Reflections on the Death of Fidel
Nearly 60 years ago, Herbert Matthews of The New York Times interviewed a rebel-with-a-cause most people thought was dead. Matthews’ scoop in the tangled jungle of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra proved that the man was alive. His name (which in its entirety was but four syllables) would soon come to be known the world over. To his followers, the first two syllables would suffice: “Fi-del.”
Castro’s quest to topple Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista captured the imagination of millions. Victory, secured after only two years of urban insurrection and guerrilla warfare, catapulted the 32-year-old former lawyer and son of a wealthy landowner into the ranks of revolutionary stardom. After the catastrophes and crimes that had befallen the 1917 Bolshevik project, Castro seemed at first to herald something new. His was the first socialist revolution, after all, to have been made without the central participation of the Communist Party (and even, it appeared, against the party: In the aftermath of Castro’s failed attack on the military barracks of Moncada in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, the party’s apparatchiks had denounced him as a “putschist” and an “adventurist”). All previous socialist revolutionaries had seemed grimly puritanical. By contrast, Castro’s barbudos appeared almost to be bohemians with guns. Democracy and radical reform were poised to replace dictatorship and social misery.
It was, of course, Castro’s extraordinary eloquence, strength of character and unyielding commitment to action that drew men and women alike to his side.
The hundreds of photographs taken of Castro and his men as they made their 500-mile victory march up the Central Highway from Santiago de Cuba to Havana capture something of the country’s exhilaration and popular acclaim. Burt Glinn, for one, an intrepid 33-year-old member of the New York office of the Magnum Photographic Cooperative, was among the most gifted of the many photographers drawn to Cuba. (A selection of his work can be seen in his book “Havana: The Revolutionary Moment.” Also highly recommended is “Fidel’s Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures,” by Osvaldo Salas and Roberto Salas.) He borrowed money from Clay Felker, his roommate, to hire a charter flight to Havana the moment he learned Batista had fled the country after a lavish 1958 New Year’s Eve party. Glinn, like fellow photojournalist Lee Lockwood of the Black Star photo agency, knew that nothing is more seductive than making history except, perhaps, taking pictures of it. Glinn’s and Lockwood’s pictures show Castro and his men, weary with fatigue and near-disbelief stamped on their youthful faces, being met by a thronging populace beside itself with ardor, as they rolled through province after province, city after city, en route to the nation’s capital to proclaim their mastery of the island. Eyes dance with hope; the radiant future beckons.
History was on the move, bursting with possibility and promise. The tyrant was gone and revolutionary idealism had yet to curdle into cynicism. Nor had the effort to survive soured into despotism. Today, it is all but impossible to gaze at those pictures of armed campesinos, many of them still boys barely able to boast peach fuzz on their cheeks, as they sprawled about the lobby of the recently built and newly occupied Hilton Hotel, promptly dubbed and still known as the Havana Libre, without thinking of the heartbreak that was to come in the years ahead. Preserved in innumerable photographs, those early and heady days were filled with Sunday patriots; city girls flirting with shy peasants, M-1 carbines strapped to their backs; a general, if happy, chaos engulfing a people in almost libidinous tumult, even as Castro sought to hold a disparate movement together by the sheer force of his leonine personality and his demonstrated and widely admired willingness to risk his life in the fight against the dictatorship. Lockwood later wrote of vast numbers of people assembling in every city Castro entered, chanting “Fi-del! Fi-del!” and the crowds “parting before him and closing behind him like Moses passing through the Red Sea.” Castro seemed “the incarnation of a legendary hero surrounded by an aura of magic, a bearded Parsifal who had brought miraculous deliverance to an ailing Cuba.”
