Fidel Castro has always been his own best pamphleteer. He is a genius at creating images of himself and selling them to the world. For decades after his conquest of Cuba in 1959, he got his followers on the island—and millions of others abroad—to believe that his policies were a boon to the Cuban people. In fact, the country today is "in ruins," as Cuba’s top dissident Elizardo Sánchez told me in Havana in February, mainly because Castro’s real focus has always been on global goals—and on himself.
Since the time of President Dwight Eisenhower, Castro has commandeered the world’s attention by flamboyantly combating 10 American presidents and the colossus of "U.S. imperialism." No leader of any underdeveloped country of any size has been a world figure as long as the Cuban caudillo. Even after the end of the Cold War and his increasingly obvious failure to serve the interests of the Cuban people, Castro has retained some international stature, though now largely as a martyr resisting the antiquated U.S. effort to isolate the island.
Unlike leaders in most Soviet-bloc communist countries, Castro took power with legitimate revolutionary credentials by overthrowing an unpopular dictator, Fulgencio Batista. His international stock soared during the Vietnam War as increasing numbers of Americans and others became critical of U.S. foreign policy in general. Sympathetic groups such as the Venceremos Brigade romanticized the Cuban phenomenon, traveling to the island to cut sugarcane and build schools and hospitals. For many, Castro’s critique of Washington was on the mark. Even his repression of dissent, including virulent antigay actions at home, exposed in Nestor Almendros’s films Improper Conduct and Nobody Listened, hardly seemed to dent his support among some on the American left.
Castro is brilliant and pragmatic when pursuing his two intimately interrelated goals: confronting the United States and strutting on the world stage. He privately admitted his true mission before he even took power, in a 1958 letter to his closest comrade, Célia Sánchez. "When this war [against Batista] is over," he wrote, "a much wider and bigger war will commence for me: the war I am going to wage against them [the United States]. I am aware that this is my true destiny." The letter is now displayed in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana.
On assuming power, Castro calculated the world balance of power against his personal objectives and declared himself a Marxist. This was nonsense. His early idol had been Adolph Hitler, and his most famous remark—"history will absolve me"—is simply a clever paraphrase of Der Fuehrer. In fact he was what Lenin called an "infantile leftist" who utterly rejected Marx’s economic tenets and believed that human determination rather than objective facts governed change. But during the Cold War, proclaiming himself a Marxist enabled him to strike a deal with the Soviet Union, the only country that could help pay his bills and provide a military shield against America.
Cuba today is in ruins mainly because Castro’s real focus has always been on global goals—and on himself—rather than on the Cuban people.
For decades, Soviet-bloc aid constituted between a quarter and a third of Cuba’s annual gross domestic product. In particular, that support enabled Castro to undertake some largely beneficial health and education reforms. But the collapse of the Soviet padrón wrought havoc on the island nation. The leading analyst of the Cuban economy, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says that, although Cuba’s economy today is on the mend, it is still far behind what it was in 1989 and it wasn’t good then. Cuba today produces little it can sell to the world and has little hard currency to buy what the world produces, a phenomenon caused by Castro’s own chosen policies, not the U.S. embargo, which has long been his scapegoat for economic failures and repression.
Even health and education programs have deteriorated in the past decade. There’s a shortage of medical supplies, and Cubans you meet are likely to ask you to send them soap, aspirin, and vitamin supplements. University enrollment has fallen by more than half—hardly a surprise since a college degree seems pointless when a taxi driver, tour guide, restaurateur, or prostitute earns good U.S. greenbacks (the currency of choice in Cuba today), while a teacher or neurosurgeon is paid a small salary by the state in virtually useless pesos.
How did Castro survive the Soviet collapse? Above all, he built on his legitimate nationalist credentials, although the majority of Cubans today seem to agree with the factory worker who told a friend in May 2001, "Fidel is a great guy, but it is time for him to go." He walked away, then returned, adding, "And soon."
Cuba today produces little it can sell to the world and has little hard currency to buy what the world produces. Who is to blame? Castro, not the U.S. embargo.
On August 13, 2001, Castro turned 75 with a festive celebration in Venezuela hosted by that country’s self-proclaimed Castro clone, Hugo Chávez. In July, Castro’s vigorous image flagged when he fainted while giving a speech in the Havana sunshine. Rumor mills went wild. But don’t count those chickens quite yet. Castro’s family is long-lived, and he is unlikely to retire, since his campaign against "U.S. imperialism," now focused on "antiglobalization," is far from finished. Several times immediately after his fainting spell he marched a mile or more in the sun—just as Mao swam the Yangtze River at the same age—to reaffirm his virility.
