Our Dinner with Fidel Castro

In the past 18 years we have found ourselves in many different countries on tour with the Piedmont Choirs. For those who don’t know, this is one the leading children’s choral organizations in the US and is widely known internationally as well. This year we were in Cuba and our July 4th story is pretty remarkable.

We arrived on July 3 via Mexico City on an all night trip from San Francisco on Mexicana Airlines. We were exhausted but excited to be in this country that has been so forbidden to Americans in the past.

Our American guide, Paige, met us in Mexico City and she did a fine job of helping us adapt to the constantly changing plans. We drove from the airport to the Copacabana Hotel on the beach. Abel Prieto, the Minister of Culture for Cuba, invited the choirs through our Cuban counterpart Digna Guerra, to participate an unprecedented Cuban celebration of US culture in the Karl Marx Theater on July 4.

We accepted the invitation. We arrived by bus at the theater at about 7:30. The theater holds more than 2000 people and that many people were queued up in the parking lot waiting to get in. It was very hot, maybe 85 degrees. We went through the stage entrance receiving our security badges and went to our seats in the theater.

At 7:25 Fidel came in and the place went nuts. Obviously, there was a genuine affection for him. The evening opened with some serious political speeches urging the US to reexamine its relationship to the rest of the world; that 9/11 was related to previous activity and not very different from the bombs that the US drops on many countries around the world. There was a series of readings of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman and others. There were more political speeches urging revolution (meaning: humanitarian responses to disagreements rather than sending troops and making more bombs. The Revolution in Cuba has nothing to do with violence, but with the struggle for justice, equality and peace.) There were excellent performances by jazz and rock musicians, The Cuban National Ballet and then it was our turn.

We were involved in the two closing acts. We took the stage for a performance of the spiritual Ride the Chariot. The kids were very special, very professional and did fine, and although the amplification was not perfect, the ovation was dramatic. For the finale, we were joined by two other Cuban choirs for a performance of John Lennon’s Imagine under the direction of Digna Guerra’s assistant Ethel. John Lennon is a much loved figure for the Cuban people and there is a statue of him in Havana.

After the performance Sue and I were invited with the other performers for dinner with Fidel Castro at the Palace of the Revolution. There were about 50 people at the dinner but we were the only non-Cuban citizens. We were with a group of poets, other musicians, dancers and producers. We were ushered into the marble halls and were offered drinks (Bob had a mojito: a rum and spearmint local favorite) in a comfortable sitting room until El Commandante entered the room. He took the time to greet each of us individually and he started with Sue and me. His eyes were direct and friendly and interested. He had the smile lines of a grandfather and the aura of a philosopher and leader who accepts his responsibilities. We went into dinner and sat around a large rectangle of tables. The beautiful prima ballerina sat to Fidel’s left, his ministers were to his right and Sue and I and the two Americans working with the agency that manages Cuban tour groups sat directly across from Fidel. The food was basic but well prepared.

The conversation varied from long philosophical ramblings on various topics like education, international relations, to the role of the arts, the differences between men and women, computers, television and the media, marketing, and George W. Bush. At the age of 74, Fidel eats a mostly vegetarian diet and he starts with grapefruit. He has amazing endurance and skill for conversation. When a topic would be introduced (either by him or someone else) he would digress to the point that you had forgotten the initial topic and 10 or 15 minutes later he would weave his thoughts back to the initial topic. Often this was the development of a considerable thought process; sometimes it was a politician using the moment to forward an idea. A considerable portion of the evening was spent in direct exchange between the Americans and Fidel. He wanted to know specific information and he was studying the point of orientation from which we spoke.

Many times during the evening, he was very humorous. At one point, while eating some vegetables, Fidel commented that one of the few good things to come from American television was encouraging people to eat their spinach through Popeye the Sailorman. When I began singing a couple measures of the song, he asked me to sing it for him. So, somewhere between 3 and 5:00AM, I sang it for him and afterwards, several other guests and ministers joined in singing the Spanish version that had been adapted as an advertising jingle for soap in Cuba. It was a funny moment.

I had two agenda items for Fidel: 1. I wanted him to send Digna’s children’s choir to our festival in June 03. 2. I wanted him to spend some time with our children. By the end of the evening, following liberal amounts of red wine and brandies; the atmosphere was sufficiently relaxed that we were able to discuss these matters. The overt friendliness extended to us was undeniable and heartwarming right up to the last moment when Fidel said he would try to find time to meet with us again before we left Cuba. The party adjourned at 5:00AM.

