The Man Who Would Be Fidel

A sense of timelessness pervades the lobby of Teatro Trail, a former movie house located on SW Eighth Street at 37th Avenue, right where the littered sidewalks of Little Havana intersect with the manicured lawns of Coral Gables. Oil paintings of idyllic country landscapes and quaint village scenes of a Cuba that no longer exists hang in the foyer over roomy armchairs left over from the building's previous incarnation. Near the door, an elderly ticket taker cordially greets incoming theatergoers, giving them handprinted programs that feature ads for local businesses offering guayaberas and English lessons, as well as a "space for autographs" blocked out on the back page. At the small glass concession counter, several middle-age couples chat in Spanish as they wait in line to buy popcorn -- the same popcorn that later will fly from their mouths as they hoot at Fidel Castro.

Backstage, an hour before the 9:00 p.m. showtime for this Saturday-night production of Con Lincoln y con Ileana, Volveremos a la Habana (With Lincoln and With Ileana, We'll Go Back to Havana), writer-actor Armando Roblan has already begun to transform himself into the familiar figure of the Cuban leader. The actor's full lips and prominent chin are hidden behind a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, while a slab of putty gives him a long nose with a gnarled bridge.

Roblan sits in a folding chair at a counter neatly set with a row of theatrical cosmetics. A nearby table holds a pile of local Spanish-language newspapers and old newsprint photographs. Roblan examines a photo of Fidel Castro at the Ibero-American Summit held in Spain in 1992, then compares it to his own face in the mirror, frowning to match the expression Castro wears in the picture. Then he points to a more recent photo -- an older, tired Fidel being helped down the steps of a plane in Vietnam.

Holding an old make-up mirror, he picks up an eyebrow pencil and etches in frown lines around his mouth and eyes, then dots on several moles, identical to Castro's. Next the actor glues a thin mustache in place with the aid of spirit gum, then picks up a hair dryer and aims it at his upper lip. Already dressed in Castro's signature olive drabs, Roblan gets up from the table and proceeds to a closet area where a khaki dress uniform, a sultan's turban, a flamenco dress, and other costumes are hanging. He takes down a large, rectangular piece of foam padding that is ripped in several places from so much use. Grabbing a piece of string, he ties the padding around his midsection, buttons his jacket, and adjusts his stuffing, breathing heavily as he moves about the room. Then he covers his own balding pate with a green army cap and slips on a huge pair of dark glasses.

"Now come the muscular expressions," he says, furrowing his brow and drawing in his lips until they almost disappear. Suddenly Roblan's usual hospitable demeanor undergoes a transformation. His words become curt, his movements brusque, and his eyes dart around with an all-seeing gaze. "What happens is the spirit of the person starts to penetrate," he intones, pulling at his beard.

The actor now looks disconcertingly like Castro, a resemblance he will use to comic effect. Although Roblan is a mimic whose talents have garnered him a variety of roles in the theater and on television in Latin America, here he cannot shake his reputation as "the Fidel Castro of Miami." For fifteen years crowds of Cuban exiles have made a ritual of watching Roblan reduce el maximo lider to a bumbling buffoon in an ongoing series of farces that comment on Cuban current affairs from a Miami exile's distinct point of view.

For instance, in 1989, concluding that Fidel's days were numbered after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Roblan's En los 90 Fidel Revienta (In the Nineties, Fidel Will Explode) began a four-year run at Teatro Marti, on SW Eighth Avenue. The rhyming Spanish title became so well-known locally that George Bush even recited it while making a campaign speech in Miami in 1992, a move guaranteed to find favor with the city's Cuban-American populace.

While the Cuban situation didn't exactly turn out as Roblan had predicted, it continued to provide him with fodder for additional productions featuring the follies precipitated by Fidel: 1991's -- Pepe Salsa, Le Lleg cents la Novia en Balsa (Pepe Salsa's Girlfriend Arrived on a Raft) and 1992's La Novia del Balsero Se Le Fue con un Techero (The Rafter's Girlfriend Left Him for a Roofer). In 1993 he comforted weary Miami Cubans with En los 90 Fidel, Si, Revienta (In the Nineties, Yes, Fidel Will Explode). One year later, Roblan lampooned Castro's fledgling capitalist business efforts with No Ha Reventao, pero Esta Negociao (He Hasn't Exploded, but He's Negotiated). And early last year Roblan lent his support to the effort to naturalize Cuban exiles when he performed Mi Hermano, Hay Que Hacerse Ciudadano (Brother, You've Got to Become a Citizen).

