Winter of the Patriarchs

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro (Javier Galeano - AP)
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By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Looks like Havana's fabled Hotel Nacional won't be reverting to Meyer Lansky anytime soon. After 49 years, Fidel Castro has stepped down as Cuba's president, and his younger brother Ra¿l, a callow 76-year-old, succeeded him on Sunday, pledging in his inaugural address to consult Fidel on every important question. (Big Brother is watching.) The National Assembly selected 77-year-old Jos¿ Ram¿n Machado Ventura, who fought with the Castros in the revolution of the 1950s, to be the new first vice president.

Batista, it is clear, is not coming back. The revolution is safe -- unchanged, undiluted, embalmed. In most nations that have experienced far-reaching revolutions, the revolutionary generation tends to cling to power tenaciously, looking almost as askance at its children as it did at the regime it deposed. The Chinese equivalent of Cuba's Sierra Maestra was the Long March -- slogging with Mao Zedong and Zhou En-Lai across China in the '30s was a ticket to ruling China in the '80s, provided you survived Mao's many purges. The generation that fought alongside Ho Chi Minh in the '50s still ran Vietnam in the '90s.

Revolutionary generations may have some capacity for change, as Deng Xiao-Ping demonstrated in China. But in Cuba, the revolution has been a more closely held affair. There, the revolution and the nation have been identified with one man since the Eisenhower administration. Now it is identified with one family. As my friend Marc Cooper, the Nation magazine writer, has noted, the success of the 50-year project of creating The New Socialist Man, with children raised on party-written textbooks and grown-ups reading party-written news, seems questionable when the best Fidel can do is turn to his own brother. Scientific socialism, apparently, isn't teachable; it's genetic. The Castros got it. This is a cult of the Indispensable Man.

On the same day that Ra¿l became president, another indispensable man resurfaced here in Washington. In what has become a quadrennial rite, Ralph Nader announced on "Meet the Press" that he is running for president yet again. Nader, 74, complained that Democratic candidates weren't addressing key issues such as labor law reform and withdrawal from Iraq, which is why, once more, he's been compelled to go unto the breach.

That analysis, though, is as questionable as Nader's 2000 assertion that there weren't any significant differences between Al Gore and George Bush. In fact, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have repeatedly committed themselves to the same labor law reform that Nader touts. And Nader's anti-Iraq-war bona fides are no better than Obama's.

Nader also issued his quadrennial assurance that he's running to build a movement, but the truth is that his movement-building days came to an abrupt halt when he began his 2000 campaign. He has never committed himself to helping the Green Party, on whose ballot he has run twice. (Indeed, not that third parties have much room for growth in the United States, but the Greens have never recovered from Nader's uberspoiler candidacy in 2000.) And Nader of all people should know that social change in America emerges from movements -- labor, civil rights, feminist -- rather than from third parties. Movements transcend parties; third parties divide movements.

In 2008, though, the race already has its movement builder: Barack Obama, the onetime community organizer whose ground campaign has roots in the teachings of legendary organizer Saul Alinsky. Nader's idea of activism, back when he was the nation's great consumer and citizen tribune, was to mobilize lawyers and researchers. His work was absolutely necessary, but it never involved mobilizing the masses, and for him to wrap his candidacies in the mantle of movement building is a charade in which he himself cannot really believe.

I am not, of course, equating Nader's and Castro's politics, which are profoundly dissimilar. Castro is a one-party, one-family authoritarian; Nader is a small-d democrat indifferent to the effects of his candidacies on the workings of American democracy.

But Nader and Castro do come together on the ground where ego meets history. Nader said Sunday that he was running again partly in reaction to the Democrats' efforts four years ago to keep his name off the ballot in some states. This combination of principle and grudge match seems Fidelistic to a fault. Just as the revolution was Fidel, to be entrusted to no others, so the banners of American democracy and progressivism are Ralph, no matter if a number of his positions are being articulated by the likely Democratic nominee. The cause is Nader's alone; accept no substitutions.

Like Fidel Castro, Ralph Nader is not only in love with but hears history speaking through his own voice.

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