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The unexpected lives of fidel castro.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a syndicated columnist for Universal Press for twenty-five years. Her thrice-weekly columns on international affairs appear in more than 120 newspapers, including the Washington Times, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Universal de Caracas, and Diario las Americas. A prolific author, she is especially noted for her biography Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro (1991, reprinted 1993), which is being made into a three-hour television show for Showtime.

""We are left with the honor of being one of the few adversaries of the United States"--Cuban President Fidel Castro to NBC reporter Maria Shriver in l988. "

""Is that really such an honor?"--Maria Shriver to Castro. "

""Of course it is an honor, because for such a small country as Cuba to have such a gigantic country as the United States live so obsessed with this little island--a country that no longer considers itself an adversary of the USSR or an adversary of China, yet still considers itself an adversary of Cuba--it is an honor for us.""

In most histories of the twentieth century, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz will be depicted not only as the major revolutionary of Cuban legend but as the premier ideological revolutionary of Latin America and the Third World. He will be described as the masterful political hand behind training, leading, and inspiring the Marxist guerrilla movements that swept Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in the l960s, '70s, and '80s. Perhaps most important of all, Castro's Cuba will be forever cited as the first example of Soviet communism's success in establishing a satellite country in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the reason that the entire world moved precariously close to the edge of nuclear disaster in what has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis of l962. All because of the ambitions of a single man from a thoroughly "unimportant" country!

His flush and untamed beard, the military fatigues that came to symbolize the search for the hero in our times, his capacity to speak for hours on end regaling las masas, his charming repartee (when he is in a good mood), his cruel and uncanny ability to rid himself of his competitors long before they became threats, his unprecedented martial exploits across the globe, and his absolute and gnawing hatred of the americanos of the North: All will characterize the unique man who has become the single most potent symbol of "revolution in our time."

The only problem is that most of the compelling suppositions held about him are not true. The generally accepted truths about Fidel Castro are really only elastic creations that stretch, like a lithe feline, into the realms of mythology.

One thing, however, is very clear in all the romantically deceptive webs that this "mysterious" leader has so cleverly woven about himself: Fidel Castro is not really ideological at all. Despite his dramatic exclamations of faith, he has never been a communist or Marxist in any imaginable traditional sense. He has no real Communist Party, no politburo, and no socialist central planning system in any traditional sense. He is really not even Cuban in any historic style, but rather Spanish in the manner of the caudillos (military dictators) of old: he is a Fidelista in the spirit of, as the Spanish like to say, "Primero soy yo." (Or, "Me first!")

Yet this man was fated to become the very model of the ways in which the turbulent and tragedy-ridden twentieth century transmogrified men of ancient cultures and habits into the supposedly most modern of ideologues, whether fascist, communist, Islamic fundamentalist--or Fidelista. He was destined to stain history like a Rorschach blot into which quite different people--men and women who need such a man in order to reflect their own needs or to relieve them of their own resentments--could project their own hopes and fears. He became famous despite his myriad hypocrisies and mammoth failures. Or perhaps he became famous because of them.


The province of Galicia in the northwesternmost corner of Spain is a beautiful but sad place that was so poor in the nineteenth century that most of the men emigrated, some to Argentina and many to Cuba. Even today, it is a quiet and deceptive region, where people live by such maxims as "A man is owner of his silences and prisoner of his words." But to the young Fidel, it was also a shameful place, because his rough and rustic Gallego father, Angel Castro, was paid to take the place of a rich man's son to fight in the Spanish-American War of l898.

His father's plight surely has something to do with Fidel's implacable obsession with the United States. But his many obsessions, as he grew to turbulent adulthood in the late l920s and '30s, had little to do with being poor. In fact, Angel Castro was a rude but clever man who, after World War I, made a fortune in land in the "wild" part of Cuba, the eastern Oriente, so far from Havana society as to be another country. A sugarcane farmer, Angel had a lot of Haitian slaves and not many moral compunctions. He was only too happy to relieve himself of his first wife, a relatively cultured schoolteacher, and live openly with Lina Ruz, a raw-boned Annie Oakley type who had been the family maid and who would ride around the Castro property sporting a pistol and a Winchester.

