Waiting for Fidel

Title: Waiting for Fidel

Author: Christopher Hunt

Data: Houghton Mifflin, $13

The Pope’s visit to Cuba and Fidel Castro’s subsequent release of political prisoners this week are a reminder that the Communist dictator still has a grip on Cuba’s fate. Christopher Hunt’s Waiting for Fidel demonstrates that his grip is strangling its people and it may be slipping. His is a jarring, dreary chronicle of Cuba, land of sugar cane, nickel mines, breathtaking beauty—and rotting souls.

Roaming journalist Hunt, who also wrote Sparring with Charlie: Motorbiking Down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, begins his tour armed with a sense of adventure and an odd fascination with Castro. He considers the revolutionary an idealist who speaks with “the fervor of a Baptist minister.” Hunt notes that Castro was banished by his father at age six and sent to boarding school, where “he cheated on math tests, beat up schoolmates and punched a priest”. It’s hardly surprising that Castro became a communist.

What’s compelling—and tragic—about Hunt’s travel narrative are the living skeletons who are the survivors of his revolution. Hunt finds those Cubans who had rallied around Castro’s guerrillas against dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, were promised an egalitarian paradise where everyone is coddled by the security of statism and he accounts for their lives one by one. It is in this sense that the reader, traveling with the author westward across the island, sees that Castro has delivered on his promise: Cubans are nurtured at the state’s bosom from cradle to grave and each Cuban is equal—in poverty and in desperation (except for the Communists, who are slightly more than equal). The land of national health care is full of sick souls whose lives depend on the alms of strangers like Hunt, who hands out more money than a politician running for reelection.

The place is a paradise for prostitution, which has become the way of feminine life throughout Cuba. Hunt writes that, in tourist mecca Varadero, as foreign men strut out of their hotels at dusk, “a mob of more than a hundred girls” await them. He notices that “most of the girls [look] less than a year out of high school.” At times, it seems the whores appear on every page; young mulatto girls endlessly claw, stroke and coax men—especially foreign men—as a means to a meal or to America.

There are other encounters, including Hunt’s voyage into Castro’s revolutionary nest in Sierra Maestra. But the enduring tales are those that evoke Cuban culture from long ago: Mrs. Matos’ snapshots of a better life before the revolution, when there was frosting on the children’s birthday cakes and “the factory where the Bacardi family turned sugarcane into rum” before they fled to Puerto Rico. The Cubans—who come alive with the blast of salsa music—are friendly with Hunt. From Rodolfo, the mechanic, to Eduardo, the painter, they like the American writer. But he writes about dozens of friends, moves to the next town and leaves too quickly for good conversation, much less real friendship.

Hunt is so consumed by the Cubans’ bleak tales that he barely addresses the ideas of Castro’s Revolution, the Batista regime, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the bloody war in Angola, the domination—and collapse—of the Soviet Union or the missiles that were aimed at American cities in October 1962. It’s as though Hunt is oblivious to the cause of the misery that surrounds him. In fact, it is Hunt’s female companion who provides philosophical analysis.

Maria—who practices medicine in a country perpetually short of medicine—tries to explain why suicide now ranks as one of the leading causes of death in Cuba. “People can’t cope with the pressure of life in Cuba,” she says, pausing to look out at the sea, “I’m a doctor. In any other country I would have a good life. Here I can barely live. Is that fair?” Hunt leaves the question unanswered, admitting by the end of his travels that he remains a fan of Fidel Castro. The contradiction of his view is striking and it undermines the meaning of his journey. After all, Hunt returned to America to publish a book. Rodolfo, Eduardo, Mrs. Matos, and Maria remain in Cuba.

This book review was published in the Dallas Morning News in 1998.

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