One of Fidel Castro’s earliest political memories is of Spaniards arguing over the Spanish Civil War, and his first act of censorship, he explains in My Life (Scribner, $40), was done in kindness. When asked by his family’s illiterate cook–a “fire-breathing Republican”–for news of the war, the nine-year old read him stories that played up loyalist success because he wanted to make him “feel better.” Castro’s Galician father was a franquista, as were his Jesuit teachers, who prayed for Spain’s martyred priests while offering not a word for “the Republicans who were being shot by firing squads.” A recent study of Castro’s grade school years has him an admirer of fascism, and in My Life, distilled from over a hundred hours of conversations with Le Monde diplomatique editor Ignacio Ramonet, Castro does mention that he collected trading cards commemorating Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. “I became almost an expert on that war in Abyssinia,” he says. But Castro remembers this as his first object lesson on modern consumerism: his friends would compete to collect a complete set of cards but “some of them would deliberately never be printed, to make kids buy them, you know. Capitalism.”
By the time he had graduated with a law degree from the University of Havana in 1950, Castro was deep into the cosmopolitan Caribbean’s “anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorial” politics, advocating for Puerto Rican independence and visiting hospitalized students in Panama who had been injured while protesting US control of the Canal Zone. Years before he and his brother Raúl launched their failed first bid in 1953 to overthrow the Cuban president Fulgencio Batista by seizing the Moncada military barracks, the future revolutionary had already participated in two armed movements, both outside of Cuba. In 1947 he trained to take part in an invasion of the Dominican Republic to overthrow Rafael Trujillo. Organized by the storied Caribbean Legion, an alliance of leftists and democrats that was funded by the governments of Costa Rica, Venezuela and Guatemala, this attempt to restage Normandy in the Caribbean and impose FDR’s Four Freedoms by force on what then was one of Latin America’s last dictatorships was a disaster. Castro jumped ship soon after the expedition left Cuba and swam back to shore. A year later, he was in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, as part of a pan-American student delegation when a riot careening toward revolution erupted upon the assassination of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who ran on a platform of land reform, workers rights and an end to the repression of peasants. This time, Castro committed. He helped seize a police station and commandeer its arms. Swept away by the “multitude on the march,” he climbed on a bench and tried to rouse a detachment of soldiers to join the insurrection. “Everyone listened,” he recalls, “no one did anything, and there I was with my rifle making my speech.”
The riots sputtered out, and Castro returned to Cuba, which was democratic but venally so. The “revolutionary generation” of the 1930s was in power, yet its ideals, modeled on those of the Spanish Republic, were corrupted by the flood of US corporate capital and mafia money. For many Cubans, the countryside seemed to have turned into a giant sugar plantation, the city a giant brothel. At this point, Castro supported the Partido Ortodoxo, which was led by the popular Eduardo Chibás, who set himself the difficult task of invigorating Cuban democracy while accommodating Washington’s anticommunism. Castro would become an icon of the armed New Left, held responsible by some for the revolutionary militancy that spread throughout Latin America in the 1960s. Yet already in the 1940s, the University of Havana was overrun by armed gangs that killed under the banner not of Marx, Stalin or Trotsky but of various ideologically indistinct parties fighting for a share of political spoils. Whether Castro overcame or descended into this violence remains a matter of dispute; he has long been charged with committing murder to gain control of the university’s student federation. My Life skims over the period with a vagueness that’s now common in official histories of the revolution. Yet the rare time Castro admits emotion, much less fear, is when he describes fighting the “powers and all the impunities” of the “mafia” which controlled the university. Banned from entering the campus by students linked to the ruling political party, he went to the waterfront and wept. “That’s right,” he tells Ramonet, “at the ripe old age of twenty, I lay face down on the sand and cried.”
