Hunting for Fidel

Journalist Nazma Muller was sent to track down Fidel Castro and nearly ended up in jail

I am no great pillar of capitalism. But you see communism? I can’t afford it. One night of socialist fever almost killed my feeble red heart.

I have had a crush on Fidel Castro since I was a “Cuban delegate” at a student conference in 1992. The rebel touch rarely detracts from sex appeal. But when token support became Fidelista fever, then fatal attraction, I turned into a security risk who almost got shot, the newsroom’s half-cracked Brenda Starr.

My editor had encouraged me to stake out the hotel where a regional conference was being held, just in case Fidel showed up. An exclusive photo on the front p¡TMage wouldn’t hurt. I had scoffed at reports of Fidel’s attendance. But when the first helicopter landed, I grabbed a photographer and ran.

My first encounter with Fidel’s bodyguards was in the corridor on the hotel’s seventh floor. Having got past the local police with a low-cut sun dress, a fake Spanish accent and “Soy la mujer de Fidel”, I tried a different approach with the Cubans. But claiming membership of the Cuba Friendship Society got me nowhere.

I returned within the hour in jeans and jacket, with a low-cut halter for tight-lipped security guards, and stationed myself in the car park where I could cover both entrances to the hotel.

Like any good terrorist, I waited in the shadows, motionless. To the paranoid Cuban security men with guns on the rooftop, my black hair and prominent nose took on a fanatical Middle Eastern look. A gold nose ring didn’t help. Nor did a tattoo on my right shoulder blade of a woman holding the world on her shoulders.

The head of the hotel’s security hauled me into his office for questioning. Why was I lurking in the shadows?

At that point I should have stopped pretending to be a Martiniquan. But no. Foolish young women who read too many Nancy Drew stories prolong fiascos of this sort, and have their handbags, and other parts of their person, examined for weaponry. My Jamaican press pass was unearthed, so now I became a Martiniquan working out of Jamaica.

The head of security looked at me tiredly. As he escorted me back to my post in the car park, he assured me, “The Cubans have their guns trained on you.”

Towards midnight, sirens screamed, and flashing lights had photographers flying. I raced up the driveway, camera glued to my eye. Heart thumping, I waited. The car door opened. Security personnel swarmed.

Mexico’s President Ernesto Zedillo climbed out.

At midnight, I gave up. It was too late to get a photo for the paper anyway. I walked to the back entrance of the hotel to use the bathroom. And smack into the police base.

They had been waiting all night for me. The inspector was one mean-looking bull terrier. Four police officers threatened to charge me for stupidity and being a nuisance – “Ah should lock yuh up fuh gettin’ meh vex”. But finally they let me go.

Relieved, I headed for home; but the taxi was followed by two squad cars. I jumped out in downtown Port of Spain and sat there for two hours, petrified. Eventually I called my friend Juliet, who had studied law. Her boyfriend Milton answered. I could hear Juliet snoring in the background. To my terrified questions about the rights of bogus terrorists, Milton replied, “Go home, Nazma, go home.”

I did. I cowered on my bed, straining to hear every sound. A vehicle slowed down on the street outside. I dared not swallow the lump in my throat – it felt like my heart.

Next day, a colleague claimed the police had called, and there had been talk of shooting me in the leg or some even tenderer part. They had followed me home, but thought my humble apartment looked “like she eh have nobody dey”, and they drove away.

Two days later, as the conference ended, a Cuban security officer approached me. I heard the word “solidaridad”: the Cuba Friendship Society story had worked after all! I was taken to meet Mercedes, one of Fidel’s personal interpreters. She couldn’t promise me an interview, but I could meet him briefly when he came through the back door of the conference hall.

I waited in a sweat. Then the door swung open and he emerged, talking to another world leader. I stood two feet away, unable to move. Had I called his name, he would have looked up, our eyes would have met, and . . . my voice stuck.

His bodyguards circled him in seconds, and he walked quickly away.

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