Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fidel's view

My review of Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography, as told by Fidel Castro to Ignacio Ramonet, is the lead book review in today's Miami Herald. As Herald links tend to become defunct after a few week's time, following tradition, I am reposting the review in its entirety here. To read the original review, please click on the link below.


Fidel's view

The lack of hard-nosed questioning by the interviewer disappoints, but the drama of the dictator's life remains.

Posted on Sun, Jan. 27, 2008


The Miami Herald

(Read the original review here)

FIDEL CASTRO: MY LIFE: A Spoken Autobiography.

Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet. Andrew Hurley, translator. Scribner. 724 pages. $40.

Deeply flawed but still fascinating, Cuban leader Fidel Castro's sprawling attempt at autobiography -- as told to Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of the left-wing French monthly Le Monde diplomatique -- represents perhaps the most sustained document yet extant of Castro's vision of himself and the nation he has ruled for almost 50 years.

The product of more than 100 hours of interviews conducted in Havana between 2003 and 2005, the book opens with an introduction by Ramonet that lets the reader know that any semblance of a vigorous interrogation in the book's 700-plus page Q&A format will not be in the offing.

Cuba is ''part of the vast offensive against neoliberalism and globalization'' in which ''the vindication of the figure of Fidel Castro (has) never been so strong,'' Ramonet writes before announcing that, at any rate, he never intended to be too confrontational in the questions put to his subject.

Fortunately, with a life rich in drama and with a subject as skilled in the nuances of sustained public speaking as Castro, there is still plenty here of interest.

Castro's accounts of his incipient rebel movement's disastrous attack on the Moncada Barracks in July 1953 (an attempt to oust the dictator Fulgencio Batista that resulted in the deaths of around 70 of the 160 men fighting and in Castro's imprisonment) and his later account of the guerrilla war against Batista's troops in the mountains of eastern Cuba make for riveting reading. Likewise, Castro's long ruminations on the person and legacy of the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara (whom Castro describes as having had ``a presence so strong, so powerful, so intense that you can't manage to conceive that [he is] dead''), and his dealings with the Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis, add a welcome new personal dimension to already well-documented historical events.

In Castro's view of the world, whether admitting to supplying weapons to Algerian independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella's FLN in 1961 or to El Salvador's FMLN rebels in the 1970s, or in his fits of pique against the Soviet Union (''They negotiated everything without consulting us,'' he says bitterly and probably accurately), he speaks of a vision of Cuba as a global player in some of the great political struggles of the second half of the 20th century. Clearly, Castro seems to be saying, Cuba had an historical role to play in global liberation movements from Africa to Latin America, and the country under his leadership didn't shrink from its responsibility.

In the face of his garrulous subject, though, Ramonet appears to have a hard-time prioritizing different aspects of the book's narrative. Guevara's death during a guerrilla campaign in Bolivia warrants an entire chapter, but then again, Ramonet appears to think, so does former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's largely inconsequential 2002 visit to the island.

Diffuseness is not the book's Achilles heel, however, which instead comes from the over-awed nature of the questioner himself. Castro has a rather prickly attitude toward criticism, so it's likely that, with a less star-struck interviewer, this book might not exist at all. But it is hard not to be bothered by Ramonet's credulity, which often veers dangerously close to hagiography.

Castro's claims regarding Cuba's human rights record go unchallenged by undue mention of his government's systematic imprisonment of such writers as Reinaldo Arenas and Raúl Rivero, or human rights activists such as Oscar Elías Biscet (currently serving a 25-year sentence in a Cuban jail). Castro's explanation of the 1989 show trial and execution on drug trafficking and treason charges of Arnaldo Ochoa, a general whose independence and popularity were said to be viewed as a threat by the Cuban leader, rings brutally hollow, and Ramonet blithely allows the opportunity for a more rigorous examination of one of the most shadowy elements of recent Cuban history to slip away.

Similarly, some of Castro's more outlandish statements, such as that Batista's government (however wretched and violent) was guilty of ''genocide'' and that the United States supplied nuclear weapons to the apartheid regime in South Africa -- a charge for which no evidence at all exists -- are unquestioningly accepted. While lauding the country's progress in health care and education, Ramonet appears supremely unbothered that Castro leads a tightly controlled single-party state where public criticism of the government and its leader are strictly prohibido.

One concludes that, with more ambition and more objectivity, and by supplementing his unparalleled access to Cuba's leader with interviews from other sources pivotal in his history, personal and political, Ramonet could have well come up with a touchstone work of biography. Unfortunately, though, with its uncritical tone and unquestioning, doctrinaire approach, Fidel Castro, while interesting for the window it gives us into the thoughts and analysis of one of the 20th century's most important and iconic political figures, leaves the opportunity for the definitive portrait of this complex world figure yet to be written.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

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