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Book of the week

 castro.jpg

My Life

by

Fidel Castro, with Ignacio Ramonet, translated by Andrew Hurley

736pp, Allen Lane, £25

“When the Soviet Union and the socialist camp disappeared,” Fidel Castro tells Ignacio Ramonet, editor of what is in effect both Castro’s autobiography and political testament, “no one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban revolution.” Even the Cuban president’s fiercest critics would find it hard to disagree with that. The catastrophic withdrawal of Soviet support in the 1990s and the overnight loss of Cuba’s main markets and suppliers plunged the Caribbean island into a grim period of retrenchment, known euphemistically as the “special period”.

In Miami, the heirs of the grisly US-backed dictator Fugencio Batista prepared to return in triumph to reclaim the farms, factories and bordellos that Castro, Che Guevara and their followers closed or expropriated after they fought their way to power in 1959. The US government tightened the screws on their economic blockade and around the world both sympathisers and enemies waited for the Cuban regime to follow the example of its east European counterparts, bow to the global triumph of capitalism and embrace the end of history.More than 15 years later, they’re still waiting. In defiance of the laws of political gravity, Cuba has rebuilt its shattered economy, held on to its independence, stepped back from the most damaging social compromises it had been forced to make and used Castro’s illness to begin the leadership handover outsiders assumed would never happen or would lead to precipitate collapse. Meanwhile, the leftward tide across Latin America and the consolidation of the Chávez government in Venezuela has thrown Cuba a political and economic lifeline, as has the growing economic muscle of China.

In the light of such a remarkable comeback – and given Castro’s history of survival against ridiculous odds, from the attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953 and the ensuing guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – perhaps it’s not surprising that the world’s longest-serving president places such emphasis on “subjective factors” in revolutionary politics in this extraordinary account of his life and convictions. If ever there were a case of triumph of the will over objective adversity, the Cuban experience epitomises it.

Of course, the nature of that triumph remains the focus of a sharp global ideological contest, far out of proportion to Cuba’s size or strategic significance. In the past couple of weeks, what Castro calls “the empire” was outvoted by 184 votes to four in the UN general assembly over the annual demand for an end to its embargo, as George Bush openly called on the Cuban military to support an uprising against a “dying” regime. In Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times, one writer ludicrously branded Castro “another version of the tyrant that he replaced in 1959”, while he is routinely dismissed as a cold war relic with nothing to say to what he himself describes as this “decisive century” for the human race.

What is striking from the hundred hours of conversations with Le Monde Diplomatique editor Ramonet which make up this book is, on the contrary, the Cuban president’s capacity to reinvent himself and his undimmed focus on contemporary struggles. Far from being beached by history, Castro has in his final years provided a vital link between the socialist and communist experiences of the 20th century and the new movements against neoliberal globalisation and imperialism that have taken root in Latin America and elsewhere in the 21st.

Which is not to say that the veteran revolutionary is in any way reluctant to hold forth on the conflagrationary events and personalities he has been been involved with, from his earliest days on his father’s sugar plantation to his round-the-clock efforts to rescue Chávez during the abortive coup in Venezuela five years ago. There is a gripping, almost cinematic quality to Castro’s recollections of some of the most dramatic episodes – under fire in the mountains with Guevara in the 50s; his chilling exchanges with Khrushchev on the brink of thermonuclear war in 1962; hands-on negotiations with US-indulged hijackers in 2003.

Just as revealing from the perspective of today’s politics are his self-critical comments on issues such as Cuba’s changing approach to gay rights (“homosexuals were most certainly the victims of discrimination”); religion (“I consider myself largely responsible” for excluding believers from the Communist party); and racism (“we were pretty ignorant about the phenomenon”). Ramonet has been attacked for being uncritical – slightly absurdly since this is supposed to be Castro’s book, which the man himself edited from his hospital bed – but he in fact presses the Cuban president on pretty well every controversial question, from caudillismo and dictatorship to press freedom and capital punishment.

Castro has never been a political theorist – Che’s ideological arguments in the early 60s over planning and the market seem to have left him slightly bemused – but his speculations about the future of socialism are tantalising. He describes himself as a Marxist and Leninist (as well as an ethical “Martí-an” after José Martí) and is convinced the human race will not survive under capitalism, but also asks: “What is Marxism? What is socialism? They’re not well defined.” He concedes that the Cuban revolutionaries may have “tried to go too far too fast”, and speculates about what a restoration of capitalism in Cuba would mean, worrying about Cuba’s failure to break the link between educational achievement and family background. “Building a new society is much harder than it might appear,” he says.

For some, Cuba’s resistance to multi-party elections, its clampdown on those who work with the US against the regime, its shortages and bureaucracy mark Castro down as a failed dictator, even if the only prisoners tortured and held without trial on the island are in the US base at Guantánamo. But for millions across the world, Cuba’s resistance to US domination, its internationalist record in Africa and Latin America, its achievements in health and education and its pursuit of an indepen-dent, anti-capitalist course remain an inspirational point of reference. Whatever happens after Castro has gone, this book will provide an indispensable perspective on that record.

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