The Brazilian liberation theologist and author Frei Betto recalls his longstanding friendship with the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution
Granma | 14 December, 2016
I have lost a great friend. Our last meeting was on August 13, when he turned 90. He received me in his home, in Havana, and in the afternoon we went to the Karl Marx Theatre, where he was honored with a musical show. Despite his organism being weakened, he walked without support from the theatre entrance to his seat.
With Fidel has disappeared the last great political leader of the 20th century, and the only one to have survived more than 50 years of his own work: the Cuban Revolution. Thanks to it, the little island ceased being the brothel of the Caribbean, exploited by the mafia, to become a respected, sovereign nation of solidarity, which maintains health and education professionals in more than one hundred countries, including Brazil.
I met Fidel in 1980, in Managua. What caught my attention at first sight was his imposing presence. He seemed older than he was, and the military uniform afforded him a symbolism that transmitted authority and decisiveness. He gave the impression that any seat would be too narrow for his bulk. When he entered an area, it was as if all the space was occupied by his aura. Everyone was waiting for him to take the initiative, choose the subject of conversation, make a proposal or launch an idea, while he persisted in the illusion that his presence was like any other and that he would be treated without ceremony or reverence. As in the Cole Porter song, he must also have asked himself if maybe he would be happier being a simple country man, without the fame afforded him. On one occasion the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, of whom he was a great friend, asked him if he felt the lack of anything and Fidel replied, “The power to stand, anonymous, on a street corner.”
Another surprising detail in Fidel was the timbre of his voice. His falsetto tone contrasted with his corpulence. At times he spoke so softly that his interlocuters had to pay close attention. And when he spoke he did not like to be interrupted. But he did not monopolize speaking. I have never known anyone who so much liked conversing than he did. As long as they were not protocol meetings, those in which diplomatic lies sound like definitive truths. Fidel did not know how to receive a person for just ten or twenty minutes.
At the invitation of his country’s bishops and Fidel himself, I acted in the context of religious freedom in Cuba, facilitated by the interview contained in the book Fidel and Religion, in which the communist leader makes a positive appreciation of religious phenomenon.
I couldn’t say how many private conversations I had with Fidel. One curiosity is that this man, capable of entertaining a crowd for three or four hours., detested, as I did, talking on the phone. On the few occasions that I saw him using it he was always very brief.
My frequent trips to Havana intensified our ties of friendship. In the preface which he generously wrote for my biography, launched this week by the Civilización Brasileña publishing house, Fidel emphasizes that I defend Cuba “without ceasing to sustain discrepant points of view or different to ours.” In the decade of the 1980’s, when I expressed some criticisms of the Revolution, the Comandante replied, “It’s your right. It is more: it is your duty.”
Every time I visited him in his home, after he left government, I took him bitter chocolates, his favorite, chestnuts and books in Spanish on cosmology and astrophysics. We talked about the world political juncture, his admiration for Pope Francis and, especially, about cosmology. I told him that when I went to visit Oscar Niemeyer, shortly before the death of the Brazilian architect, already a centenarian, how he told me, animatedly, that every week he brought together in his office a group of friends for a cosmology class. The fact that two eminent communists should be so interested in the subject, I commented to Fidel and he made me recall a scene from the film The Theory of Everything in which the protagonist of the famous British physicist Stephen Hawking, still a student at Cambridge, asks a young woman with whom he was initiating a romance, “What are you studying? History, she replied. He says to her, I am studying cosmology. What’s that? She inquired. And he replies, a religion for intelligent atheists.
I know for myself that Fidel, a boarding student at religious colleges for ten years, abandoned the Christian faith upon embracing Marxism. Some years back I had the distinct impression that he had once again become an agnostic. On a number of occasions, on saying goodbye to me, he asked me “Pray for us.” I am certain that Fidel went happily to experience the beyond* with the same coherence with which he lived. (Cubadebate)
* Friei Betto used the term “transvivenciar” in Portuguese, a word of his own invention to take the place of “to die.”