If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life. Perhaps you saw him first in the Plaza of the Revolution, when doves landed on his shoulders as he made his first speech in power. Even if you weren’t there you remember this event as if it had happened to you, because the photographic image of that moment has become part of the national memory. Fidel visited the shiny new infant nurseries and kindergartens and dandled you on his knee and patted your teacher on the back and told you in his papery voice that you were the future of the Revolution. Later he would spread his solemn soaring gaze over Cuba like a protective mantle and you saw him on every poster and wall mural in your barrio. “With Fidel, our whole life!” “In every barrio, Revolución!”
You think of Fidel when you get your Young Pioneer red bandanna, and your Communist Youth credential. You cling to him for dear life when he is the only solid object standing between you and the great hazy wall of death ninety miles away. Invasion. Nuclear disaster. Total annihilation at the hands of blue-eyed destroyers. Fidel protects you from it all. You are a child, but you are moved beyond words at his courage, which becomes your courage, at his grandeur, which is yours, at his historical inevitability, which you, with your own small courage and your insignificant sacrifice, make possible. Later, when you cut cane against the clock for grueling months on end you do it to meet his goal: Ten Million Tons! That endless, agonizing harvest of 1969-1970 turns the island upside down and mobilizes nearly every able-bodied youth in Cuba. It produces barely eight million tons of sugar, and Cuba’s productive infrastructure is nearly destroyed as a result of the effort, but when he offers to resign you are in the Plaza, weeping and shouting No! With Fidel, even unto death! You donate blood for Fidel when he demands your international solidarity for disaster victims overseas, and you are awed and moved to tears again at the endless generosity, the espíritu de sacrificio with which his words fill you. Your voice thunders through the actos, the revolutionary gatherings where faith is rekindled, “Fi-del! Fi-del! Fi-del!” Such a small island, such a great role in history.
Fidel never visits Angola but he is there with you in spirit. You are not among the several thousand internacionalista martyrs who died in Africa, and for this, although you would not confess it, you are grateful. This is a new feeling, and you may or may not want to dwell on it: martyrdom used to be a blessed gift, a grail Che finally found within his grasp, but after the aventura africana you are not sure that this is the destiny you seek. What was it again that your compatriots gave their lives for? Better not to question, better not to ask. Once again, it is time to gather at the Plaza and renew your fervor. “Fi-del! Fi-del!” After all, he needs you more than ever. It’s time to throw stones at the eighty thousand Marielitos who have decided to flee the Revolution. It’s time to remind yourself that the true Revolutionary does not question decisions whose intricacies and true causes cannot be revealed: information is the coin only Seguridad del Estado can trade on.
That is why you watch the television screen, transfixed, when the trial of the regime’s most popular military commander along with three other officers plays itself out. Drugs, treason, obscene accumulation of privileges are among the charges. When Fidel demands the death penalty for the daring, dashing General Arnaldo Ochoa, humble son of campesinos, Hero of the Republic, commander at the legendary battle that crippled the South African invading army in Angola, you swallow hard. Fidel’s hand does not tremble, his voice does not shake, his gaze is as firm and soaring as ever. He knows something you don’t.
And really it is not a moment to stint on loyalty, because the frail canoe that is the Revolution is about to go under in the tidal wave that history has seen fit to unleash on the world. The Soviet Union is no more, socialism has collapsed everywhere. But not on your besieged island, because, once again, Fidel has determined that he, and through him, you, will be greater than any man, will defy history, defy the odds, live for a dream so that others may dream too, dream of a world of perfect equality and perfect justice such as Cuba will one day produce. Socialism will not be defeated! This is a new adventure: Cuba, this beloved and fragile vessel, will ride out the ominous storm. With Fidel at the helm, there is no cause for fear, and yet you are, for the first time, unconsolably afraid. Suddenly, the Comandante is looking very old.
It is January 16, 1998—nearly ten years after the demise of the Soviet Union, only twelve months shy of the fortieth anniversary of Fidel Castro’s Revolution. At nine o’clock, Cubans throughout the island prop chairs in front of the television set or nestle into bed, cushions against their backs, to watch the screen. The Comandante en Jefe de la Revolución is about to give a televised press conference—one of the very few formal press conferences to take place live in Cuba, and exclusively with members of the Cuban press, in memory. Because the press conference is taking place only days before the arrival of Pope John Paul II in Havana, and because Fidel is said to be ailing, attention is focused on the political significance of the event (is it a sign of glasnost on the eve of the Pope’s arrival?). And on his appearance (he has not been looking the picture of health).