In 1952, with a twenty-six year old Castro on the ticket for a congressional seat, Chibás’s Ortodoxos were poised to win national elections. But Batista cancelled the vote and installed himself as president, adding Cuba to a broader political reaction that was then sweeping the hemisphere. In 1944, Latin America could count but five democracies; two years later, the numbers flipped as every country save five became democratic. But the tide turned in 1948 as the landed class, the military and the Catholic Church took advantage of the dawning cold war to go on the offensive. Venezuela began the ten-year Marcos Pérez Jimenéz dicatorship; Haiti’s democracy collapsed, paving the way for Papa Doc and his mutilating Tonton Macoutes; and Gaitán’s murder hastened a decade-long civil war in Columbia that took hundreds of thousands of lives. Trujillo was still in power, as was the Somoza clan in Nicaragua, and by the time of the CIA’s ousting of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 the Caribbean basin was in lockdown. In many countries, especially Batista’s Cuba, torture and extrajudicial killing became central components of civic life. “We were promised a world of peace,” Castro says of the Allied victory in WWII, “we were promised that the gap between rich and poor would be closed, and that the more developed would help the less developed. All that was a huge lie.”
This retrenchment produced an inward turn. A young generation of nationalists put aside the internationalism of the postwar period to focus on restoring democracy in their own countries. By this point Castro had already earned a reputation as a skilled orator, perfecting a style that Gabriel García Márquez later described as capable of conjuring “an irresistible, blinding state of grace.” It’s a talent the novelist recognized, in part because its development so closely tracked his own literary evolution. By coincidence, Latin America’s two most famous surviving leftists were within blocks of each other in downtown Bogota on April 9, 1948, when Gaitán was killed, and they both witnessed the fearsome riots that followed. García Márquez fled the violence, yet his memoir Living to Tell the Tale recounts how Gaitán’s aborted campaign led him to an appreciation of populism as a distinctly Latin American vernacular, one that by focusing on his country’s worsening political repression and rural poverty opened a “breach” in the arid discourse of liberalism, conservatism and even Communism. He credits Gaitán’s “epic speeches” with pushing him toward a new narrative voice, which when fully realized in One Hundred Years of Solitude would transcend folklorism and florid modernismo to situate Latin America’s underdevelopment and seemingly chronic violence within a history of neocolonial dependency. García Márquez recalls coming upon a rally and hearing Gaitán for the first time in person: “I understood all at once that he had gone beyond the Spanish country and was inventing a lingua franca for everyone.”
Castro, who also fashioned himself a rebel against form, tells Ramonet that Gaitán’s killing and the riot that followed drove him to identify “even more with the cause of the people.” The Cuban appreciated the Colombian’s “precise and eloquent use of language,” and like García Márquez was attracted to Gaitán’s agrarian radicalism and his attacks on the oligarchy, which won over the rank-and-file of Colombia’s Communist Party even as its leadership refused to support him. The power of Gaitán’s voice–like “lashes of a whip over the astonished city,” wrote García Márquez–contrasted with Cuba’s highly stylized tradition of declamation, which was made even more rigid when performed by Cuban Stalinists. By the 1940s, the Cuban Communist Party, known as the Partido Socialista Popular, was focused nearly exclusively on narrow legalistic and economistic concerns, as confining to the aspiring revolutionary as Parnassian symbolism was to the aspiring novelist.
Castro’s diction and phrasing is uncommonly precise for Cuban-Spanish, and while it can be mesmerizing when spoken it’s leaden and pedantic when transcribed in the kind of long interviews that make up My Life. Ramonet asks Castro why his improvised speeches are more lyrical than those prepared beforehand. “Spoken language, I’ll tell you, is not the same as written language,” Castro responds, and then refers to “the accent, the tone of voice,” the impromptu repetition of a “word throughout a paragraph.” In developing his technique, Castro drew heavily from the populist Chibás, who in turn borrowed from José Martí to move people not with calls of class struggle but with promises of national redemption. Yet Chibás’s populism was histrionic; he regularly found himself fighting saber duels with those he accused of misconduct, and in 1951 he committed suicide in the middle of his weekly radio show, shooting himself in the stomach because he couldn’t produce evidence for a charge of corruption he had leveled at a government official. After his experience in Bogotá in 1948, Castro never again gave a speech where no one listened. He went well beyond formalism and populism, investing his appeals to the “people” with an historical logic that made absolute loyalty to the ideal of sovereignty seem seductive, no matter the human cost. “We are proud of the history of our country; we learned it in school and have grown up hearing of freedom, justice and human rights,” he said in a lengthy defense at his 1953 trial for his first failed attempt to overthrow Batista, “and the Island will first sink into the sea before we consent to be the slaves of anyone.”
