Fidel Meets President of the Federation of University Students
Submitted by editor on Thu, 02/05/2015 – 00:00
Since all of Cuba longs to meet him, and since I also long to tell the story of my meeting, this is the story of how a young student, president of the FEU at the University of Havana in 2015, personally conversed with the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution.
It all began with his call to the FEU office at the University of Havana (UH), January 22, at 9:20pm. Although the call was preceded by a report that he was waiting for me, hearing his voice up close, heard so often from afar, stunned me.
“Randy, how are you?”
“Comandante, fine. I can’t believe I’m going to talk with you.”
He laughs and thanks me for the message I sent him, saying “I’ve read it several times.” He was referring to our project to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his entering the University, with a day of love and commitment. His enthusiasm is evident when he makes the surprise announcement that he is inviting me to a personal conversation the following day.
But this very night, we would talk more, around 50 minutes. It seemed so immediate, as if the two of us were sitting in Martyrs Hall, which he has often recalled as the site of many FEU meetings in his time.
“It’s now been 70 years since I entered the University, the anniversary is September 4,” he tells me.
We talk happily, like two classmates. He, with impressive modesty, trying to make me feel like an equal. For my part, not really understanding the extraordinary good fortune that was allowing me to live this singular moment. Also uneasy and concerned about responding to the “bombardment” of questions, which his conversational partners are accustomed to receiving from this audacious conversationalist.
He wanted to know about the University academic departments; about the Student House, as it was previously known before becoming the FEU House; who belonged to the FEU; and in what year the change was made. I tried to answer everything, conscious that we are never completely prepared with all the answers that a dialogue like this one demands. It wasn’t a test, and yet it was. I needed to transmit a great deal in the name of university youth, and that pressure was there, although the spirit of the conversation almost made me forget everything.
He asked about the location of all the University departments, and when we were talking about the Physics building, formerly Architecture, he spoke enthusiastically about José Antonio Echeverría. I explained that Physics was now located in the Varona building, and he interrupted, “the Pedagogy building!” and began to ask about the classrooms.
Just when he was making me sweat again, afraid I wouldn’t have all the answers, he launched a question I never expected, “Listen up, Randy. How many chairs does a classroom in the Physics department have?”
I was speechless, of course, impressed by his boundless curiosity, and desire to understand in detail how the world works.
I explained that students of different nationalities learning Spanish share the building: Chinese, Vietnamese, students from the U.S.
He then said, “You don’t say. Chinese as well?” and he reminded me in detail of the programs established in an agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
“And how is the University Council in the Varona Building organized, with both Physics and Spanish as a foreign language studies located there?” he insisted. I responded that the arrangement is temporary, until work on the Physics building is complete. Then the Varona will be the University Hill Convention Center.
I finally manage to tell him about the activities we were planning on the day the FEU had organized to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his arrival to the University. I also told him about our plans to scale Mt. Turquino.
“Randy, prepare yourselves well. I’ll tell you some anecdotes when we see each other, about our experience in the Sierra.”
I didn’t want to forego any detail, so I also told him we would visit his birthplace. He responded with a long silence, which he broke to ask me how my Philosophy studies were going, in what year I was, what my family thought about what I’m doing.
Next he wanted to know how the FEU was organized at the University. I described the rector and University’s support in improving living conditions in the student residences, the infrastructure, the department buildings and stadium, known to UH students as the SEDER.
With astonishing precision, he detailed every place in the University stadium, when I told him about preparations underway for the Caribbean Games. It’s obvious that he knows University Hill like the palm of his hand. I could say he knows where every cobblestone is located.
He was also interested in the Aula Magna, in the organization of our commemoration of the 162nd anniversary of José Martí’s birth, with the concert by Frank Fernández, and the launching of activities celebrating the 70th anniversary of his entrance into the University.
He said goodbye with, “A big hug, see you tomorrow.” I was mesmerized, but my dream-come-true wasn’t over yet.
FIDEL – NOT ON THE PHONE
Friday, January 23. It was almost time to begin the monthly meeting of the University of Havana FEU Council, in Martyrs’ Hall on University Hill. I excuse myself for my absence, assuring everyone that the University will be enjoying some good news for our people and the world.
I say goodbye to Henry, secretary of the Young Communist League (UJC), who a few years ago also had the honor of conversing with Fidel.
Those who came to pick me up to see Fidel were very punctual, very friendly chauffeurs who knew how to recognize and calm my nerves, empathizing with my tension given the prospect of my first meeting with the Comandante. We talked about our respective provinces, they from Santiago de Cuba and I, Matanzas.
Within a short time, the car came to a stop, and they said the words I was anxiously awaiting, “You’re in the Comandante’s home.” I got out ready to experience what would surely be one of the most important moments of my life. And it was not to be a brief moment. I would talk with Fidel for more than three hours.
At the garden gate, his wife Dalia greets me. I give her a flower which she graciously accepts, and accompanies me to the glass doors a few meters ahead, behind which the Comandante waits.
“Randy!” is the jovial greeting, “Just look how much you resemble Echeverría…!”
The afternoon conversation with Fidel begins, and this time it’s not on the telephone, but with just a few meters separating us, as if he were an everyday conversation partner. I resist my emotion, intent on remembering every moment accurately.
He shows me a compilation of his Reflections, and refers to some of them, reading ideas or entire pages. He tells me that it is an anthology of which only 500 copies will be published, accompanied by a series of drawings by Rancaño.
Time passes as we address many issues. I try to capture all the details of his greatness, never taking my eyes off him. Always drawing me toward knowledge, he leads the conversation. I can’t stop thinking about how the conditions in the Sierra during the war and current challenges can shape a man.
