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Home / Books / Survival of the fittest

Survival of the fittest

Fidel Castro's recollections demolish stereotypical renderings of his role as a builder of something as complex and endurable as the Cuban revolution, writes Suhit Sen.

books Updated: Jan 07, 2008 14:22 IST
Suhit Sen
Suhit Sen

My Life
Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet
Allen Lane
Rs 795
PP 724

The last chapter of Fidel Castro's public life is now in the works - if media reports about an official change of guard in Havana are to be believed.

But the extraordinary story of the man's life, over half a century of which have been spent creating the revolution in Cuba and running the post-revolutionary regime, is well worth revisiting.

Castro's autobiography makes for compelling reading, especially because of its format. The extended interview the 'as told to' genre - could have been problematic, but Castro has been well served by his amanuensis, the veteran journalist Ignacio Ramonet, who probes but does not lead, and, most importantly, does not insinuate himself into the text in too irritating a manner, as most interviewers are wont to do. <b1>

That said, Castro's account of his life goes a long way towards demolishing stereotypical renderings. His longevity under the shadow of US imperialism has always stirred passions on both sides of the fence. His opponents, the opponents of the revolution, have demonised him; and the adulation of his champions have often verged on the uncritical.

It is important to note, therefore, that Castro emerges, in his own words, as deeply undogmatic - a man prepared to meet the exigencies of the moment with a flexible approach.

Castro's revolutionary life did not spring from a prior commitment to Marxism; that was imbued in him as he went along. At the cost of sounding somewhat clichetic, it would perhaps be fair to say that Castro's revolutionary temperament came more directly from the concrete conditions of life in Cuba under the Batista regime- a deeply unequal and violently repressive regime, lest we forget, propped by the US.

On that note, perhaps, one could get into the big question that gives context to the Castro saga - the Cuban revolution. <b2>

Clearly, as Ramonet notes in his introduction to the interview, Cuba is not a paradise. There is widespread poverty and a one-party regime that does not brook dissent In the language of liberal discourse, it is an authoritarian, developing nation.

That description does, however, commit a great injustice to Castro and the Cuban revolution. The strides Cuba has taken towards the elimination of poverty, towards the provision of basic services to its citizens and towards achieving an equal society have been impressive enough to make the accusation that it is not democratic pale in comparison.

The bogey of human rights violations, Gestapo-style knocks on the door in the early hours are exaggerations sedulously cultivated by successive US regimes that have propped up the most autocratic and brutal of dictators and have been guilty of human rights violations on a massive scale, beginning with Vietnam and, unfortunately, probably not ending with Abu Ghraib.

It is probably fair to note in this context that at least some of Cuba's tribula- tions have been forced upon it by the US's crippling economic embargo on Cuba.

It is also fair to note, in this context, that this embargo is immoral and, in that sense, illegal - because there are no grounds for the US to characterise Cuba as inimical.

The enormity of the US's unceasing attempts to destabilise Cuba may well come back to haunt it, with the establishment of a coalition of hostile regimes in what it considered its backyard. But that, as Castro keeps saying in a sort of verbal tic, is another story.

One can hardly do a review of Castro's life - his autobiography is, in fact, frugally titled My Lift - without some reference to his alter ego, Che Guevara.

On balance, Castro's reminiscences put into context Che's role in the Cuban revolution - inspirational, rather than foundational. The very fact that Che Guevara is called Che and Fidel Castro Fidel seems to be a valuable clue to the kind of revolutionary the latter was.

In his country, and perhaps in Latin America as a whole, Castro is an inspirational leader, who helped Che in fomenting revolution throughout the region and is now the exemplar for left-of-centre, anti US regimes. But Castro, it emerges clearly, is more of a builder, not to mention survivor.

His rendition testifies hugely to the qualities that accompany a builder of something as complex and endurable as the successful Cuban revolution - acuity, an intellectual expansiveness, an almost pedantic attention to detail and, not least, a generosity of spirit that allows accommodation.

Castro clearly knows the need for building bridges and has the temperamental wherewithal to do so. That he has never harboured a simplistic anti-Americanism despite over 500 assassination attempts on him inspired by several regimes in Washington must be more than abundant testimony to his pragmatic, accommodative way of going about business. <b3>

That is perhaps one of the important reasons why he is not a poster boy in the liberal world. There is a lot of fevered speculation about what will happen after Castro demits office - a lot of hands in Washington will be rubbed in anticipation of the demise of the revolution in Cuba and the triumphant imposition of US hegemony But on the evidence that Castro provides of the revolutionary regime, the systems that he has been instrumental in creating, Castro is not indispensable to the survival of Cuba as a socialist country, not least because the Cuban revolution has deep nationalistic roots.

No matter what the emigres plotting away in Florida might believe, the support of the majority of Cubans is behind Castro.

What emerges in sharp focus from this testament is that Castro is as Cuban as he is a revolutionary leader and that he has toiled ceaselessly for what he has believed is the greater good of the Cuban people - that is a conclusion that most people should find simply incontestable. If they don't, they should read My Life.

Suhit Sen is Deputy Editor, Down to Earth