Portrait of the Maximum Leader as a Young Man

portrait-of-the-maximum-leader-as-a-young-manThis Op-ed was published on Aug. 13, 2006.

Fidel Castro appears to have cheated death (yet again) and will celebrate his 80th birthday today. Although he has decreed that his birthday celebration will take place on Dec. 2 (the 50th anniversary of his return to Cuba from exile), he in fact came into the world, weighing 12 pounds, on Aug. 13, 1926, at 2 a.m. at his family’s estate at Birán.

In 1952, when Fulgencio Batista seized power through a military coup, Fidel Castro declined an invitation to join the regime from Rafael Díaz-Balart, a brother of his wife, Mirta, and a minister in the new government. He had far grander ambitions.

On July 26, 1953, Mr. Castro and his younger brother Raúl declared war against Batista with an audacious assault on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba. The attack was a disaster, with more than 60 men killed, but it made Fidel Castro a household name. He reveled in his ensuing trial — declaring famously that “history will absolve me” — and was sentenced to 15 years at the Isle of Pines prison. (He served less than two.)

Castro was productive and prolific in prison, reading ceaselessly and writing hundreds of letters. Twenty-one of those letters were published in Cuba in 1959 in a volume edited by his friend and frequent correspondent, Luis Conte Agüero. (Mr. Conte Agüero broke with Castro soon after and fled to Miami in 1960.)

The book will be published in the United States in English next year for the first time as “The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro.” The excerpts below, translated by Mr. Conte Agüero’s son Efraim Conte, are striking in that they reveal both the idealistic young revolutionary of 1953 and the pitiless dictator he would become over the following half-century.

The Prisoner

Dec. 12, 1953

To Luis Conte Agüero:

I am going to ask you a favor. Write a Manifesto to the people in accordance with the content of this letter. Sign it in my name and take it to Mirta. She will try to have it published. . . .

It is decided we shall not have Christmas — not to even drink water on that day as a sign of mourning. Make it known, because I believe that in this way the objective will be more noble and human. There is no point for prisoners like us to aspire to the joys of Christmas. …

Luis, we still have strength to die and fists to fight. Receive, from all of us, a strong embrace. …

The Propagandist

Even behind bars, Fidel Castro never lost faith in his cause or in his ability to exact revenge on his enemies. In this letter to Melba Hernandez, one of two women who took part in the Moncada raid, he depicts himself as the heir to the great Cuban nationalist José Martí.

April 17, 1954

To Melba Hernandez:

First, we cannot for a minute abandon propaganda, for it is the soul of our struggle. Ours must have its own style and match our circumstances. …

Second, we must coordinate the work between our people here and those abroad. To this end, arrange a trip to Mexico as soon as possible. . . . We have to consider with extreme care any project of cooperation with others, lest they simply try to use our name. “To know how to wait,” Martí said, “is the great secret of success.”

Third, maintain a deceptively soft touch and smile with everyone. Follow the same strategy that we followed during the trial; defend our points of view without raising resentments. There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together. Do not lose heart over anything or anyone; after all, we did not do so during the most difficult moments.

One last counsel: beware of envy. When someone has glory and prestige as you do, the mediocre easily find motives or pretexts to be suspicious. Accept help from anyone, but remember, trust no one.

Courtesy of Luis Conte Agüero
Courtesy of Luis Conte Agüero

June 19, 1954

Here I spend my life reading and exercising self-control. I truly feel better when I do not read the newspapers; the politicking and submissiveness I see everywhere produces in me fits of rage.

If anyone’s patience has been put to the test it is mine; there are times when I spend whole hours fighting the desire to explode, declaring myself on hunger strike, and not tasting a bite until I am taken out of this cell or killed, which would not be the least improbable. I am convinced that what they want at all costs is to provoke me, and I ignore their intentions. …

Luis, I think we must organize as soon as possible a firm, systematic and growing campaign against this outrageous situation of mine. . . . This is psychologically the most favorable moment due to a series of events. … The Minister of Governance has behaved just as he is, a perfect pansy; he has acquiesced to all the whims of the military and given himself over to shameless enrichment. …

Remember Cato, who always ended his speeches asking for the destruction of Carthage.

With her spouse incarcerated, Mirta secretly accepted a modest stipend from her brother Rafael, the deputy interior minister, through his office. When the arrangement became public, Fidel Castro refused to believe it, insisting that Ramón Hermida, the interior minister, was trying to blacken his name.

July 17, 1954

To Luis Conte Agüero:

This is a machination against me: the basest, most cowardly, most indecent, the vilest and intolerable. Mirta is too level-headed to have ever allowed herself to be seduced by her family, agreeing to appear in the Government employee roster, no matter how hard her economic situation. I am sure she has been miserably slandered. …

Only an effeminate like Hermida at the lowest degree of sexual degeneration would resort to these methods, of such inconceivable indecency and unmanliness. Now I have no doubt that the statement attributed to me about being well-treated was his doing.

I do not want to become a murderer when I leave prison. Has a political prisoner no honor? Ought a political prisoner be offended in this way? May not a prisoner challenge someone to a duel when he leaves prison? Must he graze on the bile of infamy in the impotence and despair of confinement? I am ready to challenge my own brother-in-law to a duel at any time. It is the prestige of my wife and my honor as a revolutionary that is at stake.

The Warrior

Furious at discovering that Mirta had actually received help from her family and thus besmirched his honor, Mr. Castro sues for divorce and micromanages a scorched earth campaign for sole custody of his son, Fidelito, in this letter to his halfsister, Lidia.

November 29, 1954

To Lidia Castro Argota:

It makes me very happy what you tell me about the divorce; above all that it will be done strictly following my instructions. About the boy, I remain unchanged in my point of view, and at the first opportunity, immediately after the filing, will press the court to require his return to Cuba to attend school, consistent with my thinking. …

I resist even the thought of my son sleeping for one night under the same roof that shelters my most despicable enemies and receive on his innocent cheeks the kisses of those miserable Judases. I have endured their aggressions with the same strength I will use to demand reparations from them; I have suffered the unjustifiable and unforgivable absence of my son with the same resolve with which I shall rescue him at any cost. They know it, or at least they should know it! I presume they know that to rob me of that boy they will have to kill me — and even then. I lose my head when I think of these things.

The Politician

In 1954, with public opinion overwhelmingly against the Batista regime, a groundswell arose for an amnesty for political prisoners. The United States even pressured Batista to adopt an amnesty, but Fidel Castro was only interested in one on his terms. March 1955

To Luis Conte Agüero:

I am not in the least interested in swaying the regime to enact that amnesty; this is not at all my concern; what I am interested in is demonstrating the falsehood of its positions, the insincerity of its words, the base and cowardly maneuver that they are carrying out against men who are in prison for opposing it. They have said that they are generous because they feel strong, in fact they are vengeful because they feel weak. …

There will be Amnesty when there is peace. With what morale can men who have spent the last three years proclaiming that they carried out the coup to bring peace to the Republic make such proposals? So there is no peace, so the coup did not bring peace. …

“The best proof that there is no dictatorship is that there are no political prisoners,” they said for many months; today prison and exile are overflowing, therefore they cannot say that we live under a democratic constitutional regime.

Ann Louise Bardach, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author of Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana.

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