RAUL CASTRO WAS NOT LARGER THAN LIFE. HE WAS HUNCHED OVER A BAR NAPKIN
I walked into the dining room on the sixth floor of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and there I shook hands with Raul Castro.
It was 2004 and I was engaged in a humanitarian trip to Cuba, an outreach to the fragments of the Anglican-Episcopal empire that worked quietly for the poor, some who were under the crushing thumb of Communism.
We had brought clothing and toys for children — our way of bridging the gap between the free world and the Communist fortress. The people had nothing. The children literally had no toys — none. We had to show them how to use the yo-yos with which we loaded down our suitcases.
We visited with doctors, priests, had our requisite number of mojitos, and — when our Communist minder allowed — we escaped her keen scrutiny to visit with ordinary Cubans. Fact-finding, it was — and I have not written of it until this day.
My meeting with Raul was anything but ordinary. He was hunched over a paper napkin, talking business with a mall developer from the States, who was a very good friend of mine and a fellow traveler on Episcopal mission. A Christian who was born in Lebanon and was now an American, he had the toughest time getting into Cuba with us, and very nearly was turned away because of his birth country showing on his passport. Communists in Cuba are very opposed to terrorists of any sort.
But now, the Cubans were loving him: From the looks of it, my friend and Raul were best buddies planning a strip mall or two in Havana. But of that detail I will never know.
What I did find out is that if you’re on the sixth floor of the Hotel Nacional, you could find any manner of business being conducted, even under the thumb of the Communist Party. There was an American cattleman, importing cattle from Florida. There were Germans and Canadians, and Dutch, all there to create markets in what they knew would be a nation that could not stay communistic forever. Raul made a practice of being on the sixth floor on a regular, if not daily basis.
Raul, who is today the president of Cuba, was a calm, friendly, courteous and unassuming man, just as he appears in the media. He looked me right in the eyes and was gracious.
It was whispered at the time that he would be running the country in short order. Already it was known that Fidel was feeble at best. I didn’t think he had what it took, but that was just a hunch based on a five-minute encounter.
While I was visiting, it was also whispered — everything sensitive was whispered — that the government still held 29 journalists it had rounded up the year prior during what became known as Black Spring, a crackdown on Cuban dissidents. The Communist government rounded up 75 Cubans that it didn’t like, and that included the 29 journalists (and bloggers), as well as librarians, human rights activists, and those who had used the internet to communicate to the world details of the repressive regime of Castro.
Castro’s government accused them of being on the payroll of the U.S. government, chargin them with collaborating with American diplomats. The crackdown was done during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so that the media would be distracted. It was a shrewd move — the media was very disinclined to criticize Fidel Castro.
It was a message, however, and the Cubans were highly sensitive to its meaning. Hardly anyone would speak to us in candor.
A few short years later, Raul Castro took the reins for good, and President Barack Obama made short work of reestablishing “normal relations” with our island neighbor. This year, it will be a very hip thing to have a Cuban stamp in your passport, but we mission workers avoided that in 2004 and the Cuban customs agents knew better than to cause us that kind of trouble. You’d have some explaining to do to American customs officials if you sported such a stamp.
I count many Cuban-Americans as friends, and they no doubt are dancing the salsa this weekend. To a one of them, they hate Fidel Castro and all he represents. They have had family members die trying to reach dry land in the United States. They’ve had other family members thrown into prison. They’ve lost their family homes, which were stolen from them and given to members of the Communist Party.
Yes, there will be dancing and there will be toasting across Florida today, where the Cuban-American community is its strongest.
And I’ll be raising a glass of mint-muddled mojito to them. Long live freedom. The Cold War may not be entirely dead, but one of the worst offenders of human rights in our lifetimes certainly is dead. And I’m good with that.