Reviewed by Roger Keeran
March 2, 2017
Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography by Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet. New York, New York: Scribner, 2006. $40.00. Pp. 724.
In 2003, 2004, and 2006, ten years before the death of Fidel Castro, Ignacio Ramonet, the editor of Le Monde diplomatique, conducted over a hundred hours of interviews with Fidel Castro. After Castro read and revised the transcripts, the interviews became the current book. Since Castro never wrote his memoirs and gave only four other substantial interviews in his life, this book represents the most comprehensive document of Castro’s recollections and ideas.
Yet, many Americans on the left may be unaware of this book. Unlike in England, where the Independent, the Telegraph and the Guardian reviewed My Life, in the United States no major publication—the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Review of Books saw fit to mention it. Indeed, the only mainstream review appeared in a dismissive piece by Richard Feinberg in Foreign Affairs.
The book has twenty-eight roughly chronological chapters from Castro’s childhood to his speculations on what would happen after his death. In between are chapters on every important aspect of Castro’s life and the history of the Cuban revolution: such as the assault on the Moncada Barracks, the “History Will Absolve Me” speech, the struggle in the Sierra Maestra, the first steps of the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of Che Guevara, Cuba’s aid to African revolutionaries, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Castro also provides his views of the leading revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century and heads of state, whom he knew.
The figure who merits Castro’s greatest attention is Che Guevara, who Castro describes as “a man of truly enormous modesty, dignity, integrity…an intelligent man, a visionary.” Much of Castro’s account concerns the incessant efforts of the United States to undermine, sabotage and overthrow the Cuban revolution, including $80 million dollars earmarked for this purpose by the George W. Bush Administration and some 600 plots to assassinate Fidel.
Castro also spends a great deal of time explaining the extraordinary accomplishments of the revolution in feeding, housing, educating and providing first rate medical care and culture to Cuban people as well as generous medical and other aid to poor people and revolutionaries in many parts of the world.
Though some of the book may be familiar to those who followed the Cuban revolution closely, much of it is new and exciting, and all of it interesting. This goes for Castro’s account of the first days of the disastrous landing in Cuba on December 5, 1956, when Castro lost most of his men, arms, munitions and food and at one point was reduced to hiding with two other comrades in a sugarcane field surrounded by Batista’s nearby soldiers. In spite of this, Castro says he was never discouraged, and when two weeks later, Castro met off with his brother Raul, who had five weapons to add to the existing two, Castro recalled saying, “Now we can win this war.”
Equally gripping was his recollection of struggling to escape an attack of Batista’s troops in the Sierra Maestra when Che Guevara suffered from such a severe asthma attack that he could hardly walk. Another memorable moment was Castro’s account of talking to Hugo Chavez by phone during the attempted coup of 2002, when Castro advised Chavez not to sacrifice himself but to surrender while not resigning his office, advice that Chavez followed, and with the mass support of the people was soon able to regain power.
Castro’s penetrating insights on the Soviet Union have enduring value. He is unstinting in his praise for the accomplishments of the Soviet Union and its support of Cuba and other revolutionary movements. He has not the slightest doubt but what the Soviet Union’s rapid industrialization accounted for its ability to defeat German fascism. Still, he forthrightly explains how Cuba tried to avoid certain Soviet problems by abjuring the forced collectivization of agriculture and any hint of a cult of personality.
Castro discusses the U.S. threats of invasion that led to the decision to install Soviet missiles in Cuba and frankly discusses his feeling of “betrayal” by Khrushchev’s during the Cuban missiles crisis and the subsequent temporary deterioration of relations between the two countries. Castro assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union and Gorbachev that resulted in the so-called collapse of Soviet socialism. He believed, for instance, that the Soviet Union was absolutely correct in refusing to build a consumer society but was mistaken in not better applying its great technological knowledge to benefit its own economy. In the end, Castro believed that it was not socialism that failed but bad policies, that in short “the Soviets destroyed themselves.”
As one would expect, Castro’s opinions and assessments dot every page, but what is striking is how original, thoughtful, generous, self-critical, and surprising many of his views are. For example, Castro credits Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls for prompting him to think about guerrilla warfare. Though every American president since Eisenhower attempted to undermine the Cuban revolution in one way or another, Castro gives generous assessments of Kennedy, Carter and Clinton. Though Castro was critical of Saddam Hussein, he totally condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While steadfastly opposing terrorism, which has repeatedly been used against the Cuban revolution, Castro asserts that in view of the threats posed by nuclear war and environmental degradation, terrorism is hardly the greatest problem humanity faces today.
In short, the life and thoughts of Fidel Castro are a timeless testament to one man’s courage, humanity, intelligence, modesty, optimism, and revolutionary dedication. Indeed, Castro’s optimism even extends to the United States. He says, “I don’t think a Fascist-type regime could ever emerge in the United States. Within their political system, grave errors and injustices have been committed—and many of them still survive—but the American people have certain institutions, traditions, educational, cultural and political values that would make that virtually impossible.”
In these dismal days of Donald Trump, no better read exists than Fidel’s My Life.