Dec 10, 2013
Steve Wasserman on Fidel Castro
Posted on Apr 10, 2008
Another American wrote disparagingly of “scum floating across the Gulf,” of a “whole class of ... buzzards” and “American braggarts” who “swaggered through the town with their hands in their pockets and their hats tilted back.” Bars proliferated; then, during Prohibition, speakeasies and casinos. By the 1950s, in Havana, according to Louis A. Perez Jr.‘s indispensable “On Becoming Cuban: Identity, Nationality, and Culture,” almost 12,000 women could be found working as prostitutes.
Cuba, until Castro’s triumph, was a place of retreat and refuge, a resort for the smart set and the socially prominent, attracting trendsetters and celebrities such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Irving Berlin, Will Rogers and Errol Flynn. Cuba offered access to the exotic with minimum exposure to risk, a place where, as one writer said approvingly, “conscience takes a holiday.” Havana, wrote Graham Greene, was an “extraordinary city where every vice was permissible and every trade possible.” As Ernest Hemingway put it, more bluntly, it had “both fishing and fucking.” The writer Jose de la Campa Gonzalez wrote in 1937, with some exasperation, of this development in his “Memorias de un machadista”: “Another new Cuba had arisen, strange, incoherent, in which all that was discussed was of horse races, of football, of baseball, and nonstop discussions of the United States, with a ridiculous ambition of speaking English ... [and] a stupid adoration of everything that was from the United States.”
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
But his was a minority view. On the evidence painstakingly marshaled by Perez, many Cubans regarded the American presence as promising the transformation of Cuban life, from poverty to prosperity, from backwardness to modernity. To be sure, the price of success might well require Cubans to adapt to American values and tastes. But it was a price some Cubans were willing to pay. This was especially true of Habaneros. Increasingly, Havana’s inhabitants were living beyond their means, imagining themselves as the de facto citizens of the wealthy and paternal colossus 90 miles away, even as they bridled at American presumption and swagger. By the mid-1950s, the sugar-and-tobacco economy began to sputter, prices on the world market for these unessential commodities plummeted, the island’s economy contracted, opportunities diminished. The cost of living began to soar, the cities flared into violence, Batista fled, and Castro came to power.
Castro imagined a different future. His true calling, he felt, was to do everything in his power to escape the American orbit. He would seek to end decades of humiliation by fulfilling Marti’s dream of having Cuba play David to America’s Goliath. Cuba, he declared, would break with the past and renounce the blandishments of the profligate American way of life: “How could we import rice and buy Cadillacs? That is what we did before. Is that not madness? The act of a disoriented country. ... Why were we buying Cadillacs when what we needed were tractors?” From now on, Cubans would have to tighten their belts, forgo the goods that they had for decades taken for granted. Castro sought to remake the Cuban personality, to construct what Che Guevara hailed as the “new man,” purged of egotism and selfishness, motivated more by moral incentives and economic sobriety than material rewards, an ascetic revolutionary who would shun the gleaming goods on display in the seductive windows of El Encanto, once Havana’s most elegant department store.
Fifty years earlier, expressing nationalism for many Cubans meant replacing Spanish customs with American ones. Now, with Castro at the helm, everything American was suspect. It was a political and cultural shock from which the Cuban middle class would never recover (and which Washington policymakers would never forgive). Most of them would prefer voluntary exile and prosperity in Miami to enforced equality and privation in Havana. The proximity of the United States made it possible for Castro to rid himself of the very class that had done so much to help him during the hard fight against Batista—and which suffered the greatest number of casualties at the hands of Batista’s torturers—and now was outraged that Castro was bent on denying it the privileges that it had long enjoyed. He refused to return to business as usual. The middle class’ contribution to defeating Batista was largely written out of the official story of the revolution’s triumph. Soon the exiles would form a base where, with the constant encouragement and support of successive American administrations, they could launch a thousand conspiracies and attempts to subvert Castro and his regime. Castro claims to Ramonet to have thwarted over the years more than 500 attempts to assassinate him. There is no reason to doubt him. When Castro took power, Cuba’s population was 6 million; nearly a million would flee to the United States. Today, Cuba’s population has nearly doubled, and nearly half were born after Jan. 1, 1959.
Ramonet’s interviews with Castro elicited a rather startling admission, confirming and elaborating upon comments made 20 years ago to Gianni Mina, the Italian television journalist: Castro says that in the first years after he came to power there were “about 300 counter-revolutionary organizations” trying to organize his overthrow. Resistance to his rule, he admits, “spread to all the provinces in the country” and involved thousands of armed men. So fierce and protracted was the opposition that the fight to suppress it “cost us more lives than the war against Batista had.” It was, he says, a “dirty war” which would last years longer than his own struggle against Batista. The action in the Escambray Mountains was especially difficult, requiring Castro to send 40,000 troops and to “put a squad in every house in every zone to clean it out.” Castro’s support among the peasants of the Escambray was considerably less than what he had enjoyed among the campesinos of the Sierra Maestra, his main base of operations in Cuba’s southernmost province of Oriente. The 26th of July Movement didn’t hold sway in the Escambray; other anti-Batista groups, whose leaders neither trusted Castro nor shared his politics, did.
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