I once saw the bearded one – el barbudo – and was close enough to touch him. It was at a rally in Santa Clara on 26 July 1968. The murder of Che Guevara was a recent, vivid memory. The Vietnam war, horrifying enough at the time, was to get more ghastly yet. In Angola and Nicaragua, partisan groups were still engaged in what seemed an endless and quixotic battle against the Portugese and American empires. Castro spoke proudly against these and other despotisms. But he also denounced the Soviet Union and its dismal block of coerced allies. He had seized the person of Anibal Escalante, chief Stalinist of Cuba, and arraigned him and his ‘microfaction’ for trial. Escalante, who had been semi-exiled as ambassador to Prague, found himself behind bars fo r his intrigues with Moscow. Was it possible that Cuba was keeping its promise, of equidistance between the superpowers and revolutionary internationalism a Ia Bolivar or Marti?
Almost exactly a month later, l watched the bearded one give yet another very long speech. Czechoslovakia, late home of Escalante, had been invaded. Cuba’s place in the time zone meant that we received the news very early in the morning. It was announced that Fidel would address the masses late that night. In the meantime, the organs of propaganda held to the careful neutrality they had observed between Brezhnev and Dubcek in the unfolding of the crisis. I thus had the unusual and perhaps unique experience of spending a whole day in a Communist state, with only one topic of conversation and no stated party line. Cuban public opinion was unmistakably pro-Czech, and not merely because of the natural sympathy for the small nation. There was no wild applause when the embodiment of the revolution took the stand to announce, in a dull, dogmatic and feebly-argued speech that the Warsaw Pact forces were right. From that day to this there has been no significant, public division between Moscow and Havana. Cultural life in Cuba has also adapted itself to the shape that such an unanimity might suggest.