We planned it like an assassination.
In order to get to the hall where he would be casting his vote, the great man would have to cross a little, enclosed bridge that linked it to the rest of the sprawling official complex in the centre of Havana. We took up our position at the far end of the bridge, so that he could see us as he came over the crown of it. And to make sure he would stop and talk, we baited our trap. Our beautiful, dark-haired fixer and translator, British as it happened (she had come with us from London), had very much the kind of looks that our target was thought to like. As far as I remember, it was her idea. I thought he might like the look of our cameraman, too: a great, red-bearded giant of a man, South African-born, who had worked with me in Sarajevo and other places. Nigel was magnificent. He had the appearance of a man you didn’t mess with, and even security men treated him with respect.
They did now. A group of four came over the bridge first, looked us over, and halted. And then, in the sweltering heat – it can’t have been less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on that bridge – came Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz himself: uniformed, bearded, overweight, his belt cutting into his spreading belly, food stains on his green combat blouse, trousers tucked carelessly into his ammunition boots. He looked like a man who didn’t care what people thought. At 67, he’d already had more than 30 years of pretty much supreme power in Cuba.
I glanced at my colleagues. Producer, fixer, cameraman, they were all star-struck. So was I, even though this wasn’t the first time I’d seen Castro in the flesh. Once, back in 1978, I’d had to stand through one of his trademark speeches, seven hours long: torture on the bladder and hell on the feet. It wasn’t as though he’d even said anything of interest. He gave us an exposition of his agricultural policies, ludicrously, contemptuously, self-defeatingly long. Did no one have the guts to whisper in his ear that it might be more effective if he spoke for, say, 40 minutes instead? Apparently not.
Castro was no Saddam Hussein: to criticise him or cross him in some way didn’t call down a death sentence. But he didn’t like it, and your position in the unacknowledged hierarchy would be affected. Perhaps it was this growing uncheckability that helped to bring about the split between him and Che Guevara. After Che left Cuba to be his own boss and stir up revolution elsewhere, attempts to rein Fidel in became much rarer, apparently.
Plenty of people didn’t mind his endless rants too much: it was just Fidel’s way, they said. Others came to loathe him as a result. “It was being forced to listen to Fidel talking on and on which made me join the opposition,” a former Cuban cigar-maker told me in Miami, some years later.
We had arranged this stake-out in Havana because we wanted what is known in the business as a doorstep: a quick question thrown at a passing leader. If we were lucky, we might get a 15-second answer out of him. Even 15 seconds from an icon such as Castro would be valuable, and if he actually said anything of interest it would go round the world. Yet this was the man who had recently recorded an interview with the American NBC network lasting four hours; and when NBC used just 18 seconds of it on its news programme it was banned from Cuba for years afterwards.
Now, Castro came towards us down the slope of the little bridge, and our fixer flashed her eyes and called out, “Comandante!” She didn’t need to: he was always going to stop and talk to her, and us.
The courtiers and bodyguards and hangers-on barged into one another and crowded round, raising the temperature to even greater heights. Castro started talking. Twenty-eight minutes later, he was still going on. “When’s he going to f***ing stop?” Nigel mouthed at me, his great, red-bearded face purple with heat and the effort of keeping the camera focused.
By now, Castro was complaining self-pityingly about the pressures of being the leader of a country that was feeling the full force of America’s hatred. And then, at roughly 31 minutes, I thought I heard something that was actually new and interesting: “So you see, in three years I shall give up the leadership of this brave country and go into retirement, where I can read books and keep a few animals and be a private citizen.”
He went on and on after that, but we had our story. Fidel to resign: it did indeed go right round the world.
He didn’t resign; he was just looking for a bit of sympathy, and even in 2008, when his younger and much more understanding brother Raúl finally got him to stand aside, the rumours were that Fidel, ill and old though he was, went reluctantly. However, for half an hour, sweating profusely, I talked man to man with one of the world’s great icons. I smelled his sweat and occasionally felt his paunch pressed against me by the crowd, and I looked into his eyes and saw the red veins in them. His breath, no longer laden with cigar smoke, because he’d given up by then, engulfed me. And then, when even he grew tired of speaking, he and his courtiers moved on.
Afterwards we were all exhausted but drunk with exhilaration. We’d done something no other Western crew had done here: we’d doorstepped history. So when, nowadays, the right-wing internet trolls abuse me for daring to suggest that there was anything even vaguely admirable about Fidel Castro, all I can say is that no one who didn’t speak to him can have any idea how glamorous he was in person.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor