The year was 1991, the place was the Palacio de la Revolución in Havana, Cuba, and my interlocutor was Fidel Castro, one of the most consequential figures of the 20th century, and one of the most commanding and charismatic men I have ever met.
A member of the U.S. foreign service, I had recently taken a job to manage U.S. government relations with Cuba. It was a politically sensitive position reserved for senior officers, but many of my fellow diplomats avoided it because the powerful Cuban-American lobby dictated a punitive policy toward Cuba. If you got on the wrong side of the exiles ousted by the Castro regime, they could ruin your career. Although I didn’t have the rank required, the State Department had decided to make an exception, perhaps because of an ongoing legal challenge on behalf of women foreign service officers that claimed discrimination in awarding high-ranking jobs. Whatever the reason, I was delighted and seized the opportunity, despite the risks.
One of my first duties was to accompany a U.S. delegation to Havana. At the time, U.S.-Cuba relations were frosty, at best. We’d imposed a destructive unilateral embargo on Cuba; a CIA-organized invasion at the Bay of Pigs was a disastrous failure; and the Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. Nevertheless, the United States and the Soviet Union had played critical roles in negotiating what was called the Tripartite Accord, which resulted in Namibia’s independence and Cuba’s withdrawal of 50,000 troops from Angola. Fidel Castro had invited to the Palacio de la Revolución ambassadors to Cuba from around the world and additional delegations from five countries. Among the 200 guests there were only three women, Castro’s young, beautiful interpreter, the Soviet ambassador’s spouse, and myself.
Immediately after the treaties acknowledging the successful completion of the Tripartite Accord had been signed, Castro made a beeline for me. I knew Castro preferred female interlocutors, assuming his formidable charisma would work in his favor, but America was also his sworn enemy. So I was not sure how he would react when we met. He was still handsome at 65 with a long face made even longer by his heavy grey-black beard.
Castro smiled, clearly enjoying a moment where he could hover over the petite representative of the “empire,” as he called the United States. He then asked in English, “Who are you, someone’s spouse?”
I was furious. Fidel knew exactly who I was; he knew everything about those of us who managed U.S. policy, and I had visited the island several times when I was the deputy in the Cuba office. As I drew myself up for an appropriately outraged reply, I realized that the entire room was listening. No matter. I stood as tall as possible — at 5-feet, 5-inches — and announced boldly, “No. I am the director of Cuban affairs.”
Fidel, now purring with pleasure, surveyed the room to ensure that no one would miss his next words. He boomed, “Oh? I thought I was.” Laugher filled the great hall. My delegation was speechless; I was angry and embarrassed. Fidel moved on, having skewered me. But just as I was thinking that perhaps this job wasn’t the right fit, security guards asked me to accompany them. Fidel was waiting at the entrance to the buffet. He offered me his arm. I swallowed my pride and took it. Diplomats gasped.
Fortunately, there were no media on hand and no cellphones to record Castro and me, arm in arm. Had the ever-wary Cuban diaspora seen this, I would have been fired instantly. But diplomats live in a world where personal relations count and, at that moment, I decided the better course was to accept his calculated gesture of graciousness.
At the same time, I realized that, without even trying, I’d become Castro’s foil. Fidel gave a slight bow, indicating that I should lead the guests in filling their plates with traditional Cuban delicacies. I hesitated, uneasy, then took a few shrimps from the sumptuous display. The impact of our embargo and dwindling Soviet subsidies meant that most Cubans did not have enough to eat. Many survived on the tinned meat and root crops they bought with their government-issued ration cards in tiny, dingy, stores with unhappy clerks. Some were so desperate that they raised pigs in their apartments, cutting their vocal cords to avoid problems with the neighbors.
As I left the buffet table, a security guard again appeared, this time to escort me to Fidel and his simultaneous interpreter, who were standing alone on the far side of the room. By the time I’d reached him, he was talking rapidly and passionately, throwing up his hands. The American “Bloqueo” — Castro’s name for the embargo — was cruel to Cuba’s children. They were suffering. It was all the fault of my uncaring government.
The other delegations were keenly watching this pantomime. They couldn’t hear Fidel, but they could see his passion. They must have been wondering how Fidel intended to humiliate the new American diplomat next. Castro’s calculating brown eyes scrutinized me, like a cat toying with a mouse. With plate, fork, and napkin in my hands, I felt at a distinct disadvantage. I felt trapped and detected a fleeting smile cross Fidel’s lips. I was on my own. This moment would determine whether I was up to the job.
Fidel pushed closer to me, forcing me to step back. “Your Bloqueo is killing our children. Not one aspirin to stop their suffering. How can you be so cruel?” I took a deep breath. In fact, I disagreed with American policy on exactly this point. Our embargo hurt the Cuban people far more than its Communist leaders.
But as much as I disliked the embargo, I wasn’t going to be Fidel’s patsy. It was my job to defend U.S. policy, no matter my personal feelings. I looked him squarely in the eyes. “That’s not true,” I almost shouted. “The embargo is not a blockade. Cuba can buy aspirin from any country it wishes, except the United States. If there is a medicine your children need that is only made in the United States, we will sell it to you.”
Fidel scoffed. “You know it takes years to get permission.”
“When Cuba holds free and fair elections with international observation,” I continued, “we will lift the embargo.” Castro moved closer; he was intense, and seemed to be searching for a sign of softening in my position. I stood my ground. “There is no change in U.S. policy. Cuba must change first.”
Fidel fumed, “You will never give up the Bloqueo; the Gusanos won’t allow it.” Gusanos, or worms, was the spiteful term he used to describe Cuban exiles in America. Turning away, he stomped off. Relieved, I set down my still full plate and poured myself a glass of Cuban rum. I had not succumbed to Fidel’s forceful personality. I’d stood up to him and proven to myself and my delegation that I could handle my new position. I didn’t like the embargo, but I loved the job. By doing it well, I hoped I might help craft a policy that would empower — rather than harm — the Cuban people.
Ambassador Vicki Huddleston is a retired career senior foreign service officer whose last assignment was as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs in the office of the secretary of defense from June 2009 through December 2011. Before that she was chargé d’affaires ad interim to Ethiopia, U.S. ambassador to Mali, principal officer of the U.S. interests section in Havana, deputy assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, and U.S. ambassador to Madagascar. She is a member of Women Ambassadors Serving America. Her book Our Woman in Havana: A U.S. Diplomat’s Chronicle of America’s Long Struggle with Fidel Castro’s Revolution, The Overlook Press, is due out in 2018.