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He looks like Fidel, but gets more laughs

Miami’s Cuban community has turned Castro satire into an art, and Eddy Calderon leads the revolution.

By By DAVID ADAMS
Published May 6, 2006


MIAMI — Making fun of Fidel Castro is one of the few ways Miami Cubans can vent their political frustration.

For years it was limited to local radio and a burlesque show in a small theater on Calle Ocho in the Little Havana district.

But, as the aging Cuban leader begins to show signs of declining health, slurring his words and losing track in speeches, Cuban-American political satire is suddenly all the rage in Miami. One Castro impressionist last month was rewarded with his own show on local Spanish-language television.

Another long-time Castro imitator was hired by the U.S. government for its controversial Miami-based TV and radio broadcasts directed at Cuba.

“These are good times for Castro mimicking,” said Jesus Rafael, a scriptwriter on one of the shows. “The older he gets, the more absurd he is.”

No one makes better use of the material than Eddy Calderon, a 50-year-old Castro impersonator, who recently became a local TV star after more than 20 years on the radio and performing in restaurants.

“Fidel is such a caricature of himself. He’s so incoherent it almost makes him likeable,” said Calderon, sitting in a make-up room in the studios of America TeVe where he undergoes his almost daily transformation into “el comandante.”

Over the years Calderon has been an avid student of Castro’s diction and mannerisms, charting the deterioration of his now raspy voice, which fades from shrill exclamations to almost unintelligible mumbling.

The Cuban leader used to be famous for making unscripted marathon speeches, up to five or six hours long, stuffed with official statistics he called up from memory alone.

“In his heyday, regardless of what you thought of Fidel Castro he was: a) a political genius, and b) a great speaker,” said Eric Driggs, a research associate at the University of Miami’s federally funded Cuba Transition Project. “Nowadays watching Fidel speak, he sounds ridiculous. He loses his train of thought and babbles.”

Castro will turn 80 in August and the CIA recently concluded that he has Parkinson’s, a finding the Cuban leader vehemently rejects.

Calderon says he has no idea what ails the man known as el caballo (the horse), but the symptoms are an impressionist’s dream.

“He doesn’t have that same loquaciousness,” he said. “His voice has lost its tone. I enjoy it now. It makes it easier for me.”

Calderon’s impersonation of el comandante is so convincing he has succeeded in fooling Cuban officials in hoax phone calls to government offices.

“Some of them catch me, and I really have to get deep into (the personality) to make it work,” he said.

But Cuba’s one-party political system works to his advantage.

“They aren’t sure it’s Fidel, but because it’s Cuba they don’t dare question the comandante,” he says. “They are so submissive. He owns the country.”

Calderon recently released a CD of his best Castro phone hoaxes, titled Ring, ring: El Comediante en Jefe, (The Comedian in Chief).

In one call to the Cuban Embassy in Paris, he hailed a member of the security staff for his especially aggressive — and vulgar — response to anti-Castro protestors in the street, which was caught on video and broadcast internationally. “We liked his attitude . . . when he touched his testicles,” Calderon’s “Castro” says, to hoots of laughter in the embassy.

“You behaved like true revolutionaries and will be rewarded when you come back home,” “Castro” adds.

In another phone call Calderon engaged a government minister in a 12-minute discussion with “Castro” over a fake plan to build a retractable roof over Havana’s main baseball stadium.

Calderon hasn’t been able to get anyone in Havana to take a call in some time. Rumor has it that the Cuban government installed caller ID on office numbers and sent out strict instructions on how to handle calls from the comandante.

Calderon bears little resemblance to Castro in real life. Clean-shaven and almost 30 years his junior, he needs 40 minutes in the make-up room to take on Castro’s appearance.

But when he steps under the studio lights in olive green drabs and high-top military boots, he slips effortlessly into his alter ego.

His one-hour show on America TeVe, La Barca de Calderon (Calderon’s Little Boat), is a Noah’s ark of sketches in which he impersonates a number of local personalities. The highlight is an absurd parody of a Cuban government program, Mesa Redonda (Round Table) in which Castro often appears.