For decades now, celebrants and critics of the Cuban Revolution have played a mugs game of trying to pinpoint the moment when Castro turned to Marxism. Castro himself has long hedged on this question, downplaying his populist roots in order to claim a purer socialist pedigree, though in My Life he acknowledges equally the influence of Martí’s “ethics,” which for Castro means national dignity, and Marxism-Leninism’s historical “compass.” And he admits favoring the moralizing Marx, whom the Jesuit-educated lawyer admires for his “austerity” and “self-sacrifice.” “I once said somewhere that if Ulysses was captivated by the songs of the sirens, I was captivated by the irrefutable truths of the Marxist denunciations,” Castro tells Ramonet. It’s a tempting analogy; after all, it is only by closing his eyes and willfully blinding himself to the ugliness of the singers that Ulysses could be seduced by their song. But explaining the Cuban Revolution’s tilt toward the Soviet Union by pinpointing when its captain broke free from the course of moderation misses the obvious: if Castro had been a Cuban Communist he probably would have been more willing to accommodate himself to the realities of Washington’s power in the hemisphere; the Partido Socialista Popular had carved out a space in national politics by entering into successive backroom deals with corrupt regimes. It was Cuban populist-nationalism that was unyielding.
Nationalist resentment is sometimes built from fabricated grievances, but Cuba’s long colonial and neo-colonial history filled a pantheon of real martyrs and a gallery of real rogues. In the late nineteenth century, rebels against Spanish rule forged an antiracist and democratic nationalism. This was remarkable considering how much of the world had fallen “under Darwin’s sway,” as Martí put it, alluding to social Darwinism’s fortification of scientific racism in the late-nineteenth century. It was also tragic: in 1898, the US invaded, preempting the insurgents’ victory, and Cuba became ward, as historian Ada Ferrer writes, to a “nation then inventing Jim Crow segregation.In the twentieth century, successive reformers came to power only to succumb to its privileges or Washington’s will. The US regularly intervened in Cuba–the Marines occupied it in 1906-09, 1912, and 1917-22–and just at the moment when FDR proclaimed his Good Neighbor Policy, his ambassador in Havana was openly working to oust Cuba’s reformist president, Ramón Grau San Martin. This century of sacrifice and betrayal gave Castro’s generation a finely tuned sense of anticipated disappointment. “Nothing was going to change,” Castro says, even if Batista hadn’t cancelled the 1952 elections and the Orthodoxos had been allowed to take office: treachery was “going to happen.” “The frustration and disillusionment were going to be repeated all over again. And it was not possible to go back again, back over those long-travelled roads that led nowhere.”
Much of Castro’s legitimacy depended on his ability to map his progress onto the larger epic of the Hispanic left. After two years in prison for his part in the Moncada revolt, he left for exile in Mexico in 1955. There he and his brother assembled a band of Cuban expatriates, along with the Argentine Ernesto Guevara, who had just escaped the CIA coup in Guatemala. On a farm once owned by an ally of Pancho Villa, the men were trained in guerrilla tactics by a former general who had fought for the Spanish republic. A justifiable appreciation of his own historical importance produces in Castro a sense of disappointment in the smallness of his current enemies, not just George W. Bush but also Spain’s ultramontane former prime minister José Maria Aznar, who has recently set up a foundation to combat Latin America’s resurgent left and whom Castro enjoys calling caballerito, or the “little gentleman.” The Cuban leader describes Aznar as an insecure, nervous man, “always changing his ties and things.” Castro also admits to some unexpected sympathies with a few enemies of the left: He wistfully recalls Francisco Franco, whom he describes as “honourable” for not bending to Washington’s will and breaking relations with Cuba. Just as Castro reaches back past his own birth to claim spiritual kinship with Marti and other independence leaders, he weaves the Spanish general into a broader tapestry of Cuban history. Franco was born in a town that sent troops to a Spanish battalion defeated by US troops in 1898. Castro speculates that perhaps Franco as a boy welcomed the beaten soldiers home and thus might have seen the Cuban Revolution as “Spain’s revenge.” In any case, Franco, a Galician like Castro’s father, was shrewd and stayed out of WWII, unlike the “stupid” war that Bush and Aznar got themselves into.