Being unmarried didn't stop the unconventional pair from having child after child, six in all, before they bothered with matrimony. Fidel was most probably born about 2:00 a.m. on August l3, l926, during a devastating cyclone. "I was born a guerrilla," Fidel would say later, with his accustomed hyperbolic sense of theater, "because I was born in the night. It was a little like a conspiracy." Ever ambitious, Angel wanted to send his children to Catholic schools, and so the renegade couple finally married for that purpose.

From the very beginning of his life, Fidel constantly exercised, and seemed to enjoy, an extraordinary natural propensity to violence. In those early free and wild years in his rough hometown of Biran, he would often hang under the nearby railroad tracks that bridged a large culvert, shivering excitedly as the trains roared by only inches above him. At least once he tried to burn down the family's house and set fire to his father's car.

Meanwhile, Angel was patiently going out at night with his hired men, on horseback, secretively moving the fences on his land, until its parameters became so extensive that Angel Castro had become a very wealthy man in his adopted land. What most enraged Fidel about his grizzled father was the fact that the old man's best friend was his neighbor-in-landowning, the manager of the United Fruit farm next door. There, at the young Fidel's very own doorstep and in his own family house, drinking cognac with his father (who had fought for Spain and not for Cuba), sat the very representative of the most emblematic company of the hated Yankee empire to the north!


When Fidel's Jesuit mentor Fr. Armando Llorente reminisced about his student many years later in Miami, he thought back over whether he had ever seen Fidel praying at the Colegio de Belen, the Jesuit high school in Havana where the "newlyweds," Angel and Lina, sent their son. "Occasionally I would see him praying in the chapel," the padre finally said. "I knew what he was praying for--he was praying to win."

Indeed, all of his acts in high school--and then at the University of Havana--were clearly leading to a pattern. His search for power was indiscriminate and always displayed Machiavellian cunning.

Fidel loved basketball--but several times when his team was losing, he switched sides and made baskets for the other team. In years to come, he would speak movingly of his love for Cuban history, especially for the great patriot Jose Mart'--yet the Cuban historian Herminio Portel Vila, who taught at the university, recalls of the boy that "he didn't want to study history, he wanted to make it."

As Father Llorente told me further, "He was a good student. He was not deep. He was intuitive. He has a radar! He also had the cruelty of the Gallego. The Cuban is courtly. The Cuban would give up before he made people suffer. The Spaniard of the north is cruel, hard." By then (l986), revealingly, the priest was one of two million Cubans exiled by Castro in the name of the "revolution."

As with history, Castro did not want to study law at the university so much as to transform it into a revolutionary code that would forever assure his purposes. But the country was already a lawless one, as one dictator after the other flouted every principle of civic decency. At heart, Cuba was, in an expression restricted to Cuban Spanish, an atimia country, a nation of restricted sovereignty or one that had suffered a historic loss or deterioration of status. That inner and outer struggle naturally took the form of fighting not only Cuban dictators (especially Gerardo Machado in the l920s and Fulgencio Batista during his two reigns--l933--1944 and l952--59) but the United States as well.

Actually, since America's vertiginous victory over Spain in l898, leaving Cuban independence fighters frustrated and unfulfilled, because the United States had sometimes backed Cuban democracy and sometimes the dictators. Especially galling to the increasingly desperate young Cubans of Castro's generation was the Platt Amendment of l90l. Forced upon the Cuban government, it gave Washington, skittery about any instability in the Caribbean, the right to intervene militarily on the island if civil war erupted--or even if Cuba were not kept clean from "dangerous diseases"! (British historian Hugh Thomas compared the terms to the humiliations the Treaty of Versailles imposed upon Germany and Austria in l9l9.)

In the university, nicknamed "Bola de Churre" or "Greaseball" because of his unkempt ways, Fidel became one of the political gangsters who carried guns to school and used them. But at this point in his life, he was also trying to learn tactics. For this purpose, he had been studying the European fascists as early as the l930s, walking around Belen with a copy of Mein Kampf under his arm and keeping a map of the Axis victories in Europe pinned to his wall.