It’s not as though the viewing audience has been out of touch with their leader in recent times. He is, as always, everywhere—inaugurating seminars, commemorating fateful events, attending receptions, and meeting with world leaders at home and abroad. But a press conference, with its spontaneous give and take, promises to be a novelty. Never mind that the representatives of the press on this particular evening are hardly likely to ask irreverent or troublesome questions. In addition to the moderator, Héctor Rodríguez, a news presenter for the government TV channel, they are four high-level journalists: one each from the National Television Newscast, Trabajadores, the official workers’ paper, and Granma, which is the Communist Party paper; and someone who represents both Radio Havana Cuba and Cuban Television. Probably very few people among those now settling in with a cup of coffee in front of the screen would ever imagine that a troublesome or probing question could be asked on such an occasion.
The first question, from Loly Estévez of the National Television Newscast, sets the tone. She requests Castro’s opinion of the results of the national elections staged on the previous Sunday, January 11. Castro’s answer (as it appears in the official transcription published by Granma five days later) is relatively brief: eleven paragraphs in which he extols the people’s satisfaction in their own victory. They have, he points out, decisively elected representatives of the Cuban Communist Party to occupy 95 percent of the 494 seats in the Asamblea Nacional (the Cuban legislative body) despite the hardships Cuba is undergoing. “A miracle,” Fidel says of the election in conclusion. “That is my impression. I won’t fundamentarlo, I hope I will have to [provide my arguments later on], but you asked me for my impression.”1
No news so far, but Cubans have had the opportunity to study their leader in greater close-up and at greater length than usual. The quaver in the Comandante’s silvery voice, the thick white spittle that keeps forming at the corners of his mouth, the odd pout that deforms his lower lip and distorts his pronunciation, have all been noted. Fidel, always upright, always gallant, was also always very handsome. Now, at seventy-one, even his wispy beard denotes infirmity. His viewers pay close attention: Fidel’s soaring gaze has been replaced by the hollow fearful stare of the very ill, as if someone within were peering out behind bars. Is it really true that he’s sick?
After the initial discussion of the elections there is a little exchange, in the half-bantering, half-grumpy tone Cubans are so familiar with:
Fidel Castro: The other compañeros can ask questions, or you, Héctor, who are part of the panel; you’re not just going to be the boss here, giving orders.
Moderator: No, I’ll ask too.
Fidel Castro: So I’m waiting for your questions.
Moderator: Martínez Pírez has asked for the floor.
Fidel Castro: On the same subject?
Fidel Castro: Please, on the point we were just on: don’t change the subject.
Martínez Pírez dutifully comments that before the Sunday vote there had been all sorts of dire predictions in the foreign press about possible electoral sabotage.
Listen, Pírez, if you all aren’t pressed for time, before I go on to the subject of abstentions and all that, I’d prefer to explain some aspects of what I was talking about before, and then, maybe, in part we’ll make some progress [on your topic].
What Fidel is so eager to explain can be summarized in a couple of sentences for a non-Cuban audience: for the first time in these elections Cuban authorities discounted from the total of valid votes those which were not cast at the polling booth where the voter was registered. A total of 119,000 votes were invalidated this way, which means that the valid votes cast did not amount to 99.80 percent of the possible total, but to a mere 98.35 percent. In the transcript, this explanation takes up two entire tabloid pages and then some of the special issue of Granma (which, normally, because of the paper shortage, puts out an eight-page newspaper every other day). Fidel reviews the history of the Cuban Revolution, the US economic embargo, the heroic role of the teenage Pioneros who patrolled the polling booths (“In our electoral system, in our democracy, why would soldiers have to guard the booths?”), in order to mull irritably over the lost 1.45 percent which, he insists, by right should have been included in the total, to the greater glory of Cuban democracy. Too bad the electoral officers decided to be so punctilious.
“Do I make myself clear?” Fidel interrupts himself at one point.
“Perfectly,” the moderator assures him, but Fidel returns obsessively to his percentages and fractions for an additional two full pages of the transcript before interrupting himself again.
“Do you think people have gone to sleep on me?”
“No, people haven’t gone to sleep, Comandante,” the moderator asserts, before adding helpfully, “Besides, you received more than 99 percent, and the Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces [Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother] did too.”
