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Fidel in the Evening

The monstrous Latin American class divide split these children in two even when, as in Fidel’s case, the father loved the washerwoman Lina Ruz—the future revolutionary’s mother—eventually married her, and favored Lina’s children over his legitimate ones. What this meant was that, although Fidel Castro grew up in comfortable circumstances, he was socially unacceptable. Fidel does not mention this directly to Frei Betto, but we know from other sources that the “good families” of Cuba always saw the brilliant, athletic, tall, and handsome Castro boy as “the bastard,” “the upstart,” the gallego‘s son. He was un cualquiera—an “anybody.” What Fidel does mention several times is that because he was not baptized until he was six—probably because his parents did not get married until then—he was also known as a “Jew,” a term that was fully intended to be offensive.

Small wonder that Fidel soon developed the underdog’s obsession with honor and dignity. And also an obsession with the strategic first strike. As a child, his brother Raúl says, he picked fights constantly. And he did so again once he found politics. As a young university student he carried a gun, joined in street brawls, signed up for a failed expedition against the dictator Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and, during a visit to Bogotá in 1949, raced to change into a borrowed police uniform in order to join the fighting when the popular leader Jorge Gaitán’s assassination set off a national revolt.

He also learned the first rule of the pugnacious: never acknowledge when you’re beaten. Although he has been defeated, knocked down, and forced to backtrack in tests of will against a broad array of enemies (particularly against his principal one, the United States), he has said so in public only rarely. More importantly, he has in fact refused to back down or acknowledge defeat in circumstances that threatened not only his survival but—as in the Cuban missile crisis—the very survival of civilized life. (It was the Soviets who backed down then, not he.) Era cuestión de dignidad, he has said over and over to explain these moments of breathtaking defiance. It is a particularly Latin American, Spanish-inspired vision of what dignity consists of and it comes out of the twinned obsessions with virility and with being condemned by the gods to the loser’s fate.

Romantic this posture may be, and unreasonable, but it would be a mistake to consider it foolish. From the reasonable perspective of those with less deeply riven histories, the smart premise is that it is virtually impossible for the poor worker to win the millionaire’s daughter (a favorite Latin romantic conceit), or for Fidel Castro to overthrow the United States. Therefore, it is better not to try. But if one must reach for such a goal, the logic goes, then a gradualist and conciliatory policy is the safest option. As Fidel has shown, however, in a confrontation where the underdog’s chances are virtually nil, reasonableness may not be the best option at all. Better to tip the scales in your favor by knocking them over. Sometime the policy will have to work, and when it doesn’t, the element of dignidad provides a better aesthetic than the middle-of-the-road alternative. Who is more beautiful: the poor man who elopes with the rich man’s daughter, or the poor sucker who slaves away as an accountant under the rich man’s scorn, saving up his pennies toward a small purchase of respect? Fidel knew the answer: Socialismo o muerte!

The heroic compulsion does not alone account for the dreamlike trance that Fidel’s exhortations in the Plaza have produced in so many Cubans for so many years. Nor is the revolt against itself that colonial capitalism seems to breed in its entrails enough to explain how socialism should have come to establish its most enduring outpost on a tropical island. (And on a tropical island which was by no means the poorest or most backward nation in Latin America when Fidel took power.) Anti-imperialist sentiment, that gelatinous explosive, had an enormous role, of course, all the more so because in Latin America, and in Cuba particularly, the most radical haters of the United States were often young men who, like Fidel, chose el gigante del norte as their honeymoon site (it was New York he took his young bride to in 1948). There is also the extreme allure of young men—Che, Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel—who have gone up to the mountains to fight for the nation and then descended again, gaunt, branded with fire and sacrifice and the glory of combat, and cloaked in victory.

But in the end, it is Fidel alone who accounts for Fidel, Fidel who, with his supernatural will, historic sense of moment and of mission, quick trigger finger and massive ego, has single-handedly led Cuba into its encounter with history and kept it there. Never, during the forty years of alleged plots and power plays and desperate efforts to finally be rid of him, has anyone claimed that he could substitute for Fidel or be his equal, and that is why, of course, he endures. All the more riveting, then, to read the accounts of those who have fallen out of a trance with him.

3.

Notable among them is the memoir written by Alina Fernández. Fidel and his women, his biographer Tad Szulc has noted,4 is in itself a worthy subject. There was his clueless first wife, who went to work for Batista’s Interior Ministry while her husband was in prison (following the failed assault on the Moncada barracks), apparently without realizing that this decision would enrage him. There was the gorgeous Naty Revuelta, the society beauty who helped him set up the Moncada assault and with whom he had a curiously chaste affair, 5 and there was Celia Sánchez, who handled many practical tasks for him, ensured that he had the protection of the Afro-Cuban deities of santería, and was his true helpmeet from the day they met in the Sierra Maestra to the moment she died in 1980. Then there is Alina, the product of the relations between Fidel and Naty Revuelta.

