California Forum

Visiting Cuba and eliciting a laugh from El Presidente

In 1982, Luís Torres, fifth from left, met Fidel Castro while covering the Havana Film Festival.
In 1982, Luís Torres, fifth from left, met Fidel Castro while covering the Havana Film Festival. Courtesy of Luís Torres

Years ago I met Fidel Castro in La Habana and made him chuckle.

The easing of tensions between the United States and Cuba brought that memorable experience to mind and sent me scurrying to the garage to unearth my notes from my trip to Cuba in 1982.

I was a full-time journalist and went to write about the Havana Film Festival. Frankly, I was as much wide-eyed tourist as hardened journalist. I took in the sights and spoke to everyone I could, from street vendors – whose jolting shots of espresso are aptly named infusiones – to students to cops to waiters to writers to government officials.

I have to admit I was a bit giddy. I was fresh from graduate school at Columbia University, and this place sure was, well, different.

You have to remember that in 1982, 23 years after the thunderous Cuban Revolution and the blockade that followed, it was rare for people from the United States to visit Cuba. Hey, Canadians and Germans had been going to post-revolutionary Cuba for years, enjoying the predictable sunshine, beautiful beaches and cheap prices. But for people in the United States, oooh Cuba was a scary, forbidden place.

All the while, the United States government and corporations routinely went about their business, trading with China, Vietnam and even that big bad bear, Russia.

But change is clearly in the air.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara became somewhat attractive political symbols for some folks in the early days of the Chicano Movement in the 1970s. I realize that may seem like the Pleistocene era to the smartphone generation.

Lots of politically active Mexican Americans embraced the imagery of Fidel and Che. Chicano activists weren’t communists, of course, and they weren’t well-schooled in the intricacies of Marxist/Leninist theory. Most of us were more familiar with the works of Groucho Marx and John Lennon. But the notion that Che and Fidel represented a struggle for equality and fairness appealed to early activists in California. Most Cuban Americans view all of this quite differently than Chicanos, of course.

When I was in Cuba in 1982, dynamic things were happening in Latin America. Nicaragua and the Sandinistas were regarded as heroes at the film festival. Remember, these were Latin American filmmakers and artists. President Ronald Reagan was at the height of his popularity in the United States – not so much in Latin America. Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez had just been announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and I met him in Cuba, where he stopped for a few days on his way to Stockholm.

I had interviewed the Cuban minister of culture, and he invited me to a couple of soirees. That’s how I got to meet Castro, the man some regarded as a hero and many in Miami regarded as the devil himself.

It was a small party, maybe 40 people. There were clusters of folks: Nicaraguans over there, Peruvians over there, Mexicans in that corner. I was a fly on the wall, walking quietly behind Castro as he strolled from one group to another.

I recall vividly that the moment he got to a particular group, he would immediately delve into the literature and culture of people in that huddle. He knew their national poets, their artists. He made instant conversation effortlessly with each group.

At one point I was at his elbow when someone mentioned that Reagan seemed to claim an inability to hear reporters on the White House lawn peppering him with questions as Marine One helicopter thump-thumped in the background.

I said to Castro, “El Presidente Reagan no más se hace sordo cuando le conviene.” (“President Reagan only acts hard of hearing when it suits him.”) Not a Richard Pryor-quality line, I concede. But Castro looked at me and chuckled, smiled broadly and shook his head from side to side.

I remember smiling at being able to make him laugh. Hey, this guy is a huge political and cultural icon – no matter what your ideological proclivities. Castro then turned and asked a U.S. filmmaker about the New York Yankees’ chances of getting to the World Series. I looked carefully, but I didn’t see any horns coming out of his head.

Luís Torres is a freelance writer in Los Angeles and the author of “Doña Julia’s Children: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.” He teaches at Los Angeles Mission College.