All entries for March 2008

March 11, 2008

El Comandante Calls It a Day

Castro, Fidel; Ramonet, Ignacio ed., Hurley, Andrew trans., My Life – Fidel Castro, (London: Penguin and Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 724+ 

Well, there we have it. The comandante has stepped down. And what a timely resignation it is for Fidel. Never have the whims of world power gone wonkier since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, we face a capital recession that is giving investors worldwide a boneshaking run for their money. We perceive a smoldering Afghanistan and a broken Iraqi population that leave us wondering who the bloodiest dictators really are.  And on top of that, we have to put up with a United States at its lowest ebb, headed by the worst bungler in presidential history. There has never been a riper moment for summing up the lifetime and adventures of Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, ex-President of Cuba and leader of the Cuban Revolution since 1958. 

Sooner or later, somebody had to do this mammoth task. Fidel himself made it clear his time was too precious to lavish on writing self-narratives. But Ignacio Ramonet found a way of tapping his subject’s notable gift of the gab. The result is an assisted autobiography, with a researcher asking the questions, and Castro answering, recollecting, clarifying and fine-tuning the facts of a 49-year long stint as Cuban leader. The format suits Castro’s penchant for oratory, and readers of his 626-page, 28-chapter exchange with Professor Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, will find in Castro’s meticulous answers that same eloquence that triggered Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonder at the Revolutionary’s rhetorical panache. Castro ‘begins almost inaudibly, his path uncertain, but he takes advantage of any glimmer, any spark, to gain ground, little by little, until suddenly he casts off – and takes control of his audience’, writes Marquez. ‘My Life – Fidel Castro’, is the result of some 100 hours of face-to-face conversation that an ailing Castro chose to grant Ramonet. 

In terms of research, comprehensiveness, and eliciting the finer details of Castro’s history, the biographer has produced a laudable volume. His conversation with Fidel covers his birth and upbringing in a well-to-do Roman Catholic family in Biran, his political debut as a young lawyer, and the 1953 assault of the Moncada Barracks - the event that signaled the eventual overthrow of president Fulgencio Batista and the triumph of the Revolution in 1958. Ramonet devotes an entire chapter to the 1962 ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’, that ended with Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev and Fidel withdrawing the contentious weaponry installed in Cuba that had taken the world to the verge of full-blown nuclear conflict. Another chapter is allotted to the death of Che Guevara - whom Castro bends over backwards to portray as a quasi-flawless, wholesome revolutionary mind. We are  offered Castro’s first-hand accounts of his adventures as a guerrilla in the Sierra Maestra, his initial years in power, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the biological warfare against Cuba under Nixon’s US, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time of hardship for Cuba that Fidel euphemistically portrayed to his people as a ‘special period’. In his first-person account as in his speeches, and perhaps out of habit, Castro often employs the ‘We’, a very perplexing mannerism, coming from the guerrilla par excellence, the comrade who swore blood allegiance to the socialist ideals and reputedly shunned the cult of personality.

Fidel speaks of the difficulties he encountered in establishing the Revolutionary administration, surviving hostilities from numerous countries, especially the crippling US embargo that is still in effect, and his own personal ordeal as a prime target of the CIA. His account of the several attacks on his life – an incredible 600 of them – carried out by both the CIA and other organizations such as Omega 7 and Alpha 66 – affords a presumably more veritable version of the intrigue unfolding behind Castro’s formidable public image. Fidel mentions, among others, an attempt to mix cyanide into his drink and a TV camera equipped with a gun trained on him during a press conference. Throughout the conversation, the Commander-in-Chief emphasizes his commitment to the revolutionary ideal of an egalitarian society, and insists that his Cuban Revolution has by now ‘fathered’ four generations of loyal, industrious companeros. Indeed, Castro’s stature, even on the international stage, subscribes to the cult of immortality. He has survived nine US presidents, and has garnered enough support from his own people and the army to keep him in power for half a century. Ramonet’s elaborate introduction to the work is as revealing as the conversation itself. He notes, for instance, Castro’s shy personality and his modest, understated approach during his direct encounters with people in town, village or rural hinterland. Moreover, Ramonet, a very respected specialist in the history of culture and geopolitics, makes a space-clearing gesture for Castro’s international standing. ‘Few men have known the glory of entering the pages of both history and legend while they are still alive. Fidel is one of them. He is the last ‘sacred giant’ of international politics. He belongs to the generation of mythical insurgents – Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh, Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral […] – who, pursuing an ideal of justice, threw themselves into political action in the years following the Second World War.’

The biographer’s problem here is, of course, that his divisive subject is hardly comparable to the likes of Cabral and Mandela, except that Castro was inspired by the former and provided aid to the latter. And here lies Ramonet’s Achilles’ heel, one that may prejudice the credibility of this volume. His writing comes across as ‘making a case’ for Fidel, and very often, the work reads like a painstaking effort at absolving him. It is not a matter of the biographer’s confronting Fidel with bold questions – which he does – but a totalizing conception of Fidel leading Ramonet to state that ‘the fact is that the majority of Cubans (though admittedly not all)  are loyal to the Revolution.’ It certainly is not a view shared by many Cuban artists and writers in exile, including Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and the Cuban-born Andy Garcia, whose movie ‘The Lost City’ offers a scathing depiction of the brutal facts of Castro’s regime.

In his final chapter, ‘After Fidel – What?’, Ramonet broaches the question of Cuba’s destiny after Fidel, which prompts the Cuban leader to  spell out what will not take place in Cuba. He insists that ‘the Yankees can’t destroy this revolutionary process, because we have an entire nation that’s learned to handle weapons, an entire nation that despite our errors, has such a high degree of culture, knowledge and awareness that it will never, ever, again allow this country to become a colony of theirs’. 

Time will tell. But a reflection on Marxist socialism volunteered by Henri Lefebvre may not, perhaps, be completely misplaced at this intriguing stage of Cuba’s development: ‘Just how wide by now is the rift between the ‘real’ society rightly or wrongly referred to as socialist and Marx and Engels’ project for a new society?’ Castro will not dare answer it. Neither will Ramonet. But Castro’s intriguing account of his life certainly offers us a vital glimpse into what the world’s longest-ruling socialist revolutionary leader has realistically achieved.



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