Schoolmates from Revolution to Exile
Pantheon, 2007, 384 pp., $26.95
The Man Who Invented Fidel: Castro, Cuba,
and Herbert L. Matthews of The New York Times
Public Affairs, 2007, 308 pp., $15.95
After Fidel: Raúl Castro and the Future
of Cuba’s Revolution
Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 289 pp., $14.95
As Cuba moves closer to the half-century anniversary of Fidel Castro’s and his political intimates’ seizure of power, the number of books and essays trying to explain the man, the system and the nation seems to grow exponentially. While it may be small consolation, the writings are much better in the current period than in previous years. This is due in part to the exhaustion of those whose writings were characterized by celebratory tones. In the first ideological phase, voices from Europe and North America joined those from the Latin American Left in not only celebrating the Cuban Revolution of 1956–59, but in condemning the American Century that, while still in full force, was beginning to show the frayed edges of empire building. Vietnam in the 1960s, after all, could be viewed as the beginning of the end of an imperial vocation that started with Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. Such a view of interventionist power politics is the very driving force, now as then, of Castro’s magical hold on his people. Whatever Cuban Communism’s weaknesses as a social paradise or an economic exemplar, Castro can always trumpet his great success in keeping the colossus of the north at bay. And in politics, smoke and mirrors can rank high on a poor country’s list of responses to guns and bombs.
Now that the sting of anti-American rhetoric has worn thin in Cuba, the background of those who write about Castro and his island has shifted from the ideologists and the sociologists to the journalists and historians. The results may not betoken a better life for the Cuban people, but at least it produces better judgment about the long night they have endured under the Castro regime. The three works considered here offer an interesting variety of efforts to chart Castro’s personal and educational background. Castro’s school days are the focus of an extremely well written and researched effort by Patrick Symmes in The Boys from Dolores. Symmes’ book is followed by a critical but not tendentious examination of the prologue years of Castro’s Revolution by Anthony DePalma in The Man Who Invented Fidel. Finally, there is Brian Latell’s After Fidel, a report on the Castro of the moment, with an accounting of whatever we know (precious little, it would seem) of his brother and heir apparent, Raúl Castro. Taken as a group, the three books merit high marks. They provide a solid foundation for those who wish to know more about Cuba and have the patience to find out. More broadly, they also provide a critical look at what makes a dictatorship tick, and tick for so long a time.
The Colegio de Dolores, the preparatory academy where Fidel went to school, was hardly the sort of institution familiar in the annals of American elite education. Indeed, Patrick Symmes’ description presents the place as a combination of a Jesuit-run institution, a boarding school for the less-than-privileged, and something of a holding pen for juvenile delinquents and assorted misfits. Misdemeanors were frequent, rules were stringent, and punishment was real albeit not brutal. We are told that behind the theology of the Church was the nomenclature of a military regimen. Fidel and his brother, along with many of his fellow students and their brothers (it seems that the company of brotherhood was a powerful factor in the organization of student life), were indoctrinated. By way of a series of interviews with people in Cuba and those in exile in Miami, Symmes offers a wonderful set of insights of this brotherly/military/church world. He argues that Castro’s particular experience in growing up absurd provides clues to his character, behavior and even his ideology.
It is hard to deny the premise, but the problem, of course, is that while inputs were similar for all the boys of the Jesuit school, the outcomes were quite different. After all, the tale of Castro’s early years can hardly explain how the conditions of his schooling yielded a ferocious dictator, when the same conditions yielded a kind and gentle historian with a subtle sense of humor and a commitment to democratic norms, as it did with Luis “Lundy” Aguilar. As we learn from George Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys”, harsh and punitive schooling gives to some of those who learn its lessons an eye to further implementation, but gives to others an impulse to reform, to rebel and to heal.
Symmes writes more about the context of a revolution than its contents—that is to say, about personal interactions and tendencies rather than political policies and ideological tendencies. While he is sympathetic to those who decided to make a revolution, he demonstrates an equal appreciation of those who rebelled against its excesses. Indeed, he has a pitch-perfect appreciation of what brought this motley crew together as youngsters. “The revolution against Batista was largely a phenomenon of class”, Symmes reminds us, pointing specifically to the narrow stratum of the Cuban middle class:
the professionals and technocrats, the engineers and lawyers. People like Fidel Castro. It was a revolution of lawyers, and of dentists. These were the people in Cuba who could literally afford to rebel, to risk things in pursuit of the better instincts of Cuban nationalism and democracy.
We have been so inundated with the myths of guerrilla insurgency—in which a rag-tag group of the downtrodden actually manages to take over the management of Cuban society—that the actual backgrounds of those involved have been misconstrued. In part, the Castro regime’s rulers wish to erase their own past in the name of a muscular, quasi-military present. On the other hand, Castro’s enemies would like to forget their own participation in a drama that destroyed one tyrant, only to see him replaced by an even more tenacious and evil “maximum leader.” It would have been nice had Symmes made this point frankly, rather than ending on a note of understandable but ambiguous elegy; but one can’t have everything.
