Scott McLemee
Fidel Castro: My Life
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Newsday, 27 January 2008

FIDEL CASTRO: MY LIFE - A Spoken Autobiography, by Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet. Scribner, 724 pp.

In a volume of memoirs recently translated as Praised Be Our Lords: The Autobiography, prominent French intellectual Régis Debray evoked the experience of being summoned to an audience with Fidel Castro. This was in the mid-1960s, at the height of the Cuban revolution's influence on young radicals around the world. He recorded his thoughts well before Ignacio Ramonet, a Spanish journalist who edits the French newsweekly Le Monde diplomatique, spent 100 hours interviewing Castro for the "spoken autobiography" published earlier this month as Fidel Castro: My Life. But I found myself thinking of Debray's memoir frequently while reading the interviews - for it helped explain the overawed and even cowed manner Ramonet often seemed to manifest as an interviewer.

A philosopher by training, Debray, while in his 20s, had helped translate the improvised strategies and doctrines of Fidel and of Che Guevara into more intellectually rigorous terms. He even followed Che into the jungles of Bolivia - an expedition that ended badly, with Debray lucky to get out alive after three years in prison.

Knowing of that drama gives added flavor to Debray's wry description of the "game without rules" unfolding when a prominent left-wing figure would arrive in Havana from abroad. There were three stages: "The first began at the airport," writes Debray, "where a minder dressed in olive drab would murmur in a low voice: 'Fidel wants to see you,' thus projecting him immediately into a select circle well above and entirely separate from the ordinary pilgrim." The visitor would spend the entire trip waiting for the meeting - perhaps rescheduling his departure date while patiently waiting.

Then, a day before heading home, the revolutionary tourist might hear an urgent message: "Fidel's going to see you." Great emotion, of course, at learning that the Jefe (the Chief) had not forgotten you. Thus so began another round of waiting - now less patient. Days or even weeks later, writes Debray, there would be "the whirlwind arrival of someone of high rank ... in person, announcing in a triumphant tone: 'Fidel's coming.' "

It did not mean he was just around the corner, though. "This acme of expectation could still last anything from 30 minutes to three days," as Debray recalled; "The whole three-act routine could drag on for several months," Debray recalled. Once in the great man's presence, the visitor received expressions of warmth, intimacy and trust.

But Debray - comparing his meetings with Castro to the later experience of working with French President François Mitterrand - stressed the difference between the aura of the revolutionary leader and that of an ordinary politician. The Jefe was an aristocrat. He had the grace of a monarch. When he spoke, Debray noted, Castro tended to say nosotros ("we") rather than yo ("I").

Now in his 80s, a lion in winter, Castro permits himself to use the first-person singular at many points in My Life. In declining health since the book was finished, it will be remarkable if he survives until the 50th anniversary, next January, of his victorious entry into Havana. Without adding much to the historical record, My Life is certainly far more readable than the memoirs of Albanian leader Enver Hoxha (the only other Communist dictator to tell his life's story). Many things about it are questionable, but Castro's keen awareness of his own place in Cuban and world history never seems like mere vanity.

Yet Debray's observation remains very appropriate. About half of the book can be considered an autobiography, with the rest consisting of a protracted official news conference - extensive pronouncements on the goals, triumphs and ever-brightening future of "the Revolution." That term comes less and less to refer to a historical event (or a political process) than to Castro's self writ large.

At one point, Castro mentions a deep love of Hemingway's novels, in particular, he says, "the monologues, when his characters talk to themselves." Ramonet is much too deferential an interviewer to interrupt Castro's own monologues or challenge him very often. In any case, Castro is a capable raconteur, telling once more the stories of guerrilla combat in the Sierra Maestra that must have been the highlight of many an official dinner party over the past five decades.
He is so voluble that it might be easy to overlook the gaps or revisions in the story as it unfolds. Castro was the son of a prosperous landowner, which raises questions about his willingness to betray his ruling-class background and become a populist rebel. He suggests it was a matter of his father having been a self-made millionaire it would have taken at least another generation for bourgeois ideology to sink deeply into the family. Perhaps. But the fact that his parents were unmarried until Castro was 17 was hardly a thing that would go unnoticed in a rural community. He never mentions it.

We are told just a little about Castro's involvement as a student in the Orthodox Party - a nationalist group, though by no means one infused with Bolshevik aspirations. Yet we are assured on several occasions that by the early 1950s, when he first led a revolt against President Fulgencio Batista, he was already deeply influenced by Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin. This certainly makes his revolutionary career seem more consistent, but it probably qualifies as a case of creative backdating. One senses an effort to downplay the fact that his turn to Marxism-Leninism came later, under the influence of his comrade Che Guevara and his brother (and likely successor) Raúl.

The pages about Che are especially disappointing. Here, affection yields little more than hagiography: "Che is an example," Castro says. "An indestructible moral force. His cause, his ideas, in this age of the fight against neoliberal globalization, are triumphing."

Put that on the T-shirt, too. But some richer insight into the man's ideas and personality would be good to have, as well. Neither interviewer nor subject proves willing to probe very deeply into questions about the differences in ideology and long-term perspective that emerged between Castro and Guevara in the mid-1960s.

Che voiced sharp criticisms of the Soviet Union's policy towards Third World revolutions, in terms that Moscow could not have failed to misunderstand. Yet for reasons it is puzzling to fathom, Castro insists that his comrade "had no conflicts with the Soviets." After four decades, some degree of candor on the subject seems at least imaginable - but it won't be found here.

Responsibility for the book's limitations falls only in part on Castro himself. As a prominent spokesman for the "alterglobalization" (alternative globalization) movement and the editor of one of the most influential journals of opinion, Ramonet doubtless enjoyed somewhat more streamlined access to the Jefe than Debray had in the mid-'60s. But having won an audience, Ramonet seems to have been unwilling to risk losing it.

"Here, no one has ever been imprisoned for being a dissident or because they see things from the way the Revolution does ..." Castro says. "Our courts sentence people to prison on the basis of laws, and they judge counterrevolutionary acts."

Did Ramonet at least fight to keep his jaw from dropping? Did he ponder why writing poetry can qualify as a "counterrevolutionary act" worthy of punishment? Did he consider asking Fidel why - after almost 50 years of the Revolution - citizens cannot be trusted to organize independent labor unions or libraries?

The closest we ever get to a tough question is when Ramonet asks, "Some prosecutors continue to make accusations against the Cuban Revolution, and continually accuse it of all sorts of things. ... What arguments in defense of the Revolution can you offer them?" Seldom has the complaint that journalists serve merely as stenographers to power ever seemed more justified.

In the introduction, Ramonet tries to evade responsibility by dismissing "those who think of the interview as a police interrogation in which there's a cop on one side of the table and a suspect on the other, or as an inquisitorial relationship with a perpetrator of crimes standing before a harsh judge whose job it is to extract a confession."

What extraordinary images to invoke, given the circumstances. Declining to play the interrogator, Ramonet has chosen a different role - that of the courtier, able to flatter the sovereign even when daring to question him.