Hungary 1956

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Some years ago, at a used-book store, I found a book that got my immediate attention. It was Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956, a pictorial history of the Hungarian Revolution, and included a day-by-day summary of events. The pictures showed the death and detritus of battle along with closeups of the Freedom Fighters, often young men and women shouldering weapons, some grim, some smiling. There were pictures showing clusters of citizens riding the streets of Budapest on captured tanks they had decorated with fall flowers or painted with the Arms of Kossuth. And yes, there were pictures of AVO men, the hated Hungarian secret police, being shot down in the street, or hanging from trees.

The book’s author was British writer Reg Gadney. Its publication date in 1986 was the 30th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. This past October 23 was the 60th anniversary of the first shooting and killing. I was a junior in college when it all began. While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews. And while thus engaged, many of the rebels died.

The image of one young girl, Erika Szelez, became a symbol of the Revolution. Her picture has often accompanied articles and books on the uprising: a 15-year-old girl carrying a submachine gun with its straps across her shoulders. Alas, her story is a sad one. The picture was first published on the cover of a Danish magazine, Billet Bladet, on November 13, 1956. By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

While I was absorbing chemistry and English letters, Hungarians my age were setting Soviet tanks afire and shooting their escaping crews.

The events leading up to the Revolution, and the characters involved, all read like Tolstoy inventions. The key event was the Soviet “liberation” of Hungary in 1945. Russian soldiers raped and looted their way across the country, making enemies instead of friends. Under the Horthy Regency, Hungary had allied itself with Germany. It did so not so much from shared convictions as from a desire to recover territories lost in the previous world war. Stalin’s chosen leader for Hungary was Matayas Rakosi, who proceeded to move Hungary step by step toward a Stalinist dictatorship, a regime of murder and exceptional cruelty. Under Rakosi, collectivization of agriculture and attempts at industrialization impoverished the broad citizenry. Hungarian uranium went exclusively to the Soviet Union. Added to this, the Soviets had taken Hungary’s industrial machinery and part of its precious-metal reserves as spoils of war.

Rakosi, “Stalin’s best pupil,” hardened by 15 years in Horthy jails, mimicked his master’s purges. Party members were tortured to gain bogus confessions and then put on trial, where the confessions were repeated for the edification of the masses. Then the offenders were punished with imprisonment or hanging. One of the victims of the purges was Laszlo Rajk, whose elegance, perhaps, Rakosi found annoying. Rajk himself was a devoted Stalinist, who claimed the Soviet Union as his cynosure. He was, in fact, hoist with his own petard, having set up the very agency that accomplished his arrest and torture. On October 15, 1949, he was hanged for his imagined sins — being a “Titoist spy” and an “agent of Western imperialism.” Another victim of the Rakosi terror was man-of-destiny Janos Kadar, who, ironically, had cosigned Rajk’s execution order. Kadar spent two years in prison, where he endured torture, reportedly involving his genitals.

But in February 1953, Joseph Stalin died. Nikita Khrushchev came to power, and with him came the first hints of de-Stalinization. Rakosi was summoned to Moscow and informed that Imre Nagy was to serve as Prime Minister. Rakosi was to remain as First Secretary of the Communist Party. Nagy had experienced battle in the Hungarian armies, a conversion to Communism, further military service with the Red Army in the Russian Civil War, and imprisonment in the Horthy era. Victor Sebestyen’s useful book, Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, describes Nagy as a loyal Communist and Party man, having survived for 15 years in the Soviet Union. And yet, avuncular, food-and-football-loving Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow and why, in 1955, Rakosi seized power once again, installing his own man, Andras Hegedus, as Prime Minister. But the Stalinist Rakosi couldn’t throttle Hungary or Hungarians as he had once done — especially after a famous Khrushchev speech.

By that time Erika was already dead, shot five days earlier on a Budapest street by a Russian soldier.

On February 26, 1956, Nikita Khruschev gave a six-hour speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. In it, he denounced Stalin and his “Cult of Personality” and detailed his enormities. The speech was given in secret, but its contents became widely known and sent an unintended signal to the Soviet-satellite nations. Rakosi was suddenly given to speeches denouncing the “Cult of Personality” — one more irony in the Communist world of kaleidoscopic truth.

Students and intellectuals were showing greater freedom in expressing their discontents. Soviet Ambassador Yuri Andropov informed the Kremlin of “destabilizing influences” among the Hungarian populace. One such influence was the Petofi Circle, a group of students and intellectuals who discussed and debated such issues as “Socialist Realism” (a state-sponsored art style) and the theft of Hungary’s uranium deposits. Particularly significant was the speech given before the group by Julia Rajk, the widow of Lazlo Rajk.

October 6 is an important date in Hungarian history. On that day in 1849, the 13 generals who had led the Revolution of 1848 were hanged by the Austrian Empire. And on that day in 1956, the remains of Laszlo Rajk were reinterred in Budapest. Julia Rajk, Imre Nagy, and perhaps 100,000 other Hungarian citizens witnessed the ceremony. The late Rajk, a dogmatic Stalinist, had become a symbolic victim of Stalinist lies and brutality.

Nagy hadn’t reached the level of cruelty shown by fellow “Muscovite” Rakosi. Perhaps this was why he fell out of favor in Moscow.

At last, Budapest’s militant students met and agreed on a list of 16 demands. They hoped to get radio time to publicize them, but chose instead to publish them as pamphlets and post them all over town. The list included demands for the removal of Soviet troops, foreign insignias, and Stalin’s statue, and for free elections, free speech, a better run economy, and international marketing of Hungarian uranium. And there was one truly fateful demand — the restoration to power of Imre Nagy.

Thus, on the morning of October 23, 1956, the student demands were everywhere and easily read by the public. That afternoon, crowds gathered for demonstrations preplanned by those same dissident students. Perhaps 200,000 people eventually joined in a procession that marched to the statue of poet Sandor Petofi. There, they heard a reading of his famous call to arms, written in 1848. The Gadney book provides this translation:

Magyars, rise, your country calls you!
Meet this hour, whate’er befalls you!
Shall we free men be, or slaves?
Choose the lot your spirit craves!

Then the crowds marched to the statue of Josef Bem, a Polish general who fought for Hungary in the Revolution of 1848. Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Pictures of the demonstration show participants smiling, apparently in a festive mood. The march across the Margaret Bridge involved a huge procession, though ahead of it was a small advance guard carrying rifles. Later, at the Parliament Building, Imre Nagy was brought in to address the demonstrators. On his way, Nagy reportedly noticed a Hungarian flag with a donut-like hole in the center — the superimposed Soviet red star had been cut out. By that time, many Hungarian flags bore a similar vacuity. Nagy’s words to the crowd have escaped preservation, but it’s known that he asked them to sing the national anthem.

Someone placed a Hungarian flag — the tricolor, without any Communist emblem — in the arms of the statue.

Erno Gero, the reptilian Stalinist who replaced Rakosi as Party First Secretary, had made an earlier radio broadcast that merely compounded the hatred people felt for him. Part of the crowd ended up at the radio station. They demanded a microphone, and when it was refused, some of them tried to break into the building. The AVO members defending the building threw tear gas and finally opened fire, wounding and killing some among the crowd. The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd. More weapons arrived, brought by workers from Csepel, the industrial district. The armed demonstrators, now blooded Freedom Fighters, occupied the Radio Building, hunted down the sequestered AVO men, and shot them.

That same evening, another group arrived at the huge bronze statue of Joseph Stalin, intent on removing it. Obtaining metal-cutting equipment, they brought the statue down and carved it up for souvenirs. Only the boots remained, affixed to the marble plinth. Someone stood a Hungarian flag in one of them.

At midnight or soon thereafter, Imre Nagy learned that he was, once again, the Hungarian Prime Minister. By that time there was fighting in the streets. Soviet armor arrived in the very early morning of October 24. In his memoirs, A.I. Malashenko, then a colonel and acting Soviet Special Corps Chief of Staff, wrote that his formations were greeted with “stones and bullets.” Although Nagy eventually became a hero of the Revolution, his early statements urging a ceasefire weren’t in keeping with the mood of many Hungarians. Indeed, pictures show Freedom Fighters pulling a red star off one building, removing a portrait of Lenin from another, and, most startling of all, summarily shooting members of the AVO or jeering at their hanging corpses or those of their paid informants. Peter Fryer, a reporter for the British Daily Worker and himself a Communist, described “scores of Secret Police hung by their feet from trees” in Budapest. He tells of people spitting or stubbing their cigarettes on the bodies.

The unarmed demonstrators quickly acquired weapons, perhaps from local policemen or Hungarian soldiers, many of whom were in sympathy with the protesting crowd.

Other pictures show streets torn up and trolley cars capsized, their tracks pulled from the ground, to impede Soviet armor. Seen more than once is Pal Maleter’s tank, a T-34 stuck in the door of the Kilian Barracks. Maleter was a tragic hero of the Revolution. A colonel in the Hungarian Army, once decorated by the Soviets, he was in command at the barracks when, encountering the Freedom Fighters, he decided to join them rather than fight them. He later became a general and the Defense Minister in the Nagy government. On the night of November 3, while attending sham negotiations with the Soviets, he was arrested by the KGB head, General Ivan Serov, accompanied by the Soviet police. Maleter was later tried and, like Imre Nagy, executed by the new, Soviet-endorsed government.

There were two more mass shootings of unarmed demonstrators. One occurred at the Parliament Building on October 25. It began with the AVO opening fire, apparently responding to insults from the crowd. Soviet armor joined in with its firepower. The other shooting happened in Magyarovar, a small town in northwestern Hungary, close to both the Austrian and the Czech borders. A demonstrating crowd — men, women, and children — arrived at the AVO headquarters. The AVO was ready with grenades and machine guns and used both on the crowd, killing a reported 82 people and wounding and maiming many more. Peter Fryer described the aftermath at the town’s cemetery: the bodies in rows, including women, a young boy, and an infant. The surviving demonstrators obtained weapons, found some of the AVO men, and killed them.