Anthony DePalma, himself a correspondent and reporter for the New York Times for twenty years, has written a different kind of intimate narrative. His story is not so much of childhood colleagues, but of Herbert Matthews, another famed New York Times writer turned acolyte and supporter of Castro. By the time Matthews tracked down Fidel in the Sierra Mastre mountain range in 1957, he became not only a reporter but also a policymaker among the newspaper fraternity. His heroic portrayal of Castro had a strong impact on American perceptions of Cuba and, by all accounts, contributed to the demise of the Batista regime. When the real ideological contours of the Castro regime became evident, the New York Times, then far more conservative than it has become today, made Matthews a scapegoat. His reputation and journalistic career foundered; he was accused of betraying his country.
At the time, the Gray Lady was still laboring under the shadow of Walter Duranty’s whitewash of the genocidal slaughter of millions of Ukrainian peasants during the Stalinist purges in the 1930s. DePalma rightly places the Matthews situation in that historical context, and he makes clear, as Robert Service recently noted in his own fine work, Comrades: A History of World Communism (2007), that Walter Duranty was a scoundrel and a thief—someone “who said anything that would prolong his comfort and commercial activity in the Soviet capital.” What DePalma is less candid about is the place of political pilgrims and true believers, as opposed to professional scoundrels, in the celebration of totalitarian regimes. The history of continuing support for the Soviet tyranny by such figures as Edgar Snow, Joseph Davies and Hewlett Johnson—a skilled journalist, an ambassador and a Church divine—indicates that personal motives played little if any part in their belief system, just as with Matthews. Indeed, Matthews himself gave the final word on the honest reporter turned true believer: “Many of my stories harmed a cause in which my heart lay”, he wrote, “but I have no remorse and no regrets.” Thanks to the Castro regime’s success, at least in survival terms, such delusional sentiments were allowed to persist unchecked.
DePalma is a wise enough man to understand full well that, at the end of the day, Castro “possessed such an uncanny ability to survive that he would have managed to stay alive long enough to seize power whether or not Matthews had arrived at the moment when he and his revolution were utterly prostrate.” So it seems too much to then claim that “Castro could have triumphed without Matthews, but then history would have been different.” It simply is not true that Matthews “invented the image of Fidel Castro.” That image was a collective portrait invented, or rather embellished, by all sorts of people, from Leo Huberman and C. Wright Mills in the United States to Regis Debray and Jean-Paul Sartre in France, with help from countless others from a variety of lands. Here DePalma misses a major opportunity to advance the moral ground of honest journalism. Instead of “thanking” Fulgencio Batista, Fidel Castro and Herbert Matthews for making his work possible, he would have done better to note that they represented a grotesque ideological amalgamation of ruthless rule and totalitarian pretenses foisted on a people who deserve better.
As an examination of a strange episode, of a moment in time and place in which one reporter’s odyssey is examined, The Man Who Invented Fidel is a case study from which freshman j-school students could profit, not just by imitating its better qualities but by recognizing its limits. DePalma’s brilliant chapter on Matthews’ journey through the first part of his adult life illustrates the problem of reporting the truth and predicting the future. We learn of an education in romance languages at Columbia University, military service at the close of the First World War, life in Paris in the 1920s, and the Spanish Civil War. In Spain, Matthews’ proclivities to support the republic reached a point of delusion in his refusal to believe that Madrid could ever fall to the Falangists, despite the confusions, errors and even outrages perpetrated by Republican forces on the Church.
The romance of revolution overtook Matthews in Spain (as it had another American journalist, John Reed, in Russia). As Paul Hollander has insightfully analyzed in his notion of political pilgrimage, falling in love with the impossible makes a mess of a journalist’s ability to know truth when he sees it. This is the painful problem DePalma knows well but addresses only in passing, ultimately leaving it to readers to figure out for themselves how Matthews’ passions eroded his professionalism. Along the way, we learn a good deal about an America divided at the close of the McCarthy era and the emergence of a new generation, the American Camelot, who were convinced that they too were making a revolution—albeit a different, democratic one. Matthews was hopeful, even certain, that Castro would adopt that revolution, too, and guarantee a happy ending all around. But as in so many other cases of revolutionary activity, Castro’s idealist rhetoric yielded to reality, a crude and brief proto-democracy to pure dictatorship.
By the time Matthews died in July 1977, ten years after his retirement, one would have thought that even he must have stopped expecting a happy ending. As it happened, however, Matthews wrote three books after his retirement, two of them about Cuba, one about Spain. In the two Cuba books, Matthews showed that he had learned little. He died unrepentant, still hoping, in effect, that his American wife and his Cuban mistress would meet, grow fond of one another, and then compete in showering him with gratitude and affection. Such things, of course, rarely happen, except in Hollywood films of its golden era of romanticism.
