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Fidel Castro: a critical portrait.

Fidel Castro: A Critical Portrait,

Tad Szulc, Morrow, $19.95

Eversince 1959, when a young and bearded Fidel Castro marched on Havana--and, symbolically, much of the world--one of the quintessential liberal vs. conservative arguments of our time has been over this question: Did the United States "push' Castro towards communism? Or was he always a Marxist? In this biography, Tad Szulc, the talented former Latin American correspondent for The New York Times, has provided a clincher that is going to be hard to challenge.

Szulc lived in Cuba during 1959;when he returned in 1985, he received an unusual amount of cooperation from Fidel's folks because they assumed he was doing an authorized biography. Old communists like Fabrizio Grobart, Alfredo Guevara, and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, talked for the first time--freely--about what really happened that crucial first year.

They told him that even beforeCastro marched on Havana, the revolutionaries were operating on two levels. The "respectable' Democrats of the Old Order were put forward by Fidel as the ostensible leaders of the country, while Fidel, Raul Castro, and Ernesto "Che' Guevara were holding allnight meetings in secret beach houses with the communists, planning a step-by-step restructuring of Cuba into a communist state.

There's another scoop in Szulc'srevelation that the CIA sent aid to Castro in 1957 and 1958. There have long been murmurs about this aid--apparently money and armaments --but no proof. Szulc names names, citing the American consul general in Cuba as the CIA agent who made the contact. He wisely does not make too much of this. It is presented as what it most probably was: the CIA covering its bases by backing, minimally, the bearded incognito in the mountains at the same time the U.S. military was beginning just barely to phase out its aid to the increasingly hated dictator Fulgencio Batista.

There are weaknesses in thisotherwise immensely valuable book. The sourcing is horrible; the reader almost never knows what should be attributed to whom. With such controversial material, one needs the greatest possible documentation. There are odd errors. One of the classic stories about Castro describes the night he was on television when his son was nearly killed in an auto accident. Fidel heard the news but, in his customary megalomania, refused to get off television and go to the hospital. Szulc inexplicably claims that "it took hours for Castro to be located and brought to the hospital' when most of Cuba knew precisely where he was. There is almost nothing about Castro's tumultuous and brief marriage, or on his personality. Yes, Castro deliverately turned to communism --Szulc makes that clear--but, why? There is little on the motivation and psychology of the Third World man who created power out of powerlessness.

At a recent session at the WilsonCenter at the Smithsonian, Szulc mused about his book and about the fascinating, remarkable, and in many ways repellent historic figure he had sought out.

"I have difficulty understandinghow a man of such intelligence and of such a sense of history and culture has allowed himself to become ossified politically,' Szulc said. "I think he suffers from the total isolation of the outside world. He is lost in his court like an aging king. As a thinker and governor, he has lost acuity of thinking. Why is it that he becomes so incensed when his own people come to him with new ideas? . . . He is a man who wishes new technology but rejects new thought. In Cuba today, I see decay: decay of ideas and of revolutionary process, a stagnation, not because of the last two years, but because the revolution and the nation have been so totally mismanaged.'

These words constitute the worstpossible indictment of Castro and his revolution. But then, Castro has never been open to ideas, except those that ensured and preserved his power. He has killed or removed anyone who dared to offer resistance. History shows us, once again, that men who simply seek total power, and who then find an ideology to justify it, are not very mysterious.
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Author:Geyer, Georgia Anne
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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