Fidel Castro gave his first dinner party Saturday night.
At least it started out being billed as a dinner party.
It ended up being a press conference, a shouting match, a humorous joust, a free-for-all, a dramatic performance, and finally some food was served.
By the time the evening was over, Castro jumped to his feet a number of times, had paced back and forth, jabbing at the air, yelling over the equally loud voices of his guests to make a point, even punching at some of his male guests to get their attention. At one point Castro and a guest were virtually in an arm-wrestling match over a statement Castro had made about the United States. By the time dinner was served (11 p.m.) the shouting had reached such a feverish point that, as one who listened to a tape recording of the evening later remarked, "It sounded like a Fellini movie."
In New York to address the United Nations, Castro had a member of his staff call ABC correspondent Barbara Walters, whom he had recently seen in Cuba while she reported on the non-aligned nations' conference. The staffer asked Walters to help set up a dinner for El Jefe to meet a small group of people in communications.
The guest list, finalized Friday evening, included: Roone Arledge, president of ABC News, and his wife, Ann; Lester Bernstein, editor of Newsweek; Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post Company; Henry Grunwald, editor-in-chief of Time, and his wife, Beverly; Joe Armstrong, editor-in-chief of New York magazine; Mike O'Neill, editor of The New York Daily News, and his wife, Mary Jane; Frank Mankiewicz, head of National Public Radio, and his wife, Holly; Barbara Walters; Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, and this reporter.
Abe Rosenthal, editor of The New York Times, was invited and orginally accepted the invitation.At the last minute he declined to attend because, Walters reported, he had been offended by Castro's remarks on Israel to the United Nations.
The original ground rules were that the dinner was to be completely secret and totally off the record. Dinner was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., and the police were given a list of the names at the barricades so guests could get through.
The security was particularly tight; the entire block around the Cuban Mission in New York was cordoned off. Reporters stood at one side of Park Avenue waiting for guests to come in and out. Demonstrators stood at another side of the block, screaming and chanting.
The scene went like this:
Guests are ushered into the foyer of the Cuban Mission, where a number of informally dressed Cubans stand around in little groups, speaking in hushed tones.
Once all of the invited have arrived, a member of the delegation leads everyone upstairs and into a large reception room, where Castro is waiting in his fatigues to greet his guests.
The appointments of the room would send a shiver of horror down the spine of any astute hostess.
It is nearly empty -- the floors perfectly bare, drab yellow curtains at the window, a few leatherette sofas and chairs at one end and a buffet table at the other.
The ceiling lights shine down brightly.
Castro at first seems nervous and a little shy.
"He hasn't given any parties before," confides a member of the delegation.
Barbara Walters stands by his side with a translator, explaining who his guests are as they greet him.
For those Castro has met before there is an effusive greeting and some specific reference to the past meeting. For those he has not met before, he nevertheless has a special acknowledgment.
At first it is terribly awkward. Nobody quite knows what to do, so everyone just shuffles back and forth and stares at Castro, trying to make polite conversation.
He is asked whether he has not lost weight recently. He brightens and declares he has, patting his slight paunch with a wistful grin, noting that a snap has come undone on his to-tight fatigue jacket. "I have been dieting," he admits, "and swimming a lot."
He is asked whether he has been watching the World Series, Castro being a well-known baseball fan.
"No," he says, shaking his head sadly. "Unfortunately I have had other things to do." And to ease the conversation, he launches into a description of his stay in New York, how he has not slept very well at night and has had to take a nap instead of being able to watch the World Series.
"Though I do sleep better in New York than in Cuba," he says. "The climate here is cold and dry."
And of course, he says, the security is so good.
Everyone is still standing in the middle of the room, shuffling back and forth; and Castro, trying valiantly to keep things moving, still hasn't suggested that anyone sit down.
Finally a general move toward the sofas begins and he, slightly chagrined, belatedly invites everyone to sit down.
There is more awkwardness as everyone hangs back from the sofa, nobody willing to push next to him at first.
Then some of the staffers begin to pull up cane chairs and Castro himself, the nervous host, begins to carry chairs over from the side of the wall for people to sit on, getting into a tug of war with one of the guests over a chair when the guest suggests that a head of state shouldn't be carrying chairs around.
Finally, everyone is seated in a circle around a large glass coffee table with Castro on the sofa, the translator next to him.
He seems slightly relieved and takes out a tiny slim cigar.
Waiters pass trays of orange juice, Mohitos (the Cuban rum drink) and Scotch. Castro drinks Scotch.
The subject of security is brought up and he appaulds the New York police force, and says with a wry grin that he has entrusted his life to the American police and that he feels perfectly safe. He says that is a distinct change from his previous feelings.
