- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2007

As the life of Cuban Dictator-for-Life Fidel Castro winds down, it is natural for American historians to seek to understand what happened on the island in the past few

decades. With that in mind, “The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro” — the first-ever English-language version of 1959’s “Cartas Del Presidio” — perhaps could not have come at a better time.

Ably translated and edited by Ann Louise Bardach, who also provides an introduction, the book affords us access to the mind of this despot, years before he took power, as an imprisoned dissident in Fulgencio Batista’s jails. Those seeking a fuller understanding of the last 47 years of Castro’s rule would be well-served to consult this compact volume, which also includes the Spanish language versions of these epistles.

Castro was imprisoned for leading what the author calls an “ill-fated attack … on the Moncada Military Garrison in Santiago De Cuba on July 26, 1953.” Ms. Bardach’s interpretation of that assault gives us a great insight into Castro’s particular brand of megalomania; in her reckoning, the “audacious, suicidal, and hare-brained” operation, despite having led to the deaths of 70 of Castro’s men, exhibited a “brazenness” that could and did “make him a household name in Cuba.” The effort, however failed, cemented Castro’s place within the firmament of the Cuban revolution.

The operation also gave Castro plenty of time to write — though, as he notes in many of the 21 letters contained here, all this writing was done knowing it was subject to censorship. And how could it not be? Throughout the 1950s, Fidel Castro positioned himself as a seditionist against the regime which, as he characterizes it in his first letter, presided over a country “where murderers and torturers live freely, wear uniforms, and represent authority, while honorable men are sent to jail for the crime of defending liberty, rights, and the Constitution that the people gave us themselves.”

Castro justifies his revolutionary posture in the most self-aggrandizing of terms, in this first letter and throughout: “Without a vigorous voice rising to accuse them, they will also enjoy absolute moral impunity, even … while so many suffer the humiliation of prison.”

Castro, like any revolutionary leader, operated even then under the assumption that his personal struggle was a microcosm of the struggles of the culture at large. This insight both fueled his fire and corrupted whatever purity underlay his desire. The unspoken subtext of these letters was that, for Castro to supplant Batista, he would have to beat Batista at his own game — to out-thug him, in a manner of speaking. To the detriment of Washington’s interests and world peace, he was all too successful.

Despite the censorship he bemoans in these letters, he still apparently had enough freedom to write about about how propaganda should be used in a state, to “manufacture consent” as Mr. Castro’s old buddy Noam Chomsky might put it.

Writing to Melba Hernandez — Castro’s able barrister during the Moncada trials — in April 1954, Fidel was blunt about the best way to manipulate the passions of the masses. “We cannot for a minute abandon propaganda, for it is the soul of every struggle,” Mr. Castro wrote, adding in the same note some tips on how best to work the rubes that would prove the bedrock of the Castro revolution.

“Maintain a soft touch and smile with everyone … defend our points of view without ruffling feathers. There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together,” penned the future potentate, who closed by warning his reader to “beware of envy. When someone has the glory and the prestige you do, ordinary people easily find motives or pretexts to be suspicious. Accept help from anyone, but remember, trust no one.”

This note grants the reader, decades removed, insight into Castro’s particular management style. This literary egostroking, melded with a heightening of paranoia, is designed to vouchsafe loyalty and remind the reader that she is joined at the hip with Castro in a Manichean struggle against absolute evil, represented by the Batista regime. Throughout these letters, Mr. Castro returns to these themes. Clearly, it was the right approach. The last 47 years are testament to that.

As one might expect, some of the most interesting writing comes in the form of asides, when Castro stops rehearsing memes for future speeches and describes his own feelings — about his immediate situation, or about his political opponents. A description of solitary confinement, Cuban style, is particularly resonant.

“I can tell you that my only company happens when they lay out a dead prisoner in the small funeral parlor across from my cell,” Castro writes, adding descriptions of “mysterious hangings, strange murders of men who were beaten and tortured.” These beatings are left to Mr. Castro’s imagination, visually at least: “I cannot see them because there is a six-foot screen blocking the only entrance to my cell so that I cannot see another human being, alive or dead.”

Describing a political opponent who got Castro’s first wife, Mirta Diaz-Balant, fired from a government job, Castro’s language is so pointed it would make Ann Coulter pause: “Only a queer like Hermida, at the lowest degree of sexual degeneracy, would resort to these methods, of such inconceivable indecency and unmanliness.”

Castro uses similarly sharp language on his in-laws in a November 1954 letter; the prisoner saw them as pernicious influences on his son. “Such a deep abyss separates me from these people that I resist even the thought of my son sleeping for one night under the same roof that shelters my most despicable enemies and receiving on his cheeks the kisses of those miserable Judases.”

For Castro, the revolution was inextricably a personal struggle. Understanding that is key to understanding the dictator’s lifetime recalcitrance and opposition to American policies. The Cuban people ultimately suffered more than anyone, for becoming entranced by Fidel’s Cult of Personality, and for being powerless to overcome what very quickly became his yoke of oppression. As we eagerly await Castro’s death and the inevitable changes that will bring to U.S.-Cuban relations, we would do well to consider this volume of letters — and what it reveals about the man who, more than anyone, turned the crown jewel of the Caribbean into a dilapidated socialist backwater.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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