Considering the eight-year ordeal of the Hungarian people, it’s tempting for a Westerner to ask why they endured tyranny for so long. One reason is that during those years Hungary was an efficient police state. A secret army of paid AVO informants lived and worked as ordinary citizens. Any attempt to communicate dissatisfactions or to plan a rebellious act or organize a dissident group could easily come to the attention of the secret police. Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution. As Lenin maintained, individual rights are incompatible with equality, and equality was his ultimate value.

Added to the police-state terror was the authoritarian tradition of Hungary and Eastern Europe. Before the Soviets seized Hungary, the country was ruled by the Horthy Regency, and Admiral Miklos Horthy maintained his own oppressive system — referred to as the White Terror. Perhaps a tradition of overbearing government blinded Hungarians to the importance of individual freedom, and its logical companion, free-market capitalism. Indeed, the Freedom Fighters maintained their loyalty to socialism. The heroic Pal Maleter could be arrogant in its defense.

Even those marginally associated with suspicious words or deeds could face arrest, exile, jail without trial, or even torture and execution.

Still, from October 29 to November 4 the Freedom Fighters believed they had won their battle, they had achieved their immediate ends. An agreed-upon Soviet withdrawal had begun on the 29th. Tanks and trucks were leaving Budapest with dead Soviet soldiers upon them. In a radio broadcast Imre Nagy proclaimed, “Long live free, democratic, and independent Hungary.” There were more shootings and lynchings of AVO men.

But then, the Soviet withdrawal began to slow. As early as the night of October 30, Nagy realized that the Soviet forces were returning. It’s likely that Pal Maleter was the first to so inform him.

Khrushchev had changed his mind — a free, democratic, and independent Hungary meant its possible Westernization and a capitalist country on the doorstep of the Soviet Union. The Revolution had to be crushed. Nagy and his associates faced a crisis reborn, though the smooth-talking Ambassador Yuri Andropov, later General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, continued to reassure them that the withdrawal would proceed. And yet, on the night of November 1, 1956, Janos Kadar, a member of the ruling Committee, fled the scene, after pledging to fight Russian armor with his bare hands and broadcasting his support for the Nagy government. His statements were a smokescreen, behind which he vanished, ending up in the Soviet Union with two fellow defectors. One of them was Ferenc Munnich, who would eventually join Kadar as his deputy in the new Soviet-approved government. Victor Sebestyen described Kadar’s reluctant climb into that final Soviet automobile, goaded by Munnich — and perhaps by the thought that if he stayed, he was a dead man.

Malashenko described meeting Kadar at the Tokol Airport and providing him with quarters there. When Kadar finally enplaned and flew away, it was with KGB head General Serov. Once installed as leader, Kadar, like the good Communist he was, set about eliminating his rivals. He was impatient to see Nagy hang, along with others. He ruled Hungary for the next 32 years, eventually creating a mixed economy and a measure of prosperity. Khrushchev referred to the Kadar system as “goulash Communism.”

Peter Fryer wrote of the final moments of the Hungarian Revolution:

In public buildings and private homes, in hotels and ruined shops, the people fought the invaders street by street, step by step, inch by inch. The blazing energy of those eight days of freedom burned itself out in one glorious flame. Hungry, sleepless, hopeless, the freedom fighters battled with pitifully feeble equipment against a crushingly superior weight of Soviet arms. From windows and from open streets, they fought with rifles, home-made grenades, and Molotov cocktails against T-54 tanks.

Much has been made of the West’s, and especially America’s, reluctance to intervene in Hungary, despite pleas for help broadcast over Hungary’s Radio Kossuth. Often blamed is our preoccupation with the Suez crisis, precipitated by Egyptian President Nasser’s seizure of the Suez Canal. Forgotten is the prevailing 1950s fear of nuclear war. The Eisenhower administration kept bombers in the air, prepared to administer a “second strike,” should the Soviets or Red China drop The Bomb first. A direct confrontation with the Soviets was to be avoided, and “containment” became the chosen policy toward the Evil Empire. Thus, we maintained troops and missiles in Western Europe, and fought limited wars in the world’s backwaters. Our government’s preoccupation was with America’s interests and security — as it should have been.

Khrushchev had changed his mind. The Revolution had to be crushed.

Did Radio Free Europe, by advocating the Western version of freedom, actually encourage the crushing of the Revolution? Perhaps it did, at that moment in history. But as James Q. Wilson wrote in The Moral Sense, westerners consider their version of freedom an ultimate good. He quoted a superb passage composed by Professor Orlando Patterson, which begins with these words: “At its best, the valorization of personal liberty is the noblest achievement of Western civilization.” A greater problem for the Hungarian dissidents was their own faith in socialism. They remained willing to submit to a system that Hilaire Belloc warned must lead to the Servile State — that is, to slavery. As he said, “The control of the production of wealth is the control of human life itself.”

And as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, under socialism there is no organic pricing system, no marvelous supercomputer that, under capitalism, signals production and distribution. Socialism can only exist by making plans and enforcing them with punitive regulations. Of course, its inevitable failures must lead to stiffer regulations and punishments and new theories that predict but never achieve abundance.

Still, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 hangs heavy on the mind — with its images of men, women, and even children battling the Soviet tanks and, implicitly, the worst enemies of human freedom. Perhaps they were seeking a kind of freedom they couldn’t quite define. Finding it nowhere else, neither in the everyday world nor as a promise in their political tradition, they found it, at last, in mortal combat.

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SOURCES

Belloc, Hilaire. The Servile State. London: T.N. Foulis, 1912. www.archive.org/stream/servilestate00belluoft/servilestate00belluoft_djvu.txt
“Cry Hungary! By Reg Gadney.” Kirkus Reviews. http://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/reg-gadney-3/cry-hungary/
Douglass, Brian. “On the Road to the Servile State.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles. 3 Dec. 2009.
“Erika Szeles.” The Female Soldier, 21 April 2015. www.thefemalesoldier.com/blog/erika-szeles
Flynn, John T. The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. New York: Devon- Adair, 1949.
Fryer, Peter. Hungarian Tragedy. London: New Park Publications Ltd., 1986.
Gadney, Reg. Cry Hungary! Uprising 1956. Introd. Georges Mikes. New York: Athenum, 1986.
Garrett, Garet. “Belloc’s Puzzling Manifesto.” Mises Institute: Mises Daily Articles, 13 Jan. 2003.
Gessmer, Peter K. “General Josef Bem: Polish and Hungarian Leader.” Info Poland: Poland in the Classroom, 8 June 1958. www.info-poland.buffalo.edu/classroom/bem.html
Gyorki, Jeno, and Miklos Horvath, eds. Soviet Military Intervention in Hungary 1956. Budapest: Central European Univ. Press, 1999.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents. Ed. Bruce Caldwell. London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2007.
Lenin, V.I. State and Revolution. New York: International Publishers, 1943.
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
“Sandor Petofi.” Encyclopedia.com. www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/russian-and-eastern-european-literature-biographies/sandor-petofi
Saxon, Wolfgang. “Janos Kadar of Hungary Is Dead at 77.” Obituaries. The New York Times, 7 July 1989. www.nytimes.com/1989/07/07/obituaries/janos-kadar-of-hungary-is-dead-at-77.html
Sebestyen, Victor. Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.
“This Hungarian Woman Was Already Dead When her Photo Became Symbol of the Revolution.” Hungary Today, 12 Oct. 2016. www.hungarytoday.hu/young-hungarian-woman-already-dead-photo-became-symbol-revolution
Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.




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Castro Agonistes

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“You know you’re speaking to a dead man.”
                                                                      —Fidel Castro talking to Cuban artist Kcho

Fidel (Hipólito Casiano) Alejandro Castro Ruz died on November 25. He was born on August 13, 1926 on his father’s sugar plantation in Biran, near Mayari, in what was then Oriente Province, Cuba.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years (if you count the time he shadowed Raul after formally retiring); longer than Porfirio Diaz, Alfredo Stroessner, Anastasio Somoza, “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Rafael Trujillo, and Francisco Franco. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class. He eliminated nowhere near as many as the 20th century’s truly heavy hitters, Mao Tse-tung (70 million), Joseph Stalin (40 million), Adolf Hitler (depends on how they’re tallied), Pol Pot (2 million) — or a slew of other, lesser killers. He did, however, kill more people than Augusto Pinochet.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, the late Dr. Armando Lago, a Cuban economist, attempted to document all deaths attributed to Castro in what he called the Cuban Archive Project. In it, Dr. Lago distinguished two major categories: #1, those directly killed by the regime, and #2; those whose deaths were an indirect consequence of Castro’s power. The majority of category #2 cases are mostly collateral damage from Fidel’s foreign adventures in places such as El Salvador, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, etc.

When it came to Latin dictators, he was second to none, ruling autocratically for over 56 years. However, as a murderous dictator, he was definitely second-class.

To be counted in the first category, as one directly killed by the Castro regime, each candidate victim must have a name and address and have his death corroborated by two independent sources. This category includes people executed with or without a trial, those killed in prison directly or by premeditated neglect, uncooperative campesinos summarily executed during the revolution, counter-revolutionaries killed in battle after the revolution, balseros murdered adrift while attempting to leave Cuba, and a few other unfortunate souls in various other categories.

Notably, the first category also includes Cuban soldiers — both conscripts and volunteers — killed in combat abroad, mostly in Angola and Ethiopia. Dr. Lago’s tally of deaths directly attributed to Castro tops 115,000, with the balseros alone constituting over 60% of the killed, and about 5,000 casualties of the Angolan intervention. With such stringent criteria, there are doubtless more. Bear in mind that as a percentage of Cuba’s modest population, 115,000 is a notable plus or minus 2%. Dr. Lago’s second category tally tops 500,000.

