Dec 8, 2013
The Forever Fidel Obsession
Posted on Sep 19, 2010
By Saul Landau
In late September 2009, shortly after Fidel Castro and I exchanged hugs of greeting, I flashed back to my first visits to Cuba, in 1960 and 1961. In the six months I spent there, I experienced a sense of creative anarchy in which people my age (I was 24) ran government ministries and the revolutionary leader was only 33. Hundreds of thousands showed support at rallies where Fidel announced expropriations of U.S. property. Not all Cubans felt this way. Hundreds of thousands fled the island for Miami.
In February 1961, when I left Havana after my second visit, I had doubts whether the revolution could survive. Two months later, Fidel declared himself a socialist, and shortly afterward some who had fled returned to Cuba, backed by the CIA, in an incursion at the Bay of Pigs, a development that became known as a fiasco.
Forty-nine years and dozens of visits later, a small group—which included myself; Harry Belafonte; his wife, Pam; his daughter, Shari; Danny Glover; and James Early—went to Fidel Castro’s house on the outskirts of Havana. After his wife, Dalia, and his grandsons and youngest son had greeted us, we sat and listened to Fidel talk. On each side of his chair sat piles of books. He had read Barack Obama’s autobiographies, installing heavy underlining and margin notes on most pages. He praised the U.S. president on his writing style, honesty and intelligence, recognizing the difficulties he faced trying to make even the smallest changes.
After three hours of conversation, in which he did most of the talking, as we all had hoped, several things became clear. First, Fidel had definitely retired, thanks to a near-death surgical trauma, followed by serious infections.
The revolution he directed until 2006 when the illness obliged him to pass the reins to his younger brother, Raul, his close partner since 1953, had achieved its goals, but was also in serious economic difficulty.
Some know of Che Guevara’s failed 1965 guerrilla mission in the Congo. Few know that in 1963, Cuban troops helped Algeria deflect an invasion threat from Tunisia; or that Cuban doctors served as battlefield medical personnel in the Vietnam War. In 1973, Fidel dispatched a 1,500-man tank division to fight alongside Syria against Israel.
In 1975, Cuban soldiers fought U.S.-backed forces from Zaire and South African armored divisions to maintain the integrity of Angola, and later helped bring about Namibian independence. Cuba’s successful military engagement against the South African apartheid regime in the 1987-88 battles of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola helped shape the future of the region. Just four years later, at his inauguration, Nelson Mandela shook the hands of heads of state but grabbed Fidel in a bear hug and said in a voice audible to the network microphones: “You made this possible.”
This history has given Cubans a sense of pride—not to be mistaken for democracy. But Fidel now avoids discussions of Cuban politics or policy, making it clear he has retired and his brother now presides. Rather, in the discussion with us he focused his intellect on how climate change threatened future life on the planet and how the situation demanded unity among nations and people to stop the process. He described the contemporary world as being full of daunting “challenges facing today’s politicians.”
He leaned forward as if confiding in us and said: “I pity them, you know. I used to be a politician also.”
Over the decades he outfoxed U.S. strategists. Like a modern Machiavelli he exported his enemies to his larger enemy—or induced Washington to import more than 1 million Cubans who opposed revolutionary policies. When resources became scarce after 1991, hundreds of thousands more left the island for the United States.
His other side, a modern Don Quixote, inspired young Cubans—and others—to look to the “new man,” modeled on the legendary Che Guevara, building a just and egalitarian society.
This politician who outlasted 10 U.S. presidents bent on overthrowing him now spins his worldly concerns to those who publicize them. Two weeks ago Fidel gave long interviews to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Julia Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations in which he discussed his appreciation for Jews, among other topics.
I recall him telling me during a 1968 film trip (“Fidel,” broadcast on PBS in 1969) of his admiration for Israelis, “surrounded by enemies and showing determination to defend themselves.” He also referred to their “initiative in making the desert bloom.” The Israeli ambassador to Cuba was an ex-kibbutznik who distinguished himself also as a champion volunteer cane-cutter. Israeli policy, however, clashed with Cuba’s interests and Fidel thought it might lead the world into nuclear war by 2010.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union disappeared, Cuba no longer possessed the resources to maintain a military role in world affairs (it now exports doctors). This “special period” (beginning in 1991 with the Soviet demise), as Fidel dubbed it, meant the state could no longer fulfill its commitment to provide for the needs of the people with fully subsidized food. The population also faced prolonged power outages, a scarce water supply and growing inequality as those with relatives in Miami began receiving remittances from them.
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