Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel Castro: Biografía a dos voces (Barcelona: Random House Mondarori, 2006).
This is a “must read” book for anyone interested in Fidel Castro or the Cuban Revolution. It is a 569-page text in which Fidel answers questions put to him by Ignacio Ramonet, the Director of Le Monde Diplomatique. The interviews took place from 2003 to 2005. In them Fidel discourses on almost everything you wanted to know about his public and, to a lesser degree, private life ranging from childhood right up to events taking place as the interviews proceeded. The text includes two photo sections which also range from very early youth to pictures of Cuba’s leader with contemporary figures such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.1 There are also explanatory notes, a chronology, and an index of names. A brief bibliography lists the sources Ramonet used to prepare himself for the interviews.
The book’s 26 chapters are arranged in more or less chronological order, although Fidel’s answers often range far and wide both geographically and in time. Throughout, one is struck by Fidel’s encyclopedic knowledge of men and events as well as his more than passing familiarity with literature from classic times to recent articles published in US magazines (and yes, he even reads Playboy if the material warrants). The text, as Ramonet says, has been edited for clarity and accuracy but this in no way lessens the immediacy of Fidel’s presence.
The interviewer asks hard questions as well as easy ones. Some of the difficult themes discussed are: the treatment of homosexuals after 1959, the execution of Arnaldo Ochoa in 1989, the jailing of “the dissidents” in 2003, the several crises around boat people, and the execution of the two ferry-boat hijackers also in 2003. How does Fidel justify the death penalty if he does not personally believe in it? In several instances the narration becomes a blow-by-blow description of a given event and Fidel’s participation in it (e.g. the 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks or the recent ferry-boat hijacking). One is struck by the fact that Cuba’s decisions or responses to events are so heavily conditioned by both the immediate situation and longer range global contexts. Thus to understand the Revolution’s responses to A or B it becomes necessary to look at the larger picture, and in these interviews that picture is often supplied.
During his tenure in office Fidel has obviously met with an extraordinary number of world leaders and other notables. They constantly crop up in these pages, sometimes in response to direct questions (e.g. What can you say about Cuba’s relations with Spain?), sometimes as a part of a longer response. Thus we find out what Fidel thought about not only US figures like JFK, but African and European ones such as Agostinho Neto, Patrice Lumumba, Willy Brandt, or Olof Palme. Present-day actors such as Hugo Chávez also figure prominently. Two chapters are devoted to Che Guevara.
Two interesting sub-themes weave throughout the text. One is a highly critical view of the Soviet Union along with the explicit recognition that without the protection of that country the Revolution would not have survived; the other is a very healthy dose of critical analysis of the Revolution from its beginnings to the present. Within the latter category lies a strong warning that corruption inside Cuban society today presents a real challenge to continued progress toward socialism. But, all in all, if nothing else Fidel shows himself as a visionary with a profound belief in human nature and in the perfectibility of both human beings and society. With care, and perhaps some luck (and lots of struggle), humankind will evolve toward a more equal society for all.
A commentary on Cuba then and now permeates these pages. Fidel proudly puts forward the accomplishments of the Revolution in education, medicine, and other fields. He notes with obvious satisfaction Cuba’s impressive internationalist efforts across the globe. The above are backed with detailed statistics. One constant cloud that hovers above the conversation is the unfailingly hostile presence of the United States. Fidel, however, is careful to distinguish between US leaders like Bush father and son, and the US people in whom he displays a good deal of confidence. His constant comparisons between how things work in capitalism and how they work under socialism serve as a steady counterpoint.
The final pages are devoted to very contemporary issues. One chapter deals with Latin America. How does Fidel view himself in the grand sweep of things? His answer: as a mere dot upon the larger progression of human history. What will happen after he is gone? He sees Raúl as his immediate successor. He is optimistic about the ability of the Revolution to survive and grow.
From the early days of the Revolution to the present, almost without exception, all those who have met and talked with Fidel have been captivated by him. This book imparts some of the attraction that he has exercised on friends and foes alike (see for example Mortimer B. Zuckerman, “My Dinners with Fidel” in U.S. News & World Report, Aug. 14-21, 2006) and provides probably the closest we will have to a genuine autobiography of this extraordinary leader.
Reviewed by Hobart Spalding
Professor Emeritus CUNY;
Socialism and Democracy
1. A Cuban edition of these interviews (titled Cien horas con Fidel) has the same text but different photos, including one of Che Guevara in disguise for his mission abroad. The Spanish edition includes a CD entitled “Yo, Fidel Castro” which presents a synopsis of seven chapters of the work. An expanded version of the Cuban edition is expected soon, and will be translated into English.