He comments on astronomy, on the world’s observatories, insisting on the necessity of developing the sciences as the only way intelligence can hold sway; the relationship between these subjects and the economy; and the quality of training these professions receive at universities.
He spoke enthusiastically of the Namibian donation to the National Zoo of species native to that country, and his interest in the novel means used to transport the animals.
He reiterated his appeals regarding the production of food for human and animal consumption, and showed me photos of the plantings with which he is experimenting, along with several seeds, talking about their cost and importance; and about the situation of fuels.
On his work table were dozens of press reports compiled in a file. I see up close, and verify, his legendary interest in being well-informed of everything, of both national and international events.
He lingers in particular on the reading of recent releases, including a graphic, from the Russia Today agency, about what country contributed most to the defeat of Germany in 1945. For years, the majority of Europeans recognized the USSR, but recently the facts have been turned around to give prominence to the U.S. role.
But we also talked about him, his daily physical exercises, his eating right. I continue in disbelief beside the man who has done the most to achieve justice in relations among human beings, and discovered his marvelous powers of observation, based on recalling the past, which is the future.
He is well aware that I am from Matanzas, and he wasn’t going to let me escape easily, asking me to tell him about sports in the city. He didn’t give me much time to think when he asked me about the prospects for Victor Mesa’s team, and the emotion Cuba’s National Baseball Series engenders. He then talked about other teams this season, and the challenge of being a Matanzas fan in the capital where his team, Industriales, reign supreme. We both laughed and I admired this love for sports which he has always shown.
Later he spoke of the coming revolutions against the dominant philosophy, and commented to me that we cannot stop believing in them, since every revolution ends up being reborn. At one special moment, he spoke of Venezuela, referring to Chávez and Maduro with great emotion.
He also spoke about Nicaragua and the work being done by Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario, to promote development of this small nation.
Returning to the issue of our University, I showed him a catalogue and we reviewed on his map all the places he remembered; the cafeteria in the Law School building – he tells me some details about its location and construction – and other sites which are significant to him, and he asked me to tell him about the schools currently on University Hill and those located elsewhere. He recalls the challenging times of his studies, and the historic meetings with university students after the triumph of the Revolution.
When I showed him a series of designs dedicated to him, he asked me who did them. I responded that it was a student also named Randy, last name Pereira, who was studying Communication. He was interested in learning about where we had the posters and T-shirts printed, since I was wearing one with the Caribbean Games logo.
I wasn’t going to leave without giving him a photo of Henry, the current UJC secretary at the University, and Indira who works in the University Extension Services office, two youth who in 2010 gave him a photo of himself saying, “Here I became a revolutionary.” I read the convocation for the 70th anniversary celebration, and then told him about the guests we had invited, and how we conceived the event.
We also reviewed an issue of the newspaper Resumen Latinoamericano, dedicated to the Cuban Five. He studied the faces of René, Fernando, Tony, Gerardo and Ramón, stopping to note significant characteristics of each of our heroes.
I thought it must be time to go, but he reinitiated the conversation about new ways to treat several diseases, among them diabetes, with natural foods; the relations between Cuba and Africa, based on the country’s contribution to the independence of the continent’s nations; the end of apartheid; and the current contribution being made by Cuban medical professionals in the struggle against Ebola. And inside, I gave thanks that the opportunity was not yet over.
Finally he showed me some pages of issues he is currently studying, among them one from the Central Bank of Cuba with costs of foods, basic and precious metals, sugar, energy and interest rates.
He didn’t let me leave without playing the DVD I had taken him of the welcome the University gave students on the Semester at Sea study cruise, which visited Cuba this past December.
He was interested in how things went with our U.S. peers, asking about the schedule of activities. Upon seeing the images… I don’t know why, I saw a different Fidel, much more open than I thought. A picture of some U.S. students wearing t-shirts with Cuba written across the chest inspired the most enthusiasm and glee in him.
The time came for me to leave. We bid farewell in the traditional way first. But he then wanted to know a more up-to-date way of saying goodbye. I showed him the more youthful, different one we practice all the time with our friends. He kept insisting until he learned it, practicing several times before we finally said, “See you later.”
I am walking the streets again, thinking about the experience I have lived. I take with me a Fidel full of life, talking with me intelligently and enthusiastically, with the modesty I expected, but with a boundless ability to surprise.
I think about writers, try to recall a phrase which might convey what I feel. If the true greatness of human beings lies only in what can be accomplished in this world, I cannot help but see it in him, one who has reached the highest level of the human race and become a legend.
Several days later, the emotion still brings tears to my eyes. I can still see him in front of me, so alive, with so much energy and clarity, mocking with this vitality those who would like us to believe that he is no longer here. I can still imagine him, stroking his beard, analyzing who knows how many things.
He has not stopped being a university student. In a cordial, family environment, with his look going far beyond the apparent, I was able to approach his vast wealth of intelligence. I am almost frightened to see how much I have to study and learn. Thus I thank him for revealing this truth to me, and providing me an example of how to to make my way through the unknown with curiosity and good sense.
Having occupied some of his time is the greatest honor I have ever received. Because of our FEU and our University of Havana, I was given this exceptional opportunity. It has meant several nights without sleep because of the joy, the impatient desire to speak with him again…
Implicit in all of this, beyond what I might say, is his example of humility, of confidence in us, in the future of the homeland. The certainty that this meeting means more responsibility, more commitment.
Fidel continues along a perpetual march to the rhythm of our times, as an enduring symbol, as an eternal university student. I cannot put it all in words; I still find myself believing it is a dream. The essence of miracles is difficult to capture however hard we try. Fidel is out of this league