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The revolutionary and the ruler

27 January 2009 853 views No Comment

IN LATE 1959, as a precocious 15-year-old student at Melbourne Boys High School, I wrote to Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba, offering myself as an economics adviser. One afternoon, shortly after my Collingwood football-playing father, Bill Fitzgerald, had returned from work as a fitter and turner at the State Electricity Commission in Richmond, an officer from the Victorian Special Branch, which had intercepted my letter, knocked on the door. My father, who I later realised was a DLP (Democratic Labor Party) supporter, was mortified. Angrily, he accused me of being a “red ragger”.
These days it might seem incredible. But it is hard to overstate in America and Australia the strength of anti-communist hysteria in official quarters in the 1950s and early 1960s. This was a time when both the police and intelligence agencies went hunting “reds under the beds”.

Certainly from today’s perspective, Castro and Ernesto (Che) Guevara are two of the most iconic individuals of the 20th century. As Simon Reid-Henry shows, their 12-year-long revolutionary friendship, which began in 1955 while both were in exile in Mexico City, was of paramount importance to both these comrades at arms.

This occurred a mere four weeks after Castro’s release as a political prisoner in Cuba’s notorious Isle of Pines. They were quite different in personality, but the passionate relationship of Castro and Guevara rivals in importance those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky – whose doctrine of “permanent revolution” both men came to adopt.

Born in May 1928 in Argentina, Guevara studied medicine at the University of Buenos Aires, where his favourite writers were Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, Jack London and Emile Zola. A bad asthmatic since childhood and an Argentine who incongruously never learnt to dance, the impulsive Guevara with his pale skin and dark, haunting eyes loved living on the edge and was readily attracted to danger.

In contrast, the more pragmatic Castro, who was two years older than Guevara and 188cm tall, was schooled by the Jesuits in Cuba. As well as being a lawyer, Castro was a fine sportsman, excelling especially in baseball and basketball. Another difference after their successful guerilla war against the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, conducted from the high mountains of the Sierra Maestra, was that Castro excelled in political theatre and what he called “epic narratives” of many hours’ duration. More often than not, until he was murdered in Bolivia in October 1967, it was Guevara who was the intellectual and who, as a writer, was the chronicler of the revolutionary movement, not just in Cuba but also throughout Latin America.

While still up in the Sierras and aware of some other comrades’ suspicions of the Argentine, Castro issued a manifesto in which he deliberately promoted Guevara to his second-in-command. Soon after taking over from Batista, he pointedly made Guevara a Cuban citizen with full rights to take ministerial responsibilities in the new revolutionary government. Whatever question marks may have hung over Guevara were thus resolved by making him a naturalised Cuban citizen. As Fidel And Che puts it, this law “applied to all people who had fought against Batista for more than two years and who held the rank of Commandante for one: in effect, none but Che himself”.

In a curious move, Castro then formally enabled both Guevara and himself to become ministers in the revolutionary government by lowering the statutory minimum age from 35 to 30. These actions gave a crystal-clear indication of how Castro saw “the shape and nature of the revolution’s leadership” and the role of the two battle-hardened guerilla fighters in it.

Yet after a few years in power, Castro and Guevara had been drawn steadily apart by their different views of the revolutionary life. It was this above all that led Guevara to leave Cuba to promote a “continent-wide revolution” in Latin America. In this Guevara failed dismally and it was only after his death that Castro could convert his fallen Argentine comrade into a revolutionary Cuban martyr and a worldwide symbol of socialist rebellion.

In the book, there is a powerful photograph dated July 13, 1997, that depicts Guevara’s remains being repatriated to Cuba. This occurred after years of mystery surrounding the fate of his body in Bolivia. Along with Castro’s brother (and now Cuban President) Raul and Guevara’s close friend, the Interior Minister Ramiro Valdes, a bearded Castro deep in thought and sadness looks down at the coffin of his revolutionary friend.

Until his relatively recent illness, which resulted in Raul taking over power, Castro “regularly staked his revolution on the popular appeal of the island’s history of rebellion”. Moreover, as Fidel And Che makes clear, but never quite responds to the rhetorical statement, Castro will always be associated with these famous lines given to his jailers and judges: “History, definitively, will say it all . . . Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”

A final matter intrigues me: Guantanamo Bay has been held by the Americans since the 1903 Cuban-American Treaty. How come Castro, a person not averse to nationalising American property, including sugar farms, banks and other foreign businesses, never took it back? It is puzzling that in his otherwise excellent book, Simon Reid-Henry does not deal with this matter at all.