The Autumn of the Autocrat
Imagine a young man poised to enter the prime of his life. He’s handsome, happy, and shows great promise. The world is at his feet. Then, suddenly, a car crash wipes him out. A senseless, random tragedy.
The late Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn once compared the Russian revolution to an auto accident: a far from inevitable disaster that befell a nation of great promise. A similar comparison could be made of Cuba, once a prospering country that during the late 1950s suffered a wreck of a revolution.
The driver behind that revolution was Fidel Castro, who must be the subject of more biographies than any other active world leader. Now nearing 80 years old, Castro has been the head abbot of his communist monastery for over 47 years. This Latin American archetype comes from a long line of rebellious strong men who since colonial times have revolted against all established authority, both church and state. Fortunately, these rebels usually fare poorly. For example, the sixteenth century fanatic Lope de Aguirre, a proto-Castro immortalized in Herzog’s film Aguirre: The Wrath of God, was finally hunted down in the Venezuelan backlands. Had he succeeded in establishing his New World kingdom, Lope doubtless would have created something like communist Cuba, a country totally twisted to one indomitable, capricious will.
Brian Latell, a former National Intelligence Officer for Latin America and a distinguished expert on Cuba, adds another book to our store of interpretations of Castro and Cuba’s political future. In After Fidel he offers an unvarnished look at the Cuban dictator, not falling for the traces of hero worship that accompany even critical biographies like those of Georgie Anne Geyer and the late Tad Szulc.
Like many works on Castro, Latell dedicates much space to his early years. We learn all about his alienation from his father, who nevertheless doted on him and supported him financially, well into adulthood. Likewise we catch a glimpse of his homicidal behavior—Latell mentions his assassination attempts on rival youth gang bangers—and his revolutionary activities before he burst on the Cuban scene in 1953. The friends of his youth figured Fidel out early. The nickname “El Loco” stuck with him through college. In Fidel’s case, the child was indeed father to the man.
One strength of Latell’s book is its insights into the CIA’s thinking about Castro, especially in the early days of the revolution. He notes that many intelligence analysts and Washington policymakers at the time sympathized with the Cuban revolution and discounted its communist undertones. Experts took Castro at face value as a liberal nationalist reformer seeking to restore democratic governance. It took a long time for analysts to recognize that, not only had Fidel been a committed communist from the beginning, but he never wanted better relations with Washington, on any terms.
Quite the contrary: Castro desired unrelenting conflict with the United States. To illustrate Castro’s anti-American obsession, Latell relates the efforts in the early 1970s by the Nixon White House to establish détente with Havana. This diplomatic opening began, incongruously enough, with top diplomat Lawrence Eagleburger meeting Cuban diplomats at a cafeteria in New York’s LaGuardia airport. Latell acknowledges that he and fellow CIA analysts thought Castro ready to make a deal. But the Cubans were cagey and unwilling to give up their support for wars of national liberation, including their support for the Puerto Rican violent terrorist organization, the Macheteros.
Ultimately, Castro valued the ideal of Puerto Rican independence and widespread hemispheric revolution more than any concrete gains from better relations with Washington. Latell attributes the failure by his fellow analysts to understand Castro’s motives as “mirror imaging:” the fallacy of believing that foreign leaders are motivated by the same goals and values you are.
Latell provides one twist in the usual telling of the Castro story by emphasizing the importance of his younger brother, Raul. Far from being just another subordinate, Raul in fact has since the beginning acted as his older brother’s alter ego and partner, building both the Cuban Army and the new Communist Party and allowing Fidel to be the revolution’s front man. A portrait emerges here of the lesser-known Raul: a talented organizer and a far more normal man than his sociopathic older brother. For example, Latell notes that Raul in his younger days once boastfully showed friends his well-stocked comic book collection, but admonished them not to tell Fidel about it.
Raul overcame his nerdish pastimes and became the chief enforcer for Fidel’s revolutionary band. Later, Raul would oversee the execution of his friend, the heroic General Ochoa, in 1989 on trumped up drug charges, an event that may have forestalled a major challenge to the regime. Latell reinterprets the story of Raul’s communist party membership from his early years as having developed due to Fidel’s early encouragement, because he wanted to establish direct contact with the KGB. If this story is true, it may corroborate the position of some writers like the former communist Eudocio Ravines that the Russians were involved in fomenting the Cuban revolution.
Although Latell offers a fresh retelling and interpretation of Castro, After Fidel disappointingly dedicates little space to the promise of its title. What does come after Fidel? Latell argues effectively that the revolutionary brothers have played complementary roles, but his suggestion that Fidel’s death would in the end permit Raul to be the independent reformer he has longed to be seems farfetched based on his previous analysis. Perhaps the more likely outcome, given Raul’s dependent nature and old age, would be him taking an even harder authoritarian stance than his brother has had to assume in recent years. Life in Cuba under Fidel Castro has descended to the level of mere “zoological ups-and-downs,” to use the Spenglerian phrase. Although Latell ends on a hopeful note, it is hard to imagine the rigid Raul Castro doing anything but making things worse.
That Castro has failed to accomplish anything other than his own uncontested rule should by now be established wisdom. The Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova in Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant takes on the commonplace myths about Castro that are still happily accepted by the American media. His book abounds in precious details, such as the shock on director Sydney Pollack’s face when told that Fulgencio Batista, the dictator Castro overthrew, was not the blue-eyed blond as portrayed in his movie Havana. (Batista was in fact the Afro-Chinese son of cane-cutters.) Scornful of Castro’s guerrilla activities in the 1950s, which were hardly more than a sideshow, Fontova contends that the media created Castro, who got his job “through the New York Times,” courtesy of the laudatory coverage of leftist reporter Herbert Matthews.
Fontova unapologetically views Cuba from the perspective of many Cuban-Americans, who are tired of the double standard applied to the cause for Cuban freedom. Why, Fontova asks, is an embargo against Cuba wrong, but an embargo against, say, apartheid-era South Africa, right? But then again, why is Castro the toast of Manhattan, and Agusto Pinochet a marked man? The difference is mainly that Castro, who once closely studied the fascist movements in Spain and Italy, had the good sense declare himself a leftist. This has spared him a lot of trouble from international media and intellectual elites.
In his book’s most rewarding sections, Fontova uncovers some little known stories about the role of the Cuban resistance. He reveals, for instance, that anti-Castro Cubans on the ground in 1962 discovered the Soviet missiles that led to U-2 flights over the island, resulting in the famous missile crisis showdown. Moreover, following Castro’s consolidation of power, Fontova relates how rebels farmers in the Escambray Mountains resisted bitterly, claiming the lives of 5,000 communist troops after six years. Fontova makes a valuable contribution in describing the heroism of these men and women of the resistance, who are either ignored or forgotten by most academic scholars of Cuban affairs.
Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant may not make the required reading list for Latin American affairs university seminars, but it does stand as a solid revisionist account of Fidel Castro and punches overdue holes in the Fidel legend. So read it anyway.
Michael J. Ard, a U.S. government analyst, is the author of An Eternal Struggle: How the National Action Party Transformed Mexican Politics (Praeger, 2003). He writes from Leesburg, VA.
Posted: March 20, 2007