My 60 Years of Disappointment With Fidel Castro

I was 11 years old when I found out about the triumph of the Cuban Revolution from a friend’s Marxist-leaning mother. “Finally, justice will be served: Everyone may be poor, but equal,” she said. At that time, it was difficult to predict that Fidel Castro would become one of the most influential men of the twentieth century.

The Cuban Revolution inspired political awareness in almost all the writers, activists and intellectuals of my generation. Our university professors, contemporaries of Castro, saw in him the definitive vindication of “Our America” against the other, arrogant and imperialist, America. The literary supplements and magazines we read — by Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes — celebrated the Revolution not only for its economic and social achievements, but also for the cultural renaissance it ushered in.

Few of us were alarmed by Castro’s open adoption of communism, which he proclaimed in 1961. Che Guevara’s death in 1967 further fueled the flame of revolutionary idealism. In 1968 some of us excitedly followed Alexander Dubcek’s program of “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia. As our movement faced the Mexican army’s tanks in August 1968, we heard that Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague, and that Castro supported the invasion. When the Mexican government repressed the student movement that October, my generation became decisively radicalized.

In early 1969, when young Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet invasion, I wrote an article linking the libertarian spirit of Paris in 1968 with the sacrifice of that hero of the Prague Spring. Thus my first decade with Castro drew to a close: I had gone from enthusiastic to disappointed.

For daring to publicly oppose the authoritarian and dogmatic course that the Revolution had taken, the imprisoned poet Heberto Padilla was forced to deliver a statement of self-criticism in 1971. Several writers signed a couple of protest letters, but one conspicuous name was lacking: Gabriel García Márquez. As a university student, I followed the situation with interest. It anticipated the division in the intellectual left, between the democratic and the authoritarian, but the former was always a minority — to depart from the Revolution meant opposing truth, reason, history, morality, the people.

Ibero-America may have begun to distance itself from Castro, but it was far from breaking with him. One exception was Octavio Paz. “I am a friend of the Cuban Revolution because of its influences from Martí, not Lenin,” the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate wrote in 1967. Paz founded the magazine Vuelta that led Spanish-language intellectual dissent against the totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc, and of which I was the deputy editor. Though Paz criticized Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party and was as unyielding toward the South American military dictatorships as with Franco’s Spain, to his detractors he had become “right-wing.”

It’s true that it wasn’t easy to criticize Cuba. In Mexico, the revolution could be idealized because the country didn’t experience guerrilla movements of the scale of those in Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua and El Salvador. A tacit pact between the two countries was formed in 1962, when the government refused to break ties with Havana. Mexico has since served as a back channel for communication with the United States; in return, Castro refrained from supporting the guerrillas.

Those of us who criticized authoritarianism rowed upstream: We were against the dictatorships of the right, against the Cuban dictatorship, against the revolutionary movements that it favored, and against the “perfect dictatorship” of the P.R.I., as Vargas Llosa called it.

My final break with Fidel Castro occurred when his rule was in its third decade. In 1980, hundreds of people stormed the Peruvian embassy in Havana, seeking asylum. Shortly thereafter, more than 100,000 Cubans left the port of Mariel for the United States, revealing a fracture in Castro’s utopia.

Among them was the writer Reinaldo Arenas, who had suffered firsthand the regime’s persecution against homosexuals. And just as Vuelta had given voice to Eastern European dissidents, we began to publish Cuban dissidents, especially Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

In December 1988, Castro attended the inauguration of Mexico’s Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose election was widely considered to be rigged. The old pact with the P.R.I. was even upheld on the 35th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, when the Zapatista rebellion broke out in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, led by a postmodern avatar of Che Guevara, Subcomandante Marcos. “He talks too much about death,” Castro admonished.

Mexico held its first free elections in 2000. Castro attended Vicente Fox’s inauguration and reception at Chapultepec Castle on Dec. 1. It was the only time I met him. That day, he had an animated conversation with Hugo Chávez, whom he considered a kindred spirit. Through him, Castro was finally able to realize a long held dream: preferential access to Venezuelan oil that could bring the country out of its worst decade yet. In a 1999 speech in Havana, Chávez prophesied that Venezuela would reach the same “sea of happiness” on which Cuba was sailing.

I visited Cuba in July 2009, and was captivated by its natural beauty and the ingenuity and warmth of its people. On the side of the road, a 12-year-old girl waved a bag of cheese that she was selling for one dollar. “It’s forbidden,” the driver told me. The country lived without that age-old invention: the market. Time seemed to have stopped.

In Old Havana I bought “Geography of Cuba,” by the historian Leví Marrero. Beautifully illustrated with maps, photographs and charts, it was a revelation: Before the Revolution, Cuba had a rich and diversified economy. In 1957, Cuba had around 6,000,000 heads of cattle, well above the world’s per capita average. These days, cows are so scarce that killing one carries a multiyear prison sentence. Not too long ago, in order to eat beef legally, farmers “accidentally” sacrificed them by tying them to train tracks.

In an assessment of the Cuban Revolution in 2015, I contrasted the prophecies and promises with myth and reality. Without minimizing the enormous strides in health and education, I recalled what several Marxist historians have demonstrated: Cuba was already one of the most advanced countries in Latin America in 1959.

I also stressed the historical responsibility of the United States in the Cuban saga, and celebrated the diplomatic turn prompted by President Barack Obama in 2014, anticipating the end of the embargo. Unfortunately, the current president of the United States, Donald Trump, has marred any possibility of conciliation, which has further isolated Cuba and so perpetuated Castroism.

Venezuela is undergoing economic collapse, social upheaval, and a humanitarian crisis unprecedented in Latin American history. The failure of both regimes should have put an end to the Fidel era, especially when he is no longer alive, but the Commander lives on. Upon hearing of Castro’s death on Nov. 25, 2016, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, now president of Mexico, could barely suppress his tears and compared Castro to Nelson Mandela. There’s no doubt about it: Six decades on, there is still widespread reverence for the strongman.

Six years before his triumph, after the assault on the Moncada barracks in July 1953, Castro famously declared: “History will absolve me.” That’s no longer a sure thing. An awareness of freedom awakens sooner or later when faced with the obvious excesses of authoritarian rulers. If history examines his regretful legacy through that lens, it may not absolve him.

Latin American historians and intellectuals have the floor. With few exceptions, they have refused to see the historical failure of the Cuban Revolution and the oppressive and impoverishing domination of their patriarch. But the parlous situation in Venezuela — with Cuba as a crutch — is undeniable, and the Cuban reality will be increasingly hard to bear. This has been Lenin’s decade. Perhaps the next one will belong to Martí.

Publicado en The New York Times, 21 de agosto de 2019.

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