The Real Fidel Castro 
by Leycester Coltman.
Yale, 335 pp., £25, October 2003, 0 300 10188 0
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Leycester Coltman was British ambassador in Cuba from 1991 to 1994. During these years, the dust jacket on his book claims, ‘he came as close to personal friendship with Castro as any foreigner was permitted.’ Coltman writes with great confidence, even immodesty – we are given the impression that he knows all Castro’s secrets – and the range of his book extends beyond his immediate experience to take in all of Castro’s life.

In doing so, he comments on events and issues with which he is clearly unfamiliar. Like all Castro’s other biographers, he has had to construct his story without being able to read the relevant Cuban documents and, despite the claim on the dust jacket, he had no special access to Castro. The Cuban regime is a closed world that carefully safeguards its secrets; Cubans who talk to foreigners tend to know little, and those who know a lot remain silent. Coltman should have been forthright about the limits of his knowledge, but pretending to know more than one does is a widely shared flaw among Castro biographers. Only one, Tad Szulc, has resisted this temptation, and Fidel, published in 1986, remains the best life. Coltman’s book is useful, however: it takes the story almost to the present day, and his subtle knowledge of Cuba – three years is longer than any other Castro biographer has lived there – gives him unusual insight into aspects of the revolution and US-Cuban relations.

His Castro is not very different from the one that emerges from Szulc’s biography and, for that matter, from many US intelligence reports: a charismatic leader with a passionate desire to improve the lot of the Cuban people and no tolerance of opposition. ‘He is inspired by a messianic sense of mission to aid his people,’ a US National Intelligence Estimate concluded in 1959, and Coltman agrees that he ‘had a mission to change his country and the world’. This sense of mission – the keynote of Castro’s extraordinary life – has necessitated many sacrifices for the greater good. For Castro, Coltman writes, progress has always been

achieved at a price, often at the price of suffering and bloodshed . . . The Cuban revolution was not the work of one man or one generation. It was a historical process, started in the independence struggles of the 19th century. Thousands had died fighting for it. It was the duty of the present generation to save the revolution, however arduous the task. Even in capitalist countries, many people looked to Cuba as a beacon of hope . . . Cuba would not disappoint them.

One may agree or disagree with Castro’s view of history, but this was certainly what he believed in 1959, when he entered Havana in triumph. And it is his belief today, as he continues to defy Washington’s imperial will.

Coltman’s perceptiveness on this matter makes the weaknesses of his book all the more frustrating. We are told in the preface that his death shortly after delivering the typescript prevented him from adding ‘a full list of annotations’. This is something of an understatement: there are no notes, and only on rare occasions are sources identified in the text. What makes it difficult to take him at his word is that his facts are often demonstrably wrong. Take his account of the dispatch of the Cuban column led by Che Guevara to Congo Kinshasa. Che, he writes, ‘flew with a team of elite Cuban volunteers to Brazzaville’ and from there ‘set about the task of organising a Marxist guerrilla movement in Congo Kinshasa’. This is part fact, part fiction: yes, Che led a Cuban column to aid the rebels; but no, he did not set out to organise a ‘Marxist’ guerrilla movement, and no, the column did not approach from Brazzaville but from Tanzania. The rebels Che was helping were near the border with Tanzania: in order to get there from Brazzaville, the Cubans would have had to traverse the entire length of the country, through territory controlled by the government.

Elsewhere Coltman writes that on a visit to Moscow (typically, he does not indicate the year), Castro

suggested to his hosts that he might engage in an act of public self-criticism for the many anti-Soviet comments he had made since the time of the Missile Crisis. The Russians advised him not to make any such self-criticism. They had invested a lot of capital in building up the image and prestige of Castro, and saw no benefit in his admitting to mistakes, even the mistake of having criticised the Soviet Union.

This could be a bombshell. But what is Coltman’s source? Did he read a secret Cuban document about Castro’s trip? Did Castro share this secret with him? Or is his source the same person who told him that Che entered Congo Kinshasa from Brazzaville?

Coltman’s discussion of Castro’s relations with the United States combines insight with faulty analysis and factual mistakes. He writes, for example, that Castro

had successfully defied and outlived the hostility and threats of five successive US presidents, from Eisenhower to Ford . . . However, the mild and amiable President Carter presented a different and in many ways more difficult problem. He kept up the pressure on Cuba over human rights, but he did so in a more respectful tone than had been habitual under previous administrations . . . Carter was in fact the first American president to exercise at least some influence on Castro.

