Maximum Leader

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Castro will never go quietly; he will seek some personal Armageddon commensurate with his lifelong quest for grandeur.

Really? Castro was married once, in 1948, to a beautiful, upper-class Cuban girl, Mirta Díaz-Balart, whose father was the lawyer to the hated dictator Fulgencio Batista and to the equally hated United Fruit Company. Fidel managed to make her life miserable, and they were divorced in 1953, but he never stopped being drawn to exactly the same sort of woman. He proposed to two others—the striking Cuban Naty Revuelta and the exquisite Spanish woman Isabel Custodio—and all the women he sought out were particularly lovely, all came from families who were prominent in the Cuban fights for independence, and all were highly Americanized.

While the image went out to the world of a simple man who lived in a walk-up apartment, he actually had elegant hideaways scattered all across Cuba. At his lordly hunting estate, La Vibora, he would call forth the Cuban Air Force to skim the mangroves to scare up the ducks. He even had a complete island, Cayo Piedra, where he received special foreign leaders in utmost privacy. As for his family, he seemed to neglect wholly his own children: Fidelito, his one legitimate child, by Mirta; Alina, his daughter by Naty; and five boys from a longtime alliance with a Cuban woman named Dalia Soto del Valle Jorge.

The truth is that Castro, like so many charismatic leaders, had to keep his personal life secret. He had to remain remote, had to tower above the people in mystery. He had such a superb instinct for gathering power, such a finely tuned personal radar, that he understood this and acted upon it. Castro will go down in history for his uncanny instinctive knowledge of how to use the media and the images of the modern world to control his own people, to create power out of a powerless island, and—through his guerrilla movement, his own troops, and his potent example—to extend his reign across the entire world.

Yes, but there is still the possibility that as his situation sinks lower, as the liberalizing Russians further abandon him, and as he sees that he tied Cuba to a failed ideology, he will make his peace with the United States and democratize the island.

Never. In 1962 at the end of the missile crisis and again in 1983 during the Grenada invasion, Castro wanted to hit the United States, in particular Florida’s Turkey Point nuclear plant, with missiles or bombs. We know that now, from recently released information. If he is really going down, Castro will not hesitate. He will never go quietly into the night; rather, he will seek some personal Armageddon, some apocalyptic nightmare, commensurate with his lifelong quest for grandeur.

Meanwhile, at home in Cuba, the noose tightens. The impoverishment has become so ominous that he is moving two hundred thousand Cubans “back to the countryside,” where they will live off the land. In these “special zones” they are breeding a colonial-era Cuban rat, the jutía , for food. Meanwhile, Castro is so terrified now of a “social explosion” on the island that for the first time he is allowing younger Cubans, men and women in their thirties, to apply to leave the island, thus creating for the United States the danger of a new, “legal” Mariel-style exodus.

The one Cuban institution that he has truly created and allowed to thrive is the military, and it is here that he has found his potential nemesis. For the Cuban military has become divided between his “Sierra Maestra generation,” the men who fought those valiant old battles with him in 1957 and 1958, and the new “Angola generation,” the men who fought the African wars for “liberation,” wars that ended in defeat, as Angola, Mozambique, and even Ethiopia finally came to make their peace with the United States. His fear of the Angola generation could be clearly seen in the summer of 1989, when he executed the finest Cuban general, Arnaldo Ochoa, really for being the hero of that generation and thus a competitor.

So it was that those early battles in the sierra led to a world quite fearfully different for Cuba from the one that engaged so many hopes. But in the end Castro should not be blamed for the images he wove. It was, after all, the world, wanting more a redeemer than a rebel, that chose to believe him and to invest in him its terrible yearnings for the perfect hero. For all his carefully constructed illusion, it was we who made the terrible mistake. We asked everything of him except the answer to one simple question: “Who are you?”