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.

Peter Bourne’s book is the slighter of the two, and the more naive: he has talked to friends and enemies, but his acknowledgment of ‘the general support of the Cuban Government, which provided access to its archives’ is odd: what archives, one wonders. He also promises to bring to the subject ‘a unique perspective as someone trained as a psychiatrist, with a special experience and understanding of politics and international affairs, especially in the Third World’. The results of this unique perspective make one feel that it is best kept for Professor Peter Gay’s wanderings through the diaries and billets doux of more recognisably ‘bourgeois’ classes. Bourne argues that ‘in a deeply moralistic Catholic enviroment where the integrity of the family was sacrosanct, it was a harsh burden on Fidel as a child to be illegitimate and to come from a broken family.’ However, the Cuban oriente where Castro was born was in no sense either a moralistic or a profoundly Catholic enviroment, and there is no convincing evidence that his family circumstances were ever a harsh burden. Szulc, in his more thorough investigation, concludes that ‘there is nothing to suggest that Fidel’s alleged illegitimacy has ever caused him the slightest problem in the tolerant Cuban society ... Fidel’s childhood appears to have been very pleasant and basically happy, certainly a privileged childhood even by the standards of affluent Cuban landowners of the day.’ It is also unwise to take too seriously the testimony of his elder brother Ramon, to the effect that an early knowledge of poverty ‘makes a man I rebel’ – for one thing, it had no such effect on Ramon. The Spanish-born father of the Castros began in Cuba working for the United Fruit Company, and became a labour contractor, landowner and active local cacique. The argument that this background caused infant feelings of anti-imperialism in the Castro children is unconvicing. There is no evidence to show that Fidel ‘nurtured deep resentments towards Cuba’s social structure since childhood’, and it is not likely either that he saw in Batista an ‘evil authoritarian father figure’.

A little misplaced Freud is easily discounted, but the book’s judgments are more fundamentally unsure and tendentious. It is harder than the author thinks to prove that ‘Cubans are readily susceptible to romanticism,’ or to be sure that this or that turn of policy was ‘immensely popular with the average Cuban’. He quotes with approval Che Guevara’s description of Castro speaking to a mass audience: ‘the dialogue of two tuning-forks whose vibrations summon forth vibrations in each other. Fidel and the mass begin to vibrate in a dialogue of growing intensity, which reaches its culminating point in the abrupt ending crowned by our victorious battle-cry, Patria o muerte.’ Bourne is too often content with that level of explanation, if it is an explanation. The reader who wants something more than tuning-forks is left to his own speculations about why people listen: maybe, as Tad Szulc points out, to find out what is likely to happen next – an important matter in that sort of state. In any case, it has nothing to do with a ‘Latin love of rhetoric’. The reader is also left with the possible answers to his own unanswered questions: who organises the turnout? And how? And how much of this vibrating still goes on?

Tad Szulc’s account is longer, more detailed and more steadily critical. Like Bourne, he concentrates on the years before Castro took power. In a text of 542 pages, Fidel does not enter Havana until page 373, and the ‘maturity’ of 1964-1986 is covered in a mere 55 pages; prior to taking power, Castro had of course done much less for a biographer to be critical about. It is the best biography available, but its author rightly makes no claim to definitiveness. ‘This portrait, therefore, simply seeks to capture his personality and the story of his life as objectively as is possible at this stage.’ It draws on ‘a series of meetings’ with Castro, many other interviews in Cuba and elsewhere, wide reading and a long acquaintance with the Caribbean and Latin America.

There is some good first-hand observation. Szulc was not impressed by ‘the palace entourage, the court over which Fidel Castro presides in a manner sometimes bordering on the royal’. The entourage is ‘rather undistinguished’. ‘Perhaps the greatest danger facing Fidel Castro after all these years in power is that of intellectual and political isolation ... nobody now dares to contradict him. Today’s immediate entourage is essentially fawning and sycophantic, and of his top advisers no more than three or four are first-rate This gives meetings with him a repetitive quality. No conversation, or series of conversations, is complete without, for example, his disquisition on camembert-type cheese, and the possibility of making it in the tropics in large quantities Cuba’s cheese-making potential was for a long time a constant of left-wing Latin American conversation, and though the cheese is not much in evidence, the theme lingers on.