Asked in 1956 by Cuba’s Communist Party to “postpone” his planned invasion, Castro refused. “We would either be free or be martyrs,” he says, “but no one renounces what he believes in, and I believed in what we were doing.” Castro wasn’t the originator of New Left volunteerism, yet his revolution did catalyze the hopes of many that the future could be freed from the past. Inspired by the revolution’s achievements, a younger generation revived a dormant Latin American internationalism, now inflected with a third-world cast made luminous by Che, about whom Castro has curiously little to say other than stock observations. Castro’s definition of democracy, in which social rights trumped political rights, resonated among a generation of Latin Americans embittered by their particular country’s cycles of reform and reaction. His ability to beat back Washington redeemed a century of humiliations: from the annexation of more than a third of Mexico’s national territory in 1848 to the overthrow of Arbenz in 1954, which served as a model for the CIA’s abortive Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.
Castro remains a Marxist-Leninist, so it is fitting that he has opted not to tell the story of his life in an autobiography, that emblem of bourgeois artifice. Instead, he’s chosen, now as throughout his career, a more social form of self-depiction: the extended interview. His conversations with Ramonet took place between 2003 and 2005, and are surely his last contribution to this genre. Potentially more dialogical than autobiographies, interviews have their own mystifications, the most obvious being the omission of facts incongruous with the life, in this case, of a revolutionary: Castro, for example, never discusses his reported involvement in university gangsterism.
Compared with previous published book-length interviews, My Life has the feeling of completeness. Castro’s talks with Ramonet took place just before his near fatal stomach ailment–the specifics of which are still guarded as a state secret–which forced him into semi-retirement in July 2006. Castro’s personal investment in this book has also given it a stamp of authority. He has spent considerable time revising the manuscript, fact-checking information with comrades and adding material he felt important to his legacy (first editions in Cuba and Spain were published unvetted). “I kept correcting the book at the worst moments,” he said in response to concerns that his editorial work was hurting his recovery, “I wanted to finish it because I didn’t know how much time I’d have.”
The fullness of My Life, however, comes mostly from the circularity of its narrative, and from its presentation of a life lived, despite the fate of Marxism, in accordance with its times. Past interviews index Castro’s political evolution to specific moments. In 1985, with Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto, the secular Castro made his peace with radical Catholicism, then on the rise. In 1992, with Sandinista leader Tomás Borge, he reconciled himself to the collapse of the USSR, beginning a critique of Soviet Communism that he elaborates here.
But while these earlier interviews plot points in an arc, My Life brings Castro back to where he started: as a defender of social-democratic constitutionalism. Neither renouncing his Marxism nor apologizing for his suppression of dissent, Castro, whose revolution represented for many a repudiation of reformist compromise, now claims kinship, to a greater degree than he has ever done in the past, with a broader social-democratic tradition. He pointedly praises the Spanish Left in the 1930s for working within the “democratic system” and acknowledges Chibás, who party historians had downplayed because of his anti-communism, as an inspiration. Castro still defends his decision to endorse the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (which he says he made “bitterly, sadly”), yet when discussing what was lost by the collapse of the USSR, he mentions not people’s republics but European social democracies. “They’ve all started moving to the right,” he laments. These maneuvers could be dismissed as the accommodations of an anachronism to new realities: Gabriel García Márquez once said Castro was a “sore loser” who would not rest until he was able to “invert the terms of the situation and convert defeat into a victory.” But the adjustment is mutual, as the recent return of the left to power throughout South America has allowed Havana to break out of its Cold War isolation and establish good working relations with most of the continent.
