International Initiatives in Cuba 1973- 1984: Encounters with Fidel Castro

“History will absolve me” shouted Fidel Castro in his long self defence speech to his judges in October 1953, after his defeat by Batista’s forces. My parents had visited Cuba the year before so I was very interested in Cuba and the character of the Batista regime which made a violent popular reaction almost inevitable. I followed the reports in the Vancouver Sun about the eventual victory of Castro’s forces, but little thought I would speak with him personally on two separate occasions and be a part of an audience with him on a third occasion.

Dr. Helen K. Mussallem with Fidel Castro, 1983
Dr. Helen K. Mussallem with Fidel Castro, 1983

My last two conversations with him were most impressive, even though for a short duration. My visits to Cuba began in 1973 when I was asked by the government to be a consultant to assist the Ministry of Health in Cuba to develop a school of nursing in the University of Havana. My first trip was an interesting professional journey travelling as we had to in those days through Mexico City. I remember well the last part of that journey into Havana–travelling alone with little Spanish and no knowledge of Cuba. But the V.I.P. government treatment allayed all fears. That session and the following ones convinced me that Castro was a hero to all and remains as such. But it is difficult to catch even a glimpse of Castro except on state occasions and on May the first celebrations. At such times he speaks very loudly and at great length, somtimes two and a half hours.

When I see him on my television screen he appears to be a loud aggressive man. The paints him as a villain. But when I had my first conversation with him I was amazed.

It was in 1983, when I was the official representative of the World Nurses Association, that I was removed from the audience in the Congress Hall in Havana without explanation. We were all excited because the Hall had been searched and there was a rumour the Castro might appear. An audience never knows in advance. I was taken through long corridors to the back of the Center where I saw a small group of people in a luxurious palm-treed setting. All this was in Spanish but I knew I was to wait for I knew not what. I was the only woman and the only person not fluent in Spanish so I was quite alone until the Director General of the World Health Organization appeared.

He said he thought Fidel might be coming and soon a long black limousine appeared and out came Fidel in full military uniform. He was greeted by the Director General of the World Health Organization and they walked over directly to me. In a very quiet voice, for such a large man, he asked where I was from, how long I had been in Cuba, and what my work was. I then commented that my friends at home would not believe I had chatted with him so he immediately summoned a photographer. When we stood together he said “Hug” and I thought that he had very strong back muscles. I was told later it was a bullet proof vest. When we entered the great hall the applause was thunderous. Fidel asked me to come sit down in front where he was but I didn’t budge.

A year later, in June 1984, I returned to Cuba for an International Congress of Nurses of North and South America. On the last day there was a rumour that Fidel was coming, but his appearances are rare and never known ahead of time. Again, I was plucked out of the hall and again I chatted with him in a private session in the palmed-treed reception room. But this time, when we were ushered on to the stage, I was seated on the right hand side of Fidel Castro. That was very special. At one point in the meeting, at which there was translation services, a nurse stood up and read a long citation about what I had done for the Cuban nurses and the Cuban people. Then the certificate that bore my name and Miembre de Honor was presented to me by Fidel Castro who kissed me on both cheeks and the assembly cheered wildly. After the meeting ended the platform party followed Fidel to his car. In an unscheduled, rare stop he spoke quietly to the small group of official nurses revealing his deep concern about their problems. He said he understood they didn’t all have good watches and good shoes. The nurses responded well. He then inquired about their working conditions and asked for their suggestions on improving the health system. He listened well. We stood and chatted for almost one hour. I don’t think any other President or Prime minister has ever done that. He left quietly with warm good wishes for all. Whenever I hear about this aggressive, cruel Fidel, I know it has been uttered by someone who has never met him as I had. Yet he will still lead his people with dynamism and fervor and, if needed, to defend his country by whatever means are necessary.