Family Portrait with Fidel: A Memoir
Carlos Franqui’s memoir breaks the silence that has surrounded the internal workings of the Cuban revolution. Journalists, scholars, and exiles have given us general impressions of Castro’s administration but Franqui is the first to write with the authority of a former member of the inner circle. Franqui was with Castro during his first military adventure, the attempt to liberate Santo Domingo from Trujillo in 1947; he became one of his closest associates after the unsuccessful storming of the Moncada barracks in 1953, and collaborated with him during his Mexican exile and in the Sierra Maestra. As national director of propaganda for Castro’s July 26 movement, Franqui was responsible for the two “voices of the revolution,” Radio Rebelde and the newspaper, Revolución.
Under Franqui’s editorship Revolución was both a quasi-official journal and one critical of the new regime’s abuses. Around the newspaper and its cultural supplement Lunes, edited by Cabrera Infante, Franqui assembled a remarkable group of writers and photographers, most of them now in exile: Heberto Padilla, Reinaido Arenas, Pablo Armando Fernández, Jesse Fernández, Barbeito, Juan Arcocha, Corrales, Korda, Rafael Salas, and Mayito.
Franqui’s Portrait describes the first years of the revolution, from the triumphal descent of the guerrillas into Havana in January 1959, to Franqui’s dismissal from Revolución in 1964. The Spanish text of his book, written in Franqui’s version of the Cuban pie quebrado, or broken meter, reads something like a prose poem. The English translation, perhaps inevitably, sounds much flatter. His memoir evokes both the intoxication of the revolution and the hangover that followed. He describes the utopianism of the leaders, and then their cynicism; the euphoria of the Cubans, and then their confusion. But Franqui’s anecdotes, vignettes, and reflections are something more than a campaign in the struggle of memory against “organized forgetting,” in Milan Kundera’s phrase. His book also has much to say about the current dilemmas of the left, of socialism, and of nonalignment.
In joining Castro’s group, Franqui wanted a politically and economically independent Cuba that could have “relations with the entire world and not just a single part—the United States or the Soviet Union.” He opposed Soviet “nonsocialism” with “its tendency to state monopoly instead of real socialism.” He fought for independent trade unions, an uncensored press; he believed that the Cuban people themselves should make their own history.
No one could question his credentials as a revolutionary. He was the son of a cane cutter who became an underground organizer, a political prisoner under Batista, a founder of the July 26th movement, and a fighter in the mountains. His great failing, from the standpoint of those who came to dominate the revolution, was his intransigent objection to Moscow’s expanding political and cultural influence. But Franqui’s anti-Sovietism had little in common with the anticommunism of many of the counterrevolutionaries of Miami. Franqui and his associates wanted “a radical revolution of an antiimperialist, anticapitalist, socialist nature.”
Franqui rescues an important historical fact that has been buried both by the leftist apologists for Castro and his rightwing enemies: that a broad nonaligned socialist tendency existed during the early years of the Cuban revolution. Looking back, he finds that four political forces were contending with one another after Batista’s regime fell: one was conservative and friendly to the United States; a second was liberal democratic; the third was pro-Soviet communist; the fourth was Franqui’s. What divided the last two groups “was not their radical tendencies, their degree of anti-imperialist sentiment, or their anticapitalist beliefs.” Even before the guerrillas took power, Franqui had realized that “the real struggle was not going to be between neocolonial capitalism and socialism but between Russian and Cuban socialism.”
Franqui’s magazine Revolución reflected the anti-Soviet sentiments of most of the members of the original alliance that brought Fidel to power. The pro-Soviet Communist Party (the PSP) was tainted by a history of cooperation with Batista and joined the struggle only during the last months. Though some of the comandantes (especially Fidel’s brother Raúl) were close to the Party, others were democratic reformists like Huber Matos or independent socialists like Ché Guevara and Camillo Cienfuegos. With Franqui was most of the July 26 movement, which organized the underground resistance in 1959 and got the votes of more than 90 percent of the delegates in the first postrevolutionary trade union elections. The other revolutionary organization, the Directorio, also shared Franqui’s perspective as did the student movement, the intelligentsia, and the national militia. Why then did Franqui and his associates fail? Why was Cuba unable to achieve the kind of autonomous and non-aligned socialist revolution that Franqui and the people around him wanted? The question is all the more pertinent now in view of recent events in Central America.
