grenada, or a dirty war, such as the one against Nicaragua. He can even use the codes in that briefcase he always carries around with him to unleash a thermonuclear war that could mean the end of the human race. If not, why does he have the briefcase? Why does he have the codes? And why does he have an aide with the briefcase? It’s to be supposed that Reagan would make the decision to unleash a thermonuclear war without consulting the Senate or the House of Representatives, without consulting the Cabinet. And that’s something that could spell the end of the human race. Not even the Roman emperors had that kind of power.
But, Mr. President, don’t you, in fact, rule by personal decree? Don’t you make all important decisions of state?
No. I don’t make decisions totally on my own. I play my role as a leader within a team. In our country, we don’t have any institution similar to the Presidency of the United States. Here, all basic decisions–all the important decisions–are analyzed, discussed and adopted collectively. I don’t appoint ministers or ambassadors; I don’t appoint even the lowliest public servant in the country, because there exists a system for selecting, analyzing, nominating and appointing those officials. I do, in fact, have some authority; I have influence. But my only real prerogative is to speak before the Central Committee, before the National Assembly, before public opinion. That’s the main power I have, and I don’t aspire to any other. I don’t want or need any other.
Those are the conditions in which a political leader in our country must work. I don’t think any of these mesh with the idea of a dictator, which comes from the verb to dictate–one who is always dictating orders of all kinds. I don’t act that way, nor am I empowered to. I don’t give orders; I reason. I don’t govern by decree, nor can I.
During the war, I led an army; in a war, it has to be that way. There has to be that kind of responsibility–during World War Two, Eisenhower had the responsibility and the power to make decisions–but, as soon as our movement was organized, long before the attack on the Moncada Garrison on July 26, 1953, we had collective leadership; throughout the war, our movement had collective leadership, and when the war was over, we immediately organized collective leadership for the country. These principles have remained unaltered throughout the years.
I honestly believe that the President of the United States has much greater power and more capability of giving direct, unilateral orders. If his power includes something as monstrously undemocratic as the ability to order a thermonuclear war, I ask you who, then, is more of a dictator: the President of the United States or I?
It’s as if the Reagan Administration wants to teach an unforgettable lesson so that no one else in Central or Latin America will ever again think of rebelling.
Nonetheless, what Americans see is that there is a marked difference between the personal freedoms in a Western country and those allowed in Cuba.
I think U.S. and Cuban conceptions of liberty are very different. For example, there are more than 1,000,000 children who have disappeared in the U.S. Next to your millionaires, you have beggars. We have neither abandoned children nor beggars without homes.
You always speak of freedoms. Since your Declaration of Independence, you have spoken of freedoms. We, too, consider it self-evident that all men are born equal. But when George Washington and the others created U.S. independence, they did not free the slaves; not long ago, a U.S. black athlete could not play baseball in the major leagues. And yet you called yours the freest country in the world.
The freest country in the world also exterminated the Indians. You killed more Indians than Buffalo Bill killed buffaloes. Since then, you have made allies of the worst tyrants in Argentina and Chile, you have protected South Africa, you have used the worst murderers in the world to organize the contra revolution–and yours is the country of freedom? What is the banner of liberty the U.S. is really defending?
OK, if you are a Communist in the U.S., where are your freedoms? Can you work in the State Department, in any form of Government employment? Can you speak openly on TV? In what papers can you write? We may be criticized in Cuba, but at least we are cleaner than you. Our system is cleaner, because we’re not pretending to be the best of liberty.
In fact, a Communist can speak openly in the U.S. In the U.S., people have the freedom to say whatever they like.
You can say what you want, but you have no place to say it–unless you can afford it. If you do not own a paper or a media empire, you are ignored. I have read how a right-wing Senator has tried to buy CBS to kick out Dan Rather–and Rather is not a Communist. But they want to shut his mouth. I admit that there are some brilliant writers and journalists who write both for and against capitalism and can speak on TV, but a Communist who wants to preach communism, who wants to change your system, does not appear in any big papers or on large TV stations.
What about in Cuba? Could someone write against your system in your newspapers?
No, a counterrevolutionary cannot write in our newspapers. Against our system, he cannot write. But that is exactly the same thing that happens in the U.S.–only we are honest; we say so. You say you are the best model of freedom that ever existed. When I see a Communist writing in the New York Times or tnhe Washington Post, or speaking on CBS, I promise you I will open the doors so all the counterrevolutionaries will be able to write in our newspapers! But you set the example first.
Surely, you know there are Communist political candidates in the U.S. who speak freely.
Yes, they are allowed to hand out their pamphlets and make speeches. But they are not covered by the press, they are not allowed to participate in the debates, the text of their speeches is not published.
