21 Dec VI. Goodbye Comandante, Goodbye Siglo XX
A rare photo of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara hangs off the wall in a Cuban home. Were the two to meet in the otherworld, would Guevara now be the one tapping on Fidel’s chest with an air of admonishment? The Commander in Chief who beleaguered 11 American presidents died on the 26th of November, leaving his beard untrimmed and the dream of a socialist world order unaccomplished. Having entrusted the fate of Cuba to his brother, who inherited full powers from him in 2008, Fidel leaves a country struggling to catch up with the world and torn between its eventful past and a hazy future. The legacy of the Cuban revolution and its leader is already written indelibly in history books. But how enduring will it be amongst Cuba’s civil society and how will it survive the inevitable modernisation of Cuba’s economic program and political institutions? Will it all soon become no more than just “Yesterday’s Papers”?
In many respects, the cuban revolution was Fidel Castro, it came to be identified with him, they became synonyms. After Castro overthrew Batista, he did not establish representative democracy and the constitution of 1940; instead, he increasingly centralised power into his own hands. Castro served as Prime Minister, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, President of the Council of Ministers and President of the Republic for a total of 49 years. This is longer than any other other head of government. There is generally little sympathy for the notion that it is a sound idea to have the same person run a country for half a century, especially when this person is free to make arbitrary use of coercion. El Comandante en Jefe was both a charismatic and controversial figure, and the Cuba of contrasts noted in the previous articles somewhat a reflection of his personality. Even his death inspires either extreme sorrow or joy as Cubans in Miami predictably sang and danced in the streets upon receiving the news.
Detractors say Castro was nothing more than a cunning megalomaniac who controlled the country via an army and a secret police rapidly put together after the Revolution with the help of his brother. In the meantime, popular reforms kept his popularity through the roof whilst he proceeded to annihilate private initiative in the economy. It is a well-known fact that he was morbidly obsessed with details, unshakeably convinced of his own rightness, stubbornly intolerant of critiques, and chronically ill-disposed to compromise. The Economist’s briefing column after his death, titled, ‘The will to power’, reads: “The Cuban revolution was above all an expression of Mr Castro’s will and unbridled exercise of his massive ego”. Not long ago, I read a few lines by italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, jotted down on his way back from Cuba in 1964. Perhaps frustrated by the fruitless attempts to publish a book co-authored by Castro he grumbles:
“I have very mixed feelings about this man. He is a sort of Garibaldi, utterly inapt to government work, incapable of working, reasoning and hard thinking. Impulsive. Rhetorical. High Pitched. Ideologically confused […] he looks so confident in himself, of things learned and memorised disorderedly, of the overheard cliches, that talking to him is useless. He does not listen […].”
Regardless of one’s fondness for democracy, it is difficult to argue that enlightened absolutism is a definitive antidote to ochlocracy, the government of the ignorant, tasteless mob. Any version of Plato’s philosopher king has failed the trial of history and Castro’s case will not be the exception to the rule. He always said to be confident about the future of Cuba “because the ideas of the revolution are so deep-rooted in the Cuban people that it will be difficult to eradicate them”. I would not be so sure. But I must candidly admit that it is difficult to shake off the romanticism, the utopia, the hope which emanate from the images of bearded cuban revolutionary heroes. Just read the quote from one of Fidel’s speeches in the gym above; it was chosen by the cuban newspaper grandma to be published the day after his death.
It was very difficult to find, amongst the ‘generation of the centenary’, that is, Fidel’s contemporaries, and at least among one or two of the following generations, people with a genuine distaste for the revolution and its Comandante. To be sure, depriving the image of Fidel Castro of the ideals and aspirations it came to stand for leaves little besides his charisma and political astuteness, which per se constitute no reason to hold a leader in high esteem. On the contrary, what one is left with is the profile of a tyrant. Yet, at times of profound distress for an entire society, culminating in the 1968 protest movements, “probably no other head of state […] had more enthusiastic listeners than this bearded man […]”. Fidel’s relentless struggle to preserve his revolution and the relevance of his message unchanged has ended and, with him, perishes the XX century. Strolling around Havana, we tried to imagine the days when the revolution became “a sort of collective honeymoon. Where would it lead? Somewhere there must have been a better future”. How close is that future to a present when, with an ironic twist of fate, on the other side of the Florida Straits the result of democratic elections sends a message to the world that people are democratically choosing fear over hope.
Photo by Marco Crupi.