Fidel Castro was Welsh. This was why he governed Cuba in a poetic form, purely through a permanent national Eisteddfod at which he was the chief bard, the chief Druid—hence his 12-hour-long speeches on TV, delivered off-the-cuff and as the mood took him.
Well, I say Welsh but, technically, I mean Galician—Gauls, Galles, Gaels. The Celts. Castro’s father came to Cuba as a Galician peasant on the look out to make his fortune—he brought with him the Celtic gift of the gab, the Welsh excitability, the desire to natter at length…
The Galicians are a comic race in Spain—they are the comic relief in Spanish theatre (Franco was also Galician, as it happens); and that also conforms to the Welsh position in, for example, Henry V—and, indeed, there was a comic element to Castro, especially in his exaggerated nature (that so easily became farcical—as demonstrated by Woody Allen in his Bananas).
As I have noted several times now, character does not change—so you can tell everything about a person from their childhood (if an historical figure) or from one encounter.
Fidel Castro was sent home from school (along with his brothers, “the three Castros”) because they were “the biggest bullies in the school”. So that sums up Castro neatly—he was the biggest bully among three bullies, the middle child (perhaps otherwise overlooked, neither the eldest nor the baby). Likewise, Castro was always obsessed by weapons—slingshots, shotguns, revolvers, telescopic hunting rifles; and, in the end, nuclear missiles (the child is the father of the man)…
Castro was not a Communist. That is a misconception. Rather, Castro was an egocentric and spirited Latino (of the, “I’ll stab you like a stuck pig, you son of a whore,” variety—the type to always have a stiletto about them). Castro’s beliefs were secondary to his actions, but insofar as he had beliefs he was for the Cuban independence hero José Martí and for Franklin Delano Roosevelt (at age 14, Castro composed a letter to FDR and cheekily asked for a $10 bill—just to “see what one looked like”; the White House replied that it did not send money in the mails).
For a change among politicians, Castro was no narcissist. He said himself “I don’t care what people think of me”—and he was sincere in that. Castro really would say and do what he liked—say what he thought. That marked him out from other leaders in the Soviet Bloc who were rigid ideologists, terrified to maintain their image as ideologically correct thinkers.
Castro, by contrast, would wade onto a Bulgarian beach and make jokes with the locals—criticise the fact that a fancy hotel was off-limits to the “socialist masses” and reserved only for hard-currency tourists (though the same would happen in Cuba in the end).
This is why Castro was a genuinely charismatic figure who received genuine adulation and affection from his own people and from the world. He was very frank—and frankness charms. Now, it should be said that although Castro said exactly what he “thought and felt” that did not mean that he thought things out—he was impulsive, a real impulsive Latino.
His time at university was spent less with law books but rather in cafes with his hangers on (who hung on his every word)—that never changed (later, he would chastise students for hanging around in cafes chit-chatting and not working—a clear case of projection).
So Castro was subject to “enthusiasms”. He might read about, say, a new technique in dairy production and then decide that this would “change Cuba forever”—you would then receive a 12-hour extemporised television address on the subject of cattle husbandry, delivered in an insistent tone and with complete sincerity.
This was not about “image”—Castro was prepared to make a fool of himself and even to admit when he made a mistake (whereas a narcissist would be afraid to do so). However, like a child with a new enthusiasm, Castro was subject to “grand projects” that he believed could “save the country”—once he decided this was so, nothing would stop him.
At one point, he served Cuban-produced French cheeses to a French agricultural expert and insisted that the Cuban produce was “better than the French”. The Frenchman demurred, plucked a Cuban cigar from Castro’s top pocket and enquired if Castro thought there was “a better cigar”. Castro laughed at that—but usually he would just browbeat his natives down.
So again, the bully—he just kept at you until you agreed. This is why beliefs were secondary to Castro—unlike a real Communist, Castro would happily seek technical expertise and aid from Western Europe (find his fads there). He was totally non-dogmatic as far as beliefs went—and he never really mastered the Marxist vocabulary (he would often drop back into FDR-idiom, speak about “trust-busting” and similar FDR-type enterprises).