Modeled on the farcical genre teatro bufo that was performed widely in Havana in the Twenties and Thirties, Roblan's archetypal works of Miami exile theater offer a surreal mix of fact and fiction built on burlesque humor, political satire, nostalgia, and mass frustration. For older exile audiences who have spent 37 years mourning pre-Castro Cuba, his portrayal of the revolutionary leader as a stumblebum is not only the ultimate sight gag, but also a rite of collective catharsis.

Roblan writes the scripts -- leaving room for improvisation -- and plays two or three other roles in each production, as do the other members of his six-member troupe. But the actor's Fidel is undeniably the main attraction. "The audience really enjoys the way I ridicule Fidel," brags Roblan. "That's how I've won my public."

The actor, who turns 65 next month, insists that he does not want to be known only as the man who plays Castro, but he takes obvious pride in the role. He first played it not in Little Havana but on Cuban television in 1959, when he dressed up as Castro for an audience that included the then-new Cuban president himself. Nearly four decades later, he maintains his claim as the authentic Fidel imitator. "There have been other attempts to copy what I do and do it somewhere else," he says dismissively. "But no one can do it better because everything has its place. The source gives me credit."

The audience that typically pays sixteen dollars a pop to see Roblan perform Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Teatro Trail (tickets cost thirteen dollars for senior citizens) includes groups of tourists from Latin America, where Roblan is a well-known comic thanks to his guest appearances on the syndicated Univisi centsn variety show Sabado Gigante and other television programs. Some are families with young children, for whom Roblan is the Mister Rogers-like host of the long-running children's show Los Amigitos de Roblan (Roblan's Little Friends), that was broadcast on Panamanian television.

But the majority of Roblan's public is made up of older Cubans who arrive at the theater looking as worn as the dilapidated buildings that line the streets of present-day Havana: groups of women with tight bouffants in varying shades of blue and gray, and dapper gentlemen dressed in ancient suit coats and doused with sweet-smelling hair tonic. These are the people Roblan refers to as "the Medicare crowd," the ones who sometimes doze off in their seats as they wait for the show to begin.

But on a Sunday afternoon in December the theater buzzes with an excitement worthy of a Hollywood premiere. Cars jam the lot behind the building, with others parked in the drive-up teller lanes of the bank across the street. The lobby has been spruced up in time for this special matinee performance of Con Lincoln y con Ileana, Volveremos a la Habana. Pine boughs and gold balls, both tied with red ribbon, hang on the walls. Fake-snow holiday greetings in Spanish have been sprayed on several mirrors. Christmas stockings have been tacked over a faux fireplace. And a life-size cardboard cutout of U.S.Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, attired in a crisp yellow blazer and skirt, has been propped up near the refreshment stand.

Inside the auditorium, the claps and whistles of an impatient audience of about 450 people drown out selections from Gloria Estefan's Mi Tierra that play over and over on the house sound system.

Finally a voice speaking Spanish booms from backstage: "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen. You are going to have a great time. Laugh, because laughter is health. Laughter is the disinfectant of the soul."

With that, the stage's silver lame curtains part to reveal a disheveled office. A painted backdrop depicts bookshelves lined with Marxist tracts, while a portrait of a goofy-looking young Fidel Castro hangs on one of the walls. After a minute, Castro himself shuffles into the room, his ankles twisted as though his black combat boots are on the wrong feet.

"Sssss," the crowd hisses.
"Boooo!" some people yell, cupping their hands around their mouths.
"Murderer!" someone shouts from the back. Not a head in the audience turns in reaction to the outburst.

"I'm so tired," sighs Castro, rubbing his lower back. "Since the Russians stopped sending me those vitamins, I just can't go on."

The catcalls suddenly dissolve into hysterical laughter. Roblan's Castro waits a beat before picking up a red phone on the set's desk. "Hello, Robaina," he says, referring to Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina. "See if you can get me some cat's claw or some shark testicle." Laughter.

"I don't know why, but my sister Juanita doesn't send it to me from Miami any more." More laughter.

Castro strokes his paunch and pulls at his beard. "Time for my exercises." He starts jumping around, flailing his arms as he dances to the strains of last summer's Spanish novelty hit "La Macarena."

