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‘Essentially Bohemian’

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In October 1963, Sir Herbert Stanley Marchant, the outgoing British ambassador to Cuba, sent the Foreign Office a six-page confidential profile of Fidel Castro, now held in the National Archives at Kew. Marchant joked that if it didn’t fit the Foreign Office’s purposes he would sell it to Life magazine when he retired, to keep himself ‘in beer money for a month or so’. He had been ambassador since 1960. For most of that time, he writes, Castro had had ‘nothing whatever to do with Western diplomats’, but the policy changed suddenly after he returned from a trip to the Soviet Union in 1963. Marchant had since spent eleven hours with Castro at close quarters, including ‘two lunches and a farewell interview’.

The ambassador couldn’t help but be impressed by Castro’s presence: ‘However much you hear about the Grand Canyon it still turns out to be much bigger than you expected. So it is with Castro – and I do not mean merely his physique. He is in fact a good six feet four inches and he must weigh sixteen stone.’ Whether in ‘small private groups or large public gatherings’, Castro ‘takes the centre of the stage with a natural assurance far beyond that of any other prima donna I have ever met’. He ‘has charm in plenty and is more than usually attractive to women in all spheres of life. I have seen wives and daughters of Western diplomats cluster around him like school girls round their gym mistress.’ (Marchant’s similes betray an oddly narrow frame of reference, unless it was for the benefit of his Foreign Office colleagues in London.)

Marchant puts much of Castro’s behaviour down to his supposed ‘megalomania’, but observes that ‘he curiously enough chooses a crusade for other people as the setting in which to exhibit himself. He is a natural “do-gooder” and he fancies himself as such.’ Marchant patronisingly imagines that Castro ‘has Walter Mitty-Like dreams of himself in shining armour, mounted on a white horse leading the poor and oppressed of Latin America to freedom and prosperity’. Yet the ambassador also concedes that ‘a genuine passion for the poor and under-privileged is definitely built into his make-up and the warmth of affection he professes for the Cuban peasant is almost certainly genuine.’

Castro’s heart is said to bleed easily, ‘especially of course for victims of Batista corruption and “Yankee Imperialism”’, but even in his dealings with counter-revolutionaries, Marchant says, he prefers ‘the magnanimous gesture of granting pardon to giving the order to shoot’. Castro assured the ambassador that ‘the policy of his regime was strictly humanitarian and that it prided itself on the fact that not even its worse enemies had been tortured or otherwise treated with brutality in prison.’ Marchant reluctantly acknowledges that this was ‘probably basically true’. He also says that he has seen no signs to justify ‘counter-revolutionary stories of gluttony or drunkenness’. On the contrary, Castro’s lifestyle was ‘essentially bohemian’ with ‘no luxury, no veniality’.

Castro told Marchant that he spear-fished at a depth of 40 to 60 feet without breathing apparatus, which suggested ‘a remarkably sound body and first class lungs’. He was ‘a little paunchy beneath his broad, slightly rounded shoulders’ (counter-revolutionaries claimed he was wearing a bulletproof vest) and needed glasses to play baseball, but Castro – then 37 years old – still stood out ‘as an impressive physical specimen, especially in comparison with his brother Raul, the unattractive runt of the family’.

Fidel wasn’t ‘a profound or original thinker’, Marchant says, and would ‘have got a good Second rather than a First Class at Oxbridge’. But he ‘can think clearly and quickly and can argue with a lawyer’s shrewdness’. As for ‘the character of the man and the standard of values by which he lives’, Castro was neither ‘all black’ as counter-revolutionaries argued, nor a ‘Sir Galahad as his followers would have us believe’. Even his enemies would concede that he had ‘guts’ and displayed ‘courage in the face of physical dangers’.

Leading Personalities in Cuba, an official British Embassy intelligence report, was written in the same year as Marchant’s profile. It contains concise descriptions of the seventy most prominent political figures in Cuba. The entry for Castro is reminiscent of Marchant’s longer study, but less nuanced: his ‘gigantic ego and emotionally undisciplined nature is not of the stuff of which good Marxists are made’. It also says that he ‘has a better knowledge of English than he normally admits’ – as he’d revealed in an interview on US television in 1959.