The easy and obvious answer is that Franqui’s faction lost out because Castro eventually decided to oppose it. But why did he? And why were Fidel’s preferences so decisive? In the early years of the revolution, Franqui recalls, Fidel’s popularity among the Cubans “bordered on madness.” Unlike the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions, but like the revolution in Nicaragua, the Cuban revolution was not a drawn-out struggle. Large numbers of Cubans had not been organized into a revolutionary movement with a clear political program. As Batista’s demoralized army disintegrated in the face of guerrilla attacks, Castro could plausibly claim that “heroes not people made the revolution.”
Fidel became the hero in Cuba after having challenged Batista both in the courts and in the Sierra Maestra. He was the “socialist caudillo“—a modern Latin American version of the feudal warlord—a towering charismatic figure whose personal courage, historic deeds, spellbinding rhetoric, and revolutionary ideology captivated large numbers of Cubans and bound to him a retinue of revolutionary comrades.
Castro dominated the revolutionary movement in the traditional style of the caudillo. He avoided meeting with those opposed to him, demolished rival organizations, and discouraged the creation of formal institutions to carry out the revolution. Within the government, there was neither internal democracy nor collective decision making. Fidel’s power was rooted in his charisma and his control over the army. And Franqui, like a Latin American Archbishop Cranmer or like Nicaraguan intellectuals under Somoza, could hope only to “educate the prince.” Not for the last time in a third world revolution the patterns of the past seemed to take revenge on Cuba’s efforts to create the “new communist man” of the future.
Why did Fidel, the supreme individualist, decide to link his fate to Moscow? Franqui makes it clear that Washington’s imperial reactions to the revolution poisoned the air. The Eisenhower administration at first had “pure disdain” for the revolutionaries, then carried out punitive economic policies, including boycott and sabotage. This was followed by terror, covert military action, and, under the Kennedy administration, the Bay of Pigs. But Franqui lends no support to those who believe US policy was solely responsible for Cuba’s alignment with the USSR. The American reaction made Soviet military and economic assistance expedient; it lengthened the odds against Franqui’s hopes for non-aligned socialism, but it did not in itself doom them. “People forget that Cuba stood alone in its conflict with the United States and its own capitalist class. We were a united people, ready to die, with world opinion on our side.”
Fidel, Franqui writes, had his own reasons for encouraging not just military and economic relations with Moscow, but the adoption of the Soviet model of political control. What drove him toward Moscow was not simply, as conservatives assert, his receptivity to Marxism-Leninism, although this is well documented by Franqui. Fidel was not so much a Marxist-Leninist as a Fidelista who saw in communism the means of consolidating his political power. What Franqui calls the “Castro-communist configuration” emerged in the Sierra and was ratified when Fidel dispatched his brother Raúl to open the second front in Santiago, “knowing full well that Raúl…was an orthodox, Stalinist, well-disciplined Party man.” Castro, as Franqui points out, cultivated a democratic “public image…at odds with the image he projected for his close associates.”
The Cuban communists were useful to Fidel only if they were willing to transfer their allegiance to him. Thus he later attacked and destroyed recalcitrant communists, like Aníbal Escalante, and isolated Ché because “his brand of communism never convinced Fidel, who recognized Ché’s independence of character and his sense of morality.” The Party leadership followed Fidel, supplying docile if often inept cadres to implement his orders. “A monster had been born. Its father was tripartite—militarism, caudillismo, and the total power of Fidel Castro. Its mother was the Soviet model….”
Fidel considered himself indispensable to the revolution. He insisted that “the people were not ready and that a revolutionary minority had to take it upon itself to impose socialism on the people.” A “vanguard” was consolidated by dictatorial methods and political chicanery. There was no public discussion; no votes were taken inside or outside the revolutionary organization. Fidel was creating “a new kind of government—a Russian structure, but with himself at the top—that would be perfect for Third World nations. In that social structure, the role of the people was to work and to obey unquestioningly.”
