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FIDEL A CRITICAL PORTRAIT by Tad Szulc (Morrow: $19.95; 703 pp.)

Castaneda, a graduate professor of international affairs at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a political commentator for the Mexican weekly Proceso, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

FEW SMALL AND BACKWARD COUNTRIES HAVE BEEN as intensely scrutinized by outsiders as Cuba has since its revolution in 1959. And few national leaders in the postwar world have exerted the kind of fascination and awe that Fidel Castro has now for more than a quarter century. The first “reportages” on the Cuban revolution were published in late 1959: The first Castro biographies appeared soon after. From Jean-Paul Sartre in 1960 to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the 1980s, an infinite number of Latin American, European and U.S. intellectuals, poets and politicians have succumbed to Fidel’s legendary charm and to Cuba’s ever-unfolding mysteries.

Throughout its account of the prerevolutionary life and times of Fidel Castro, covering nearly 500 pages, Tad Szulc’s “Fidel” is a masterful text. One can argue with the recurrent and somewhat troublesome references to the “power of Fidel’s intellect,” his “enormous courage,” his “prodigious memory,” all understandable examples of Castro’s seduction for those who know him, yet perplexing at best for those who do not. The repeated mentions of Castro’s ruthlessness and ambition are more than an adequate counterpoint, but do not fall into the easy trap of amateur and remote-control psychoanalysis. Overall, Szulc has sketched a meticulously honest, painstakingly detailed and essentially complete portrait of the revolutionary as a young man.

Two main issues are possibly laid to rest by Szulc’s narrative, which is based for this period on a large number of interviews, broad access to documents and a clear willingness on Castro’s and the Cubans’ part to let him enter the inner sanctum. First, Szulc provides considerable evidence to document the oft-cited hypothesis whereby Fidel by 1959, at age 33, was a veteran revolutionary and street-fighting politician, wise in the ways of rough and tumble Cuban politics. He knew, as the author stresses on many occasions, exactly where he was going and how to get there. His apparently hair-brained schemes--from attacking on the Moncada army barracks in 1953 to launching a guerrilla war from the Sierra Maestra with only 12 men in 1956--were all deeply rooted in Cuban insurrectional tradition and rested on a finely tuned reading of the Cuban political situation.

The second question Szulc deals with convincingly is the age-old one concerning the origins of Castro’s Marxist, communist, and pro-Soviet leanings, and whether he all along intended to transform the revolution he led into what it eventually became. Szulc argues persuasively that at least since 1953, Castro had resolved to launch his country into radical social revolution, and that he interpreted these terms in essentially Marxist fashion. Clearly, Castro dissimilated this ambition behind traditional Cuban rhetoric; it is equally true, though, that by his 1953 “History Will Absolve Me” speech, he was consciously speaking of profound social upheaval.

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But Szulc also underlines that fact that the commandante en jefe did not trust, adhere to or follow the Cuban Communist Party (or Popular Socialist Party as it was called) then or at any subsequent time before 1961, when he swallowed it up. Last, the biographer seems to indicate that although Castro knew early on what all this meant and he perhaps even hoped for confrontation with the United States, he did not actively seek a close alliance with the Soviet Union until well after he took power.

The post-1959 section of Szulc’s “Portrait” is not of the same length, depth or riveting attraction. The chapter on “The Revolution,” covering the period between 1959 and 1963, is barely 100 pages long, and the one entitled “Maturity,” dealing with the next 22 years, is just over 60 pages. But the most disappointing aspects of the part of the book devoted to Castro’s later years lie paradoxically in the insightful statements Szulc makes about Castro and Cuba, and which he does not develop or really substantiate.

These chapters are by far the most critical, but they are also, in a strange sense, the ones where the author is most substantive in his praise for Fidel and his revolution. This is where Szulc pronounces a devastating judgment on the “cultural wasteland” Cuba has become: “For reasons that defy understanding when one considers Castro’s own intellectual wealth, shortly after 1961, he was willing to impose, (or allow to be imposed) in Cuba a grotesque and repressive travesty of cultural life--always in the name of the revolution.” In a nutshell, this is a good description, but one would want, and expect, a great deal more.

Likewise, on Castro’s confrontation and sporadic patch-up attempts with the United States, Szulc brings to bear all the weight of his knowledge, understanding and feeling for Cuba and Castro, but then leaves one thirsting for more. He states that " . . . it should not surprise Americans . . . that Castro has no intention of ever trading his Soviet relationship for a relationship with the United States.” The author realizes that the reason for this is simple: The trade-off is not in Castro’s interests. Szulc concludes by confiding that "(Castro) marvels privately that serious American officials and politicians are so naive as to believe that Washington would be doing him a favor by establishing relations with Havana with basic preconditions.”

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In the final analysis, the text is similar in its ambiguous feelings toward Castro and the Cuban Revolution to other outstanding books on the subject. Like K. S. Karol’s “Guerrillas in Power,” published originally in France in 1969 and which, until Szulc’s book, is perhaps the best work written on Cuba, “Fidel: A Critical Portrait” runs over with admiration for the man and respect for the revolution’s enormous achievements, and disappointment as well as disenchantment with the individual and his regime’s unfulfilled promises. As Szulc says, Castro “is the undisputed and still enormously popular (and even loved) leader of the nation . . . thanks to Castro’s revolution, no Third World country approaches Cuban standards in the area of . . . decent life.” Which is undoubtedly why, 25 years after the Bay of Pigs, Castro’s former opponents at Playa Giron continue to be small-time gun runners carrying the Reagan Administration’s dirty water in Central America, while Castro, according to Szulc, is “perceived by the Third World as its advocate and at times its conscience.”

But, says Szulc, Castro seems to have “few fresh ideas” for his revolution and has “allowed it or forced it to be locked into obsolete ideological orthodoxy and deadening bureaucratization.” Both statements ring true, and Szulc, like so many before him intimately familiar with the Cuban saga, can only wonder if Castro will be judged for having achieved so much under extremely adverse circumstances, or so little given the stupendous potential that was originally there.


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