Her name is Alina Fernández, and not Alina Castro, because until she was ten years old she thought that her father was Orlando Fernández—Naty Revuelta’s eminently respectable physician husband, who went into exile shortly after the Revolution’s triumph. By the time Alina’s real father offered to help her change her name to Castro, she wasn’t interested. In her own telling, she had by then already developed a highly eccentric personality. How much one can believe a woman who is fuzzy on dates and chronology, joyfully venomous, and, by her own account, emotionally erratic and professionally inconsistent—and who has a less than clear sense of the truth or of the importance of fairness, according to several people who know her6—is a problem. And yet Alina: Memorias de la hija rebelde de Fidel Castro is a fascinating book, and a real one.

The story of what it was like to grow up as the neglected daughter of a man who is also one of the century’s mythical figures is well worth telling. Fernández writes surprisingly well, even if her tone is often irritatingly coy or edgy. And although there seems to be a sad difference between the way others perceive her and the way she sees herself, she has a wicked eye for those around her, notably Fidel Castro. One doesn’t have to read the following account as truth to recognize the accuracy of the portrait. Alina describes how one night, after a two-year absence, her father suddenly appears again in the Revuelta home:

The following night Mommy was radiant. She was an archangel at the side of the Comandante, who was lying on my bed, arms behind his head.

I’ve been too busy these past couple of years. Time turns to nothing on me. It’s very hard to keep up a Revolution. Lately I’ve been negotiating with Japan for the purchase of some machines to make sno-cones with, and I’m very satisfied. In two more months they’ll be installed. At least one in each barrio. That way people are going to be able to have their little ice cream, with the weather as hot as it is. But the best part is that I’ve negotiated the purchase of an ice-cream cone factory, and we’ll be able to produce them in the country.”

At least the cones wouldn’t have to be imported…. I didn’t applaud because we were alone.

The Japanese are also going to sell me a plastic shoe factory with an incredibly large daily output of plastic shoes. It’s incredible: you put in a little petroleum-derivate ball of plastic and out comes a pair of shoes—heels and all. For men, women or children. You can manufacture several different models. I’ve bought the machinery very cheaply. I think that in the long run it will solve the footwear problem of the population.”

An image comes to mind, and it is of Yul Brynner as the King of Siam, fascinated with the bells and whistles of European modernity, stubbornly committed to making his country new and prosperous. Forceful, macho, immune to self-doubt and all the other self-conscious weaknesses that plague European males, he keeps the wonderfully progressive Englishwoman he has hired to tutor his myriad children in thrall to him. But he loses the will to live—and dies—when she thrusts upon him the realization that Siam will not be modern until he stops being King.

Fidel, of course, has yet to abdicate from being Fidel. In Alina Fernández’s portrait of her father, she captures the abrupt, oddly innocent, maddening logic of the true monarch. “People don’t change,” he tells his daughter.

I’ll give you an example. A man tried to assassinate me. That was ten years ago. I saved him from being executed and I gave him the minimum sentence. I talked with him several times. Later we even gave personal attention to the family. They let him out of jail and it wasn’t three months before he was taken prisoner again.”

Did he try to assassinate you again?”

No, he was trying to leave the country illegally with his entire family.”

And again—musing on this occasion about some of the perplexing details with which he seems to fill a large part of his day, he ponders the uniforms for nationwide boarding schools:

The uniforms have been selected according to the criteria of comfort and modernity. Although it is true that synthetic materials are hot, they have the advantage that they don’t wrinkle easily. Which avoids the use of irons in the boarding schools, reducing the possibility of accidents and fires.

Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Several other memoirs of life in revolutionary Cuba have appeared since 1994, a year that saw the Havana riot, the pathetic, deadly exodus on life-rafts and assorted floating contraptions that became known as the balsero (rafters) crisis, and the final submission of socialist goals to the pragmatic requirements of getting a full-throttle tourist economy underway. A great many Cubans escaped from the island at that time or have negotiated their departure in the years since, and a number of them are now writing interesting books.

  1. 4

    Fidel: A Critical Portrait (Morrow, 1986).

  2. 5

    A wonderful account of this affair is the central subject of Havana Dreams, by Wendy Gimbel (Knopf, 1998).

  3. 6

    See, for example, Wendy Gimbel’s history of Alina’s family in Havana Dreams.

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