Castro’s tenure is guaranteed for now. There is no organized opposition to him. The island’s top leader after Fidel and his brother, Defense Minister Raúl Castro, is Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly of the People’s Power, the Cuban parliament. In February, Alarcón told an American Federation of Journalists delegation that Cuban dissidents are "four cats yowling in the darkness." Although dissidents Sánchez and Héctor Palacios, who were interviewed several days later, belittled this characterization, they admitted that there are only "several thousand" people on the island who could be considered real dissidents and that because of government surveillance and harassment they are utterly disorganized. According to Alarcón, most of them are government agents. Meanwhile, repression endures, even if reduced in recent years to what dissidents call "low intensity."
Castro’s security forces have long been among the world’s most effective. In the mid-1960s, as filmmaker Almendros documents, Castro rounded up nearly 15,000 artists, gays, and their friends and sent them to reeducation camps with the good news that "work will make you men." Last year’s film Before Night Falls, based on the best-selling memoir of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, chronicles Castro’s merciless, macho crackdown.
In 1989, when General Arnaldo Ochoa returned to Cuba from assignment in Africa, his popularity sky-high and an apparent challenge to Castro, he was suddenly accused of being a narcotics dealer. In a mock trial worthy of Stalin, he was quickly "convicted" and executed. Interior Minister José Abrantes, who had worked closely with the Castro brothers for 30 years, was also found to be infected by anti-Castro thoughts and thrown into prison, where he soon died. The entire top level of the Interior Ministry was purged.
Castro loudly calls for the American embargo to be lifted, but it serves his personal goals more when it remains in place. He reaps the propaganda victory because the embargo "confirms" U.S. intolerance of any leader who dares to question Washington’s commands. And he can protest safely because he knows U.S. leaders are too tied in domestic political knots to change a policy that has shifted from being a strategic asset to a liability.
In 1996, when the U.S. Congress was pruning the most imperialistic sections from proposed legislation for tightening the embargo, Cuban fighters shot down several small planes flown by naturalized Cuban American citizens. The Cuban action was almost certainly a deliberate provocation initiated by Castro personally so that the embargo would be tightened and Castro’s increasingly emaciated scapegoat would be rejuvenated. Predictably, no sooner were the planes shot down than Congress reinserted the imperialistic clauses of the Helms-Burton Act—such as Washington’s dictating who cannot be elected president (i.e., a Castro), even in an internationally supervised free and fair election—and President Clinton quickly signed the bill into law.
Castro has survived the passing of all his former allies and the wreck he has made of his nation. Why? Because the United States has insisted on a futile cold war against his regime.
When the collapse of the Soviet bloc deprived Cuba of most of its aid and trade, Castro grudgingly authorized the use of U.S. dollars in Cuba to sustain the economy. Those dollars come mainly from foreign tourism and Cuban American remittances. But the government maintains low-intensity harassment intended to keep off balance those who privately earn dollars. Popular private restaurants called paladares are heavily taxed, regulated, and closed down by officials at will; in the city of Cienfuegos I was told that 16 out of 19 paladares were closed down over the past year. Between my visits in February and April of this year, private art galleries on the popular Obispo Street in Havana were summarily closed.
No one can predict where Cuba will go after Castro. If Fidel dies before his brother, Raúl and a clique of followers (los hombres de Raúl) are likely to undertake state-directed, market-oriented reforms in the Chinese fashion. Younger leaders hold top offices around the country today, in anticipation of Castro’s demise, whereas the Cuban American community in Miami is becoming younger and less dogmatic in its political positions. Perhaps the greatest danger today is that the U.S. embargo, while not weakening Castro, will push Cuba toward a violent upheaval that might even draw in the U.S. military.
During the Cold War Castro often posed a serious challenge to the United States. Since the collapse of his Soviet supporters and the emergence of globalization, however, Castro’s remaining international stature is almost entirely a result of his refusal to cave in to the bullying of his gigantic northern neighbor. Castro continues to draw some attention because everyone from Pope John Paul II to virtually every political leader in the world supports his condemnation of a U.S. policy toward the island that only hurts the Cuban people. As long as this policy continues, even foreign leaders who criticize Castro’s economics and domestic repression will side with him against Washington because the embargo seems to confirm his lifelong protest that "U.S. imperialism" strives to repress all who resist its dictates. In short, Castro has survived the passing of all his former allies and the wreck he has made of his nation mainly because the United States continues to wage a futile cold war against his regime.
Such are the wages of a U.S. policy that survives from a bygone era.