It was, of course, Castro’s extraordinary eloquence, strength of character and unyielding commitment to action that drew men and women alike to his side. Personality trumped politics. It was this striking element—an element that still infuses many of the pictures of the young Castro with a nearly electric charge palpable after all these years—that caused many observers to regard him as a dangerous extremist even as they acknowledged the man’s magnetism. Others, like Argentina’s Che Guevara, were drawn to him, although Guevara originally viewed Castro’s movement as bourgeois, even while conceding that it was led by a man whose “image is enhanced by personal qualities of extraordinary brilliance.” Later, Castro’s willingness to embrace more radical solutions when necessary continually surprised and pleased Guevara as much as it dismayed the movement’s moderates.
It is perhaps hard at this remove to summon up the eros, the sheer vitality, of the revolution Castro made. The seduction of his flamboyant leadership, his spontaneity of spirit, was almost impossible to resist. He was virile, glamorous—in a word, sexy. He relied less on Marxist dogma than on photogenesis to capture the minds and hearts of millions. He was, as the late Marshall Frady once wrote, “an almost Tolstoyan figure in the profusion of his exuberance and imagination. Among all the premiers and statesmen over the globe, he was at least the one figure who seemed unquestionably, tumultuously alive.” Not only were Castro and his barbudos [bearded revolutionaries] better-looking than the corrupt politicians and gangsters they overthrew, they knew it, and it is easy to see, on the evidence of the many iconic photographs of the period, how it was that a “golden legend,” as the French philosopher Régis Debray once called it, arose.
The history of every revolution is always a battle of clichés, and in Cuba’s case the commonly accepted narrative reduces its revolution to a romantic fable of the charismatic Castro and his 12 apostles, whose numbers multiplied faster than players in a pyramid game and who, having survived the rigors of guerrilla warfare, broke the back of a regime as brutal as it was corrupt. This myth was, in part, of Castro’s own making. What is indisputable is that by December 1958, Castro’s rebel army of 3,000 armed men had defeated a government that fielded a vastly superior military force of 80,000 troops. Or, perhaps more precisely, in the face of mounting civil strife, Batista’s political support vanished, Washington’s confidence in him crumbled, and his will to power collapsed. And so, in time-honored fashion, the despot fled his suffering island in the middle of the night, stuffing his luggage with millions of stolen dollars to live out the remainder of his life in the baronial manner to which he had long been accustomed. He died in Portugal in 1973.
Castro was, it appeared, a man determined to chart his own way.
For many years now, Castro’s most perfervid opponents have been at pains to disparage him as a foreign implant—Galician on his father’s side, schooled by Jesuits and cleaving to Marxism, factors that disqualify him, in their view, from being Cuban at all. Even so unabashed an apologist as his long-time friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez concedes Castro’s oddness when he notes that “he is one of the rare Cubans who neither sings nor dances.” Others, more generous, regard him as an authentic reformer who in the attempt to free his country from the grip of the United States came, disastrously, to embrace his inner caudillo. Such critics initially welcomed his ambition to transform Cuba—to rid it of the corruptions of the past, to diversify the economy by breaking the stranglehold of sugar and tobacco, and to restore the 1940 Constitution.
Castro was, it appeared, a man determined to chart his own way. In the gun-happy swirl of radical factions that fought among themselves at the University of Havana in the 1940s and early 1950s, Castro stood out. He was admired less for his politics, which were often mercurial, than for the force of his personality. By all accounts, he was one of those men who seem to suck all the oxygen out of any room they enter. He did not then have a reputation as a disciplined and patient communist. Rather, he was something of a hothead, having won his reputation as a man of action in 1947 when he took part in an abortive attempt to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow Rafael Trujillo; the next year, he won his street-fighting spurs while visiting Bogota, Colombia, when an ill-fated uprising broke out.
Castro’s zeal to remake Cuba was seen by sympathizers as a patriotic project, less to do with Karl Marx than with Jose Marti, the founding father of the country. It was a posture that won him many adherents, especially among the men and women of Cuba’s middle and upper-middle classes whose political aspirations had been thwarted by Batista’s March 10, 1952, coup. As for Castro’s anti-Yankee sentiments, he came by them honestly. Years later, the U.S.-made bombs that Batista used against Castro and his men would harden his attitude. In a letter from his redoubt in the Sierra Maestra to Celia Sanchez, the daughter of a dentist and his chief courier between the rebel army and the city underground, Castro wrote of his anger toward the United States: “When I saw the rockets that they fired on Mario’s house, I swore that the Americans are going to pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against them.”
