The dictator meets his match in the shape of Thomas Corcoran
As time draws the twilight of his days into the realms of dusk, Fidel Castro occupies first place in the hall of the twentieth century’s great survivors. Since he took power on the island of Cuba, he has seen ten of the forty-three US presidents pass by: Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. In those heady days of 1959, Buddy Holly was hogging primetime radio and The Beatles were struggling to get a gig at the Cavern Club. The changes in the geopolitical environment since then have been immense, but rather than being left behind, Castro seems to have moved along with those changes and indeed acted as a symbol of them. From national guerilla leader to South American legend, from enemy of Amereican imperialism to Soviet client, from post-war leftover to grandfather of the anti-Bush New Left "Pink Tide": Castro seems to embody the history of the Radical Left, past and present.
The days of this frail, bed-ridden figure are drawing to a close, and he has finally decided to tell his story, if in a somewhat unconventional manner: Ignacio Ramonet, who is editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and on the faculty at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has interviewed him for over a hundred hours and put down the results in a tome of over seven hundred pages. Yet, rather than moulding these interviews into a coherent, structured whole, Ramonet has simply regurgitated them in the form of an enormous series of question and answers, and we are denied even a dialogue of limited sophistication. Such a format is wholly appropriate for a Communist dictator, but completely unsuited to a biography of any form. For biography seeks to present to us aspects of an individual’s personality with which we have been unacqauinted, yet in this instance even the most intimately personal details of Fidel’s extra-political life are somehow bound up as part of a broad political doctrine. Even his beatings by his father are presented as important steps in the early life of a strong leader.
In fact, Castro comes across not only as a soulless dictator, but as an incredibly boring man. The events he describes – his early life in a Jesuit college, his student radicalism, his guerilla war, his battles with American assassins and relationships with Soviet leaders – should be interesting. But when they are recounted by a man who has descended to such levels of sadness that he prides himself on the fact that his abstinence from shaving saves him about ten working days per year, they induce sleep.
Thus Ramonet has produced an horrendous document here. Not only has he created something gargatuanly tedious, he has done something despicable. He has become an apologist for a dictator; a barely-reluctant instrument of political propaganda in the guise of a biographer. His introduction to the novel reads like it has been written by a bureaeucrat in the Cuban Ministry of Public Information, as he descends from the level of political intellectual to that of idiotic apologist. He calls anybody who opposes Castro (and that includes the entire Cuban pro-democracy movement) an instrument of American imperialism, to be lumped together in the same camp as General Pinochet. The repression of homosexuals and imprisonment of political opponents are swept under the carpet after the briefest of mentions: Fidel’s strange explanations are accepted as gospel truth. We can see why Castro ceremoniously presented this book to Hugo Chavez, the suspiciously dictatorial Socialist "Bolivarian" president of Venezuela who has allied himself with Iran – a nation where to display a Communist symbol is an imprisonable offence. It forms the basis of the propaganda upon which he has thrived since 1959: by appealing to left-of-centre sympathisers across the Western World, Castro has managed to prolong the existence of one of the most idiosyncratic dictatorships the world has ever known. We can only hope that Ramonet does not seek to make similar "biographies" in the future. Though I’m sure Kim Jong-il and Muammar al-Gaddafi would pay good money.