May 21, 2013
Steve Wasserman on Fidel Castro
Posted on Apr 10, 2008
Fifty years ago, Herbert Matthews of The New York Times interviewed a rebel-with-a-cause most people thought was dead. Matthews’ scoop in the tangled jungle of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra proved the man was alive. His name (which in its entirety was but four syllables) would soon come to be known the world over. To his followers, the first two syllables would suffice: “Fi-del.” Castro’s quest to topple Cuba’s strongman, Fulgencio Batista, captured the imagination of millions. Victory, secured after only two years of urban insurrection and guerrilla warfare, catapulted the 32-year-old former lawyer and son of a wealthy landowner into the ranks of revolutionary stardom. After the catastrophes and crimes that had befallen the 1917 Bolshevik project, Castro seemed at first to herald something new. His was the first socialist revolution, after all, to have been made without the central participation of the Communist Party (and even, it appeared, against the party). (Six years before, in the aftermath of Castro’s failed attack on the military barracks of Moncada in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953, its apparatchiks had denounced him as a “putschist” and an “adventurist.”) All previous socialist revolutionaries had seemed grimly puritanical; by contrast, Castro’s barbudos appeared almost to be bohemians with guns. Democracy and radical reform were poised to replace dictatorship and social misery.
Fidel Castro: My Life
By Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet
Scribner, 736 pages
Fidel Castro Reader
By Fidel Castro and David Deutschmann (Ed.)
Ocean Press, 524 pages
The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro
By Fidel Castro
Nation Books, 208 pages
The hundreds of photographs taken of Castro and his men as they made their 500-mile-long victory march up the Central Highway from Santiago de Cuba to Havana, by any number of photographers, both Cuban and North American, capture something of the country’s exhilaration and popular acclaim. Burt Glinn, for one, an intrepid 33-year-old member of the New York office of the Magnum Photographic Cooperative, was among the most gifted of the many photographers who were drawn to Cuba. (A selection of his work can be seen in his book “Havana: The Revolutionary Moment.” Also highly recommended is “Fidel’s Cuba: A Revolution in Pictures” by Osvaldo Salas and Roberto Salas.) He borrowed money from Clay Felker, his roommate, to hire a charter flight to Havana the moment he learned Batista had fled the country following a lavish 1958 New Year’s Eve party. Glinn, like fellow photojournalist Lee Lockwood of the Black Star photo agency, knew that nothing is more seductive than making history, except, perhaps, taking pictures of it. Glinn’s and Lockwood’s pictures show Castro and his men, weary with fatigue and near-disbelief stamped on their youthful faces, being met by a thronging populace beside itself with ardor, as they rolled through province after province, city after city, en route to the nation’s capital to proclaim their mastery of the island. Eyes dance with hope; the radiant future beckons.
History is on the move, bursting with possibility and promise. The tyrant is gone and revolutionary idealism has yet to curdle into cynicism. Nor has the effort to survive soured into despotism. Today, it is all but impossible to gaze at these pictures of armed campesinos, many of them still boys barely able to boast peach fuzz on their cheeks, as they sprawl about the lobby of the newly occupied (and recently built) Hilton Hotel, promptly dubbed the Havana Libre (by which name it is still known), without thinking of the heartbreak that was to come in the years ahead. These early and heady days, preserved in innumerable photographs, are filled with Sunday patriots, city girls flirting with shy peasants, M-1 carbines strapped to their backs, a general, if happy, chaos engulfing a people in almost libidinous tumult even as Castro seeks to hold a disparate movement together by the sheer force of his leonine personality and his demonstrated and widely admired willingness to risk his life in the fight against the dictatorship. Lockwood later wrote of vast numbers of people assembling in every city Castro entered, chanting “Fi-del! Fi-del!,” the crowds “parting before him and closing behind him like Moses passing through the Red Sea.” Castro seemed “the incarnation of a legendary hero surrounded by an aura of magic, a bearded Parsifal who had brought miraculous deliverance to an ailing Cuba.”