Some of the incidental information is more intriguing than it first appears ‘I’ve never seen Fidel dance,’ says one who knows him well, ‘and I don’t know anybody who has.’ It’s a strange comment on the leader of the revolution with rhythm, con pachanga – but then the stereotypes we carry around with us about the tropics are perhaps the least realistic of all. Havana is nowadays about as rhythmic as East Berlin. Some of the knowledge is of doubtful use: Angel Castro, his father, was in old age ‘a breathless fan of televised wrestling’. Some small part of it is of no conceivable use at all – during Castro’s 1960 visit to the United Nations a police horse named Bangle collapsed in front of the Theresa Hotel in Harlem from a kidney ailment resulting from exhaustion – but Mr Szulc has covered Fidel’s early career with commendable tenacity.

Another of Szulc’s merits is that he does not usually hedge his bets: his judgments are plain, though not always fully argued. It is too often asserted, as it is by Mr Bourne, that Castro is fascinating in himself, and some comments are curiously indulgent. The Cuban Communist Party, certainly a necessary instrument in Castro’s consolidation of power, is referred to early in the book as a band of ‘trustworthy and experienced allies’ ‘Cuba’s “old” communists had been running labour-unions, sitting in parliament, infiltrating the university and publishing newspapers for nearly forty years, providing a pool of dependability and experience for Castro to draw on.’ Trustworthy? Dependable? Experienced? A strain of servility and opportunism had landed some of them in Batista’s cabinet, where he, too, presumably depended on their trustworthiness and experience. On New Year’s Eve 1958 Castro stayed the night at the Oriente Sugar Mill, at Palma Soriano, near Santiago de Cuba. Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, the secretary-general of the Cuban Communist Party, was also in Palma Soriano; Castro was annoyed – ‘it was bad for his image’ – and would not receive him. A third visitor was Errol Flynn: perhaps at that juncture his contribution by example to the Revolution’s success had been rather greater than Rodriguez’s, but Castro did not see him either.

To liken the ‘early Fidelistas’ to an ever-loyal ‘medieval religious and military order’ is to forget a number who have fallen by the wayside. It does not say as much as the author thinks that Castro’s religious views are ‘taken sufficiently seriously for a delegation of United States Roman Catholic bishops to have gone to meet with him in Havana’. It is not clear why the revolutionary technique of forcible postscript-insertion in newspapers, the coletilla, is ‘lethally subtle’ and another odd choice of words is made to qualify Castro’s reaction to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia: ‘it was a suberb intellectual challenge for Fidel, and he handled it magnificently.’ After that, handling Solidarity was child’s play. There are a number of blemishes of this sort in the narrative, but they do not matter much and they do not detract from a genuine striving for objectivity, which in the end finds Cuba to be suffering from deep ‘systemic crisis’.

What was Castro like when young? His education was privileged, and followed almost exactly the same path as that of Eddy Chibas, the impassioned radio crusader and founder of the Ortodoxo Party who, until his suicide, was the greatest influence on Castro’s early political career. His interest in school was predominantly in sport, though he was not much of a team player, except at basketball. Szulc notes that no school companion of his ever joined in his later revolutionary activities. University introduced Castro to the gangsterish student role in Cuban politics that was the decadent legacy of resistance to the Machado dictatorship of 1929-1933. He achieved prominence, but remained a loner. Szulc also points out the lack of University companions in the 26 July Movement, both in the attack on the Moncada barracks and in the mountains after the Granma invasion.

Fidel has never had much use for intellectuals, a fact hidden by the attraction he has for them. Szulc sees this, but still tries too hard to make him into some sort of intellectual. Does he not read? In prison after the Moncada attack he read A.J. Cronin, André Maurois and Romain Rolland, the old Latin American radical bible Les Misérables, The 19th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Axel Munthe – ‘a book that made a significant impression’ – Vanity Fair, A Nest of Gentlefolk, Somerset Maugham, Freud, the Red Dean of Canterbury – his Secret of Soviet Strength Dostoevsky and Kant. The ‘History will absolve me’ speech quotes, among other more famous names, John of Salisbury and John Knox. But as Szulc remarks, ‘one sees how his methodical mind subordinates all texts to his private interpretation.’ Castro had, and still has, a large appetite for information, but he appears to have little or no intellectual flexibility. He has never cared for the arts. Carlos Franqui in his Family Portrait with Fidel, which, for all its stilted, old-fashioned radical posing, is a first-hand account of Castro’s relations with culture, ruefully recalls how his first anniversary guest at New Year 1959 was the boxer Joe Louis: ‘Fidel was warning me once more. For him, sport was more important than culture.’

