An audience with Fidel Castro

Few Americans knew Fidel Castro as well as Lee Lockwood. In this revealing portrait from the book Castro's Cuba, the US journalist gives a unique insight into the man behind the revolution

At the peak of Fidel Castro’s powers in 1965, three years after the Cuban missile crisis, a young US photojournalist named Lee Lockwood was given the extraordinary opportunity to interview the leader in-depth. Castro made him work for it, mind: Lockwood had to wait three months, following El Jefe around the country until the moment finally arrived. The following extract details the events of the first day of interviewing. Six days later, Lockwood finished one of the most detailed portraits of Fidel Castro – as both a man and as a leader – ever captured...  

“Where were you?” Castro said, stamping mud from his boots and shucking his field jacket at the same time. “I wanted you to go with me and photograph me shooting! I shot five birds! Well, maybe we can go again before you leave. Anyway, tomorrow we work, eh? The whole day, starting very early, eight o’clock perhaps? Until we finish! I hope we finish tomorrow, because I want to relax!”

The next morning, under the watchful eye of a guard, I set up my tape recorder and microphone on the card table outside Castro’s door. He appeared at 9am and went to have breakfast. It was nearly 10am when we finally sat down, lit cigars, and I started the recorder.

“Ah, what a fine machine!” Fidel exclaimed, leaning forward to get a closer look. “So small! Show me how it works.”

I gave him a demonstration, which deepened his curiosity. For 15 minutes he asked question after question, curious to learn every little detail – how many speeds it had; how long it played on its battery; how the controls worked; where it was made; how much it cost – and he pushed the buttons himself experimentally with great delight.

Finally, he approved: “This seems a most efficient way of working. I think we shall do good work with this wonderful machine.”

I started the tape again.

“Wait…” he said, holding his hand over the microphone until I stopped the recorder. “First, I want to know if you have a plan.

What is your plan as to how we shall work?”

As I gave a brief outline of the subjects that I hoped to cover he listened with absolute attention, his dark eyes fastened on mine. I had the feeling that he was already composing answers to questions that I might ask.

“But,” I said at the end, “This is only a general list of things we might talk about. I hope you won’t expect them all in exactly the same order. I would like to keep this conversation informal and ask you questions about anything that comes up while we’re talking, even if it takes us afield temporarily.”

Fidel rubbed his bearded right cheek thoughtfully with his knuckle. “Very well,” he said finally. “A good plan. A conversation – that is much better than an interview, I agree. Only we must hurry, so that we can finish today. You have mentioned many things…” He sighed. “OK.” He pulled his chair up behind him and leaned forward intently. “What is your first question?”

And so at last, almost to my disbelief, I started the tape and the interview began. It was a far-from-auspicious beginning, however. For one thing, I had little experience at conducting interviews before, and the job of having to think of the questions, listen to Castro’s answers, and simultaneously man the controls of the tape recorder (it was a new machine to me, too) was taxing at first. Moreover, Castro’s earlier reluctance to give the interview and his expressed longing to be done as hastily as possible were an added pressure that made it difficult to establish the intimate, easy atmosphere that I wanted.

Added to this was the complication that it was necessary, for the sake of absolute clarity, that my questions were translated into Spanish and Castro’s answers into English a sentence at a time. This cumbersome machinery at first irked Castro, who has the declamatory habit of many years of public speaking and tends to unfold his thoughts in long, repetitious, convoluted sentences of baroque syntax whose meaning is carried forward almost as much by the cadence of the phrases as by the connotations of the words. However, after a somewhat stilted beginning, the translations gradually integrated themselves, Castro’s impatience diminished, and the conversation began to develop its own rhythm.

A conversation with Castro is an extraordinary experience and, until you get used to it, a most unnerving one.

Then came a moment of crisis. In the middle of one of Fidel’s involved answers I noticed that the tape recorder was not recording. What was more, I had no way of knowing how long the tape had been running blank.

“What is wrong?” Fidel asked, interrupting himself as he noticed my consternation.

“The contact in the microphone cord seems to be loose,” I said as casually as I could.

“Maybe it’s the humidity.”

He watched with surprising patience as I searched for the trouble. As I had hoped, it was only a loose connection. “But how did you know that it wasn’t recording properly?”

I showed him a meter on the side of the machine and explained how, when the machine is recording, the little needle jumps and falls with each impulse of sound. He nodded, fascinated. We started again. I asked him whether he could give his last answer over again from the beginning. Although at least 15 minutes had passed, he still had the train of thought fully in his mind and was able to repeat his answer word for word and sentence for sentence. It was an impressive feat.

While he talked, I turned occasionally and checked the meter to make sure that the connection hadn’t come loose again. Each time I did this, Castro shook his head. Finally, he covered the microphone with his hand and said, “Don’t worry – I’m watching it...”

