Spectacle of the Rats and Owls

Malcolm Deas

  • Against All Hope by Armando Valladares, translated by Andrew Harley
    Hamish Hamilton, 381 pp, £12.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 241 11806 9
  • Castro by Peter Bourne
    Macmillan, 332 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 333 44593 7
  • Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Tad Szulc
    Hutchinson, 585 pp, £14.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 09 172602 6
  • Castro and the Cuban Labour Movement: Statecraft and Society in a Revolutionary Period (1959-1961) by Efren Cordova
    University Press of America, 354 pp, £24.65, April 1988, ISBN 0 8191 5952 2
  • Fidel and Religion: Castro talks on revolution and religion with Frei Betto translated by the Cuban Centre for Translation
    Simon and Schuster, 314 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 671 64114 X

‘Fidel Castro, alas’ one would have to answer if asked what 20th-century Latin American had cut the largest figure in the world. The best short account of the cultural reasons for lamentation is G. Cabrera Infante’s ‘Bites from the Bearded Crocodile’ (LRB, 4-17 June 1981). The economic and social reasons for being less than enthusiastic are set out in the leaden pages of Jorge Dominguez’s Cuba: Order and Revolution of 1970: it is worth bearing in mind that the present state of the Cuban economy can only be sustained by the receipt of something like half of all Soviet aid to the so-called Third World. And now there is Armando Valladares’s Against All Hope, a distinguished prison memoir.

At one stage in his long imprisonment, Valladares enjoyed conversations with Pierre Golendorf, a disillusioned French Marxist spending some time in jail for writing imprudent letters home: ‘It’s true, Valladares, most of the European Left is very pro-Castro, and it seems to them acceptable that certain reprehensible acts occur. They call them legitimate defensive acts, defending the Revolution.’ This obvious point still has to be laboured, and Valladares labours it with authority, detail and style. He is a Christian anti-Communist, and organised protests against Castro’s turn towards the Soviet Union at the time of Mikoyan’s crucial visit to Havana in 1960; he was jailed early in 1961. According to another of his prison conversations – this time with ‘Lieutenant Ramiro Abreu, now head of the Central American Section of the Party Central Committee’ – he was kept in jail so long ‘because counter-revolution in those first years was very fierce, very dangerous and it had to be controlled ... We know we committed some excesses, and your case is just one of them’: he would have been more prudent to have protested some years later.

The treatment of political prisoners under Castro as described here was a great deal worse than that suffered by Castro under Batista. The implacable length of many sentences recalls the sufferings of the select few in Juan Vicente Gomez’s Caracas Rotunda – another round Benthamite construction like General Machado’s Circulares on the Isle of Pines where both Castro and Valladares spent some time. Like most accounts of prison, Valladares’s book is taken up with observations made precise by much observing. Some of them are exotic to the temperate reader:

At nightfall we always beheld an incredible spectacle, the spectacle of the rats and the owls. Owls are very common in Cuba, and each bird would swallow down several rats every night ... Every evening the owls with shrieks of jubilee hurtled down on the rats, grabbed them in their claws, and flew back to the roof to pull them apart and eat them We would watch the hunt from our windows.

Though most of the book is concerned with prison, there are interesting incidental glimpses of the Cuba outside. Against the first ‘contras’, the anti-Castro guerrillas of the Sierra de Escambray who posed a considerable threat up to the time of the missile crisis, Castro employed a policy of civilian relocation in ‘strategic hamlets’, the first of which was called, of all names, Ciudad Sandino. There are three pages on Monsignor Cesar Zacchi, ‘the artificer of the new relationship’ of the Vatican with Castro, which Frei Betto particularly ought to read. Valladares is an ideological opponent of the regime: ‘let’s suppose that you people have achieved a standard of living higher than in any capitalist country, where everything exists in abundance. I would still be opposed to your system because my arguments are ideological, not material. I oppose the whole system because of the freedom it denies, not because of the consumer goods it lacks.’ The regime went to extraordinary lengths to crush such people. Against All Hope describes, for example, the long struggle to get them to wear the uniform of common criminals, the official alarms set off by a prisoner’s Christmas tree. The only unlikely allegation in this narrative of resistance to ‘legitimate defensive acts’ is an accusation that patients in the hospital were killed in Castro’s attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953. This does not appear to be true. Valladares has quite enough to indict him for without that charge.

Both Tad Szulc and Peter Bourne seem to have approached the test of writing about Castro with initial enthusiasm, and in both cases the enthusiasm seems to have flagged. Both books dwell disproportionately on Castro’s life up to his taking of power, and have disappointingly little to say about the last quarter-century – over half his adult life (Fidel was born in 1926). One comes away from reading them with the impression that the subject has not turned out to be quite as interesting as it first seemed. This is often the case with revolutionaries and guerrillas – there are more severe limits to the intellectual interest of guerrilla warfare than most authors imagine, and the romance of successful revolutionaries withers fast – but there is more amiss here than that. Both authors seem to me to have started off looking in their different ways for the wrong Fidel Castro, or at least to have run the risk, given the approaches they’ve chosen, of having little or nothing to say after the missile crisis made it probable that their subject would stay in power for a long time.

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