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The Man Who Would Be Fidel

Page 5 of 7

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.

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Judy Cantor