What Fidel Castro Ruz said in our meeting on Dec. 15, 2011 (5:00 pm – 8:30 pm)

Present:  Fidel Castro Ruz, his wife Dalia Soto del Valle, his sons Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart and Antonio Castro Soto del Valle, Alan Robock, Peter Agre, Juan Carlos Antuña, Tomás Gutiérrez, and Betty Muñoz (interpreter)

Nuclear weapons are the greatest threat to the planet because there are unstable political leaders of the world, for instance Stalin and Hitler. Hitler started out as a minor politician, but lied to people, and even though he lost a couple initial elections, because of the economic stress and inflation, when people needed wheelbarrows of money to buy anything, he was able to gain power. Of course, I am a politician, too. But we need political leaders – otherwise there would be anarchy.

How many bottles of water do you drink a day (asked to Alan)? Reply: 5 or 6. Same question to Peter. Reply: Just drink when you are thirsty. Your body will tell you how much to drink. And water is the best thing to drink. Fidel: What about wine? That has tannins and is good for you. I drink a glass a day, but never more than 180 ml. (His glass had markings on it like a graduated beaker.)

The Kennedy – Nixon election was very close and we are lucky that Kennedy won. He was presented with the plan for the Bay of Pigs invasion that had been developed by that terrible Eisenhower, and had no choice. But his troops were engaged in Central America and he chose not to use the Marines. Nixon would have used the Marines. We Cubans learned from the Suez Crisis and World War II not to keep all our airplanes in a row. We had our planes scattered at different air fields and mixed in with other planes, so when they bombed us to start the invasion they only destroyed a couple of our planes, but they did kill a few people, too. Kennedy told the French and British not to start a war over the Suez and helped to defuse the crisis.

The Bay of Pigs invasion failed because they got stuck in the swamp. We are lucky that it failed, because if the invasion had succeeded we would have fought a bloody guerrilla war against it and would have won. The US lost 50,000 soldiers in Vietnam, but this would have killed 200,000 or 300,000 Cubans and Americans. Our victory was good for the US and for Cuba.

The Russians were very supportive of us after the revolution. They gave us oil and food, and every ship they promised arrived, for many years. So when they wanted to put missiles here, eventually I said “yes,” and once I said “yes,” I could not back down and had to support them. They needed the missiles to counteract the American ones in Turkey. I did not want them here, but was convinced to agree to them. At one point I sent Che to Moscow to help negotiate with Russians. There is an excellent book by Dobrinin that describes everything going on at that time.

On the day Kennedy was assassinated a French reporter was asking me about him, but I forget what he asked me. (Fidelito later told us on the drive back to the hotel that he thought that the assassination was not by Oswald alone, and it was probably by American right-wingers.)

When I decided that Cubans should learn English and not Russian, the Russians were not very happy. But English is the world language now. You can express yourself very well in English and even write poetry. Who needs Esperanto when we have English?

My first memory was when I was four years old and my Aunt died. We went to the church, and there were many candles burning.

Our family was fairly well off and we could afford to send the children to school. I had two older brothers, but they called me the intelligent one. I, like all little kids, learned all the swear words. When my teacher punished me in class for being insolent, by making me kneel on grains of corn with weights on my shoulder, I jumped up, swore at her with every word I knew, and jumped out the window. There was a hall there and a toilet, and I fell on a guava box, with nails sticking out of a board. One went through my tongue, causing it to bleed profusely. I was lucky not to have an eye stabbed. The teacher caught me and told me that God was punishing me. As a result of this, I was sent to Santiago with my older sister, and there knew famine first hand.

Have you seen the movie “Gone with the Wind?” I’ve seen it three or four times. It tells the story of the Civil War. There is an excellent biography of Abraham Lincoln by an Italian guy, Gore or something like that. His wife finally remembered that it was by Gore Vidal. There is a similar Russian movie called “Liberation,” which also let you see exactly what it was like during the war with Germany. But they had a larger budget, and when they staged battle scenes in Stalingrad, they actually had tens of thousands of soldiers in the scene.

After the revolution, many doctors left, but we established medical schools and trained many doctors, who also go overseas to provide aid.

From Peter Agre:

At just after 5 pm, I was first in line as we were ushered through the doorway where Fidel Castro (el Comandante) stood wearing a black Adidas sport suit with a blue plaid shirt underneath. He shook hands with us individually. Although stooped to my height (5’9”) and appearing somewhat frail, he smiled brightly and indicated our seats around the table. Sitting to Castro’s left was his wife and to his right was son Fidel and another son, Antonio, a good-looking orthopedic surgeon and former physician to the Cuban national baseball team. Alan and I sat across the table on either side of the translator.

