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Complicated Feelings: 'The Little Fidel In All Of Us'


In Cuba today, a three-day-long procession begins. Fidel Castro's ashes will travel across Cuba to their final resting place. The symbolism is incredible. Castro and his rebels took this route to seize power in 1959. His remains will be on that same journey in reverse. Cubans on the island and here in the United States are working through their emotions about the late dictator, among them writer Achy Obejas. She wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times, and you can feel her complicated emotions on the page. She was born in Cuba but left with her family when she was 6 years old. The headline on Achy Obejas' piece is "The Little Fidel In All Of Us." And I asked her to explain that.

ACHY OBEJAS: (Laughter). You know, writers usually have little say about the headline, so I I've been getting a lot of...

GREENE: (Laughter). But this one worked out for you?

OBEJAS: (Laughter). It's just one line in the piece. But what I mean is that those of us who have spent our entire lives with Fidel as a powerful backdrop, let's say, have, in some ways, sometimes absorbed some of his, you know, if not attitudes, sometimes peculiarities or affects. For example, my dad used to point in the air in the exact same way as Fidel.

Fidel had a very particular way of using his index finger to sort of jab the air. And, you know, I go to Miami. I hang out with my relatives, and all the men of his generation are doing that. They're pointing, you know, and it's not a natural thing. It's like we've picked it up, you know? So the imperiousness that sometimes afflicts us becomes the little Fidel in us.

GREENE: So your father gestures like him, but - but you write that your father hated him with singular fury, as you put it.


GREENE: I mean, forced him into exile, loathed him, but you said there was a smidgeon of admiration from your father and even identification. I mean, make sense of all of that.

OBEJAS: Well, I think it's, you know, when, you know, anybody in Cuba gets the better of an American, whether it's, you know, Olympic boxing or Fidel pulls one off and sort of humiliates the American president or, you know, gets away with something. As much as you may disagree with the actual event, you know, you're Cuban. He's Cuban.

It's because, you know, he's so damn smart because we're so damn smart. Oh, my God, I hate him, but, God, he's smart. So it's this weird, twisted identification that - that comes with that. And, you know, intelligence is this very highly prized thing among Cubans. And so how many times - I can't even tell you - I've heard people say, well, I disagree with him about everything, but, boy, I tip my hat to him. That guy is a genius.

GREENE: It sounds like pride. Is pride the right word? I mean, even if you hate him, you feel pride.

OBEJAS: Sure, I think there's absolutely some of that. It was this perverse pride in - in our possibilities, I think. You know, Fidel always had big dreams, you know, and big schemes. There was a time when he wanted to put up some kind of shields to protect the entire island from hurricanes. You know, I mean, insane - of course you can't do that, you know?

GREENE: You know, it's - I'm - I'm struck as you describe this because, when I lived in Russia for a few years, Vladimir Putin talked about creating a way to prevent snow from falling over the city of Moscow. And it seemed like such...

OBEJAS: Wow, he was really afflicted with Fidelismo.


GREENE: Well, it seemed like such an absurd idea, but I think it was what you're describing. It was - it was - a lot of Russians, you know, liked him for trying something. I mean, is there a deeper lesson here about the relationship with a dictator?

OBEJAS: Well, I think it's not so much a dictator, per se, but a long-term dictator. I think that's the difference. Long-term dictators become very familiar, both in their terror and in their absurdity. Also, if you in any way choose to stay in the country that the dictator is dictating, you have to rationalize or justify that decision on kind of a constant basis to yourself.

And if you leave the country, you have to also justify leaving. And so the dictator can't be an ordinary dictator. He's got to be an extraordinary dictator because you would not leave just over some inconvenience. You would only leave if, you know, it's cataclysmic.

GREENE: Would - would you blame someone who was so angry at Fidel Castro for reading your piece and just tossing it aside and saying, I don't want to see the nuance here, I don't - I don't want to believe that there's a little Fidel anywhere in me?

OBEJAS: (Laughter). No, I mean, of course not. And, you know, I - in fact, I'm sure my dad would have done that. You know, if he were alive, he would have tossed it aside and said, ah, you know? What the piece is really about and what I was really kind of getting at is it what we've had happen with his death is that this constant presence in our life is now gone.

You know, for people my age, I think that it's important. But I think for people a little older than me and sort of the more historic exile generation, it's actually huge. I mean, they've been in a - kind of a mortal psychological battle with Fidel as an idea and as a person their whole lives. And, you know, OK, they won. Fidel finally died. They're still here. What now?

GREENE: Let me finish with a simple question. Are you going to miss him?

OBEJAS: Oh, God, yeah, of course. Yes, yes, I think we're all going to miss him in good and bad ways, I think. You know, we're not going to have Fidel to kick around anymore.

GREENE: That was the writer Achy Obejas. Her piece in The New York Times is called "The Little Fidel In All Of Us." And, Steve, won't have Fidel to kick around anymore - those words probably bring to mind something.


Well, they do. There's a historical reference there. That's the - there's actually a political history behind that phrase, you won't have me to kick around anymore. That's Richard Nixon.


INSKEEP: Yeah - used that phrase.

GREENE: You got it. 1962 - he had just lost the governor's race in the state of California, and he used a press conference to rip the reporters who were covering him.


RICHARD NIXON: If I leave you, I want you to know - just think how much you're going to be missing. You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.

GREENE: (Laughter). Now, that was called his last press conference.

INSKEEP: But he was kind of Fidel Castro-like. He kept going and going and going - turned out not to be his last press conference there in 1962. He ran for president in 1968 and reporters got to kick him around a lot more during the Watergate scandal a few years after that.

GREENE: Indeed - stayed on the political stage much longer than anyone had expected, much like Fidel Castro Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.