"Hey, Fidel Castro," he chants, making up his own words to the song as he lunges forward precariously and throws his arms over his head. "Yeah!"

A man in the first row is laughing so hard he's choking. Castro stares down at him from the stage, wrinkling his forehead above his oversize glasses. The man slumps into his seat, giggling madly.

On-stage, a parade of businessmen visit Castro's office to discuss their investments in Cuba. First comes an Argentine bearing a bottle of "Vino Fidel" that bears a picture of Castro on its label.

"This is great!" exclaims Castro. "I'm sure Gabriel Garcia Marquez will want to be the first to try it. Just make sure it's red wine." But Castro decides to take the first sip himself, and after he does he doubles over, clutching his stomach in pain. The bottle contains poison, and the Argentine turns out to be a spy for Jorge Mas Canosa's Cuban National Foundation. Castro's secretary, a young female soldier played by Ileana Hurtado, can't locate any medicine to help him because the pharmacies don't have any. And she can't bring him a glass of water because he ordered the water turned off. And she can't go for a doctor because her bicycle has been stolen. Finally a veterinarian arrives and gives Castro a "horse" pill. When he realizes what it is, he has the vet hauled off to prison. The audience howls.

Next comes a Mexican wearing a gigantic sombrero. Then a Spaniard with an exaggerated Castilian accent. Castro tries to involve them in various business schemes. But even after he offers his visitors a two-for-one prostitute special, they decline, citing their fear of legal repercussions from the Helms-Burton bill. (Last September the U.S. House of Representatives approved a version of the bill whereby Cuban Americans could sue foreign companies in U.S. court if those firms bought property that had been confiscated from them by Castro's government. The proposed legislation is expected to be presented in the Senate early this year.)

At the mention of the Helms-Burton bill, U.S. representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen walk stiffly onto the Teatro Trail stage. Both wear dark sunglasses and tough expressions, giving them the look of extras on a rerun of Miami Vice. The audience applauds and rises in a standing ovation, which continues until Diaz-Balart waves his hand for them to sit down. The congressman and congresswoman start arguing with Castro, gradually backing him into a corner of the stage.

"We're going to see freedom for Cuba!" shouts Diaz-Balart.
"No, my people support me," counters Castro. The whole audience boos.
"It's over," pronounces Diaz-Balart.
"Free Elections! Free elections!" chants Ros-Lehtinen.

A member of the audience hands each of the politicians a small Cuban flag, which they obligingly wave. The crowd treats them as superheroes, cheering and whistling. Meanwhile Roblan's Castro stomps about the stage having a temper tantrum. Here the sketch ends, as Roblan and the two politicians leave the stage, giving way to two other cast members in a bit about an effeminate male tamale vendor and a macho fisherman trying to keep from starving in Havana.

Reached by phone in his Washington, D.C., office a few days later, Diaz-Balart seems to find nothing particularly unusual about his brief fling as a thespian in the Little Havana docudrama. "Roblan has been able to capture the essence of Cuba and to capture the political moment in a really marvelous way," explains the congressman. "I thought it would be a nice idea to show up."

Not coincidentally, Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen are staunch supporters of the Helms-Burton bill, and the legislation itself is a major theme of the two-hour Con Lincoln y con Ileana Volveremos a la Habana. "We saw [our appearance] as a gesture of solidarity," Diaz-Balart notes matter-of-factly.

But for Jose Antonio Evora, a Cuban scholar and critic who arrived in Miami two years ago to research Cuban exile theater on a Guggenheim fellowship, Roblan's brand of real-life theater is an extension of the tradition of absurd political satire on the island. "In Cuba, popular theater was always linked to politics, simply because politics have so defined life on the island," contends Evora, who decided to stay on in Miami after his grant ended at the end of 1994. Such political comedy revues, which offered a running commentary on current events, pretty much disappeared on the island with the triumph of the revolutionary government. Castro's regime forbade such mockery, and the productions were replaced by plays that extolled the glories of the new government. But on Calle Ocho, far, far away from Cuban censors, exiles can still enjoy the kind of theater that was popular in Cuba before 1959 -- productions packed with sexual innuendoes, homosexual jokes, and mother-in-law humor, mixed with more recent criticism of Castro's government.

"What Roblan and others have done is preserve a kind of Cuban theater that has disappeared inside Cuba," says Evora. "Roblan is the symbol of exile theater, political theater par excellence."

