Consider for a moment the career of this Caribbean dictator: he takes office as a reformer, but quickly reveals a vast, indeed unlimited, appetite for power. He is able to sustain himself in this role partly through the support of one of the superpowers, which regards him—for all his faults and limitations—as a concrete geopolitical asset. At home, he eliminates all centers of independent life; abroad, he connives at the overthrow of neighboring governments, supplying local sympathizers with arms, money, and training. He runs his country like a private estate, overseeing every detail of its economic, political, and military life. In order to do this, he parcels out important responsibilities to his brother. His country—to quote a former American ambassador—is “a true modern totalitarian state, complete with racism, espionage apparatus, torture chambers, and murder factories.”
For three decades the dictator’s name is virtually synonymous with that of his country, and although his jails are full, spies and informers everywhere, and his people impoverished, he is often praised by foreign admirers and major world leaders. Then, one day, his throne is shaken by new winds of democracy and freedom blowing throughout his region and in the wider world. Yet in spite of all predictions—and dozens of assassination plots—he holds onto power, either because (as his apologists claim), in spite of everything, he enjoys enduring popularity among his people, or because (as his critics point out) his opposition remains weak and divided, dead or in exile. Only human mortality seems to limit his survival.
The dictator so described happens to be Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, who ruled the Dominican Republic with an iron hand from 1930 to 1962. But the reader who anticipated Fidel Castro instead would not have been off the mark: without a single alteration the same lines accurately summarize the career of the dictator who has just passed his 30th anniversary in power in Cuba. The difference—a crucial one, to be sure—is that Trujillo lacked an ideology—that, and a superpower ally willing to sponsor or countenance his activities outside of his own island-state. Now, however, that Castro has lost (or is in the process of losing) the support of the Soviet Union and what used to be called the Eastern bloc, and the international ideological movement of which he was a part is virtually decomposing before our eyes, he suddenly shrinks to his proper geographical and cultural proportions, and the phenomenon of Castroism threatens to become nothing but an unfortunate subcategory of Caribbean political folklore. Even then, however, we still may not fully grasp its meaning.
In truth, understanding Castro has always called for keeping both aspects—the folkloric and the ideological—in approximately equal focus. Failure to do so has led to some extremely sterile debates: whether Castro was “pushed” into the arms of the Soviet Union in 1960-61 or “jumped”; whether his export of revolutionary violence in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa was undertaken “at the orders” of the Soviet Union or on “his own initiative”; whether—together with North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung—Castro is the last serious, practicing Marxist-Leninist or merely a slightly extravagant Latin American nationalist.
These disputes probably tell us more about ourselves than about Castro himself—about our desire to find rationality in what is often an irrational universe, or (what amounts to the same thing) our need to trivialize volatile and unattractive political phenomena so that they can no longer threaten us. In the particular case of Fidel Castro, it could easily be said that, 30 years after bursting onto the screen of our own political consciousness, he still evades our deepest understanding. Part of the problem has been the sheer paucity of hard information. But part, too, has been the lack of a framework adequate to make sense of what we do know.
In both areas we are aided immeasurably by a new, major biography by Georgie Anne Geyer, veteran foreign correspondent and syndicated columnist, who has been covering Cuba and the Caribbean since the mid-1960’s.1 Guerrilla Prince reminds us what journalism at its best once was and can still be—a combination of scholarship, reportage, analysis, and serious reflection. It also represents an exhausting backlog of journeys stretching over nearly two decades, not merely to Cuba but to dozens of other countries where Castro has had some claim to a relationship—to Spain (where his father’s relatives still eke out an existence in rural Galicia), to Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina, and Venezuela; and also to the Soviet Union, Poland, Germany, Angola, Ethiopia, and India. In the process, Geyer interviewed more than 600 persons, including not only Castro himself (four times) and his Vice President, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, but people who grew up with him (Luis Aguilar), who taught him as a law student (Herminio Portell-Vilá), who knew him as a young politician and revolutionary (Melba Hernández, José Pardo Llada, Martha Frayde, Huber Matos), or who subsequently dealt with him as an ally (Nikita Khrushchev, Régis Debray, Salvador Allende, Michael Manley, Juan Bosch, Anastas Mikoyan, Eldridge Cleaver, Daniel Ortega, Jonas Savimbi2) or as an adversary (Richard Nixon, General Vernon Walters, William Colby, Robert McNamara). Some of her most dramatic information has been gleaned from high-level defectors from the regime (there have been many more of them in recent years than is generally realized): General Rafael del Pino, former head of the Cuban air force; Carlos Franqui, former editor of Revolución; and intelligence officers Juan Benemelis and Florentino Aspillaga.