* * *

Like most absolute dictators, Castro lived his life as if the world revolved around him. He kept his own idiosyncratic hours, rising late and pursuing the business of state long after midnight and well into the dawn. He’d summon underlings peremptorily at all hours of the night for orders, consultations, or dressing-downs, and keep journalists and visitors waiting indefinitely for promised interviews.

Castro’s kill tally has always been a bit uncertain and somewhat controversial.

Though loath to admit it, he had much in common with Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. At the time Fidel was born, Cuba had been independent of Spain for only 25 years. In fact, Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been a young Spanish soldier stationed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. After Spain’s defeat, he decided to stay and try his hand at growing sugarcane in the newly US-controlled island. Although he was illiterate, it didn’t take long for the ambitious and enterprising Castro père to acquire vast tracts of land through a combination of extreme luck — he won Cuba’s biggest lottery jackpot twice — and thrift.

In Cuba, all families retained strong atavistic links to the Old World regions from which they hailed: European descendants to their home provinces and African descendants to their tribes. These took the form of clubs or associations that met often to promote old regional ties and values. Fidel’s father hailed from Galicia, the old Celtic province on the northwest coast of Spain fronting the Bay of Biscay. Galicians still play their bagpipes. (Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s inscrutable conservative prime minister, is also Galician.)

Franco too was Galician. Both were very gallego: bull-headed and inflexible, with a dedication to idealism, whatever the stripe. Vain, reserved and austere, with strong characters and personality, neither Francisco Franco nor Angel Castro had a well-developed sense of humor.

Jose Ignacio Rasco, a classmate of many years, says, “(He’s) completely lacking in a sense of humor. [He] doesn’t know how to laugh at himself. A solemn gravity is his ordinary conversational tone. [He’s] uncomfortable with small talk during which he’s given to hyperbole and suspense . . . and lying.” What little sense of humor Castro possessed was forced out at the conclusion of the Elian Gonzales saga when Fidel hosted a public conference to reflect on the event and its meaning. On the way to the podium he stumbled and fell. The audience froze. Fortunately, little Elian saved the day. When the boy started giggling, Castro loosened up and the participants thawed. Some almost laughed.

Fidel’s vanity was a strong, albeit eccentric undercurrent of his demeanor. His own best PR man, he was obsessed with his image and, by extension, the Revolution’s. In public he was always meticulously outfitted in handmade black leather boots, impeccable olive green rebel fatigues, or, in recent years, a tailored business suit. After the Revolution, he never shaved his beard — it had become a symbol of everything he stood for. However, he had no interest in finery, jewelry, or elegance — though he ate well — or the acquisition of things; and he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

On the other hand, in his private person, he was not just unshaven but usually unwashed and unkempt. Before coming to power he often insisted that close family members cut his nails and attend to his laundry. Fidel’s vanity, when coupled with his humorlessness, would become a contributing factor in his own death (as I will discuss below), and more than his own death: it cost General Arnaldo Ochoa his life.

He had no interest in finery, jewelry, elegance, or the acquisition of things; he forbade any visible signs of a personality cult, such as statues of himself or the naming of streets or plazas after him.

Ochoa was a hero of the Revolution, the African wars, and many of the Latin American interventions. An easygoing and irreverent Afro-Cuban — affectionately known as “el negro” — he rose to prominence from humble origins. Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, heir apparent, head of the armed forces, and the brains behind Cuba’s economic survival after the loss of Soviet subsidies, depended on Ochoa as an uninhibited sounding board. He was Raul’s best friend and drinking buddy. At the time of his death, Ochoa was arguably the third most popular man in Cuba.

On a fishing trip with el maximo lider, Ochoa crassly joked about Fidel’s unflattering swimming trunks. It was the beginning of Ochoa’s downfall. In a severe test of his brother’s loyalty, Fidel insisted that the popular general be court-martialed on trumped-up drug charges. Convicted, he was subsequently executed before a firing squad. When Raul faced Cuba’s military elite to justify and make sense of the brutal murder, he was visibly distraught. He wore a bulletproof vest and helmet. Halfway through, he broke into tears. Many suspect he was drunk — a not uncommon condition for him.

The opposite of his brother Raul, Fidel seldom drank or socialized in groups. He had a deep-seated drive to control all situations and always be the center of attention. In some ways Fidel was much more gallego than Cuban. The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune. Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, Castro’s personal bodyguard of 17 years, says in his book, The Double Life of Fidel Castro, that Fidel couldn’t dance and had no interest in music.

Castro’s anger was cold and withdrawn. In those 17 years, Sanchez saw him lose his temper only twice. When his daughter Alina defected, “Fidel went mad with rage . . . [H]is gestures resembled those of a capricious child in the middle of a tantrum: standing up, he stamped his feet on the ground while pointing his two index fingers down to his toes and waving them around.” The second time was when his mother-in-law — a dedicated tippler, bon vivant, and accomplice to one of Fidel’s wife’s infidelities — finished off a bottle of his favorite scotch.

Like Franco, Castro was not particularly out for personal gain, nor could he be characterized as a cynic. So when Forbes magazine alleged that his Swiss bank accounts made him one of the world’s richest men, it hit a nerve like nothing else, except being called a caudillo, the Spanish term for Führer — usually reserved only for Franco. On a fairly recent visit that Castro paid to Spain, the Galician premier suggested that Fidel, when he “retired,” should consider living out his last years in Galicia. Fidel studiously ignored the suggestion. But like Franco, he admired autarky. One of his very first edicts, on Christmas of 1959, was to outlaw imported Christmas trees, suggesting that palm trees ought to grace the holiday.

The suspicion lingers that he had absolutely no sense of rhythm as no one ever saw him dance, beat time to music, sing, or hum along with a tune.

Franco, like Fidel, died after a prolonged illness of the gut. Their illnesses and deaths were clouded by much rumor and speculation, because many thought their regimes’ survival depended on their own survival. Contrary to irresponsible rumors, both men are still dead. As to Castro’s regime, it’s on life support.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s ideological journey began at La Salle, the Catholic Christian Brothers’ primary school he attended, with the inculcation of boilerplate catechism, the virtues of sacrifice, and a strong empathy for the poor. Afterward, in high school, the Jesuits added an intellectual dialectic that probably undermined his religious faith — though he still retains a soft spot for liberation theology. As a child growing up in the sugarcane plantations of Oriente, he was struck by the disparities between the US-owned sugar refineries and the kowtowing of the local producers to their sometimes arrogant whims, including arbitrary price fixing and social segregation. When he learned how the American refiners entrenched themselves — during the turmoil of the US occupation after the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War — about the shabby treatment meted out to Cuba’s independence rebels by the American expeditionary forces during and after that conflict, and about the imposition of the Platt Amendment (whereby the US Congress retained the right to veto Cuba’s foreign policy), he developed a strong anti-US and anti-imperialist streak.

At the university, attaining power for its own sake became his main focus, according to his sister Juanita and many other sources. Initially, ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes. At the time this meant gun-toting, gangsterish fringe groups — not uncommon in Cuba’s then-claustrophobic political milieu — such as the Revolutionary Insurrectional Union, which he duly joined.

He admired men of action, particularly Alexander the Great, Napoleon, and Lenin. During his first years in law school, he was drawn to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera’s Spanish Falangism, the ideology behind Francisco Franco’s movement. Padre Llorente, one of Fidel’s teachers at Belen, later recalled breaking into spontaneous, rousing choruses of Cara al Sol, the Falangist anthem, with the young Castro. A bit later, he came to admire Benito Mussolini’s Fascism.

In 1948 General Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba in one form or another from 1933 to 1944, returned from his self-imposed US exile. Castro finagled an introduction to the strongman from his new brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who had become a prominent member of Batista’s inner circle. Overstepping every boundary of propriety, Fidel insinuated himself into a tête-à-tête with the ex-president and tried to convince the man to launch a coup d’état. His presumption was rebuffed in the iciest of terms.

Ideology was irrelevant as long as it fitted his temperament — radical, action-centered, and decisive — so he shunned the moderate center and gravitated toward political extremes.

So Castro moved to the center, joining the progressive, reformist Orthodox Party later that same year. Unfortunately, he was constitutionally incapable of working as a member of a team and was distrusted by the party’s ruling elite, who thought him an unprincipled gangster. Still, he decided to run for the lower house of Congress in the 1952 elections.

Unwilling to subject himself to the messy business of Cuban political sausage-making, Batista did in fact launch a coup in 1952, seizing power and canceling the elections. Fidel would probably have won his seat in Congress, but by then he’d lost all confidence in the democratic process, particularly as it was practiced in Cuba.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution. The fact that he actually never joined the party before seizing power and always kept his ideological cards close to his chest so as not to imperil his chances complicates the issue. During his congressional campaign Fidel used Raul as his intermediary with Communist Party members, who backed him but whose public support would have been detrimental. In a 1975 interview, Raul Castro confirms that it was Fidel who first introduced him to Marxism, back in 1951 when Fidel had given him Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Raul read it twice and experienced something of a Pauline conversion.

In early 1953 Fidel sent Raul to a Kremlin-sponsored international youth conference in Vienna. Raul made quite an impression, particularly on Nikolai Leonov, a young KGB operative, who befriended the Cuban. Leonov later went on to become the KGB’s top Latin America specialist. After the conference, Raul was invited to spend a month in Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.

Later on, while in prison after their first botched attempt to seize power, both brothers took advantage of their enforced respite to deepen their understanding of Marxist-Leninist doctrine, reading, among other works, Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto. In a December 2, 1961 speech Fidel Castro declared that he was already a Marxist when he launched his coup on July 26, 1953 by attacking the Moncada army barracks: "Various people have asked me whether back during the Moncada thing I thought then the way I think now. I've told them: 'I thought then very similarly to the way I think now. On that date, my revolutionary thinking was completely formed.’ What's more, I believed absolutely in Marxism back on January first [of that year]" (emphasis Castro's). Ideologically, if not through actual party membership, Fidel Castro had been a communist for a decade before the triumph of the Revolution.

