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.