American satirist Mort Sahl once said, “If you maintain a consistent political position long enough, you’ll eventually be accused of treason.” Nothing demonstrates this more completely than the life and death of Fidel Castro. Once the darling of the political left, Fidel, dashing revolutionary, somehow, somewhere, turned into Castro, a particularly dickie brand of dictator, universally admonished. Obviously, our times they are a’changin’, but unlike other relics of the 1960s, Castro didn’t change with them. He might have been the last — and possibly the greatest — Cold War warrior, but here, in the 21st century there’s no room for Fidel because all we want to see is Castro. How the mighty have fallen.
The truth is Fidel was not an economist, a philosopher or a social engineer. He was a politician — an excellent politician. He stayed in power longer than any other leader in the 20th century. He outlasted Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. He survived the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War and refused to take part in the surrender. He out-maneuvered 10 American presidents bent on his destruction until finally, admitting defeat, Barack Obama journeyed to Castro’s capital, Havana, to say all is forgiven. Like him or not, Fidel was good at what he did. And what he did was power and this is how he did it.
It’s quite complicated, but here’s the decaffeinated version.
When Fidel took power in Cuba in 1959, he had one simple choice. He could become just another petty dictator with a gaudy uniform and a big hat, one of many Caribbean client states in the American empire. Or, he could become the Numero Uno, head-of-the-class, resident, revolutionary badass of the Soviet empire. The fact is it wasn’t ideology that motivated Fidel Castro’s decision; it was power. He knew that, without power, he was just another left-leaning Latino politician. But he also knew that if he was a bona fide pain in the ass to the U.S. of A., the Soviet Politburo would bend over backwards to keep him in power. On the other hand, the American Congress might back him for a while, but they were just as likely to throw him under the bus if some other smart Cuban started whispering “democracy” in their ear. After all, they’d done it before — with a guy called Batista.
Fidel chose badass.
Suddenly, Cuba, a tiny nation whose only claim to fame was the Cha-Cha, the Mambo and Lucille Ball’s husband Desi, was taken seriously in every world capital east (and west) of Washington DC. When Fidel spoke, people listened. And, he and his buddy Che became the poster boys for an entire generation of wannabe revolutionaries. You can still buy the T-shirts, anywhere in the world. So, call him Fidel or Castro or whatever you like but does anybody remember who was running the show in Guatemala or Honduras or the Dominican Republic in 1959? I don’t think so.