Thursday, November 29, 2007

Castro biography a lost opportunity

Castro biography a lost opportunity
5:00AM Friday November 30, 2007
By Jason Burke

My Life by Fidel Castro, with Ignacio Ramonet, translated by Andrew
Hurley Published by Allen Lane

In the early afternoon of December 5, 1956, Fidel Castro, then aged 30,
and around 80 followers settled down to spend the night on a small hill
surrounded by sugarcane fields and woods in Cuba's Alegria de Pio. Three
days earlier, they had disembarked from a motor yacht, the Granma,
ending an exile that started on their release from prison a year
previously after a failed and bloody attempt to overturn the corrupt,
inegalitarian regime of Fulgencio Batista. Now, they hoped to succeed
where they had failed before.

The group had been resting only a short time when a government spotter
plane flew overhead. Then fighter jets buzzed the woods where they were
hiding. An hour later, the first shots came as government infantry
closed in. Castro's men were scattered in the ensuing fighting. By
nightfall, the young revolutionary's force was reduced to three men,
with two rifles and 120 rounds.

After three more years of guerrilla activity, Castro seized power in
Cuba and, having survived the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, the
Cuban missile crisis and around 650 assassination attempts, he is still
at the head of the small island nation.

Castro is now 81 and ailing. The young man who was caught in the woods
by government soldiers in 1956 is still President, but his powers are
delegated to his brother Raul. Cuba and the world are preparing for the
post-Castro era. It is far from certain the transition will be smooth.

Castro has always fascinated observers. Cuba's continued opposition to
the United States, its links with Moscow, his role in the non-aligned
movement and the life and legend of Che Guevara, have all vested the
country's recent history with a value that far exceeds its actual
historical importance.

Yet, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cuba has become a symbol of
a world view and an ideology, a standard-bearer and a standard at the
same time.

Ignacio Ramonet, editor of the dogmatically left-wing Le Monde
Diplomatique, has secured astonishing access to the Cuban leader.
Ramonet tells us, rightly proud, that Castro sat reading proofs of his
book following critical surgery on his intestines last year. Sadly, the
result of the hundreds of hours that Ramonet spent with Castro is

An opportunity to write the definitive biography of one of the world's
most important historical leaders has gone whistling. Instead, we have
700 pages of straight question and answer interviews which, not aided by
a fairly leaden translation from the original Spanish, somehow succeed
in being of limited interest, not an easy task given the nature of the
raw material.

To say that Ramonet is uncritical would be an understatement.
Occasionally, he poses a more difficult question to Castro, who has
ruled a single-party state for nearly 50 years, mentioning that some
dare to call the Cuban leader a "dictator", and raising the political
repression that has been a persistent feature of his rule. Yet as the
introduction makes abundantly clear, the author is a fan.

"Few men have known the glory of entering the pages of both history and
legend while they are still alive. Fidel is one of them," Ramonet tells
us on the third page. We also learn, fairly predictably, that "ideas
bubble in a brilliant stream" from this "quick strategic thinker" who is
"moved by humanitarian compassion and internationalist solidarity" and
"likes precision, accuracy, exactitude, punctuality".

We learn that "under [Castro's] leadership, his little country has even
stared down the United States, whose leaders have not been able to
overthrow him or kill him, or even jostle the revolution off its path".

We learn, that Castro is a man who in private is affable, courteous,
considerate and frugal.

Thankfully, Castro is a good raconteur and not averse to speaking at
length about episodes such as the battles in the mountains that led him
to power. This breaks up the long, slow plod through fairly turgid
Marxist interpretations of world history, sophomoric anti-Americanism
and some fairly haphazard analysis of contemporary foreign affairs: "In
England, the jails are full of Irish prisoners who had political,
patriotic motives."

Castro's account of dragging an asthmatic Guevara through the Cuban
hills in a downpour with hundreds of government troops in wet, cold
pursuit is genuinely gripping and, in later parts of the book, his
thumbnail sketches of other world leaders, are entertaining. Castro's
thoughts are also stimulating when he talks about guerrilla warfare.

It was, he tells Ramonet, Hemingway's great Spanish Civil War novel, For
Whom the Bell Tolls, that allowed him and his fighters "to actually see
the experience of an irregular struggle, from the political and military
point of view".

"'That book became a familiar part of my life. And we always went back
to it, consulted it, to find inspiration," Castro says. And it is this
image - of the ragged, bearded revolutionary, carbine to hand, reading
Hemingway in the Cuban hills - that has always clung to Castro and has
aided him hugely.

For Ramonet, like millions of others, Castro is not a controversial
dictator with a mixed record who has traced an interesting historical
course, but the figurehead of opposition to the global hegemony of the
US and the other great, related bogeyman of the European left. And
wreathed in legend, he can do no wrong. There is, of course, no
discussion of whether "neoliberal globalisation" - a nefarious attempt
to impose unbridled capitalism on the world's suffering, impoverished
masses - actually exists; it is taken as a given.

Towards the end of the lengthy introduction, Ramonet comments on the
role of the journalist. "Apparently, some people believe that
journalistic courage consists of lazily repeating the 'facts' and
interpretations sung in chorus by the mass media over the past five
decades," he says, clearly implying that he is of a different stamp. A
few paragraphs later, the reader learns that "this ... book has ... been
totally revised, amended and completed personally by Fidel Castro".

- Observer

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