As his fellow French revolutionaries voted to execute Louis XVI and couched their votes in grandiloquent phrases of condemnation and excoriation, Joseph Sieyes is reported to have cast his vote with these three simple words, “Death, without phrases.”
Sieyes’ words came to mind as I read an AP story in the paper this morning headlined “U.S. believes Castro has terminal cancer.” Fidel Castro, now 80, who has escaped who knows how many attempted executions, may soon face “eloquent, just, and mighty death,” but his passing will not be without phrases. For, as Georgie Anne Geyer made clear in her marvelous book Guerrilla Prince, Castro is one of the most storied, though ultimately unknown and unknowable figures of modern times.
The news that the gaunt and ailing Castro may have cancer of the stomach, colon or pancreas comes almost exactly 50 years since he made his famous trip on the leaky American yacht Granma, headed from Mexico to Cuba and “destiny.” That destiny, for Cuba, has been a sorry one. This beautiful island nation became, even more than Germany or the Soviet Union or China, a clinic for personal dictatorship on par with North Korea.
And Castro did this with a deceptive appearance of “openness” of which Kim Jong-Il is culturally incapable.
Fifty years! I was a sophomore in high school in Ligonier, Pa., when Castro and his handful of men left the little port of Tuxpan, November 25th, 1956, and landed (or rather wrecked) on a Cuban beach at 5 o’clock in the morning of December 2nd.
I remember the time only because, budding would-be journalist that I was, I devoured Time magazine each week while dreaming of one day being a trench-coated “foreign correspondent.” It was not long after Thanksgiving that year that I was poring over the latest Time and in “The Hemisphere” section I came across a photo of a smooth-faced, pencil-moustached man who looked for all the world like some Argentine matinee idol.
There was a short article beside this airbrushed studio photo telling about a “rebel” attack in Santiago that had been suppressed with bloodshed by Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista’s armed forces. The name of the man in the photo, Fidel Castro, stuck in my mind because by chance I was taking Spanish and my high school textbook had these little vignettes of middle class life — visits to restaurants or trips to the beach or the Mercado Central — that we had to translate into English. A character in one of them happened to be “Fidel Castro.”
I went back and checked and, sure enough, in the December 10, 1956 issue of Time there was the photo, captioned “Rebel Leader Castro.” In the article about the apparently unsuccessful uprising, Castro was described as “a well-born, well-to-do daredevil of 29.” The short piece noted, “By early this week most of the shooting had died down (dead so far:13). But the government believed that Castro was somewhere on the island…”
Well, the rest, as they say, is history. And what a painful history it has been for Cuba. My two trips to Cuba (in the ’70s and ’80s) left me with deep impressions:
The sheer beauty of the island.
The sad crumbling of the pre-Castro infrastructure of what had once been a magnificent Havana.
The remarkable overall docility of the “fiery Cuban” people, a kind of haplessness, which I soon realized was a product of practical experience and a sub-surface fear that permeated people like a low-level infection. How different they were from the Cubans I knew in Miami.
Ah, but they had a great literacy program and free health care. Yeah. Sure.
Castro is the master of subversive enchantment. While holding his island in ruthless thrall he has managed to hold much of the media in the thrall of a rough and studied gangster charm that hides his hatreds and insecurities and a lust for absolute power untempered even by success. The worst dictators have always been the ones with the power to charm.
Give Castro this. He confounded many. He has survived. If he did not live his dream of destroying the Americanos, he lived his dream of absolute power on a stage tolerably big; big enough for him. In this, his last act, I think of the King’s words in the third act of Shakespeare’s Richard II:
For within the hollow crown/ that rounds the mortal temples of a king/ keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,/ scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,/ allowing him a breath, a little scene,/ to monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks,/infusing him with self and vain conceit,/ as if this flesh which walls about our life/ were brass impregnable, and humor’d thus/ comes at the last and with a little pin/ bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!
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