Exactly when Castro became a Communist has been a point of contention ever since the triumph of the Revolution.

President Dwight Eisenhower was well aware of Castro’s ideology and ordered the CIA to overthrow him — a project bumblingly attempted with hired Mafia hitmen, exploding cigars, and other Rube Goldberg expedients. John F. Kennedy, when he became president, continued the operation, by then codenamed Mongoose. Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro — if you don’t count the one by the unlikely troika of the exiled Batista, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo (whom Castro had once tried to overthrow), and Jimmy Hoffa, who may have been helping out mob friends fearful that Castro would close their Cuban operations. Instead of eliminating the problem, the attempts became high-caliber ammunition in the increasingly serious propaganda war developing between Cuba and the US.

* * *

Fidel Castro loved adulation and power and wallowed in their perks. As a leader of men, he was second to none, being able to inspire and cajole nearly anyone into anything. Though he was perceived as having the gift of gab, this was a talent he studiously developed in his years at Belen, one of Cuba’s best Jesuit high schools. There he joined the forensic society and practiced his diction, delivery, and organization of thoughts interminably — in private and before a mirror. He had to. Growing up on a sugarcane plantation in the province of Oriente, he spoke a colorful guajiro vernacular, the Cuban equivalent of the backwoods Arkansas hillbilly dialect. Later, his ability to switch back and forth between the colloquial and the educated became a potent rhetorical device that forged a deep connection with his fellow Cubans.

It is no exaggeration to say that he has spoken more words on the public record than any political leader in history. He could hold audiences rapt for hours, Führer-style. Even those who hated him would tune in for his hours-long harangues. During his first 25 years in power he delivered over 2,500 formal speeches — that’s two per week, every week. The longest on record, in January 1968, was 12 hours long — fortunately, with an intermission. He still holds the record for the longest speech — at four-and-a-half hours — ever delivered at the United Nations. “As you may well know,” he said in November 1993, “my job is to talk.”

Fidel was a “big picture” man. He could size up a man or a situation in seconds, and strategize many moves ahead in nearly any circumstance. As a political strategist and propagandist he was unequalled. But as a tactician and organizer, he was a disaster.

Between 1961 and the time of Kennedy’s assassination, there were eight separate CIA attempts on Castro's life.

When he stepped onto the pages of history on July 26, 1953 with his attack on the Moncada army garrison in Santiago, he tripped. Never mind that Batista had been in power for only one year and that, in Marxist terms, a “revolutionary situation” just did not exist. This first attempt to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista proved suicidal for most of the participants. Not only did they meet stiff resistance (which Castro should have expected), but all his planning had been little more than careless wishful thinking coupled with impromptu expediency (some rebels even had to ride public buses to the assault). One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him. Those who weren’t killed in the strike were soon rounded up and shot in cold blood by the soldiers. A few, such as Fidel and his brother, lay low for a few days and then turned themselves in after pleas for clemency from well-connected family members made surrender a possibility.

The survivors were tried in a civil tribunal. At the trial, Castro acted as his own lawyer and summed up his defense with what would later become his most famous speech, “History will absolve me.” A sympathetic judge, Manuel Urrutia Lleo, voted for leniency. (Castro was grateful and later appointed Urrutia Provisional President after the triumph of the Revolution; he lasted only six months.) The Castro brothers were sentenced to life imprisonment on the Isle of Pines.

Fidel described his incarceration as a “necessary and welcome vacation.” In a letter home he wondered “how much longer we’re going to be in this paradise” and compared the accommodations to those of the Hotel Nacional, Cuba’s premier luxury hotel and, later, the residence of El Maximo Lider. Compared to the prison conditions his regime would impose, the Isle of Pines was a Caribbean vacation. Castro was allowed twice-monthly visits, including the conjugal sort. His cell bordered a large patio and remained open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. He was never subject to roll calls or regimentation and could rise or retire at will. The prison had a well-stocked market where Fidel, the gourmand, could buy delicacies and prepare them in his kitchen; alternatively, he could enjoy a fine meal at the small prison restaurant. He wrote home, “I take two baths a day due to the heat . . . [L]ater in the small restaurant available, I dine on calamari and pasta, Italian bonbons, fresh drip coffee and an H. Upmann #4 cigar.”

But prison wasn’t all vacation. Castro read voraciously, contributing many tomes to the Raul Gomez Garcia prison library, and ran classes for fellow inmates at the “Abel Santamaria Ideological Academy,” both of which he founded and maintained.

Two years later, again following pleas for clemency from his sympathizers — but over the strenuous objections of his ex-brother-in-law, Rafael Diaz-Balart, who knew him well and was a member of Congress — President Batista pardoned Fidel Castro. He and a handful of men left for Mexico to regroup and train to return to conquer Cuba.

Eric Shipton, the great British mountaineer, once said that if a man couldn’t organize an expedition on the back of an envelope, he wasn’t up to the task. Fidel seemed to belong to the back-of-the-envelope-expedition-planning school, but he was no Shipton. Though somewhat of a mountaineer, he was decidedly no sailor, and, as the disastrous Moncada attack had shown, he was thoroughly out of his element when faced with detailed and complex planning. When he finally set out to invade Cuba, he nearly trumped his Moncada failure.

On November 24, 1956, Fidel Castro launched from the Mexican port of Tuxpan with 82 men (many again arriving via public bus) aboard the critically overloaded 60-foot yacht Granma. They sailed with barely enough food, water, and fuel to reach Cuba; without medicine, charts, maps, or navigational aids (except for the built-in compass); and in the face of gale-force winds at the tail end of the Caribbean hurricane season. Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

One participant remembers Castro running around screaming hysterically, shouting orders that made no sense. Pure luck saved him.

The men waded through chest-deep water and came ashore in a swamp whose tangled vegetation lacerated them. Solid ground was no reprieve. Batista’s air force and troops had been tipped off. They surrounded the men in a canefield and slaughtered all but a dozen, reporting back that Castro had been killed and his entire band wiped out.

What little equipment Fidel had brought on board was lost in the confusion of the disastrous landing. Miraculously, the surviving dozen were able to make their way deep into Oriente province’s Sierra Maestra Mountains to regroup and heal their wounds — including Guevara’s shot in the neck. In less than a month the Rebel Army was reduced to nine men. Luckily, no one was looking for them.

The disastrous voyage must have precipitated a massive depression in Castro, for it led to the realization that he was an organizational and management failure — no easy thing for Fidel to admit. So he promoted his brother Raul to captain just before landfall. This proved to be the best decision he ever made. Ironically, Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths. Raul would later rise to become the tactical mastermind not only of the conquest of the island but also of the remarkably successful Angolan and Ethiopian military interventions and, finally, of Cuba’s economic salvation when the Soviet Union imploded.

During the two-year-long insurrection, Fidel Castro remained in the Sierra Maestra strategizing and propagandizing, while Raul coordinated, organized, and managed the details of the revolution. Field Commanders Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos advanced, fought the battles, and won the victories. But they also had outside help.

At the time, Castro’s 26th of July Movement was not the only armed resistance to Batista, but it was the key one. Alongside it, the Students’ Revolutionary Directory organized urban hits, while the Escambray Front and Second Escambray Front both waged guerrilla war from the Escambray Mountains in Camaguey province near the center of the island.

Blown off course, their landfall was a deliverance but also a total mystery — no one knew whether they’d landed in Jamaica or Cuba.

On New Year’s Day 1959, Santa Clara, the capital of Las Villas province, fell to a rebel pincer movement coordinated with the combined forces of the Escambray Fronts. One thousand demoralized government troops surrendered. The following day, Guevara and Cienfuegos, at the head of their victorious armies, entered Havana. The capital went wild. But Batista had already fled on New Year’s Eve; and Fidel, ever the showman, delayed his triumphant entry until January 8. Then the world went wild.

The two-year war had been relatively bloodless, with only 867 casualties on both sides. But Castro soon made up for it with firing squads. As Grayston Lynch, one of two CIA operatives present in the Bay of Pigs invasion, states, “In the first three months of his regime, Castro topped the 867 figure with room to spare. More than 5,000 Cubans would meet their death at the paredon, the firing wall.”

* * *

Fidel’s family tree is messily complex. He himself was not the son of his father’s wife, Maria Luisa Argota, but rather of his father’s 19-year-old live-in lover, Lina Ruz — Angel Castro and Maria having separated years before and taken up new mates. At the time, both in Cuba and in Spain, illegitimacy was a harsh burden, branded on the offspring with the mother’s surname instead of the father’s. Castro’s father did not marry Lina Ruz until the boy turned 17, at which time he became Fidel Castro instead of Fidel Ruz. He would forevermore hold social conventions in contempt. Fidel had six full brothers and sisters — in order, Angelita, Ramon, Fidel, Raul, Juanita, Enma, and Agustina — and two siblings from his father’s first wife: Lidia and Pedro Emilio.

Initially, Angel Castro spent little time with Fidel, foisting him off on Haitian tutors in far-off Santiago at the age of four to begin his proper education. At the time, he was much too busy managing the family ranch, and he believed, as was common then, in the benefits of a boarding school experience. Fidel hated it, complaining that “these people don’t care for us, they don’t feed us, we’re always hungry, the house is very ugly, the woman is lazy and we’re just wasting time here.” Much later — perhaps out of guilt or regret — Fidel became his father’s favorite son and was spoiled rotten by him. Like many overindulged children, Fidel bullied younger playmates and threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way. He was a bad loser.

On the one hand, Angel Castro wanted, more than anything else, for at least one son — Fidel — to achieve a university education. On the other hand, Fidel lacked his family’s entrepreneurial bent and showed no inclination toward or talent for earning an honest living. The boy was a brilliant dilettante. So, Angel provided money and powerful contacts to his son well into adulthood. Nonetheless, father-son dynamics played out their strange minuet with, at best, Fidel becoming ambivalent about his father and, at worst, deploring him. Juanita Castro, in her memoirs, quotes Fidel as saying, at news of their father’s death, “There’s no time for mourning; we need to prepare for worse things,” while both Ramon and Raul wept unselfconsciously.