From these and others we learn many personal details that have gone unreported in the international press. For example: that Castro’s former wife Mirta has remarried and lives quietly in Madrid (on notice not to speak to any journalist about her former husband if she ever wishes to see her son again); that he has five illegitimate sons by a stunning Cuban beauty, Dalia Soto del Valle Jorge; that, like his son by Mirta, Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart (“Fidelito”), all have been educated in the Soviet Union; that in spite of his vaunted austerity, he has “an extraordinary range” of homes, including a hunting estate which bears a remarkable resemblance to the ones seized from the old aristocrats by the nomenklatura of Eastern European Communism (because the caudillo has a fondness for bowling, some of his residences even have alleys specially imported from Japan); that in spite of his alleged puritanism, Castro has had extensive dealings with the Colombian drug cartel, sometimes through the good offices of Panama’s General Manuel Noriega; that dozens of dummy Cuban “corporations” receive tens of millions of dollars in exchange for such shady transactions as false visas or the illegal use of dead bodies; that a “secret fund” of $4.2 million has been deposited in Swiss banks for the future discretion of the leader; and so on.
Yet it is not so much the individual pieces of information—startling as some of those are—which make Geyer’s portrait so compelling, but rather the way she assembles them. Her intention, she writes, is to provide a “psychologically definitive” portrait. “What,” she asks, is “the nature of the spell that Castro wove over his ‘masses’? How [is] it possible that a man from a small and powerless island should have been able to garner so much power that he could effectively challenge the American superpower itself?” And lingering in the background is an even more troubling question: what is there about Castro which—notwithstanding a suffocating authoritarianism, a failed economy, a record of political confinement for dissidents utterly unmatched in the history of Latin America—has made him an enduring cultural-political icon for so many in the democratic West?
Cuba is like other Latin American countries, only more so. It has always been a crossroads of two deeply antagonistic cultures—one with roots in the Counter-Reformation, the other in the Enlightenment. In some ways Cuban history is a replay in miniature of the Anglo-Spanish rivalries of the 16th and 17th centuries, with all that implies for religion, social values, and political institutions. The Spanish impress upon Cuban life has been extraordinarily intense: until defeated by the United States in 1898, Madrid had ruled the island continuously for 400 years, including three full generations after all the other Spanish-American societies had shed their colonial status. On the other hand, until the island was granted formal independence in 1901, the prospect of outright annexation to the United States was always a concrete possibility. Throughout Cuba’s history, the mere existence of the United States remained the most important single factor in its national life. Nor—with the best will in the world—could it have been otherwise; by reason of geography alone, the United States was simply too large and too close to be ignored. Another complication: though Cubans were always deeply attracted to the American way of life, it always lay just beyond their reach. This introduced a permanent frustration into Cuban politics, of which Fidel Castro has been the logical end-product and beneficiary.
His father, Angel, was an artillery sergeant from Galicia who fought against the Cuban insurgents in the war of independence (1895-98), then settled there and lived with a Cuban servant girl who was the mother of Fidel Castro and several other siblings. Starting as a day laborer for the United Fruit Company on one of its huge agri-industrial complexes, Angel Castro eventually became a wealthy landowner in his own right, with a 10,000-acre hacienda in the Oriente province. His children grew up economically privileged but socially dislocated, or at any rate “outsiders,” in a Cuban republic where one’s social status was determined largely by proximity to all things American.