Actually, such searches were not mysterious at all. Castro and his generation were looking for models of seizing power. The fascists, like the communists, abhorred the "phony electoralism" of democracy, and their "new men" were soldiers. "Fascism is a Militia at the service of the Nation!" the Italian fascist constitution proudly stated. And Fidel was always fascinated with everything soldierly and military.

These intellectual searches soon led the young Fidel not only to the practice of tactics but to the invention of them. In fact, to an extraordinary extent, Castro pioneered many of the tactics for the destruction of the "old order" that would become standard revolutionary fare over the twentieth century. The first political kidnapping, the first skyjacking, the idea of the "countryside" guerrilla movements surrounding and destroying "wicked cities," the organization of guerrilla cadre cells, public confession sessions, the predominance always and ever of the "armed struggle" to transform the fighters, and the imposition of new institutions over the forms of the old ones: Some of these may have been started by the Chinese communists and others, but Castro was the first to apply them to the Americas in modern times.

He was also an innovator in--and extremely clever at using--all the new media of the time. Castro would stand for hours before his mirror, mimicking Mussolini and reciting his speeches on an early tape recorder. He moved from there to radio, where his seemingly endless harangues would be devoured avidly across the island. He mastered the use of television well before other leaders, using it as an integral tool in the process of massively transmitting "the spell" he soon would weave over the Cuban people.

But the time was not yet ripe for action. While at the university, he joined a foolhardy guerrilla invasion of the neighboring Dominican Republic to overthrow that country's dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. But it failed miserably. Many dismissed him as just a crazy guy who kept getting into inexplicable jams and would never really amount to anything.


Castro didn't like flowers, he didn't like animals, and he didn't like dancing. The last, in particular, was a sacrilege in Cuban society, where dancing was the measure of the caballero.

Many thought that he would never fall in love, much less get married-- and most Cubans to this day, enveloped as they are by the levels of mystery that he has so carefully woven around his persona, do not know that he ever was married. But he was--from l948 to l953, to a beautiful, sensitive, and sensuous young woman named Mirta D'az-Balart. In fact, Mirta's "vita" was perfect for a resentful and ambitious young man of the lower but monied classes, for she was the daughter of the lawyer for both the dictator Batista and the hated American company, United Fruit.

The "happy couple" was married on October l0, l948, and the future looked splendid on the surface. But even as they left the church, the shadows were closing in--Castro feared an attack during the ceremony. As they were leaving on their honeymoon, he amusedly opened the valise he was carrying. Inside was a pistol. "I'm not worried," he told friends. "I have this, and I had it with me at the altar."

Although rapturously happy at first, the marriage soon foundered. No one woman was enough for a man like Castro, who, after all, never cared about the normal joys of life--he was dedicated to something great, to the "revolution." When their son Fidelito was born, Mirta would sit at home in their cramped apartment in the dark because her husband would not pay the electric bill or even buy milk for the child. Those tens of thousands of dollars in his pocket--that money was for the revolution.

There were many women in his life--the beauteous Gloria Gaitan in Bogota (daughter of the famous assassinated president of Colombia, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan), a lovely girl in Mexico named Isabel Custudio, a series of Tropicana dancers and the like, and, later in his life, the "woman from Trinidad," Dalia Soto el Valle, who bore him five children, all with (typical of Castro's "humility") his nom de guerre "Alejandro" somewhere in their names. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, and he treated most of them as abysmally as he did Mirta.

In fact, the only woman he seemed really to have cared for in anything approaching a normal way was the one who did not fit his usual pattern of preferring women who were English-speaking, Americanized, from old elite families and perfectly, plumply gorgeous. Celia Sanchez, who was with him in the Sierra Maestra and later became his influential executive assistant, was a different type altogether, a northern Spanish type, with a long, gaunt face and a painfully thin body. She was also destined (unofficially) to become the one person he could not do without. In the Sierra, she had loved him, almost surely carnally, but she realized, after the triunfo, that she could no longer have him in a love relationship. Wisely, she made herself indispensable to him. Her death from cancer in l980 marked the one time that he was truly inconsolable and caused him to make many political mistakes.