What he had above all was a generalised non-specific belief in “fairness”, and a view that everything in the world was best decided by Fidel Castro.
If you want to know the secret of Castro it is this: Castro was about Castro.
Castro never really settled down to rule—he disliked the city and always wanted to return to the countryside. At heart, he was a “permanent revolutionary”; he was happiest in the Sierra Maestra fighting against the government—to rule was not really his métier.
This was, in part, because he was a country lad—Castro’s family was rich but they were rich peasants. His parents were unlettered and unchurched—Castro was called “the Jew” in his early years because he was unbaptised. The family lived in a remote village in what was in effect an elevated longhouse complete with all their labourers—who ate with the family from a common pot tended by his mother.
So Castro grew up well-aware that he was different from the polished middle-class children at his private schools (and he resented them)—he also grew up in a kind of patrician “primitive Communism” where everyone, even the master, was on the same level (and as uneducated as the field workers—who slept one room over from the family, Castro’s father adding a new room when a new labourer or child joined the family). This imbued Castro with both a resentment against the cultured upper classes but also a unique vision of a patrician equalitarian settlement in the countryside (which he would, in effect, impose on the whole of Cuba).
His later enthusiasm for constant reading perhaps reflects his attempt to make up, like an autodidact, for his uncultured upbringing—and he liked to “nag the nation” to read (along with sundry journalists and politicians). Castro was certainly not lazy, loved to extol work, but rather like Churchill or Boris Johnson you get the impression that Castro produced a lot of noise and sprayed a lot of energy about in an unfocused way—hence his enthusiasms that were picked up and dropped month to month (“more heat than light”).
During his university years, Castro had a 12-volume set of Mussolini’s works to hand that he bequeathed in his will when he went on an early revolutionary jaunt—just to show his flexibility, his university politics were inspired by the Falange and Primo de Rivera (Action! Action! Action! Torro! Torro! Torro! Arriba!). Castro certainly maintained a fascistic cult of action—he loved to be on the move, to be doing (anything less was laziness); and yet, as noted, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
Castro also exemplified the dictum: “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”—he would learn enough about a topic to become enthusiastic about it, and then upend the country in a poorly thought out scheme (in the 1990s windmills were the thing—despite no knowledge of the prevailing winds in Cuba—and the comparison to Don Quixote is all too apparent).
So it’s a mistake to buy into the “Miami view” that Castro was “the Red Beast” and some committed Communist from first to last. The reason Castro’s revolution lasted when the Soviet Bloc collapsed was that it was never a Communist revolution to start with.
Castro was a figure with genuine charisma who enjoyed genuine support from the Cuban people, enough to ensure their consent to be governed—even after the Berlin Wall fell. He was a devotee to Martí above all, if he had an intellectual lodestar (he read his complete works)—the revolution was nationalist, not socialist (at least at core).
Indeed, Castro’s primary achievement was really to end the merry-go-round of coups that had plagued Cuba since independence and introduce stable government for a change—while at the same time removing America’s influence from the island. Martí was really a Jacobin—a Freemason—and, frankly, Cuba was better governed by the Spanish Empire (even Spanish slaves had a more calorie-rich diet than the average Cuban under Castro); but, given the Spanish weren’t coming back, Castro at least provided much-needed stability and government continuity and also genuine independence from America (the Cubans had swapped Spain for America at “independence”).
You have to remember that Castro had somewhat warm relations with the Americans at first (and that Batista, whom he had overthrown, had had Communists in his cabinet—the Communists were lukewarm about Castro at first). Castro really wanted to break Cuba’s dependence on sugar—the Americans set a quota that fluctuated from year to year, and that dependence on the American quota made it difficult to plan anything (Cuba’s cities were very rich, as libertarians like to point out, at least as rich as Florida, but the countryside was “Latin American poor”—Cuba really was “two nations”).
Castro was too impatient and too proud to negotiate with the Americans to develop a broad-based economy that didn’t just rely on sugar, tobacco, and tourism—yet if he had been patient he could have found American support to diversify. Yet he couldn’t wait—he was too proud and impetuous.