The passing of this moment of tension somehow served to relax all of us and from then on the conversation flowed easily forward. We passed smoothly from the subject of farm production to the counterrevolution, political prisoners, the Bay of Pigs, and back to agriculture again. Castro’s answers grew increasingly involved as he became more and more engrossed. I noticed that he seemed to savour the pointedness of some of the questions. Suddenly, he looked at his watch. “Two-fifteen!” he exclaimed. “We must have lunch!” He rose and stretched. The other guests were grouped around the dining room door, watching us and waiting patiently for the jefe to come to the table.

After lunch, we sat down to work again and talked until dark. With time out for a short dinner, we went back at it again until well after midnight. Now that he was interested, Castro’s enthusiasm for the conversation became indefatigable. Whenever we would take a break – and that happened rarely – his mind would go on working, and he would return to the table charged with excitement, impatient for me to get the machine going so that he could record a whole new set of ideas on whatever it was we had last been discussing.

At 1am, Castro finally called a halt, and we went to bed, promising an early start the next morning. Limp with exhaustion, I lay on my back and heard the sound of Fidel’s voice echoing in my mind as insistently as if he were still sitting next to me. It was going to be a hard week, and I was already tired out after only one day. As I drifted quickly off to sleep, my last conscious thought was the rueful reflection that I was like a moth that had set out looking for a little light and had flown straight into a laser beam.

Castro's booted foot, swinging spasmodically beneath the table, would touch my foot, then withdraw

A conversation with Castro is an extraordinary experience and, until you get used to it, a most unnerving one. In the first place, unless you are very firm, it is not properly a conversation at all, but something more like an extended lecture, with occasional questions from the audience.

This is not to say that Castro is rude, for he is not; in fact, socially he can be as courtly as a Castilian nobleman. Nor does it imply that he is not interested in what you have to say. It is simply that he is one of the most enthusiastic talkers of all time. A ten-word question can programme him for an answer lasting 15 or 20 minutes. His mind is as precise and organised as a watch and ticks out its ideas just as inexorably. He is seldom irrelevant or banal, and he never loses sight of the original point he started to make, no matter how many embellishments, circumlocutions, or interruptions may occur along the way. His memory is prodigious. If you change the subject before he has finished with it, he will reply to your new question first, in as much detail as it needs, then return to his previous thought and complete it.

In developing an argument, he is as careful, as patient, and as logical as a spider spinning a web; its conclusion leaves you gasping and entangled, yet marvelling in spite of yourself at the inevitability of its symmetry, and at pains to remember where it all began.

For Castro, trained as a lawyer, and an orator and a politician since his university days, the primary use of speech is demagogic: that is, its purpose is not so much to exchange ideas with someone as to convince another of his own. This is true whether he is addressing half a million people in public or conversing privately with one man. It is not enough that you understand; you must, if at all possible, be convinced. To this end, he bends his considerable energy and intellect with enormous concentration. As the carefully formed sentences flow out in cadence, every word has the ring of absolute conviction, the product of a mind never in doubt.

But what is even more compelling than Castro’s mind is his manner, the way he uses his voice and his body, especially his eyes, to reduce a listener to surrender. If he is effective in a public speech, where the listener is at a relatively safe “aesthetic distance,” in a private conversation, focussing the full force of his personality upon you at close quarters for hours at a time, he is formidable.

Replying to a question, Fidel would usually begin in a deceptively detached, conversational tone of voice, his eyes fixed on the table, while his hands fidgeted compulsively with a lighter, a ballpoint pen, or anything else at hand (I had to tape down the microphone stand so that he wouldn’t move it inadvertently).

As he gradually warmed to his subject, Castro would start to squirm and swivel in his chair. The rhythm of his discourse would slowly quicken, and at the same time he would begin drawing closer to me, little by little, pulling his chair with him each time, until at last, having started out at right angles to my chair, he now would be seated almost alongside me. His booted foot, swinging spasmodically beneath the table, would touch my foot, then withdraw. Then his knee would wedge against mine as he leaned still closer, his voice becoming steadily more insistent. As he bent forward, his hands, surprisingly delicate and fine-boned, moved gracefully out and back in emphatic cadence with his words; then they would begin reaching toward me, tapping my knee, touching my chest, plucking softly at my shoulder, still in the same hypnotising rhythm.

As he continued speaking, I would become aware of his rich, dark, brown eyes, glittering in the frame of his tangled beard, peering fervently into my own eyes from only inches away. He would remain thus sometimes for as long as a quarter of an hour, touching me rhythmically as he spoke, then looking away, then swinging back and fixing me in his manic gaze, as if we were the only two people in the world, and he had an urgent message to give me that words alone could not carry…

Originally published in 1967, Lockwood’s observations and interviews with Fidel Castro are now republished by Taschen alongside hundreds of photographs covering both the weeks Lockwood spent travelling with Castro and the years he documented Cuba throughout the 1960s. From military encampments in the Sierra Maestra mountains to Havana street life and political rallies, many of these colour images have never before been published. Castro’s Cuba by Lee Lockwood is available to buy for £44.99 from taschen.com