Castro did indeed respond favourably to Carter’s first steps. But Coltman greatly overstates the importance of human rights in Carter’s relationship with Castro and misses the real stumbling block: Carter’s administration was obsessed with the Cuban military presence in Africa, particularly in Angola.

‘Africa is certainly central to our concerns,’ a Carter envoy told Castro in December 1978. ‘As I look over the transcripts of our talks’ – with the Cuban vice president, Carlos Rafael Rodríguez – ‘I see that we have spent 70 per cent of our time on Africa.’ Carter wanted Castro to withdraw his troops from Angola and used the embargo as a stick. ‘We feel it is deeply immoral to use the blockade as a means of pressuring Cuba,’ Castro countered:

There should be no mistake – we cannot be pressured, impressed, bribed or bought . . . Perhaps because the US is a great power, it feels it can do what it wants and what is good for it. It seems to be saying that there are two laws, two sets of rules and two kinds of logic, one for the US and one for other countries. Perhaps it is idealistic of me, but I never accepted the universal prerogatives of the US – I never accepted and never will accept the existence of a different law and different rules . . . I hope history will bear witness to the shame of the United States which for twenty years has not allowed sales of medicines needed to save lives.

Why did Castro insist on keeping his troops in Angola? Coltman wastes no time with the bugaboo that Cuba acted – in Angola or elsewhere – as a Soviet proxy. Rather, he explains, the key to Castro’s foreign policy is his sense of mission. His conclusion dovetails with that of US intelligence, which saw Castro not as a Soviet puppet but as a leader ‘engaged in a great crusade’, and it echoes Henry Kissinger’s assessment. When Castro sent his troops to Angola in 1975 to stop the South African advance on Luanda, Kissinger immediately accused him of being a Soviet surrogate, but twenty years later, in his memoirs, he recanted: ‘Evidence now available suggests that the opposite was the case.’ Castro ‘was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power’. All my research in Cuban, US and European archives indicates that Coltman, the CIA and Kissinger are right. Obviously, Castro’s sense of mission is not the only force shaping his foreign policy, but it is that policy’s foundation. He sees Cuba as a special hybrid: a socialist country with a Third World sensibility in a world dominated by the ‘conflict between privileged and underprivileged, humanity against "imperialism"’, and where the major faultline was never between socialist and capitalist states but between developed and underdeveloped countries.

‘Castro lost the great battle of his life, the battle against "imperialism",’ Coltman asserts: ‘At the end of his life, the United States is even stronger than in 1958.’ While it is true that the United States is stronger than ever, it is a major misinterpretation of Castro’s life to assert that he has lost his battle against imperialism. For Castro the fight against imperialism is more than a fight against the United States: it is a fight against poverty and oppression in the Third World. In this war his battalions include the Cuban doctors and other aid workers who have laboured, and continue to labour, in some of the poorest regions of the world, at no cost or very little cost to the host country. And they include the thousands of underprivileged youths from Latin America and Africa who attend, all expenses paid, the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina, a few miles west of Havana. In this war against ‘imperialism’, Castro has achieved impressive victories.

And so have his soldiers, particularly in what Castro has called ‘the most beautiful cause’, the struggle against apartheid. In 1975, Cuba humbled Washington and Pretoria in Angola and prevented the establishment of a government in Luanda beholden to the apartheid regime. The effects of the Cuban victory were felt all over Southern Africa. Its psychological impact, the hope it aroused, is illustrated by two statements from across the political divide. ‘In Angola, black troops – Cubans and Angolans – have defeated white troops in military exchanges,’ a South African military analyst wrote in February 1976, as Cuban troops were pushing the South African army towards the Namibian border.

Whether the bulk of the offensive was by Cubans or Angolans is immaterial in the colour-conscious context of this war’s battlefield, for the reality is that they won, are winning, and are not white; and that psychological edge, that advantage the white man has enjoyed and exploited over three hundred years of colonialism and empire, is slipping away. White elitism has suffered an irreversible blow in Angola, and whites who have been there know it.

The ‘white giants’ had retreated for the first time in recent history – and black Africans celebrated. ‘Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola,’ noted the World, South Africa’s most important black newspaper. ‘Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realising the dream of total liberation.’ There would have been no heady wine but instead the pain of a crushing defeat had the Cubans not intervened.