Promoting his brother Raul to captain proved to be the best decision Castro ever made. Fidel’s principal weaknesses as a leader were his brother’s greatest strengths.

There were many reasons for the ambivalence. Fidel and his father both shared similar, very gallego personalities, which clashed. Both had an inflexible drive to dominate, untempered by any vestige of wit. And both had a strong sense of social justice, which nonetheless led them to clash ideologically. Angel’s was more noblesse oblige, while Fidel rejected what he perceived as rightful entitlements dependent on the charitable whims of any one man. The Castro compound in Biran just wasn’t big enough for both egos. Finally, Fidel, the ultra-nationalist Cuban chauvinist who would rise to avenge all the injustices — real and imagined — that were ever imposed on the Pearl of the Antilles, couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until 1941, at the ripe old age of 66.

Playing no favorites and exercising his inflexible streak of dogmatism, Fidel confiscated all the Castro family lands after the Revolution (though he warned his family to sell their herd before the Agrarian Reform edict went into effect).

Castro’s middle names are both revealing and a source of controversy. The first, Hipolito, was given by the Haitian foster family under whose care he lived while attending grammar school in Santiago de Cuba, Oriente. As more-or-less godparents, they had the privilege of conferring a middle name. No one knows the origin of Casiano. The only source for the name is a Cuban government secondary school diploma issued in September 1945. Alejandro, on the other hand, is self-endowed, a tribute to Alexander the Great, one of Fidel’s long-time heroes. It replaced Hipolito and Casiano; and became the given name for three of his sons: Alexis, Alejandro, and Alex.

Castro’s family name speaks volumes. The word comes from the Latin castrum, meaning castle. In Asturias and Galicia whence it originates as a family name, it refers to a pre-Roman fortified hill site — one that has stood its ground interminably. Fidel, of course, is from the Latin for loyal.

Fidel’s love life was even more Byzantine. In 1948 he married his teenage sweetheart, Mirta Diaz-Balart, a woman whose family were intimates of Fulgencio Batista and whose brother would soon become a minister in his government. Flush with a $10,000 gift from his dad, Fidel bought a blue Lincoln, shipped it to Miami and drove to New York for their honeymoon. They had one son, Fidelito. But differences — in aspirations, in politics, in families, and in fidelity (in spite of his name, Fidel was el maximo philanderer, being nicknamed El Caballo — The Stallion — by Benny Moré, the popular entertainer [by contrast, Batista was a dedicated family man]) — soon undermined the marriage. He didn’t marry again until 1980; but the number of his affairs and assignations rivaled the length of his speeches.

In his Sierra Maestra redoubt he took up with Celia Sanchez, the woman who would later become what Juanita Castro described as “the right hand, left hand, both feet and beard of Fidel.” Meanwhile, at the triumph of the Revolution, Castro wallowed in female adoration. Yanez Pelletier, a confidante who’d once saved him in prison from poisoning, became his procurer. He was known as “minister of the bedroom,” a nickname coined by Raul. When Pelletier fell from grace, Celia Sanchez became his intimate executive secretary, moving into Fidel’s quarters with him. Though now severely circumscribed, the assignations still continued. When Celia Sanchez died in 1980, Fidel was bereft.

Fidel couldn’t stomach the fact that his father had fought against Cuban independence, never regretted it, and didn’t become a Cuban citizen until the ripe old age of 66.

Still, less than a week after her death, he married Dalia Soto del Valle, the mystery woman with whom Fidel had shared his life since 1961. As if reinforcing the myth that the Revolution was his only mistress, Castro imposed such a low profile on her that Brian Lattell, a CIA analyst, says that “[she] and her sons might as well have been consigned to a witness protection program, so elaborate are the security precautions that surround them”. She never attended any of his public appearances (unless in disguise) and did not accompany him on official functions, diplomatic receptions, or foreign trips. During the latter, his mistresses included Juana Vera, “Pili” Pilar — both interpreters — and Gladys, a Cubana airline flight attendant. All told, at least five different liaisons, relationships, and marriages produced nine to twelve children. He was coy about it. Asked in 1993 how many children he had, Castro replied, “Less than a dozen . . . I think.” (Wikipedia and Juan Reynaldo Sanchez, his bodyguard, tally nine and ten, respectively.) Like their mothers and his siblings, some are with him, some are against him, and some have come to terms with the status quo.

* * *

Fidel Castro couldn’t really be characterized as a psycho- or sociopath, though he had a well-developed sense of vengefulness. And he wasn’t all-consumed by the suspicious mistrust and cruelty that absorbed Stalin and Mao. Unlike most of the other 20th-century tyrants, he was tall, athletic, and handsome. His Jesuit education and law degree inspired a thoughtful, intellectual sophistry that made him an absorbing confabulator, gifted with a glib tongue. But the world didn’t see this side during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Instead it saw an aggrieved adolescent. Fidel Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may. Jose Rasco recounts an episode of the young Fidel making a bet with a classmate, Luis Juncadella, that “he [Castro] was capable of crashing, head first, on a bicycle at full speed, against a concrete wall in full view of the entire school. And he did it, at the cost of cracking his head and ending up unconscious in the infirmary.”

Arnaldo Aguila, a recent biographer, gives this analysis:

Right here, from his youngest years, Fidel’s personality all comes together: an illegitimate social origin; an authoritarian father, brusque and of strong character, hard, without affection, indifferent; an excellent physical constitution that permits him to best others easily; a memory so outside the norm that no other student comes even close and an egoistical self-denial that impels him against every type of wall (including social impediments and Yankee Imperialism) coupled with a deep-seated passion to excel, to make bets to demonstrate that he can realize what others won’t even attempt, that he’s better than everyone else, perhaps to impress/defeat his father.

When Nikita Khrushchev provided China with nuclear weapons technology and missiles in the late 1950s, he was unaware of Mao’s absolute disdain for human life. He assumed that Mao’s long relationship with the USSR made him trustworthy. He soon learned otherwise and, by 1960, withdrew all technical nuclear assistance to China.

Two years later, when Castro requested nuclear missiles, Khrushchev jumped at the opportunity. But burned once, he didn’t fully trust Fidel (despite his name). So he complied only on condition that the Soviet Union retain absolute control over them. Though Castro agreed, it infuriated him. That fury was further aggravated when he was left out of the Kennedy-Khrushchev negotiations and subsequent missile removal that defused the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Castro had a streak of brinksmanship, an uncontrollable desire to “play chicken,” come what may.

The Missile Crisis was precipitated by the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba in mid-October of that year and by President Kennedy’s ultimatum that they be removed. The crisis consisted of the threat that failure to do so would precipitate armed attack. In anticipation, the US mobilized the navy to blockade the island. On October 26 Castro informed Khrushchev that “the Soviet Union ought never to permit circumstances in which the imperialists could launch a first nuclear strike…and that if they invade Cuba that would be the moment to eliminate forever such a danger — no matter how hard and terrible that solution may seem . . .”

On October 30, Khrushchev responded to Castro: “In your cable . . . you proposed that we be the first to launch a nuclear strike against the enemy. You do understand the consequences of this. This wouldn’t be a single strike, instead . . . the start of a thermonuclear world war . . . Evidently, in such a case the US would suffer great losses, but the USSR and the entire socialist camp would also suffer much. As to Cuba and the Cuban people . . . at the start of the war Cuba would burn . . .”

The next day Castro confirmed to Khrushchev that he well understood the consequences: “I knew . . . Do not presume that I ignored . . . that [the Cubans] would be exterminated . . . in case of a thermonuclear war…”

It’s good that no one was paying attention to him: he had made it quite clear that he would not have backed down whatever the consequences. Perceiving the entire event as an unpardonable breach of Cuba’s sovereignty, he soured on Khrushchev, and relations with the USSR worsened. China and Mao Tse-tung’s more uncompromising brand of communism became his new best friends.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s drive to prove that he’s better than everyone else drove him to eliminate his immediate competition — anyone whose charisma and popularity threatened to overshadow his, as in the case of General Arnaldo Ochoa. After his accession to power, Castro set his sights on Huber Matos, leader of one of the independent Escambray Fronts. By luck or design, he managed to kill two birds with one stone.

Matos had sent a letter to Fidel resigning his position because of ideological differences. Since Fidel brooked no ideological differences, he declared Matos in rebellion and sent Camilo Cienfuegos, second in popularity only to Fidel, to arrest him. After meeting with Matos, Cienfuegos advised Castro that there was really no rebellion; that in fact, Matos was simply resigning. That night, the plane carrying Camilo Cienfuegos back to Havana mysteriously crashed. The second officer dispatched to arrest Matos did not question Castro’s orders. Matos, however, got off easy. Due to his own very public and principled defense, Cienfuegos’ mysterious death, the ensuing publicity over the whole affair, and pleas from foreign governments and NGO’s, Matos kept his life but spent the next 20 years in prison, after which he emigrated to the US. Huber Matos died in 2014.

Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo.

Che Guevara was next. The Argentine had captured the world’s admiration and affection with his idealism and boyish good looks. He appeared as an Argentine selflessly risking his life in a foreign country for a Robin Hood morality; a slight, asthmatic waif, barely able to grow a beard, brandishing a Thompson sub-machine gun and puffing a big cigar, with a refreshing but unpredictable tendency “to call shit, shit.”

