Fidel and Gabo

A Portrait of the Legendary Friendship Between Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

By Angel Esteban, Stephanie Panichelli
Pegasus Books. 236 pp. $27.95
Sept. 20, 2009

Chapter One


"Gabo and I were both in Bogotá on that sad April 9, 1948, when Gaitán was killed. We were the same age, twenty-one years old; we witnessed the same events, we were university students studying the same subject: Law. That's what we thought anyway. Neither of us knew anything about the other. No one knew who we were, we didn't even know ourselves.

"Almost a half century later, on the eve of a trip to Birán in the Far East, Gabo and I were talking in Cuba, where I was born on the morning of August 13, 1926. Our meeting had the feel of an intimate family get-together, where old memories are shared and colorful stories told, in a gathering with some of Gabo's friends and some other comrades of the Revolution."

And so begins the most literary piece that Fidel Castro has ever written, two months into his seventy-sixth year. It is a short article about his best, and perhaps only, friend, Gabriel García Márquez. Two of the most important personalities in twentieth-century Latin American history were in the same city on one of the worst days that that city, the Colombian capital, had ever experienced since its founding in 1538. Their paths probably crossed, running through the streets in the midst of the chaos, not knowing where they were going or even why they were running. Maybe their eyes met for an instant on a street corner, or maybe they tripped over the same woman struggling to pull herself up off the ground after being knocked down by a boy careening past on a bicycle. The son of the telegraph operator from Aracataca tried to get back to his rented room to at least save manuscripts of the stories he had written the week before. The student from Cuba surmised that it was too late now to meet with the leader Jorge Gaitán again, Colombia's shining hope, the political figure-of-the-moment who had taken a real interest in the problems of Latin American college students; who had met with student representatives to adopt a unified position in the face of the always conflict-ridden relations between the United States of "North" America and the Disunited States of South America.

* * *

Gabo was born in Aracataca, a small town in the north of Colombia, on March 6, 1927, with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, while his mother bled profusely. Doña Luisa Márquez not only survived the birth, but she would go on to bring ten more children into the world. When the next son was born, Gabito was sent to live with his grandparents, and this proved to be a formative experience that would shape his character, as the future Nobel Prize winner developed an avid interest in the stories of political bosses and strongmen, spending hours with his grandfather, hearing about the amazing feats of the men who fought in the civil wars at the dawn of the century. His grandmother, who spent the days singing to herself in a sort of delirium, was a constant target for her grandson's questions, always wanting to hear stories of the wars:

"Grandma, who is Mambru, and what war was he in?" And, not having the slightest idea, but with an overactive imagination, she replied calmly: "He was a man who fought with your grandfather in the 1,000 Days' War." As we now know, the Mambru of the old, popular song (the one that Gabo's grandfather was so fond of singing) is none other than the Duke of Marlborough, and when García Márquez went on to include him as a vibrant character in his novels and stories, he preferred his grandmother's version to the actual truth. That's why Marlborough appears disguised as a tiger, losing all of the Colombian civil wars, alongside Colonel Aureliano Buendia.

When Gabo was seven years old, Nicolas Márquez took his grandson to number 5 San Pedro Alejandrino, in Santa Marta, where Simón Bolívar, the great liberator of America, had died. The grandfather had already told his grandson about this illustrious figure many times. When he was six, Gabito had gazed upon the image of a dead Bolívar on a calendar his grandfather owned. So, while still young enough to play with toy soldiers, the boy's interest in this and other American leaders grew, characters who would later figure into his novels, stoking his particular fascination with power. He learned to read and write at the Montessori school when he was eight years old, and his teacher, Rosa Elena Fergusson, would be Gabo's first muse, since he thought that the verses she recited in class, "forever embedded in my brain," were a direct manifestation of her striking beauty. At nine years of age, while digging through one of his grandparents' trunks in what would be one of the most pivotal moments of his life, he found an old, tattered book with yellowed pages. At the time, he didn't know that the book's title was A Thousand and One Nights, but he began to read, and he felt positively transformed. He said to himself:

I opened it, and I read that there was a guy who opened up a bottle and out flew a genie in a puff of smoke, and I said, "Wow, this is amazing!" This was more fascinating to me than anything else that had happened in my life up to that point: more than playing, more than painting, more than eating, more than everything, and I didn't lift my nose from the book again.