The long, near-Talmudic debate over when and how Castro became a communist is largely beside the point. What was clear from the start was the man’s radical disposition and refusal to be cowed into a complacent reformism. His defining ideological characteristic was his implacable anti-imperialism. His sympathies were plain. These sympathies and much else—from reminiscences of his childhood to his thoughts on the crackup of the Soviet Union and the current imbroglio in Iraq—are on offer in his lengthy reflections given in 2005 to Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde diplomatique, during 100 hours of interviews and published in a meticulous English translation by Andrew Hurley in a book of more than 700 pages called “My Life: A Spoken Autobiography.” (Interestingly, Hurley is also the translator of Armando Valladares’ indelible 1986 memoir of his time in Castro’s jails, “Against All Hope.”) Castro recalls that it was in the party’s Havana bookstore on Calle Carlos III that, as a college student, he bought “most of the classics of Marxist literature.” (Twenty years ago, Castro said as much to Frei Betto, the Dominican priest from Brazil, to whom he granted 23 hours of interviews, which were edited and published in the United States as “Fidel and Religion,” saying, “Almost all of the books I read were bought on credit at the Communist Party bookstore on Carlos III Street.”) While he found himself in accord with many of the party’s goals, he despaired of its rampant sectarianism and what he condemned as its “ghetto mentality.” In addition, the party was compromised in the eyes of many Cubans by its willingness to collaborate with Batista and to serve in his government.
He was also keenly aware of the deep-seated anti-communism that marked Cuba’s political culture. Looking back, Castro concedes his “ideas were Socialist, and pretty radical.” And he confesses that he was determined to steer the population toward ever more radical positions. But he didn’t want to panic his opponents. He was careful not to prematurely proclaim the socialist character of his ultimate goal. His admission isn’t new. In 1965, in a lengthy series of conversations—some 25 hours—with Lockwood, the American photojournalist, an edited version of which was published two years later as “Castro’s Cuba, Cuba’s Fidel,” Castro said “that all radical revolutionaries, in certain moments or circumstances, do not announce programs that might unite all of their enemies on a single front.” He was aware of the need to be cunning: “To have said that our program was Marxist-Leninist or Communist would have awakened many prejudices.” Still, he told Lockwood, “it is possible that there was some moment when I appeared less radical than I really was. It is possible too that I was more radical than even I myself knew.” More: “If you ask me whether I considered myself a revolutionary at the time I was in the mountains, I would answer yes. I considered myself a revolutionary. If you asked me, did I consider myself a Marxist-Leninist, I would say no, I did not consider myself a Marxist-Leninist.”
Moreover, Castro had not only to be certain of the support of a majority of the island’s 6 million people but also of a majority of his comrades, telling Ramonet that he “had to do some heavy arguing, even among the militants of the 26th of July Movement.” It couldn’t have been easy: “There was also competition, rivalry, among the leadership, and you had to keep your eye on all that.”
It is a rare admission of the difficulty of keeping together the many, often conflicting strands of the various factions that made up the opposition to Batista while constantly demanding obeisance to his personal leadership. For in addition to the clash of personalities and the differences in temperament of the various men who vied to head the movement to oust Batista, it was also riven by ideological differences—differences that had their origin in the diverging strategies and priorities of those who fought in the mountains and in the cities. The seeds of future conflicts (and defections) after Castro’s triumph were in the contradictions of class that, to a very considerable extent, would mark both the struggle against Batista and the years after his overthrow during which Castro consolidated his power. Many who helped to make the revolution later broke with him. The list of ex-Fidelistas is long. It includes Huber Matos, Anibal Escalante, David Salvador, Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, Pedro Diaz Lanz, Carlos Franqui, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mario Llerena, Herberto Padilla and Ernesto Betancourt. Some would flee; others would be expelled; still others would be imprisoned.