Could we go out right now to the main park in Havana and speak critically about Cuba?
Cuba is one of the places where people are most critical. Anyone who visits here knows that Cubans speak openly. From morning until night, they criticize everything. No one is arrested here for speaking out. If they were, everyone would be arrested! Things are not the way you imagine. Besides, people do not want another party. This country has had a political education, a revolutionary education. People can speak their mind, but not if they start conspiring or organizing terrorist plans——
So if we went outside and began speaking against the party——
Go ahead, try it, test it. You could get in trouble! [Laughs]
The history of relations between Cuba and the U.S. is quite bad; how much worse have they become since Reagan took office?
Considerably. He has, of course, tightened the blockade against us. Then he put an end to private citizens’ traveling to Cuba–something that had been reestablished for some years. He also applied an incessant, tenacious practice of placing obstacles in the way of all of our country’s economic and trade operations. I don’t know how many people in the United States are engaged in compiling information on all of our economic and trade operations with the Western world to try to keep us from selling our products, to block Cuba’s nickel sales to any Western country and to try to block credits to Cuba and even the rescheduling of the debt. Every time we reschedule the debt with various bankers, the United States draws up documents and sends them to all the governments and banks.
The United States does not limit its blockade to trade between the United States and Cuba–it even bans trade in medicine, a shameful thing. Not even an aspirin can come from the United States–it is legally forbidden; pharmaceuticals that may save a life are forbidden; no medical equipment can be exported from the United States to Cuba; and trade is prohibited in both directions. The U.S. also expands the blockade throughout the world as part of its policy of unceasing, shameful and infamous harassment of all of Cuba’s economic operations. The only reason it doesn’t interfere in our trade with the other socialist countries is that it can’t. That’s the truth.
To ease these tensions, would you be willing to meet with President Reagan, without a prearranged agenda?
[Very carefully, after several false starts] In the first place, you should ask the President of the United States. I don’t want it to be said that I’m proposing a meeting with Reagan. However, if you want to know my opinion, I don’t think it’s very probable; but if the United States Government were to propose a meeting of that nature, a contact of that type, we wouldn’t raise any obstacles.
What if an invitation were extended by the United States Congress or, specifically, by the Congressional Black Caucus? Would you accept such an invitation?
Well, I have very good relations with the Black Caucus. I know many of its members, and any invitation from them or any opportunity to meet with them, in Cuba or in the United States, would be an honor for me. In any case, I’d first have to know the position of the United States Government, because a visit to the United States requires a visa from the U.S. Government. If that were possible, indeed, if that could lead to a broader meeting with U.S. legislators, I think I have the arguments with which to talk, discuss things and debate with a group or with all U.S. Congressmen at once. That is, I think so; I think I could go. There are many things to talk about that it would be useful for the members of the U.S. Congress to hear, and I could answer all of their questions. But all this is on a speculative, hypothetical plane; I don’t think it can be done unless the President of the United States agrees.
And that seems hardly likely, with what current Administration officials are saying about you. One particularly negative charge was by Secretary of State George Shultz, who claims there is evidence of a Cuban-Colombian drug connection. How did you react to that?
One of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” The Reagan Administration should be constantly reminded of that. Besides, I believe that the United States Congress and the American people deserve more respect.
It’s absolutely impossible for the United States and the State Department to have a single shred of evidence of this kind! [Stands up, paces angrily] I believe that these are, in fact, dirty, infamous accusations, a dishonest way of conducting foreign policy! During the past 26 years, Cuba’s record in this regard has been spotless, because the first thing the Revolution did in our country, where drugs were once freely used, sold and produced, was to eradicate that problem. Strict measures were taken to destroy marijuana plantations and to strongly punish all forms of drug production and trafficking. Since the victory of the Revolution, for 26 years, no drugs have been brought into our country, nor has any money been made from the drugs coming from anywhere else.
During the 26 years of the Revolution, I haven’t heard of a single case of any official’s ever having been involved in the drug business–not one. I ask if the same could be said in the United States or if that could be said in any other Latin-American or Caribbean country or in the rest of the Western world.
Now there are two types of Communists—the good and the bad. We are the bad Communists.
Secretary Shultz has said that Cuba tacitly goes along with the drug trade by allowing overflights of smugglers in light planes.