The turn to Moscow was a turn to the past. Russia bought Cuban sugar, sent Cuba the petroleum denied by the US, and supplied machinery that was illsuited to Cuban farming. After much talk of diversifying the economy, Castro preserved the island’s sugar monoculture, which “despite its façade of industrialization was inexplicably bound to militarism, caudillismo, and the absence of genuine institutions.” Fidel now could draw on the Cuban Communist party and Soviet advisers to replace the thousands of Cuban technicians and middle-class professionals who had fled the island, not to mention the educated revolutionaries who had become estranged from the regime. Thereafter, Fidel never wished to break with Moscow because “his power was linked to the Soviet structure.”
In one of the most revealing passages of his book, Franqui shows how the Bay of Pigs adventure worked to reinforce that structure. While the CIA was training and equipping the Miami exiles, workers and peasants in Escambray rose against the Communist party comandante Félix Torres, who had become “the local boss and went way beyond all the old capitalists in exploiting workers and peasants.” As the rebellion spread, the CIA told the rebels to cease and to await the upcoming invasion, paralyzing the guerrilla movement. The latter had been approached by the CIA but it was certainly not its tool; it was, Franqui writes,
a revolutionary opposition,…spontaneous and disorganized, the expression of a confused historical moment.
Outwardly, the great struggle of the day was between the revolution and the USA, with its Cuban bourgeois allies. The people supported Fidel because they saw him as the undisputed leader of the revolution. The [repression in the] Escambray and the other persecutions were a puzzle because there seemed to be no reason for harassing people who had fought for the revolution….
In this milieu, a revolutionary opposition was unthinkable. Curiously enough, the spontaneous opposition that did spring up did not seek aid from the United States. Even if they did, they never got it…. The CIA…wanted to control the counterrevolution and to retake Cuba on its own terms…. The result was that, for the Cuban people, opposition and counterrevolution became synonyms.
The Bay of Pigs invasion thus succeeded in demolishing the revolutionary opposition in Cuba itself. Cuba gained international sympathy and prestige while at home Castro’s government clamped down on dissent:
The victory of Girón [Bay of Pigs] could have been the beginning of a setting to rights of internal errors, of a cessation of Party politics, of a recovery of the disaffected, of understanding that within Cuba there was no counterrevolution. Just the opposite took place.
The indiscriminate, mass jailings all over the island were hideous. The jails soon overflowed…. Out in the country, they used stables and corrals; in cities, the prisoners were put into sports arenas, the stadium-prisons so popular in Latin America. Remember Chile?… The jailings were not really intended to nip future revolts in the bud but were directed at revolutionaries, hated by the Communists, who had not even participated in the revolution. The most heavily attacked groups were the old under-ground fighters, the independent unionists, the Directorio, the independent students, Catholics, members of the Ortodoxos, professional people, technicians, and peasants.
The CIA, the Cuban Communist party, Moscow, and Fidel’s Machiavellianism all combined to destroy and possibility that the kind of nonaligned democratic socialism that Franqui dreamed of would emerge in Cuba. Yet Franqui’s Portrait also acknowledges the weaknesses of Franqui himself and his associates. They lacked a political program, discipline, and leadership. The postrevolutionary battle of different tendencies demonstrated the need for a political vanguard linked to an autonomous mass movement. Here Franqui found his own comrades too “naïve” to be effective:
As fighters they were terrific—they had resisted torture, prison, any number of fights—but they had no idea what power was…. They couldn’t understand that Fidel had to be fought with his own weapons—institutions and public opinion, acts instead of words.
Franqui himself, just after the takeover of power, was invited by Castro to be minister of labor—historically a strategic position for influencing the Cuban workers movement.
…he told me I should become Minister of Labor—because I understood how he thought! Actually, he knew how I thought, but neither I nor anyone else knew Fidel’s real ideas. I answered him with a joke, saying that if being Minister of Labor meant bringing socialism to the factories and putting the workers in charge, he could count on me. He looked me up and down and repeated the offer. I could see he was serious; I told him I had no labor-management credentials and couldn’t take the job.