It is clear from the abundant public and private record, only some of which has come to light, that Castro always regarded himself as a radical visionary and nationalist whose politics were shaped more by the writings of Marti and Bolivar than by Marx and Lenin.
The anti-Batista resistance was made up of men as diverse as Che Guevara, who in a private letter insisted that “the solution of the world’s problems lies behind the so-called iron curtain,” and René Ramos Latour, a leader of the movement’s urban underground who castigated Guevara for thinking it possible “to free ourselves from the noxious ‘Yankee’ domination by means of a no less noxious ‘Soviet’ domination.” The urban wing was composed mostly of middle-class moderates, many of whom would feel betrayed by Castro when he embraced socialism in 1961 after the victory over the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion. The guerrilla army, on the other hand, drew upon the peasantry, the revolution’s chief beneficiaries and most vigorous defenders. (Two informed and detailed histories of the inner workings of the anti-Batista resistance, based on primary documents and extensive interviews with the participants, stand out: Ramon L. Bonachea and Marta San Martin’s “The Cuban Insurrection, 1952-1959,” and Julia E. Sweig’s “Inside the Cuban Revolution.”)
The old debate over whether Castro was an opportunist with a hidden socialist agenda, or a social democrat and Cuban patriot forced by the enmity of the United States into accepting the Soviet Union’s help as the price of the revolution’s survival, hardly matters now. It is clear from the abundant public and private record, only some of which has come to light, that Castro always regarded himself as a radical visionary and nationalist whose politics were shaped more by the writings of Marti and Bolivar than by Marx and Lenin. Even though the revolution’s ideology is today officially proclaimed as Marxist-Leninist, in a speech delivered in East Berlin in 1977, Castro embarrassed his more orthodox Communist hosts by declaring: “I still don’t know to what extent I’m still a utopian and to what extent I’ve become a Marxist-Leninist—perhaps I may even be a bit of a dreamer.” (It is a speech, alas, not included in the “Fidel Castro Reader,” a useful compendium of 20 of Castro’s most important orations. The editors, David Deutschmann and Deborah Shnookal, faced a daunting task: Castro, they estimate, has given “more than 5,000 speeches over a 48-year period.”)
Castro, of course, was familiar with and admired Marx and Lenin. One did not have to wait for Ramonet’s questions to learn this. In letters Castro wrote while in prison in the Isle of Pines, serving a 15-year sentence for his failed attack on the Moncada—Batista granted him amnesty after less than two years in jail—he wrote: “Marx and Lenin each had a weighty polemical spirit, and I have to laugh. It is fun, and I have a good time reading them. They would not give an inch and they were dreaded by their enemies.” Castro was enthralled by “the magnificent spectacle offered by the great revolutions of history: they have always meant the victory of the huge majority’s aspirations for a decent life and happiness over the interests of a small group.” He longed to revolutionize Cuba “from one end to the other.” He relished the prospect, vowing “I would not be stopped by the hatred and ill will of a few thousand people, including some of my relatives, half the people I know, two-thirds of my fellow professionals, and four-fifths of my schoolmates.”
Twenty-one of these early and revealing letters are collected in “The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro,” with an introduction by Ann Louise Bardach, the perspicacious and indefatigable author of “Cuba Confidential,” and an epilogue by Castro’s onetime friend and frequent correspondent Luis Conte Aguero, who fled to Miami in 1960. Others can be read in “Diary of the Cuban Revolution” by Carlos Franqui, the former head of Castro’s Radio Rebelde. An insightful account of the fates of his schoolmates at the elite Jesuit boarding school he attended as a teenager is found in “The Boys From Dolores: Fidel Castro’s Classmates from Revolution to Exile,” by Patrick Symmes.
In both private letters and public pronouncements, Castro disavowed terrorism as a tactic of revolutionary war.
