After
Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime
and Cuba’s Next Leader
,
by Brian Latell
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 288 pages)

Fidel:
Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant
,

by Humberto E. Fontova
(Regnery, 2005, 256 pages)

book cover imageImagine a young man poised to enter the prime of his life.
He’s handsome, happy, and shows great promise. The
world is at his feet. Then, suddenly, a car crash wipes him
out. A senseless, random tragedy. 

The late Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn once compared the Russian
revolution to an auto accident: a far from inevitable disaster
that befell a nationof great promise. A similar comparison
could be made of Cuba, once a prospering country that during
the late 1950s suffered a wreck of a revolution. 

The driver behind that revolution was Fidel Castro, who
must be the subject of more biographies than any other active
world leader. Now nearing 80 years old, Castro has been the
head abbot of his communist monastery for over 47 years.
This Latin American archetype comes from a long line of rebellious
strong men who since colonial times have revolted against
all established authority, both church and state. Fortunately,
these rebels usually fare poorly. For example, the sixteenth
century fanatic Lope de Aguirre, a proto-Castro immortalized
in Herzog’s film Aguirre: The Wrath of God,
was finally hunted down in the Venezuelan backlands. Had
he succeeded in establishing his New World kingdom, Lope
doubtless would have created something like communist Cuba,
a country totally twisted to one indomitable, capricious
will. 

Brian Latell, a former National Intelligence Officer for
Latin America and a distinguished expert on Cuba, adds another
book to our store of interpretations of Castro and Cuba’s
political future. In After Fidel he offers an unvarnished
look at the Cuban dictator, not falling for the traces of
hero worship that accompany even critical biographies like
those of Georgie Anne Geyer and the late Tad Szulc.

Like many works on Castro, Latell dedicates much space to
his early years. We learn all about his alienation from his
father, who nevertheless doted on him and supported him financially,
well into adulthood. Likewise we catch a glimpse of his homicidal
behavior—Latell mentions his assassination attempts
on rival youth gang bangers—and his revolutionary activities
before he burst on the Cuban scene in 1953. The friends of
his youth figured Fidel out early. The nickname “El
Loco” stuck with him through college. In Fidel’s
case, the child was indeed father to the man.

One strength of Latell’s book is its insights into
the CIA’s thinking about Castro, especially in the
early days of the revolution. He notes that many intelligence
analysts and Washington policymakers at the time sympathized
with the Cuban revolution and discounted its communist undertones.
Experts took Castro at face value as a liberal nationalist
reformer seeking to restore democratic governance. It took
a long time for analysts to recognize that, not only had
Fidel been a committed communist from the beginning, but
he never wanted better relations with Washington, on any
terms.

Quite the contrary: Castro desired unrelenting conflict
with the United States. To illustrate Castro’s anti-American
obsession, Latell relates the efforts in the early 1970s
by the Nixon White House to establish détente with
Havana. This diplomatic opening began, incongruously enough,
with top diplomat Lawrence Eagleburger meeting Cuban diplomats
at a cafeteria in New York’s LaGuardia airport. Latell
acknowledges that he and fellow CIA analysts thought Castro
ready to make a deal. But the Cubans were cagey and unwilling
to give up their support for wars of national liberation,
including their support for the Puerto Rican violent terrorist
organization, the Macheteros.

Ultimately, Castro valued the ideal of Puerto Rican independence
and widespread hemispheric revolution more than any concrete
gains from better relations with Washington. Latell attributes
the failure by his fellow analysts to understand Castro’s
motives as “mirror imaging:” the fallacy of believing
that foreign leaders are motivated by the same goals and
values you are.

Latell provides one twist in the usual telling of the Castro
story by emphasizing the importance of his younger brother,
Raul. Far from being just another subordinate, Raul in fact
has since the beginning acted as his older brother’s
alter ego and partner, building both the Cuban Army and the
new Communist Party and allowing Fidel to be the revolution’s
front man. A portrait emerges here of the lesser-known Raul:
a talented organizer and a far more normal man than his sociopathic
older brother. For example, Latell notes that Raul in his
younger days once boastfully showed friends his well-stocked
comic book collection, but admonished them not to tell Fidel
about it.

