The Definitive Fidel

[by Barry Weisleder/March 2009]

If you are interested in the life of Fidel Castro, his role in the Cuban Revolution (now in its 50th year), and in many major events that shaped the second half of the 20th century, this is the book you have long awaited.

“Fidel Castro, My Life—with Ignacio Ramonet” (Penguin Books, 2008, 723 pages) is the exhaustive autobiography that Fidel is just too busy to write. It is based on 100 hours of interviews by the editor of the Paris-based magazine Le Monde Diplomatique. Ramont was also an organizer of the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre and founded the NGO Media Watch Global.

From a veritable marathon of recorded discussions, spanning December 2005 to February 2008, emerges a very extensive, thoughtful, frank, and fresh account of a truly epic life. And since he meticulously checked the text for accuracy, up to November 2006, it is fair to say that this book records the definitive Fidel.

Are you curious as to how the son of an affluent sugar-cane and livestock farmer became a revolutionary firebrand? From Jesuit college grad to guerrilla warrior to revered socialist statesman, this book traces every critical step.

How Fidel became a Marxist, his first internationalist experiences, why the raid on the Moncada Barracks mis-fired, his recruitment of and collaboration with Ernesto Che Guevara, the landing of the Granma rebel expedition, the ensuing struggle in the Sierra Maestra, and how the rural and urban insurrections converged to overthrow the Washington-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista—it’s all there, in gripping detail.

Read the inside story behind the so-called Cuban missile crisis, the Mariela boat people and the infamous U.S. Adjustment Act (which hypocritically blocks Cuban emmigration), the controversial law on capital punishment, Cuba’s enlightened policies on AIDS, the rights of gays, lesbians and transexuals, the battle against racism, the impact of the break up of the USSR, the rise of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, worldwide economic and environmental crises, and today’s generational transition in Cuba’s leadership.

Castro talks about his role in peace talks between the insurgent FARC and Colombia’s authoritarian President Uribe, his efforts to save Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez from the April 2002 right-wing coup—and the prospects for fair trade, under the auspices of ALBA, to end the stranglehold of foreign capital and its institutions over Latin America.

“My Life” celebrates Cuba’s remarkable achievements in health, education, sports, biotechnology, ecology, and most of all, its aid to national liberation struggles from Algeria to Bolivia to Angola.

The discussion of Cuba’s defeat in 1976-77 of the military forces of apartheid South Africa (Operation Carlota, named for the female leader of the 1843 Cuban slave revolt) is particularly moving. At the same time, the book does not dodge hard questions about internal corruption, economic failings, ‘dissidents’, hijackings, and the ravages of neoliberalism on Cuba and the world.

Fidel acknowledges many problems that beset his nation, but insists on placing them in historical context. Four hundred years of colonial exploitation carves a deep scar into a society. In response to so-called human rights critics, he points out that in Cuba there is no torture, no disappearances, no second-class health care or inferior education, no homelessness.

After all, this is a many decades’-long record that cannot be matched in Latin America or the world, not even by the U.S. and Canada—now sinking under the weight of social cuts and post-9/11 ‘extraordinary rendition’ and secret trials.

The text reveals a prodigious mind with an encyclopedic grasp of dates, places, and personalities. It shows an erudite Castro, a lion of a man disciplined by his experiences in struggle, and governed by enduring principles: honesty, integrity, dedication to public service, and self-sacrifice.

It is not surprising to find a very strong ego inhabiting one who has had to withstand daunting obstacles and withering criticisms (to say nothing of hundreds of CIA-sponsored assassination attempts) as those faced by the Cuban comandante. His loyalty and devotion to ideals, including a passionate rejection of inequality, injustice, and oppression of all kinds are Castro’s exemplary strengths.

He is a self-made revolutionary—a novel kind of Marxist-pragmatist. This unique political strain is a distillation at least partly due to the degeneration under Stalinist policies of the Communist International, and with it the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), its Cuban affiliate. It is also a byproduct of the organizational weakness of the dispersed and persecuted continuators of scientific socialism, whose ideas could not perforate all the thick walls built of lies and distortions.

Castro’s Marxism reveals a persisting practicality. If you are looking for great theoretical penetration and sharp precision in dealing with the key problems of the modern workers’ movement, you may be disappointed. He offers no systematic explanation for such ignoble phenomena as Stalinism, fascism, and the collapse of socialist democracy.

He steers away from the grand questions of working-class strategy. He doesn’t discuss the reformist ‘stages’ theory of revolution promulgated by the Stalinists, or related ideas of class collaboration with liberals in government. These notions are starkly counterposed to the strategy of Permanent Revolution (put forward by Leon Trotsky), which preaches working-class political independence, alliance with the rural poor, and non-reliance on the domestic bourgeoisie.

