Interviewing Fidel

Autumn 2007

For years people have tried to persuade the leader of the Cuban Revolution to tell his own life story. Ignacio Ramonet, Editor of Le Monde Diplomatique explains how he came to be the one to bring Fidel’s story to the world.

The idea of this book-dialogue with Fidel Castro arose in February 2002. I had gone to Havana to give a lecture at the Havana International Book Fair.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel prizewinner for economics in 2001 was also there. Fidel introduced him saying: “He is a North American economist, but he is the most radical that I have ever seen. Next to him, I am a moderate.”

We began talking about neoliberal globalisation and the World-wide Social Forum at Puerto Alegre, from which I had just arrived. Fidel wanted to know everything, the subjects of the debates, the seminars, the participants, the perspectives...

He expressed his admiration for the alternative world movement: “A new generation of rebels has risen, many of them North American. They are using new forms, different methods of protest. This is making the masters of the world tremble. Ideas are more important than weapons. Everything except violence, all of the arguments must be used to confront globalisation.”

As always, ideas gushed out of Fidel. He had a world-wide vision. He analyzed globalisation, its consequences and the way to face them, with arguments of a modernity and a cleverness that put in relief those qualities that many biographers have emphasized in him: his strategic sense, his capacity to weigh-up a situation concretely and his speed of analysis. To all this is added the accumulated experience of so many years of resistance and battle.

Listening to him, it seemed unjust to me that the new generations did not know his trajectory better. As the unconscious victims of the constant propaganda against Cuba, so many friends who are committed to the anti-globalisation movement, mainly the youngest in Europe, sometimes consider him only as a man of the Cold War, a leader of an already bygone stage of contemporary history and with little to contribute to the battles of the 21st century.

For many, and those in the bosom of the left, the regime in Havana provokes distrust, criticism and opposition. And although the Cuban Revolution continues to enthuse, it is a subject that fragments and divides. It becomes increasingly difficult to find anybody, either for or against Cuba who, at the moment of passing judgment, can do so calmly and dispassionately.

I had just finished publishing a brief book of conversations with Sub-commander Marcos, the romantic and galactic hero of the Mexican Zapatistas. Fidel had read it and it had interested to him. I proposed that I could do something similar with him, but of greater amplitude. He had not written his memoirs, and it is almost certain that through lack of time, he would never write them. It would be a kind of “biography in two voices”, a political testament, a summation of his life by himself upon reaching his 80th birthday, and when a half-century had passed by since the attack on the Moncada garrison in Santiago de Cuba in 1953, where, to a certain extent, his public epic began.

Few men have known the glory to enter history and legend in their own lifetime. Fidel is one of them. He is the last “sacred monster” of international politics. He belongs to that generation of mythical insurgents - Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh, Patricio Lumumba, Amílcar Cabral, Che Guevara, Carlos Marighela, Camilo Torres, Mehdi Ben Barka - who, pursuing a just ideal, launched into political action in the years following World War II with the ambition and hope to change a world of inequalities and discrimination that was marked by the beginning of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

Like thousands of intellectuals and progressives throughout the world, and among them even the most intelligent, this was a generation that thought sincerely that the communism presaged a radiant future, and that injustice, racism and the poverty could be extirpated from the Earth face in less than a decade.

At that time, in Vietnam, in Algeria, in Guinea-Bissau, in more than half the planet the oppressed peoples revolted. To a great extent humanity was still then subjected to the infamy of colonization. Almost all of Africa and a good portion of Asia continued to be dominated by the old western empires.

Meanwhile, the nations of Latin America, in theory independent for more than a century and a half, remained despotised by privileged minorities, and often subjugated by cruel dictators (Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Duvalier in Haiti, Somoza in Nicaragua, Stroessner in Paraguay...), protected by Washington.

Is it the case that Fidel Castro is the Head of State that has exercised his position for the longest time? He has had to contend with no fewer than ten American presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush father, Clinton and Bush son). He has had relations with some of the main leaders of the world after 1945 (Nehru, Nasser, Tito, Kruschov, Olof Palme, Ben Bella, Boumedienne, Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Salvador Allende, Brezhnev, Gorbachov, Mitterrand, Jiang Zemin, Juan Pablo II, King Juan Carlos, et al).

And he has known some of the main intellectuals and artists of our time (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Arthur Miller, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Amado, Oswaldo Guayasamín, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julio Cortázar, Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Eduardo Galeano, Oliver Stone, Noam Chomsky and very many others).

Under his leadership, his small country (little more than 100,000 sq km and 11 million inhabitants) has been able to carry out the policy of a great power on a world-wide scale, getting one over on the United States, whose leaders have not been able to demolish it, or eliminate it, or even at least modify the course of the Cuban Revolution.

The Third World War was on the verge of exploding in October 1962 because of the attitude of the North American government. It protested against the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, whose function was mainly to obstruct a landing like the one at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, only this time directly by the American Armed Forces.

