Sunday Herald, Scotland
04 June 2006
By Andrew McLeod
YOU could call him the great survivor. The only communist leader outside Asia, he has been a contemporary of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao, De Gaulle, Brandt and Thatcher, not to mention George W Bush and Tony Blair. Over the past four-and-a-half decades some of these people have feverishly plotted his downfall, but somehow, Fidel Castro emerged unscathed from the cold war to lead his island fortress into the 21st century and a brave new world of pre-emptive strikes and holy wars.
He has played no active part in the latter. Instead, he continues to wage an ideological war on his own terms, on his own familiar ground, with the old enemy of the north and anyone who dares challenge his Revolución Cubana. Still, as one would say in Spanish, los años no pasan en vano (the years do not pass in vain).
On August 13, Fidel, as he is known at home, turns 80 – or 79, depending on who you believe, as nobody in Cuba is certain whether he was born in 1926 or 1927. That is part of the enigma surrounding the man, who for nearly half a century has thrived on such riddles as: where does he really live; how many children has he fathered; will he retire; is he as ill as they say? His recent television appearance with George Galloway has, temporarily at least, put paid to the conjecture that he may even be dead. Such speculation keeps Castro’s would-be successors on their toes, for the question being heatedly debated in Cuba is: who will fill the void when he is gone?
That may be soon. Fidel appears comfortable with his mortality, though you wouldn’t guess it from his efforts to ensure his survival. Used to a plethora of CIA murder plots through the decades, he still packs a Browning pistol and flits from house to house in the dead of night to elude any would-be assassins – or so they will tell you in Cuba. When undergoing surgery for a broken knee and shoulder, he refused a general anaesthetic, ostensibly because he needed to attend to the affairs of state, more probably because he wanted to keep a wary eye on the surgeon.
He has lived by the sword, but he may not die by it. The CIA says he is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and he doesn’t deny it, but points out that Pope John Paul II lived a long life with the disease. In any case, Fidel argues, his own death would mean little to Cubans other than the passing of a father figure, as his succession, like the Pope’s, “is assured”.
He is somewhat circumspect, however, on the likelihood that his unpopular brother Raúl, the vice-president and defence minister, will succeed him, as many expect. “If something happened to me tomorrow, without a doubt, the National Assembly would convene and elect him,” Fidel told Le Monde Diplomatique in a recent interview. However, he added cryptically: “He [Raúl] is almost as old as me”, adding that it would be up to future generations to ensure the survival of the revolution.
Fidel’s suggestion that a younger generation may take control with Raúl as figurehead may raise eyebrows. Raúl was a hardline communist long before Fidel, and his reputed secret overtures to Washington have reportedly been rebuffed. This could mean that the United States would prefer to talk to some of the more liberal elements in the politburo at transition time, while giving a cold shoulder to the old guard.
Nothing Fidel says will ease the apprehension among his people who desire change but also fear it. Will there be a US invasion? Will there be civil war? Economic reforms that could put many out of work? Would Miami Cuban exiles appear on their doorsteps to reclaim seized property? Riots or no riots, you can expect a great outpouring of grief after the Líder Máximo goes, and a grand funeral, probably in the southern city of Santiago, birthplace of the revolution.
Over the years, Fidel has brushed aside appeals from other Latin American leaders to join them in a continent-wide democratic revolution. Cuba would never, he vowed, subject itself to the dictates of the IMF as others did, and he must have watched with grim satisfaction as one by one in the 1990s, Latin American countries were plunged into poverty by the constraints imposed on their economies by the fund’s harsh austerity programmes.
This is partly why the Revolución Cubana is so dear to Fidel Castro’s heart. His people are poor and there is an acute housing shortage, but there are no shanty towns. There is little food, but nobody starves. The Cuban health care system is the envy of many countries; life expectancy is higher than in parts of the US, while infant mortality is among the lowest in the Americas. Fidel is proud of these achievements, but admits he did not foresee the collapse of European communism, and seems impervious to complaints that his go-it-alone approach to economics has put his people through extreme hardship. Nor has he had any qualms in stifling dissent; anyone who steps out of line is a potential enemy of the revolution. That means jail or constant harassment.
This is likely to continue. For while some Cubans fear a sudden shift to capitalism, those who want deep reforms are concerned by Fidel’s flirtation with a new socialist upstart in America’s backyard, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. Some Cuban exiles fear Castro and Chávez are contemplating a merger of the two countries; this may seem far-fetched, but both are on the US hit-list, and while Cuba is now dependent on Venezuelan oil subsidies, Cuba in return has sent doctors and teachers to remote parts of Venezuela in a major health and literacy drive.
The CIA’s Cuba-watchers predict an outbreak of riots the moment Fidel’s death is announced. In fact, a symposium on the possible repercussions of his departure was held recently in Miami. How much the CIA is relying on information from Cuban exiles, however, is anybody’s guess – and Iraq is an example of what can happen when you listen too carefully to someone with an axe to grind and an agenda that may conflict with your own.