The day after our dinner with Fidel I received a call from the secretary of the Fundacion Nacional del Coro asking for the names, ages, passport numbers and complete itinerary for all members of our party. They needed the information to see if El Commandante could arrange to visit with us before our departure. We had a significant performance that evening at a small historic church where our performance was recorded for broadcast the following week on a national children’s television show. The following day we had a very interesting tour of Finca Hemmingway (the house Hemingway bought after he won the Nobel for The Old Man and the Sea) and at some point we were told that we had been invited to lunch with Fidel the following day. We had a concert that evening with a very good children’s choir, the Cuban National Children’s Choir at Teatro Amadeo Roldan. Our final performance was scheduled as a community performance on Sunday evening.

We started the day by participating in a service at the Cathedral de la Habana that morning. It was atrociously hot and several children did not feel well but all sang. We were more than ready to leave the cathedral at the end of the service but a few dozen parishioners gathered around us and we ended up singing several more pieces. After the service we were led by an official car to the Palace of the Revolution and once again we were led to the waiting room. We were asked to stand in a semicircle so El Commandante could individually greet each person. We passed some time singing and then in he came, first greeting Sue and me and then working his way around the entire group. Sue led the kids in a song for him and we were ushered in for lunch.

Once again Sue and I were seated directly across the table from Fidel. This turned into one of the most extraordinary afternoons imaginable. Castro devoted a full 6.5 hours to this lunch. For the first hour or two the atmosphere was uncertain. The various courses of food came and went and we engaged in some conversation but mostly we listened to the discussion of educational reform being instituted. It seemed that the two most important elements of the reform were based on smaller classes and having teachers stay with the same class for several years so there could be a personal relationship between student and teacher. Castro talked about the legendary Cuban medical schools and the thousands of doctors who were working in other countries. He spoke of the AIDS epidemic in Africa where some countries have a 40% infection rate. He spoke of the difference between human capital (e.g. trained doctors) and monetary capital. He spoke of the free education offered in Cuba including medical schools and all higher education. There are now some US citizens attending medical school in Cuba at no cost. He spoke at length of the need for self esteem. He spoke at length of his thought of appropriate use of mass media for education. He spoke of education as the key to crime control as opposed building prisons and punishment. He spoke of the extremely high literacy rate in Cuba (some say the highest in the world) and the very low crime rate. He spoke of diet with a knowledge of whole foods.

At that point Lindsay raised her hand and told him that she and her friend Sarah were going to write a book called Living Well With Fidel. Fidel had fun with that as we all did and it led to a very supportive discussion of Lindsay’s aspiration to be a writer. He asked Lindsay what she would like to write about and she mentioned her love of history. He spoke of the fact that history is fiction because it is from the perspective of the writer and that he loved history. He told the children that history was before them. When Sue asked what we could do to help relations between our two countries he said he felt we had written a very small page of history by having lunch together and bringing our choir to Cuba.

After the first couple of hours, everyone had relaxed and adults and kids asked him quite a few questions. Once again he demonstrated a combination of speaking with knowledge on many subjects, having a sense of humor, making social and political statements and expressing what a number of the children later described as wisdom. Elliot asked him if there was anything he regretted not having done and he spoke at length of his interest in sports and that he would have liked to be an Olympic athlete. As a youth he had played many sports.

He asked Elliot what his aspirations were and Elliot was at a loss to respond so he asked him if he had a girl friend to which Elliot responded “no”. Fidel then said, “Elliot, don’t lie to me!” Everyone laughed, including a slightly red-faced Elliott. Sydney asked him if he had any arts education and he spoke of unsuccessful piano lessons and of three successive Christmases when he had written to the three wise men in the hope of receiving gifts and of having received three toy trumpets, each better than the last but he never learned to play them.

When Caitlin A asked him if he had traveled much, he named some countries including Africa, and several places in Cuba, especially a high plateau with a cathedral forest and birds. He mentioned that it had since been cut down. He spoke of environmental sensitivities and was interested in the environmental movement in the US. Johanna asked him what was his favorite part of the Revolution and he spoke at length and with pride of the establishment of education in Cuba and having achieved the highest rate of literacy in the world. Mimi asked him what was the single most important piece of advice he had received and he apologized for not being able to think of one.

When Michelle and Alice B. asked him about literature in Cuba and to name his favorite books, he spoke of The Old Man and the Sea (because of the inner conversation the old man has with himself), Don Quixote, Kafka short stories, all books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Romeo and Juliet, among others. He spoke at length of the high cost of books and the family literature program they have instituted which produces great literature for pennies a copy. These “Family Libraries” able to be disseminated widely and he gifted a library to each of us. At both meals we had with Castro he named education and the arts, as being the essence of culture and that which makes human beings something other than animals. After photo sessions and gift giving we boarded our bus with a sense of having been given a great and rare gift of opportunity to meet a very special and important human being and to make our own opinions. Several children said it had been the greatest moment of their lives. All the children were given back packs and a stuffed animal; the girls were given a rose. Johanna smuggled one petal of her rose home to press it in a glass frame.


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