Castro read voraciously in prison, often as much as 14 hours a day. Enamored with history’s radical reformers, he was particularly taken with the life of Napoleon (“How generous Napoleon was with his enemies! I have read many books about him and I never get bored”), Kant and Marx (“After breaking my head over Kant for a while, Marx seems easier to read than the Lord’s Prayer”) and Robespierre, whom he considered an honest idealist: “The [French] Revolution was in danger, the frontiers surrounded by enemies on all sides, traitors ready to plunge a dagger into one’s back, the fence sitters were blocking the way—one had to be harsh, inflexible, tough—it was better to go too far than not go far enough, because everything might have been lost. The few months of the Terror were necessary to do away with a terror that had lasted for centuries. In Cuba, we need more Robespierres.”
Yet later, in both private letters and public pronouncements, Castro disavowed terrorism as a tactic of revolutionary war. He was not a nihilist, and he deliberately eschewed, indeed condemned, terrorism for its disregard of human life. In a letter during the fight against Batista rebuking brother Raul for his reckless kidnapping of a group of U.S. citizens (subsequently released unharmed), Fidel said: “It is essential to declare categorically that we do not utilize the system of hostages, however justified our indignation may be against the political attitudes of any government.” He went on to say that “such tactics would turn international opinion against us. ...” In a radio speech to Batista’s soldiers, Castro called on them to surrender, pledging that “[n]o prisoner will be interrogated, mistreated, or humiliated in word or deed, and all will receive the generous and humane treatment military prisoners have always received from us.” By most accounts, Castro’s practice—during the guerrilla war at least—was as good as his promise.
In his talks with Ramonet, Castro is at pains to emphasize the point (Cuba was, Castro said, the first country to condemn the 9/11 attackers and to express its sympathy and solidarity with the people of the United States), and in a remark that seemed aimed at the insurgents in Iraq, he declared, “No war is ever won through terrorism. ... Neither the theorists of our wars of independence nor any Marxist-Leninist that I know of advocated assassination or terrorist-style acts, acts in which innocent people might be killed. That’s not contemplated in any revolutionary doctrine. ... Ethics is not simply a moral issue—if ethics is sincere, it produces results.”
Castro sought not merely to overthrow a single dictator, but to alter the habits of a nation’s entire cultural and political economy. He knew his nemesis lay 90 miles to the north. He knew he would have to vanquish a notion of Cuba that had lodged itself firmly in the American imagination. This would prove to be a herculean task. Cuba, for Americans, had long been a location of fantasy, of escape and reinvention. After the economic panic of 1893 plunged the United States into widespread depression, thousands of jobless men emigrated to Cuba to seek their fortune, seeing in Cuba, as the advertising campaigns of the time proclaimed, a “virgin land,” “a new California,” a “veritable Klondike of wealth.” The novelist James Gould Cozzens described Havana during these early days of the American occupation, after the defeat of Spain at the close of the 19th century, as being filled with “adventurers, misinformed idiots, knaves, murderers, thieving contractors, corrupt officials, lease hunters—every form of rogue and rascal. It was then the last and worst American frontier, with the ethics and atmosphere of all frontiers; life, depraved and violent; honor, non-existent; and fabulous money loose for the stealing.”
Another American wrote disparagingly of “scum floating across the Gulf,” of a “whole class of ... buzzards” and “American braggarts” who “swaggered through the town with their hands in their pockets and their hats tilted back.” Bars proliferated; then, during Prohibition, speak-easies and casinos. By the 1950s, in Havana, according to Louis A. Perez Jr.’s indispensable “On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture,” almost 12,000 women could be found working as prostitutes.
