Nearly 30 years ago, Herbert Matthews of The New York Times interviewed a rebel-with-a-cause most people thought was dead. Matthews' scoop in the tangled jungle of the Sierra Maestra proved the man was alive. His name (which in its entirety was but four syllables) would soon come to be known the world over. To his followers, the first two would suffice: "Fidel." Castro's quest to topple Fulgencio Batista captured the imagination of millions. Victory, secured after only two years of urban insurrection and guerrilla warfare, catapulted Castro into the ranks of revolutionary superstardom. After the betrayals and disasters that had befallen the 1917 Bolshevik project, Castro seemed at first to herald something new. His was the first socialist revolution, after all, to have been made without the participation of (and even against) the Communist Party. (Its apparatchiks had denounced Castro as a "putschist" and an "adventurist.") Where all previous socialist revolutionaries had seemed grimly puritanical, Castro's barbudos (bearded ones) appeared almost to be sexy bohemians with guns. Democracy and radical reform were poised to replace dictatorship and social misery.
Just 32 years old when he came to power in January, 1959, Castro celebrated his 60th birthday last month. He has now been in power longer than any other Latin American political leader alive today, with the exception of Paraguay's Generalissimo Afredo Stroessner. The glamour of the early years has been fatally tarnished by a tyranny whose end is nowhere in sight. A police state has been created to enforce an ethic of self-denial, frugality, austerity, unremitting labor and self-discipline. His early ideals of libertarian socialism are nowhere in evidence. Cold War demonology continues to cast Castro as this hemisphere's devil, permitting him to preside over a nation that, much to Washington's chagrin, exerts an influence out of all proportion to its geographical size. And yet, most Americans probably know little about the man aside from his obstinate refusal to kowtow to Washington or to shave his unruly beard.
Peter Bourne, a psychiatrist, met Castro in 1979 while serving as an assistant to President Jimmy Carter. It was apparently a dream come true , for Bourne had been fascinated since he was 13 when Castro attacked the Moncada barracks in 1953. Bourne found Castro to be "a man of hypnotic charm and encyclopedic knowledge." He was smitten, and vowed to write the "Maximum Leader's" biography.
Handicapped by his inability to speak Spanish, Bourne refused to let such a niggling detail dampen his ardor for his subject. He persisted in attempting to interview several of Castro's past co-conspirators and current comrades. Having met Bourne once, Castro evidently decided not to repeat the experience, and declined to be interviewed for this biography. Undaunted, Bourne pressed on, dutifully ransacking most of the relevant literature on Castro. Bourne has done a decent job of digesting many of the morsels previously published by past observers, while adding little that is new.
His chief contribution is his relentless desire to explain Castro's character by his Jesuit education. Castro's "deeply puritanical streak," "fascination with ideas" and love of discipline is rooted, Bourne claims, in his upbringing by the Jesuits. While Castro's illegitimate birth is of some significance, according to Bourne, as it resulted in a "deep conflict with his father" and an "embryonic sense of personal predestination . . . as a defense against social ostracism," it was Castro's attendance, at age 15, at the prestigious Colegio Belen in Havana that was decisive. Bourne believes, as a Cuban official insisted, that "Fidel is a Jesuit first, a revolutionary second, and a Marxist third." Bourne seeks at every turn to tie Castro's temperament as a caudillo to this training. "In a way," he writes, "(Castro) was turning Cuba into a giant Jesuit school in which he was the principal. . . ."
Bourne is given to a form of psychobabble that vulgarizes more than it illuminates. For example, he explains Castro's appeal to ordinary Cubans by the alleged fact that they have "low national self-esteem" and a "hunger for someone to restore their self-respect and make them feel good about . . . themselves."