Castro and Mirta would be divorced in still another example of the theatrical drama that revolved around his life. In l953, he was in jail for attacking the Moncada military barracks. The marriage was suffering; he had long been having a passionate love affair with still another English-speaking and Americanized Havana society girl, the exquisite Natalia "Naty" Revuelta. Experienced older prisoners always warned newcomers against writing to their wives and girlfriends on the same day--jail officials who censored their letters might mistakenly exchange them. That was just what happened when Fidel wrote to Mirta and Naty on the same day. When Mirta received the letter meant for Naty, it was all over. Of course, it was all merely a mistake! (Or did Castro ever really make those kinds of mistakes?)


Castro's attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba in his own Oriente home area on July 26, l953, was a military farce, although one acted out, as so often with Castro, in tragedy. Castro organized his band of young men and women, almost all outsiders in Cuban society-- "people whom the street did not know," they were called--with the idea that this attack would start the "revolution." They had trained for months for it, and they sat up all night beforehand in a nearby house, signing patriotic songs, making promises, some crying out of joy and some out of fear.

The entire attack was absurdity piled upon tragedy. When Castro's cadres attacked the barracks at dawn on one of the mornings-after of Carnival, the government's thousand-man military force was unexpectedly still on guard. Of his unorthodox combatants (numbers range from 87 to l65) with their simple weapons, most were killed, some outright and others after being terribly tortured, their eyes torn out of their heads. Castro escaped death, illustrating his uncanny ability to keep his own neck when all around him were losing theirs. (There are those who would say unkindly that he was saving himself for greater things, perhaps his trial, where he would truly lay bare his plans.)

But for his part, Castro knew exactly what he was doing. He would write of Moncada, with relish and pride, in a letter to his friend Luis Conte Aguero: "History has never seen such a massacre!"

When the famous trial of Fidel Castro and a handful of surviving comrades opened in the Santiago Palace of Justice on September 2l, l953, he was dressed in a simple blue-striped suit, white shirt, and red print necktie. He held his manacled hands up toward the judge and, offering himself as a metaphor for Cuba, proclaimed in a loud and resonant voice: "Mr. President! Not even the worst criminals are held this way in a hall that calls itself a hall of justice."

The judge, who was sympathetic to the insurgents, unshackled him; then he agreed that it was only right for Castro, who was after all a formally trained lawyer, to represent himself. Thus began the drama that would sweep Cuba and come finally to address and even to emblematize the desperate revolutionary struggle of the entire Third World.

One minute, Fidel would be defending himself; the next, explaining the noble motives of his followers up against the "brutality" of the regime; the next, cross-examining his accusers. He changed voice and role. He changed costumes, too, from the black robes of the law to the everyday dress of the prisoner and defendant and back again. One minute, he was "the state" and "legitimacy"; the next moment, he was the oppressed citizen and, implicitly, the new--and true--legitimacy. Cuba was transfixed as he effectively laid out his plan and form for "a new world aborning."

He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Before that, at the end of his second (and secret) trial, he spoke these ringing words to the tribunal: "Condemn me, it does not matter! History will absolve me." (Those last, and now legendary, words of his Moncada speech were taken almost verbatim from Hitler's Rathaus Putsch l924 trial speech. Castro's studies had already borne fruit.)


From Havana and his surprising release only a year and a half later, he moved directly to Mexico with a small band of followers to train for "the return." This time, he knew exactly what he was doing. After two years of drilling and planning in Mexico City (and a few arrests), the group left the Caribbean coast of Mexico one dark and dramatic night in a small, leaky, uncertain craft named the Granma. After days of near- death at sea, they landed on Cuban shores, where again Castro, now el l'der, immediately began again replacing still more history with his own calculated myth: Although there were probably eighteen men who landed, Castro to this day insists they were the "twelve." Any intention in his mind to identify himself and his aura with the Twelve Apostles is a distinct possibility.

For two years, he and his small band stayed in the rough mountains of the Sierra Maestra, hiding from the army, engaging in occasional ambushes, but above all writing with their lives the new mythology of the Cuban revolution. The name Fidel Castro began to seep into the airwaves and newspaper columns of the world, particularly when, a mere two weeks after the landing, Castro very calculatedly had New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews brought up to the Sierra to write glowing things about him. Meanwhile, many of the other, more serious revolutionaries, those who stayed in the dangerous cities to build real political structures and who might have become competitors to power, were dying, day after day, at the hands of Batista's thugs.