It is Tad Szulc’s contention that from the beginning Castro ‘knew exactly where he was going politically’, and this has an essential truth that ought not to be clouded by arguments about the exact degree of Castro’s familiarity with Marxism before he came to power. Castro aimed to make himself absolute master of Cuba, and some sort of socialism was to be the justification or alibi of that mastery. Early on, Szulc notes Fidel’s ‘psychological inability to let go of any power’. The Castro movement, though born out of the modest rank-and-file of the Ortodoxo Party, modelled its organisation on the vertical cell structure of the ABC, the secret organisation that played a large part in the overthrow of the dictator Machado in 1933. It was always ‘totally lacking in internal democracy’. There is no sign that Castro ever contemplated sharing power in his own movement, let alone in the country at large – his memory of Cuban elections must have been dominated by those of 1948, when Eddy Chibas was demolished by Prio Socarras, the labour minister of the outgoing President Grau San Martin. During the years between Moncada and Batista’s fall he rarely seems to have been drawn into a discussion, and never into a vote.

Castro’s will-to-power, a pre-Freudian phrase that keeps suggesting itself when one reads about him, combined with the peculiarly fluid characteristics of pre-revolutionary Cuban politics and society. For all its inequalities, Cuban society was not rigid, not oligarchic. Ex-sergeant Batista’s last government enjoyed no legitimacy, the army was an army of grafters. Student politics, where Castro first made something of a reputation, were significant, and shaded without a break into the general political scene. After the Moncada attack. Castro had fame. He was not in jail for long and found backers quite easily on his release. He did not specify exactly what he had in mind.

The whole question of Castro’s Marxism-Leninism, and the timing of and the responsibilities for Cuba’s shift to Communism, has recently been re-examined by Efren Cordova. He does not favour the theses that emphasise reaction to US policy or ‘the complex interplay of social, economic and political forces which no one, not even Castro himself, was able to foresee’. He sees Castro as a ‘new breed’ – ‘the action-orientated, unscrupulous, despotic and ambitious leader who was attracted by Marxism; not only because of its socio-economic tenets, but also on account of its enormous political potentialities. He was indeed the first leader of the developing world to demonstrate that Communism represented both a far-reaching revolutionary ideology and a convenient means of wielding absolute, personal power for an indefinite period of time.’

Was he always ‘a visceral anti-American’? It hardly seems so. The adolescent Castro wrote a letter to FDR congratulating him on his victory in 1940, hopefully requesting a $20 bill. In prison after Moncada, part of his studies were devoted to the New Deal. Prior to 1958 he seems to have been not much interested in the world outside Cuba: there was an admiration for Peron as well as for FDR, some dramatic experiences in Bogota in the April 1948 riot, brief revolutionary fund-raising trips to the United States. The photographs of the young Castro in Bourne’s book show, as one would expect, an Americanised young man. It would be safe to conclude that, like any thinking Cuban, his feelings about the United States were mixed, but there is no evidence that anti-imperialism was the prime motive of his early career. One doubts that a more profound anti-Americanism was awakened by being strafed with bombs which the US had supplied to Batista. When it comes to that sort of thing, Castro is a realist, and the eventual US embargo on arms for the dictator was far more damaging to Batista than the bombs were for Castro. The logic of his break with the United States and his embrace of the Soviet Union was in the consolidation of his personal power.

These biographies do not set out to provide a systematic evaluation of his achievement, inside or outside Cuba. On the material side, the Cuban record is not impressive, and even less impressive when the massive amount of Soviet aid needed to sustain it is taken into consideration. Castro has combined a long series of economic misjudgments in his planning targets with a rigid dogmatism in the methods to be employed in trying to reach them. Though some small-scale farming persists outside sugar, small businesses were abolished in 1968. There were brief fluctuations with the idea of farmers’ markets, but these were abandoned again in 1986 ‘on the grounds of illicit enrichment and corruption’. The decision, Szulc adds, ‘was strangely reminiscent of his discovery in 1968 that privately-owned hot dog stands were hotbeds of counter-revolution ... What Fidel Castro had imposed in 1986 under the guise of keeping revolutionary fires burning was an ossification of the regime and society ... a new era of austerity for his already austere and deprived nation.’

