There were many odd things about my recent Havana stopover (apart from the dolphin show, which I'll get to shortly), but one of the most unusual was Fidel Castro's level of self-reflection. I only have limited experience with Communist autocrats (I have more experience with non-Communist autocrats) but it seemed truly striking that Castro was willing to admit that he misplayed his hand at a crucial moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis (you can read about what he said toward the end of my previous post - but he said, in so many words, that he regrets asking Khruschev to nuke the U.S.).
MORE ON JEFFREY GOLDBERG'S VISIT WITH FIDEL CASTRO:
Fidel's Misgivings About How He Handled the Cuban Missile Crisis
Fidel Tries to Wriggle Out of One
Even more striking was something he said at lunch on the day of our first meeting. We were seated around a smallish table; Castro, his wife, Dalia, his son; Antonio; Randy Alonso, a major figure in the government-run media; and Julia Sweig, the friend I brought with me to make sure, among other things, that I didn't say anything too stupid (Julia is a leading Latin American scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations). I initially was mainly interested in watching Fidel eat - it was a combination of digestive problems that conspired to nearly kill him, and so I thought I would do a bit of gastrointestinal Kremlinology and keep a careful eye on what he took in (for the record, he ingested small amounts of fish and salad, and quite a bit of bread dipped in olive oil, as well as a glass of red wine). But during the generally lighthearted conversation (we had just spent three hours talking about Iran and the Middle East), I asked him if he believed the Cuban model was still something worth exporting.
"The Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore," he said.
This struck me as the mother of all Emily Litella moments. Did the leader of the Revolution just say, in essence, "Never mind"?
I asked Julia to interpret this stunning statement for me. She said, "He wasn't rejecting the ideas of the Revolution. I took it to be an acknowledgment that under 'the Cuban model' the state has much too big a role in the economic life of the country."
Julia pointed out that one effect of such a sentiment might be to create space for his brother, Raul, who is now president, to enact the necessary reforms in the face of what will surely be push-back from orthodox communists within the Party and the bureaucracy. Raul Castro is already loosening the state's hold on the economy. He recently announced, in fact, that small businesses can now operate and that foreign investors could now buy Cuban real estate. (The joke of this new announcement, of course, is that Americans are not allowed to invest in Cuba, not because of Cuban policy, but because of American policy. In other words, Cuba is beginning to adopt the sort of economic ideas that America has long-demanded it adopt, but Americans are not allowed to participate in this free-market experiment because of our government's hypocritical and stupidly self-defeating embargo policy. We'll regret this, of course, when Cubans partner with Europeans and Brazilians to buy up all the best hotels).
But I digress. Toward the end of this long, relaxed lunch, Fidel proved to us that he was truly semi-retired. The next day was Monday, when maximum leaders are expected to be busy single-handedly managing their economies, throwing dissidents into prison, and the like. But Fidel's calendar was open. He asked us, "Would you like to go the aquarium with me to see the dolphin show?"
I wasn't sure I heard him correctly. (This happened a number of times during my visit). "The dolphin show?"
"The dolphins are very intelligent animals," Castro said.
I noted that we had a meeting scheduled for the next morning, with Adela Dworin, the president of Cuba's Jewish community.
"Bring her," Fidel said.
Someone at the table mentioned that the aquarium was closed on Mondays. Fidel said, "It will be open tomorrow."
And so it was.
Late the next morning, after collecting Adela at the synagogue, we met Fidel on the steps of the dolphin house. He kissed Dworin, not incidentally in front of the cameras (another message for Ahmadinejad, perhaps). We went together into a large, blue-lit room that faces a massive, glass-enclosed dolphin tank. Fidel explained, at length, that the Havana Aquarium's dolphin show was the best dolphin show in the world, "completely unique," in fact, because it is an underwater show. Three human divers enter the water, without breathing equipment, and perform intricate acrobatics with the dolphins. "Do you like dolphins?" Fidel asked me.
"I like dolphins a lot," I said.
Fidel called over Guillermo Garcia, the director of the aquarium (every employee of the aquarium, of course, showed up for work -- "voluntarily," I was told) and told him to sit with us.
"Goldberg," Fidel said, "ask him questions about dolphins."
"What kind of questions?" I asked.
"You're a journalist, ask good questions," he said, and then interrupted himself. "He doesn't know much about dolphins anyway," he said, pointing to Garcia. He's actually a nuclear physicist."
"You are?" I asked.
"Yes," Garcia said, somewhat apologetically.
"Why are you running the aquarium?" I asked.
"We put him here to keep him from building nuclear bombs!" Fidel said, and then cracked-up laughing.
"In Cuba, we would only use nuclear power for peaceful means," Garcia said, earnestly.
"I didn't think I was in Iran," I answered.
Fidel pointed to the small rug under the special swivel chair his bodyguards bring along for him.
"It's Persian!" he said, and laughed again. Then he said, "Goldberg, ask your questions about dolphins."
Now on the spot, I turned to Garcia and asked, "How much do the dolphins weigh?"
They weigh between 100 and 150 kilograms, he said.
"How do you train the dolphins to do what they do?" I asked.
"That's a good question," Fidel said.
Garcia called over one of the aquarium's veterinarians to help answer the question. Her name was Celia. A few minutes later, Antonio Castro told me her last name: Guevara.
"You're Che's daughter?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"And you're a dolphin veterinarian?"
"I take care of all the inhabitants of the aquarium," she said.
"Che liked animals very much," Antonio Castro said.
It was time for the show to start. The lights dimmed, and the divers entered the water. Without describing it overly much, I will say that once again, and to my surprise, I found myself agreeing with Fidel: The aquarium in Havana puts on a fantastic dolphin show, the best I've ever seen, and as the father of three children, I've seen a lot of dolphin shows. I will also say this: I've never seen someone enjoy a dolphin show as much as Fidel Castro enjoyed the dolphin show.
In the next installment, I will deal with such issues as the American embargo, the status of religion in Cuba, the plight of political dissidents, and economic reform. For now, I leave you with this image from our day at the aquarium (I'm in the low chair; Che's daughter is behind me, with the short, blondish hair; Fidel is the guy who looks like Fidel if Fidel shopped at L.L. Bean):