Several years ago, a major defector from Cuba called me when he got to the United States. Since I had written a biography of Cuban President Fidel Castro, calls from exiles and escapees from that closed and deceptive land had reached me many times and I am always glad to get new information.
At one point, I asked him, fully realizing that my book had been a critical one: “Do you have any idea how Fidel liked my book?”
“Oh, yes,” he answered quickly, “there are stories that go around. But in particular, he really didn’t like the picture of him without a shirt.”
I thought back to the picture an entirely innocent one, if ever there was one. It showed Mr. Castro playing Ping-Pong with a group of American students during the many trips of American youth to Cuba in the 1960s and ‘70s. He had a paddle in his hand, but he did not have a shirt on.
Now that might seem totally irrelevant to anything, except that at that time in his life he had grown quite full around the middle. And so, at the end of a long day of writing, I captioned the picture: “A flaccid Fidel Castro plays table tennis as part of the ‘enchanting’ of American students who traveled to Cuba in 1963 … “
I heard later, from numerous other sources, that it was the “flaccid” that he didn’t like. For in Spanish, even more than in English, the word indicates physical, moral and above all sexual weakness.
Quite by accident, I had hit upon the major weak spot of any dictator, caudillo, strongman, vozhd, fuehrer, Duce, general-purpose demagogue or homegrown charismatic leader: his overwhelming, preening ego.
And when writers dare even to approach that ego, interestingly enough, it is then that we get responses infinitely sharper and more outraged than any criticisms we might make of these men’s policies, their stupidity or their savagery. For essentially, they are political prima donnas and will often go to any length to keep their personal lives, their true political personalities and, yes, even the weight they have taken on around the midsection far from public view.
Forgive me a personal note: Memories and thoughts such as these came suddenly back to me last week because the Showtime miniseries “Fidel,” based upon my book “Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro,” was just shown on pay-cable television. The book itself was also being re-released.
As the first real dramatization of Mr. Castro’s life, the Showtime story is of considerable importance as a film that depicts him as an almost magically gifted political creature, but also as a populist demagogue, a crazy geneticist and a man who could politically enchant but never economically create.
It may well serve to set right the extraordinarily deceptive hagiography that has surrounded the Cuban lider maximo since his 1959 seizure of power. When I began my book on Mr. Castro in 1984, after having interviewed him on four occasions, stayed in Cuba for six weeks and worked all over Latin America as a correspondent, the question with him as with almost all of these charismatic leaders that have so formed, and misformed, but never really reformed the modern world was how to get the information?
There were so many secrets in Cuba, and none that you could get. Nobody would dare talk honestly about the great “barbudo” who had marched down from the Sierra Maestra and taken over their lives. Nobody knew him. He and his government only told you their tales of glory.
So my response was to construct the book a little differently, primarily through oral biography that by the end resulted in 500 interviews in 28 countries. I am eternally grateful to the many people who took the time to share their memories with me.
Little by little, Mr. Castro’s story came out, in great part through a number of recent rigorous books, including the late Tad Szulc’s book, “Fidel: A Critical Portrait,” Peter Bourne’s “Fidel: A Biography of Fidel Castro,” and Robert E. Quirk’s “Fidel Castro” (which the Showtime miniseries was also in part based upon).
Equally thoughtful work was being done in some of the universities and think tanks.
For nearly four decades after Mr. Castro’s triumphal march on Havana, most American and European academics and even journalists chose to believe Fidel’s story of the “triunfo.” That he had been a poor Cuban democrat; that the evil United States, with its machinations in Cuba, had forced him to embrace communism. That if we had only supported him, he would never have turned to Moscow. That if Washington would lift the U.S. trade embargo, he would be a friendly neighbor again.
But Fidel Castro and other leaders like him are beginning to be viewed in a more diffuse but more accurate light.
Democracy? Communism? Far too simple. Damien Fernandez, professor of international relations at Florida International University, recently outlined these points as components of “Fidelismo,” Mr. Castro’s own personal brand of caudillo politics:
1) The pursuit of politics as absolute.
2) Radical nationalism, accompanied by inflated ideas of Cuban exceptionalism.
3) A concentration of power in the leader, reminiscent of fascism.
4) The state as the provider of equity.
One is struck by the degree to which these generic policies could be applied to almost all of the modern charismatic dictators, from Hitler and Mussolini to Stalin and Peron and even American populists like Huey Long.