The entry for Che Guevara, then the minister of industry, is more positive. It calls him ‘the most practical and probably the clearest-headed of the inner circle … extremely able and hardworking but prefers to stay in the background’. ‘Cultured and soft spoken when he likes to be … this aloof and bearded character exercised considerable fascination over men and women around him.’ As industry minister, he is praised for his ‘forceful, practical but revolutionary approach to the problems in hand. He is frank and outspoken in his criticisms of administrative muddle and inefficiency.’ The entry concludes that Guevara was ‘probably second only to Fidel Castro in the hierarchy of power’.

Fidel’s official deputy was his brother Raul, who’s described as a ‘most unpleasant young man’ and, once again, the ‘runt of the family’, with ‘extremely Left-wing views’. The entry speculates that ‘it is very doubtful whether he has the calibre or personality to remain long in Fidel’s saddle, should it become vacant.’ Raul Castro succeeded his brother in 2008. More than fifty years after British intelligence made its dismissive assessment of him, the Cuban Revolution remains in power with Raul at its head.

Comments on “‘Essentially Bohemian’”

  1. ksh93 says:

    When Castro visited US in 1959 and met Vice President Nixon, the latter suggested that Castro’s regime would do well to emulate the development model of Puerto Rico:

    With much tact I tried to suggest to Castro that Muñoz Marín had done wonderful work in Puerto Rico with respect to attracting private capital and in general to raise his people’s standard of living, and that Castro might very well send one of his main economic advisors to Puerto Rico to talk with Muñoz Marín. This suggestion did not meet with much enthusiasm on his part and he noted that the Cuban people were ‘very nationalistic’ and would suspect any program initiated in a country considered a ‘colony’ of the United States… It is worth noting that he did not ask me anything regarding the sugar quota and did not even specifically mention economic aid.

    One wonders what lessons a Cuban economic expert visiting their neighbouring island (“Two wings of the same bird,”…”They receive flowers and bullets into the same heart.” as the Puerto Rican poet Lola Rodriguez de Tio put it) might draw today:

    https://www.thenation.com/article/after-a-century-of-american-citizenship-puerto-ricans-have-little-to-show-for-it

  2. ikallicrates says:

    My impression of Castro was the same as Marchant’s. He had “a genuine passion for the poor and under-privileged”, but he was an intellectual lightweight. Che Guevara was a different matter. I think not only Cuba’s, but South America’s, history would have been very different had Guevera lived.

  3. Timothy Rogers says:

    A few comments on the above comments. As to ksh93, you may dispute the present and the future, but you can’t rewrite the past. During the last half-century Puerto-Rico has had more than one “Brexit moment”. Voters have been presented with referenda that gave them three choices about Puerto Rico’s status and destiny: independence; statehood; or maintain the status quo. The lattermost choice won each of these contests (admittedly by plurality rather than absolute majority, but that’s always the likelihood when it comes to choosing among three things, each of which has strong advocates). A sensible interpretation of these results is that a great many Puerto Ricans believed that the status quo offered more economic benefits (or protection) than the other choices. Maybe they were wrong.

    As to Castro’s intellect, the problem wasn’t really his intelligence, but his tendency as a very bright autodidact in many specialized economic subjects (especially agriculture) to come to some unfounded (optimistic) conclusions and enforce his ideas on a broad scale, knowing that his popular support would generate acceptance in the face of common sense indicating a more cautious approach. And, he may have actually believed in the deterministic and “inevitable” side of Marxist thought, which seems a woeful mistake in the light of evidence.

    And what about Che Guevara?. He too was very bright, and as a man with a degree in medicine it might have been realistic to accept his ideas about Cuba’s public health system. Beyond that he had only revolutionary beliefs to guide him through other complicated problems of society and economy. And what were the real reasons for his fate? The argument has been made that Castro, wary of Che as a rival, forced him into the “roving revolutionary” role, though others have written that this was congenial to Guevara himself, a more meaningful life than being an administrative functionary (i.e., a “romance”). His assignments to Angola and then Bolivia proved to be somewhat farcical (and nasty and brutal farces at that). Will the world ever know the actual details behind his last years (ie., why did he go on such unpromising assignments)? Some of the information that would help interested people know what happened and why it happened the way it did is locked away in the memories of Castro’s and Guevara’s revolutionary colleagues and age-mates, but it seems doubtful that this will ever emerge in a way that inspires confidence (too many reputations and nationalistic legends are at stake).