Military intervention by the United States to nip in the bud a growing alliance between Cuba and Venezuela – the two “rogue nations” of the Caribbean – would carry a high risk, judging by the depth of anti-American sentiment in Latin America .
The Líder Máximo sees himself as a father figure and his private life is the subject of constant speculation. Nobody seems to know how many children he has or by whom, but it is said that he has lived for over 30 years with his common law wife Dalia Soto del Valle, with whom he has five sons: Angel, Antonio, Alexis, Alejandro and Alex, believed to be noms de guerre used by Fidel in his revolutionary campaign.
Born in the rural south, Fidel’s father was a soldier from Galicia, Spain, who fought for his country in the Spanish-American war of 1898 and stayed on after demobilisation to work as an overseer for the United Fruit Company. Educated in Jesuit schools, Fidel’s nationalism was stoked by persistent US interference in Cuba’s internal affairs even after the Spanish-American war, in which the Spanish yoke was thrown off with American help. In the 1940s, he was involved in student riots in Colombia and an abortive coup in the Dominican Republic. In 1948, he married Mirta Diaz Balart; Fidelito was born the following year and Fidel graduated with a law degree from Havana University in 1950. When he tried to win a congressional seat for the Ortodoxo party in the 1952 elections, he was thwarted by a coup staged by General Fulgencio Batista.
The time was ripe for revolution, for Batista had dominated Cuban politics either directly or through a succession of front men since 1933. Cubans were sick of the corruption in the military and among businessmen and not least of the presence of the American Mafia, which ran the casinos and brothels. This is why, to this day, Castro and his regime refer to the United States as “the northern Mafia”.
Castro’s first attack, on the Moncada barracks near Santiago, on July 26, 1953, proved a disaster. Scores of the 165 student rebels he led were captured, tortured and killed. Fidel and Raúl escaped death, but the brothers were jailed for 15 years. At his trial, Fidel railed against social injustice in a speech that would become the blueprint for his revolution. Quoting from the American Declaration of Independence, José Martí – the Cuban hero of independence – Rousseau, Balzac, Knox, Luther, St Thomas Aquinas and others, he concluded: “I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who has snatched the lives of 70 of my brothers. Condemn me, what does it matter. History will absolve me.”
In prison he taught philosophy, history, sociology, politics and even weapons training – without weapons, of course, but his “school” was shut down. However, the Moncada “veterans” had become heroes, and all were released under a general amnesty in 1955.
In exile in Mexico, Castro met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a like-minded young Argentine doctor. He purchased an old yacht, the Granma, which he used to transport an “army” of 82 exiles from Veracruz, Mexico, to southern Cuba in November, 1956. The yacht struck a sandbank and the rebels came under heavy fire from the Cuban coastguard as they fled through swamps towards the Sierra Maestra. Only 12 survived the slaughter, with Guevara wounded in the neck.
The Batista regime pronounced Castro dead, but Herbert Matthews of The New York Times managed to join the rebels in the hills, where he wrote: “Thousands of men and women are heart and soul with Fidel Castro and the new deal for which they think he stands. From the look of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt.”
The rebels won the respect of peasants by paying for rather than seizing supplies, as Batista’s forces did, and by providing medical treatment and setting up schools in remote areas. The regime became increasingly brutal in its repression, but shortly before Christmas, 1958, Che Guevara, leading a small group of guerrillas, derailed a train carrying 400 government troops at Santa Clara. On New Year’s Eve Batista fled to the Dominican Republic, paving the way for Castro’s triumphant entry into Havana.
Imagine the scene: a million people part like the waters of the Red Sea in the streets of Havana for the leader of the barbudos (the bearded ones) to reach a podium. A white dove flutters over the crowd to perch on his shoulder. Transfixed by the eloquence of the man in green fatigues, the huge crowd listens for hours as Fidel unveils his vision of a new, “free” Cuba. This spontaneous political phenomenon alarmed the US administration of Dwight Eisenhower and his vice- president, Richard Nixon, who had backed Batista and his henchmen. This was, after all, America’s “backyard” and passenger ferries ran between Key West and Havana all the time.
It was impossible to avoid being caught up in the patriotic fervour. As a boy I lived through the revolution from 1957 to 1959 with my family in Tarará, a sunbaked suburb, east of Havana. Though we were all born in Buenos Aires, we were of Scots extraction. My father worked for British-Canadian muiltinational, Massey Harris Ferguson, spending much of his time in the sugar canefields selling combine harvesters, but that didn’t stop my brother and I from chanting “arriba, abajo, Batista al carajo” (roughly translated as “up and down, Batista’s a clown”) along with other kids on the school bus. Hatred of Americans was more than palpable, even at St George’s School, run, ironically, by Americans. “You’re a yanqui,” I was taunted for a time, because I spoke good English, until I produced my Argentine passport. “You’re like Che!” they said, in awe.