Another brilliant analyst of the character of leaders, Jerrold M. Post, professor of psychiatry, political psychology and international affairs at George Washington University, makes the point that in dealing with this style of leader, we must distinguish between “reparative charismatics” like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, who represent and bring out the transformational and redemptive qualities of their followers and “destructive charismatics” like Mr. Castro, Hitler and Mussolini, who must constantly find an enemy to attack in order to remain in power.
Mr. Post sees Mr. Castro’s identification with historic figures like Moses and Christ as proof of the narcissistic extremes of the leader’s personality.
“In his view of himself,” Mr. Post told me, “Fidel regularly talks about Moses and ‘crossing the river.’ There is an implicit acknowledgement of not reaching the Promised Land. He also identifies himself with Christ, and he’s said that even the ‘King of Kings’ would not accept certain acts of the Americans ‘and neither would I.’
“And remember,” Mr. Post said, “as a man grows older, he becomes more like himself, and the gap between dream and reality grows. In the early years, there was this chemical exchange between him and the people. When others were dropping of exhaustion, he was gaining power and energy. But how fragile it all is. We tend to think of people mellowing with age, but old wishes don’t fade away. For leaders consumed with glory, they only grow more obsessed. With aging messianic leaders, there can never be enough to end their heroic life.”
And that is where we are today as, ironically, we just begin to know this man who still sits in office in Havana, having served longer than any other leader in the world; who has constantly outfoxed both the United States and the Soviet Union with his wily, Machiavellian tactics and his instinct for seeing and manipulating others’ weaknesses; and who still bewilders policy-makers in Washington, who cannot decide what to do with him.
Fidel Castro is 76 now, and while he looks more tired and worn recently, he is not in noticeably poor health. His father, a tough Spaniard, lived well into his 80s.
Mr. Castro has named his brother, Raul, as his successor, but nobody believes that such a succession will ever really take place. In fact, were Mr. Castro to die, with a military or Politburo government, the impoverished Cuba of today might be able to ease its way back into communication with the Western world or it might burst into internal warfare, as all the resentments and frustrated passions of the last 43 years are let loose.
What we do know, if we listen to Mr. Castro and finally see him correctly, is that while he is alive nothing will ever change. In fact, Americans who go down there with good will but with illusory dreams, hoping so much to win over Mr. Castro, dreaming of “making peace with him while he’s alive” and believing that “anything is possible,” are only extending his belief that he is safe because the world will never understand him.
For Fidel Castro, like all demagogic and charismatic modern leaders, believes above all in eternal revolution.
In fact, he is so psychologically and physiologically wired that he can never move on to the next step, so beloved to Americans, of holding elections, of peacefully passing over power and of building an economy of competitiveness.
But he is surely not the only leader who was not constitutionally built to move beyond the revolutionary stage. Leon Trotsky, one of the great leaders of Bolshevism and a man eventually disinherited and assassinated by the Russian Revolution, called it “permanent revolution.”
He believed that a revolution could not be made only in one country, but that the revolution had to be worldwide, in every country, or else it would fail because it would be isolated and without economic outlet.
Even today, we see many important examples of leaders who one has to say, temperamentally cannot move on.
Everyone asks why Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinians, cannot move his long-suffering people on to the next stage, why he does not outline his own peace plan and at least put it up for perusal.
Only last week, virtually imprisoned in his office in Ramallah on the West Bank by Israeli tanks and troops, his only realistic way out being to make a deal, he instead spoke of his own “martyrdom.” The final way out of the man of eternal revolution.
But he is not alone.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, too, bears many of the marks of the Castro-style eternal charismatic and demagogue. Only last week, he announced again that non-Muslims should again visit the Temple Mount, which is particularly sacred to Muslims.
One does not have to reach back far in memory to recall that it was his provocative trip to the Temple Mount 16 months ago that started the all-out civil war that now has sent the entire region into despair.
The key to understanding these men is to observe how they repeat and repeat and repeat and the degree to which they all seem to know, just naturally, exactly how to force and to provoke others to fall into their machinations and into their webs.
That is why it is important to understand the eternal and implacable ego of a man like Fidel Castro, who sits right on America’s doorstep and yet has been so successfully secretive over the years that we only now only begin to know him.