This exclusive interview took place the morning of February 3 at the gracious hacienda of Fidel Castro just outside Havana, overlooking the ocean. The idea was initiated by Castro through a signed letter hand-delivered to the offices of the Backward by an officer of the Cuban army.
“In the spirit of friendship and brotherhood, I hope you will join me to converse about the Jewish people, the current moment in history and the relative merits of Gary Shteyngart and Shalom Auslander,” he wrote — using what appeared to be a 1965 Olivetti Lettera 32 — upon a crisp sheet of foolscap from which there wafted a faint scent of mariposa, the Cuban national flower.
My journey from Miami to Havana was a sentimental one, as I recalled journeys taken long ago as a young man in search of laughter, mambo and dark-eyed beauties bathing by moonlight. How much older and creakier I felt now, more than 50 years later, as my obese seatmate wheezed and gently dabbed at her armpits with a handkerchief.
The following morning, a small, shifty-eyed man in a white linen suit sat down across from me as I sipped my orange juice in the dining room of the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
“Lenny Abramov sends his regards.” The man muttered his words and stared at a floor tile as if expecting it to confess to a bank robbery.
I was gently blindfolded on our way to la casa del Caballo, but I recall the persistent scent of salt spray and mariposa and the sounds of waves tumbling like laughing children.
Like the man himself, Fidel’s villa was both simple and majestic. I had, of course, read the reports of his poor health, but to me he seemed ruddy and spry. I have never seen his beard so thick and luxuriant, so talmudic.
Furnished with cigars and with a bottle of rum whose depth and richness reminded one of an antique leather saddle hand-tooled by some forgotten master, we made small talk upon the weather and the view, and, gradually and naturally, our talk turned to the recent diplomatic detente between Cuba and the United States. I accused Fidel of being behind the whole thing, and he raised his tangled eyebrows.
“I cannot say whether or not I was involved, but I can tell you the first thing I intend to do when I next visit the United States,” he said. He leaned forward in his chair and pointed at me with his cigar. “I wish to sit down over pastrami at Katz’s Delicatessen and discuss literature with the great Gary Shteyngart.”
This intrigued me.
“Why Shteyngart?” I asked.
“Shteyngart is the one with the great heart — the humor, the sadness, the earthiness. I feel that deep in his bones, he is Cuban.”
“In your letter you mentioned Shalom Auslander —”
“Feh! A man finds that Anne Frank is still alive? I liked it better when Philip Roth did it 30 years ago in ‘The Ghost Writer.’”
He puffed impatiently on his cigar.
“Then why Katz’s?” I ventured.
Here, he brightened again.
“I’ll tell you — there are three reasons. The first is that I ate there once as a student in New York and I never forgot it. Second, I love that scene from ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ You know? ‘I’ll have what she’s having’?” He chuckled.
“They have a sign pointing out the table where they filmed that scene,” I offered. This delighted Fidel.
“Really? Gary and I must sit there.”
“And the third reason?”
“Ah yes! Once, when I was in New York for a United Nations conference, I disguised myself as a Hasidic man and went to the Carnegie Deli, but this was a disaster. For one, they are not kosher, so my appearance created great turmoil. In addition, the sandwich was very expensive, and very large. One of my political enemies leaked word of the incident, and I was accused of bourgeois materialism. The whole incident was dreadful.”
He sipped his rum and stared darkly at the tossing sea, alone with his memory. Lightly, I tried to part the clouds.
“Do you have a message you would like to convey to the Jewish people?”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I do. And my message is this: Please do not think that this affair with Alan Gross is representative of Cuban hospitality, or the Cuban attitude toward the Jewish people. Yes, the man was a spy. But more than this, we tried to get him to eat! We offered him every kind of food — my wife even tried to make matzo ball soup, although I confess the matzo balls were too heavy. I said to him, ‘Alan, for my sake, you must eat. Look at how thin you are getting!’ But he wouldn’t eat.”
Then Castro rose and insisted upon escorting me around the grounds of his estate, showing me ingenious little improvements he had made — flowers and shrubs that, he told me proudly, he had planted himself.
When it came time for me to depart, he took my shoulders in his powerful hands.
“In this world we must all be friends. There is no room for enemies.” He clapped me upon the back. “Now you must go. You will miss your train to Miami.”
“But — but I flew here,” I said.
He winked at me. “Precisely so.”
I should note that we conversed in Spanish, which I have translated. I sent a copy to Fidel for his approval and was surprised when he called me in return.
“You swine, you misquoted me,” he roared jovially. “I was never so eloquent.”
I begged to differ, but nonetheless offered to rub a bit of dirt into his words, if it would make him feel more comfortable.
“Nonsense,” he chuckled. “Let me sound like a character by Shteyngart.”
Ilan Stavans is the Che Guevara Professor of Revolutionary Studies at Amherst College.