Maximum Leader

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What was the nature of the spell Castro wove over his masses? Géorgie Anne Geyer, a foreign correspondent and syndicated columnist, asked herself as she began work on the biography Guerrilla Prince, the Untold Story of Fidel Castro . Now, after six years of research and five hundred interviews conducted in twenty-eight countries, she has a pretty good idea.

When the victorious young revolutionary Fidel Castro marched into Havana the first week of January 1959, the world cheered. “Fidel” had come down from the mountaintops—like Mao Tse-tung, like Moses, like Christ himself—to bring democracy and freedom to a long-suffering Cuban people.

Those battles in the Sierra Maestra were immediately transmogrified into legend, his tactics admired and mimed. Fidel himself came to be the prototype of Everyman’s fight against dictatorship and oppression in the second half of the twentieth century.

How, then, could it all have gone so bad? How could it have happened that today, thirty-two years later, that same man, now more readily referred to as “Castro,” should be declared “the last Communist,” “the final tyrant,” “the destroyer of Cuba and corrupter of the Cuban Revolution”? Therein lies a complicated story, rich in the darker hues of character and ominous in many of its implications for the world. But above all, the answers are to be found in exploring anew all those “common wisdoms” that the world has accepted about Fidel Castro for all these years.

Fidel Castro is a typical product of a Cuba long traumatized by dictatorship and political hopelessness.

Actually, Fidel is far more a product of Spain than of Cuba. His father, Angel Castro, came as a poor boy from the impoverished northwestern Spanish province of Galicia to fight in the war of 1898 against the americanos . It seems surprising only at first that in later years the presidente of Cuba, Fidel Castro, developed a father-son relationship with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. When Franco died, in 1975, Fidel announced a full week of mourning in Cuba. Franco had already told his ambassadors why: Fidel was a Spaniard, a Gallego caudillo (Spanish commander) and a guerrilla fighter, just like himself.

Although the young Fidel tried from time to time to burn down his family home and his father’s car, he was from a rich and privileged family.

The half-truths here define the boy. Angel Castro became an extremely wealthy man—a millionaire by the time he died—but the family was contradictorily rough, rude, and rustic. Angel, as indiscriminate about methods and means as his son would later be, made his money by going out at night and “moving the fences” to get ever more land. After having a passel of children with Lina, the family maid, the two finally married in order to send Fidel to Catholic schools. But there was never any of the traditionally rich Cuban family feeling. Manners were so unpolished that Lina would throw the food on the table, and the whole family would rush in and eat—standing up. Later admirers of el señor presidente Fidel Castro would say to me with awe, “He is so busy, he has so many things to do—why, he eats standing up!”

Fidel would have led Cuba on a democratic path, but the United States’s incorrigible hostility to Cuban democracy turned him to Communism.

There is not one sign, not in his entire life, of any attraction toward democracy. Indeed, at the Jesuits’ aristocratic high school of Belén, where he studied in Havana, his heroes were Hitler and Mussolini. He carried a Spanish-language copy of Mein Kampf around with him and traced the Axis victories across a map in his room.

Still, it would be utterly misleading to say that Fidel was a Nazi, or even a Fascist. He was simply studying and looking for ways to power. It was the 1930s and early 1940s; these men were the archetypes of supreme power in their age. But neither was Fidel ever a Communist. That implies an ideological commitment, a leap of faith, and Fidel had neither. He was, and is, a Spanish caudillo, believing in himself, in his total power, and in his charismatic “spell” over the people.

As for the United States, he moved with his extraordinary decisiveness at every turn to cut all American political and cultural influence out of the Cuban body politic. Take, for instance, his vaunted trip to the United States in April 1959, when President Eisenhower is supposed to have shunned him. Actually, Castro utterly forbade his economic advisers to even speak to Washington about aid; the last thing on earth he wanted were a lot of officious americanos running around Cuba, telling him what to do with “his” country! What the world missed was that his war of liberation was only secondarily for Cuban development; it was primarily a fight to liberate Cuba from the hated Americans. That he certainly accomplished.

Fidel is an austere man of simple habits whose personal life is obscure because he is so modest and private.