In his intolerance, his dogmatism, his personalism, his penchant for individual acts of useless heroism, and his hatred of the United States, Fidel Castro is a legitimate product of his Spanish heritage—a heritage that he does not trouble to deny. As a matter of fact, until recently Spain was the only West European country to maintain a full-scale aid program to Cuba.3 This is not something to be credited only (or even particularly) to the existence of the current Socialist government in Madrid; as Geyer points out, Castro’s relations with the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco were extraordinarily warm, punctuated by the continued exchange of gifts and compliments. Both men yearned to meet (though they never did), but when Franco—scourge of his own political Left—died in 1974, Castro declared a full week of official mourning in Cuba.
This cultural tilt also explains much of Castro’s distaste for the Cuban middle class, which consciously modeled itself upon that of the United States, sometimes—as in the case of the family of his former wife—to the point of converting to Protestantism. Ironically, while Castro has destroyed and dispersed this class—once the largest and most successful in Latin America—he continues to prefer as companions women drawn from its ranks, always, Geyer says, “Americanized, English-speaking, beautiful (most, but not all . . . blond), and from ‘old families’ who had fought against the Spaniards.”
Although politics interested Castro from his earliest days in the university, there is nothing about this period which prefigures his present ideological attachments. One fellow student recalls his fascination with the European fascists of the 1940’s; another remembers him saying that he would like to be a Communist (“But only if I can be Stalin”). If Castro eventually declared himself a Communist, it was because, as his one-time associate and fellow revolutionary Huber Matos put it, of all ideologies Marxism-Leninism “offered him the [best] opportunity of becoming the undisputed ruler of the country for the rest of his life.”
Certainly the only constant that characterizes Castro’s early career is a relentless quest for power, and a willingness to use violence to advance his progress. At the university he enlisted in several of the “direct-action” groups that employed robbery and assassination in the service of some extremely vague ideological goals. Though he eventually received his law degree, he never actually practiced, and in fact throughout his entire life he has lived on the wealth produced by others. (Even his honeymoon to New York City in 1948 was paid for by, of all people, the then-ex-President—and future dictator—Fulgencio Batista, a friend of his new father-in-law.) Castro never lacked energy, but he has always been incapable of summoning up the discipline necessary for sustained and systematic work.
Two quite different factors made possible Castro’s eventual ascent. The first was Cuban politics, which in the best of times never rose much above a kind of gangster populism. For the first 30 years of Cuban independence, public life was little more than a pillaging of the public treasury, with different heroes of the war of independence taking turns distributing spoils to their followers. The system was broken in the 1930’s by a revolution led (somewhat improbably) by students and noncommissioned officers of the army, but what followed, if marginally more democratic, was profoundly uninspiring. Posing as men of the democratic Left (both had been radicals in earlier years), Presidents Ramón Grau San Martín (1944- 48) and Carlos Prío (1948-52) were unusually corrupt. Thus, when General Batista seized power on the eve of elections in 1952, there were few who thought the system worth defending. As for Batista himself, though once a reasonably decent President (1940-44), by 1952 he had become squalid and self-indulgent, and, as time went on, increasingly authoritarian. This unlovely combination eventually readied Cubans for a radical break—by the late 50’s it was simply a matter of someone emerging to lead them.
At the start there was no compelling reason why that person had to be Fidel Castro, who at the time of Batista’s 1952 coup had been a virtually unknown lawyer (and candidate for Congress in elections which had never been held). His hagiographers are fond of pointing out that Castro was bold enough to file a suit against Batista’s putsch at the Court of Constitutional Guarantees, and that in the following year he and a group of determined (or desperate) followers attempted to overthrow the government by seizing the Moncada Fortress in Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city. But the larger cause of Castro’s rise was the timely demise of others who might more properly have led the opposition to Batista—particularly Eduardo Chibás, a radio commentator who held all Cuba’s attention on his Sunday-night broadcasts until he overreached himself in his accusations, and committed suicide after leaving the air one night in 1951.