He is asked why he has decided to stay over for another week, and he announces to the assembled group that in fact he is secretly planning to leave Sunday morning.
"People are preparing to leave now as we speak," he says. He explains that he has decided to leave because he has completed his business and because he feels that animosity will build toward him if he keeps the New York police tied up any longer for security reasons.
He laughingly tells a story about how, when his plane landed in New York, the U.S. immigration people tried to get him to fill out forms. He got very angry and refused to fill them out, saying he would return to Cuba first, even using a dirty word to them. All this, he later discovered, had been filmed by an NBC stringer who was traveling with him on the plane.
What was the word he used?, he is asked.
He blushes slightly.
"I'm embarrassed to say it here," he says.
He is asked whether he doesn't feel a bit like a prisoner being cooped up in the mission, virtually unable to get out because of the tight security.
"I don't mind it," he says. "But my people here, they know me and they worry that I won't be able to stand it."
Has he noticed any changes in New York, since he was last here at the U.N. 17 years ago?
Even after 17 years it would be hard to forget the apparition of Fidel Castro and his band of motley revolutionaries hanging out of their hotel window in dirty fatigues, outraging the American press by slaughtering and cooking their own chickens in their hotel rooms.
"The changes are not in New York, but in me," he says.
How?, he is asked.
"Well," he says, "I am more mature, more responsible, and I have more respect for the United States and for the United Nations. I was a revolutionary then. Now I am a statesman. When I first spoke at the United Nations 17 years ago, I did not have a text and I spoke for five hours. That was wrong. It was not proper. This time I had a text."
Then he grins as he takes a big puff from his cigar. "We were nothing. It was the United States that made us an important country. They taught us how to defend ourselves."
In fact, Fidel Castro has changed a lot -- even compared to three years ago, when he gave an interview in Havana.
He is calmer, mellower. He is less uptight about the United States, even about the CIA, which admittedly tried to assassinate him at least once. Before, when he spoke of the CIA it was with total outrage. Now it is with ridicule, contempt.
There is a lot of gray in his beard now, and many more grays in his conversation. Things are not all good or evil for this sometime prince of bombast. He appears to be less of a fighter now, more of a philosopher consistent with his new emphasis on a more statesmanlike image.
And though at first this dinner party is awkward and bit uncomfortable for him, once the ice is broken, to say the least, he genuinely appears to enjoy the evening, an evening he probably never would have conceived of even five years earlier.
There are times when he lapses back into the old Fidel, the Fidel of the endless lecture. But even he seems to tire of it, and looks relieved to be interrupted out of a familiar tirade, given more out of habit than conviction.
The subject of his sister Juanita comes up. How does he feel having his sister outside the Cuban Mission, demonstrating against him? Why has she turned against him and the revolution?
He evades the subject at first, talking about how she is a member of the Cuban community in the United States, then launches into an endless description of the relations between Cuban-Americans and their relatives in Cuba.
At about this time, Walters, according to plan, announces to him that she has brought along a tape recorder just in case he decided to change the ground rules, and could she tape the session for the group. Castro says yes, then returns to the subject of his sister Juanita, who has been demonstrating against him this past week.
"She did not have my ideas, she had a different mentality, she was thinking according to a different social class," he says. He denies her story that she participated in the revolution. "Actually, she was not politically inclined."
He explains how, out of nine ("officially") brothers and sisters, Juanita is the only one who is against the revolution. "So that is a very high record for a family of great landowners. Ninety percent."
Things are beginning to heat up a bit as waiters bring a second round of drinks, and the time is ticking away.
The subject comes up about how many troops the Cubans have around the world and where they are. It soon becomes a game of Botticelli with the guests guessing names of countries and Castro getting more coy with each passing moment.
Guests are shouting, Castro denying, then on the verge of telling, backing down; and an entire new shouting match ensues. Castro loves every minute of it.
Q. "What countries do you have military personnel in and why?"
A. ". . . Because then I would have to say, to Carter, to give me an explanation of all the places in the world where he has troops, and why are the troops there . . . Did the CIA tell where their agents are?"
A. "We have troops. . ."
A. "Ethiopia, Angola . . . and minimum amounts . . . in a few places we have military construction (workers), they could not be called troops or anything like that. . ."
After about 15 minutes -- a combination of 20 Questions and Charades when the guests are practically grabbing their ears and saying "sounds like" to get Castro to name the countries -- everyone, exhausted, gives up.
The next go-around is naturally about the recent blowup over the Russian brigade in Cuba and how it all happened.
This is a subject he has been waiting to get into all evening. And he does not hesitate to name Zbigniew Brzezinski as the villain of the whole Cuban brigade affair.
"I believe someone advised Carter wrongly. And I believe it's Brzezinski. It's wrong of me to make charges and I reiterate this here in this closed selected group, that military personnel has been there for 17 years with the same structure and the same function that they had been for the past 17 years.
