Sunday, November 27, 2016



My strangest interview ever, both in setting and in rudeness, was with Fidel Castro.
I suspect this happened to many, whether diplomats or columnists trying not to fall off the couch.
It was January, 1976, and Pierre Trudeau, led by Margaret featuring the most famous nipples on the island, was visiting Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.
 I have never covered a more remarkable state visit, mainly because Cuba was wrapped in a steel cocoon of brutal state terrorism, gnawing secrecy, empty beaches and traumatized citizens.
The Canadian group ended up one night at the Canadian embassy and quickly degenerated into a warm haze of cigar smoke and rum, lots of rum.
It was so crowded, you couldn't have slipped a rumour past the security bullies who invited themselves in so they could watch us better. Each of us had our own clutch of thugs. Mine had warmed up to me earlier when I traded five portions of my little rationed steak for their five plates of seafood.
There was a commotion and a surge of new arrivals which lurched against me until I stood on a couch so I didn't get trampled. Pushed up with me was some soldier in green fatigues who straightened himself angrily and materialized into a teetering Fidel.
People shouted questions at him but he, several feet higher, ignored them, puffing on a Cohiba (it was decades later he stopped smoking the famous and expensive cigar) and swigging what I assumed was product from Havana Club, the distillery he confiscated from the Bacardi family.
I thought I can interview him and it will be exclusive because who else can hear us in the noise of the party.  I would soften him up by asking if it was true he might have pitched in the majors if he had  a curve. (I wrote about this on Nov. 25, 2014, in a Downing blog titled Don Hunt, Fidel Castro And Me.)
He ignored me.
I then ventured some minor question and he roared "speak Spanish." I replied that since I knew he had studied law in English, his English was better than my Spanish.
He waved the cigar  to silence me.
This was going nowhere so I thought I might as well go for broke. I asked why he hadn't told Cuban parents that their sons coming home in body bags had actually died in an African war to which he had committed his army without telling the country.
He stared at me. And puffed. And drank. I stared back and slowly and deliberately, since I had had a lot of rum and was just trying not to fall off the couch, which wasn't a stable platform, repeated my question.
He glared at me. And puffed. And drank. Then he yelled at the people beneath us to get out of his way and left, with me muttering about why was he acting like Trudeau who did the same when Sun writers like me asked a question he didn't like... usually all of the questions.
It was the closest I got in several days of wandering through crowds and factories. Bizarrely, he often was not the centre of attention since Margaret, mother of our PM, generally wore a Liberal election T-shirt that was so tight it looked like she was launching rockets. And she and Fidel were always very close. As was Trudeau.
The body language showed  a bromance between the dictators. Justin in not calling a brutal dictator a brutal dictator is just carrying on the family tradition of fawning over their pet killer.
Pete Trudeau, the father, could get quite enthusiastic in his praise. I found that out when I  took advantage when I was in a knot of reporters with the PM  to ask, as a fellow SCUBA diver, that I understood he had gone diving with Fidel. For once, I thought, he won't ignore me.
Trudeau rhapsodized about the experience, saying that he had never gone deeper than with Castro and his bodyguards, and how they had just butchered live fish with their knives, not caring at all about how the blood in the water around them might attract sharks.
Not what they teach you in diving 101 but it was the longest and most genuine chat I had ever had with Trudeau so I spun it out.
When we left, the Trudeaus, Castro, and some figurehead president gathered outside the Canadian plane while the security thugs pushed the rest of us aboard.
I saw Boris Spremo, the great Toronto Star photographer, sneak away so I did too. Obviously the final pictures could be controversial - Castro wrapping Trudeau, and of course Margaret, in great bear hugs.
As I raised my camera, a security thug pushed me towards the plane's stairs. I dug in. There was an angry cursing confrontation which the official group ignored. So I yelled at Castro to tell the security jerk to leave me alone before I punched him. This panicked the thug and he backed off, so I got one picture.
The Star used Boris on Page 1 but I couldn't get my pictures back home to the Sun in time from our next destination, Caracas, having no resources with me for that.
Years later I was telling James Bartleman, who did such a wonderful job as our lieutenant-governor, about the encounter. He detailed some of his experiences as the Canadian ambassador to Cuba in one of his four fine books and he told me some more.
Castro used to drop in on him at the embassy and talk all night. Bartleman was pleased until he figured out that the garrulous Castro was looking for an audience, any audience. (I related some of this in a Downing blog headlined Castro, Trudeau and Bartleman on Dec. 27, 2014.)
When I told Bartleman about Trudeau diving with Castro, he said that when he went diving with the Communist dictator, he went to the surface to clear his mask and to his amazement had a burly body guard come up underneath and hold him above the water so he could do it in comfort.
Other stories weren't so nice, like the Cubans poisoning the Bartleman dog, wiretapping him and harassing his driver even though Bartleman represented a country used by the U.S. as a secret channel in dealing with Cuba despite the official boycott. In fact, Bartleman later was sent secretly by PM Jean Chretien to meet with the Castro brothers to see what could be done about that boycott.
It seems that the Grits have always had a yen to deal with the Castros no matter how many citizens they imprisoned on phoney charges. No wonder Justin apes his father.
I have visited Cuba since that grand adventure at least a dozen times. It started off as such a difficult experience that you had to fill out a form detailing all your spending or they wouldn't let you leave. I remember going to an "underground" church service when there was a chance that the worshippers would be jailed.  I  wrote about being held and questioned for hours just because a homosexual under surveillance had talked to me for a minute or so.
Then there was the poor soul from Quebec who appealed to me after a young "'lady" seduced him and got him to marry her so she could get into Canada.
I couldn't help him. Or the orthopaedic surgeon stuck doing resort back rubs in 1997.
And now the bully is dead, who used communism rather than the Catholic religion he was taught as a boy to seize power and throw out the diseased lackeys of the American mob.
And all the tourists who think all that cloak-and-dagger brutality was just media malarkey can continue to ignore a murderous past and guzzle their Cuba libres. To them Fidel was just a myth.
Sure he was, a myth who imprisoned you if he didn't like your views, if you were lucky.

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