Over the next several years, having to support a large number of growing children, the García Márquez family moved often: from Aracataca, to Barranquilla, to Sucre. In 1940, García Márquez returned to Barranquilla to attend the Jesuit school of San Jose, where he wrote his first verses and stories for the magazine Juventud ("youth"). Three years later, just before his sixteenth birthday, he had to leave home and find a job to finance his education, since his parents, who by then had eight children, could not afford to feed everyone and also pay for their schooling. He went to Bogotá and felt completely disconsolate in such a faraway, huge, cold city, where no one knew each other and the local customs were so different. He received a scholarship and began studying at the National Boys' School of Zipaquira, where the bug he had first caught when he opened up A Thousand and One Nights quickly replicated inside of him, until it was a chronic, unstoppable virus. He read and wrote diligently, studying all the classics of Spanish literature. He delighted in his teachers' sage knowledge and lived an almost monastic existence, spending many hours poring over his books ... or staring down at a blank sheet of paper, trying to compose a poem. He fully participated in the school's literary activities, and in 1944 he wrote his first story. Three years later, Gabo entered law school in Bogotá, a city of 700,000 inhabitants, over 6,500 feet above sea level, similar in many ways to the plains of Spain, with a vibrant cultural life that centered around the downtown cafés. The future Nobel laureate would spend more time at the cafés than attending classes, and he met the most important writers of the day there. He would also discover a few literary jewels: Kafka's The Metamorphosis, which aggravated the bug for literature even more, prompting him to write stories of his own in a frenzy; classics like Garcilaso, Quevedo, Góngora, Lope de Vega, San Juan de la Cruz; and his own contemporaries like the Generation of 1927 and Neruda. Soon after, his interest would focus almost exclusively on the novel, until he came to believe that his vocation for literature was so strong that he should drop out of law school altogether....

* * *

Fidel Castro grew up in a rural working-class family. In the small town of Birán, near Santiago de Cuba in the far southeast of the island, his childhood playmates were field workers on the sugarcane plantation in Mañacas. Surrounded by nature and animals, Castro explored the forests on horseback, swam in the river, and when he was five years old was enrolled in the small local country school. At six and a half, he was brought to the province's capital, Santiago de Cuba, to continue his studies in a parochial boarding school. His revolutionary outlook can be traced back to those early childhood years; for when he returned to the plantation, he organized a workers' strike against his own father, whom he accused of exploitation! For his final years of high school, because of his high grades, his parents enrolled him in the Jesuit school of Belen in Havana, the best school in the country, where Cuba's aristocracy sent their children. Future conservative political affiliations were often cemented there.

In October 1945, Castro entered the University of Havana to study Law. It would change his life. He had come from an uneventful, tranquil environment, where the only things that mattered were getting a good education and being a good Christian, and now he found himself in a place where the struggle for survival was what counted. The campus was roughly divided into two rival political groups, which exerted effects on the city as a whole through acts of violence and financial influence: the Revolutionary Socialist Movement (Movimiento Socialista Revolucionario, or MSR), headed by the ex-communist Rolando Masferrer, and the Insurrectionist Revolutionary Union (Unión Insurreccional Revolucionaria, or UIR), led by the ex-anarchist Emilio Tro. Fidel was immediately gripped by political ambition, and his goal was to lead the Federation of University Students (Federación Estudiantíl Universitaria, or FEU)-that is, the entity that represented the entire student body-a very coveted position for members of either of the two rival factions. He tried to attract the attention of the leaders of MSR and UIR, aware of the fact that he could not accomplish his objective without the support of some influential group; but by the time he was in his third year, he hadn't moved beyond the position of vice president for the law school's own student council. For the next election, he decided to run for president of the FEU, regardless of his affiliation with either of the two parties. He carefully laid the groundwork. He read many of the works of the great Cuban revolutionary and writer José Martí and took from them a very seductive, powerful philosophy, and also a lengthy compilation of facts to bolster his carefully composed speeches. He also began to act outside of the university, organizing demonstrations against Ramón Grau San Martin's government. "The papers were talking about him," notes his biographer, Volker Skierka, "sometimes in grandiose terms. A charming, talented speaker, young, tall and athletic, dressed handsomely in double-breasted suits and ties, his black hair slicked back, with his classic Greek profile, at twenty-one years old he cut an impressive figure, the type that mothers of marriageable daughters dream about."