Fidel notes with satisfaction that another Castro brother, Ramón, who also ran for the Asamblea Popular, came up with exactly the same percentage, right up to the fraction, as he did, and after congratulating him on this happy coincidence, the moderator says, with what one can only assume is a certain desperate briskness, that it is time to change the subject. What, he would like to know, is Fidel’s personal impression of the Pope [whom Fidel met last year in Rome]?
The audience perks up here: there is great curiosity about John Paul II, but Fidel’s answer takes up one succinct paragraph: the Pope has “a noble face,” he inspires respect, he speaks Spanish fluently, he is “a precise man, he knows how to listen, and listens very attentively.” Perhaps having glanced at his watch at this point, Fidel then says that he is obliged to be briefer in his replies, “although if I have to extend myself [in answer to a given question] I will do so, of course.”
The opportunity to extend himself presents itself forthwith. The same journalist who asked the evening’s second question now wants to know what might be new or unusual about this particular papal tour. A six-page, or approximately three-hour-long, response is what he gets in reply. The history of revolutionary Cuba’s relations with the Church; the Pope and the cold war; the tremendous historical error that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty represented for international socialism; the losses suffered by the Soviet army during World War II (80 percent of its officer corps, among other things); the desertion of German soldiers in Japan; why Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope; and John Paul II’s deep anticapitalist conviction, documented with an entire page-worth of quotes from two papal speeches, are all glossed by Fidel, in order to explain how it is that the anti-Communist Wojtyla is actually a friend of the people. A single murmur from the moderator (“[you are quoting from] two different speeches”) is the only interruption.
It is now nearly three in the morning, and Fidel’s audience, which has to rise at dawn to negotiate the tortuous bike-and-bus marathon that getting to work involves these days for most Cubans, is by and large no longer with him. This is a pity, because the Comandante is about to touch on the one issue that lifelong fidelistas find most troublesome about the Pope’s impending visit: How are they to greet a man who is the very incarnation of what vanguard revolutionaries know as “religious superstition”? Are they, in fact, supposed to greet him at all? “I remember,”Fidel starts,
when Lucius Walker [the US Protestant pastor] has come here on several occasions to Cuba: more than once I’ve gone to the church at La Lisa, where they have their temples, I’ve listened to them and I’ve even spoken to them. When [Jesse] Jackson came here once, since he’s religious…I, without any prejudice, went inside the church, and I even spoke to them….
Therefore, after nearly forty years of official state atheism and vilification of religious believers, Fidel instructs his followers:
What should be the most sacred duty of each one of us? This is truly a key point: we invite all the people [to attend the papal Masses] …but no one must take a single poster, no one must shout a single slogan…no one must cheer a single leader of the Revolution; no one must express the slightest displeasure with any word or pronouncement that might displease or seem unjust to us…. Let the television networks transmit to the world that image so that Cuba may be known; this Cuba where 98.35 of the electorate voted, 95 percent of whose votes were valid, of which 94.39 percent were cast [for the Cuban Communist Party].
Fidel! The Comandante has issued the marching orders at last. It is almost 3:30 AM. The Cuban national television network, which normally broadcasts only six hours a day, has given him an extra three and a half hours of its time. The exhausted moderator and two panelists have managed to ask a total of four questions. Fidel—ailing or no—is chipper and about to meet with a few foreign correspondents who have been dozing outside the studio, whom he will keep scribbling in their notebooks nearly until dawn. The moderator thanks him.
Fidel Castro: There are many who have been sleeping for a while now…
Moderator: But it was worth it.
Fidel Castro: Do you [the other panelists who have yet to be heard from] have anything to say?
Renato Recio [who never got to ask a question]: You have really answered the doubts that even we had considered, and in my opinion, it was very complete. In that sense, there is nothing to add.
And so the nationally televised press conference by Fidel Castro ends.
Weeks later, in Mexico, I commented to a Cuban friend my surprise at the Comandante’s woolliness. Was he, in fact, seriously ill? Did he not understand the purpose of a press conference?
My friend laughed. “No one is better than Fidel at talking forever about nothing when there is something he doesn’t want to say.”
