There was a “feeling in the air” that members of a group of healthcare professionals visiting Havana from around the United States might be in for a surprise.
Dabney P. Evans, an assistant professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, though, had no idea just how big that surprise would be.
It was July 2006, shortly before Fidel Castro would hand over power to his brother, Raúl. Castro would formally step aside as president in 2008.
Evans and the others were in the island nation to learn about its public health care system. They had just held a high-level meeting with the minister of health.
The group sat down to eat. Dinner ended and Evans thought that would be the end of the night.
Instead, they got in a vehicle and were ferried to a government building, where they would meet Fidel Castro, the communist revolutionary who became the bane of many a U.S. president and was despised by many of his countrymen some of whom risked their lives on small boats and rafts to flee their homeland leave everything behind. A man hated for his repressive treatment of opponents and loved by others.
“I thought it would be a very quick, handshaking, taking pictures kind of thing,” said Evans of that hot summer night.
Instead the Cuban president, dressed in his trademark olive green military uniform, invited them into a conference room to talk. And talk they did - from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next day.
“He had these piercing eyes and a piercing mind,” she said. “When he shook my hand, he really looked at me. I remember being in the very powerful presence of a person who obviously had a lot of charisma.”
Castro, she recalled, was extremely bright and inquisitive.
Over the course of those hours, they held a wide-ranging discussion. “He showed the depth of his experience and intellect on many, many levels. He talked about everything from the price of crops to the situation in East Timor (which had undergone a violent political crisis and tens of thousands took shelter in makeshift camps).”
The Cubans were very well-known for sending emergency medical response teams around the world.
“He was really well versed,” Evans said. “If you were talking about the price of corn, he knew exactly what the price of corn was on that day. He was talking about things on the cutting edge like probiotics in yogurt and energy efficiency. I guess necessity is the mother of invention. The resources in Cuba were so limited that it meant they had to constantly be creative.”
She was impressed. “At the time I was looking at an 80-year-old man and I don’t know many 80 year olds who can stay up from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. having an intellectual conversation. I would have a hard time doing that now.”
Before that meeting, Evans knew about Castro from U.S. media reports. She was fairly skeptical based on those reports. Her view slowly changed, though, after the many trips she took to Cuba to study the Cuban health care system.
After those trips “I had a more complete picture of what things were like,” she said. “Cuba was so insular. Not that many Americans were going to Cuba but that has changed in the last couple of years.”
Since those first trips to Cuba, Evans said she has seen changes - often subtly in the political situation and the lives of the Cuban people.
She reflected upon that visit after hearing of Castro’s death at age 90.
“Obviously, it’s historic. He outlived so many U.S. presidents. President Obama had loosened restrictions. He saw the beginnings of change to the Cuban embargo. Things were beginning to change. Perhaps there’s some kind of peace and justice in that.”