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Fraud amid fervour

How the Cuban President — who resigned recently — spun out the Fairy Tale of the Romantic Revolutionary. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri elaborates.

world Updated: Feb 22, 2008 23:17 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Fidel Castro opened his revolutionary innings in 1959, when his guerrillas attacked Cuban barracks in Moncada. It was an utter failure. In the subsequent trial, Castro was unapologetic. “History will absolve me,” he famously told the judge. History did better: it involved him. As Angel Prado, military commander of the 26th July Movement — Castro’s guerrilla group 2.0, later noted, the bearded youngster hadn’t even been at Moncada. He and his driver had lost their way in a carnival. But no one remembers that. This set a pattern with Castro: a bit of fraud, a barrel of fervour. When Castro succeeded in overthrowing the Batista regime the second time around, he was applauded even by a young politician who became one of his bitterest opponents, J F Kennedy.

And rightly so. The early Castro was no ideologue. He was obsessed with poverty and the US — standard stuff for Latin American radical populism. Cuban Marxists often complained El Comandante was more interested in baseball than class struggle. Even when he later declared himself a “Marxist-Leninist,” only one member of the pre-Castro Partido Socialista Popular was inducted into his first Politburo in 1965. But over the years, faced with middle class Cuban flight and increasing US hostility, Castro began absorbing Soviet ideology. One thing he picked up was socialist rhetoric, something he could use for hours on end. A bit of fraud, a lot of fervour.

A romantic beginning

The Moscow metamorphosis took about a decade. In the interregnum, through a combination of charisma, good fortune and US bumbling Castro created his own Fairy Tale of the Romantic Revolutionary. Once upon a time, the illegitimate son of a sugar farmer, enraged at social inequity and yanqui imperialismo, came down from the hills with an absurdly small number of buddies and tossed out the evil dictator. This is the wet dream of every student radical. Through the Sixties and Seventies, young students across Latin America tried to replicate the Fidel Way. They all failed. Most were butchered.

In 1967, the death of Che Guevera in Bolivia was the epitome of this period of tragedy and farce. Che was spurned by the locals, even the Bolivian Communist Party stayed away. Today he lives on as a pop art icon for urban bourgeois youth, wholly unknown to the Andean peasantry he wanted to save. Least impressed were the dour men of the Kremlin.

As Cuba moved into the Soviet orbit, Moscow told him to put a lid on this revolution nonsense. In the Seventies and Eighties, Castroism reinvented itself as a development model. Cuba’s huge investments in public health and mass education drove the country up the human development indices. There can be little doubt this reflected Castro’s personal commitment to social welfare. His 600-age autobiography lists this as his greatest accomplishment.

Falling apart

Again, there was fraud amid the fervour. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cuban economy shrank by a third. There was no “Cuban model.” All the schools and hospitals had been set up thanks to a yearly Soviet subsidy of seven billion dollars to a country with less people than New Delhi.

Today, Cuba runs a two-tier health system: one for those who can pay with dollars or are party members and one for everyone else. Guess who’s is better. Cuban joke that under Batista, Cuba’s economy depended on sugar, tourism and prostitution. After 50 years of Castro, Cuba’s economy depends on sugar, tourism and prostitution. Only now the prostitutes can read. Joydeep Mukherji, who analyses Latin America economies for Standard and Poor’s, highlights this contradiction, “People are literate and have little or nothing to read — I have looked into Cuban bookstores and there is nothing there.” The modern Latin American left is no longer prepared to accept the kind of repressive one-party system that Castro heads. While populist politicians like Mexico’s Cardenas and Brazil’s Lula give lip service to Castro, they decline to endorse his tropical gulag. Our Cuban comrades, Lula advised Havana, should “allow arguments, open up political debate, allow opposing ideas.”

Says Latin American expert Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute, “Other countries in the region have achieved the same social progress during the past several decades but without sacrificing civil and political liberties.” Castro is probably fortunate the US has maintained sanctions against Cuba all these years. These allow him to rule in splendid isolation, derive legitimacy from standing up to the US and give him an excuse to maintain a one-family dictatorship. Washington’s attempts to dislodge him, immortalized in the film 638 Ways to Kill Castro, only added to his mystique. Says Vasquez, “He became a symbol for many people with grievances against the US.” One of the bitterest opponents of his regime were the Bacardi Rum family. These Cuban exiles paid for a series of unsuccessful private assassins and mercenaries. Because Cuba produced its own Bacardi Rum, the two sides in effect waged their battle through duty-free shops across the world

No longer a role model

Castro’s fervour had been dimming, even as the fraud quotient steadily increased. Even two years ago, he was giving speeches that lasted five and a half hours. But doctors had forced him to give up his cigars. And he had to sit down during his harangues, getting up only for the last 20 minutes. Today, having retired from the presidency and handed over the reins of power to his brother Raul, even that is over.

Castro’s main accomplishment has been his sheer ability to survive. But that is dark-edged. The US is still a problem, but his regime survives largely on foreign handouts and a polity that Human Rights Watch says is unique in Latin American for repressing “all forms of political dissent."

The helping hand now is Hugo Chavez, who sends Cuba 90,000 barrels of petroleum a day gratis. It is noticeable that Venezuela has supplanted Cuba on the radical left. The mainstream left of Lula or even Nicaragua’s Sandanistas have taken the democratic path. After 50 years, says Mukherji, “Many people will pay respect to Castro, largely out of misguided symbolism, but very few will follow him.”