For more than forty years, Washington has been imposing a devastating commercial and financial embargo on Cuba (reinforced in the 1990s by the Helms-Burton and Torricelli laws). This prevents its normal development and contributes to aggravate an already difficult economic situation with tragic consequences for its inhabitants. In addition, the United States continues a permanent ideological and media war against Havana. The powerful Radio and TV “Martí”, installed in Florida flood the island with propaganda like in the worse times of the Cold War.

On the other hand, several terrorist organizations hostile to the Cuban regime - Alpha 66 and Omega 7 among others - have their base in Miami, where they have training camps, and from where, incessantly, they send armed commandos to the island to commit attacks, with the passive complicity of the American authorities. Cuba is one of the countries that have had the most victims (more than three thousand) and who have undergone the most terrorist attacks in the last forty years.

In spite of this persistent animosity on the part of the United States, including many attempts against his life, after the odious attacks on 9/11 against New York and Washington, Fidel declared: “None of those circumstances will ever lead us to cease feeling the deep pain caused by the terrorist attacks of 11 September against the North American people. We have said that whatever our relations with the government of Washington may be, no-one will ever leave here to commit an act of terrorism in the United States.” And he added: “I will have my hand cut off if anyone can find a single phrase here directed at diminishing the North American people. We would be a species of fanatical idiots if we were to blame the North American people for the differences between our governments.”

As a reaction to the constant aggression coming from outside, the regime has promoted unity within the country at all cost. It has maintained the principle of the single party, and has had a tendency to sanction opponents with severity, applying in its own way the old motto of Saint Ignacio de Loyola: “In a besieged fortress, all dissidence is treason.”

For this reason, the annual reports of Amnesty International criticize the attitude of the authorities on the question of liberties (freedom of political expression, freedom of opinion, civil liberties) and remember that, in Cuba, there are tens of “prisoners of conscience”.

Whatever the reason, this is a situation that is not justified. Just as the application of capital punishment is not justified either.

Capital punishment is nowadays banned in most of the developed world, with the remarkable exceptions of the United States and Japan. No democrat can consider the existence of prisoners of conscience and the maintenance of capital punishment as normal.

Nevertheless, these critical reports by Amnesty International do not document cases of physical torture in Cuba, “disappearances”, political murders, or public demonstrations suppressed by blows from the forces of the state. No popular uprising against the regime has been registered either.

Not a single case in 46 years of Revolution.

Meanwhile, in some neighbouring states, considered “democratic” - Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Mexico, not to speak of Colombia, for example, journalists, priests, mayors, leaders of civil society continue being assassinated with impunity, and with these crimes provoking only the scarcest international media attention.

To this we should add that in these States and most of the poor countries of the world, there occurs the permanent violation of the economic, social and cultural rights of millions of citizens; scandalous infant mortality, illiteracy, homelessness, unemployment, lack of sanitation; the beggars, the street children, the shanty towns, the drugs, the criminality and all manner of delinquency ... Phenomena unknown or almost nonexistent in Cuba.

Just as nonexistent is any official cult of the personality. Although the image of Fidel is ever present in the press, on the television and in the streets, no official picture exists, no a statue, a coin, banknote, avenue, building or monument is dedicated to Fidel Castro nor to any of the living leaders of the Revolution.

In spite of the incessant harassment from outside, this small country, so very attached to its sovereignty, has obtained undeniable results in the field of human development: the abolition of racism, emancipation of woman, eradication of illiteracy, drastic reduction of infant mortality, elevation of the general cultural level of the people.

In education, health, medical research and sport, Cuba has reached levels that locate it in the group of most efficient nations.

Cuban diplomacy continues being one of most active of the world. In the 1960s and 1970s it supported the guerrillas in many countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua) and of the South (Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina). Their Armed Forces, projected to the other side of the world, participated in military campaigns of enormous extent, in particular in Ethiopia and Angola. The intervention in Angola ended with the defeat of the elite divisions of South Africa, unquestionably accelerating the fall of the racist regime of the apartheid.

The Cuban Revolution, of which Fidel Castro is the inspiration and charismatic leader, continues being, thanks to its successes an important reference point for million of the disinherited of the planet.

It has succeeded at this in spite of evident deficiencies (economic difficulties, colossal bureaucratic incompetence, low level corruption on a generalized scale, shortages, blackouts, shortage of transport, rationing, the hardness of the daily life, restrictions of certain liberties), Here or there, in Latin America and other parts of the world, women and men protest, fight and sometimes die trying to establish regimes inspired by the Cuban social model.

What will happen when nature takes its toll and the Cuban president disappears?

It is obvious that changes will take place, since nobody in the structure of power (neither in the State, nor in the Party, nor in the Armed Forces) has his authority. An authority that has conferred a quadruple role: that of founder of the State, of theoretician of the Revolution, victorious military leader and author, for 46 years, of Cuban policy.

Many add another distinguishing characteristic: his condition of being the main critic and opponent of that which is badly done.

