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.
For Cuba-watchers, the rich content of “Castro’s Final Hour” might well seem familiar. Many of the observations here have been duly reported by the press, often by Oppenheimer himself; but otherwise the effort is unique--readers have no other book to turn to on the subject--and much of Oppenheimer’s investigative work, delivered in wise and lucid prose, is invaluable, enlarging peepholes into picture windows.
Of particular significance is Oppenheimer’s riveting account of the fall from grace and subsequent executions in July, 1989, of two of Castro’s most trusted subordinates, Col. Antonio De La Guardia, one of Cuba’s top spies, and Div. Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, one of Cuba’s most decorated and popular officers. Ochoa was awarded the highest honor conferred to a military man (Hero of the Revolution), served as commander of military operations in Venezuela, Ethiopia, Angola, Yemen and Nicaragua, and was one of Castro’s very few close friends. Ostensibly, these men were sentenced to death for allowing narcotraffickers to transship drugs from Colombia, through Cuba, and into the United States, thereby bringing shame upon the Revolution and making it all the more vulnerable to its adversaries, especially since the U.S. government had infiltrated the smuggling network. For De La Guardia, in fact, the allegation was true, though from the very beginning of the operation he had assured his aides what they were doing had clearance “from the very top.” Certainly the traffickers thought so, when they found their flights being escorted by Cuban air force fighter jets. The problem, Oppenheimer learned, was that “Cuba’s government-sanctioned drug smuggling had spun out of control.” De La Guardia began running unauthorized deals. After his arrest, Castro visited him in his cell, asked De La Guardia to take the blame for all of Cuba’s drug trafficking in exchange for leniency, and when he did, executed him anyway.
Though no serious evidence ever existed to connect General Ochoa to drug smuggling activities, like De La Guardia, he represented “a reform-minded movement that was gaining strength within Cuba’s military,” at a time when Castro was prepared to go to any length to prevent Cuban society from being infected by the Soviet’s suicidal impulse toward glasnost and perestroika. Home from war in Angola, Ochoa, a charismatic man himself and loved by tens of thousands of Cuba’s veterans, quickly established a reputation as a grumbler, a “new thinker,” a highly visible and increasingly powerful member of the ruling elite who dared criticize Castro in less than private circumstances. Thus, Ochoa found himself in front of a firing squad. “We had to do it,” Brigadier General Escalona, chief prosecutor of the Ochoa-De La Guardia show trials, told Oppenheimer. “The revolution was at stake.” Castro had drawn the line; he would tolerate neither uppity officers nor reform.
The trials and executions chilled average Cubans, who had come to expect the regime to turn a blind eye toward the pervasive but discreet level of petty corruption, independent thinking and private entrepreneurship in Cuban society, especially since the decline in Soviet subsidies had made the black market an everyday part of life on the island. Vowing to root out all signs of lawlessness at all levels of society, Castro in effect criminalized the entire population. “In every speech that summer, " Oppenheimer writes, “Castro would reiterate his resolve to stick to Cuba’s one-party Communist system, crush any effort to resurrect independent farmers markets, and prohibit artists, craftsmen and other entrepreneurs from engaging in private businesses. He summed up his stand in a new slogan . . .: ‘Socialism or Death!’ Cubans on the street, displaying their natural talent for black humor, would joke that the slogan was redundant.” Among themselves, they whispered another slogan: No hay salida --There’s no way out.
In “Che’s Grandchildren,” one of the most engrossing chapters in Oppenheimer’s irony-laden book, the author poignantly profiles the Revolution’s disaffected offspring: Castro’s daughter, Alinia, who describes her father as a tyrant; 18-year-old Canek Sanchez Guevara, Che’s grandson, a heavy-metal rock musician who has a dollar bill laminated on his guitar, writes his songs in English, believes the Revolution is in ruins, and wants to emigrate. The new generation’s world outlook, Oppenheimer observes, abandoned the collective “We” of their parents and substituted the word “I.” Underscoring this tension between generations, Castro’s sister Juana, in exile since 1966, wrote an open letter to her brother a few weeks ago, urging him to step down, arguing, “Paradoxically, your enemies of the present are the children of the revolution you gave birth to.” (Washington Post, Aug. 2).
The story of Fidel Castro and his Revolution has become surreal, and very, very sad. To fight injustice, Fidel became unjust. To fight poverty, he made everyone poor. To defeat a corrupt dictator, he corrupted an ideology. To fight imperialism, he became an imperialist. To free his nation from the United States, he enslaved it to the Soviet Union. To save his people from us, he was willing to destroy them all in a nuclear war.
At the center of all this madness is the love-hate relationship Cubans have with their neighbor, the colossus to the north. As Oppenheimer reports, the Cubans never liked the Russians, never liked the Eastern Europeans, and don’t even like the Spanish, whom they’ve allowed to dominate the rebuilding of the island’s tourist industry. The fact is, they like us, the bullying yanquis --our culture, our sense of humor, our quotidian sensibilities. In us, despite ideological differences, they recognized a shared experience, and a share in the dreams of the New World of the Americas, and they are as baffled as I am by the continuation of the 30-year chokehold my country has placed on theirs. Given the childish intransigence of both governments, that chokehold, which has already produced true suffering in Cuba, will likely lead to bloodshed. Whether or not that outcome will be inevitable, it will certainly be inexcusable.