Until recently he appeared to have lost interest in the possibility of economic innovation, and even in the day-to-day workings of the Cuban economy. His curiosity was directed more and more beyond Cuba. His impact on Latin America has undoubtedly been immense, and defies simple analysis: any attempt to measure it has to go far beyond the dead, surviving or successful guerrillas of the region to range from his part in originating the Alliance for Progress, which had rather more results than its critics allow and rather different ones from those its designers had in mind, to his presence as a stimulus to reaction – his prolonged visit to Chile in 1971 was certainly no help to Salvador Allende. He is still an essential element in Soviet relations with many parts of the world, and has exploited with great skill the small degree of independence his relation with the USSR allows him.

What is he now? Two sketches from this decade, one by Szulc in 1985: ‘Watching him hour after hour, almost motionless as he listened to hundreds of speeches at conferences on the external debt he had organised in Havana during 1985, it seemed as if in this environment he was finding a refuge from pressures elsewhere; perhaps it was an illusion. The other from Christopher Dickey’s With the Contras, describing Fidel in Managua in 1980:

Fidel Castro was in Managua the week Ronald Reagan was nominated in Detroit. He was the grand man of the celebration. He was holding court, it seemed as you watched him, among his children. There he stood at the big reception in the Casa de Gobierno, his trademark cigar in his hand, an ever-shifting circle of the envious and the admiring from the diplomatic corps and the government moving in and out of the smoke. For Pastor, for Humberto Ortega, Castro seemed 10 be the mythical father. Their every move around him suggested filial devotion. Humberto grinning as he waited for some sign of approval, Pastora puffing himself up under Castro’s gaze. Although in Pastora’s case – as he sometimes left the crowds of dignitaries to wander among buddies from the lower ranks – there was a suggestion of rebellion too. Yet Fidel in Managua appeared older than the world was accustomed to see him. He was tall and powerfully built. He has no neck to speak of, so not only his head but his shoulders rise about those of other men, bearlike. But his face was flushed and mottled. His arms and legs seemed thin beneath his tailored uniform, the eyes tired as he joked with his retinue. The beard had grown scruffy, heavily threaded with gray.

‘Visitors from abroad (and chiefly from the United States) ... Castro sees in astounding numbers and at astounding length,’ There is something of the assiduousness of the journalist about Castro, while his appetite for general conversation at late hours tempts one to characterise him as the eternal student leader of world politics. Frei Betto’s Fidel and Religion is a product of such conversations. Frei Betto himself is a Brazilian Dominican, a proponent of Liberation Theology. Cuba was never a country of much devotion: 17 per cent of Cubans, we are told, went to church in 1954; now 2 per cent identify themselves as Christians. In 1961 Castro referred to his own experience of religion with the words ‘I lost many years in obscurantism, superstition and lies.’ This short judgment is a deal modified in the lengthy talks published here. There is mercifully little of Frei Betto (‘The capitalist figure of Father Christmas did not penetrate Cuba?’) as Castro was clearly willing to hold the floor all night. He is sometimes informative – on his father’s political methods, on his memories of the Haitian labourers in Biran; sometimes revealing: he considers him self a self-taught revolutionary, but one who already had a Marxist formation at the time of Moncada. He gives an appreciative picture of Nuncio Zacchi, and tries to explain to Betto that the Church was not very important in Cuba. But Betto keeps going on about the Church, and Castro replies with phrases about the mutual esteem of party and churches, and says it would be nice to talk longer, that he has started to collect up the works of Leonardo Boff and Gutierrez, that he always keeps an eye open when going through the wire services to see if there is any stuff on Liberation Theology. No doubt that restless instrumental intelligence has been thinking that some advantage may be gained from talking with this Dominican who so much wants his blessing for the marriage of Christ and Marx.

So Fidel y la Religion sold a million copies in Cuba, where there is not so much else to read, and where curiosity about what Castro is thinking is rational enough. Despite the preface’s assurances that ‘the Catholic Church in Switzerland ran an hour-long television programme on the book,’ one reaches the end with a short prayer of thanksgiving that one was not even a fly on the wall during all this long-winded, righteous, tendentious and time-serving talk. In a world where recent rapprochements do not favour him, in an island where little is going right – some Cubans living in Cuba have even begun respectfully to say so – Castro here seeks a new audience in the comunidades eclesiales de base elsewhere in Latin America, which had their origins in the Catholic hierarchies’ response to the advances of Protestantism and the galloping secularisation of recent decades. I would advise the next theologian invited to a late Havana supper to take with him a longer spoon.