Soon after taking power Fidel had to transition his confidants from military duties to civilian appointments. During one brainstorming session, he asked who among them was a dedicated economist. Che Guevara, for some unknown reason, heard “dedicated communist.” His arm shot up and Castro appointed him minister of industries, then finance minister, and finally president of the national bank. In September 1960, Che nationalized the banks. Then, in a quick sleight-of-hand move, he announced a new currency, convertible only in limited amounts. Most Cubans’ life savings suddenly disappeared. Che’s idealism, when coupled with Castro’s unwillingness to share the spotlight, would cost him his life.

When Guevara published an article in 1965 criticizing the disparity between the lives of the Revolution’s elites and those of the common people, Castro took it personally (as well he might). So he sent Guevara along with about 100 Cubans into the very heart of darkness — the Congo, where the remnants of Patrice Lumumba’s forces were mired in the hopeless task of trying to regain power. It wasn’t the beginning of Fidel’s foreign adventurism, a policy of exporting socialist revolution around the world. That had begun back in June 1959, with his disastrous attempt to invade, first, the Dominican Republic to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo, and then the following month his attack against Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Nearly all the men on both attempts perished.

Before leaving, Guevara, in private, wrote his will, renounced his Cuban offices and citizenship and compared Castro to Stalin. In a fit of pique, Castro made the documents public. When Mobutu Sese Seko consolidated power, the Cubans admitted defeat and returned to Cuba — all that is except Guevara. But Congo did not become El Che’s grave. Uncomfortable about returning to Cuba, he bided his time in Dar-es-Salaam and Prague until duty again beckoned.

Castro hit the mark when he then sent Guevara to Bolivia. There he was to organize the peasants and overthrow the government. Daniel Alarcon, Che’s second-in-command, recalled, “Fidel accorded with the USSR and the Bolivian Communist Party sending Che to die in the jungle,” where he was ignominiously executed on October 9, 1967.

Soon thereafter Castro decided to get serious about exporting revolution. At the end of the ’60s he established Punto Cero de Guanabo, a 64-square-kilometer training camp 15 miles east of Havana for Marxist guerillas. The list of recruits trained at Punto Cero is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals: from Colombia — the FARC, the ELN, and M19; from Peru — the Shining Path and MRTA; from Chile — the Patriotic Front of Manuel Rodriguez, from Nicaragua — the FSLN (Sandinistas); from El Salvador — the FMLN; from Spain — ETA (the Basque separatist movement); from Northern Ireland — the IRA; from Palestine — the PLO; from Western Sahara — the Polisario Front; from the US — the Black Panthers and the Puerto Rican Macheteros; from Venezuela — Carlos the Jackal; from Mexico — Sub-Comandante Marcos; and an unnamed group from Guatemala.

Thanks to Fidel Castro, the Cuban people have buried their dead in the most unlikely corners of the earth. Perhaps the most absurd intervention El Maximo Lider ever undertook was in the Ethiopia-Somalia war. Somalia, a Soviet client state ruled by the iron fist of Mohamed Siad Barre, coveted Ethiopia’s Ogaden region under the guise of creating a greater Somalia. Mengistu Haile Mariam, absolute ruler of Ethiopia — also a Soviet client state — would have none of it. Castro, fancying himself an honest broker, decided to mediate. He counseled peace. When Siad Barre ignored his counsel and Somalia attacked Ethiopia, Fidel intervened by sending Cuban troops and materiel to Ethiopia, effectively giving Mengistu the upper hand.

* * *

Fidel Castro’s star shone brightly in the fall of 1979. His lifelong quest for glory and power had achieved its zenith: against all odds, he won his first and only election — and on a global stage, at that — for president of the non-aligned movement, consisting of those countries that professed neutrality in the Cold War. The victory was all the more remarkable because of Cuba’s $6 billion a year Soviet subsidy. There was no denying that he was firmly embedded in the Soviet camp.

The list of recruits trained at Castro's Punto Cero Marxist guerrilla camp is a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s radicals.

The Cuban army had been active in Africa as early as 1961, with aid to Ahmed Ben Bella’s liberation movement in Algeria. It later intervened in conflicts in Congo-Brazzaville and Guinea-Bissau. By 1979 Cuban troops were four years into the 16-year Angolan intervention, which later secured the victory of the Marxist regime. Forty thousand were to remain to guarantee it. They had met the South African army on the battlefield and were besting them. The Cuban intervention involved the air and sea transport of 60,000 troops over 6,000 miles despite the obstacle of limited or nonexistent forward international bases. This resulted in long journeys aboard old aircraft with overworked pilots. While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel. Castro himself ran strategic and tactical operations from Havana after Soviet advisors in the field proved inept.

Another ten to fifteen thousand troops were stationed in Ethiopia propping up Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Communist government. Now they were contemplating intervention in neighboring Sudan. In his own backyard, Castro had been crucial in boosting to power Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and Maurice Bishop in Granada. Everywhere, the Cubans had fought with great ferocity, upholding their commander-in-chief’s uncompromising demands. It was a staggering accomplishment for a country of 10.5 million.

In contrast, the US was mired in the throes of “Vietnam syndrome” and had just survived Watergate and Nixon’s resignation. For Fidel, things couldn’t be better. In October 1979, he traveled to New York to address the United Nations demanding: “We want a new world order based on justice, equality and peace to replace the unfair and unequal system that prevails today…” Never again would the stars align so propitiously for Fidel.

And then, on Christmas Eve, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, precipitating Castro’s long descent into failure and irrelevance. The invasion proved beyond the pale even for the corrupt, authoritarian, and sycophantic left-wing governments that comprised most of the non-aligned movement. Unable to justify the invasion on non-aligned principles, Castro capitulated to the USSR: “We [are] not going to place ourselves on the side of the United States and so we [are] on the side of the Soviet Union.” For the rest of his three-year term as president of the non-aligned movement, he was a lame duck.

While Cuban soldiers’ pay averaged only 71 US cents per month, the Angolan government reimbursed the Cuban government 40 US dollars per soldier per day — a nifty profit for Fidel.

The invasion and reversal of fortune was a devastating blow whose consequences rippled throughout Cuban society and into the very bowels of the Kremlin. Economic problems had worsened considerably while Fidel had been preoccupied with his international feats. On April 1, 1980, a group of Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian embassy seeking political asylum. Thinking that there were only a disaffected few, Castro urged any and all who wished, to leave. To his surprise and embarrassment, 10,000 desperate Cubans from all over the island stormed the embassy, occupying every inch of space, perching on tree limbs and roofs. Even policemen deployed to maintain order joined the throngs. Humiliated, Castro decided to shift the problem to the US. He opened Mariel harbor to unlimited emigration for four months. The Dunkirk-style evacuation freed 125,000 refugees; including murderers, rapists, psychopaths, and the criminally insane, whom he’d surreptitiously thrown in for good measure.

For the Soviet Union, the Afghan war proved a burden too heavy for a bankrupt system already on the verge of collapse. In the crisis beginning in 1989, Soviet Communism capitulated to the popular will, the Union dissolved, the ruble became worthless, and Cuba’s subsidies disappeared.

* * *

Motivated by socialist values, Fidel Castro outlawed and stamped out all private economic enterprise — except whenever Cuba’s economy bottomed out. At those points, emulating Lenin’s New Economic Policy, he’d legalize small, tightly regulated — and exorbitantly taxed (sometimes at more than 100% of gross receipts) — entrepreneurial initiatives. Once Cuba’s economy was back on its bound feet, he’d outlaw them again.

When the Soviet Union fell and Cuba’s subsidies were cut, it took more than family restaurants and B&B’s to float the island. So Fidel reached for a new paradigm: he launched what may be called CASTROS (Capitalism, Apartheid, and Socialism To Restore Our Solvency). Here’s how it worked. The Cuban government, employer and investor of first and last resort (Socialism) created joint partnerships with foreign firms to create profits (Capitalism). The profits provided — and still do — the lion’s share of Cuba’s income. The joint partnerships, mostly developed as resorts for foreign tourists, employed a handful of Cubans. No other Cubans were allowed on or near the resorts or their clientele (Apartheid). The resort economy has its own currency, tightly controlled and unavailable to regular Cubans. Following an earlier Chinese model, the authority for the joint partnerships resides in the army, headed by Raul Castro. The joint partnerships are now a bigger source of foreign reserve than sugar, which, ever since nationalization, has underperformed.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert. His first big program was island-wide agrarian reform. At first, this mostly meant the confiscation and nationalization of all the big sugar plantations and refineries. But later, every cow, pig, and chicken became state property. Not a few campesinos paid the ultimate price for slaughtering their backyard animals for a meaty meal without permission. After Soviet tractors and parts became unavailable, draft oxen replaced 90% of mechanized farm labor.

Inevitably shortages ensued and the government instituted rationing. Even sugar was rationed. Cuban cuisine suffered without olive oil, cooking sherry, capers, ham, chorizo, pimentos, and other essential ingredients. With cattle being retained from the abattoirs and trained as draft animals, beef all but disappeared. But el maximo dietician came to the rescue. Production of comestibles turned organic and “sustainable” — out of necessity, not health concerns. Salads, previously considered nothing more than “grass and water,” became a de rigueur staple, topped with eggless mayonnaise, something considered by Cubans America’s worst invention. And roadside kiosks, once a staple of innumerable meat goodies, now sell previously exotic “pizzas” of dough, tomato sauce, and cheese.

Having grown up on a farm, Castro considered himself something of an agricultural expert.

Fidel raised the intellectual level of the sugar harvest by drafting primary, high school, and university students and faculty members to “voluntarily” wield machetes to bring in each season’s cane crop. No doubt these were welcome physical sabbaticals for overworked brains. Another of his innovations was the expansion of the coffee crop from steep, well-drained mountainsides down to low, water-logged flatlands. Coffee production bottomed. But his real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A previously dedicated cigar smoker, he left that alone.

