A Visit With Castro
Next day we were lunching far out in the country, on the porch of a reforestation institute that over the years had planted hundreds of acres of various species of trees on the rolling hills that surround the rustic headquarters building. The air was pure and the silence refreshing. Suddenly, the roar of engines, and in a cloud of dust three large, recent-model Mercedes raced to a halt and the door of the middle one swung open and there was Castro, this time in his green uniform. He mounted the porch to our general greetings and took a chair and settled in.
Styron seemed to be the center of his interest today, and Castro asked him for the names of the best American authors, but of the nineteenth century, explaining with a grin that he wanted to avoid arousing our competitive instinct.
He had never really studied American literature, he said, and knew very little about it. This admission seemed strange, given Hemingway's iconic position in Cuba, with his home a veritable holy site. In fact, it made one wonder whether for Castro there was something almost forbidden in the idea of the enemy's even having a literature, or for that matter a spiritual life, at all. As Styron, unprepared for this display of Castro's remoteness from the culture he was unceasingly castigating, tried to improvise a brief lecture on American literature's high points, I wondered whether Castro might have been as remote from his own country as from ours. One is forever attributing informed wisdom to power, but in the face of the privation around him, should not a wise ruler who even in a free election would doubtless be re-elected, nevertheless recognize that after almost fifty years in supreme control the time had come to make way for a regime with new people and possibly more effective ideas?
Watching him at lunch--he ate two leaves of lettuce--one saw a lonely old man hungry for some fresh human contact, which could only get more and more rare as he ages. He might very well live actively for ten years, perhaps even longer as his parents reportedly had done, and I found myself wondering what could possibly be keeping him from a graceful exit that might even earn him his countrymen's gratitude?
The quasi-sexual enchantment of power? Perhaps. More likely, given his history, was his commitment to the poetic image of world revolution, the uprising of the wretched of the earth with himself at its head. And in plain fact, as the chief of a mere island, he had managed to elevate himself to that transcendent state in millions of minds. The more so now, after all other contestants had fallen away and conditions in Latin America and Africa gone from bad to worse, the possibility needed only its right time to erupt again. After all, he had thrown Cuban forces into action in many countries around the world despite his country's poverty and the obstinate resistance of his main sponsor, the now-abominated Soviet leadership.
It would have been too much to expect that after half a century in power he would not become to some important degree an anachronism, a handsome old clock that no longer tells the time correctly and bongs haphazardly in the middle of the night, disturbing the house. Notwithstanding all his efforts, the only semblance of a revolt of the poor is the antimodern Islamic tide, which from the Marxist point of view floats in a medieval dream. With us he seemed pathetically hungry for some kind of human contact. Brilliant as he is, spirited and resourceful as his people are, his endless rule seemed like some powerful vine wrapping its roots around the country and while defending it from the elements choking its natural growth. And his own as well. Ideology aside, he apparently maintains the illusions that structured his political successes even if they never had very much truth in them; to this day, as one example, he speaks of Gorbachev's dissolution of the Soviet Union as unnecessary, "a mistake."
In short, there was no fatal contradiction inherent in the Soviet system that brought it down, and so there is nothing in the Castro system or in his take on reality that is creating the painful poverty of the island. The US embargo created this island's poverty out of hand, along with the Russians by their deserting him. It is Don Quixote tilting at windmills which, worse yet, have collapsed into dust.
The plaza before the Hotel Santa Isabel is lined with some fifteen or twenty bookstalls displaying for sale battered old Marxist-Leninist tracts, which two caretakers stock each morning and empty each evening, their positions on the shelves undisturbed during the days. Is it possible that someone in the government--Castro, perhaps--imagines that sane persons will be tempted to buy, let alone read, these artifacts of another age? What, one wonders, is keeping it all alive? Is it the patriotic love of Cubans, conformist or dissident, for their country, or is it the stuck-in-cement manic hatred of US politicians, whose embargo quite simply gives Castro an insurance policy against needed change, injecting the energy of rightful defiance into the people? For it is the embargo that automatically explains each and every failure of the regime to provide for the Cuban people. It will need the pathos of a new Cervantes to measure up to this profoundly sad tale of needless suffering.