Look, our country is the place drug smugglers fear the most. They all try to avoid landing in Cuba or making any sort of stop on our coasts, because they have a lot of experience with the consequences and the strict measures taken in our country. Our island has an east-west axis in the Caribbean and is more than 1000 kilometers long but only 50 kilometers wide in some places. It’s easy to cross it in a matter of minutes and be under international jurisdiction again. Radar very often detects airborne targets approaching or leaving our territory. United States spy planes do this almost every day, even without entering our national airspace; every so often, they do it with sophisticated aircraft that fly at an altitude of 30 kilometers at 3000 kilometers per hour. I imagine that those planes aren’t carrying drugs.
Small civilian aircraft penetrate our airspace rather frequently, and they don’t pay our interceptors the slightest attention. Having to decide whether or not to fire on an unarmed civilian aircraft is a serious, tragic question. There’s no way you can be sure who’s in it. An aircraft in the air isn’t like an automobile on a road that can be stopped, identified and searched. The occupants may be drug smugglers, but they may also be off course or trying to save fuel by taking a shorter route. They may be families, journalists, businessmen or adventurers–of whom there are many in the United States–who are afraid to land and be arrested in Cuba.
Even though it is blockaded by the United States and doesn’t have any obligation to cooperate with the United States on this or any other problem, Cuba has stood sentinel against drug trafficking in the Caribbean–as a matter of self-respect, a simple question of prestige and moral rectitude. Is it right that the treatment we receive in exchange is the infamous accusation that Cuba is involved in drug trafficking?
Why do you think there have been such harsh charges over the years? Why do you think American leaders–and, to some extent, the American public–have had such a relentlessly negative view of Cuba and of you?
In the first place, basically, it is not a negative attitude against Cuba and against Castro; it is fundamentally an antisocialist, antirevolutionary and anti-Communist attitude. The fact is that for the past 100 years in the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the world, this anti-Communist feeling has been drilled into the masses by all possible means; the anti-Communist indoctrination begins practically when a child is born. The same thing used to happen in our country: A permanent campaign in all the newspapers, magazines, books, films, television, radio, even children’s cartoons, was aimed in the same direction–toward creating the most hostile ideas and prejudices against socialism. I’m referring, of course, to a socialist revolution, not to the much used and abused word socialism, which so many bourgeois parties have taken up as something elegant in an attempt to dress old-fashioned capitalism in new clothes.
Critics in the Reagan Administration would argue that you need to employ cruel, punitive measures in imposing your kind of socialist system in Cuba.
As regards the charge of cruelty, I think the crudest people on earth are the ones who are indifferent to social injustice, discrimination, inequality, the exploitation of others–people who don’t react when they see a child with no shoes, a beggar in the streets or millions of hungry people. I really think that people who have spent all their lives struggling against injustice and oppression, serving others, fighting for others and practicing and preaching solidarity cannot possibly be cruel. I’d say that what is really cruel is a society–a capitalist one, for instance–that not only is cruel in itself but forces man to be cruel.
Socialism is just the opposite. By definition, it expresses confidence and faith in man, in solidarity among men and in the brotherhood of man–not selfishness, ambition, competition or struggle. I believe that cruelty is born of selfishness, ambition, inequality, injustice, competition and struggle among men.
Getting back to the way the U.S. has portrayed Cuba specifically——
Really, a study could be made of how much space, how much paper, how many media have been used against Cuba. But despite their huge technological resources and mass media–and I say this with sorrow–Americans are one of the least politically educated and worst-informed peoples on the realities of the Third World, Asia, Africa and Latin America. All this is actually at the root of those anti-Cuba, anti-Castro feelings–the anti-Castro part.
Now, I’d also like to say that, in turn, there is a broad minority of people in the United States who think, who have a high cultural and political level, who do know what’s happening in the world, but they aren’t representative of the average citizen. Furthermore, I know for a fact that there are many U.S. citizens who are not taken in by this phobia, by those prejudice and by those anti-Cuba feelings. On the other hand, I want to remind you of the following: Twenty years ago, the worst things, terrible things, were said about China, about Mao Tse-tung, about Chinese communism, about the Red threat and all the most inconceivable threats that China posed. The press used to say the worst things about China every day. However, that is no longer the case. The press is no longer full of insults against the Chinese government and the People’s Republic of China. Quite the opposite, there are excellent diplomatic relations, investments and increasing trade. And yet that process did not start with today’s China but with the China of Mao Tse-tung, at the time of the Cultural Revolution, at a time when an extreme form of communism was preached and applied in China. Now even Reagan has visited the Great Wall, and just look how everything has changed.
And why? Could you tell me why? Now there are even two types of Communists: a bad Communist and a good Communist. Unquestionably, we’ve been classified among the bad Communists, and I am the prototype. Well, Mao Tse-tung had also been included in that category for a long time.
Click here for the rest of Fidel Castro’s 1985 Playboy Interview.