Searching for Fidel Castro's political identity

Fidel: A Critical Biography, by Tad Szulc. New York: William Morrow & Co. 703 pp. $19.95. Tad Szulc is an authoritative and well-connected journalist with long Latin American experience. In writing his book on Fidel Castro, he has dug deeply, relying heavily on sources very close to Castro. Styled ``critical,'' Szulc's account concentrates on 1945 to 1961. And yet it's a long book. It's also repetitive and somewhat bloated with minor details, and appears to have been dictated at top speed from interviews, rather than carefully crafted to resolve the Castro enigma.

There may be some hedging in the subtitle. In the phrase, ``critical biography,'' the reader is perhaps forewarned that it is not a comprehensive account, but deep. This impression is reinforced by Peter Bourne's recent study, ``Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro,'' which is clearly ``uncritical,'' competent but uninspired, shallow, and inadequately researched. Bourne's biography reflects the fact that he finds English-language writings sufficient for a study of Castro!

Szulc's ``Fidel'' makes fascinating reading. Its detailed narrative makes us ask some hard questions. Was Castro truly a communist all the while, or was it Washington's intransigence that pushed him leftward? When did he become a communist? Did he consciously trick everyone by concealing it? Or was communism essentially a mechanism for Castro's personal fulfillment as a caudillo, a ``maximum leader'' in the Spanish and Latin American tradition?

These questions, central to any appraisal, stem from the uniquely American thesis - which the author doesn't share - of a ``stolen revolution,'' one that began justifiably, but was hijacked by communists or others; witness the Sandinistas, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Castro himself. According to such a thesis, a Bay of Pigs-type intervention was morally justifiable to rescue the revolution for its rightful owners, the democratic forces of the center.

Szulc uses Castro's writings to argue convincingly that, while he was always radical, his ideas took Marxist form around 1957-58, well before any conflict with Washington. Was he - is he - a communist? Yes and no, according to Szulc. Yes, in that he is closely linked to Moscow, both domestically and internationally. No, in that Marxism is indeed a convenient instrument for a man who follows caudillo traditions, dominating everything, trusting no one, and especially not those with allegiances to Moscow rather than to Castro.

A more complete study of the Castro phenemenon would suggest what Cuba will be like after Fidel. Judging from what we have here, Fidel's act will be a very hard one to follow.

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