There’s been predictably little interesting discussion in the United States of Fidel Castro’s retirement as Cuba’s commandante en jefe, maximo etc. That’s because in the U.S. political mainstream, Cuba policy has for a generation been grotesquely disfigured by a collective kow-towing — yes, collective, it was that craven Mr. Clinton who signed into law the Draconian Helms-Burton act that made it infinitely more difficult for any U.S. president to actually lift the embargo, and the equally craven Mrs. Clinton appears to pandering to the same crowd — to the Cuban-American Ahmed Chalabi figures of Miami, still fantasizing about a day when they’ll regain their plantations and poor people of color will once again know their place. But let’s not for a moment forget the mirror-image of that view so common on the left, where Castro’s patent fear of his own people and reluctance to trust them to debate ideas and options (much less hold competitive elections that, in all probability, he’d have easily won) is strenuously rationalized on the basis of the CIA’s repeated efforts to kill him. (Sure, they repeatedly tried to kill Castro, and Washington might like to manipulate Cuba’s politics given half a chance, but those are not sound reasons to imprison economists or avoid discussing policy options even within the Communist Party.)
What fascinates me, however, is the guilty pleasure with which so many millions of people around the world revere Fidel Castro — revere him, but wouldn’t dream of emulating his approach to economics or governance. People, in other words, who would not be comfortable actually living in Castro’s Cuba, much as they like the idea of him sticking it the arrogant yanqui, his physical and political survival a sure sign that Washington’s awesome power has limits — and can therefore be challenged.
Nelson Mandela is a perfect example of the guilty pleasure phenomenon: A dyed-in-the-wool democrat with an exaggerated fondness for British institutions, Mandela is nonetheless a warm friend and admirer of the Cuban leader. The same would be true for almost all of the current generation of ANC leaders in South Africa, not only those who jump and prance while singing about machine guns, but also those with impeccable credentials in Washington and on Wall Street. When the guests were being welcomed at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration in 1994, the announcement of Hillary Clinton’s presence, representing her husband’s administration, elicited polite applause. When Fidel Castro was announced, the assembled political class of the new order went into raptures of ecstasy. Sure, Fidel had earned their loyalty not only by being a firm supporter of the ANC when Washington wasn’t interested, but more importantly, by sending his own men to fight and die on African soil to defend Angolan independence from the machinations of the U.S. and the apartheid regime, and their Angolan proxies. But equally important was what Fidel represented to the global south — not a model of governance and economic management (after all, the very ANC leaders who cheered him to the heavens were embarked upon a diametrically different political and economic path to Castro’s — whose revolution, by the way, looked as if it was on its last legs in 1994, having lost the massive Soviet subsidy that had enabled a quality of life for poor people unrivaled in the developing world). No, what Fidel represented to South Africa’s new leaders was a symbol of independence, of casting off colonial and neo-colonial overlords and defending your sovereignty, against Quixotic odds, from an arrogant power.
Take a survey among today’s Latin American leaders on Fidel Castro, and he’ll get a huge popularity rating. For the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, he has, rather unfortunately, been a role model in every sense; for the more sober and pragmatic social democrats of the Lula-Bachelet-Kirschner variety, Fidel nonetheless represents an inspiration that opened the way for their generation to cut their own path and stand up to the U.S.-backed dictators that imprisoned and tortured their ilk. In Latin America, Castro personifies nothing as much as defiance of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the U.S. had defined the continent as its backyard, reserving the right to veto, by force, anything it didn’t like. Get a Mexican conservative politician drunk in a discreet setting, and you’ll probably discover a closet Castro fan.
Castro appeals not only to socialists, but to nationalists everywhere. And, of course, the Cuban leader himself was a radical nationalist, rather than a communist, when he seized power in 1959, and the U.S. response to his moves to nationalize the sugar industry were part of what drove him to make common cause with the Soviets.
At the same time, of course, it is not simply nationalism, but his revolution’s social achievements, that account for his popularity at home. Back in 2000, when the Miami Chalabis were desperately trying to prevent the traumatized Elian Gonzales from being reunited with his father, they insisted that any Cuban given the choice would flee to the United States, and that Elian’s father was being coerced. Nonsense, said the CIA — actually, more than 90% of the population would rather stay on the island. And the regime could count on the support of the majority of them should it come under external attack. (It was also a relatively safe bet that were multiparty elections to be held, Castro’s party would have won.)
And it’s not hard to see why. Visiting Cuba in 1994, I had been all geared up to write the sort of cynical ex-leftie P.J. O’Rourke-style political epitaph, but what I discovered — even at the height of the Special Period, when the sudden disappearance of the Soviet subsidy that had given Havana more than $800 a year for every Cuban had left them literally starving — was something far more nuanced and challenging. Typical of the experience was a young curator at an art museum, who I shall call simply Antonio. The twentysomething Afro-Cuban had a master’s degree in art history, and loved his work with a passion. But the rest of his life was hell: His breakfast consisted of a couple of glasses of water sweetened with sugar. That was all. He worked all day without lunch. And then, at night, in his darkened apartment (Havana was constantly in darkness due to power cuts), he’d consume his meal of the day — a plate of rice and beans. And then sleep, for there was nothing else to do.
That Antonio was frustrated and deepy depressed was beyond question. Did he want things to change in Cuba? Very much so, he wanted more openness, more discussion of ways out of the destitution that seemed to be staring Cuba in the face. But despite his despair, he remained intensely loyal to Castro and his revolution.
