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Norberto Fuentes

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Fidel Castro, Above and Beyond the Call of Duty (Part III of III)

Posted: 01/14/10 02:13 PM ET

Editor's note: After a daring escape attempt in 1989, celebrated Cuban journalist Norberto Fuentes was imprisoned by his former friend Fidel Castro. Twenty years later, Fuentes has gotten his revenge: by telling the history of the revolution in Castro's own voice. Fuentes' new book, "The Autobiography of Fidel Castro", has just been published. This three-part series describes how he came to write it.

I once witnessed a foreigner asking Fidel Castro to free the Cuban political prisoners. The lead activists on this front are usually Americans--Jesse Jackson, Edward Kennedy, Bill Richardson. Carmen Balcells, Gabriel García Márquez's famous literary agent, lucked out once. Although I don't think she had stopped to consider what she was getting herself into. It happened just after the champagne on New Year's 1986, in front of a score of people at García Márquez's place in Cuba; "celebrating the new year at Gabo's house" was quickly becoming a tradition, like reaching the peak of Mount Everest of Cuban society, not just because of Gabo, but because Fidel could show up at any moment.

Carmen had just arrived in Havana that afternoon to take part in that exclusive party, Fidel arrived at 12:30, after visiting the first post-op Cuban with a heart transplant. Fidel was standing. The door leading out to the garden was behind him. Carmen was next to him and they were talking about world unemployment and how impressive it is to fly first-class on Iberia when, out of nowhere, she said, "Hey, listen, Fidel, why don't you just let all the political prisoners go once and for all?" I can't verify that these were her exact words, but I'm sure she never forgot what happened next. Almost no one had noticed the person sitting next to me, leaning back on the beige sofa, wearing a black suit without a tie and drinking whisky and soda in a tall glass. Raúl Castro Ruz.

He jumped up from his seat--his glass was suddenly one of two I held in my hands--and went off on a virulent diatribe. It was unacceptable for Carmen--or any foreigner--to make such a request. The Cuban government was the only one in the world petitioned this way. There wasn't a single prisoner in Cuba who had not attacked the legitimate powers of the Cuban state. Raúl's hoarse voice was as irrepressible as his arguing. Carmen moved slightly around the center of the circle made by Raúl--she was withstanding his charge very well--while Fidel remained silent and strangely absent.

Fidel needed to act fast. Raúl had announced the Revolution's defiant agenda on one of its most sensitive issues, and he had done it at the house of Fidel's most useful friend--his chosen messenger before presidents, princes, ambassadors, as well as Hollywood, the Swiss Academy and every writer in the world. It was a matter that directly impacted the majesty of his public relations. Nor was Carmen Balcells someone to be played with. His brother Raúl had just taken one of the most respected figures of Hispanic letters and treated her like a rag--a disposable one, of course. The woman who received and distributed money belonging to García Márquez, Camilo José Cela and Mario Vargas Llosa, to name the luminaries, was humiliated and shaking, literally shaking.

Well, the party ended as best as it could; a few forced jokes, some smiles and rather elusive goodbyes. The next morning, a marvelous, sunny, Cuban winter day, when Gabo called asking me to go pick up Carmen and take her around Havana, I said to myself: Fidel is so sensitive, so wise. Knowing how well I got along with Carmen (I must clarify, without her ever representing me), he must have asked Gabo if I would smooth things out. It was the day Fidel had ordered the use of seatbelts in all cars. (However, cars too old to have seatbelts, in other words 80% of the Cuban vehicular fleet, were exempt.) I remember because of the difficulty I had with the passenger's side belt strapping Carmen in. I must have carried my task out efficiently, because when I returned her to Gabo around 5:00 in the evening, her litany of complaints had dissipated. It testified to the strength of her character that this full-bodied Catalan woman had taken it upon herself "to argue with the man who knew better than anyone in the world."

So I was a happy man, a writer who had helped the Revolution in the world of books, when the three-Mercedes-convoy burst onto the scene. Carmen was already inside, having a snack with Gabo's wife. Gabo and I were outside, leaning on my car, talking about the outing. Colonel Domingo Mainé, Fidel's head of security, opened the door of the Mercedes and Fidel came directly over to us. Anguished, he got straight to the matter, "Chico, how's Carmen? I was barely able to sleep because of last night's incident, because of how badly I feel." I didn't need to hear another word. It was immediately clear that my outing with Carmen had not been suggested by Fidel. It was Gabo's own idea.

I must admit that I was upset. Gabo was the one who had resolved the Comandante's dilemma. It was an important lesson for me as a Cuban and a writer--or shall I say, as a Revolutionary? The Castros, and by extension the Revolutionary Cuban Government, had insulted their greatest emissary, and yet it was García Márquez who did the scraping and accommodating. Having carried out a task for Gabo, and not Fidel, I had involuntarily sided with the losers. The side on which the victim is the one who has to cover his tracks.