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Blue Jeans Will Win in the End : CASTRO'S FINAL HOUR: The Secret Story Behind The Coming Downfall of Communist Cuba, By Andres Oppenheimer (Simon and Schuster: $25; 423 pp.)

August 23, 1992|Bob Shacochis | Shacochis' latest novel, "Swimming in the Volcano," will be published in February by Scribner's

Did the hawkish policies of such men as Ronald Reagan and George Bush prolong the Cold War far past the endpoint of its natural demise, or, as they like to boast, did they actually hasten the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client-states? This question will, I assume, be debated among the pundits for decades to come. From a civilian's point of view, though, I fail to see how 45 years of relentless chest-thumping, paranoia, proxywars and arms-racing measure up, militarily speaking, to the head-on assault against the Iron Curtain by blue jeans, McDonald's hamburgers and rock 'n' roll. The real war--the conclusive one--between the superpowers was waged with culture--one rigid, institutionalized and wearying; the other spontaneous, popular and robust--and it is this conflict that the United States seems destined to win, for better or worse, again and again.

It sounds simplistic, and perhaps silly, but it is not. The United States, as an empire of ideas rather than territory, owes as much or more to Hollywood than to the Pentagon; more to its affluent globe-trotting tourists than to the State Department; more to the power of influence than to the influence of power. In the long term, seduction is a more potent and efficient strategy than threat. While imposing trade embargoes seems merely spiteful and fundamentally collusive, sealing borders strikes me as downright idiotic; could Radio Marti, broadcast to Cuba from Miami, possibly be more subversive than tens of thousands of yanqui tourists, with their big mouths and fat wallets, flooding the island? Nevertheless, it is against our law, not Cuba's, for U.S. citizens to travel there. It seems the lesson of seduction has yet to sink deep enough into the American political consciousness to constructively illuminate our country's dark obsession with Cuba, its not-yet-middle-aged revolution, and the aging Fidel Castro, who has proven himself the most tenacious of modern strongmen and a worthy adversary of American hegemony, thumbing his nose at the White House, administration after administration, for more than 30 years.

The hows and whys of Castro's legendary defiance compose the most fascinating and unpredictable geopolitical narrative of the Cold War era. In 1957, when Castro, his Marxist-oriented brother Raul and the young, asthmatic Argentinian doctor Che Guevara launched a two-year guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista, the island's military dictator, Fidel's secret weapon was, and still is (but to a lesser extent), his spell-binding, almost mythological personality. Castro was so charismatic, people found it impossible to say no to him; his insane courage so great, his heroism an inspiration to everyone around him. He and his ragtag columns marched triumphantly into Havana on January 1, 1959, universally acclaimed as heroes. But the one enduring mistake Castro made was to allow himself to become increasingly embittered toward the United States. After Batista's aircraft had raided a rebel base in the mountains, dropping U.S.-supplied bombs, Castro wrote to a friend, "I have sworn that the Americans will pay very dearly for what they are doing. When this war has ended, a much bigger and greater war will start for me, a war I shall launch against them. I realize that this will be my true destiny."

And so it was. Four years later, JFK positioned a naval blockade around the island, 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and Castro brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, making Cuba the most dangerous pariah nation of our times, and, until 1989, one of the principal exporters of revolution around the globe.

Since the autumn of 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, Castro's traditional enemies--the White House and Cuba's Miami-based exile community--have trumpeted El Commandante's imminent departure. But like Mark Twain's premature obituary, reports of the Revolution's death have been greatly, and embarrassingly, exaggerated. Despite the rather windy and sensational title of this, his first book, Andres Oppenheimer, a senior foreign correspondent for the Miami Herald and part of the team of reporters who won a Pulitzer for breaking the Iran-Contra scandal, has given us an extraordinarily deft, comprehensive and intimate account of what appears to be the Cuban Revolution's denouement. I emphasize the conditional here: Despite Oppenheimer's persuasive documentation of evidence and impressions suggesting otherwise, considering Castro's almost supernatural record of survival so far, his "final hour" might well drag into the next century and beyond. I wouldn't bet on it, but I wouldn't count Castro out either, until he's nailed into a coffin and abandoned to the mercy of history, which will likely regard him as both genius and tragic fool.

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