Why? Antonio’s parents had been cane-cutters on a plantation before the revolution. Not only his grandparents, but his parents. Descendants of African slaves, they weren’t that much better off. But here, 55 years later, Antonio’s brother was an electrical engineer with a master’s degree and a good job, and his sister was a science lecturer at a university in Havana. Antonio’s parents were cane-cutters; their children were university educated intellectuals. And they hadn’t won a lottery — their social mobility had been enabled by Cuba’s social system, the education and health and other programs designed to lift up the impoverished majority had transformed their life possibilities within a generation. Antonio understood all too well what his life would have been had the revolution not triumphed in 1959. And he was sticking by it, no matter how bad things got.
With a few exceptions, most of the people I encountered represented a similar ambiguity. Many people were angry and frustrated by Castro’s stubborness — the former seminarian man had an almost theological attachment to a bankrupt economic model. But they weren’t about to turn their backs on the whole social system he’d created. And then there was the race question, which was never formally acknowledged either in pre-revolutionary Cuba, or in the color-blind communism of the Castro era. Close to two thirds of Cubans are people of color — African and mulatto. The old regime protected the interests of an almost exclusively white elite, and it was that same elite that ran the Chalabi operation in Miami. Castro’s own government, of course, was also overwhelmingly white, but its social policies and official ideology championed the interests (and also the story) of the majority.
The problem, of course, was the extent to which Fidel Castro had made his own personality indistinguishable and inseparable from the social system he’d created — a classic cult of the personality regime, built in no small part on the highly militarized approach to political organization that has been the legacy of Leninism. He hints at the problem in his statement announcing his decision to stand down: “Preparing the people for my psychological and political absence was my primary obligation after so many years of struggle.” His “psychological absence” is, of course, a recognition of the fact that many of his most loyal supporters and party cadres will feel, quite literally, orphaned by his departure from the scene. And it is this problem that he appears to be seeking to address, albeit very late in the game, by phasing his withdrawal from politics rather than dying in power and setting off a national trauma of the type that followed Stalin’s death. I can’t help but recall Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s horrific account of being in the crowd at his funeral: “Tens of thousands of people jammed against one another … in a white cloud…at that moment I felt I was treading on something soft. It was a human body. I picked my feet up under me and was carried along by the crowd. For a long time I was afraid to put my feet down again. I was saved by my height. Short people were smothered alive, falling and perishing.” More than 150 mourners were trampled to death, in an event that Yevtushenko saw as emblematic of a political culture that had stripped its citizens of all agency and subjectivity. Belatedly, perhaps, Castro appears to be seeking to avoid the same.
I suspect he has a lot of catching up to do. Back in 1994, a visitor came to the house where I was staying in Havana to make sure I was given the “correct” perspective — he was a little concerned that my host, his son-in-law, was an enfant terrible, with insufficient reverence for Fidel and an inclination to entertain problematic ideas. The old man, let’s call him Edgardo, was a marvelous interlocutor, who entertained me with hilarious and hair-raising stories from the 50s and 60s. I enjoyed the opportunity to ask a party cadre just what Cuba was going to do to dig itself out of the hole into which it appeared to have fallen. “You mark my words,” Edgardo said indignantly. “They can talk all they want about Fidel, but one day the imperialists will be forced to have a drink with him.” (For Edgardo, it was all about respect and acknowledgment.) Fair enough. But what was Cuba going to do to keep its economy going in the mean time? “You mark my words, they will sit down with Fidel…” Okay. But what are you guys thinking about how to proceed now that the Soviet subsidy has gone. Will you follow the Chinese route? “We will never buckle before the imperialists. Fidel will find a way…” And so it went on. Clearly, despite the economic crisis, the party cadres had not been engaged in any discussion over how Cuba was going to respond. It was all about Fidel, an omnipotent, ominscient Fidel, who would find a way.
My suspicion of the paucity of discussion even within the Party were confirmed a few days later when a man came to the door selling homemade wine. Everybody in Cuba in 1994 was selling something, hoping to raise a little cash to buy food on the black market. And like everybody in Cuba, he was all too keen to talk, and share his story. He’d been a nuclear engineer, working at the now-mothballed atomic energy plant at Cienfuegos. He’d been studying in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives, and had returned home to Cuba fired up to begin discussing how the Soviet reform and democratization process applied to Cuba. He had been an active party member, and simply assumed that his comrades back home would in the same state of ideological ferment that he’s witnessed in the Soviet Union. No such luck. That reform stuff, he was told, was for the frozen-over socialism of Moscow; “Here we don’t need this because we have sunshine socialism.” There was simply no discussion. The man from Cienfuegos had been bitterly disappointed. The problem in the Cuban party, he said, was that no serious debate or discussion was tolerated. Debate was seen as threatening. It offered an opportunity to “the enemy” to create divisions and undermine the revolution. Best leave the decision making to the leadership — to Fidel, more precisely. He’ll know what to do…
The nuclear engineer from Cienfuegos seemed, to me, to personify the tragedy of Castro’s legacy. However much the aging revolutionary has done for his people, he refused ever to trust them — to openly debate political questions, and to choose wisely in a genuinely competitive political system. Instead, it was Father knows best, on an epic scale. Whether he manages to belatedly repair the damage remains an open question.