There is, in fact, an even more sinister pattern in Castro’s relationship to potential rivals. Some have disappeared under unexplained or doubtful circumstances: Frank País, the leader of the civic resistance against Batista, whom Geyer fairly well establishes was betrayed to the Cuban police by Vilma Espín, current wife of Castro’s brother Raúl; Camilo Cienfuegos, the most popular of the guerrilla commanders in the war against Batista, who perished in a mysterious aviation accident shortly after the victory of the revolution; or Ché Guevara himself, sent to a virtual certain death first in the Congo, and then in Bolivia. Others have been deliberately eliminated in spectacular show trials—Huber Matos, labor leader David Salvador, and, lately, General Armando Ochoa, the most distinguished soldier in Cuba’s army. Geyer is particularly strong in showing how Castro—secreted away in the fastness of the Oriente province, head of a tiny guerrilla “army” that rarely saw any real action during the late 50’s—captured the imagination of the Cuban public through the creative manipulation of the news media (first in Cuba, later in the New York Times through Herbert Matthews), and also by carefully playing different opponents of Batista off against each other. (Some, like País, perished in the real front lines of the war, which were in Cuba’s cities, particularly Havana.) By the time Castro entered Havana on New Year’s Day 1959, there remained no alternative to him, and the entire nation was ready to surrender itself to its new idol. The revolution was his to make—in any configuration he might choose.
And the choice was his alone. One of the most durable foreign-policy legends of all time is the notion that the United States, by its supposedly cruel and ungenerous response to the infant revolution in Cuba, forced Castro to align himself with the Soviets. Geyer patiently unravels all the details, exposing this story for the myth it is: outside the immediate circle of Ambassador Earl E.T Smith and his military advisers, most American diplomats in Cuba openly and enthusiastically backed Castro’s revolutionaries. Indeed, a former CIA agent recalled in 1987 that this even included his own station chief. The State Department—torn between Smith’s cables and all other information it was receiving—thrashed about in search of a “third force”—“a policy,” Geyer dryly observes, “that people who live in ordered societies so love to insist upon for those who live in disordered ones.”
In the end, in any case, the U.S. role was irrelevant, as it so often has been in Latin America. Batista fled, Castro assumed power, and Washington decided to do its best by him. When the new Cuban leader came to this country in 1960—contrary to the way he himself would later describe the trip—he was, writes Geyer, “feted, admired, and celebrated everywhere he went.” So favorable was the reception, and so evidently taken by it was its object that (Geyer reveals) during those heady days Fidel was getting repeated phone calls from his brother Raúl (who had remained behind) accusing him of “selling out to the Americans.” Teresa Casuso, now Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations, even recalls that at one point Fidel “almost wept” at his brother’s accusations.
Try as they might, however, U.S. officials—including Acting Secretary of State Christian Herter, who convened an extraordinary high-level lunch to welcome Castro to Washington—could not get the visiting delegation to concentrate on serious economic talks. The reason was simple: the new Cuban leader had already decided upon a different course for his country. Here is the way that Geyer explains Castro’s apparent ideological conversion:
Fidel Castro never “became” a Communist as one becomes a Mason, a Catholic, an SS officer, a Hare Krishna, or a Zoroastrian. He did not adapt himself to an ideology; he found an ideology to adapt itself to him . . . he brought “Communism” to power through his own ego, instead of through an ideology imposed through a movement.
In fact, Castro never really became a “Communist” at all. The new thing in history that Castro did was to destroy the Communist party and create his own Fidelista party, which he called Communist in order to stand up to the United States and to gain backing and to borrow power from the Soviet Union. For the first time in history, a national leader converted the Communist party to himself!
As Geyer notes, there was a cold and implacable logic to Castro’s choice: a close relationship with the United States would have required him to conform to the notions of “bourgeois legality” and constitutional government, or at least would have subjected him to the kind of pressures from Washington which had circumscribed the power of other Cuban dictators. Evidently nothing of the sort would be forthcoming from the Kremlin.
Moreover, to become a client state of the Soviet Union—a vast Eurasian land mass itself imperfectly civilized, and incomparably remote—would insulate Cuba from countervailing cultural influences. At least until the advent of Gorbachev, there was nothing about Soviet society to invite Cubans to invidious comparisons; if anything, the attractions ran entirely in the other direction, at least at the beginning. (As Anastas Mikoyan remarked upon his arrival in 1960, Cuba’s revolution exuded “a sense of romanticism,” which, he added in a candid aside, “by that time had almost been lost in our country.”)
