The Mercedes, black and gleaming, pierces January's soggy dark like a bullet, cracking one barrio after another. Maybe someone sees or hears, but then the dictator's sedan is gone again, and the night rushes in behind it. No great city is as dead as Havana at midnight. Lights snap off, streets empty, it grows oddly still, like a war zone without war: no bombs, no gunfire, just the gap-faced buildings on the Malec�n crumbling away, gray and pockmarked, as winter waves blast the nearby seawall, and the air rustles with this low-level buzz. Cities have voices—brassy or coarse or fiery or calm—and Havana's is a mutter, the sum of a million whispers behind half-shut doors. It's as if all the homes were being ravaged by termites. You hear the place being eaten alive.
And over it all something blazes: A massive chimney in the city's eastern rise spouts this flame that never dims, that licks the black sky like a tongue telling satellites and stars that, yes, Havana is still here, still here as Fidel Castro, beard graying, sits in the back of his car en route to Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital in the first hour of the 23rd day of 1993. Ana Quirot—once the world's No. 1 runner in the 400 and 800 meters, a bronze medalist in the 800 at the 1992 Olympics—lies in the hospital's burn unit, close to dead. She is so thirsty.
He comes through the doors, surrounded, and steps into that too vivid hospital light. The tang of disinfectant, of rubber, of dripping fluid infects the place. Everyone bustles, grim-mouthed. It is a horror. How could she be here?
The information is sketchy. Earlier in the evening, a kerosene cooker exploded in Quirot's kitchen. The fire leaped upon her stomach, her chest, under her arms, killing nerves, clawing up toward her eyes. Thirty-eight percent of her body is covered with third-degree burns. One nurse, who has worked with burn victims for 14 years, is sure Quirot won't survive. But Quirot is conscious now. She has no idea what she has become.
Castro steps into sterilized scrubs, a mask for his mouth. He wants to see.
Was there ever an athlete more magnificent? In the summer of 1991, in Havana, Quirot broke the Pan American Games records in the 400 and 800 meters, and if any performance reflected the Cuban team's stunning dominance, it was hers. Like her fellow athletes, she had lugged cement to help build the facilities where Cuba—writhing in the pincer-grasp of the U.S. trade embargo and the end of Soviet sponsorship—punished the Yanquis day after day, winning more gold medals than the U.S. for the first time in history. In both of her races Quirot, long braids trailing, exploded away from the pack. She was her country's answer to Florence Griffith-Joyner, but without the absurd fingernails or armor-plate body; all her charisma flowed from those turbine legs, that snarled mouth, this fierce and happy refusal to lose. "Her will," says her coach, Leandro Civil, "that's what separates her from the rest."
Even more, Quirot came from Oriente, the same province that spawned Castro, and as a baby she'd been named after him: Ana Fidelia. She had been friends with Castro since their first meeting, in 1982. She had defended his regime through every crisis, never mourning her loss of medals because Cuba boycotted the '84 and '88 Olympics. "The nicest thing he ever did for me?" she once said. "He made the revolution." After one of her Pan Am wins in '91, she took off her gold medal and placed it around Fidel's neck.
So it was that Quirot became, more than fabled boxer Te�filo Stevenson or runner Alberto Juantorena, the revolution's greatest symbol: tough, simple, winning. So it was that, as she circled the track in '91 with Castro beaming from his scat, the packed stadium rose and clapped and chanted her name—and his—again and again. A-na! they shouted, in a referendum as loud as thunder rolling. A-na! Fi-del-ia! For that moment you could be forgiven a lack of perspective. You were quite sure Quirot and Cuba and Castro would never lose.
He is in the room. Machines hum, tubes and wires droop everywhere. Quirot is breathing softly. She floats in this strange netherworld; she cannot move, there is no pain, her body dips in and out of shock. No one has told her how deep the burns have gone. Fidel asks her how she feels. He asks how it happened, if her mother knows yet. He tells her to keep fighting. It is, she will say later, like having Cuba's government standing by her bed. "Well, he is the state, yes?" she will say.
He looks down at her, seeing what she can't. Quirot says to him, "I'm going to run again." What can he say? He nods, he smiles. Midnight, and outside the streets are so quiet. What no one knew in Barcelona, six months earlier, was that she had won her Olympic bronze medal in the 800, in a time of 1:56.80, while a few weeks pregnant. Now, under the bandages, in her womb, the baby feels the burning. Quirot doesn't know this. She is speaking of running. In 10 days the baby will be dead.