Brian Latell comes from another part of the policy forest. He has a forty-year background tracking the Castro dynasty that dates back to the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1960s, service as a National Intelligence Officer in the 1990s, and now as staff lecturer at the Cuban-American Center of the School of International Relations at the University of Miami. As befits a man with such a background, After Fidel is rich in detailed nuances of meaning. There are few people, if any, who examine every report, proclamation and change of personnel in Communist Cuba as deeply or in as much detail as Latell. As he is aware, everything that takes place in the political hierarchy of a dictatorship is replete with rumor, gossip and sheer speculation. After Fidel is less a study of the Castro brothers than an effort to make sense of changes taking place on the ground in Cuba now. The book contains many interviews with those who have served in military and administrative posts. But for that very reason the book merits skeptical review, since such people are often filled with a sense of self-importance, animosity, revenge and sculpted vendettas long in the making. Miami is, after all, less a community of scholars than a substantial and diverse world of exiles waiting for the fall of the regime and the restoration of something resembling a democratic order.
In its new paperback guise, After Fidel appears at a time when the younger Castro, Raúl, is in effect the leader of Cuba. Latell is wise enough to stay clear of scenario-building, instead simply emphasizing that Cuba is already in a de facto post-Fidel era. Reading Fidel’s weekly report card (something like fifty “op-ed” pieces in 2007 alone) on everything from the dangers of ethanol to the horrors of the American stock market, one might think that Fidel is the last person on earth to know that his time is up. But his refusal to leave the stage of history is itself an intriguing aspect of dynastic rule, where the old fail to die on cue and the young wait with nervous patience for their turn to do their own damage. A dictatorship yields to no clear-cut interregnum. Rather, the new men of power assume a quotidian authority for which they lack juridical legitimacy.
Still, even operating as Number Two Brother, Raúl’s political career, as Latell notes, includes long-standing direction of the Cuban armed forces, efforts at economic modification along the so-called China model (really, a Keynesian economic base built upon a Leninist political edifice), and details about liquidating supposed enemies of the people in a nation without legitimate courts. Some of these items are well known to the policy community, others may be presumed from secondary data. Latell handles them all in workmanlike fashion.
Where problems begin is with what might be called Latell’s Shakespearean/Freudian line of analysis. In this realm, the behavior of a would-be medieval king (Raúl) is thwarted by a recalcitrant brother, who happens to be as charismatic as he is dogmatic (Fidel). The picture that emerges is of a Raúl who is less than enthralled by the rigors of El Colegio de Dolores. He was not especially athletic and is modest in personal behavior, having been married to Vilma Espín, a cheerless ideological force in her own right, between 1959 and her death this past June. Raúl has been decent to his children and to the Castro clan in general, to which he serves as intimate patriarch. The difficulty is that little more personal information is available about him. We know far too little to presume a psychological profile along Freudian or any other lines.
It is, moreover, especially difficult to estimate the degree to which such factors actually encourage political behavior that might allow for liberalization of the economy, and with it some sort of a private-sector rebirth in Cuba. Latell clearly finds hope in such a prospect, but the evidence for it strikes me as little more than wishful thinking, based only on Raúl’s roles in administrating the military and economy. I suspect that Latell is right in observing that the traditional model of the “middle-class military” practiced widely in other parts of Latin America is an attractive one for Raúl. But there is no way to know if this is so because Fidel remains dedicated to the leveling policies of communism as the sine qua non of Leninist principles, and rejects the satanic ways of the United States. Certainly Latell’s conclusion, that “Raúl likely plans to provide them [the Cuban people] with bread, rather than Fidel’s revolutionary circuses”, has yet to materialize—nor can it as long as Fidel remains on rather than in planet earth.
Then again, the picture of Raúl that emerges from the available fragments of a life is itself subject to critical review. Can the Raúl of the 1960s—who competed with Che Guevara “in killings and viciousness”, who was notorious for his “cold bloodedness” in dealing with presumed members of the previous regime, and who morphed into a “repressed, manipulated younger Brother”—emerge as a man “with many exceptional leadership qualities—organizational and managerial skills, patience, the ability to delegate and institutionalize, as well as a certain methodical creativity”? The U.S. intelligence community has often had trouble dissecting the potential behavior of leaders-in-waiting of whom they have limited information or knowledge. However bravely Latell attempts to inform and instruct, the actual information we have on Raúl cannot support such grandiose judgments. It is, of course, another matter entirely as to whether such data could in any event offer up anything useful on his potential future behavior in a post-Fidel world.
These three books nevertheless do indicate that the end of the dictatorship and the dawn of the post-Castro era are fast approaching. Much remains to be learned, and will be, once the archives of the regime are revealed—although much that has transpired seems to have been done through verbal command rather than written memorandum. But even in this strange transitional moment in Cuban affairs—in which a dying ruler rants and rails against his enemies from a private hospital bed, and a recalcitrant younger brother, himself no spring chicken, tries to fashion an administrative bureaucratic rationale for maintaining a communist regime in the island—certain things are apparent. A military regime with an ideology like that of Castro’s Cuba offers little improvement over a military regime without an ideology. Indeed, while the Batista regime exposed a small elite’s hatred of a large disenfranchised mass and a tourist haven for foreigners rooted in a depressing backwater for natives, Castro’s Cuba does not offer much to emulate either. Each of these three books in its own way offers a painful reminder of everything rotten with a 20th-century military tyranny built in a beautiful place upon an imported 19th-century ideology.