Castro can still flash his shark-toothed righteousness, evoking the militant who said in 1953 that Cuba would sink into the sea before betraying its ideals, and who in 1962 helped bring the whole world to the nuclear precipice. When accused by Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González of taking a “Numantic position”–a reference to the inhabitants of the Iberian city of Numantia, who futilely resisted a brutal two-year Roman siege–Castro replied that he was a “great admirer of those people.” It’s pure posture. The most important advice he gave a besieged Chávez during the 2002 coup was not to do what Salvador Allende did under similar circumstances three decades earlier: “Don’t sacrifice yourself!” With much of Latin America’s newest new left embracing positions nearly identical to those advocated by Castro in the early 1950s, the 81-year old revolutionary can go gently. For someone reportedly on the losing side of history, Castro, in this last testament, sounds neither defiant nor repentant. “Surviving,” he says, “is a privilege.”
According to Human Rights Watch, there are about 300 political prisoners in Cuban jails, and citizens are “systemically denied basic rights to free expression, associations, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.” Cuba is a one-party state that relies on neighborhood committees to enforce loyalty. There is no real independence between the branches of government and the Criminal Code penalizes dissent. Throughout its course, the revolution has extended and retracted degrees of cultural freedom, at times encouraging creativity and even criticism only to follow up with the harassment and prolonged imprisonment of artists, writers and poets who crossed an ever-shifting line. For a state that can claim inspiring humanist achievements in the realm of health care, solidarity, education and, most recently, gay rights (thanks largely to the work of Castro’s niece–Raúl Castro’s daughter–Mariela Castro), the coercion involved in its defense can be deeply dehumanizing, as many who have suffered it have testified, such as the gay novelist Reinaldo Arenas, in his Before Night Falls (1993). Cuba has a high prisoner-to-population ratio in comparison to the rest of Latin America, but roughly equal to that of the English-speaking Caribbean and much lower than that of the US. Since the end of the cold war, there have been a series of crackdowns, including the 2003 execution of three ferry hijackers after summary trials, that have angered allies. In lieu of due process, the Cuban regime has instituted a personalistic appeals system whereby its supporters, or at least engagers (Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Carter, even Pope John Paul II), travel to the island to petition for the release of dissidents. “You’d have to ask for the list of all the people who were able to benefit” from a visit by Danielle Mitterrand, Castro tells Ramonet; “in some cases they were able to get satisfaction.”
Supporters of the revolution justify this repression comparatively–measuring it against the exponentially greater number of victims produced by Washington’s allies, or, for that matter, Washington itself–or in relation to the real threat the US has posed to its survival over the decades. Ramonet himself has been criticized in some reviews of My Life for being overly considerate to Castro. He does ask tough questions about policy failures and human-rights violations, but he allows his subject lengthy, largely uncontested responses. Ramonet defends his method, saying that he purposefully refused to play the role of judge or prosecutor to let “one of the most implacably attacked figures in the world . . . have his say.” In any case, Ramonet seems not so much solicitous as subdued in the face of the paradox of the Cuban Revolution, whose idealistic achievements are as genuine as its repressions. Ramonet rightly says in his introduction that whatever its historical justification, the ongoing suppression of dissent is “indefensible.”