The Esso refinery burned for days and you asked your parents why. Your father pointed out the Morro Castle, saying that’s where Batista’s men tortured people, and you asked why. Soon cards portraying the history of the revolution and its heroes were traded like US baseball cards, and you didn’t have to ask why, because you knew that something significant had happened in history. The albums were bought in shops, including the US-owned Minimax supermarket chain, and the cards, called figuritas, were sold in sealed packets in batches of four . The photos of revolutionary leaders themselves were difficult to get hold of , but my brother and I managed to complete the centre-fold spread after frantic bouts of swapping in the schoolyard and in the palm-lined streets of Tarará.
Fidelito, who lived with his mother in Tarará (her marriage with Fidel having foundered during his imprisonment), briefly took centre stage in the revolution by appearing on a tank with Fidel and chatting to US TV anchorman Ed Murrow during an interview with his father. The US, still a friend of sorts, gave him his own army jeep, painted in the red and black colours of the 26 de Julio movement of the revolution. Was this the kid who had thrown stones at street lamps with my brother and I? Even Che Guevara lived nearby for a time, and we rang his doorbell, hoping for his autograph, but were told: “El doctor no está” (the doctor isn’t home). Che, I found out later, was averse to signing autographs, saying: “What do they think I am, a Hollywood star?”
Still, something went sour. The summary execution of 500 Batista officials alarmed liberal sympathisers of the revolution. Castro’s insistence that “our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist” didn’t convince his ally, Huber Matos, who quit the army and spent 26 years in jail for his defiance. Camilo Cienfuegos, a prominent non-communist member of the revolution, was killed when his plane vanished without trace on a flight from Camaguey to Havana. The CIA claimed he was assassinated.
Air Force Mustangs began to buzz over Tarará, blowing away beach umbrellas. W ere we being targeted as the “elite”? Some Cubans in Tarará didn’t wait to find out; our neighbours, a family of doctors, possibly linked to the Batista regime, fled to Miami in the night.
By now Castro was on a collision course with the US. When he ordered US oil refineries in Cuba to process Russian crude and they refused, he expropriated them. The US-owned telephone and power companies followed; the United Fruit Company, which had employed his father, had been nationalised earlier. Just before handing over office to John F Kennedy, in 1961, President Eisenhower severed relations with Havana. Kennedy backed Eisenhower’s planned invasion of Cuba by a 1500-strong Cuban exile force, but refused it any air cover. The force, which landed at the Bay Of Pigs on April 17, 1961, was routed in three days. Castro, who commanded the operations himself, taunted the US: “We have said that imperialism will disappear. We do not wish it to commit suicide, we want it to die a natural death.”
Next came the 1962 missile crisis, in which Kennedy forced the Soviet Union to back down after missiles were detected on Cuban soil. Castro was enraged because he hadn’t been consulted by Nikita Khrushchev over their removal. He fell out with Che Guevara, who felt that Cuba had simply traded in one form of imperialism for another. Che took off to launch guerrilla wars in the Congo and Bolivia, where he was killed in 1967. Devastated by his friend’s death, Fidel sent Cuban troops to Angola to fight the South Africans and Western-backed Unita guerrillas under Jonas Savimbi. It proved to be Cuba’s Vietnam.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the loss of $5 billion a year in subsidies, Fidel was forced to turn to tourism for income. He introduced limited private enterprise, but when the Bush administration tightened sanctions, he rolled back reforms, abolishing the US dollar as legal tender. This hurt Cubans, who were accustomed to the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year sent “home” by exiled relatives. Raúl snatched back control of tourism from Carlos Lage – architect of the reforms and a leading candidate to succeed Fidel – citing corruption among junior officials. The fact tourism had produced a two-tier society, with those working in it being wealthier, seems to have stuck in Fidel’s gullet.
Cubans are aware that when change comes, as it must after his death, it will come like a hurricane. “Most of us don’t know what stress is,” one Cuban told me. “But friends who work with the Canadians know what it is. I know you can’t have something for nothing; and though we may not have stress, we have a shortage of everything .” She was building her own home, but it would take her years under the precarious barter system that exists in Cuba. Still, she would get there, with a little help from her friends.
Margaret Thatcher said society doesn’t exist, but then she never visited Cuba. Returning there recently for the first time since we left in 1959, I was struck by the sheer joy and togetherness of people on Havana’s Malecón avenue during carnival. In Cienfuegos, a huge screen was erected on the main avenue for a street party. Hundreds of people, middle-aged, old and young, spilled out of their homes to dance wildly to a Michael Jackson video. As a foreigner, I stood out, and was the butt of cheeky grins and friendly jibes. I told them this was once my country too.
I was not prepared for what I found in Tarará. Our old house had been flattened to make way for an ugly building to house athletes. I waved back to some Chernobyl children, who were kicking a football on the porch of a half-built house. Cuba, believing in solidarity, has not forgotten them.
A ’55 Dodge and a ’53 Chevy were parked outside a ramshackle building that stood where the club house used to be. Looking down across the bay where Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea was filmed, I wondered why it now looked so small. Walking along the beach, I remembered how late one evening I had come across turtle hatchlings scrambling to the sea. My father said I had saved them because the gulls wouldn’t approach them while I was there. Looking out to sea, I wondered if the turtles remembered that day, and if they did, whether they were aware how little Cuba had changed since then. Fidel had seen to that.