Finally, the first week of January l959, after Batista had fled the island, Castro marched across Cuba, slowly and deliberately. It was a march of victory, but it was also a march of warning: Castro was taking over, and Cubans were just beginning to understand that things would never be the same again. At that moment, the crowds were delirious with joy at their new leader. When, on the day of his entering Havana, a white dove landed on his shoulder as he was speaking to the masses, the crowds went utterly wild, shouting, FIDELFIDELFIDELFIDELFIDELFIDEL!

More trained and impassionate minds read other interpretations into these stunning events. "He had already easily induced the Cuban people, so long overwhelmed with failure, to suspend individual judgment and repose one's faith in the leadership of someone who conveys his conviction that he knows the way," American political psychiatrist Jerrold Post has observed. "He was saying, 'Follow me and I will take care of you.' "

But there was another message that he spoke over and over again in those euphoric days. It should have alerted people, had they really been listening: "Now, we are going to purify this country."


Another supposed truth--one that still is accepted by many analysts--is that new leader Castro went to Washington in April l959 in goodwill; that he was really only a "good democrat" but that Washington, ever hostile to any taint of revolution in the hemisphere, insulted him by refusing him aid. In truth, the famous visit was as carefully orchestrated by Castro as the most meticulously scripted of political minuets. It was not for nothing in those days that he liked to say privately: "This train knows where it is going!"

The enshrined story is that the United States turned down aid for Castro. Actually, Castro was received graciously for three hours by Vice President Richard Nixon in his Capitol office. (Nixon told me personally in later years that, while he disagreed with the Cuban leader, "he was worth three hours.") Secretary of State Christian Herter gave an elegant lunch for him at the State Department, where Castro's barbudos amazed everyone by sitting down on the floor and refusing to give up their guns.

Roy "Dick" Rubottom, then the assistant secretary of state for Latin America, knew that Cuba was in grave economic shape. He recalled years later: "So I set up an appointment to see the Cuban economists [who had traveled to Washington with Castro]. I had arranged for the assistant secretary of the treasury and others to meet with them. The meeting was to be in my office. They said they had to check it out with Castro. At 2 p.m., I got a call from Rufo L-pez Fresquet [one of the prominent Cuban economists] saying they were sorry they couldn't come, that Fidel would not give his approval."

So it went. On the personal level, far from being insulted or squelched, Castro became the center of a new rage in revolutionary chic. He was revolution's "man of the hour." Every step of the way, Castro deliberately kept his men even from talking with anyone in the United States about anything. It was really quite simple: Above all else, he wanted the americanos out of Cuba. He and he alone would now run his nation.

But Cuba was not intrinsically rich enough to fulfill his dreams of military glory. Sugar was the island's only real product. It was historically not only a wildly undependable crop but a humiliating one, representing backwardness to young men like Castro. Eventually he would need another sponsor and another economic patron; and he would soon find one that would satisfy all his needs.


The story of Castro's 1962 turn toward the Soviet Union and, at least ostensibly, the Soviet system is also filled with serious flaws. Moscow did not, as is generally still thought, initially grasp this extraordinary opportunity in the Western Hemisphere. Castro was never the innocent "boy caudillo" who just couldn't turn the "other superpower" down.

In fact, when Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, his historian son Sergo, and a small entourage landed in Havana on February 4, l960, having suddenly been invited there by Castro while they were convoking a Soviet industrial exposition in New York and Mexico, they were amazed at what they found. "It was only during the nine days that my father was there that he began to realize what was happening," Sergo Mikoyan told me many years later. "No, there was no moment, no hour of day; it was gradual. At the time of the revolution, no one knew what kind of man Castro was." (These stolid Soviets were also stunned by the sheer exuberance of the drama in Cuba. Ernesto "Che" Guevara, for instance, kept running in and out of their villas at every hour of the day and night.)

But the Soviets soon grasped the importance of the situation. Placed on a plate before them was the delectable possibility of a historic realignment of Cuba from West to East, right at the height of their competition with the United States for world dominance. It would be their first "base" in the Western Hemisphere!

