Book review of 'The Autobiography of Fidel Castro' by Norberto Fuentes

By Tom Miller
Sunday, January 3, 2010


By Norberto Fuentes

Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner

Norton. 572 pp. $27.95

About 10 years ago, the top editor of a multinational publishing house asked if I could get him into Fidel Castro's office to propose that his company publish the comandante's memoirs. I got him as far as the late Pedro Alvarez Tabío, one of Castro's gatekeepers, who listened in earnest as the editor outlined the project. Alvarez replied that he would present the offer to his boss, adding warily that other such proposals were afloat.

I was reminded of this when, on the first page of Norberto Fuentes's fictionalized Fidel autobiography, "Castro" writes that major publishing houses "have stubbornly pursued me for years. . . . I've been courting their offers equally, leading them on."

Consider us led on.

With this book, Fuentes has scooped heavyweight publishers and Castro himself, deftly mimicking the Cuban leader's voice, obsessions and outsize ego. His manias and philosophical passions are front and center. His matter-of-fact brutality and grandiose manipulations shine through. Fuentes has captured what seem to me Fidel's private thoughts in 572 pages (a mere half of the original Spanish edition).

Fuentes is either the best or the worst person to fictionalize Castro's life. He was a devoted Fidelista -- slavishly loyal would not be putting it too harshly -- who was privy to numerous private meetings and social engagements with Castro over the first 30 years of the regime. Fuentes counted many in the government's highest ranks as his close companions. But the rapid conviction and execution of two high-level officials in 1989 caused Fuentes to turn coat, and, after a failed escape and prison time, he was allowed to go into exile -- that is to say, to go to Miami.

With such a background, Fuentes, also the author of a book on Ernest Hemingway's years in Cuba, is trusted by few on either side of the straits. By writing this "autobiography," he has undoubtedly purged Castro from his system, and he can get on with his life. As for the reader, by Page 100 I felt I was no longer reading Norberto Fuentes but Fidel Castro himself.

"Castro" calls Che Guevara "a little preppy looking for adventure" with a fierce determination that "had nothing to do with authentic convictions, stoicism or will. It was asthma." He writes, "The island was too small for the two of us."

"Castro" describes his brother Raúl, now Cuba's president, as "insecure . . . hits below the belt . . . shadowy," yet writes that "he quickly embraced what was practical and didn't waste his time on cerebral nonsense." Shortly after describing and rationalizing the death by firing squad of some 500 members of Fulgencio Batista's military -- executions that Raúl oversaw -- "Castro" writes, "I don't think he'll execute anyone else in the time he has left on this earth. . . . He's too old for that type of thing now."

Looking back on his meeting with Vice President Richard Nixon in Washington shortly after taking power, "Castro" thinks: "They don't know me. . . . They don't know what I want or what I'm going to do. From now on it will always be this way."

"Castro" dwells most on the Bay of Pigs attack, the missile crisis, the revolution and his favorite topic, himself. ("I hold myself in very high esteem.") About the Bay of Pigs invasion, "Castro" writes, "If Kennedy had authorized the second air strike, there would have been a straight out war," adding that "there's no doubt they would have wiped us out, but at such a high political cost that not even the United States would have been able to face it." And when it dawned on him that Cuba was irrelevant to the resolution of the U.S.-Soviet missile standoff, the "comandante" angrily recalls: "Look at that battery of phones. All of them silent. Khrushchev hasn't called."

Castro's revolution was sui generis; nothing like it had ever happened before. Despite his dialectical approach to everything from inviting attractive women, the blonder the better, to assignations ("I don't recall anyone ever turning down the invitation") to organizing the Communist Party, much of what's transpired since 1959 has been impromptu. He's been winging it for more than half a century. Yet his Machiavellian philosophy, as laid out by Fuentes, has its own internal logic -- instructive, perhaps, for military and intelligence strategists.

The book can be a slog, and it gets a little sloppy, but you never know if that's Fuentes, or Fuentes channeling Castro, or a question of translation. I vote for the channeling theory. Since Castro has never written his memoirs, Fuentes's version will have to do. Fidel couldn't have written it better.

Tom Miller, who has visited Cuba regularly since 1987, is the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba."

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