Conversation was initiated by el Comandante Castro with a surprising casual tone. Knowing Alan from a previous visit, discussions began with environmental subjects but quickly wandered to multiple fascinating topics. As a gift, Alan presented Castro with a Rutgers baseball hat that he handled but did not wear. Castro’s voice was slightly gravelly and while initially soft-spoken, he became increasingly loud and animated. Indeed, throughout the evening he periodically looked fatigued, only to regain strength and enthusiasm.

Alan has noted several points of Castro’s long comments including:

Castro’s youth as a bold and profane youngster.

The Bay of Pigs Invasion—did JFK a favor by quickly routing the expat invaders.

The Cuban missile crisis—caught in obligation to Krushchev causing a special trip to Moscow by Che Guevara.

U.S. Presidents—admiration for Lincoln; disdain for Eisenhower and CIA Director Alan Dulles; some respect for Kennedy; concern for Nixon’s aggressiveness, total lack of trust in Lyndon Johnson.

After nearly two hours, Tomas leaned over and asked if I needed the toilet—which I most certainly did. Returned feeling very relieved, we were each served a glass of guava juice while Castro was given a glass of pink yogurt. He gained even more enthusiasm and exuded almost unbridled charisma. His eyes twinkled with delight as he spoke rapidly with simultaneous translation. Castro frequently emphasized points by pointing upward with the index finger of his left hand while pounding his left elbow down on the tabletop. He also emphasized ideas by jabbing the index finger of his right hand at us as he grinned. Never during the course of the evening did he express regret for any of his decisions or actions.

Castro noted that I am laureate and asked about books and papers I had published. He seemed surprised when I confessed that I had written no books and published 160 papers. He obviously loves to read, and his translator admitted that she had translated entire books for him. Castro thought he could read all of my papers, since the number of pages was only a few thousand and seemed amused but accused me of being modest when I told him that 150 were of mediocre importance, ten were more important, and only one was excellent. He said that he hoped that I could send him my papers, since problems with the internet may prevent him from accessing them.

At one point I mentioned that I was born in 1949, and young Fidel and Alan both spoke up to state that they were also born that year, producing a big smile from Castro who stated that 1949 was a very good year. (After the meeting I learned that this was also the year he tried out for the Washington Senators but gave up baseball to become an activist).

He also was interested that I am a medical doctor. When he asked if I had questions, I steered the conversation onto the subject of health care. As a young person, he spent time with the field hands on his father’s farm and was sympathetic to the needs of the poor laborers. The few doctors only saw patients who could pay, so peasants would often raise a pig that could be bartered for medical care if needed. This struck Castro as grotesquely unfair and rectifying this was to become a primary objective after the Revolution.

At the time of the Revolution, 60% of the doctors worked in Havana and many fled to Florida. He was proud to describe his founding of the Latin American Medical School for students from all over the Americas—including the U.S. He felt that all people needed doctors and that Cuba would generously supply the world with clinicians. Apparently hundreds of Cuban doctors are currently treating the poor in Angola, Congo, and Guinea-Bissau, as well as throughout the Americas including Venezuela. Although he mentioned Venezuela a few times but never mentioned Hugo Chavez.

When I told Castro that I direct a malaria research institute, he inquired about the vaccine for malaria introduced by Manuel Patarroyo, a Colombian scientist in the late 1980s. Although familiar with Patarroyo’s initial work, he admitted that he had not heard much recently. He seemed disappointed when I explained that despite winning the prestigious Prince of Asturia Prize, Patarroyo’s work has been judged ineffective and use of his vaccine has been abandoned.

Castro then raised the subject of anti-cancer vaccines, stating that Cuba had developed effective vaccines against a number of types of deadly cancers. Although he did not say anything to reveal the origin of the serious illness he had a few years previously, his interest in cancer vaccines seemed particularly keen.

Castro spoke at length about the U.S. immigration policy towards Cuba—the “dryfoot” policy which allows any Cuban that makes it to U.S. soil to stay and receive expedited naturalization. Castro considered this to be a bigoted insult to individuals from other Latin American countries who are turned away. He stated that many tens of millions of non-Cuban Latin Americans would flock to the U.S. His belief was that the U.S. hospitality for Cubans was an intentional effort to embarrass the Cuban government.

Finally at approximately 8:30 pm, after almost 3½ hours of non-stop speaking, Castro looked down and muttered that he had probably bored us. Alan and I both replied that he had not bored us and that we considered the discussions fascinating. When Castro arose, he was assisted by two large young men. He dismissed his lack of steadiness upon injuries he received in a bad fall after his illness from which he broke left his knee and shoulder. (He wrote notes with his right hand, but I saw no clinical evidence of hemiplegia). As we left, he smiled and shook our hands vigorously while the photographers took many shots.

Outside, Alan and I made eye contact and expressed amazement over what we had just experienced. Young Fidel drove us back to the Hotel Nacional where we drank beer and chatted in a state of semi-disbelief. We were later joined by other colleagues. Originally scheduled to have dinner at the home of Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, our absence had been explained by our visit with el Comandante.