The new union started, as it usually did in those days, with economic agreements. Soon Guevara, who was the "economics czar" of Cuba and a brilliant guerrilla warrior, negotiated an agreement giving Russia one million tons of Cuban sugar for five years, 20 percent paid for in dollars and the rest in Soviet goods. As relations with the United States grew worse and Washington watched its mortal enemy in the Cold War prancing and preaching only those bare ninety miles away from Florida, Moscow began supplying oil as Castro threatened Western oil companies.

It was only a short time later, on January 3l, l96l, that the United States formally broke diplomatic relations, driven to it by Castro's instigation of huge anti-American demonstrations, with the crowds shouting, "Get them out of here, throw them out."

Castro's first use of Soviet military aid, which soon began to emerge as the true reason for his new "historic friendship" with the USSR, was to assemble, equip, and train tens of thousands of guerrillas, not only from all the Latin American countries but from Africa and other parts of the Third World as well. Suddenly, Cuban-trained guerrillas were fighting from Nicaragua to El Salvador, from Vietnam to Angola, from Zanzibar to Syria and Argentina. Castro's "guerrilla international," in many ways the successor of the Soviets' l9l9 Comintern, formed by Lenin to communize the world, was no small thing.

Then, in l965, the famous Che snuck off to the Congo, to lead the "African revolution" there. Soon he was immersed in training soldiers from a host of Central African countries. All his adventures would come to naught; he would eventually return to Cuba in disgrace before he snuck off again to wage the "continental revolution" in Bolivia, where he was killed by Bolivian troops in October l967. But that denouement was still a long way away from the euphoria of the time.

By the height of his "military globalism" in the l960s, when the Cuban population was only about eight million, Castro had twenty-seven active guerrilla organizations with twenty-five thousand armed and trained men and women backed up by an additional twenty thousand politically indoctrinated individuals. They, in turn, were backed up by Castro's regular soldiers, over four hundred thousand of whom had served in Angola.

Castro's first intention was to overthrow the "old order" in countries under dictatorship, like Nicaragua. But he also fully intended to disrupt every possible democratic government as well, as with Venezuela, the then-sterling democracy that he tried to overthrow in his very first month in office. One of his leading intelligence officers, Orlando Castro Hidalgo, insisted that Castro wanted nothing less than the "final storming of the imperialist heights: the United States." Such ideas seemed extravagant only to those who refused to recognize the breaktaking expanse of the ambitions of Fidel Castro.

These were heady years, and perhaps in retrospect it was inevitable that at some point he would come directly up against the United States. That is what happened in the months that led up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October l962. Even though he had wanted to send the missiles to Cuba, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was himself finally horrified at what his supposed acolyte had in mind.

Khrushchev's reasons for the rash act of sending these offensive weapons with a range of one to two thousand miles to Cuba are now clear. He wanted to make a "geographical leap" into the Americans' own hemisphere and backyard. (It would be the first time since Napoleon III's disastrous expedition to Mexico that a non-American power would attempt to establish itself in the Americas.) He wanted to break the arrogant Americans' Monroe Doctrine. Approaching from the south, the missiles, if launched, would escape the U.S. early-warning system. Castro's reasons were related, but they were different.

Ever since the Americans launched the ill-conceived and -planned Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April l96l--a disaster and an imbroglio that humiliated them before the world--Castro had been building up fears in the Soviet intelligence community that the United States would surely strike again. Only this time, Cuba would really be ready. And then, suddenly, late in August l962, the missiles began secretly arriving by sea in Cuba.

Dean Rusk called it "the most dangerous crisis the world has ever seen"; Theodore Sorensen referred to it as the "Gettysburg of the Cold War." But in the end, the young President John F. Kennedy handled it brilliantly, Khrushchev backed off, and Castro went into spasms of rage. He had entered the "game of nations" as a vainglorious croupier, but the game was finally fixed by the casino owners. We know now, too, that Khrushchev was terrified at Castro's willingness to use the weapons to attack the United States directly and Castro was furious at him--this came out in later years in the famous message from Castro to Khrushchev called the "Armageddon Letter."

Blowing up the world was not the Soviets' intention, but Castro was, at any juncture where he might be cornered or destroyed, willing to resort to any measures, including most probably nuclear attacks.