Much has been made by Castro apologists of the counterrevolutionary adventure sponsored by the United States in April 1961 and forever after known as the Bay of Pigs—the landing of several thousand anti-Castro Cubans on the southern coast of the island. What should be remembered best about that event, however, is the remarkable restraint which the United States showed: if it had really been determined to bring Castro down, it would not have denied the insurgents the air cover they required, or (in the final instance) failed to send in U.S. troops to keep the operation from collapsing altogether. One might well ask what President John F. Kennedy had in mind by picking a fight with Castro with one hand tied behind his back; whatever it was, it could not have been a commitment to overthrow the Cuban dictator at any cost.
The Kennedy-Khrushchev accords which concluded the missile crisis of October 1962 are another monument to American restraint. In some ways, indeed, the U.S. promise not to invade Cuba in exchange for the withdrawal of Soviet nuclear weapons from the island could be seen as a victory for Moscow and Havana as well—since by installing the missiles in the first place, they obtained (admittedly, at very high risk) something they probably would not otherwise have obtained.4
As Geyer points out, Castro’s approach to the United States has been rather less restrained. Though the United States was finally persuaded to accept his regime as an accomplished fact, Castro has never quite returned the compliment: witness his unflagging support for Puerto Rican terrorists and black American “revolutionaries.” On a somewhat grander level of geopolitics, Khrushchev’s recently published posthumous memoirs reveal that Castro was urging the Soviets to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the United States in the event that it attempted to invade the island to disarm the missiles—a counsel which the Soviet leader quite properly regarded as suicidal (not to say apocalyptic).
Again, while we are often reminded of the numerous CIA plots to assassinate Castro (none of which ever got off the ground), Geyer lays out some rather disturbing evidence—not conclusive, to be sure, but too compelling to be dismissed out of hand—that Castro may have been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Nor has the Cuban dictator mellowed much with time; General del Pino told Geyer that after the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, Castro ordered his air-force fighter planes programmed to fly against the Turkey Point nuclear installation 24 miles south of Miami. Del Pino was shocked; didn’t the dictator realize, he asked, “that if this plant is destroyed, it would not only annihilate all the Cubans in Miami but . . . radioactivity would fall on Cuba?”
“Man, we’re strong and dangerous,” Che Guevara gushed to the Cuban army magazine Verde Olivo in 1960. “Oh, it is so great and comfortable to belong to such a strong world power as dangerous as Cuba!” The political scientist Jorge Dominguez of Harvard found a way of putting it more elegantly two decades later, when he described Cuba as “a small country with a big country’s foreign policy.” It is this, in fact, not police-state socialism, which constitutes Castro’s greatest political innovation, and to which he owes much of his appeal in the poorer, more wretched backwaters of the third world.
Cuba was always too small a stage for Castro’s ambitions, and almost from the very start he attempted to project his presence onto the South American mainland. (Aspillaga recalls him fantasizing even as late as the mid-1980’s about eventually becoming the President of “Latin America.”) The vision of Cuba as a potential great power—however outlandish to foreigners—has deep roots in the island’s political history; but without the economic, logistical, and political support of the Soviet Union, it could only have remained the daydream of a frustrated tropical politician.
With such support, however, Castro was able to leverage his way to quasi-great-power status. Geyer reminds us that at the height of Castro’s “military globalism” in the early 1970’s, an island with a population of eight million people had some 250,000 “internationalist fighters” deployed around the globe. (During the Ethiopian civil war, an entire Cuban expeditionary force was transported to Africa, there to fight under the command of a Soviet general.) In addition, Castro was sponsoring 27 active guerrilla organizations with 25,000 armed and trained members from other countries, backed up by an additional 20,000 from Africa and Nicaragua who had undergone political-indoctrination classes in Cuba. Havana became one of the two “polar centers” for guerrilla warfare in the world (the other being the Palestinian national movement in the Middle East).