But he wasn't just talk. After a meeting with the president, Castro proposed to his fellow activists the possibility of grabbing the president and throwing him from his balcony in an effort to kill him, which would set off the student revolution in a highly dramatic fashion. Around that time, Castro is alleged to have been involved in three actual assassination attempts: the first in December 1946, when a member of UIR was shot in the lung; the second in February 1948, when Manolo Castro, the national Director of Sports, was shot and killed outside a movie theater; and the third shortly thereafter: a police officer, Oscar Fernandez, was fatally shot outside his home; before taking his last breath, he identified the student leader as the trigger man.

Castro's interest in Latin American politics gradually intensified. He aligned himself with a movement for the liberation of Puerto Rico; he traveled to the Dominican Republic in a failed attempt to oust the dictator Rafael Trujillo; and he expressed solidarity with student movements in Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama, which were fighting to end colonialism within their countries and stop the infiltration of imperialism from the United States. To that end, he organized a congress of the student assemblies of Latin America in early 1948, to be held in April of that year in the Colombian capital, coinciding with the Ninth Inter-American Summit of Foreign Affairs Ministers, where the creation of the Organization of American States (OAS) would be decided, and where Washington aimed to thwart the "communist threat" under General Marshall's watchful gaze.

* * *

Playtime was over. The destinies of our two little gods collided in Bogotá on that bloody April 9, 1948. What became known as the "Bogotazo" riots would claim 3,500 lives over the coming days and over 300,000 more in the subsequent fighting in years to come. On April 7, Castro met with Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the popular liberal leader of the opposition in Colombia. In spite of his youth, Gaitán had managed to consolidate the party at a time when the country desperately needed someone to put an end to the climate of violence and oligarchy, and no one doubted that he would win the presidency in the next elections. At his meeting with the student representative from Cuba in his office on Seventh Street, the two had liked one another. Gaitán promised to help Castro and his colleagues secure a location to hold their anti-imperialism conference, and to close the proceedings with a massive public demonstration. They planned to meet again two days later, at two o'clock in the afternoon, to finalize the details. Shortly before that, as Fidel and his friends wandered around the neighborhood, waiting for the appointed time, a lone, deranged gunman, Juan Roa Sierra, shot the presidential candidate at point-blank range. As Gaitán stepped out of his office at 14-55 Seventh Street, between Jimenez de Quesada Avenue and Fourteenth Avenue, he was shot three times: in the brain, the lungs, and the liver. Three bullets ended the life of the great hope of Colombia, marked the beginning of one of the darkest eras of the country's history, and sparked a civil war that would drag on for decades.

At that very moment, in a rooming house for low-income students on Eighth Street, very close to the scene of the assassination, second-year law student Gabriel García Márquez was about to have lunch. His watch read five minutes after one. He knew what had happened immediately. Gabo and his friends ran to where Gaitán had collapsed bleeding on the sidewalk. By the time they got there, Gaitán had already been taken to the Central Clinic, where he would die within a few minutes. Confused by the growing chaos, the students lingered in the area for a little while, trying to make sense of the street disturbances erupting around them and the shouts and screaming, growing louder. The city was burning. They decided to go back to their rooming house. As they rounded the corner and crossed their street, they discovered the worst: their house was on fire, too. They couldn't go in and rescue their personal belongings. Clothes, furniture, books, everything would be reduced to ashes. Gabo tried to run into the inferno, but his friends held him back. His desperation stemmed from the imminent loss of his most treasured possessions: the manuscripts of the stories he was writing, especially "The Story of the Faun on the Streetcar," and the pieces that had already been published in El Espectador. Luis Villar Borda, a friend from the literary scene, ran into Gabo at around four o'clock that afternoon at the intersection of Jimenez de Quesada Avenue and Eighth Street. Dasso Saldívar describes the encounter:

Coming upon his friend in such a disoriented state, on the verge of tears, made quite an impression on Villar Borda, since over the past year, seeing him at university functions and lecture halls, Gabriel had never displayed any passion at all for anything political, much less for bipartisan national politics in particular.... So, finding him so out of sorts, he said, puzzled, "Gabriel, I didn't know you were such a Gaitánist!" Then Gabriel replied, his voice breaking, "No, what are you talking about, it's that my stories burned!"


Excerpted from FIDEL AND GABO by ÁNGEL ESTEBAN STÉPHANIE PANICHELLI Excerpted by permission.
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