In the end, Castro is the premiere study---perhaps the most revealing in the twentieth century---of how a man can take a beautiful but troubled country and change it for all time. Many of his tactics and techniques were and are historic: you can find some of him in each charismatic dictator, in every Spanish caudillo, in all those men who wove powerful, hypnotic political and psychological spells over other human beings throughout history.

Yet, his story is especially instructive because even today, an old man caught in the web of all his failures, he is still revered by tens of thousands across the world. Part of this is due to his daring past, and part indubitably to the anti-American obsession of so many elites of both the developed and underdeveloped worlds that so well match his own.

First, between l959 and l962, he moved out upper classes, then the middle classes, by direct confiscation of their houses, lands, and businesses and by a deft and mesmerizing "mobilization of the masses" against anyone of "privilege." Anyone who dared to provide real opposition was imprisoned for decades or simply executed. He moved early against his perceived competitors. Sometimes that was accomplished by simply leaving his ostensible compatriots in places where he knew they would almost surely be killed (Che in Bolivia in l967, Frank Pa's on the streets of Santiago during the revolution). Sometimes that was done through still-unexplained accidents (Camilo Cienfuegos in a strange and never-explained air accident in the first months of the revolution) and on other occasions through execution (the famous Gen. Amaldo Ochoa in l989).

Psychologically, he focused the souls of his atimia people on himself, in a perverted spirit of the sacred identification of people with God. (All charismatic leaders are plays on the godlike.) He changed Cuban culture to make himself the new culture of the nation. He abolished that feared American culture. He turned Cuba to the totalitarian and collective East and away from the democratic and individualistic West (in which, of course, he could never have total power). He set up structures that are totally dependent upon him. Then he backed up all these moves with vicious Czech- and Russian-trained intelligence units and with officious "Committees for the Defense of the Revolution," some of the most oppressive and intrusive neighborhood spying organizations in the history of the world.

He fancied himself the "father of genetics" (another play on the godlike) and attempted extraordinary and disastrous things like trying to cross zebu and Holstein cows to create a world-dazzling "supercow," the F-l. (They sometimes called him behind his back, "the dictator of the cows.") Indeed, all over Cuba, he told people what to plant and what to eat. When harvests failed, he extended the calendar year from twelve to eighteen months. He was going to control everything, even human and animal life. As a result of these grotesque pretensions, as well as his extraordinary spending on the military, Cuba's income and standard of living started going down, down, and down, until there was hardly anything left at all when the Soviet Union collapsed in l99l.

It is quite difficult to determine the real economic facts about Cuba because the Cubans today do not use the same methodology as the Western world. In 1961 they went to the Soviet system of economic measurements; thus, one cannot really compare statistics directly. So the best measure is to compare where Cuba stood on the scale of Latin American countries then with today. In 1958, just as Castro was coming into power, Cuba was economically among the top five countries in the hemisphere, with exports totaling $732 million. By 1997, Cuba was among the bottom five--in 1996 it was sixteenth, near the bottom, down there with Paraguay, with $1,831 million in exports. Another comparison can be made using sugar, Cuba's primary national product. In the late 1950s, when Cuba had about six million people, sugar production was six million tons, or about one ton per person. Today, Cuba has eleven million people and produces about four million tons, or about a third of a ton per person. In the 1950s Cuba had no foreign debt; today it has a huge one. In the pre-Castro era the Cuban peso had been equal in value to the U.S. dollar; today the peso is twenty to twenty-five to the dollar. And this does not, of course, take into consideration the enormous growth rates of the world over this nearly fifty-year period.

Castro pretends to give more freedom, allowing free markets, private restaurants, and hotels--for a while; then he clamps down and smokes out the dissidents. He pretends to want foreign investment, yet, although well-meaning U.S. and European businessmen flock to Cuba, there is actually almost no investment because his bureaucracies are so troglodytic---and because the man in charge cannot countenance any dispersion of power.

He even pretends at times to want to make peace with the United States, but the unmistakable truth is that, with American friendship, he would be a nobody on the world stage. He retains power because of American enmity. (When President Ronald Reagan sent that canny observer of human nature, Gen. Vernon Walters, to Havana in l982 to assess Castro, Walters came back and told the president: "We have nothing he wants--if we recognized him, he would be like the president of the Dominican Republic.")

