Longform

The Man Who Would Be Fidel

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"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.

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Judy Cantor