Evora, who formerly worked as a theater and film critic in Havana, contends that the tradition of a theater of the absurd is a natural result of the surrealistic character of Cuban culture. He goes so far as to call it the "theater of the absurdocracia," defining Cuban exile comedy as a genre that takes the typical satiric method of blending real events and drama to a bizarre extreme.

"The actor-audience relationship becomes one of character-to-character," explains the critic. "It's a case where all of the Cubans in the theater start to represent themselves, yelling at Fidel and expressing their political points of view. So to bring the politicians on-stage is just a natural extension of that."

Roblan sees his own work as continuing the Cuban theatrical tradition of political satire. But even more than that, he says it is a way of fulfilling his social responsibility in exile. "I believe in duty, and I believe that as Castro I serve the same function as someone who does it behind a microphone on the radio, or with a typewriter as a journalist. I do it on stage," he states, pausing for a moment. "Well, perhaps it's just a little more polemical."

Out of costume, Armando Roblan looks nothing like Fidel Castro. As the Cuban president, he is sluggish, bearded, bulky, and relentlessly surly. The real Roblan is lanky and balding, his big eyes accentuated by round glasses. Even at the cusp of age 65 he is dizzyingly energetic, exuding a magnanimous, down-home manner and an expansive, almost silly smile. On a weekday morning a few days after the special Sunday matinee performance of Con Lincoln y con Ileana, Volveremos a la Habana featuring Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, Roblan, dressed in tan slacks and a plaid sports shirt, pokes around in a closet in the theater lobby, pulling out some of his most recent oil paintings. Roblan refers to these paintings -- and to his others that hang around the room -- as "typical scenes" of Cuba: naive depictions of noble vistas and tropical peasants drawn from memories of the island he left in 1961. He also paints the sets for his productions himself, and illustrates the theater's photocopied programs with caricatures of the plays' actors and of the store owners who support the publication with their ads. Roblan's Panamanian wife, Gloria Lau, helps him run the theater, which he leases. On any given day members of his cast can also be found staffing the ticket booth or doing repairs.

Holding at arm's length a painting of a Cuban woman dressed in a shawl, Roblan explains with obvious pride that he trained as a visual artist, not as an actor. Born in the small western Cuban town of Bejucal to a cigar maker and a seamstress, he studied painting and sculpture at the San Alejandro Art Academy in Havana. While still in school, in 1950, Roblan entered a talent competition at the newly inaugurated Cuban television station Telemundo, seen on Channel 2 in Havana. He conflated a stage name, Roblan, from his two given last names, Rodriguez Blanco.

"I kept in mind that television was a medium to watch, not listen to," he recalls, making drawing motions with his hands as he leans back on a fake leather love seat in the theater's lobby. "So the more movement there is, the better. I presented something I had always enjoyed -- caricatures. I had members of the audience draw any kind of squiggle on a piece of paper, and I'd turn it into a picture of a celebrity or a politician."

Roblan proved popular with the public, and eventually appeared on several episodes of the talent show. He soon added a new element to his routine. "I said, 'Why don't we animate the caricature?' So I started mimicking the personalities I drew."

The artist's imitations quickly earned him a regular spot on another program, Hacia la Fama (Toward Fame), and not long afterward he was working full-time for Telemundo, learning about constructing sets, operating lights, scriptwriting, and other elements of production for the new medium. But most of all he made people laugh. "I won my place through my characterizations," he points out. "Since I could draw, since I could sculpt, I could shape my face to look like the face of any other person."

By the mid-Fifties Roblan was a well-known comic in Cuba, performing not only on television but also in Havana's most popular nightclubs. He appeared as Nat King Cole, Maurice Chevalier, and even Josephine Baker, always doing his own makeup. In the case of some characters, such as the black Cuban lounge singer Bola de Nieve, the transformation could take him as long as three hours.

One night he was doing a bit as Liberace at the famous Tropicana Club, and the musician himself happened to be in the audience. Liberace climbed on-stage beside his imitator and the pair traded jokes. "It caused a real sensation," Roblan remembers. "From then on I always tried to get the person I was imitating into the TV studio and have them come out with me at one point in the show."

While Roblan continued performing in theaters and clubs, he also stepped up his television appearances, working for two years with Garrido and Pi*ero, the most popular Cuban comedy team of the day. Not only did he perform his imitations, but he painted backdrops for the show's sets. Then in 1959 he added a new dramatic caricature to his repertoire. "The triumph of the revolution came," he explains, "and since every week I presented the most popular personality of the moment, that week it was Fidel."

