Was Fidel a “Dictator?” A Personal Account

Given the current  U.S. media market, I could start my article about Fidel Castro thus:

“Contrary to Donald Trump’s reputation, Fidel Castro had a reputation as ‘el caballo— ‘the horse.’  Could organ envy be the real impetus for Trump’s rants against Castro?  However, this is a serious article about a serious leader.  So let’s start here:

“Tell you what a bad guy Castro is. Since Castro came, you can get no narcotics… and there are no prostitutes there. He’s really screwed it up for vacationers. He’s really an a– hole, this guy.”    —Lenny Bruce

In 1992, I was one of a handful of international journalists granted a visa to remain on the blockaded island of Cuba a year longer than the usual month or two allotted visitors. The resulting memoir, Through the Wall:  A Year in Havana, from which parts of this article are extracted, traces my experience as a Mexico City-born daughter of a blacklisted Hollywood producer to 1993 Havana, where my radical ideals were challenged by what has become known as the bleakest year of the Cuban revolution.

During my first visit to Cuba several years prior, whenever I had probed to see whether Cubans felt they were living in a dictatorship, they  had surprised me by defending  “Fidel” with indignation, as if I had just insulted their mother.  Much of this changed in the Special Period.

The first time I saw Fidel from afar at a Havana New Year’s celebration, he was a tiny green sprite with a white beard.   “The madman of the pure heart who has been called a ubiquitous elf, or the wind that rouses each Cuban,” wrote Mexican poet Jaime Sabines. Whenever the scarcity of the times got to us, Fidel would always pop up on the television, captivate us and, no matter how much we resolved to differ with him, inspire us to go on.

The final time I saw Fidel, passing right by me in a corridor as I interviewed some delegates at the Sao Paolo Forum, he looked more like a green giant, gargantuan in throughwallstature. I  could see the scratchy scraggly quality of his beard, the life in his eyes.  I had such a longing to thank him for improving the lives of millions of non-Cuban Latin Americans, including my own boy friend, who were far poorer than those of us reading this article, I switched off my tape recorder.  This upset the politicians I was interviewing from Mexico’s Revolutionary Democratic Party or PRD.   They had been advocating for a policy of zero tariffs for imports into Mexico, a policy which has transferred profits and resources from third world countries to first world countries, bankrupting Mexican industries.

It is a policy Fidel warned against in the last speech I heard him pronounce live at this Forum. He rattled statistics with decimals and triple commas off the top of his head as easily as a U.S. TV junkie might recall television trivia on Jeopardy:

Nobody can claim that objective or subjective conditions are favorable at this time for building socialism. I believe that at the present time there are other priorities… The most important battle in Latin America today is, in my opinion, to defeat neoliberalism, because if we don’t—we will disappear as independent states and will become more of a colony than the “Third World” countries ever were.”

Whether or not history will absolve or condemn the only president I’ve personally heard addressed by his first name, depends on whether this history is written from a “First World” or “Third World”  perspective.  The following conversation I recorded for my memoir, Through the Wall, A Year in Havana illustrates this. Guillermo is my boyfriend and we are discussing whether or not Fidel is a dictator.

“Look how people in Bolivia camped out for days to hear Fidel when he visited. The poor there don’t think he’s a dictator.” Guillermo, the only non-Cuban besides myself in the restaurant points out.

“Así eh,” Ulises laughs, swallowing the final ‘s’ as all Cubans do.  He passes a kerchief over his perfectly smooth scalp where little beads of perspiration have formed. His skin is a highly polished, dark mahogany, muscles so taut, he looks like the subject of a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.

“Did you hear you new Bolivian president, the guy they call ‘El Gringo,’ Lozada something?  When Fidel leaves Bolivia, El Gringo says, ‘Now I’m going to have to start a new campaign to remind people who their real president is.’”  We laugh at Ulises’ rendition of the U.S.-raised, Bolivian president’s inadvertent massacre of the Spanish language.