Raul overcame his nerdish pastimes and became the chief
enforcer for Fidel’s revolutionary band. Later, Raul
would oversee the execution of his friend, the heroic General
Ochoa, in 1989 on trumped up drug charges, an event that
may have forestalled a major challenge to the regime. Latell
reinterprets the story of Raul’s communist party membership
from his early years as having developed due to Fidel’s
early encouragement, because he wanted to establish direct
contact with the KGB. If this story is true, it may corroborate
the position of some writers like the former communist Eudocio
Ravines that the Russians were involved in fomenting the
Cuban revolution.

Although Latell offers a fresh retelling and interpretation
of Castro, After Fidel disappointingly dedicates
little space to the promise of its title. What does come
after Fidel? Latell argues effectively that the revolutionary
brothers have played complementary roles, but his suggestion
that Fidel’s death would in the end permit Raul to
be the independent reformer he has longed to be seems farfetched
based on his previous analysis. Perhaps the more likely outcome,
given Raul’s dependent nature and old age, would be
him taking an even harder authoritarian stance than his brother
has had to assume in recent years. Life in Cuba under Fidel
Castro has descended to the level of mere “zoological
ups-and-downs,” to use the Spenglerian phrase. Although
Latell ends on a hopeful note, it is hard to imagine the
rigid Raul Castro doing anything but makingthings worse.

book cover imageThat Castro has failed to accomplish anything other than
his own uncontested rule should by now be established wisdom.
The Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova in Fidel:
Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant
takes on the commonplace
myths about Castro that are still happily accepted by the
American media. His book abounds in precious details, such
as the shock on director Sydney Pollack’s face when
told that Fulgencio Batista, the dictator Castro overthrew,
was not the blue-eyed blond as portrayed in his movie Havana.
(Batista was in fact the Afro-Chinese son of cane-cutters.)
Scornful of Castro’s guerrilla activities in the 1950s,
which were hardly more than a sideshow, Fontova contends
that the media created Castro, who got his job “through
the New York Times,” courtesy of the laudatory
coverage of leftist reporter Herbert Matthews.

Fontova unapologetically views Cuba from the perspective
of many Cuban-Americans, who are tired of the double standard
applied to the cause for Cuban freedom. Why, Fontova asks,
is an embargo against Cuba wrong, but an embargo against,
say, apartheid-era South Africa, right? But then again, why
is Castro the toast of Manhattan, and Agusto Pinochet a marked
man? The difference is mainly that Castro, who once closely
studied the fascist movements in Spain and Italy, had the
good sense declare himself a leftist. This has spared him
a lot of trouble from international media and intellectual
elites.

In his book’s most rewarding sections, Fontova uncovers
some little known stories about the role of the Cuban resistance.
He reveals, for instance, that anti-Castro Cubans on the
ground in 1962 discovered the Soviet missiles that led to
U-2 flights over the island, resulting in the famous missile
crisis showdown. Moreover, following Castro’s consolidation
of power, Fontova relates how rebels farmers in the Escambray
Mountains resisted bitterly, claiming the lives of 5,000
communist troops after six years. Fontova makes a valuable
contribution in describing the heroism of these men and women
of the resistance, who are either ignored or forgotten by
most academic scholars of Cuban affairs.

Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant may not
make the required reading list for Latin American affairs
university seminars, but it does stand as a solid revisionist
account of Fidel Castro and punches overdue holes in the
Fidel legend. So read it anyway.

Michael J. Ard,
a U.S. government analyst, is the author of An
Eternal Struggle: How the National Action Party Transformed
Mexican Politics
(Praeger, 2003). He writes from
Leesburg, VA.

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