He transformed himself into the bearded young revolutionary, appearing on Garrido and Pi*ero's program as Castro in the earliest days of the new regime. But the times were already changing, and Roblan was contracted to perform in a new play at Havana's venerable Teatro Marti -- not as a comic, but as a true-to-life depiction of Fidel Castro.

"It was the first production of the new genre of socialist realism after the revolution," Roblan notes now. The actor worked in the theater six nights a week, playing the protagonist's role in a rather didactic representation of Castro's triumph over Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista. Sometimes he was joined on-stage by the young Castro himself, and the two Fidels would engage in a humorous exchange. Later they'd joke around in the dressing room where, the actor says, he called Castro "Roblan" and Castro referred to him as "Fidel."

"It was a moment when the country was living in true euphoria," he remembers. "We were living the emotion of the whole moment of 'the bearded ones' coming down from the Sierra. We Cubans, we Latinos in general, we are very emotional, and at that moment we let ourselves get carried away. Although we've had to pay for it, in the beginning it was euphoric."

Roblan was rapidly becoming known as Fidel's double, and there was one incident in particular that cemented that identity in the minds of the public. He was contacted by someone in Castro's office and told that the president needed his help in playing a practical joke. Already dressed in his Fidel costume, Roblan was picked up and whisked to a convention hall in Havana's Parque del Init, where an international travel agents convention was being held. Roblan was greeted as Castro. When he got up to the podium and began delivering the president's welcoming speech, Fidel himself suddenly entered the room through the back door -- much to the crowd's surprise.

"I'm a part of history," Roblan asserts, remembering that day. Afterward a photo of himself as Castro appeared in one of the first issues of the Cuban magazine Bohemia.

But what had begun as a joke started to take on more serious implications. To Roblan's dismay, people started treating him as if he really was Fidel Castro. One day he was performing at Havana's Coney Island amusement park when a woman came up to him and asked, "What's going to happen to the political prisoners?" Roblan, as Castro, tried to give her the most reassuring answer he could, telling her not to worry. "She left, and someone said to me, 'What if they execute her husband?'" recalls Roblan. "I knew I had to get out of that situation."

And so he started making plans. As a comic, Roblan had performed several times in Latin America, and he knew that through his connections he would be granted a travel visa. "There were people who were working with the government who knew that I couldn't stay there," Roblan explains. "I see humor in everything, I don't have limits. For me there's something funny in every moment, I can't help it. And I knew that went against what they believed in." He left Cuba for the United States on September 14, 1961, with his first wife and their infant son, landing in New Orleans. From there he made his way to Miami where, finding little opportunity in the local Anglo-dominated show business scene of the time, he decided to become a sign painter. Cuban exiles had started opening businesses in Little Havana, and Roblan made signs for what would eventually become the new shopping district along Calle Ocho.

Not long after his arrival here, Roblan and his wife were divorced. He then received an offer to go to Panama to host the children's program Los Amigitos de Roblan and produce a comedy-variety show. There he met Gloria, who eventually became his second wife. (They've been married for more than 30 years. The couple has a daughter, Priscilla, an advertising executive, and a son, Armando, who works for the Disney Corporation. Both children, now in their twenties, live in Miami. His Cuban-born son, Orlando, from Roblan's first marriage, also lives here.) Several years later, Roblan, Gloria, and their two children moved from Panama to Puerto Rico, where he worked as an actor and writer for television.

Roblan returned to the U.S. in the early Seventies, settling in Austin to take a role on Caras Colendas, a program produced by the University of Texas for Hispanic children. Roblan now describes the show as a Spanish version of Sesame Street; he played the owner of a toy store.

In 1973 Roblan and his family returned to Miami. But the actor continued to work for Latin American television, commuting weekly. At one point he was performing in Puerto Rico Monday through Friday, going to Panama to tape a program on Sundays, and in between flying to Chile to make guest appearances on Sabado Gigante, the enormously popular variety show that is now filmed in Miami.