Yet, still he sits in Havana, still in total power after all these years, completely in control of a country he has all but killed and yet admired by many across the globe! His vaunted guerrilla movements, like so many of his comrades-in-revolution, are all dead and gone, but Castro never exhausts himself with any regrets. When a U.S. diplomat asked him whether he was sorry about the destruction of so many countries through his policies, he said repeatedly, no. "Why?" the diplomat asked. The answer: "Because it was the doctrine!"

But, what is that doctrine, if indeed it even exists? One of the best observers of the Cuban experience, Damien Fernandez, associate professor and chair of the department of international relations at Florida International University, lists these components of Fidelismo: (l) the pursuit of politics as absolute, (2) radical nationalism, accompanied by inflated ideas of Cuban exceptionalism, (3) a concentration of power in the leader, and (4) the state as the provider of equity. One is struck by the degree to which these qualities are not those of the "scientific communism" of the East but of the traditional caudillos, or the fascists of Mother Spain---or, indeed, of so many dictators across history.

"Fidel is a positivist," Fernandez says, "and he believes that society can be engineered. Thus, he will leave behind him a country devoid of pragmatism and with no sense of civility or civic duty, in which people just want to withdraw from politics."


Castro has named his epigone brother Raul as his successor, but nobody believes that Raul can or will succeed him. In truth, for such leaders as Castro there are no successors. It is truly "apr?s moi le deluge." "I don't care what happens to Cuba after my death," he has answered when asked what will happen. Those are the moments when he comes closest to telling the truth.

Jaime Suchlicki, the respected head of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, has outlined what is probably the most practical scenario. "Fidel Castro dies in bed or of a heart attack," he says. "Raul calls the politburo, and it appoints him as secretary-general of the Communist Party. Then they appoint someone like Ricardo Alarc-n [president of the Cuban parliament] as president. The situation will evolve but slowly. There will be a low probability of people marching into the streets. Initially, there will be martial law and nobody will do much of anything."

Castro himself spoke of the transition in an unusual news conference in July 2000. "Now they talk about the famous transition," he said. "I have read hundreds of articles about that famous transition. 'Who will come after Castro? Will his brother be able to control the situation?' " Then he paused and added sagely, "You cannot cover the sun with your finger!"

That, indeed, is how he has always seen himself. But, besides the Sun god, he is the prince, he is Huey Long, he is Napoleon and Hitler, he is the Music Man, he is Jose Mart"s soul, he is Juan Per-n, he is the "Old Man of the Mountain." Above all, he is a traditional Spanish caudillo who happened to appear on the world stage and then come to power in Latin America at that historic time when such driven men needed a totalist ideology to give them modern excuses for reigning in a supposed egalitarian age.

He failed at all those prosaic and pedestrian pursuits that engage so many lesser men. Not for him, the miserable daily business of producing goods, building institutions, or devising real principles for his society. He roamed the mountaintops; he did not plow the valleys. In the end, one has to admit that Castro did succeed at what he wanted above all else: to keep power forever.n


Additional Reading:Peter Bourne, Fidel, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, l986.

Jorge Dominguez, Cuba: Order and Revolution, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., l978.

Theodore Draper, Castro's Revolution: Myths and Realities, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, l962.

Jorge Edwards, Persona Non Grata: An Envoy in Castro's Cuba, Pomerica Press, New York, l976.

Carlos Franqui, Diary of the Cuban Revolution, Viking Press, New York, l980

------, Family Portrait With Fidel: A Memoir, Random House, New York, l984

Maurice Halperin, The Taming of Fidel Castro, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, l98l.

Carlos Alberto Montaner, Fidel Castro y la revolucio'n cubana, Editorial Playor, Madrid, l983.

Thomas Patterson, Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994.

Robert Quirk, Fidel Castro, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, l993.

Jaime Suchlicki, Cuba From Columbus to Castro, Pergamon-Brassey's, Washington, l986.

Tad Szulc, Fidel: A Critical Portrait, William Morrow and Company, New York, l986.

Hugh Thomas, Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, Harper & Row, New York, l97l.
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Author:Geyer, Georgie Anne
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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