Saturday, January 06, 2007

Monuments of steel and stone, presidents of flesh and bone, they all fade, fade, fade....
Recent reports indicate that Cuban President Fidel Castro is starting to seriously fade. While he is still around to enjoy it, I thought I would post a memory or two. In the Spring of 1985, a potential benefactor of my research program asked me to travel to Cuba and teach the Cuban doctors how to do joint replacement surgery. He was very happy with his new knees, and thought that his friend, Mr. Castro, would be needing the surgery soon. I agreed to do it, if he could make the arrangements. He got back to me in a few weeks, and said that the Cubans wanted me to attend a meeting there in June, as a guest of the government. I sent my passport to Rene Mujica, First Secretary of the Cuban Interests Section of the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington, DC, and got it back in a few weeks with a Cuban visa and airline tickets on Cubana, out of Montreal to Havana. I also received a program for the First International Congress on Orthopedic Surgery, Traumatology and External Fixation, with my name entered incorrectly as a presenter. Apparently the Cubans don't use the "W" in their alphabet, so I was listed as V. V. Jackson.
Reading through the program, I saw that several other American Orthopedic Surgeons were listed, including two of my close acquaintances. That relieved some of my anxiety about attending, as the United States Department of State strongly recommended against travel to Cuba. Figuring that there is safety in numbers, I went ahead and made my plans. I flew in to Havana in the early afternoon on a Sunday. I was met at the airport by an escort from the Ministry of the Interior, passed right through customs, and taken directly to the Havana Libre Hotel, the former Hilton. I was shown to my room, the minibar was unlocked, and I was given a government credit card for all my purchases in Cuba. There was an evening reception, with an orientation for the honored guests, and minimal appetizers and cocktails. After the reception, I returned to my room, unpacked, and started to review my slides and papers for my presentations. At about 8PM a uniformed security guard knocked on my door, and asked to see my government card. He told me that there had been a mistake, and that I would get the correct card at registration in the morning. He took the card, and locked the minibar. I couldn't get breakfast without the card, because I had been advised that I could not spend any money in Cuba due to the embargo. I went directly to the conference center early Monday morning to register. There were registration desks for every country in the world, except the United States. After searching carefully, and asking directions of everyone who could understand me, I finally was directed to the lady in charge, a striking lady with a white streak through her black hair like a skunk. She gave me a room number where I was to go to register.
That room was the security office, and I was asked to have a seat in a small room with a table, three chairs, and a mirrored wall of one way glass. I spent about eight hours there, with no food and no water, and was questioned by three different people, including a lady who introduced herself as Lydia Hernandez, passport control officer. I was later told that she was the number three or four person in the Cuban Communist Party. She was particularly interested in how I had obtained my visa and my airline tickets, as she controls every seat on planes departing Cuba and hadn't authorized my reservation. She took my ticket and my passport. When I mentioned that I would be needing those back, she didn't seem amused.
About 3:00 PM, she returned, without my passport or ticket, and told me that I was going to be permitted to attend the opening ceremony, at which Castro was to speak. I may post about the ceremony later. It was impressive. I didn't get any solid food that day, or the next day until evening. Two wonderful Bulgarian hand surgeons, Ivan Matev and Elena Paneva-Holevich took me to dinner. On Wednesday morning, while I was standing in a crowd of about 1200 delegate physicians, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned, and a man in plain clothes handed me my passport and airline ticket, with no explanation. I never got a complete explanation, but found out that the organizer of the meeting had forgotten he invited me. Rene Mujica was on vacation, and couldn't be reached. My story couldn't be verified, and my correct name didn't appear in the program. Once First Secretary (Ambassador) Mujica was consulted, everything fell into place. I never got the government credit card back, but they fed me, and very well, indeed. My last night in Havana I went to Government Palace, with 41 other honored guests, and spent over four hours with President Castro. They had two roasted pigs, and spiny lobsters so big they were carving steaks off of them. The other invited persons from the U.S. and Canada didn't attend the conference, and I later found out that the FBI had warned them not to go. I guess the fact that my name was not in the program correctly kept them from warning me. There were more than 1200 orthopedic surgeons from 130 countries in attendance.
When the above picture was taken, he had had his picture taken with about fifteen of the most prominent delegates, each standing on his left side. When I was coming up to join him, he motioned me around to his right side, and announced to the crowd: "If the North American doctor stood to the left of Fidel Castro, they would never let him back in his country." I was laughing so hard I sloshed some of his excellent brandy on my shirt and tie. No one would have imagined that 21 years later we would have elected officials to the left of Fidel Castro. He and I were both looking (and feeling) a lot better 21 years ago.


Bad Penny said...

Yikes. What an interesting and scary and yet cool experience. Glad they finally fed you!

scalpel said...

Awesome story.