[Marxism] Fidel and friends

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 20 07:30:15 MDT 2009

Fidel and Friends

By Mary Speck
Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Revolutionary Friendship
By Simon Reid-Henry
Walker. 431 pp. $28

A Portrait of the Legendary Friendship Between Fidel Castro and Gabriel 
Garcia Marquez
By Angel Esteban, Stephanie Panichelli
Pegasus. 304 pp. $26

Writers have idealized, vilified and analyzed him since he burst onto 
the international scene from Cuba's Sierra Maestra more than half a 
century ago. Is there anything left to say about Fidel Castro? 
Apparently there is. Two new books promise to unearth hitherto 
undiscovered facets of Castro's character by exploring his famous 
friendships: with the legendary (the word is almost obligatory here) 
Argentine guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara and with Colombia's 
towering literary genius, Gabriel García Márquez, or Gabo.

Simon Reid-Henry's dual biography, "Fidel and Che," opens on the early 
November morning in 1956 when 82 men squeezed onto a shabby 63-foot 
yacht for the voyage from Mexico's Gulf coast to join an insurrection in 
Cuba. Of the original rebels only about 20 lived to fight Gen. Fulgencio 
Batista's government. The others died shortly after their overloaded, 
water-logged vessel, filled with seasick rebels, ran aground on a 
sandbar off southeastern Cuba. The coast guard quickly spotted the 
shipwreck and alerted Batista's forces. As the rebels sought cover in a 
swampy wasteland, the Cuban military gunned them down from air and sea, 
then moved in to capture and execute the survivors.

It was an inauspicious start that might well have been forgotten, like 
so many other failed rebellions in Latin America's long, sad history of 
repression and revolt. That it wasn't testifies to Castro's luck, 
determination and ruthless ambition. Of his lieutenants, none was more 
zealous than Guevara, a wandering physician and (unlike most of the 
rebels) a committed Marxist.

Reid-Henry tells his tale well, a bit too well. Details that might 
complicate the plot -- or tarnish his two revolutionary stars -- get 
only fleeting mention, if any. The author dismisses Guevara's 
responsibility for the summary execution of anywhere from several dozen 
to several hundred people as "swift revolutionary justice" and examines 
it no further. He sums up the public show trials that Castro instigated 
as a "terrible mistake," presumably because many foreign reporters 
reacted with revulsion as crowds filled Havana's stadium, jeering at the 
suspects and calling out for firing squads.

Nowhere has Reid-Henry airbrushed his portraits more carefully than in 
the final chapters on Guevara's disastrous expedition to Bolivia. He 
rejects the idea of a rupture between the two revolutionaries, though it 
is hard to see how Castro could have tolerated his charismatic friend's 
increasingly intemperate criticism of their Soviet allies. The attempt 
to start a revolution from scratch in Bolivia laid bare the heroic myth 
-- cultivated so assiduously (and self-servingly) by Castro and Guevara 
-- that a tiny band of guerrillas could spark mass rebellion. Bolivia's 
small farmers, impoverished though they were, wanted no part of it. 
Reid-Henry refrains from quoting Guevara's own candid analysis in his 
diary: "The peasant base has not yet been developed although it appears 
through planned terror we can neutralize some of them. . . . Not one 
enlistment has been obtained."

But Guevara's execution by the Bolivian military propagated his image -- 
emblazoned in decades to come on the T-shirts of would-be rebels around 
the world -- as a romantic martyr willing to die in a hopeless struggle. 
Castro's reputation has not fared quite so well. Nearly six decades in 
power -- which he finally ceded last year to his not much younger 
brother -- made him modern Latin America's most enduring dictator. Over 
that time nearly all the intellectuals and artists whose applause once 
helped invigorate Castro's revolution have grown disillusioned with his 
government's censorship, arbitrary imprisonments, executions and 
economic ineptitude.

The most notable exception is Gabriel García Márquez. In "Fidel & Gabo," 
Ángel Esteban and Stéphanie Panichelli examine the Nobel prize-winning 
writer's "legendary friendship" (as the subtitle puts it) with Cuba's 
dictator. The authors interviewed literary and political acquaintances 
of both men, though they never managed to speak with their two subjects. 
The result is a book that relies heavily on already published accounts 
and on the gossip the authors manage to elicit from the literati in 
Latin America and Europe.

The Colombian's evident fascination with heads of state -- he has palled 
around not only with Castro but also with Panama's Omar Torrijos, 
France's François Mitterand and Spain's Felipe González, among others -- 
demonstrates only that literary geniuses are not immune to the 
blandishments of power. We learn little about the inner reservations 
García Márquez may have had about Cuba's dictatorship.

Esteban and Panichelli scold García Márquez for failing to recognize, as 
they put it, that "the revolution is not perfect," and for insisting 
that there is no torture in Cuba . But they never grapple with the 
broader question, which goes beyond the personal foibles of García 
Márquez. Why in the latter half of the 20th century -- an era already 
scarred by the messianic ravages of larger-than-life leaders in Europe 
and Russia -- did so many intellectuals greet Castro's iron rule and 
utopian promises with such blinkered euphoria?

Mary Speck, a Washington Post editor, is a former correspondent in Latin 

chapter one of "Fidel and Gabo":


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