Franqui recalls that he then “tried out my own game on him.”
I told him I wanted to start a revolution in Cuban culture. I had lots of friends and contacts in Europe and Latin America—artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, film makers—and I wanted to open up the island to them. We could get all kinds of support to help us launch our own cultural revival. We could change Cuban life through culture. Fidel’s reaction: “No, no, no. Franqui, you’re crazy. Anything but that.” Totally disgusted, he jumped back into his jeep…. I knew I was screwed, but what could I do?
As Franqui writes, he “decided to be in and out at the same time.” His eloquently expressed contempt for power politics betrays a romantic anarchism that impaired the efforts of his group to cope with the challenge of the Communist party. The Cuban Communist party was perhaps the most opportunist in Latin America, yet it is hard to imagine any revolutionary government in Cuba in which the Party would not have had a place. The CP professed commitment to “socialism,” was well organized inside the labor movement, and had convenient links to Moscow. Dogmatic opposition to any Communist participation only diminished whatever possibilities existed to limit CP influence and prevent Soviet hegemony. Franqui and his comrades were made to look like intransigent sectarians while Castro appealed for the “unity” of the revolutionary movement.
For Franqui, by the early 1960s, with Communists in the government and Moscow providing economic and military assistance, there was no hope of detaching Cuba from the USSR. The adoption of “Stalinist,” “bureaucratic” methods was for him tantamount to the Sovietization of Cuba. Ché Guevara, who by 1963 had taken an anti-Soviet, pro-Chinese position, argued otherwise:
He told me that in China he had learned an important lesson: use your own tow feet. The people, he said, were the wealth of China, not heavy industry. And the Chinese were independent of the Soviet Union, kept out of other countries, and hadn’t even left troops in North Korea after the war.
I tried to argue that the Chinese had yet to free themselves of the Soviet system—the root, as I saw it, of all our problems.
While Cuba had indeed installed something like the Soviet system of state control, Castro preserved a considerable margin of independence from the Soviet Union for the better part of the 1960s. The Kremlin chafed but could do little when Castro squandered Soviet assistance on his pet projects, railed publicly against the “servile men” of the Latin American Communist parties and against Soviet policy toward the United States and Vietnam. It was not until 1968, the year when Franqui finally abandoned Cuba, that Castro finally capitulated to Soviet pressure and aligned himself squarely with Moscow by supporting the invasion of Czechoslovakia. By the early 1970s, Cuba was firmly part of the Soviet bloc.
Toward the end of his book Franqui describes how, after being divested of his editorship and his power, he returned “to the p.eople, to the interior of Cuba…. I walked, took buses, visited all sorts of places. I had no salary, but friends lent me money…. The people were somber, silent, devoid of the humor they once had.” He passes by the house of a member of the new socialist elite, Manuel Piñeiro (the notorious “Redbeard”), second in command of state security:
He had a huge house surrounded by a huge piece of land, a farm right in the city…with all kinds of chickens, pigs, ducks—all taken care of by army personnel. It was a kind of conspicuous consumption by a new class. It was incredible that in a city where everything was rationed,…where the socialist police had forbidden citizens to keep pigs or chickens in their houses, the chief of police was doing it right out in the open. I remembered that Fidel had denounced Batista’s officers for using soldiers as farm laborers, and now both the army and the police were doing the same thing….
Everything had changed, yet nothing was different. I waited for the bus. Regis Debray went by in a limousine and asked if I wanted a ride, as did one or two comandantes or ministers. I stayed at the bus stop. It was really funny to watch the comandantes who lived in those huge houses come tearing out after the kids who would climb over their walls to steal mangoes. Was I seeing the past, the present, or the future?
Did the revolution change anything?, Franqui asks.
Yes, everything in the highest echelons of Cuban society changed: the Party-state was the new ruling class. But nothing changed below…. Salaries are not equal and are insufficient. This goes as well for housing, medical attention, transportation, and food.
Those above enjoy privileges. So there are no more old bourgeois around, so what? There are plenty of bureaucrats who administer, control, and enjoy wealth. Above, everything is different, while below it’s the same old thing.