Yet defend it he does, pointing out, again rightly, that since the revolution’s triumph there have been over 3,500 deaths and almost 2,000 disabling injuries from terrorist attacks, most of them sponsored by or launched from the United States, which still funnels tens of millions of dollars a year to Cuban dissidents. Ramonet’s position is similar to that of Gabriel García Márquez. “I am very critical of the Cuban Revolution,” he told a reporter in 1980, but the “positive aspects of the revolution are more important and numerous than its negative features, so my position is to try to improve things from within.” The Colombian has held firm ever since, refusing to join other left-leaning writers, like Jose Saramago and Eduardo Galeano, in publicly criticizing Havana after its 2003 crackdown. García Márquez has written what he has called a “very harsh, very frank” book on Cuba, but he hasn’t yet allowed it to be published. “It would be very easy,” he said, “for someone to quote out of context sentences that seem to be against Cuba.” But perhaps the way out of the impasse Ramonet and García Márquez find themselves in is to neither defend nor denounce Cuba’s repression but to explain the distinctive ways in which it has been carried out.
The Cuban Revolution is “totalitarian” in all classic senses of the word. It is a single-party system built around a cult of personality where autonomous civil-society organizations are only grudgingly tolerated and that justifies itself with a unifying ideology. It came to power with a deep-rooted sense of aggrievement and a hypersensitive antennae for betrayal, and has weathered half a century of real threats to its existence, mobilizing its population on a regular basis, be it for sugar harvests, anti-colonial struggles in Africa, or to denounce the latest outrage by Washington. According to the conventional wisdom on revolutions that divide the world between the pure and impure, from the Jacobeans in France and the Bolsheviks in Russia to the Maoists in China and the Mullahs in Iran, the Cuban Revolution should have been a killing machine. Yet while it can be ruthless against perceived enemies, the Cuban government since its consolidation has not engaged in the kind of spectacular terror associated with ideological militancy; there have been no cyclical purges of “class enemies” and “party bureaucrats,” and remarkably few “show trials” staged to generate cohesiveness, even during moments of extended crisis, such as the “Special Period” that followed the fall of the USSR. Dissent is policed, unanimity demanded, but violence, while defended as a right of state, never became ritualized as it did in other revolutions. The passing of Castro will shed light on why this has been.
In a final summation, Castro lists his country’s accomplishments in education and healthcare, advances in science and medicine, contribution to decolonization and rolling back white supremacy in Africa, ongoing humanitarian internationalism and the audacity of having survived “thousands of acts of sabotage and terrorists attacks organized by the government of the United States.” “What,” he asks, “is Cuba blamed for?” The list is long. And since Castro himself has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the individual in history–a “man’s personality can become an objective factor,” he once said–he will be held responsible after he is gone for the high price paid for his Numantic obstinacy. The circularity of My Life‘s narrative is not just that Castro reconnects with postwar social democracy but that many of the problems that plagued Cuba prior to the revolution have returned, including sex tourism, race-based economic inequality and corruption, which partly explains Castro’s rehabilitation of the good-government crusader Chibás. The most damning criticism that can be leveled at a revolution is not that it is repressive but that its repression was for naught. It’s an indictment Castro himself raises, at the end of his interview, the only moment where his certainty gives way to something sounding like exhaustion: “How many ways are there,” he asks, “of stealing in this country?”
Yet Castro remains admired by many in the region not because they endorse his authoritarianism or because they want to replicate the Cuban system in their own country but because they too have lived the history that has produced his intransigence, and they continue to insist on a definition of democracy that includes some degree of economic equality. On a recent trip to Cuba to sign a series of commercial and energy accords, Brazil’s Lula declared that he came from a generation that was “in love with the Cuban Revolution”–that is, a generation that had survived a cycle of US-backed coups that by 1976 had turned Latin America into a garrison continent–and that he had a “special affection for Castro.” Castro, isolated by his convalescence in a way that US policy has never achieved, welcomed not just the praise but the company. After the two men met, Lula told the press that while they touched on “all possible topics,” they didn’t “split the talking” evenly; “Fidel spoke for two hours,” he said dryly, “and I for half an hour.” With his stemwinding days over, the old revolutionary spends more time with the pen, composing long essays on world events, a “new experience” that he finds less than satisfying. “I do what I can,” he shrugged in a recent one; “writing is not the same as speaking.”