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Maximum Leader

May 2024
5min read

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.

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?”

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