Roblan finally tired of so much travel and decided to try his luck on the Spanish theater circuit in Miami. In 1980 he appeared as Castro for the first time in Miami at Teatro Marti in No Hay Mal que Dure Cien A*os (No Evil Lasts a Hundred Years), written by Cuban playwright and screenwriter Alberto Gonzalez. The show's run coincided with the Mariel boatlift and the sudden arrival of thousands of Cuban refugees in Miami. The cast incorporated sendups of those pivotal local events into a series of comedic sketches, with Roblan playing both Castro and then-president Ronald Reagan. To Roblan's surprise, the audience loved it.

"I didn't think I could do Castro in Miami," he says now with a bemused shrug. "It seemed illogical." Gonzalez, who originally had proposed an idea for a TV pilot in which Roblan would play the Cuban president (it never flew), had to talk the actor into doing the play. But it was so successful that later that same year Roblan wrote his own vehicle to accommodate his Castro impersonation: Ni la Vaca de Fidel Esta de Acuerdo con El (Not Even Fidel's Cow Agrees with Him). Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Roblan has continued to write and perform in similar productions: first at Teatro Marti, then at the now-defunct Teatro Cuba on Bird Road, and later at Teatro Trail, which he began renting in 1993.

He still accepts other acting jobs, which help pay the rent, and regularly appears on Sabado Gigante in broad ethnic roles (he's played an Asian, for instance). Last summer he filmed Castro vs. Castro, a made-for-television movie produced by Miami-based Palmer Productions. Tony Borbolla, who directed the hourlong film, describes it as a "study of the psychology of a dictator." Roblan plays Castro today, while another Cuban actor, Michel Paneke, plays the young Fidel, who comes to the present-day president in a dream. While its sentiments are undeniably anti-Castro, the film evenhandedly examines Fidel's progression from a young idealistic rebel to an uncompromising autocrat. Borbolla has shown the film to both the Telemundo and Univisi centsn networks, but neither has made an offer to broadcast it. The director says that one local critic who works at a Spanish-language newspaper suggested it was "too intellectual" for the Latin TV audience.

Whatever the film's outcome, Roblan continues to draw an enthusiastic audience for his portrayal of Fidel Castro among Calle Ocho's elderly. They don't want to know about Castro's psyche. They just want to sit back, enjoy themselves, and prove that, here in exile, they've had the last laugh. "I can do any other character, but it never has the impact of Fidel," Roblan marvels. "The same charisma that he has overflows when I mimic him. It is indisputable that he has a presence that almost no politician has. If it had only been used for our own good, but . . . ," he trails off.

For Cuban scholar Jose Antonio Evora, the appeal of Roblan's Castro is obvious. "By his own will Fidel Castro has created an image that allows him to be seen as a demigod, a hero," Evora explains. "In Cuba, every day it is confirmed that he is not a human being, because he lives apart from everyone else. He makes all the decisions and everyone must obey them. Roblan, with his imitation, makes you notice the human qualities of that demigod. His mimicry brings to Fidel the very aspects that he himself is denying -- the fact that he's human."

Roblan has meticulously studied Fidel Castro since they were both young men. Although they are not far apart in age -- Castro turns 70 this year -- Roblan looks much younger. But as the Cuban leader has grown old, Roblan's Fidel has grown old with him. The walk has changed from a pompous march to a shuffle. The voice has grown weaker. And when Castro quit smoking his famous cigars, Roblan stopped smoking them on-stage. Meanwhile the actor's initial disappointment in Castro as a politician has evolved into clear contempt. But Roblan also shows an obvious sympathy -- even fondness -- for Castro the man. "It's logical that he's tired," Roblan muses. "It's the years that he has, the problems that he has, on top of that huge activity that he's had to maintain all this time, so much traveling. I've heard that he's pretty sick, but he has doctors taking care of him." Suddenly Roblan, still seated in the lobby in his civilian clothes, starts speaking in Fidel's voice. His face sags and he grimaces, bowing his head: "He's got to be in bad shape, chica."

Having made a good part of his living at Castro's expense for so many years, Roblan runs the risk of losing his public when, as the comic has repeatedly predicted, Fidel finally falls. And yet Roblan insists that what he wants most of all is to see Castro go. "I sincerely wish it would be over once and for all, and that I wouldn't have to do him any more," he asserts. "When it's all over and there's freedom in Cuba as there should be, I'm going to debut Viva Cubano que Cay cents el Tirano (Rejoice, Cuban, the Tyrant Has Fallen).

"But while he's still there, I'm going to keep on doing him," Roblan says emphatically, his clear voice seguing into Castro's raspy whisper -- "to ridicule him.

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Judy Cantor