Cuba, until Castro’s triumph, was a place of retreat and refuge, a resort for the smart set and the socially prominent, attracting trendsetters and celebrities such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Irving Berlin, Will Rogers and Errol Flynn. Cuba offered access to the exotic with minimum exposure to risk, a place where, as one writer said approvingly, “conscience takes a holiday.” Havana, wrote Graham Greene, was an “extraordinary city where every vice was permissible and every trade possible.” As Ernest Hemingway put it, more bluntly, it had “both fishing and fucking.” The writer Jose de la Campa Gonzalez wrote in 1937, with some exasperation, of this development in his “Memorias de un machadista”: “Another new Cuba had arisen, strange, incoherent, in which all that was discussed was of horse races, of football, of baseball, and nonstop discussions of the United States, with a ridiculous ambition of speaking English ... [and] a stupid adoration of everything that was from the United States.”
Castro imagined a different future. His true calling, he felt, was to do everything possible to escape the American orbit.
But his was a minority view. On the evidence painstakingly marshaled by Perez, many Cubans regarded the American presence as promising the transformation of Cuban life, from poverty to prosperity, from backwardness to modernity. To be sure, the price of success might well require Cubans to adapt to American values and tastes. But it was a price some Cubans were willing to pay. This was especially true of Habaneros. Increasingly, Havana’s inhabitants were living beyond their means, imagining themselves as the de facto citizens of the wealthy and paternal colossus to the north, even as they bridled at American presumption and swagger. By the mid-1950s, the sugar-and-tobacco economy began to sputter: Prices on the world market for these unessential commodities plummeted, the island’s economy contracted, opportunities diminished. The cost of living began to soar, the cities flared into violence, Batista fled, and Castro came to power.
Castro imagined a different future. His true calling, he felt, was to do everything possible to escape the American orbit. He would seek to end decades of humiliation by fulfilling Marti’s dream of having Cuba play David to America’s Goliath. Cuba, he declared, would break with the past and renounce the blandishments of the profligate American way of life: “How could we import rice and buy Cadillacs? That is what we did before. Is that not madness? The act of a disoriented country. ... Why were we buying Cadillacs when what we needed were tractors?” From now on, Cubans would have to tighten their belts, forgo the goods that they had for decades taken for granted. Castro sought to remake the Cuban personality, to construct what Che Guevara hailed as the “new man”: purged of egotism and selfishness, motivated more by moral incentives and economic sobriety than material rewards, an ascetic revolutionary who would shun the gleaming goods on display in the seductive windows of El Encanto, once Havana’s most elegant department store.
Fifty years earlier, expressing nationalism for many Cubans meant replacing Spanish customs with American ones. Now, with Castro at the helm, everything American was suspect. It was a political and cultural shock from which the Cuban middle class never recovered (and that Washington policymakers never forgave). Most of them preferred voluntary exile and prosperity in Miami to enforced equality and privation in Havana. The proximity of the United States made it possible for Castro to rid himself of the very class that had done so much to help him during the hard fight against Batista—and which suffered the greatest number of casualties at the hands of Batista’s torturers—and now was outraged that Castro was bent on denying it the privileges it had long enjoyed. He refused to return to business as usual. The middle class’ contribution to defeating Batista was largely written out of the official story of the revolution’s triumph. Soon the exiles formed a base where, with the constant encouragement and support of successive American administrations, they could launch a thousand conspiracies and attempts to subvert Castro and his regime. Castro claimed to Ramonet to have thwarted over the years more than 500 attempts to assassinate him. There is no reason to doubt him. When he took power, Cuba’s population was 6 million; nearly a million would flee to the United States. Today, Cuba’s population has nearly doubled, and nearly half were born after Jan. 1, 1959.
Geography is fate. It was both Castro’s curse as well as his blessing that the U.S. was so near.