Alberto exhales some smoke. “As I was saying, this is a military hierarchy in civilian clothing and Fidel’s the general.”

“In military clothing,” Sixto says.

Alberto smiles. “Promotions are still handled the way they were in the Sierra Maestra. No one wants to disagree because of the power involved.”

“Yeah but, Alberto,” Guillermo’s gesturing wildly. “Tell me in what dictatorship is everyone housed and fed and given free education and health care? What dictator gives the people the right to vote him out of office?”

“Oh that’s too easy!” Alberto laughs. “¡El Caballo!  Fidel Castro! Do I win?”

“Whatever his style,” Guillermo rails, “we may learn twenty years from now that Fidel’s was the most efficient way, maybe the only way of keeping Cuba afloat in a sea of corporate greed.”

“Gracias,” Ulises says, raising his near-empty glass to greet Guillermo’s in mid-air with a clank. “But you’re leaving out one important fact. And that’s that, like countless numbers of Cubans, I fought in the revolution. I spent my life living with the bugs, the demotions, the terrible errors, the criticism, all of it. Thousands of Cubans died for this– Fidel did not make this revolution alone,” Ulises waves his long index finger in the air for emphasis. “That’s not to say the man isn’t a genius,” Ulises adds, punctuating the point with his finger.

“Why else would the U.S. government have made dozens of attempts on his life?” an impassioned Guillermo waves his glass around. “They only go after people who threaten too many profits. Guillermo looks down at his empty glass, clicks his tongue. “Caramba,” he sighs.

Sixto gently speaks up. “What the Santeros say about the white dove that landed on Fidel’s shoulder must be true, ¿qué no? Even murderers who spent the night sleeping next to him changed their minds by morning. Something has protected him throughout all those attempts.”

My own views on Fidel are pieced together from such conversations and my international research. According to Carollee Bengelsdorf’s:  The Problem of Democracy in Cuba (Oxford University Press)  after the triumph of the revolution, the pro-Martí faction of Cubans, which included Fidel and Che Guevara, didn’t want their system to resemble the U.S.S.R.  They wanted to remain true to Martí’s dream of a society constructed “with all” and “for the good of all.”  Thus they hesitated in creating any permanent government structures. I like to think of this as the anarchic period in Cuba.

Traditionally, direct worker control of industry, income and the policies affecting one’s own life without an intermediary state or vanguard—the ultimate “withering away of the state”—has been the goal on which anarchists and radical socialists alike can agree, but differ on the means.

Unfortunately, in the absence of structure, there’s an unconscious tendency to return to the previous status quo; it takes more than a generation to change the consciousness of people. Thus, though attempts were made to implement direct democracy, what emerged instead, contrary to intentions, was the same paternalism and vertical chain of command in place during colonial times.

The absence of formal structures also meant there were no structures in place to safeguard Cubans’ basic civil rights, no checks and balances. If a Cuban had a problem, she would go directly to Fidel. Rather than create a democratic process by which citizens could solve their own problems, Fidel in turn, took it upon himself to solve such miniscule problems as broken refrigerators. Thus people grew increasingly dependent on him and Fidel began to believe he was the only one capable of solving his compatriot’s problems.

Now that Fidel has passed, the success of the new human Che envisioned will be tested. If these young people genuinely feel as though they have input, if they are sufficiently educated to withstand being bought off by foreign investors or seduced by consumerism as Che and Fidel envisioned, to the extent that a capitalist global economy permits, the revolution will continue and Cuba will have beat all the odds again.

On the other hand, if this “new being,” accustomed to European-style health care, education, adequate housing and food, expects to continue developing to her greatest potential, but instead hits her head on a glass ceiling–a ceiling imposed either by Cuba’s impoverished status as a former colony or by the Old  pro-Soviet Guard’s refusal to allow her input into her own future–this could lead to the revolution’s defeat. One thing that is certain, regardless of their level of dissatisfaction, not a single Cuban I’ve ever talked to wants to replace their system with the inequitable capitalist economic system we have here in the United States—provided Cubans are given a choice.

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