    • RobotBoy says:

      An intellectual lightweight compared to whom, JFK, Reagan, Brezhnev, Plato, Einstein? Castro certainly wasn’t Karl Marx or Isaac Newton but he was pretty well-educated and well read. Above all, he had a practical political genius. I wonder how many others would have done better given his circumstances – an island with few resources and the population of NYC, thousands of miles from potential allies but only 103 statute miles from the most powerful country in the world, a country dedicated to destroying you and your revolution at the first opportunity. I can’t think of any leader who held on for a half century under even vaguely similar circumstances.
      Unfortunately, accepting Soviet aid meant also accepting various aspects of Stalinism. Could Castro have negotiated that dependency to better result? Sure, I guess. Did he have a lot to answer for? Of course. But there’s a reason why Nelson Mandela praised Cuba on American television for its support of the ANC and its role in ending apartheid, not to mention the country’s accomplishments in education, health care, etc.
      No doubt Che was a better theoretician and a more original thinker, and if he’d survived he may well helped find a better way forward for Cuba, but Che was also incredibly impractical and unworldly, and basically committed suicide by his boneheaded misreading of the conditions in Bolivia. Someone that uncompromising isn’t going to last very long running a country. Csstro was about as smart as a politician can be and still be a politician.

      • Timothy Rogers says:

        This makes sense, once you admit that Castro made some bad decisions as a politician. As to his relations with the USSR, he could not have predicted its collapse. In the early 1960s he really was Khrushchev’s fair-haired boy, and I think the admiration was reciprocal. But once the Cuban missile crises led to a Russian loss of face, K’s colleagues used it as an excuse to dump him (members of the Politburo were equally angry about the big economic fiasco of K’s “virgin lands” agricultural plan). K’s efforts to de-Stalinize were partly succesaful, but Brezhnev reversed some of this as well, while never restoring Stalinism to its 1930s-1950s style of madness. Of course, given the way Stalin, as it turned out, organized the economy and the military to eventually withstand Hitler’s assault, he could also be viewed as a Communist leader who understood how to defend a regime against a powerful neighbor (perhaps Castro found this an analogy for his relations with the US, I really don’t know).

  4. It’s traditional to sneer at the Foreign Office, but Sir Herbert’s profile (which I hadn’t seen before) seems very accurate and enduring. I saw quite a bit of the middle-aged Castro 20 years later, when he was at the height of his power, riding high on Soviet aid and the recent “acts of repudiation” that had expelled Cuba’s undesirables to Miami in the state-sponsored Mariel exodus. Indeed, one of my jobs was to write the 1982 (or thereabouts) edition of the Leading Personalities Report that Louis Allday refers to.

    Castro always struck me as an intelligent man, with many intellectual pretentions. It was an axiom of his autocratic regime that no-one should be a bigger expert on anything than he was. When Cuba was hit by dengue fever, we were subjected to hours of medical lectures by Fidel. Believe me – what he didn’t tell us about the life-cycle of the aedis aegyptae mosquito isn’t worth knowing. Whether this kind of thing would have got him an Oxford first is unknowable, but what was always clear was the monstrous ego of the man that consumed all in its path, demanding, and getting, the unwavering attention of a whole country. This was not good for anyone, and the 9180s Fidel, high on power and with so much more blood on his hands, was less attractive than Sir Herbert’s not-quite-middle-aged version.

    I was never convinced of the reputed Castro charisma which, by this stage at least, seemed to me to amount to little more than a package of proto-Trumpian rhetorical tics and gestures, so endlessly rehearsed they appeared formulaic. Knit eyebrows for sincerity, for instance. I thought at the time that Castro was less ideological than he probably was. Perhaps this reflects poorly on his intellectual capacity since, having adopted Marxist-Leninism after the revolution as a convenient way of holding onto power, he was incapable of letting it go after the Soviet Union collapsed. Raul, definitely runt-like, seemed more hard-line but maybe wasn’t – or else changed his mind in a way Fidel never could. Was Raul really, I still wonder, the son of his Galician landowner father’s Chinese maid, as rumour (and his nickname: el chino) had it? The brothers looked so dissimilar.

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