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Monday, March 28, 2016

“Fidel: A Critical Portrait”, by Tad Szulc

703 pages, William Morrow & Co., ISBN-13: 978-0688046453

First published in 1985 and, hence, dated, Fidel: A Critical Portrait by Tad Szulc is still an exhaustive (700+ pages) and encompassing work, but, sadly, full of weaknesses from start to finish, such as vague references to unidentifiable sources, striking generalizations, and a lack of solid historical background. But perhaps the basic problem is that the author seems reluctant to renounce old illusions about Castro and his revolution, and thus his criticisms (and he does have some) are softened throughout by a flow of praise.

Szulc submerges many of the negative aspects of Castro’s character in an interminable paean to his charisma, energy, wisdom, courage, and generosity. More than 200 pages are devoted by Szulc to a loving description of Castro’s early years, only 54 to his “maturity”; the reader is thus spared no detail of the Fidel legend. We are told repeatedly that he has been brave since childhood, has a splendid memory, an overwhelming personality, and encyclopedic knowledge. Castro, Szulc writes, can dazzle bishops with his theological arguments, economists with his command of statistics, intellectuals with philosophical insight, and gourmets with recipes. Such a scholar is he that during the guerrilla campaigns in the mountains he sometimes issued his orders in Latin! True, Szulc concedes, Castro is a poor poet, but even so he won a first prize in poetry once by simply charming the jury. In short, by Szulc’s account Castro deserves to bear the motto of a Spanish knight of the 16th Century: Excedió a todos en todo; he exceeds everyone in everything.

Despite his unbounded admiration, Szulc does, it is true, adduce enough facts to demolish most of the Castro legend. He is especially forthcoming with evidence that exposes the absolute falsehood of one of the most durable myths of the Cuban revolution: the notion that it was the lack of understanding and support from the United States that pushed Castro into the Soviet embrace. Szulc demonstrates that from the very beginning, Castro had no intention of establishing a democratic government in Cuba. He carefully hid his true political intentions, going to such lengths, immediately after victory, as to establish a secret government to control Cuba. His clash with the United States was a coldly calculated move to reinforce and justify his personal power. To be sure, errors committed by Washington eased the process, but Castro’s goal had been set well in advance. In view of the evidence provided by Szulc, it can be argued that it was Castro who pushed the Soviet Union into the Caribbean and not the other way around.

It is a pity that after supplying all this valuable information on the colossal deceit perpetrated by Castro, Szulc avoids examining the most tragic consequence of that deceit. Many Cubans who believed Castro’s democratic promises paid dearly for the trust they placed in him. After his victory, leaders of the rebel army and members of the 26th of July Movement, labor leaders, and underground fighters, all found themselves facing firing squads or in prison, branded “traitors” by the leader who had betrayed them. Szulc knows this. He mentions some names from a long list of revolutionaries who were punished for remaining loyal to the initial promises made by Castro. He even alludes to the difference between the treatment meted out to political prisoners in Castro’s Cuba and the treatment Fidel himself received in Batista’s prisons, where he was allowed to read voraciously, to cook his own food, and to receive visitors. But he suspends judgment on this difference, preferring to remind us again of Fidel’s inner generosity and charisma. He cannot, however, avoid a note of melancholy in his final, summary chapter on the last 20 years in Cuba (circa 1985), and that inevitably somber tone may perhaps be more significant than anything else in the book.

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