Fidel Castro is one of the great men of the past fifty years. Even his bitterest enemies acknowledge this by their continuing attempts to destroy the man and the revolution he is identified with. In 2003, journalist Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le monde diplomatique, began a series of lengthy conversations with Fidel that were recently published in English. This collection of interviews taking place over two years, titled Fidel Castro: My Life, is a history and autobiography of a man who is not only a revolutionary, but the leader of a country that has maintained its national integrity and independence in the face of one of history’s longest economic blockades and has stared down the biggest empire in the history of humankind while doing so.
My Life is not necessarily a balanced account of Fidel or the Cuban revolution, but then again it is an autobiography. That means the subject is telling his version of events. At the same time it is not an egocentric adventure in braggadocio. The picture that comes across in these (almost) 700 pages of interviews is of a man who strives to maintain his humility, refuses to take credit for events and programs that he rightly credits to the Cuban people and their government, and still retains a sense of humor about his history and his legacy. This isn’t to say there are not flashes of arrogance or elements of egoism, yet the picture that emerges is of a man quite aware of the potential for someone of his stature to allow human frailties such as these to overcome his better self. Indeed, the struggle against those frailties appears on these pages, too.
Despite the neverending attempts by the Cubans that left Cuba after the victory of the Revolution in 1959 and their co-conspirators in the US government to destroy both Fidel and the government he is identified with, Fidel exudes optimism. His answers to Ramonet’s questions refer constantly to the power of the Cuban people, their general belief in the principles of the revolution, their educational system, their culture and their fortitude in what they call the Battle of Ideas. Where many northern progressives see nothing but despair and hopelessness, Fidel sees cause for hope in the struggle against capitalist globalization. His intimate involvement in the Cuban struggle for independence and socialism since the early 1950s has provided him with a comprehension of history that very few other humans have-especially those still involved in the struggle for social and economic justice. This understanding and experience alone makes the lessons and thoughts in this book worthwhile.
Ramonet asks Fidel tough questions regarding Cuba’s treatment of some of its dissidents and its use of the death penalty. Fidel answers these questions in a direct manner that explains Havana’s reasoning for its actions. He discusses the role the CIA and the right-wing Miami Cubans play in financing and organizing many of the so-called dissidents and he discusses mistakes the Cuban government has made in its attempts to respond to the legitimate criticisms of these people and other Cubans that disagree with various policies of their government. At the same time, he stands steadfast in his support for the revolution and against those who would destroy what the revolution has accomplished. He decries Washington’s meddling in Cuba’s economy and politics and sets the record straight regarding various accusations made by Washington regarding Cuba’s intentions and agreements with other nations.
Some of the most historically interesting sections of the book include his reminiscences of Che and the early days of the revolution. His account of the failed attempt on the Moncado barracks in 1953 and the time the rebels spent in the Sierra Maestro after Fidel’s release from prison in 1956 are revealing in that they show how a revolutionary must learn from their mistakes. This segment is, among other things, an intelligent multilayered defense of the Cuban revolution and Fidel’s commitment to that revolution. Details of episodes in Cuban and Latin American history are provided that are important not only for their source and the new facts they involve, but also because of Fidel’s way of placing them in a historical context many readers may not have known or considered. His recollections of various world leaders he has locked horns with or met and worked with are objective and respectful. His commentary on the current situation of the world reveals a man whose mind is sharp and whose thinking is framed by an understanding of economics and history and is driven by a desire for economic and social justice.
Fidel exhibits a sense of history rarely found among US political leaders. Even on those rare occasions that a mainstream political figure appears in the United States that does know their history, it is usually a history without graciousness and with plenty of imperial arrogance. Fidel’s understanding, on the other hand, is both gracious and intellectually thorough. It is not the historical understanding of a culture that has traded in any sense of history for the bluster of the bomb and the dollar, but the understanding of a culture that knows that history is more than destruction and conquest.
People on the left should read this book. Even if they (rightly or wrongly) disagree with Fidel, they will find his ideas and belief in humanity inspiring. People in the middle of the political spectrum should read it too. They will walk away with a new understanding of the Cuban revolution and, more importantly, a different way of perceiving their world. People on the right should also read it. They will walk away with a new respect for a man and country that is their most stalwart foe.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com