The first time I had the opportunity to interview Fidel Castro illustrates a fundamental aspect in succeeding at any endeavor: i.e., planning.
I knew Castro was an almost impossible person to interview, but I also knew that when he traveled to summits and official visits outside of Cuba, he was always surrounded by journalists who treated him like a star in the world of politics.
It was no secret to anyone that his security entourage was impossible to penetrate. I was in Rio de Janeiro covering the Earth Summit in 1992 when the organizers of the event confirmed the arrival of Fidel Castro and, incidentally, they invited the media to a press conference with the former Cuban President. For security reasons, Castro’s presence at an official event was always an enigma until the last minute.
I established a goal: to do whatever was necessary to interview him. I was very aware that it was a tremendously difficult task so I had no choice but to think of something different than using the official channels and sending a letter with CNN’s letterhead requesting an interview. So, this is what I did: I wore the brightest green shirt I had for the press conference. When Castro began to offer his statements in front of all the reporters who were fighting to sit in the front rows, I, on the other hand, went to the back of the room and stood in a corner for a while. After a few minutes, I started walking towards the opposite corner. And later, I walked back to the corner where I was initially standing.
And so; as Castro spoke, I walked from corner to corner to ensure that he would see me and somehow distracted him with a frequent movements as all other journalists sat listening.
My goal was to have him face to face answering not one, but several questions. When the press conference ended, I approached him with the microphone in hand and I asked him the first question: “Commander, what proposal does Cuba have for this Summit?” The first thing he said was: “Hey lady, I thought there was something happening in the back of the room because you seemed somewhat concerned walking from side to side.” The comment, incidentally, had broken the ide. I immediately asked him more questions which he willfully answered without worrying about time.
I can say with certainty that the interview would not have happened if the person walking back and forth at the back of the room had been a man in a dark gray suit.
My second interview with Fidel Castro came a few years later during the IV Ibero-American Summit which took place in Cartagena, Colombia in June 1994. This was a formal interview, although I had very little time to coordinate and plan.
During the Summit, I talked with acclaimed writer Gabriel García Márquez and then Foreign Minister Nohemí Sanín, and I asked them to share with Fidel Castro my interest in interviewing him for CNN’s Spanish language television. It was during that summit when Fidel Castro appeared for the first time at a public ceremony without his olive-green military uniform.
This time, he came to the summit wearing guayaberas, which triggered some curiosity as to whether it was some sign that predicted the first winds of change on the island. In fact, that was my first question when we sat down face to face.
I remember that while the leaders were preparing to start the plenary session of the summit I, with the help of a security chief of the Colombian delegation, took the opportunity to approach Chancellor Sanín and such was my surprise that after seeing me, he took me by the arm and led me to Castro. The Commander greeted me with a kiss and the warmth of someone whom he had known for years. He said: “Nohemí already told me about you. Let’s see if we can have the interview. We are running short on time.” Not even two hours had passed when I was notified that they were waiting for me to interview Fidel Castro. It was an exclusive interview; an opportunity you only get once in a lifetime.
When I asked him how he would respond to Latin American leaders who were calling for more political openness on the island, he answered that his government had institutionalized how to keep the country united according to its constitution, and that he was convinced that the practices and participation of the Cuban people were much more democratic than other systems.
He also mentioned that the world had to acknowledge “the greatest social advances in the history of this hemisphere”, referring to Cuba’s education and health system. I wanted to delve into questions about the lack of democracy given their single-party system, the lack of freedom of expression, and the situation regarding political prisoners, but the security personnel interrupted to notify us that time had run out and that the Commander had a busy schedule.
During that evening, I attended an event where I had the opportunity to thank Chancellor Sanín for her help and also Gabo; however, when I approached to thank the Nobel laureate, he interrupted me somewhat indifferent and said: “You don’t have to thank me because I told Castro to not offer you the interview.”
I cannot deny that García Márquez’s response overwhelmed me for a while, but later on, I realized that it was another way of admitting that I got away with it; so, in some way, I felt it was a significant personal achievement.
After all, there are few moments when you have the opportunity to prevail in the midst of competition from colleagues with far more years of experience, the reluctance of a man who was already a legend like Fidel Castro and, as if that were not enough, the negative recommendation of a world-wide character of the stature of the Nobel Prize for Literature.