August 13, 2009 was Fidel Castro’s 83rd birthday. This appreciation by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, appeared two years ago. We repost it at the request of readers.

His fondness for words. His power of seduction. He hunts for a problem wherever it is. The impelling force of inspiration as befits his style. The breadth of his tastes is very well reflected in his books. He gave up his cigars so as to have the moral authority to fight smoking. He likes to prepare recipes with a sort of scientific fervor. He keeps in excellent shape through several hours of daily exercise and frequent swimming.

Invincible patience. Strict discipline. He’s drawn toward the unexpected by the force of his imagination. Learning to work is as important as learning to rest. 

Fatigued by talking, he rests by talking. He writes well and likes to do it. His greatest motivation in life is the emotion of risk. The rostrum of an improviser seems to be his perfect ecological element. When he starts speaking, his voice is always hard to hear and his course is uncertain, but he takes advantage of anything to gain ground, little by little, until he takes a kind of swipe and takes possession of his audience. He’s the inspiration: the irresistible and dazzling state of grace only denied by those who lack the glory to feel it. He’s the quintessential anti-dogmatist.

He’s been sufficiently talented to incorporate the ideas of José Martí, his bedtime author, to a Marxist revolution’s bloodstream. The essence of his own thoughts lies perhaps in his certainty that working with the masses means first of all taking care of individuals. 

That could explain his absolute confidence in face-to-face contact. He’s got a language for each occasion and a different approach to persuasion according to his listener. He knows how to be up to the same standard as the other, and his vast and diverse information allows him to feel at ease in any environment. One thing’s for sure: wherever he is, however he is and whoever he is with, Fidel Castro is there to win. His attitude toward defeat, even in the smallest acts of everyday life, seems to abide by a private logic: he doesn’t even admit it, and never takes a moment’s rest until he manages to reverse the situation and turn it into victory.

There’s no one more obsessed when it comes to getting to the bottom of any matter. He engages in any project, whether colossal or millimetric, with the same fierce passion, especially if it means facing adversity. Never does he seem to be in a better mood than in those moments. Someone who thinks they know him well told him: “Things must be very wrong, because you look enraptured.”

Reiteration is one of his working methods. For instance: the issue of the Latin American foreign debt had come up in his conversation some two years ago, and had evolved, branched out and deepened since then. The first thing he said, as a simple arithmetical conclusion, was that the debt was impossible to pay. Then came the staggered findings: its effects on national economies, its social and political impact, its decisive influence on international relations, its providential importance for a unitary policy in Latin America… up to a totalizing vision, which he exposed in an international meeting called for that purpose that time took care of proving right.

His rarest virtue as a politician is the ability to discern how an event will evolve all the way to its farthest consequences… but he practices such ability, not by flashes of inspiration, but as a result of arduous, tenacious reasoning. His supreme assistant is a memory he uses and abuses to back up a speech or a private talk with overwhelming statements and incredibly fast mathematical calculations. 

He needs to be helped with incessant, spoon-fed and digested data. The task of accumulating information starts as soon as he arises. No less than 200 pages of news from all over the world join his breakfast every morning. Every day, wherever he is, they get urgent reports to him: according to his own estimate he has to read about 50 documents per day, not to mention the reports issued by official services and by those who visit him and whatever arouses his boundless curiosity. 

Any answer has to be accurate, since he can pinpoint the smallest contradiction in a casual phrase. Books are another source of vital information. He’s an avid reader. No one understands where he finds enough time or what method he applies to read so much and so quickly, although he insists he uses none in particular. He frequently takes a book with him in the early hours and makes comments about it the following morning. He can read in English, but he doesn’t speak it. He’d rather read in Spanish, and at any given time is willing to read whatever piece of paper with letters on it that falls into his hands. A regular reader of economic and historical topics, he also appreciates good literature and follows it very closely. 

He’s in the habit of bombarding people with swift, consecutive questions he asks in bursts until he finds out the whys of the whys of the final whys. When a Latin American visitor hastily gave him figures about rice consumption in his country, he made his mental arithmetic and said: “That’s weird; each person eats four pounds of rice a day”. His supreme tactic is asking about things he already knows to confirm his data, and in some cases to size up his interlocutor and treat him accordingly. 

He misses no chance to be well-informed. At an official reception he attended during the war in Angola, he described a battle so thoroughly that it was hard to convince a European diplomat that Fidel Castro had taken no part in it. His account of the capture and murder of Che Guevara, his description of the attack on the [Palacio de la] Moneda and Salvador Allende’s death, or the one on the ravages of Hurricane Flora were great spoken features. 

His vision of Latin America’s future is the same Bolívar and Martí: an integrated, autonomous community capable of changing the fate of the world. He knows the United States better than any other country, barring Cuba. He has in-depth knowledge about the nature of its people, its power structure and its governments’ second intentions, something he has efficiently used to weather the unceasing storm of the blockade. 

When interviewed, usually for hours on end, he dwells on every subject, venturing into its least expected twists and turns without ever neglecting accuracy, aware that a single misused word can bring about irreparable damage. He has never refused to answer any question, nor has he lost patience. There are some who keep him from hearing the truth in order to spare him from too many worries. He knows, though. To an official who tried to do so, he said: “You hide the facts from me so as not to disturb me, but when I find out at the end I will die of shock for having to face so many truths you never told me”. The most serious ones, however, are those they keep from him to cover up for deficiencies, because parallel with the outstanding achievements that sustain the Revolution –whether in politics, science, sports or culture– runs a huge bureaucratic incompetence which affects daily life at almost every level, and particularly domestic happiness. 

When he talks with people in the street, their conversation acquires the raw expressiveness and frankness of real endearment. They call him “Fidel”. They surround him safety. They address him on a first-name basis; they argue with him, state opposing views and make demands, all in a live broadcasting session through which the truth comes tumbling out. That’s when we get to see the uncommon human being concealed by the brightness of his own image. This is the Fidel Castro that I believe I know: a man of austere habits and insatiable illusions, old-fashioned bearing, cautious words and fine manners whose ideas can’t be less than extraordinary. 

He dreams that his scientists will eventually discover the ultimate cure for cancer, and he has developed a foreign policy fit for a world power in an island 84 times smaller than his major enemy. He’s convinced that a proper formation of consciousness is mankind’s greatest accomplishment, and that moral incentives outdo material things in changing the world and pushing history. 

In his few moments of yearning for life, I’ve heard him ruminating on the things he could have done differently to reclaim more time from life. Seeing him weighed down with the burden of so many people’s destiny, I asked him what he would like to do more than anything else, and his straightaway answer was: “To stand on a street corner.”