Forty years of political intercourse do not necessarily lead to intimacy, but on a small, lively, gossip-loving tropical island, where everybody who is anybody knows Fidel, and where almost everyone knows somebody who knows someone who does, intimacy of the sort Cubans experience with their leader is inevitable. They are on to his tricks. They gossip about his love life, laugh at his foibles—bitterly often enough—refer to him familiarly as Fidel even if they happen to be among those who loathe him, and remain in steadfast awe of him. In August of 1994, when the Habanazo—or first full-fledged riot against the regime—broke out on the streets of downtown Havana, he stopped the rock-throwers in their tracks by appearing, on foot, in the very thick of the fray. As the observant and thoughtful correspondents of the Mexican weekly Proceso2 noted at the time, the protesters’ tune changed the moment Fidel appeared on the scene. “This is over, el Caballo [The Horse, a favorite name for Fidel] has arrived,” someone said, and another man was heard to murmur, “He really has balls, coming here.” Yet another: “The Old Man doesn’t change. There’s no overthrowing him.” The ability to inspire feelings of intimacy and awe in equal measure are what have kept Fidel Castro in power even through the years of awful hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they will, foreseeably, keep him in power as long as his remarkable energies remain.
How well anyone in Cuba knows Fidel is another matter entirely. The gossip about his love life does not mean that anyone outside his immediate circle of Party faithful and bodyguards knows who he sleeps with. He is reported to be shy, and to mask this he fills his private conversations with the same torrent of statistics, historical ruminations, and revolutionary exhortations that overwhelm his public discourse. He has not been forthcoming with his biographers, and he is elusive even in the two book-length interviews with him that have been published. One is with the Brazilian activist Frei Betto, the other with the Nicaraguan sometime revolutionary leader Tomás Borge.3 In the conversation with Borge the two comandantes feed each other spoonfuls of revolutionary treacle. Fidel plies Frei Betto with sugar and percentages too, but at least Betto, the cheerful friar, is genuinely curious and persistent. Reluctantly, Fidel gives a portrait of his childhood that is unexpectedly emotional.
He is the son of Angel Castro, a prosperous and nearly illiterate immigrant from Galicia, in northern Spain, who acquired large amounts of land in the district of Birán (near the city of Santiago) through less-than-transparent business deals. The finca of Birán, where some three hundred families worked for or rented land from his father, is where Fidel was born. Fidel tells Betto that, although the family was prosperous, he suffered hardship in his youth: along with an older sister and a brother, he was sent to Santiago to board with the family of a schoolteacher. Fidel remembers bitterly that the teacher stinted on the children’s food, and that he was always hungry. He was five at the time, and, although his relations with his family were apparently always affectionate, he would never again live at home. He also remembers that at the age of seven he was sent away to boarding school, but his recollection sounds like a particularly Fidelian reinterpretation of history. In his telling, he decided that life at boarding school would be preferable to life with the schoolteacher, and so, one day, having perceived that he was “the object of injustice…I deliberately refuse to follow all orders, disobey all the rules, all the discipline. I shout, I say all the words it seemed to me were forbidden, in a conscious act of rebellion so that I shall be sent as an intern to school” [my italics]. In other words, he is in charge of his destiny.
He is in charge of it because he is alone. In general, Fidel speaks fondly of his days in three different Catholic schools and of his idyllic vacations back at the finca, but there is no mention of childhood friends or teenage pals, nor is there much about his parents or any stories about him and his brothers—just Fidel setting himself challenges: climbing the highest mountain in the region (“I didn’t imagine that I was preparing myself as a revolutionary”), physically attacking a priest—a school officer—who had slapped him twice on the face (“It was something unworthy and abusive”). When he was allowed to go to boarding school he was always happier than when he was sent to stay with a family: there he could not help observing that there was “a certain different relationship. [We] weren’t their children, they couldn’t treat [us] as their children.”
It is a father’s absence he feels most, although he never says so in so many words. Rather, he expresses sorrow at the fact that, “really, I never had a mentor.” Later, talking about his religious education and how little influence it had on his politics, he says it again: “I have really had to be, unfortunately, my own mentor throughout my life.” And later still, when he reflects on his first incursion into politics: “I say that I never had a mentor. It must have been a great effort of reasoning in such a little time to elaborate my ideas and put them into practice.”
But although he is unusually candid with Frei Betto, he is by no means candid enough to be truly illuminating. Indeed, he leaves out one of the most critical facts of his biography, which is that, like so many other revolutionary leaders—César Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua, both Eva and Juan Perón in Argentina, among others—Fidel Castro was born out of wedlock to a poor woman and her wealthy and lighter-skinned lover or attacker.