Indeed, this was the path of Castroism in practice. The first successful socialist revolution in the Americas would have been impossible without it.

There is the spectacle of the Cuban PSP joining the cabinet of Batista in 1940. Fidel expresses regret at this, blaming the PSP’s lack of autonomy inside the degenerated, top-down Comintern. He refers to ‘strategic errors’, without specificity, and without pointing to analogous problems throughout the world Stalinist movement. He declines to examine the revolutions betrayed, and the revolutionaries purged and executed to consolidate the power of a tyrannical and historically regressive faction.

Castro cites ‘errors’ by Stalin, Mao, Tito, etc., as if mere ‘errors’ could account for powerful material forces and their devastating social consequences. Ramonet poses scores of pertinent questions on an array of topics, but he does not probe those lacunae of theory, strategy, and programme.

On the subject of Gorbachev’s reforms (perestroika) and their relevance to Cuba, Castro replies, “Stalinism didn’t occur here; in our country, there was never a phenomenon of that nature—the abuse of power, the cult of personality, statues and all that sort of thing.” Well and good. But it begs the question: Why did it happen in the USSR?

Ramonet asks about the “hegemonic” and repressive behaviour of “pro-Soviet Communist parties”. Fidel responds that he is “not one of those people that criticize historical figures who’ve been satanized by world reaction”.

Then he goes on to say, “So yes, in the Soviet Union, because of its traditions of absolutist government, hierarchical mentality, and feudal or whatever culture, a tendency towards the abuse of power emerged, and especially the habit of imposing one country’s, one hegemonic party’s, authority on all the other countries and parties.”

Given Cuba’s diplomatic betrayal by Khrushchev during the October 1962 missile crisis, Castro could hardly be mute on the harmful effects of hegemonism. Yet his explanation for its roots fall rather short of a rounded materialist one.

For a man who prizes and possesses so much knowledge, it is surprising how little Castro has to say about the major innovations of Marxist theory in the 20th century, such as the theories of workers’ bureaucracy, fascism, and revolutionary crisis. Perhaps this is due to his proximity to, and later his alliance of convenience with the PSP and with the USSR’s rulers.

Is it this reality that interposed such a political gulf between himself and Trotskyism? Castro states that Che, who famously denounced the ‘stages’ misconception and vigorously opposed Stalinist economic methods, never mentioned the ideas of Leon Trotsky to him. Is that possible?

Fidel’s discussion of a number of bourgeois state leaders and arch-capitalist politicians tends to dwell on personality traits, divorced from their policies, separated from the class interests and the nature of the state and other institutions they inhabited. While diplomacy and after-dinner etiquette have their place, they are no substitute for analysis and principled leadership in a perilous world.

It is completely understandable that the revolutionary leader of a small country so close to the imperial behemoth would seek always to find allies and avoid isolation. Still, Castro’s accolades for FDR, John F. Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton seem to go overboard. Implied are illusions in the chief war party of imperialism, or at least in the so-called liberal Democrats who try to mask the rapacity and barbarity of their system.

Will the socialist revolution in Cuba survive capitalist encirclement and hostility? Castro remains firm, and at the same time is realistically frank: “The Yankees can’t destroy this revolutionary process, because we have an entire nation that’s learned to handle weapons, an entire nation that despite our errors, has such a high degree of culture, knowledge and awareness that it will never, ever again allow this country to become a colony of theirs.”

“But this country can self-destruct, can destroy itself … if we are not capable of correcting our errors” (referring to “theft” and “diversions’ of funds, and the enrichment of a few during the ‘special period’ that followed the collapse of the USSR).

The answer, which speaks to the question of future leadership, Fidel provides with his customary passion and clarity: “There will be greater and greater participation, and we will be a nation of a holistic, unified general culture. [Jose] Marti said, ‘Being cultured is the only way to be free.’ Without culture, freedom is not possible.”

To this, let us add that the extension of the socialist revolution across Latin America today is the best hope for the realization of that prescription, for Cuba, and for the world.

“Fidel Castro, My Life” is a worthy substitute for an autobiography by the life-long leader of the healthiest revolution on Earth that has overthrown capitalist minority rule. As the leading architect of the Cuban workers’ state, as its mentor and now eminence-grise, Fidel deserves the deepest admiration of the world. This book amply shows why.

It provides excellent subject and explanatory notes, a detailed chronology of Cuban and world events (1926-2007), and dozens of historically significant photos. It closes with Fidel’s retirement from public office for medical reasons, indicating that his active participation in the ‘battle of ideas’ continues.

If you have any doubt, read “Reflections of Fidel”, the comandante’s regular column in the Cuban daily press, translated and reproduced on countless websites worldwide. But don’t miss out on the inspiring and comprehensive context provided by “Fidel Castro, My Life”.