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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."

But if El Absoluto didn't evade a single question (How many wives has he had? Whatever happened to his illegitimate children?), he certainly reserved the right to go over the manuscript. And go over it he did: Between the first Spanish edition, published in 2006, and the second edition, there's a gap the size of El Celestial's ego. Just as translator Andrew Hurley was about to submit his work, he received an annotated one (in French and Spanish) with endless changes. In a brief note about the translation, we learn that when Hurley and his British editor inquired as to who made the changes, no answer was given. They were told only that the changes needed to be made. (Hurley discreetly annotates every discrepancy between the two versions.) The spoken word is notoriously slippery, but in this case the slope gives place to an avalanche. El Manipulador has corrected (or better, improved) himself ad infinitum, making sure there's no room for confusion. Or is there? Too bad Ramonet has no sense of humor; if he had, he would laugh at his own servitude. Ramonet's questions are almost always succinct; El Campeon's answers are stampedes of information designed to persuade.

As novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante used to say, "No man is an island -- except Fidel." But he's a genius, his rhetorical talents (like those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) beyond belief. What other leader is able to hypnotize his followers for five, seven or 10 hours with speeches? Who else can be at once so lovable and despicable, having sent the first words of condolence to the people of United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while also enjoying the humiliation of enemies like Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, whose public execution in 1989 was a circus? How can such an erudite man increase the educational level in Cuba while keeping his people under a strict regimen of obscurantism?

Call him a Tyrannosaurus rex in fatigues! When Ramonet asks about the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba, El Mejor responds that the whole thing had to do with military recruitment. Really? How about the internment camps? Well, homosexuals on the island have enjoyed a comfortable existence, he says, even "a great deal of privilege and esteem." Reinaldo Arenas, I'm sorry, but you're a liar! So how about the 1980 Mariel boatlift? No, the event wasn't Cuba's fault. It "was triggered by the empire [the United States] in complicity with other countries in Latin America and Europe." Truth is, El Perfecto states, it was Cuba that "stopped the Mariel exodus, unilaterally and unconditionally, because we didn't want to contribute to the triumph of the Right in the United States." Ay, President Carter -- you're such a hypocrite!

Heberto Padilla was right! Teddy Roosevelt's descendants are eager to build a new Disneyland in Havana. In the time he has left, the Messiah is doing everything to leave his affairs in order. He's still convinced that, as he put it in a famous 1958 speech, history will absolve him. But history -- and this he should know -- is merciless. Death will visit him as it does everyone. El Eterno has done everything to avoid that visit. But after reading these lucid pages, it's clear that Fidel Castro -- surprise! -- is only human and, thus, as forgettable as the rest of us.

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