Ramonet’s interviews with Castro elicited a rather startling admission, confirming and elaborating upon comments made more than 20 years ago to Gianni Mina, the Italian television journalist: Castro said that in the first years after he came to power there were “about 300 counter-revolutionary organizations” trying to plot his overthrow. Resistance to his rule, he admitted, “spread to all the provinces in the country” and involved thousands of armed men. So fierce and protracted was the opposition that the fight to suppress it “cost us more lives than the war against Batista had.” It was, he said, a “dirty war” that would last years longer than his own struggle against Batista. The action in the Escambray Mountains was especially difficult, requiring Castro to send 40,000 troops and “put a squad in every house in every zone to clean it out.” Castro’s support among the peasants there was considerably less than what he had enjoyed among the campesinos of the Sierra Maestra, his main base of operations in Cuba’s southernmost province of Oriente. The 26th of July Movement didn’t hold sway in the Escambray; other anti-Batista groups, whose leaders neither trusted Castro nor shared his politics, did.
With the United States providing a haven for his opposition meant that Castro could favor expulsion over extermination. This was particularly true after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which ended in a secret understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union: In exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear missiles, Washington agreed to end its violent efforts to overthrow or otherwise end the Castro regime. Of course, this was a shift in policy honored more in the breach than in practice, and it did nothing to weaken the economic embargo that Washington had imposed on Cuba. But Castro’s revolution had secured a degree of security.
Geography is fate. It was both Castro’s curse as well as his blessing that the U.S. was so near. It was easy to banish his opposition and send it packing across the Florida Straits. Or, to put it another way, it is unlikely that, after Castro’s demise, unmarked mass graves will be found filled with the remains of opponents who had been made to disappear. Cuba is not Chile under Pinochet or Argentina under the generals. Or Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Or Russia under Stalin. Those of his critics who have inflated their rhetoric to the heights of hyperbole do a disservice to actually understanding the more complicated reality and character of the revolt Castro mounted and the revolution he made.
It is nonetheless true, however, that Castro, with the indispensable subvention of the Soviet Union, set about creating a police state to enforce an ethic of self-denial and unremitting labor. But nothing worked, neither incessant moral hectoring nor harsh laws. His people, despite the many years of being enjoined “to be like Che,” remained firmly attached to the pleasure principle, with an undiminished affection for American movies, jazz, music and sport. It didn’t seem to matter whether they were workers or peasants, lived in the city or toiled in the countryside. The Russian Lada never had a chance against the American Ford. After years of wearing Arrow shirts, riding in Otis elevators and repairing their clothes with Singer sewing machines, Cubans found it all but impossible to accept the inferior goods produced in the Soviet bloc. Ideology succumbed to aesthetics.
Nor could the Cuban revolution be exported, as Castro hoped, despite the exemplary work of tens of thousands of doctors and teachers in a score of countries. Only music could; and the music that sold was the pre-revolutionary music of an older, nearly forgotten Cuba whose best representatives had become the invisible men of a decaying, melancholic Havana. Today a new generation of Western movie stars, musicians and supermodels—from Robert Redford to Ry Cooder to Naomi Campbell—parachutes into the island, seeking renewal and rejuvenation at the fount of its irrepressible libido. Cuba once again is an exotic location for fantasies of indulgence and abandon. Politically indifferent, the new tourists enroll themselves in the service of an old story.
Some years ago, I attended a sold-out concert of the Buena Vista Social Club, making its debut in Los Angeles’ art deco Wiltern Theatre. With the legendary Cachaito Lopez on bass, the elegant, silver-haired Ruben Gonzalez at the piano, the silky vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer and the sexy Omara Portuondo at the microphone and a dozen other virtuoso musicians, including Eliades Ochoa, the ensemble seemed a miracle—indeed, a resurrection. Effortlessly gliding from ballad to ballad, the trombonist suddenly broke into a languorous, Cuban-inflected melody whose familiar strains were greeted with an audible gasp of recognition from the delighted audience: He was playing, lyrically and lovingly, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The audience began to sing, wistfully at first and then with gathering conviction, the lyrics of one of America’s best-known songs. Whatever else might be said about Cuba and the United States, one thing is certain: It is not yet the end of the affair.