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.
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.
Memorias de un soldado cubano, by “Benigno” (Dariel Alarcón Ramírez), is by far the most valuable historically, as well as the most painful and astonishing of these. A movie or two could be made out of any given chapter of this remarkable man’s life. Born in 1939, he was a seventeen-year-old farmer in the Sierra Maestra—illiterate, industrious, and very poor—when a couple of bearded men in olive-green uniforms came to his bohío asking for food. Frightened, thinking they were government soldiers, he gave them what they wanted, and more. So began his unwitting collaboration with Fidel’s barbudos. It turned conscious, and purposeful, when the real government forces murdered his teenage wife as revenge for the help he’d given the rebels.
“Benigno” is the pseudonym Dariel Alarcón used in Bolivia when he fought alongside Ernesto Guevara. By then, he had already served under him as a machine-gunner in the Rebel Army, infiltrated the leadership of the counterrevolutionary bands in the Escambray hills, and joined Che again on his disastrous expedition to the Congo. Benigno’s wholehearted love for Che and Fidel led him to volunteer for every shoddily put-together suicide mission his leaders dreamed up. “We had a tremendous fever for internationalist struggle,” he says, recalling how eager he and sixteen other Cuban volunteers were to depart for Bolivia, where their chances of survival were so small.
Che’s love of harsh punishment does not diminish Benigno’s loyalty. Once, Benigno recalls, he removed his boots while trying to move a heavy load of supplies across a river in Bolivia, and when the raft he was using broke, he lost his boots. To set an example Che forced him to go barefoot, carrying his usual ninety-pound load. “The pain was terrible, frightful,” Benigno says. But Che also made a point of teaching him to read and giving him the basics of an education, which led to Benigno’s eventually getting a degree in history:
On December 30, by the light of a campfire in the Bolivian jungle, at the end of a lesson, Che said, “You’ve got sixth-grade level now.” I felt like the king of the jungle at that moment, and I dared to say to him, “If I get out of here alive, I’ll make it at least to the first step of the University stairs.”…He hugged me and said, “That’s the kind of commitment worth making.”
Benigno’s adventures continue after he and two other Cuban fighters make a Houdini-like escape from Bolivia into Chile following Che’s murder. After a few weeks’ rest, he is off to Peru on another special mission Fidel has designed for him. He is equipped with an explosive device wired to his crotch, which he is to detonate if anyone tries to open a briefcase he is carrying. Inside, according to Benigno, is a blueprint Fidel has written up: instructions, supposedly, for the military coup that brought the pro-Cuban General Juan Velasco Alvarado to power in 1968. Having delivered the briefcase, Benigno volunteers again for a second attempt to create a guerrilla movement in Bolivia—where he is not recognized, despite the fact that his picture has been all over the papers, “because they’d given me a very good plastic surgery just a while back.”
After this last adventure Benigno more or less settles down, training Latin American guerrillas at the special clandestine schools that the Central Committee’s quasi-autonomous Departamento Américas has set up on the island. While his own education is postponed, he suffers whenever he has to write something for his trainees on the blackboard, and the internacionalista comrades mockingly correct his spelling.
It is at this point that we begin to learn about Fidel’s Cuba. Fidel offers training to guerrillas from Uruguay to Mexico—denying the fact all the while to the Mexican government, Cuba’s one real ally in the hemisphere—but leaves the various countries’ rebel groups parked on the island for months.7 (All the rebels’ papers were confiscated on their arrival on the island, where they lived on a miserly stipend and under strict supervision.) Particularly instructive is the case of the Dominican Republic’s Francisco Caamaño Deñó—an army colonel from a military family who was one of the few would-be liberators with any real following. Fidel kept Caamaño on hold for almost four years, without granting him so much as an interview. Caamaño was killed in 1972, soon after his poorly equipped and poorly informed expedition (set up by Cuban intelligence) finally landed on Dominican soil. “That is when I realized that my Revolution was not what I had dreamt,” Benigno writes.
Benigno dwells on this and other instances of Cuban international revolutionary solidarity that end in disaster because he is tormented by one question: Did Fidel deliberately leave Che to die in Bolivia? He never understands why Fidel withdrew the key liaison agent between himself and Che from Bolivia and never replaced him, or why communications were allowed to die, or why no rescue mission was launched when it became evident that Che was encircled. Was it, in truth, because Cuba’s financial backers in the Soviet Union had made it clear that they would not stand for it? Once Benigno works up his courage and asks his commander-in-chief point-blank what, specifically, Cuba did to try to save Che. In answer, Fidel “…throws his arm over my shoulder, walks me away, strokes his beard with his left hand and says, ‘This is a case requiring study…,”‘ then offers Benigno yet another delicate mission.
