World history is filled with dramatic, often heartbreaking and occasionally redemptive stories of great marches.
There is Moses, prophetically leading the Jewish people through 40 years of wandering in the desert. There is Mao Tse-tung’s Long March of communism in China in the 1930s, not to speak of the tragic westward marches of many American Indian tribes, pushed from their lands by the likes of us.
But this week, we should be seriously noting another march, one of the most powerful and strangest in history - a pulsating movement of guerrillas conquering a small and exquisite island exactly a half-century ago with tactics and intentions never seen before. We talk, of course, of Cuba and about Fidel Castro and his men, moving systematically across a supine country that first week of January in 1959 to change the world.
Editor and journalist Carlos Franqui, one of the finest writers of that revolution, recalls the singular moment as the “guerrilleros” of the revolution came down from the mountains. “Night falls as we, the ‘barbudos’ come down from mountains looking like the saints of old,” he recalled afterward. “People rush out to meet us. They are wild. … This was a real New Year’s party, and a charge of collective joy ran through the rebels. One of them, though, felt nostalgic, as if he had left the one thing that mattered most to him back in the Sierra: Fidel Castro.”
Before this march, the world had seen Fidel as either a communist or simply another, if unusually charismatic, democratic reformer. But as his bedraggled, but victorious, mountain men marched across the island to take Havana, he was revealed as something new: the supreme new-style revolutionary of the 20th century, a man who could manipulate the Cuban people’s hatreds and guilt with a masterful hand not seen since Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin, and a leader who would systematically cause more problems to the hated “Americanos” next door than any leader on Earth.
It was a strange week. The first day after the dictator Fulgencio Batista fled that early New Year’s morning, Fidel’s men, in a raging frenzy, attacked the parking meters in Havana - the symbol of privilege of the “ancien regime.” French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called them “peasant soldiers … who carried into the cities their warlike austerity and country moralism.” Fidel, playing on the guilt of Cubans who had not taken part in the revolution, told them, “Now, we are going to purify this country.”
But by the end of that week, Fidel was in Havana and many began to see him for what he really was: a mystical, magical, punishing, unscrupulous leader. And the crowds - his “masas”- were everywhere, shouting as in collective orgasm that seemed never to stop, “FIDELFIDELFIDELFIDEL!”
To John Topping, the political officer at the American Embassy in Havana, “That guy knows how to press the button.”
Today, Fidel is unquestionably an invalid, but still he rules the country through his smaller, quieter, less charismatic brother, Raul. Probably roughly a third of Cuba is still emotionally pro-Fidel, about a third is very anti-Fidel and the other third is in the middle.
The country is falling apart, saved for the moment by 100,000 barrels a day of subsidized oil from Fidel’s leftist counterpart in Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, and recently by a renewed interest in Cuba on the part of Vladimir Putin’s anti-American government in Russia.
Hope? That extravagant and emotion-ridden march of half a century ago was literally exploding with hope. Yet, for the 50th anniversary, Fidel, who has not appeared in public since major and still mysterious surgery more than two years ago, only sent a brief greeting to the Cuban people. Even today, although he never goes there anymore, his office remains unchanged. He remains the icon, the caudillo, the saint, remote and still untouched.
It was left to Presidente Raul to soberly deliver the latest bad news. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he told the Cuban people, “by believing that from here on it’s all going to be easy. Maybe from here on it’s going to be more difficult.”
As to any future relations with the United States, he has left that question far more open than his brother did. In a recent interview in the Nation by actor Sean Penn, Raul noted that, “We’ve had permanent contact with the U.S. military, by secret agreement, since 1994.” But only issues related to Guantanamo Bay are discussed, he said. The two countries also conduct joint emergency-response exercises.
Any hope for a change in relations with President-elect Barack Obama? What would be his first priority should a meeting take place there? “Without a beat,” Mr. Penn related, “Castro answers, ‘Normalize trade.’ ” Again, and not surprisingly, the U.S. embargo on sales to Cuba, imposed at the height of rage with Cuba in 1962, is primary.
But Raul Castro also tells Mr. Penn something new. Mr. Penn relates Mr. Castro as saying: “Let me tell you something. We have newly advanced research that strongly suggests deepwater offshore oil reserves, which U.S. companies can come and drill. We can negotiate. The U.S. is protected by the same Cuban trade laws as anyone else. Perhaps there can be some reciprocity.” So, yes, there are whispers of change, which an Obama administration could explore.
With his march across the island, Fidel consolidated a mesmerized Cuban people and bound them to his charismatic figure in a manner history has seldom seen. But today there are no more marches in Cuba, only the suffering that almost inevitably comes after such grandiose and dangerous expressions of fealty to one man. “Maybe when Fidel dies … .” That’s what everybody says now.
One hates to be optimistic about Cuba and the United States after so many misunderstandings and so much suffering between them, but my feeling is that, with Raul’s more reasonable temperament, that’s a “maybe” that may be closer and more possible than we think.
Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of “Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.”