As for Castro, all things must pass. His early ideals of libertarian socialism are nowhere in evidence. Today it is abundantly clear that Castro was essentially a practical caudillo for whom power mattered above all else. His tragedy: Confronting unremitting hostility from the colossus of the North, Castro felt himself forced to destroy the revolution in order to save it. His survival was made possible by the Cold War. As he admitted to Ramonet, the Soviet Union provided the crucial support without which the United States might well have crushed him. He goes further, speculating: “If we’d won on that 26 July 1953 [in attacking Batista’s Moncada army barracks], we wouldn’t be here today. The alignment of forces in the world in 1953 was such that we wouldn’t have been able to withstand them. Stalin had just died—he died in March of 1953—and the troika that succeeded him would never have given Cuba the support that Khrushchev did, let’s say, seven years later, when the Soviet Union didn’t, perhaps, equal the United States but did at least have great economic and military power.” The price Castro paid was steep, especially after the failure of his bid to achieve economic independence in 1970 by harvesting a record 10 million tons of sugar, a debacle that nearly wrecked the economy and left him in ever greater thrall to Moscow. It was then, as Régis Debray puts it in the second volume of his recently published memoirs, “Praised Be Our Lords,” that a “Soviet starch had been ironed into the criollo insouciance.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was bereft: “We lost all our markets for sugar, we stopped receiving foodstuffs, fuel, even the wood to bury our dead in. From one day to the next, we found ourselves without fuel, without raw materials, without food, without soap, without everything.” Castro’s repeated and increasingly feverish attempts to diversify the country’s economy had largely failed. Today the tyranny of cash-crop monoculture remains unbroken: The Cuban economy is, again, dependent on sugar, tobacco and tourism. Chavez’s Venezuela, for a time, replaced the Soviet Union as a supplier of cut-rate oil. Meanwhile, the gerontocracy now headed by Castro’s brother, Raul, lurches from one nostrum to another as a hurricane of high-tech mongrel capitalism swirls about his socialist Erewhon.
His triumph: standing up for the right of small states to resist the bullying and domination of large powers. He was not willing to submit to the dictates of Washington, nor was he always a reliable cat’s paw for Moscow. One has only to examine the roots of Castro’s Africa policies, which antedated his coziness with the Soviets and were carried out independently of Soviet desires throughout much of the 1960s, to know that he very often refused to kowtow to Kremlin orthodoxy. Whatever else might be said of this most complicated and audacious figure, he strode the world’s stage as if his island were a continental power, raising a prophetic voice, decrying the unequal relations between North and South, upholding the right of rebellion and human solidarity, denouncing the despoilment of the environment and excoriating “the profligate, egotistical and insatiable consumerism of the developed countries.” He dreamt of leading a continental revolution, like a latter-day Simon Bolivar.
Or as Bertolt Brecht put it: “Unhappy the nation that needs heroes.”
The irony: Had Castro died shortly after overthrowing Batista, his unsullied place in Cuba’s history would have been assured. His work as a revolutionary might have been regarded as fruitful up to the moment when he failed to recognize that it was time to step aside. He was unable to do so. His lust for power and a sense of messianic mission prevented him. What Simon Leys once wrote of Mao’s China can as well be said of Castro’s Cuba: “Nations which do not have the opportunity of getting rid of their geniuses are sometimes liable to pay very dearly for the privilege of being led by them.”
Or as Bertolt Brecht put it: “Unhappy the nation that needs heroes.”
As for the United States, Washington’s refusal, until Obama, to award Cuba the relations it is willing to accord other communist countries—like China and Vietnam—was petulance raised to the level of policy. Cuba’s heresy did not rest on Castro’s communist conceits. Rather, it rested on its unwillingness to accept America’s hemispheric hegemony. Cuba was neither the revolutionary specter of Castro’s hyperbole nor the subversive hobgoblin of White House propagandists. Castro’s threat did not lie in his fealty to Marxist dogma, but rather in the delusions suffered by planners in the Pentagon, and his enduring example of stiff-necked resistance to American hubris.
For in the eyes of Washington’s imperial overlords, Castro’s greatest sin was his pride, and this they could never forgive.