It takes the aging fighter years to formulate the question that follows from his doubt, and years more to act on it: If the Revolution’s purpose is to improve everyone’s life, and to make life in general more meaningful, why did it not care about my life, why did I mean nothing to Fidel? Coming after such experiences, the question is anything but disingenuous.
While his disillusionment grows, Benigno moves up the ranks of the Special Troops. He becomes one of the three rotating chiefs of Fidel’s personal security. He tells us about the East German-type security measures that guard Cuba’s political elite, and about the curious precautions taken before Fidel is to visit a given work center:
The first thing Counterintelligence had to do was look in the files and see what personnel in that specific place were not supporters of the revolutionary process: those people were given the day off…. Their workplaces and lockers were checked to see if they weren’t hiding anything that could be used for sabotage or assassination attempts…. This was so routine that many workers, if they happened to find out about an upcoming visit by Fidel, would go ask their supervisors:
Well, do I show up tomorrow or not?
From his fly-on-the-wall position Benigno is privy to all sorts of performances by Fidel. Typically, he remembers, a meeting with him would be called at the last minute, the participants would come rushing in to hear Fidel lay out the subject at hand, and then, one by one, give their opinion “while Fidel stroked his beard and looked at them very attentively.” At the end, a vote was taken,
and when everyone thought that the point had been approved by the majority, Fidel stood and summarized the meeting—whether it was of the Politburo, the Council of State or the Central Committee, since he presides over all three. And then one realized that the meeting had been called practically for the hell of it, because there was nothing in the summary about what had actually been discussed…. Then [Fidel] would start to give everybody their tasks according to how he saw things, and each one left the meeting with some relief because these tasks were now not his responsibility but Fidel’s.
In meetings where the flaws or failures of a high-ranking official had to be discussed, Fidel would lash out at him in front of everyone until the humiliated official hung his head and swore to mend his ways. “Then Fidel would get up, throw his arm over the man’s shoulder and walk him to the door….”
“The ‘blockade,’ or US economic embargo, is Fidel’s last resort for holding on to power,” Benigno writes, echoing the conviction of so many dissidents still living in Cuba.
The incident with the planes [in which two light aircraft flown by members of an anti-Castro organization based in Florida were shot down over Cuban airspace on February 24, 1996] happened precisely when the United States was disposed to turn over a new leaf in its relations with Cuba. After the planes were shot down, the United States evidently had no other option but to harden its position again. Fidel needs to continue egging on the North Americans, and the day the North Americans don’t react he’ll go and pinch them so that they do. The day the blockade stops existing, so will Fidel.
How much can we believe Benigno? For the moment, his stories remain impossible to verify. He is not an academic—or a writer. Often we suspect that he knows more than he is willing to say (about Cuba and the drug trade, for example). At other times he makes assertions or engages in speculations about important events without offering anything but anecdotal evidence. Did Castro, in fact, simultaneously encourage guerrilla movements in order to keep up his standing in Latin America, and sabotage their operations in order to keep peace with the Soviets? This is a serious charge, but the confusion, delays, and tragic errors Benigno cites in support of his thesis could just as easily be the result of Cuban bureaucratic incompetence.
We do know that Benigno’s account of his days with Che coincides with those of the only two other survivors (both Cuban), and we know that he held the positions he claims to have held. He was for a time in charge of the Cuban prison system, and his description of jail conditions coincides with those of former prisoners.8 Cubans who know him well say that he has been telling the same stories for a long time. His ghostwriter/editor, Elisabeth Burgos, was formerly the wife of Régis Debray, having married him when he was in a Bolivian prison, and she also ghostwrote/edited Rigoberta Menchú’s first book. She knows Latin America—and Cuba particularly—extremely well, and one assumes that she took the trouble to check whatever could be checked.