The impact was more than moral. It had clear, tangible consequences throughout Southern Africa. It forced Kissinger to turn against the racist white regime in Rhodesia and kept Carter on the right path until Zimbabwe was finally established in 1980. And it marked the real beginning of Namibia’s war of independence. As Jannie Geldenhuys, a South African general, has written, ‘for the first time they’ – the Namibian rebels – ‘obtained what is more or less a prerequisite for successful insurgent campaigning, namely a border that provided safe refuge.’ For 12 years – until the New York agreements of December 1988 – Pretoria refused to leave Namibia, and Cuban troops helped the Angolan army hold the line against bruising South African incursions.

Very little has been written about these years. The major published source is the memoir of Reagan’s assistant secretary for Africa, Chester Crocker, who explains the outcome – the independence of Namibia – largely in terms of US patience, skill and wisdom. But a different explanation emerges from an analysis of newly declassified Cuban and US documents. In April 1987, the US ambassador reported from Pretoria that the South African government was ‘implacably negative’ towards Namibian independence. The following September, the South African Defence Force unleashed a major attack against the Angolan army in south-east Angola. By early November it had cornered the best Angolan units in the small town of Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them. But on 15 November, Castro ordered the best units of his army and its most sophisticated hardware to Angola. ‘By going there’ – to Cuito Cuanavale – ‘we placed ourselves in the lion’s jaws,’ Castro said later. ‘We accepted the challenge. And from the first moment we planned to gather our forces to attack in another direction, like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right – strikes.’ On 23 March 1988, the South Africans launched their last major attack against Cuito. Once again, they failed. ‘One should ask the South Africans: "Why has your army of the superior race been unable to take Cuito, which is defended by blacks and mulattoes from Angola and the Caribbean?”’ Castro remarked.

As he spoke, hundreds of miles south-west of Cuito a large Cuban force was advancing towards the Namibian border. ‘At any other time,’ US intelligence reported, ‘Pretoria would have regarded the Cuban move as a provocation, requiring a swift and strong response. But the Cubans moved with such dispatch and on such a scale that an immediate South African military response would have involved serious risks.’ The South Africans warned that the Cuban advance posed a ‘serious’ military threat to Namibia and that it could precipitate ‘a terrible battle’. But they gave ground.

While Castro’s troops advanced towards the Namibian border, Cubans, Angolans, South Africans and Americans were sparring at the negotiating table. ‘Reading the Cubans is yet another art form,’ Crocker noted. ‘They are prepared for both war and peace . . . We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table.’ Many factors forced Pretoria to accept an independent Namibia, but there would have been no New York agreements without the Cubans’ prowess on the battlefield. ‘In a small village called Cuito Cuanavale,’ the South African ambassador to Cuba remarked in January 2004,

Cuban, Angolan and Namibian troops defeated the South African army. The story of Southern Africa . . . changed dramatically from that moment on. A paralysing blow from which they were never to recover was struck to the last bastion of colonialism in Africa . . . the gates of freedom were opened, starting with Namibia to be followed by South Africa years later. The key component to this defeat was the internationalism of Cuba and its people.

Any fair assessment of Castro’s foreign policy must recognise its role in changing the course of Southern African history in defiance of Washington. As Nelson Mandela said when he visited Havana in 1991: ‘We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba . . . What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?’ Such foreign policy successes explain why, as Coltman writes, Castro is ‘still a bone . . . stuck in American throats’. The desire for revenge, and not just for the Miami vote, explains why the deeply immoral embargo continues.

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Vol. 26 No. 20 · 21 October 2004

Piero Gleijeses, in presenting Cuban military actions in Angola as a vital boost for black military morale in their fight against the ‘white giants’ of South Africa, veers from analysis into propaganda (LRB, 19 August). When the South Africans faced FAPLA or SWAPO forces they routinely inflicted disproportionate casualties. It was only when their army of young conscripts confronted the forces of the Cuban professional elite (Castro had sent his best), equipped with the latest Soviet matériel and under a Russian general, Konstantin Shagnovich, that it was sometimes a different story – especially when the South Africans were not only outgunned but outnumbered, as they frequently were.

Grant MacLean
St Margaret’s Bay, Nova Scotia

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