In 1985, Fidel Castro put this question to journalist Tad Szulc: “Will your political and ideological viewpoint allow you to tell objectively my story and the revolution’s story when the Cuban government and I make the necessary material available to you?” An impossible task, perhaps, but nevertheless, Szulc has succeeded admirably in fashioning a critical, yet admiring portrait of Cuba’s “Maximum Leader” while disclaiming any intention of attempting a definitive history of the achievements and problems of the regime over which Castro has presided for more than a quarter century.
Szulc first met Castro in 1959 while a correspondent for The New York Times. Since then, some right-wing cold warriors have accused The New York Times of abetting Castro’s rise to power by portraying him in flattering terms. Szulc’s initial conversations, however, did not take place until shortly after the triumph of the Cuban revolution. The two men next met in 1961 when Castro took the reporter on a tour of the Bay of Pigs battlefield. After a twenty-three-year hiatus Szulc returned to interview Castro for Parade magazine. The idea for a book-length biography germinated from discussions held during a long January weekend in 1984. During subsequent discussions Szulc visited the site of Castro’s imprisonment on the Isle of Pines, climbed the Sierra Maestra to survey Castro’s rebel headquarters, inspected the site where Castro landed on board the Granma upon his return from exile in Mexico, and attended diplomatic receptions at the Palace of the Revolution. Szulc interviewed literally scores of old associates and comrades-in-arms, many of whom occupy high posts in the present regime.
Both the author and his subject believe that personality can be a crucial ingredient in social change. A student of history, Castro built his revolutionary movement on themes espoused by his nineteenth century role model, José Julián Martí: namely, nationalism, radicalism, racial equality, social justice, suspicion of the United States, and agrarian reform. “Dizzyingly imaginative” yet “ruthless and cunning,” Castro, Szulc claims, is both “the hero of humble mankind and, at the same time, the repressive Communist dictator.” Castro’s life, the author concludes, proves the sad theorem that “without power, ideals cannot be realized; with power they seldom survive.”
Castro is a man of paradoxes: both shy and boisterous; an intellectual yet a man of action; a moralist but also a Machiavellian; impulsive and manipulative. Fascinated with political theory as well as religious doctrine, Fidel sees in the “theology of liberation” a synthesis between Christianity and revolutionary socialism.
Szulc found that Castro at times “clearly desired to swathe his past, especially his early youth, in a cocoon of oblivion.” Based largely on oral histories, Fidel: A Critical Portrait is sketchy on Castro’s family life, detailed on the political activities of his law-school years, and absolutely riveting on his seemingly hopeless guerrilla activities during the period between Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup d’état and the triumphant march from the Sierra Maestra. Most valuable is the section entitled “The Revolution (1959-1963),” which shows how Castro solidified his power despite the machinations of old-time Communists and the deep-seated American hostility that led to assassination plots, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Missile Crisis. The final section, entitled “The Maturity (1964-1986),” is the weakest; still it contains arresting anecdotes about Cuba’s peripatetic ruler—“frustrated one day, triumphant the next”—who is certain of his own righteousness.
With style and sophistication, Szulc juxtaposes Castro’s political coming of age as a law student in Havana with a synthesis of how Batista thwarted democracy and consolidated his political grip during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. In many ways, university politics mirrored and influenced national developments. Castro emerged as a headstrong but cagey pragmatist whose frenetic activities during a time of gangsterism and factionalism seemed almost suicidal. An admirer of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, he nevertheless was wary of Cuban Communists. Instead, he belonged to the Ortodoxo Party, founded by the charismatic senator Eduardo Chibás. An anti-imperialist, he supported Puerto Rican independence, an end to American control of the Panama Canal, and the overthrow of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. In fact, in 1949 he participated in an aborted invasion of the Dominican Republic, tried to orchestrate a popular revolt against the government of Colombia, and protested the desecration by American sailors of a statue of José Martí in Havana’s Central Park.
Was Castro a Communist prior to taking power, or did American animosity force him into the arms of the Russians? Szulc believes that this frequently debated question oversimplifies the issue and that the Cuban leader was, above all, a...
(The entire section is 2080 words.)