I suppose he should R.I.P., despite having been a dictator who ruined countless lives and impoverished his country in the process. He was, politically speaking, certainly one of the more significant personalities of my life, at least in its early decades. Before becoming an anti-communist and anti-castriste—a personal evolution that was complete by my early 30s—I was a supporter to varying degrees of Third World communist regimes, and particularly the one in Cuba. I was a big fan of Fidel Castro during the 1970s and into the early ’80s, with the roots of this in my formative years in the 1960s, partly thanks to my father, who was born and raised in India—he came to America at age 20, in the early ’50s—and though a good liberal in US domestic politics, had visceral tiersmondiste reflexes—owing to his origins, as he came of age in the climactic years of the anti-colonial struggle in India—and sympathized with the Cuban Revolution. He never uttered a negative word about the Castro regime (or of the Vietnamese one in Hanoi)—at least not when I was around—and despite his otherwise dim view of communism and, in particular, of the Soviet Union. And I couldn’t argue with him about it after my viewpoint changed. My interactions with my father on this, at least in my youth, were certainly different from those of John Judis with his, as he relates here.
During my youthful gauchiste years, I, along with friends and kindred spirits on the far left, held Cuba up as a model. In my tiny gauchiste bubble of the era, only Trotskyists and Maoists—of the RCP and October League variety, micro-sects we considered ultra-leftist and generally insane—critiqued Cuban-style communism, though from their own particular doctrinal standpoint. One couldn’t say anything negative about Cuba. E.g. at a small meeting at my gauchiste-friendly college, in precisely 1977, a student—Latino, with that Latin American revolutionary look of the era—who had just returned from a stint with the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba, spoke of his experiences and offered information for those interested in participating in the Revolution by cutting sugar cane in the tropical sun. He mentioned in passing that gays were not allowed. One woman present had an astonished WTF?! look on her face upon hearing this—she likely hadn’t gotten the news that homosexuality was illegal in Cuba and with gays imprisoned in work camps—but didn’t say a thing, and no one else did either. The Latino revolutionary student moved right along in his presentation.
What I particularly liked about Cuba at the time was its internationalism, of militarily assisting Third World liberation movements in Africa, notably the MPLA in Angola, which was under military attack by the apartheid regime in South Africa. This was one of my personal pet causes of the era. In 1978 I took a course, at the American University in Washington, on the politics of Cuba, taught by Cuba specialist William LeoGrande (who’s spent his entire career at AU). It was a great class and LeoGrande a great teacher. He did not reveal his political views during the course, though as I learned in discussions with him outside class time, he was an ideological Marxist—an Althusserian, to be precise—and not unsympathetic to the Cuban revolution. My research paper was on Cuban policy in Africa—and specifically Angola—in which I relied unduly on an account by Gabriel García Márquez, published in New Left Review, of Castro’s decision to send troops to Luanda in 1975 and how the operation was carried out, apparently without the Soviet Union having any idea about it. Professor LeoGrande gave my paper an A, though he told me that it was because he was grading on a curve, and that for me personally it was only worth a B. I guess he wasn’t blown away by the quality of my research. We were politically on the same page on Angola, though, and also agreed that Cuba’s military assistance to Ethiopia in the 1977 Ogaden war with Somalia was problematic, as was its support of the ubuesque Macías Nguema dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. A couple of years later, I mentioned the García Márquez article to Cuba specialist Pamela Falk, then at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, with her responding that it was “naïve.”
Malgré my present-day anti-Castroism, I will not go back on my attitude toward the Cuban intervention in Angola, the immediate effect of which was to repulse the South African invasion of that country. And as one learns in the fascinating 2013 documentary Plot for Peace, it was precisely Cuba’s material support of the MPLA regime that ultimately led South Africa, in 1988, to negotiate with SWAPO and grant Namibia independence, which led to the freeing of Nelson Mandela and finally the end of apartheid and advent of majority rule. It is not for nothing that today “South Africa loves Cuba,” as Piero Gleijeses of Johns Hopkins-SAIS put it in a 2014 article in The National Interest.
BTW, Cuba really did send troops to Angola in 1975 without receiving the green light from the Soviet Union, let alone acting as the latter’s proxy, as one may read in Jeremy Harding’s recent review essay in the LRB, “Apartheid’s last stand.”
And then there was Castro’s visit to New York City in October 1979, to give his first address to the United Nations General Assembly since 1960. I was living in NYC at the time (on the Upper West Side). It was a circus in Midtown, with Fidel staying at the Cuban mission to the UN, on Lexington & 38th, protected by dozens of policemen, who kept the thousands of anti-Castro Cuban demonstrators at bay. My father was in town and we went over to mission just to get a look. There was no approaching the UN HQ itself the day of the speech. It was broadcast live on television—on one of the major networks, as this was the pre-cable era—and I watched the whole thing—with, for the anecdote, my GF and her good friend Melissa Benn, daughter of the British Labour Party politician Tony, both of whom were (separately) visiting town (for the further anecdote, the Right Honourable MP Benn took us to dinner one evening, which was most interesting—it was at the Waldorf-Astoria, if my memory is correct, though he was staying himself at a chain hotel on 10th Avenue in the 40s). When Castro finished his speech—which went longer than the UNGA’s normal allotted time for heads of state—he sat down in a chair next to the podium, pulled out a cigar, lit it, and, manifestly content with himself—the applause was sustained and thunderous (the US delegation was not present)—puffed away. I thought that was so cool.
