Cuba: The New Opening

Jose Goitia/The New York Times/Redux
Fidel Castro and his brother, President Raúl Castro, during a meeting of Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, Havana, April 2011

The history taught in Cuban schools exalts the redeeming function of the Cuban Revolution but it also, for the most part, reduces that revolution to a biography of Fidel Castro. Someday perhaps Cuban schoolchildren will have access to other versions of their history. If that day comes, Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959–1971 by Lillian Guerra, an American historian of Cuban descent, should be a required (and saddening) assignment. It tells the story of the construction of the longest dictatorship in Latin American history (and now the longest-lasting continuous regime on earth).

The book is not a conventional political history but rather a social history of the Cuban people subjugated, by choice or by force, to the new system put into place during the 1960s and 1970s. Based on almost twenty years of research in Cuban and American archives like the Cuban Exile Collection and the Cuban Revolution Collection at Yale University, Guerra reconstructs how Fidel Castro went about narrowing the range of civil liberties, autonomous institutions, and finally the society itself, until he completely dominated them.

The revolutionaries came to power on an island where one in six Cubans owned a radio, one in twenty-five a television set. There were 120 newspapers and magazines, like the political journal Bohemia, which in the first three weeks of 1959 sold a million copies celebrating the triumph of the revolution. With this impressive island-wide coverage—most of it favoring the revolution—Castro could multiply the effect of his very long speeches, many of them to an audience of a million people acclaiming him with upraised hands. He was the first revolutionary to use television with wide effect.

One of Guerra’s revelations is the use Fidel made of religious symbols. As a steady leitmotif he would say things like: “They speak ill of me because I have spoken the truth. They crucified Christ for speaking the truth” or “Whoever condemns a revolution like this one betrays Christ and declares himself capable of crucifying that very Christ once again.” Although he had been educated by the Jesuits, Castro had no belief in religious dogmas. Nevertheless he affirmed and imposed his beliefs as if they were in themselves religious dogmas. A new faith, Fidelismo, began to form around his person. Drawings were published with Fidel inserted into scenes from the Bible; pilgrimages were conducted to sacralized sites in the former guerrilla haven of the Sierra Maestra or to the Turquino mountain, which Fidel had once climbed. In a conversation with a journalist from the magazine Carteles, an old peasant succinctly expressed his reverence:

Question: What do you think of the Agrarian Reform?

Blanco: That is a blessing of God.

Question: You mean from…

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