Geyer is quite clear on just what all of this meant for international politics. Without Castro’s advice and support
there would have been no Nicaraguan Sandinistas, no [U.S.] invasion of Grenada, no guerrilla movements from El Salvador to Uruguay to Chile, no destruction of democracy in the Southern Cone [of South America], no Marxist Angola, Mozambique, or Ethiopia.
There would have been no new political, ideological, and strategic balance of power in southern Africa, and no super-national “drug state,” defended by the leftist guerrillas he had trained, spreading like an evil and consuming Rorschach blot across Latin America, with its own armies and borders.
There would have been no extension, for the first time, of Latin America’s reach within the United States, no first and second Marxist-Leninist state in the Western hemisphere. From 1959 on, wherever the United States had a watershed foreign-policy crisis, Castro’s formative hand could be found.
The motor of all of this was not Marxism as an ideology or the Soviet Union’s strategic designs, crucial as both of those were to Castro’s success. Rather, the foundation-stone of his career as a revolutionary in Cuba was resentment. “His was a politics not of interest,” she writes, “but of complexes.” He destroyed the old Cuba “not because the Americans turned their backs on him, but in order to avoid the wrenching feelings of inferiority, so as not to have to compete with a culture that was so unbearable exactly because the Cuban people wanted it.”
Castro’s foreign policy, then, was merely a projection of this attitude on a global scale: a military-political alliance with the other “losers” of history. Somewhere along the line, however, he lost sight of the fact that his global reach was almost entirely based on Soviet power and Moscow’s willingness (and ability) to project it. In some ways this was entirely understandable: the Cuban dictator did not always follow the Kremlin’s instructions, and sometimes rushed ahead of his patrons, forcing them to make good revolutionary accounts he had opened in strange and difficult places. As the Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko later remarked, no client ever drew upon greater reserves of Moscow’s patience than the Cubans. As long as strategic bipolarity was a fact of life, Castro could successfully manipulate his sponsor. But who needs him—or his country—now that it is not?
More guns, at home and abroad, have meant, inevitably, less butter at home. In effect, Castro has consolidated his power at home and extended it overseas at the cost of huge sacrifices from his own people. The point is worth dwelling upon only because it is so far from what he explicitly promised Cubans at the beginning. In his famous speech in 1953 (“History Will Absolve Me”), delivered at his trial for having assaulted the Moncada Fortress, the future dictator claimed that “Cuba can support splendidly a population three times larger than it now has. . . . There is no reason . . . for the misery among its inhabitants. The market should be flooded with produce, pantries should be full, all hands should be industriously producing.”
Today, however, Castro’s Cuba is an object lesson not in progress but in regression. Far from becoming an independent industrial power in its own right, the island found itself unable even to produce enough sugar, and from 1983 on had to resort to the open market to meet its export quota to the Soviet Union. One Cuban who returned from exile in Spain several years ago found that literally nothing had changed—“the same crystal windows . . . the [same] baths. The iceboxes were from the time of Humphrey Bogart.” In many other ways, too, the country is poorer than it has ever been. Instead of “markets . . . flooded with produce, pantries . . . full,” the population survives at a virtual subsistence level, with every article of prime necessity sternly rationed.5 A Cuban-American woman who recently visited her family there recalled one of her cousins saying, “Tell our relatives in the United States not to worry—we’re fine here in Cuba; the only thing we lack is food and freedom.” Suicide is now the principal cause of death of Cubans between the ages of 41 and 49—an affliction which, Geyer reminds us, has touched Castro’s personal entourage twice (his close associate Haydée Santamaría, and his onetime puppet President Osvaldo Dórticos).