Fidel was also, however, a medical innovator. Although back in 1953 Cuba had more doctors per capita than France, Holland, or the UK, Castro perceived a problem. Today, Cuba’s healthcare system of free universal coverage is the envy of every well-intentioned, ill-informed humanitarian. True, it’s absolutely free to the patient; the Cuban government picks up all the costs — in money, anyway. Trouble is, the government’s intentions are bigger than its pocketbook, so extreme shortages and rationing result. For expedited attention, an under-the-table gratuity is expected. In hopes of fat tips, underpaid doctors moonlight as taxi drivers for rich tourists. True also that everyone is covered — about as well as a dishcloth covers a king-size bed; only those in the center get complete coverage.

Fidel’s countless economic failures are due not just to his doctrinaire Marxism but also to a remarkable talent he was born with: a photographic memory. He discovered the trait as a student when faced with exams for which he hadn’t cracked a book and for which he was forced to cram at the last minute. The photographic memory — allowing him to memorize entire books, including the page numbers of particulars — saved him. But he always confused memory with a critical understanding of actual knowledge. This, coupled with his absolute lack of humility, prevented him from realizing that he was incapable of wisdom.

Time after time, after reading a single book on the subject du jour, Fidel would talk expertly about the marvelous economic benefits of some half-baked new scheme: how Cuba would overflow with milk once Pangola grass was planted to feed the dairy herds; how every Cuban would eat steak every day once Holsteins and Zebus were crossed (a project he pursued on the fourth floor of his downtown Havana residence with the help of a construction crane to lift and lower livestock); how the Zapata swamps would feed not only all of Cuba but much of the entire world, once they were drained and planted with a new strain of rice — how whatever new invention of his would cause manna to fall from the sky.

* * *

Fidel’s skills as an advocate were at their postmodern, post-ironic best when confronting the long-running US trade embargo. When the US first declared an embargo on the regime, it was a boilerplate, pro forma response to a worsening diplomatic situation. At the time, not only were embargoes considered rational alternatives to war (as they still are), they were actually considered effective. Today, with globalization and free trade much more in the ascendant, embargoes have become increasingly symbolic.

Castro's real genius lay in tobacco cultivation. A dedicated cigar smoker, he left that crop alone.

No one has exploited the propaganda value of the embargo better than Fidel, to the absolute embarrassment and chagrin of every US administration that prolongs it. But the truly post-ironic aspect of the embargo is the blind brinksmanship of both sides. If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists. After all, such an invasion would have been much more effective than any military operation. And Castro is well aware of this. Serious overtures to lift the embargo, first by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration and later by Jimmy Carter, were peremptorily rebuffed.

Relations with the United States at the end of the Fidel Castro era aren’t bad at all. The embargo, as regards trade in food and medicine has been eased. Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base and by cooperating with the enemy combatant incarceration program there. Escapees were quickly returned. And he finally cooperated with the war on drugs. Though many years ago he presided over narcotics, ivory, and tobacco smuggling operations and turned a blind eye to drug transshipments and money laundering — mostly to irritate the US and gain a tidy profit to finance his Revolution — he later purged his regime of all drug related graft. The anti-drug policy is still strictly enforced.

As an informal quid pro quo, the US refrains from any Bay of Pigs sort of enterprise and keeps close tabs on US based anti-Castro armed activity. Additionally, we’ve modified our unrestricted Cuban refugee policy; we now return any and all refugees who don’t actually make a US landing. These informal understandings, along with a desire to avoid bloodshed and maintain stability, are perceived as the basis for a post-Fidel transition.

* * *

In January of 2004, the mayor of Bogota, Colombia, after meeting with Fidel Castro while vacationing in Cuba, reported that, “he seemed very sick to me.” His condition, later diagnosed as diverticulitis and aggravated by vanity, deteriorated over the course of the following two years. Unwilling to undergo the indignity of a colostomy bag, he insisted on a proper fixing up. The operation led to septicemia, which nearly killed him then, and set the stage for his ultimate demise.

If a US president, calling Castro’s bluff, had declared free trade with Cuba, it would have been Castro who would have invoked his own embargo against the flood of goods, traders, and tourists.

On July 31, 2006 — two weeks before his 80th birthday — Fidel temporarily delegated his duties to his brother Raul while he recuperated. But his close brush with death and his slow recovery finally led him — one and a half years later, in February 2008 — to retire from all his government offices, at which time Raul assumed all official duties.

It wasn’t his first brush with death. In April of 1983 he suffered his first recorded intestinal attack, which hospitalized him for 11 days, after which he convalesced for three months with no public appearances or speeches. The second attack occurred in September 1992 and was graver than the first, precipitating the initiation of transition protocols. During both events, Castro resorted to using a double who would ride the streets of Havana in his limousine, waving to passers-by to dispel any rumors that might have been leaked.

At his retirement, Castro’s fortune was estimated at $900 million, among the world’s top ten, by Forbes magazine — a revelation that irritated him no end and which he vehemently denied, claiming that he owned nothing but his nine-hundred peso monthly salary, equivalent to about $38.

But Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exercising influence through his column in Granma (Cuba’s version of Pravda), hovering and pontificating over all things large and small, exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events, and merely by being alive — a condition guaranteed to put the brakes on any radical reforms. To emphasize his resurgent vigor, he was elected Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement, serving from 2006 to 2008.

Until 2011, Fidel Castro remained Chairman of the Communist Party of Cuba, in effect the guiding light of the Revolution, and a strong tempering influence on any possibility of change by his brother in the island.

He did, however, admit to some mistakes. He’d mishandled the Cuban Missile Crisis; he’d advocated nuking the US; he’d been wrong to persecute gays. Further, the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.” He had already given up cigars back in 1985, for health reasons. And, as befits a retired pensioner, he took to wearing colorful tracksuits even during photo opportunities. Fidel’s Granma editorials ruminated on international events, sometimes striking a loud chord, especially when he berated the US policy of subsidizing ethanol, which he correctly perceived as a cause of rising food prices in the Americas; and when he warned the US not to engage in wars with Iran or North Korea after one Afghan and two Iraqi wars.

In 2012, the master of endless words — who had already corralled his thoughts from interminable logorrhea into much shorter newspaper editorials — further truncated his opinions into the severely constrained structure of the haiku, versifying on current affairs and recent history such as bemoaning Deng Xiaoping’s invention of “socialist capitalism” in three short lines. Cubans scratched their heads.

Cuba did not change, and, contrary to all expectations, Fidel Castro remained the “conscience of the Revolution,” exerting a censorious tempering judgment over events merely by being alive.

From March to November Fidel disappeared from public involvement. Since he didn’t congratulate Hugo Chavez on his October 7 reelection victory, rumors proliferated about his demise. The Miami Herald even reported that he’d suffered a debilitating stroke that left him in a vegetative state. To counter the speculation, a very frail Castro was wheeled into the Hotel Nacional to chat with the staff and provide a photo-op for the foreign press. Two days later, in a state media article ironically titled “Fidel Castro is dying,” he wrote that he was fine but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future (shades of Franco).

When, in December 2014, US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced plans to reestablish diplomatic relations, Fidel remained silent. On the day the US Embassy was reopened, August 14, 2015 — one day after Fidel’s 89th birthday — he finally weighed in, declaring that the US owed Cuba billions of dollars in lost revenue because of the embargo. He still didn’t realize that trade is a two-way street. US Republican responses categorized the deal as a birthday present to Fidel; but judging from Fidel’s silence and petulant response, he perceived it as a slap in the face.

Castro shared one trait with former US President Richard Nixon. According to bodyguard Sanchez, Castro had a mania for recording everything. Perhaps someday the entire oeuvre of the Castro tapes will be released and the world will be able to listen to him in perpetuity.

Fidel, perhaps with a little arm-twisting from his brother Raul, cooperated with the US war on terror by no longer overtly questioning the legitimacy of the Guantanamo military base.

As of this writing, few realize that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba does not eliminate the embargo originally established by Dwight Eisenhower, strengthened by John F. Kennedy, and further fortified by Bill Clinton though the Helms-Burton Act. Only a congressional amendment or rescission of the Act can reverse the US embargo. Still, there was one dramatic change in Cuban policy: political detentions dropped to 178 in January 2015 from a monthly average of 741 in 2014.

* * *

As to Cuba, the scuttlebutt is that Raul wants to follow the China model by opening up the economy and making the peso convertible. This would allow him to retain power and, as head of the army’s joint venture programs, keep the money flowing into his coffers. Though everyone wants a peaceful transition, these “understandings” completely ignore Cubans’ — domestic and expatriate — democratic aspirations.




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The Honorable Profession of Spying?

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Americans love to hate lawyers, and I admit to having told a shark joke or two in my time. But many attorneys deserve our praise for their wisdom, their trust, and their integrity. James Donovan was one of them. Not only did he risk his own reputation to defend a despised Soviet spy, but he successfully negotiated the exchange of that spy for one of our own spies five years later, and then went on to negotiate the release of thousands of prisoners in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs disaster, exchanging them for food and medicine that would benefit the Cuban people rather than for money that would line Castro’s pockets. Bridge of Spies tells the story of his most famous exchange: convicted spy Rudolf Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer, for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers.

The film opens on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), quietly painting a self-portrait in his small Brooklyn apartment. Abel might be a dangerous Soviet spy, but in appearance he is a sad sack who suffers from post-nasal drip. His mouth seems permanently downturned in a frown, and he walks with a determined but plodding shuffle. He speaks only when absolutely necessary, and not at all for the first 15 minutes of the film, as we follow him to an information “drop.” Even when American agents storm through his door, he remains unruffled and quietly cleans his paint palette. Later, when Donovan observes, “You don’t seem worried,” Abel shrugs pragmatically, “Would it help?”

It is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

Before continuing this review, I have to say a word about Rylance, whom many consider the most gifted stage actor today. I am one of them. Liberty readers may recognize him from the TV miniseries Wolf Hall, where he plays Thomas Cromwell. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rylance was the founding artistic director of the New Globe Theater and has eclipsed even Kenneth Branagh as the premier Shakespearean actor of our time. But he is also a master of comedy and modern plays. Over the last decade or so he has established a pattern of creating a role for the West End in London and then bringing it to Broadway for the following year. I have seen all those plays, some more than once. He is a brilliant stage actor.

