Forgetting Castro’s Crimes
Review: Rafael Rojas, 'Fighting Over Fidel: The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution'
Between the Old Left and the New Left, between the radicalism of the 1930s and the radicalism of the 1970s, there comes the curious figure of Fidel Castro. A celebrated revolutionary thinker. The absolute ruler of Cuba—and, for a time, the man believed to have finally solved the Communist dilemma: finding a way of being Marxist without becoming Stalinist, creating a fully socialist state that would not harden into totalitarianism.
He didn’t, of course. Soon after it seized power in 1959, Castro’s revolutionary government became a socialist dictatorship, barely distinguishable from all the other Communist states of its time. But the surprising lesson of Rafael Rojas’s new book, Fighting Over Fidel, is how brief was the time, how narrow the window, that serious leftists actually believed in Castro’s exceptionalism.
Oh, as late as the 1980s, the Soviets were still insisting that Cuba was a socialist paradise, impoverished only because the United States had isolated the island with economic boycotts and military threats. And that Russian propaganda would have a lingering effect on American leftism, leaving Cuba a convenient symbol around which to unite pro-Communist radicals and anti-anti-Communist liberals. From Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton, Democratic presidents all toyed with the notion of regularizing Cuban relations, although they were thwarted by congressional opposition. In 2015, President Obama simply ignored Congress and unilaterally reestablished diplomacy and trade with the island nation—the culmination of a decades-long rejection of the idea that Cuba was a threat and Communism a disease.
But the intellectual class of American leftism (which was, in many ways, the dominant intellectual class of the nation) had doubts from surprisingly early on. Castro had been a young attorney with what he believed was a rising political career—a career derailed when former president Fulgencio Batista seized control of the government and cancelled the 1952 parliamentary elections. The thwarted Castro quickly raised a small force of impoverished Cubans, and he rose to national attention when, on July 26, 1953, he led an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba.
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