Whatever his accuracy, Benigno’s amazing autobiography is a precise mirror of Cuba’s revolutionary upheavals, and the change in the author’s feelings about “his” Revolution is also a mirror in which many once-fervent fidelistas can find themselves. Guerrilla heroes become corrupt bureaucrats or commit suicide. A regime that prided itself on its ability to feed, clothe, and educate its youth turns out to have been the late twentieth century’s last true colony, unable to survive even modestly once its ties to Great Mother Russia have been severed. Glorious battles are fought for unwinnable causes, or to support cowardly sluggards, like Laurent Kabila in Africa. Why were we in Angola? Benigno asks himself, having nearly died there, too.
The watershed event for people of his generation as well as those much younger was the summary trial and execution of Colonel Arnaldo Ochoa in 1989.9 Of course Benigno knew him: they fought together as teenage guajiros—hillbillies—in Fidel’s rebel army, but Ochoa rose higher than Benigno. From his post as head of Fidel’s security, Benigno observed the late commander of all Angola’s Cuban troops, and virtual proconsul there, who could enter el Caballo’s office time and again without an appointment and without going through the official X-ray machine. Once, Benigno says, he heard Ochoa joke in his usual carefree way after a meeting, “So, I’m going to be the Al Capone of Cuba!” and Fidel told him to watch his mouth.
Benigno is convinced that Ochoa, arrested on corruption charges, was offered as a sop to the United States at a time when the CIA and the DEA were threatening to reveal what they had on Cuba’s involvement with the drug trade. Again he gives no proof, but then, this is not an unlikely or even a particularly new theory. What is important is that, in Cuba, where there is so little information about the setting of international intrigue in which the trial took place (and where cocaine is more and more available), there is a widespread conviction that Ochoa did whatever he did on higher orders, that nothing happens in Cuba without Fidel’s knowledge, and that facing the firing squad Ochoa died bravely.
Incredibly, Fidel seems not to have been aware of the consequences of killing a hero. Or perhaps he did understand that Ochoa was not only an official Hero of the Republic but also a wildly popular field commander. In the absence of any other credible explanation, one can conjecture that Ochoa was engaged in some sort of plot against Fidel and his brother and designated successor, Raúl.10 Perhaps what Fidel did not understand was that his own rule was about to become an anachronism, and that the wound caused by Ochoa’s execution would never have time to heal, to diminish and fade in the refound joy and prosperity of an ever more perfect, more socialist Cuba, because the Soviet Union was about to expire in a matter of weeks.
In retrospect, it is hard to imagine a more absurd marriage of conflicting interests. In 1961, when serious talks between the two countries began, the triumphant Cubans wanted to race headlong to utopia and were convinced that the Soviet Union’s only possible desire would be to help them get there—whatever it took. The Russian leadership was rather less interested in the fate of six million dark-colored, Spanish-speaking people living under palm trees on the opposite side of the world. Their goal was to gain the upper hand in the looming Sino-Soviet split, and to get a nuclear foothold in the Western hemisphere. In his biography of Che Guevara, Jon Lee Anderson tells us how Che pressed Nikita Khrushchev in 1960 for a million-ton steel factory, against the older man’s wise counsel that in Cuba there was no coal, no iron, no skilled labor, and no consumers for such a venture. On a subsequent trip to the Soviet Union, according to Che’s other indispensable biographer, Jorge Castañeda, Che and a Cuban revolutionary buddy negotiated the nuclear weapons deal with Khrushchev while shivering on a pier in the Crimea. Through an interpreter (how good was his Spanish?) they listened with misgivings to the chubby old bureaucrat’s proposal that the missiles be kept secret.11
Castro shared their worries, but he accepted the missiles. Years later, he explained:
Had we known then what we know now about the balance of power, we would have realized that the emplacement changed intermediate-range missiles into strategic weapons. In the light of what we know today, this must have been the real Soviet motive—not the defense of Cuba. We did not know how few missiles the Soviets had. We imagined thousands. If I had known the real ratio I would have advised Nikita to be prudent…. But we had unlimited trust.12
In the event, Fidel advised Nikita to be anything but prudent. In a letter that Fidel referred to many times, but that was made public in Cuba only eight years ago, the Cuban leader exhorted his Soviet counterpart, in effect, to nuke the territory of the United States “if… the imperialists invade Cuba with the goal of occupying it.” At that moment, Khrushchev and Kennedy were working against the clock on the agreement that avoided a nuclear war, offered assurances that the United States would not invade Cuba, and saved face for all parties concerned—or so Kennedy and Khrushchev thought. When Fidel found out that the two had gone over his head to negotiate, however, he felt humiliated. He returned to the National University, where he had made so many crucial and fiery speeches before, to declare that the Russian had no cojones.13
Conceivably, if one is going to invite one of the two contenders for nuclear supremacy to bring in weapons that can destroy the whole world, one takes into consideration at least two factors: (a) Is the possible outcome of nuclear annihilation good for the world? and (b) Who’s got the most weapons? But Fidel’s enthusiasms don’t work this way. Khrushchev had told him that the stationing of Soviet nuclear missiles ninety miles away from the United States was good for the Cubans, and that was good enough for him.