It was, of course, Castro’s extraordinary eloquence, strength of character and unyielding commitment to action that drew men and women alike to his side. Personality trumped politics. It was this striking element—an element that still infuses many of the pictures of the young Castro with a nearly electric charge palpable after all these years—that caused many observers to regard him as a dangerous extremist even as they acknowledged the man’s magnetism. Others, like the Argentine Che Guevara, were drawn to him, although Guevara originally viewed Castro’s movement as bourgeois, even while conceding that it was led by a man whose “image is enhanced by personal qualities of extraordinary brilliance.” Later, Castro’s willingness to embrace more radical solutions when necessary would continually surprise and please Guevara, as much as it dismayed the movement’s moderates.
It is perhaps hard at this remove, with Castro now a sickly octogenarian, to summon up the Eros, the sheer vitality, of the revolution he made. The seduction of Castro’s flamboyant leadership, his spontaneity of spirit, was almost impossible to resist. He was virile, glamorous, in a word, sexy. He relied less on Marxist dogma than on photogenesis to capture the minds and hearts of millions. He was, as the late Marshall Frady once wrote, “an almost Tolstoyan figure in the profusion of his exuberance and imagination. Among all the premiers and statesmen over the globe, he was at least the one figure who seemed unquestionably, tumultuously alive.” Not only were Castro and his barbudos better-looking than the corrupt politicians and gangsters they overthrew, they knew it, and it is easy to see, on the evidence of the many iconic photographs of the period, how it was that a “golden legend,” as Régis Debray once called it, arose.
The history of every revolution is always a battle of clichés, and in Cuba’s case the commonly accepted narrative reduces the Cuban revolution to a romantic fable of the charismatic Castro and his 12 apostles, whose numbers multiplied faster than players in a pyramid game and who, having survived the rigors of guerrilla warfare, broke the back of a regime as brutal as it was corrupt. This myth was, in part, of Castro’s own making. What is indisputable is that by December 1958 Castro’s rebel army of 3,000 armed men had defeated a government that fielded a vastly superior military force of 80,000 troops. Or, perhaps more precisely, in the face of mounting civil strife, Batista’s political support vanished, Washington’s confidence in him crumbled, and his will to power collapsed, and so, in time-honored fashion, the despot fled his suffering island in the middle of the night, stuffing his luggage with millions of stolen dollars to live out the remainder of his life in the baronial manner to which he had long been accustomed; he died in Portugal in 1973.
For many years now, Castro’s most perfervid opponents have been at pains to disparage Castro as a foreign implant—Galician on his father’s side, schooled by Jesuits and cleaving to Marxism, factors that disqualify him, in their view, from being Cuban at all. (Even so unabashed an apologist as his long-time friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez concedes Castro’s oddness when he notes that “he is one of the rare Cubans who neither sings nor dances.”) Others, more generous, regard him as an authentic reformer who in the attempt to free his country from the grip of the United States came, disastrously, to embrace his inner caudillo. Such critics initially welcomed his ambition to transform Cuba—to rid it of the corruptions of the past, to diversify the economy by breaking the stranglehold of sugar and tobacco and restore the 1940 constitution. Castro was, it appeared, a man determined to chart his own way. In the gun-happy swirl of radical factions that fought among themselves at the University of Havana in the 1940s and early 1950s, Castro stood out. He was admired less for his politics, which were often mercurial, than for the force of his personality. By all accounts, he was one of those men who seem to suck all the oxygen out of any room they enter. He did not then have a reputation as a disciplined and patient Communist. Rather he was something of a hothead, having won his reputation as a man of action in 1947 when he took part in an abortive attempt to invade the Dominican Republic and overthrow Rafael Trujillo; the following year, he won his street-fighting spurs while visiting Bogota, Colombia, when an ill-fated uprising broke out.
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