There were still—there are still—those who lamely defend this state of affairs either in terms of the American economic “blockade” (actually, a trade embargo restricted to the United States; it does not inhibit Castro from commercial transactions with most of the countries in the world, though his inability to pay his bills has made him a most unappealing customer), or the regime’s supposed accomplishments in the area of education and health. Indeed, almost no report on the island these days fails to include a disclaimer of this sort: “No one in Cuba is starving or homeless,” Lee Hockstadter assures readers of the Washington Post (February 6, 1991), “and free health care and education take the edge off the scarcity of some foods and consumer items,”6
On the subject of health care, a rather different view comes from Dr. Maria Isabel Gonzalez Betancourt, former chief of the Cuban national hospital system, who defected to Mexico last September. She reports that in Cuban hospitals many patients perish needlessly from post-operative infections because surgeons are unable to wash their hands with antiseptic soap or distilled water—both articles being virtually nonexistent; and that kidney patients are expiring because of a shortage of spare parts for dialysis machines. Perhaps even more interesting is this comment:
It is not true that, as in Mexico, government hospitals provide their patients with medicine free of charge; in Cuba one receives prescriptions at the doctor’s office, and the patient then has to go out and try to buy his medicine in the street. This is so because the public pharmacies are lacking about 320 basic drugs, including penicillin, which we in the hospital system had to do without for various weeks at a time.
As for education, to judge by some remarks made in the U.S. print (and particularly electronic) media, one would have thought that there were no schools at all in Cuba before 1959, whereas in fact for more than half a century before Castro’s accession to power Havana was one of the two or three most important publishing, theatrical, and literary centers of the Spanish language. To be sure, there was a great disparity between city and countryside, but even so, Cuba ranked third or fourth among Latin Americans states in literacy. There is something slightly fraudulent about Castro’s claims in this area, as attested to by none other than Jacobo Timerman, who writes that “if it is true that [today] every Cuban knows how to read and write, it is likewise true that every Cuban has nothing to read and must be very cautious about what he writes.” And after twelve years of war in Africa, he adds, the Cuban experience there has not produced a single novel or poem “that goes beyond pamphleteering stupidity.” Not a single major Cuban novelist continues to live on the island.
How many times in this century have Marx’s predictions been turned on their heads by events! First, the great revolution he expected began not in the industrialized countries of Western Europe but in the barbarous reaches of the East. Then it was brought westward not by rebellious workers but by tanks, bayonets, and police technology. Finally, it spread outward to the margins and periphery of the modern world in the wake of decolonization. Now, the center of what used to be called the “socialist world” is collapsing, crucially endangering the survival of its peripheral tributaries. Who could have imagined in 1848, or 1917, or 1945 that the final redoubt of Communism would be a tropical island in the Caribbean?
For such a system, there can be no easy end, no soft landing. When and how it will happen no one can say, but neither a generational extension (with Castro’s son “Fidelito,” who has suddenly emerged as heir-apparent) nor a gradual opening (either at home or in relations with the United States, or both) seems likely. In recent months Castro has repeatedly insisted that regardless of what takes place elsewhere, Cuba will carry forward the banner of Marxism to the very end. No doubt that as long as he is around to determine the course of events, Cuba’s future will simply resemble its past. But over the longer term this claim is unlikely to withstand the larger currents of history, geography, and culture, all of which at last are converging to reduce the man and his country to a grotesque and unfortunate footnote.
1 Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro, Little, Brown, 407 pp., $22.45.
2 Cleaver, Savimbi, and Manley have since become adversaries.
3 This program has been temporarily suspended because of Castro's refusal to allow the Spanish embassy in Havana to harbor Cubans seeking political asylum.
4 This is, in fact, precisely how Khrushchev justified his agreement with Kennedy to Castro in the remarkable correspondence which Castro released to the French press last year (see Le Monde, November 27, 1990). Henry Kissinger has frequently remarked that while he considered the outcome of the crisis a victory for the United States at the time, since then he has come to see the validity of Khrushchev's point.
5 The self-styled “Latin American socialist” Jacobo Timer-man has just had the candor to observe that after 30 years Fidel “hasn't managed to organize a system for distributing bread and beer” (Cuba: A Journey, Knopf, 125 pp., $19.95).
6 Hockstadter seems unfamiliar with Charles Lane's report (New Republic, January 7/14, 1991) that Castro's farm officials have taken to breeding a kind of rat that lives in the cane fields “as a source of food.”