Franqui, in fact, has little more to say about the actual conditions of those “below.” Even severely critical observers of Cuban society acknowledge the poorest third of the Cuban population has benefited in some ways from the revolution. Cuba is surely a more egalitarian society than it was in 1959. But increased equality has been gained at the cost not only of political regimentation but of economic stagnation. As a result the standard of living of the Cuban people, including most of the working class, has probably declined from what it was during the 1950s and certainly has fallen behind much of the rest of Latin America, which it surpassed in 1959. Cuba is now more dependent on the Soviet Union than it ever was on the United States. It relies more on sugar monoculture now than before the revolution.* High Party and government officials, administrators, and other notables certainly enjoy great privileges, although not as great as those of Batista’s ruling class or the commissars of the Soviet Union, or, for that matter, Nicaragua’s new rulers.
Reading Franqui, one is struck by the parallels (notwithstanding the obvious differences) with today’s Nicaragua. At one of Ché Guevara’s last lectures, quoted by Franqui, he spoke of a phenomenon that has now become wide-spread in Nicaragua:
The Defense Committees, an institution that sprang up in the heat of the people’s vigilance, which represented the people’s fervent desire to defend their revolution, started to turn into a catchall, into a den of opportunism. It started to turn into an organization the people disliked…full of people eager for power, opportunists of all sorts, who never stopped to think of the damage they were doing to the revolution…. A counterrevolutionary is someone who fights against the revolution, but someone is equally counterrevolutionary if he uses his influence to get a house and then two cars, and then violates the rationing system—the guy who ends up having everything the people lack.
Nicaragua is passing through its own “confused historical moment”: the revolutionary coalition has been shattered; a cynical power struggle goes on behind the backs of the people; a “public image” of “pluralism, mixed economy and non-alignment” is being promoted while democratic, nonaligned dissidents are slandered and Soviet bloc agents welcomed. Nicaragua today is in many ways different from the Cuba described by Franqui. It certainly receives better notices in the foreign press. But in Managua, while La Prensa still survives, as Franqui’s Revolución did not, its fate seems likely to be the same. The cynicism of the Sandinista leadership and its economic ineptitude surpass those of Castro—who faced an embargo and did not benefit from the extensive foreign aid received by the Sandinistas. As for the general population, my own impression from recent visits is that it is becoming as demoralized in Nicaragua as it is in Cuba.
Meanwhile, Washington’s barbarous, insatiable hostility to the Nicaraguan regime recalls the period leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion more than twenty years ago. The CIA not only is besieging a sovereign government. It is harassing independent insurgents—in some ways comparable to those in the Escambray in the early 1960s—while training and equipping “reliable” counterrevolutionaries. The desire for a “third option” is being crushed between the superpowers while a chorus of well-heeled “antiimperialists” and revolutionary tourists browbeats critics of the revolution.
Franqui’s book is a challenge and a plea to leftists to preserve or restore their intellectual honesty and independence. To that end he recounts his return from Cárdenas, where he saw Castro’s police suppress a demonstration by poor black women, “a revolt of the poorest of the poor.”
On the way back to Havana I passed through Varadero and wondered what sort of Cuba the visitors were seeing while ten minutes away there was a carnival of persecution in full swing. These people saw a stageset Cuba, not the reality we had to live in every day, and they took the part for the whole….
This, too, is a problem of seeing the obvious and missing what is not before one’s eyes. For progressive people it is easy to see oppression in the capitalist world…. But people should also open their eyes to the crimes that make socialism as it is practiced in the world into the negation of the ideal of socialism. My advice to travelers is not to confuse what you see with what actually exists. Try to look beyond.
For Americans that task is made doubly difficult by an administration determined to beat Central America into submission and quite possibly poised to send American troops after November. But opposition to US intervention does not require concealing outrages committed in “defense of the revolution”; nor is there anything contradictory about opposing the efforts of both superpowers to dominate other nations.
See Carmelo Mesa-Lago, The Economy of Socialist Cuba: A Two-Decade Appraisal (University of New Mexico Press, 1981), pp. 64–65. ↩