By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published in print: Sunday, February 28, 2010
Even a revolutionary has to cry sometimes.
Big, choking sobs heaved from the thick chest of Norberto Fuentes, the
exiled Cuban journalist and former revolutionary who fought alongside
Fidel Castro during the Cuban Revolution.
Castro could be a monster, Fuentes said during a recent appearance in
Albany as part of the New York State Writers Institute, a stone-cold
killer who matter-of-factly ordered the executions of two high-level
officials. Those killings of Castro's political confidants in 1989
proved to be a tipping point that caused Fuentes to forsake the devoted
Fidelista he had been.
Yet his breaking ranks was only one strand of a tangled legacy Fuentes
shared with Castro and his inner circle. "My compadres," he repeatedly
called them during a tearful outburst as he rubbed clenched fists into
his eyes and tried to push away the tears. "They were my friends, my
friends," he managed to say.
Fuentes is the author of "The Autobiography of Fidel Castro," a darkly
satirical faux memoir published by W.W. Norton in December as a 572-page
novel. In the original Spanish edition, it was a three-volume,
1,500-page work marketed as nonfiction. "Which is it? Fiction or
non-fiction?" Norbertes asked, repeating a question put to him. "It is a
"No one owns the past, at least not until it is written," Fuentes writes
at the outset of "Autobiography." Writing it was an act of therapy, a
purging of the dark corners of his soul.
Castro has read the book, he's been told, but has not said publicly what
he thought of it.
Despite the dark nights of the soul Fuentes endured after Castro
banished him for anti-revolutionary articles, the writer could not
completely bury the past. His moral conundrum came bubbling up from deep
in his gut, marked by grunts and squeals of pain when words failed him.
His friend and fellow writer William Kennedy -- who joined Nobel
laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez in lobbying the Castro regime for
Fuentes' release -- sat silently beside the Cuban exile.
Kennedy looked down at a table in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center
at the University at Albany on Feb. 18 and appeared uncertain about how
to react, along with 50 observers at the Writers Institute event.
Kennedy and the audience held a long, respectful silence. Fuentes held
up a hand in mute apology.
There is plenty in his own past, and Cuba's history, to make him weep.
Fuentes, born in 1943, was a smart and idealistic teenager from a
middle-class family who joined the revolutionaries as Castro rose to
power. He enjoyed his status as a favored journalist as Castro became
Prime Minister of Cuba in 1959 following the overthrow of Fulgencio
Batista, the U.S.-backed dictator.
Fuentes' fame grew with unfettered access to the center of power in
Cuba, until he wrote something that the Castro regime didn't like. He
was dispatched to a gulag and made to clip numbered tags to the ears of
cattle and other farm chores. He tried to escape, got caught, was sent
to prison and was finally allowed to go into exile.
He wrote the well-regarded "Hemingway in Cuba," but Fuentes existed in a
cultural netherland, at home neither in Havana nor Miami. Despite a
lingering bitterness over his banishment, Fuentes and his fellow
revolutionaries once shared something so authentic and extraordinary in
what the writer called "perhaps the greatest and the last, true
revolution in the history of the world."
Still, he delights in deconstructing Castro's character defects in the
"Autobiography" and describes a megalomaniacal dictator whose favorite
topic of conversation was himself. "Fifty years is a long time to hold
power," the author said. "Fidel is a brilliant and complex man."
Fuentes suggested that Cuba and the U.S. possess a perverse need to hold
a grudge against each other. Although Cuba lies less than 100 miles off
Florida's coast, they might as well be a world apart. The two nations
have had no diplomatic relations since 1961. The Bay of Pigs, failed CIA
plots to assassinate Castro and the Cuban missile crisis all served to
deepen the distrust and hatred. The two countries rely on Switzerland to
act as a mediator when they need to talk.
A small industry has grown up around the numerous Fidel death watches,
which rose to a fever pitch in 2008 when Fidel's handpicked successor,
his younger brother Raul, was elected President of Cuba by the National
Assembly. Fuentes' sources suggest that Fidel is as resilient as ever
and reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated.
Fuentes dismissed a suggestion by Kennedy -- who made a few trips to
Cuba and interviewed Castro -- that President Barack Obama's shift in
U.S. policy toward Cuba last April marked a significant thawing in the
strained relations. Obama lifted long-standing restrictions and allowed
Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to family members in Cuba.
Although Obama did not entirely lift the 49-year-old embargo on the
island nation, the move signaled a rapprochement.
Nonsense, Fuentes replied. Castro, ever the stubborn revolutionary,
wanted none of Obama's olive branch and will not negotiate as long as he
draws breath. "Ignore Fidel," Fuentes said, slapping the table. "Ignore
Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at
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