"That was known by Kennedy at the time of the October crisis . . . At that time Soviet personnel, planes and missiles were withdrawn and 2,000 to 3,000 remained.Kennedy did not care about this. He had solved the problem . . . Johnson knew it. Nixon knew it. So I ask the following. . ."
Castro gets up and begins pacing back and forth, gesturing and jabbing the air with his cigar . . . "I ask Carter, why isn't the truth recognized?
He would have to admit that either Kennedy and Johnson knew it or the CIA does not exist."
He laughs, then in a mocking tone of voice, he continues, "If you have a girlfriend the CIA will find it out, the CIA knows everything."
He goes on "We did not want to be victims of a war like the war in Vietnam. That is why we accepted the presence of that force there, what you call the brigade.
"We call it a training center." He has been sitting back down for a few minutes but now he stands up again. "The key thing, the basic thing is this," he says."I have many questions for the CIA.
"They ask every detail about everybody. Where does he sleep, who are his friends. Suddenly, in the last 17 years they do not find out where these facilities are located. Millions of people know where it is located. It was not a secret. If the CIA can find out who somebody's girlfriend is, why can't athey find out this? Carter must answer why it is such a big deal now . . . If you don't know, how would I know?"
And he shrugs and sits back down, satisfied.
Suddenly he sits up. He remembers he has a video cassette of the Soviet brigade in Cuba, a 20 minute film. He says he brought it with him from Cuba. Everyone clamors to him to show it. Finally he agrees. He summons an aide to get a machine to show it on, then gives a brief summary of what is on the cassette, a short documentary about the brigade.
After waiting several minutes, the aide returns to announce that they don't have the right kind of machine at the mission to show the movie. The head of the delegation offers to send to his house for one, and he leaves. Meanwhile, Castro is on to another subject.
The cassette never gets shown.
It is now after 11 and everyone is beginning to squirm. For one thing the drinks have stopped coming, the tape recorders have run out of tape several times, nobody has had a chance to go to the bathroom, and everyone is starving and exhausted. Besides, the heat is turned down very low and it is freezing in the banquet hall.
Finally Barbara Walters outshouts Castro and the rest of the guests loudly enough to ask him what kind of a host he is that he has a dinner party and doesn't even feed his guests.
"Comida?" he says, looking at first surprised, as though he has forgotten that dinner parties mean food. Then he gets a bit sheepish that he has gotten so wound up he did not remember to serve his guests.
He stands up, gives a signal to one of the waiters. Many of the guests seize the break to dash to the restrooms or to the cloakroom for a wrap. Castro stalks about the huge banquet hall, stretching out the kinks.
Within minutes a huge Cuban buffet emerges, with paella, Cuban beef, fish, salads, fruits, fried bananas and the speciality that night, lobster, brought by Castro from Cuba.
As soon as the lobster emerges, Castro gathers a group around him and explains his own personal recipe for cooking lobsters.
Never, never boil a lobster, he says. Always bake it in a very hot oven for about 20 minutes, then ladle the butter over it.
While some guests eat standing up holding heavy clay Cuban plates, Castro talks to others in small groups. Eating does not take up much time since everyone is ravenous, and within about 15 or 20 minutes everyone is milling about again, some accepting a couple of coveted Cuban cigars from the waiters, others glancing at their watches, not knowing what the protocol, such as it is, is.
Finally, guests began to huddle, asking each other what to do. Should everybody go sit back down, just stand around a little while longer or leave?
Meanwhile, Walters is called over by Castro, who, with a translator, is asking her what to do.
Should he talk to the guests a little longer, or should he dismiss himself? He is to meet later with a group of Puerto Rican dissidents before he takes off for Cuba.
Finally, with several trips back and forth from the guests to Castro and Walters by one guest, a self-appointed mediator, it is decided that it is time to leave.
Once this is decided, Castro becomes very expansive, giving personal farewells, saying something special and complimentary to each guest the way he did when people arrived.
But he is having such a good time that it is hard for him to part with his guests, so he follows people out of the reception room and into the hallway, saying goodbye a second and third time as people begin to descend the stairs to the first floor.
Then he summons photographer and asks whether anyone wants their pictures taken with him. Several of the guests halt in mid-stair, go back up and pose with El Jefe for a photograph.
Finally, it is over. Everyone has a coat, and the doors are opened to the cold night. Outside, one can still hear the chants from the anti-Castro demonstrators.
Inside the mission, as the last guest is leaving, one can see members of the Cuban delegation quietly slip out the back door, suitcases in hand.
At dawn their plane will whisk Fidel Castro away with yet another title to add to the string of credentials -- revolutionary, president, international statesman . . . and now host.