Batista Lives in Constant Fear of Bullet
How is Batista standing his exile? What are his reactions to present conditions in Cuba? Both Americans and Cubans have asked these questions. But it was a writer for the London Express who went to him in his hotel exile on the island of Madeira. His report, which follows, is both enlightening and entertaining.
By LLEW GARDNER, Special To The Herald
MADEIRA - I am sitting on the terrace of a Madeira hotel. Out on the blue, sun-sparkling waves of the South Atlantic, an English holiday-maker is learning to water ski. And, in a $126-a-day suite on the third floor, a man waits and wonders whether this semi-tropical day will bring an assassin's bullet.
He is 58-year-old Fulgencio Batista, dictator of Cuba until he fled before Fidel Castro's revolution last January. In any competition for the world's most hated man Batista could expect to come in the first three. To keep power executed and imprisoned many of his opponents.
Now he is in search of a home out of reach of Cuban vengeance. He has come to this remote island, accessible only by sea. He planned to take a villa, but the Portuguese authorities insisted that he would be safer in an hotel. Here he is guarded day and night.
At the hotel reception desk the clerk looked blank when I asked to speak to Batista.
"Batista?" he queries, as if he had never heard the name. "I will see if I have anyone of that name staying here." Batista had been there a month.
* * *
Then the clerk went to get the manager. Finally, my credentials checked, I reached the third floor and was shown into a small ante-room.
The door was draped with the Cuban flag. A powerful shortwave radio stood on a table. Two tough-looking young men looked up as I entered.
One, who was chewing gum, went back to studying the South American football results. The other, puffing at a seven-inch Havana cigar, strolled to the doorway, leaned against it, and eyed me suspiciously.
Both looked as if they had read too many Raymond Chandler novels.
Remembering that Castro's men were famed for their beards, I was glad that I had shaved off the two-day growth that I had sprouted on the boat from Lisbon.
Then Ruben Batista, 30 year-old graduate, of Princeton University, appeared, and said: "My father, the general, will see you now."
Batista, an immaculately clad, bouncy, roly-poly figure of a man, came forward to shake my hand. He offered me a cigar. "Cuban;" he said. Then added a little regretfully: "Export quality, of course."
Of the suggestion that he walks in fear of death, Batista said: "Yes, Castro's men may seek me out even here."
Then he turned from the window, looking out to the high Madeira hills, and added: "But, if I thought all the time of my life, I would never be at peace."
* * *
Batista intends to write his memoirs. "It is very difficult," he said, in his thickly accented voice. "All my papers were lost in the revolution." He tapped his head. "My papers are up here. I have to write things down before I forget."
But Batista did not lose everything in the revolution. He has a large personal fortune. Just how large he declines to say.
Some estimates put it as high as $39,200,000, but when I mentioned this figure he roared with laughter.
When he had stopped laughing he said: "That is like The Thousand and One Nights. Every time a new story, ever time a new figure.
"Sometimes it is 39 million dollars, sometimes 90 million, sometimes 150 million. I wonder what it will be next.
I admired the gold ring set with a cluster of diamonds and a huge amethyst that glinted on his finger. I eyed the monogrammed silk shirt and the stylish suit. And I said: "You have enough to last you the rest of your days."
Again he laughed. "Who knows how long I shall live? Perhaps tomorrow. ."
He pointed the cigar at me, like a pistol, and pulled at an imaginary trigger.
* * *
I asked: "Will you go back to Cuba if Castro gives you a guarantee of safety?"
Again he exploded into laughter. "I think not. Castro is a sick man. How do you say it? He is sick in the head. You cannot accept the word of a man like that."
And the future? Batista shrugged his heavy shoulders. "I do not know. Perhaps I will stay here. Maybe I will take a villa in time. To Batista it does not matter where he lives when he is not in Cuba.
"One day I shall go back to Cuba. But not as a politician. I am through with politics. Batista wants only to be a I family man."
As if to prove his point he said to Ruben: "Fetch Carlos."
His nine-year-old son Carlos, who bids fair to outweigh his father within a couple of years, came into the room. He shook my hand and Batista pinched his cheek saying: "Say 'How do you do?' to the gentleman."
Carlos said: "How do you do?" Then he went.
I said that I found it hard to reconcile Batista's reputation as a dictator with his self-portrait of a kindly father and family man.
"It is true," he insisted. "I did only what was best for my people."
"But you shot political opponents?" I said.
"Not all of them," he answered. "I am in favor of opposition parties so long as they behave themselves and act legally. But I was fighting Communist terrorists. With them you must be strong."