Castro was a very young leader, remember—only in his early 30s when he came to power in the revolution. He was also impetuous, a real Latino—hot-blooded. At school, Castro was often punished because he refused to abide by the rules—but he never challenged the belief system. Castro was just a guy who had to be in charge, wouldn’t take orders from any other man—but the justification behind the orders, whether Catholicism (at school) or socialism, didn’t matter much to him (again, Castro was about Castro).
So if you said “Hey, Fidel, could you help us with the dishes?” you’d be answered so:
Due to his impatience and impertinence, Castro was influenced by his brother Raúl and Guevara. Raúl, who eventually led the state, was sent to a military school after the Castro brothers were expelled for bullying—he was the disciplined brother, not the charismatic one (eventually he came to lead Cuba’s military); and he became an ideological Communist. Guevara, who was more intelligent than Castro, knew well enough to sit quietly and put up with Castro’s hours-long monologues so as to influence him from behind the scenes.
Whereas other people fell out with or walked out on Castro, Guevara and Raúl patiently waited so that when the “talking volcano” found the Yankees too slow for his liking they could swoop in and influence him to take up with the Soviets.
But Castro’s Marxism was always skin-deep. There’s a parallel to be drawn to North Korea—the other socialist state to survive the fall of the USSR. The North Korean revolution was also more nationalist than socialist, it was more about the legendary ethnocentrism found in Koreans than Marxism; and the Cuban revolution was more about the pride and passion found in a Latino than about the ideas put about by Marx.
That is why both revolutions have endured, albeit with insincere socialist trappings. Whether or not Castro was good for the Cuban economy or not, he was certainly good for Cuban self-respect. Under Castro, Cuba went from a country that was a pleasure satrapy for America to a place that, during the Missile Crisis, the fate of the world hung upon—a world axis. Afterwards, Castro influenced world events through guerrilla activities in South America and Africa; and Cuban radio jamming interfered with commercial radio broadcasts as far away as Illinois—the Yankees just had to pay attention to Cuba with Fidel in charge.
Castro made Cuba count for something—he gave the Cubans thymos. Yes, Cuba moved from dependency on the USA to dependency on the USSR but she actually gained freedom of action as she did so—she gained the chance to have power, to influence world events. Besides, the Soviets provided stability because they bought Cuban sugar at a fixed rate and guaranteed purchase (not year-to-year fluctuation, as with the Americans); and, because they wanted to use Cuba to annoy the Americans, much aid came with no strings attached.
Whether or not you see Castro as a successful leader depends very much on what you think is important for man. If you want to say “Cubans would have the same standard of living as Americans today without Castro”, that would be true—and yet “Cuba” would be an almost unknown country if that was so; it would mean nothing to anyone, like Guatemala—it would be a place you went on holidays that had military coups all the time and that had constant low-level civil war in the countryside.
What Castro gave Cubans was self-respect and stability—he didn’t make Cuba a fairer or a more just society. Anecdote: a colleague went on holiday to Cuba in 2014, from the airport he was practically kidnapped by two Cubans who took him to their Soviet-style apartment block where they tried to sell him cigars and, bizarrely, a flat-screen TV—so much for “actually existing Cuban socialism” (naturally, everything, even the flat-screen TV, would be paid for in $$$s).
As for tyranny….Castro enjoyed books, good food, and visits from his family while in prison for political crimes under Batista, whereas the men he put in prison for political crimes were crippled or starved to death—Castro was a big hypocrite in that regard, like all revolutionaries he had no time for people who challenged his rule and was more repressive than the ancien regime.
Yet Castro’s political life must be judged as a success because he fulfilled his objectives. First objective: for Fidel Castro to be the most important man in Cuba, who no one could boss about—achieved (he died in his bed); Second objective: for Cuba to be an actor on the world stage that was not subordinate to any other country and that was respected around the world—achieved.
As with love and friendship, you can’t buy respect—you can’t buy thymos. Castro gave that to the Cubans when they hadn’t had it before—even if it was a short period in the sun that will end when the socialist system terminates in Cuba. Still, he gave it to them….El Jefe Maximo! Venceremos!