Some analysts predict that, as happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the present regime will be overthrown in an instant. They are mistaken. It is very unlikely that a similar transition to the one in Eastern Europe will happen in Cuba. In Eastern Europe a system imposed from outside and detested by the largest part of the population crumbled in just a very short time.

Although the adversaries of Fidel Castro do not accept it, the loyalty of most of the Cubans to the Revolution is an unquestionable political reality.

And it is a loyalty based on a nationalism that, unlike the communist countries of the Eastern Europe, has its roots in historical resistance against the annexionist or imperialistic ambitions of the United States.

Whether his detractors like it or not, Fidel Castro has a place reserved in the consecrated world-wide pantheon of the figures that have fought most persistently for social justice and with most solidarity in favour of the oppressed in the world.

For all these reasons - to which was added in March and April of 2003, my disagreement with the sentences to long prison terms of about 70 non-violent dissidents and the execution of three boat hijackers- it seemed to me inconceivable that a leader of such magnitude, who is criticized so ferociously by many in the western media, would offer me his personal vision, his own direct testimony on the great combats that marked his existence, and on the battles in which he continues to be embroiled.

Fidel, who makes so many speeches, has given few interviews in his life. Only four conversations with him in fifty years have been published. Two with Gianni Mina, Frei Betto and Tomás Borge, one each.

After almost a year’s delay, he let me know that he had accepted my proposal and that his fifth long conversation would be with me. In the end it is the most extensive and complete of all that has granted.

I prepared myself thoroughly, like for a marathon. I read or I reread tens of books, articles and information. I consulted with many friends, better connoisseurs than I of the complex history of the revolution, who gave me questions, subjects and criticisms. To them I owe the interest that the questions raised in Fidel Castro during this book-conversation.

Before setting to work in the calm, shade and the silence of his personal office - already a part of the interview had been filmed for a documentary - I wanted to get to know his personality a little better, in proximity, to discover him in his daily tasks, his handling of daily affairs. Until then I had only talked with him in brief and very precise circumstances: on the occasion of writing news articles in the island or at some event like the Havana book fair.

He accepted the idea, and invited me to accompany him on a number of tours over several days, both in Cuba (Santiago, Holguín, Havana) as abroad the abroad (Ecuador). In the car, in the airplane, walking, having lunch or having supper, we talked of the news of the day, his past experiences, his present preoccupations... of all subjects imaginable, and without a recorder. I would reconstruct those dialogues later, from memory, in my notebooks.

I discovered therefore an intimate, almost timid, well-mannered and very noble Fidel, who lends interest to each interlocutor and speaks with simplicity, without affectation. With mannerisms and gestures of an age-old courtesy, always kind to others, and in particular to his collaborators and escorts.

He never speaks louder than the other. I never heard him give an order. But he exerts an absolute authority in his surroundings through his overwhelming personality. Where he is, only one voice is heard. His. He is the one who makes all the decisions, small or great. Although he consults and is very respectful and formal with the political authorities that direct the Party and the State, in the last instance he is the one who has the decisions to take.

There is nobody since the death of Che Guevara in the circle of power in which he moves, who has an intellectual calibre to match his. In this sense he gives the impression of being a solitary man. Without an intimate friend, nor intellectual partner of his stature.

He is a leader, who lives, as far as I could appreciate, in a modest fashion, almost Spartan. Without luxury: austere furniture, food healthy and frugal, with the habits of a soldier-monk. Even his enemies admit that he appears to be one of the few Chiefs of State who have not taken advantage of their office to become rich.

He is also one of the few leaders who, in circumstances of serious disease, as happened to him on the 26th of July 2006, has announced publicly his ailment and has retired from power voluntarily.

Anyway, neither disease, nor the fall of the Berlin Wall, nor the disappearance of the Soviet Union, nor the historical failure of authoritarian state socialism seem to have modified the dream of Fidel Castro to install in his country a new kind of society, less unequal, more healthy and better-educated, without privatization or discrimination, with an integral global culture.

And his new and close alliance with the Venezuela of President Hugo Chavez and other countries of Latin America consolidates his convictions.

In the autumn of his life, mobilised now in defence of ecology, of the environment, against neoliberal globalisation and internal corruption, he is still in the trench, on the forward line, leading the battle through ideas in which believes. And from which, it seems, nothing and nobody will ever make him resign.


Transcript from a seminar that Ignacio Ramonet presented at the launch of the International Institute for the Study of Cuba(IISC) at the Metropolitan University of London on 10 October 2007

Order your copy of My Life: Fidel Castro from CSC today

£25 +£3p&p

Covering everything from his childhood influences, the beginnings of the revolution, his relationship with Che, Cuban migration to the US. As well as controversial questions, from human rights to the freedom of the press and Fidel’s frank opinion of other leaders, alive and dead. Fidel’s story in his own words edited by Ignacio Ramonet. Available from the CSC office. A full review will appear in the January 2008 issue of CubaSí.

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