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Fidel Up Close: Filmmaker Jon Alpert on His Many Encounters with Castro over the Past 30 Years

StoryDecember 05, 2006
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We speak with award-winning filmmaker Jon Alpert about his many encounters with Castro over the past 30 years and play excerpts from Alpert’s 1979 trip with Castro, when he accompanied the Cuban leader on his historic trip to address the U.N. General Assembly here in New York. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon, you have been interviewing Fidel Castro over the decades, a number of times. In fact, you flew with him from Cuba to New York?

JON ALPERT: Yeah, we were the only reporters that went with him when he came to the United Nations to address them in 1979. And I had seen him so many times before, I was always wondering—even when he went to the bathroom, he had a bodyguards with him. And I wanted him to explain what type of life that was like. And I also wanted to know if he was wearing his bulletproof vest, and so I asked him. Let’s take a look.

JON ALPERT: I’ll never forget when I saw you in the Moncada. You had to go to the bathroom. But you had to go with three other people. And you’re always wearing your bulletproof vest.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] What suit?

JON ALPERT: Everybody says you always have a bulletproof vest.



PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I will land in New York like this. I have a moral one. A moral vest. It’s strong. That one has protected me always. It’s too hot in Cuba to have a bulletproof vest.

I was in New York in 1949, I think, ’49 or ’48. I was on a honeymoon in New York.

JON ALPERT: Which wife?

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] A woman. That is unimportant. It’s my history. So then, I was on a honeymoon. I was in New York for about three or four weeks. It was cold. And then I cooked. I used to go to a delicatessen, to a minimax. I used to travel around New York. I was at the University of Boston, at Harvard. At that time, I was planning to study at Harvard. I was planning to study economics.

Then, I was in New York for about three or four weeks, 155 West 82nd Street. And then, I used to pay my rent, a very modest rent. At that time, the dollar was worth something, and with very few dollars one could pay for rent, one could buy in the stores, and one could cook. I visited a few places in the city. So it was not a bad time. It was all right. I did not have a lot of money, but life was not very expensive then.

Then, things changed. Now, it would be impossible for me to do these things, because I am still the same. I have no money, and the dollar has devaluated. Life is very expensive. So then, I will be staying at the Cuban Mission. I do not have to pay rent, because it is owned by the Cuban state. So I will spend less money in New York than what I spent in 1948.

AMY GOODMAN: Cuban President Fidel Castro being interviewed by Jon Alpert in 1979 aboard a plane from Havana to New York, to give an address at the U.N. And you went with him to the place where he would then sleep that he was describing.

JON ALPERT: We stayed with Fidel for a whole week. We ate with him. We filmed all of his meetings. We have one of the most extensive collections of behind-the-scenes of Fidel. I don’t think anybody else has anything like this. You know, we even went to bed with Fidel. You know, he took us into his bedroom. I mean, this tape’s amazing.

JON ALPERT: And how do you like sleeping in New York?

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] Excellent. New York is an excellent place to sleep.

JON ALPERT: No, it’s noisy.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I heard that there was a lot of pollution, but despite all that I’ve slept splendidly well.

JON ALPERT: Did you think about your speech at all last night when you were lying here?

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] No, I didn’t want to think about that. I’ll leave that for an hour’s time. That’s when I’ll have to speak.

AMY GOODMAN: Fidel Castro in his bed at the Cuban Mission in New York in 1979, just hours before his General Assembly address. Well, this is some of what he had to say just about an hour or two later, when he took the podium at the U.N.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I have not come here as a prophet of the revolution. I have come to speak of peace and cooperation among the peoples. Human rights are very often spoken of. But we must also speak of humanity’s rights. Why should some people go barefoot, that others may travel in expensive cars? I speak on behalf of the children of the world who don’t even have a piece of bread.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Cuban President Fidel Castro at the United Nations in 1979. And you continued to interview him, Jon. When President George H.W. Bush was president, too, in 1992, you asked him about the president.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] The terrible Bush administration was bad for the U.S. and bad for the world. Nothing could be worse than Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Fidel Castro talking about Bush Sr. Tami Alpert, you were with your dad then in 1992. How old were you?

TAMI ALPERT: I was a freshman in high school at the time. And we actually—our interview was pushed back about a week, so I was missing a little bit of school. So at the end of the interview, Fidel Castro was nice enough to write me an excuse letter.

AMY GOODMAN: You brought that excuse letter with you?

TAMI ALPERT: I did bring a copy of the excuse letter. And here is a piece of the footage showing him writing this letter to me.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] What’s your teacher’s name, Tami?

TAMI ALPERT: Here, he is writing me a letter. And for those of you on the radio, I’m spelling out the name of my teacher right now for Fidel to spell out my excuse note.

JON ALPERT: How do you spell Mr. Krinci’s name?

TAMI ALPERT: Here he is writing me a letter, and he’s asking me the spelling of my teacher’s name.

JON ALPERT: Fidel was having a little trouble. He knows how to speak English pretty well, but he hasn’t had much practice, and he was apologizing. But this was a pretty good excuse note.

AMY GOODMAN: So you didn’t get in trouble, presumably, Tami, for coming late to school. And now, holding that today. Tami, what was it like to go to Cuba this weekend?

TAMI ALPERT: Well, I’ve been going back ever since I was about a year and a half old. And on this past weekend, we had a chance to meet a lot of the people that we’ve seen in the past. And we tracked down a lot of the same folks. It’s a good barometer to see what’s happening in Cuba, because every time we go meet with real people, and we get to see what’s happening in their lives. And so, on this trip we actually were very lucky we met some of the same people that we found on past trips.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 10 seconds, but the experience of the people on the ground in Cuba of Fidel Castro now no longer being very visible?

JON ALPERT: You know, Cuba, the daily life is the same. But for people that know Fidel and who have watched what he’s done, I mean, there’s a sad feeling, because the clock ticks for everybody. It ticks for Fidel, and he might have done amazing things, but he’s human.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon and Tami Alpert, thanks so much for being with us.

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