After the speech, Castro decided to stick around for a few more days at the Cuban mission, just to emmerder the US government and make Mayor Ed Koch spend more money to protect him from the enraged Cuban exile demonstrators. During his visit, he gave extraordinary access to documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert, whose informal interviews with the laid-back, almost playful Fidel were broadcast on NBC. Alpert accompanied Fidel on the plane from Havana—one saw in the report how thrilled Fidel and his entourage were on landing at JFK—and, in the days after the speech, went to the mission to find out how El Comandante was spending his time. He didn’t seem to be doing much of anything, mainly lounging around and watching television, specifically the World Series. Baltimore Orioles & Pittsburgh Pirates. He didn’t want to leave town until it was over (he was for the Pirates, so he said, who won it in seven after being down 3-1). How could one not like him?
One thing about the support of American leftists for Castro and the Cuban regime, including by those who had no interest in the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite states: A lot of it was visceral, driven by opposition to US foreign policy and America’s support of right-wing Latin American dictatorships. There was also the romanticizing of Latin American revolutionaries, who were culturally not distant for North Americans (and Europeans) and spoke a language many had studied in high school, when they didn’t speak it themselves (American leftists of the time naturally had a stronger affinity with Latin America than any other part of the world outside Europe). Radical chic played a role as well, with the cult of Che Guevara and all. Latin American revolutionaries were cool in a way that, e.g., Palestinians were not back then.
And then there were the Miami Cubans, who were right-wing and voted Republican. American lefties, mouthing the Cuban communist insult, called them “gusanos.” I will admit to my own visceral, not-at-all-thought-through sentiments of negativity toward the Cuban exiles, that were only quashed in the ’90s after reading David Rieff’s The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami.
As mentioned above, my views of Castro and the Cuban regime underwent a sea change in the ’80s. No need to detail them here, not that I imagine anyone would have any interest. But in the event one does, see my blog posts on the general subject here and here.
There have been countless articles and dossiers on Castro’s death since yesterday—all no doubt written years ago and ready to be posted—of which I’ve looked at a small number. The lengthy obituary in the Miami Herald is absolutely worth the read. Here are three particularly noteworthy passages, the first on Fidel’s relationship with his children. One can tell a lot about a man’s character by how he is with his children and how, as adults, they feel about him:
In all, Castro is known to have fathered as many as 11 children by four different women. There were rumors of others by his many mistresses.
His relations with his children were distant and sometimes strained. His only daughter, Alina Fernández, aligned herself with Cuba’s dissident movement and tried for years to leave the island before she escaped in 1993 with a false passport.
Now living in Miami, Fernández is a harsh critic of her father. “When people tell me he’s a dictator, I tell them that’s not the right word,” she said. “Strictly speaking, Fidel is a tyrant. I have looked up the two words in the dictionary. A dictator is ‘a person who is granted absolute powers to face a national emergency on a temporary basis.’ A tyrant is an ‘absolute ruler unrestrained by law, who usurps people’s rights.’”
On prostitution, a scourge supposedly eradicated by the Revolution:
In a mark of just how close to the brink the Cuban economy really was, Castro even welcomed the large-scale return of prostitution, which he had called a “social illness” in the early days of the revolution. But in a 1992 speech to the National Assembly, he bragged that the army of freelance hookers who swarmed through Havana’s streets every night in search of tourists were the most cultured in the world.
“There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist,” Castro said of the women, known as jineteras in local slang. “Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated and quite healthy.”
And on the disastrous outcome of the socio-economic order willed by Castro:
The dream of a Marxist society without social or economic distinctions was gone. In its place was a rigid class system: those with dollars and those without. Doctors, lawyers and even nuclear engineers were abandoning their professions in droves to drive taxis or work as tour guides, anything to get their hands on dollars instead of nearly worthless Cuban pesos.
Tenants in Havana’s low-cost colonial tenements watched fearfully as their neighbors were evicted and their buildings torn down to make room for quaint new tourist hotels and restaurants. And the Internet bristled with endorsements of Havana as one of the world’s top sex-tourism spots, with thousands of pretty women available for the price of a cheap dinner.
A few links:
William LeoGrande, “Will history absolve Fidel Castro? The legacy of Cuba’s socialist revolution is still very much in doubt,” in Foreign Policy.
Amherst College political science professor Javier Corrales, “Fidel was hell: The longest-ruling dictator of the 20th century was a radical bent on transformational, alternative global development. Ironically, he left his country conservative, impoverished, and isolated,” also in Foreign Policy.
Yale University history professor Carlos Eire, “Farewell to Cuba’s brutal big brother,” in The Washington Post.
Kings College London visiting history and war studies professor Antony Roberts, “Fidel Castro was a cruel dictator. Ignore the revisionists,” in The Spectator.