“Nikita, you little faggot, what you give can’t be taken away,” Cubans chanted after Kennedy and Khrushchev came to an agreement on the missile withdrawal. That extraordinary slogan and its circumstances, the missiles under the palm trees, the improvised agreement hammered out on Crimean shores between four people who spoke not a word of each other’s language and had barely spent a few hours in each others’ company, the utter improbability of the alliance that was forged on the ashes of this agreement between a leaden bureaucratic empire and a fiery young revolutionary… Nearly forty years later, it is hard to believe that any of this could ever have happened. But it did, because of Fidel.
What will happen when he is no longer around to cast his shadow on the world is anyone’s guess. What will be the future of the exemplary education and health systems, now in shambles, that the Revolution set up? Where will jobs come from if the state apparatus is dismantled? And what about Miami, what about the predators who are assumed to be sharpening their fangs and talons there in expectation of Fidel’s demise: Will they, perhaps, be kind? Raúl Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and designated successor, is not the man to answer these questions or calm the bewilderment, anger, cynicism, and fear that now pervade the conversation of so many of his countrymen. Nor does anyone else on the Cuban political horizon currently appear capable of doing so. Fidel is growing old, and it’s getting late.
October 22, 1998
Granma, Suplemento especial, Tuesday, January 20, 1998. ↩
Homero Campa and Orlando Pérez. Their book Cuba: Los Años Duros (Barcelona: Plaza y Janés, 1997) is the source for much of the background information in this article. ↩
Tomás Borge, Un Grano de Maíz: Conversación con Fidel Castro (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1992). ↩
Fidel: A Critical Portrait (Morrow, 1986). ↩
A wonderful account of this affair is the central subject of Havana Dreams, by Wendy Gimbel (Knopf, 1998). ↩
See, for example, Wendy Gimbel’s history of Alina’s family in Havana Dreams. ↩
In their book about Subcomandante Marcos of Mexico (Marcos: La genial impostura, Madrid: Alfaguara, 1997) Bertrand de la Grange of Le Monde and Maite Rico of El País offer a different interpretation of Cuba’s role in training Mexican guerrillas. Having looked at some Mexican intelligence documents from the 1970s, the authors speculate that Cuba trained these guerillas with the full knowledge of Castro’s old friends in the Mexican intelligence apparatus. In this way the Cubans helped the Mexican government to dismantle would-be rebel armies with a minimum of losses for its side and a maximum of public relations profit. (Castro, who owed the Mexicans for the easy treatment he and his fellow revolutionaries got while they were conspiring from Mexico against the Batista dictatorship, has a reputation for undying loyalty to his friends.) ↩
Benigno estimates the current prison population in Cuba at over 100,000, or 1 percent of the island’s total population. His estimate of the number of political prisoners is larger than that of most of the human rights organizations. Sensibly, he points out that a great many “common prisoners” are in jail for attempting to leave the island, and that this is a political crime. ↩
Ochoa and thirteen other members of the military and security forces were arrested on June 12, 1989, accused of corruption and drug trafficking. Ochoa and three others were executed on Fidel’s direct request, on July 13, 1989. ↩
Certainly, Ochoa’s execution and the subsequent purge of the Interior Ministry’s upper ranks would indicate that a singular political crisis occurred. See Julia Preston in these pages, December 7, 1989, pp. 24-31. ↩
See Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (Grove, 1997) and Jorge Castañeda, Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (Knopf, 1997). Both biographies give extraordinary portraits of Che and his times. ↩
At a conference about the missile crisis held in 1992 in Havana, and described by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in these pages, Fidel told Schlesinger and Robert McNamara, among others, that he wrote the letter in an effort “to strengthen [Khrushchev’s] position from a moral viewpoint.” This was also the first time that the Americans learned that some of the nuclear warheads Khrushchev had sent to the island were actually armed. ↩