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The legend of El Lider

Fidel Castro: My Life Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet Translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley; Scribner: 736 pp., $40

February 24, 2008|Ilan Stavans | Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. He is the editor of the forthcoming "Cesar Chavez: An Organizer's Tale."

Years ago, Heberto Padilla, the Cuban poet, was made to apologize in public for criticizing that country's revolution, thus becoming a symbol of censorship and intolerance in the island. Thanks to international pressure from people like Susan Sontag, he was able to leave for the United States; he told me once during a conversation that if Fidel Castro dies, Cuba will quickly be annexed to the United States, becoming the 51st state. "I'm sorry the Bay of Pigs was such a failure," he added. "But the take-over should have been completed much earlier, when Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders mustered into Cuba in 1898. Had Roosevelt accomplished the job properly, there would not have been room for President Kennedy's stupid mistake. Even better, El Mesias would not have turned my country into an anti-American heaven. But Roosevelt's children will get their opportunity again."

Padilla, of course, was sarcastically referring to El Excelso as the Messiah. What struck me about his comment wasn't his teleological humor, though; I was fixated on the way Padilla used the conditional: not when, but if, El Comandante dies. The subtlety is emblematic: El Lider has defied 10 U.S. presidents (from Eisenhower to Bush II) and a preposterous embargo that goes back to the 1960s, and he has flagrantly disregarded the laws of nature as well.

That conditional looks shaky now. Padilla, who for decades dreamed of returning to his native country, died in an Alabama hotel in 2000, lonely and alone. His diasporic fate epitomizes that of a million and a half other Cubans in exile. For those who still live on the island, how much longer does El Supremo have? The rest of Padilla's comment -- concerning El Afable as the Messiah -- is suddenly important. If indeed he dies, will he come back from the dead? El Supremo himself thinks the time has come to leave a testament.

In fact, a few days ago, he announced, in a statement in the Communist newspaper Gramma, that he was finally retiring, citing his delicate physical situation. He summoned his St. Matthew, Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde diplomatique in Paris, to deliver the gospel. Together with Ramonet, El Divino has produced "Fidel Castro: My Life" -- rumor has it that when he fell gravely ill in 2006, what kept him alive and focused was going over the proofs for this book. Ah, Fidel! Ah, posterity!

If that's true, then El Magnifico is twice as savvy as I thought. "Fidel Castro: My Life" is a masterful piece of expurgation. Not only has El Grandioso spent 50 years revamping Cuban history from A to Z, he now wants to make sure his word -- the divine Logos -- lasts forever. With the probable exception of Simon Bolivar (El Libertador), no other political figure, past or present, has exerted so much influence: not even his beloved Che, whom Fidel turned into an icon as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse.

Ramonet tells us that, in 2002, a passing encounter with El Maximo at the Havana Book Fair led to their tete-a-tete. In attendance was also Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University professor and Nobel Prize winner, whom Castro described as "an economist and an American, but the most radical one I've ever seen." Then he added: "Beside him, I'm a moderate." As it turns out, that adjective -- moderation as a mask -- would shape his autobiography. During their dialogue, Ramonet -- lo and behold! -- had an epiphany: "Unconscious victims of constant anti-Castro propaganda, so many of those in Europe who were committed to the alternative globalization movement . . . consider him a relic of the Cold War . . . a man who had little to contribute to the struggles of the twenty-first century." Wasn't it time, Ramonet thought, to rescue him from the dustbin?

Throughout "Fidel Castro: My Life," Ramonet frequently indulges in similar rhapsodies. For him not only has El Dirigente done no wrong but he has been wronged by a battalion of powerful evildoers. Ramonet persuaded El Astuto to chat for countless hours, talking about everything, from his childhood to the assault on the army's barracks, from his relationship with Khrushchev to the case of Elian Gonzalez, lost in the mythical waters dividing Cuba and Florida.

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