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CASTRO AT 80

My murderous moment with Fidel

August 13, 2006|Eduardo Santiago | EDUARDO SANTIAGO is the author of "Tomorrow They Will Kiss: A Novel."

It's a horrifying feeling to wake up every morning wishing someone was dead. Yet, that is the way it has been for millions of Cubans for almost 50 years.

How strongly this death wish is embedded in the Cuban consciousness became apparent to me 10 years ago. I was working on a short-lived television show at the CBS studios on West 57th Street in New York. Fidel Castro was in town for a one-on-one interview with CBS News anchorman Dan Rather. The interview was to take place in the studio adjacent to the one where I worked.

He was in the building. He was next door. What was I to do? What was expected of me, a Cuban exile whose life had been irrevocably altered by his dictatorship, by his wrongheadedness, by his en que cabeza cabe stubbornness?

Here was the man who had turned my once-prosperous and optimistic father into a Cuban Willy Loman. The man who had turned my mother into a factory worker with the back muscles of a stevedore. The man who had turned a once-prosperous (and troubled) tropical island into a virtual maximum security prison; who jailed more political prisoners as a percentage of the population than did either Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin; who executed more political prisoners in his first year in power than Hitler did in his first five; who jailed or executed any union official, journalist or political opponent who said or wrote a word against him.

Murderous feelings surged in me. My pulse raced. My brain throbbed. I could not concentrate on my work. I paced the halls of CBS. Internal voices urged me to act.

Act now. Vengeance. Vindication. History will absolve you!

I walked to Rather's studio. Guards were posted outside -- but from where I stood I could see Castro, sitting under studio lights, through the doors' circular windows. As always, he looked intense. His head bobbed with his every word. I did not need to hear his words to grasp their emphasis. When the interview ended, Castro and Rather bantered like two comadres over an afternoon cafecito.

The studio lights dimmed. Rather warmly shook Castro's hand. The doors opened and out walked Cuba's maximum leader.

My mind, Cuban-born and raised on American movies, quickly flashed to the Julie Christie character in "Doctor Zhivago" -- the mad look in her eyes; her gun, concealed in a fur muffle, aimed at the monster who had raped and corrupted her; the ringing explosion of the pistol. The scandal.

I flashed to Robert DeNiro's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" -- the mohawk, the handguns, same mad look.

And then Castro walked up to me, our eyes meeting. Two men. One old and powerful, the other much younger and, clearly, temporarily insane.

"Que tal?" I asked.

Those two words contained worlds of meaning -- I just couldn't bring them to my mouth.

"Hello," Castro responded in English.

I did not extend my hand.

Later that night, Castro made it into David Letterman's shtick: Fidel Castro's Top 10 Pickup Lines.

"No. 1: You've started a revolution in my pants!"

And America laughed with, not at, Castro, the hilarious dictator.

With news of his operation, and with Cubans in Miami having taken to the streets and banging the conga death drum for a man who may not be dead, I couldn't help thinking back to that moment 10 years ago when I came face to face with a tyrant and did nothing. Nothing.

But I bang my conga death drum ... slowly.

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