Calderon calls his version Mesa Retonta (Idiot Table), characterized by fawning civil servants competing to ingratiate themselves with Castro.
“It’s a mockery of the system in Cuba,” said Rafael, the scriptwriter. “Fidel goes on the show, he forgets about things, even why he’s there, and he goes off on tangents.”

In one sketch, “Castro” decries allegations that Cuba is making enriched plutonium as an imperialist lie, pointing out that “no one has enriched themselves” under communism. Each sketch ends when the lights go out, a reference to the frequent power outrages which are the bane of everyday Cuban life.

Calderon’s humor isn’t only directed at Castro.

Last summer he was invited as a surprise guest speaker at an annual luncheon of the Cuban-American National Foundation, one of Miami’s main exile political groups. He showed up in beard and military uniform to deliver a Castro-esque tirade against Miami’s “counter-revolutionary mafia.”

“No one was expecting it. People were crying with laughter,” said Joe Garcia, a foundation board member. Calderon ripped into faces he recognized in the audience, poking fun at their various business interests.

“I hid behind a pillar,” said Garcia.

Calderon says he gets much of his inspiration from the grand old man of exile impressionists, Armando Roblan.

Now 75, Roblan was a noted comic in Cuba before the revolution. To this day he claims to be the only Castro impersonator ever to have shared the stage with the Cuban leader.

It was in the early days of the revolution. Castro had just taken power and Roblan was asked to perform his part in an avant-garde play about the revolution. Some nights the real Castro joined him on stage, and the two Fidels did an impromptu exchange.

But Roblan says he balked when Castro’s office asked him to act as the Cuban leader’s double. Roblan had heard rumors of assassination plots, so he left the island.

Cubans have a long tradition of political satire dating back to prerevolutionary days in the 1950s when politicians were mercilessly skewered in print and on stage.

That all came to a grinding halt when Castro took power. Media and the arts quickly became venues for political veneration for Cuba’s new revolutionary government. Castro jokes were taboo, except in private.

Even in exile, dressing up to imitate Castro was frowned upon in the early years. Memories were too painful. Hatred for his very physical appearance ran too deep.

Almost 20 years passed before Roblan and Calderon would start doing their impressions. The exiles soon rediscovered their taste for political humor, feasting once again on a time-honored diet of laugh till you cry, slapstick-style comic sketches, familiar to U.S. viewers of Saturday Night Live.

In 1980, Roblan’s one-man Castro show “No Hay Mal que Dure Cien Años (No Evil Lasts a Hundred Years), coincided with the Mariel boat-lift when thousands of new Cuban refugees poured into Miami. Roblan poked fun at both Castro and President Ronald Reagan, impersonating them both.
When the Berlin Wall was coming down, Roblan responded with En los 90s Fidel Revienta (In the 90s, Fidel Will Burst). It ran for several years at the Marti Theater on Little Havana’s SW 8th Street. The catchy Spanish title became so popular that George Bush even used it in a 1992 campaign speech in Miami.

Castro didn’t “burst.” Roblan’s last show reflected the exiles’ frustration at Castro’s longevity: Ay Mama, Un Año Mas! (Oh, Mother. Another Year!)
But recently, when the U.S. government was looking for entertainment to spice up its broadcasting to Cuba of TV and Radio Marti, Roblan was hired for a show featuring Castro, La Oficina del Jefe, (The Boss’ Office).

More politics than comedy, the show features Cuban officials discussing the country’s allegedly dire situation, only to conspire with “Castro” on ways to disguise it from the people.

Today Roblan is happy to give way to Calderon’s generation.

“He’s very good,” said Roblan. “He struggled a lot. Now it’s his turn.”

Calderon has plenty of plans. He’s even written a screenplay based around a Cuban government effort to cover up Castro’s death by recruiting a double. In it, Cuban officials make a clandestine trip to Miami by smugglers’ boat when they hear about a no-name drunk who does a good Castro impersonation.

These days, when it comes to making fun of Castro, it seems anything goes.

“It’s like having the last laugh at him,” said Ninoska Perez, an exile activist and radio host. “We need it.”

David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com.