But acting for the stage is different from acting for the screen. On stage, the actor is smaller than the audience; he has to “play large” in order to fill the theater and reach the balcony. Emotions are conveyed with exaggeration and with the whole body, not just the face or the eyes. By contrast, a movie screen is maybe 30 feet high and 70 feet wide. Every twitch of the finger and blink of the eye is magnified, so acting has to be subtle and nuanced. Rylance has not performed in many films, but not to worry. He makes the transition to screen brilliantly.

Several attorneys refuse to defend Abel, worried about how it might affect their reputations and their families’ safety. But Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) accepts the case. He believes that everyone in America, not just citizens, deserves the same protections under the Constitution, and that “American justice is on trial,” with the whole world watching to see how this foreign spy will be treated. Donovan’s nobility reminds me of Atticus Finch, defending the African-American Tom Robinson despite his community’s outrage and threats. “What makes us Americans?” Donovan asks Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) rhetorically, when Hoffman expects Donovan to violate client-attorney privilege and tell the CIA what he knows. “It’s the rule book — the Constitution. That’s what makes us Americans.” He defends Abel all the way to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil — in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.

To my mind, Donovan’s ethics deserve some scrutiny, however. For example, when a young boy asks him why he is defending the spy, he responds, “Because it’s my job,” as though that’s reason enough. But didn’t Nazi soldiers give the same excuse? Donovan also expresses admiration for Abel’s work ethic and steadfastness in not revealing any secrets, calling him “honorable.” And maybe he is. Such fortitude does reveal a strong character. But it also reduces spying to the level of a football game: just do your job, and do it with integrity, and we can all go home admiring one another. But defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Meanwhile, the Americans have spies of their own, and they are flying over Russia, taking pictures from 70,000 feet above the earth, using secretly developed camera equipment and a new top-secret plane — the U2. The pilots are told that if they are attacked they must detonate the plane and kill themselves rather than allow the Russians to have the information. Nevertheless, pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) manages to get himself captured, and Donovan is asked to broker a deal to get him home. (For dramatic effect the film gives the impression that these events take place at the same time, but they were actually five years apart.) Donovan’s dogged determination to negotiate the deal so that everyone comes out alive fills the remainder of the film.

Defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.

Despite our knowing the outcome in advance, the tension of the film is relentless, particularly in several exterior scenes set in East Berlin. The Wall is brand new and the German people are desperate to escape. Hungry young Germans surround Donovan like a pack of wolves, while others climb fences or drop from windows into the West in their eagerness to escape. These scenes belie the stance of moral equivalency that Donovan seems to adopt. All things are decidedly not equal between the two superpowers, no matter how honorably Abel conducts himself in maintaining his oath of secrecy.

Another powerful scene occurs as Abel’s trial begins, with a montage that leads from the bailiff’s “All rise” to school children rising to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the rising of a mushroom cloud in a schoolroom documentary about the atomic bomb. Spielberg has always been an artist, but in this film he surpasses himself. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who also worked with Spielberg in the award-winning WWII films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, deserves credit for much of the film’s success.

Bridge of Spies is the first film Spielberg has made without John Williams providing the soundtrack since The Color Purple in 1985, and while I’m a fan of Williams’ distinctive style, I think Thomas Newman’s darker tones are more appropriate to this film’s story.

Bridge of Spies is the first of the serious Oscar contenders to be released this year. Hang onto your popcorn — I think it’s going to be a great season.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bridge of Spies," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks, Fox 2000, Reliant, 2015. 141 minutes.



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Lessening the Language

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A friend of this column, Carl Isackson, has a beautiful dog named Lassen. But, to paraphrase the old rock ‘n’ roll song, Carl is bothered by “just one thing”: “Why can’t anybody get the name of my dog right?”

Carl, who lives in northern California, points out that his dog has the same name as a great natural monument of northern California, Lassen Peak. And the name is spelled phonetically. It’s one of the easiest names in the world. So why, when Carl takes Lassen to the vet or a hound-dog Hilton or some other place where his name needs to be registered, can’t people get it right?

“Oh, what a pretty dog!” they say. “What’s her name?”

“His name is Lassen,” Carl replies.

“What’s that again?”

“Lassen. Like the mountain.”

“Oh, Laysen. What an original name.”

(Growl.) “No, it’s Lassen L-A-S-S-E-N.”

“Right. Laysen.”

(Carl looks at the registration form. It says “Laysen.”)

“It’s LASSen. Like LASSie.”

“Huh?”

These attempts at instruction have never gone well. But then, the other day, Lassen checked into a pet hotel, and when he came out, the name on his Pawgress Report Card was “Lessen.”

Lessen.

From Lassen Peak to, just, uh, y’know, Lessen — that’s the progress of our language.

I assume that the people who think “Lassen” is a strange new name would react with outrage if they heard that Lassen Peak was being devastated by development. But they wouldn’t know what it was, or where, or be able to pronounce it if they saw it in writing, any more than those millions who went crazy about Bush’s scheme to drill oil in Alaska could pronounce or locate the minute part of the frozen north where Bush wanted to allow environmental devastation.

Picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and “squash” an indictment.

That was false consciousness, similar to the false consciousness of people who oppose the Keystone Pipeline on the ground that it would have some mystical effect on “the environment” — what effect, they don’t know.

But I want to discuss something more basic.

In my neighborhood there is, or was, a classy, early 20th-century stretch of boulevard that for the past nine months the city has maintained as a ruin. City workers blocked off two of the four lanes, tore up the median strip, dug a hole in what used to be pavement, and are now, very slowly, pouring concrete for what looks like an anti-tank emplacement. This, we are told, is supposed to become a “high-speed bus corridor.” How it will work, I don’t know; but it’s obvious that whatever speed a bus will be able to work up in those few blocks (two, to be exact) will never compensate for the time and gasoline that drivers are spending and will have to spend on the delays inevitably produced by eliminating two lanes of traffic. This, as I say, is obvious; but although everyone in the neighborhood complains about the city’s atrocious conduct, virtually no one comments on the fact that the whole giant waste of energy is motivated by an attempt to save energy. No one recognizes this irony, just as no one recognizes the fact that a dog named Lassen is named after, and spelled after, a mountain peak, not a word for diminishing returns.

Another instance! Consider the word quash. When is the last time you heard it? Yet it’s a standard term, one that until recently was used whenever people wanted to talk about the repression or suppression of something. Judges quashed indictments. Congressional committees quashed proposed legislation. Tyrants quashed rebellions. To use the word quash, you didn’t need to know all its uses. You just needed to know that there was such a word, and it might fit what you wanted to say.

But sometime during the past 20 years, people stopped recognizing the existence of quash. They stopped being able to hear or read it. When they encountered it, they saw and heard something more familiar, less daunting to their ignorance. They heard the word squash. And, like the goofy dog handlers, they didn’t care to puzzle (i.e., spell) out a less familiar word or to test the applicability of the easier word they wanted to substitute. Lassen became Lessen, and quash became squash.

Now proposals are squashed, rebellions are squashed, student protests are squashed, and even, God have mercy, wars and diseases are squashed. Conservatives don’t recognize the difference, any more than liberals. Poor Andrew C. McCarthy — he had to see his article about militant Islamics come out on National Review Online under the headline “DOJ Source: Obama Political Appointees Squashed Indictment of CAIR Leader and Other Islamist Groups” (April 14). And the British are as bad as we are. Here’s the author himself, someone named Con Coughlin, who is defence editor of the Telegraph, reporting on one of those convoluted British political things: “Mr Hammond no doubt believes these arguments are merely a political game and that, with a general election and the chance of further promotion in prospect, all he needs to do is squash criticism from the military by dismissing their claims as nonsense” (March 31).

Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and “impact” is the club of choice.

Whole lotta squashin’ goin’ on. You can picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and squash an indictment. Now let’s see you take that indictment to court! Or something named Philip Hammond (British writers no longer consider it their job to identify anyone, so why should I?) seizing a fat lump of criticism and squashing it into irrelevance.

These picturesque effects are not, of course, intended. They are the products of a lack of intention, and a lack of attention, too. They happen when words lose their history, their integrity, and their appropriate imagery and become mere flyover territory, uninteresting in detail — a landscape you just have to cross, preferably while sleeping, on your way to the big payoff — your meaning. Except that your meaning can only be expressed in words.

This is how people who want to say that someone is uninterested in his job assert that “he’s definitely disinterested,” not realizing that they’re paying the guy a compliment. This is how people who want to emphasize someone’s fame say that he’s “infamous.” They’ve heard the words uninterested and disinterested, and they’ve heard the words famous and infamous, but they never recognized a distinction. Everything just passed in a blur.

Sometimes the result is comic; more often it too is only a blur, a graying of meanings in a shadow world where nothing distinct, or distinctive, ever emerges. Well, it’s easier that way. That’s why impact is currently such a hit (pun intended) with everyone who wants to say something without going to the trouble of saying anything. What would a political speech be without impact? Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and impact is the club of choice. Context never matters. Here’s a tweet sent out by the White House, as part of President Obama’s attempt to end poverty by raising the minimum wage: “If we #RaiseTheWage here's how many workers would be impacted in your state . . .” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/live, April 19).The real, though unintended, message is: “For God’s sake, don’t raise the minimum wage! Don’t clobber those low-paid workers!” Because impact suggests a blow being struck, a planet hurtling into another planet, a car smashing into an orphanage . . . anything except the beneficial influence, assistance, or help that the tweeter had in mind.

I don’t know whether this is the chicken or the egg, but I do know that our daily speech is greatly impacted by the words used on talk shows; and here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the page of online news summary that professional talkers scan before they start their programs: “President Obama met with six faith leaders Tuesday to discuss immigration. The leaders told the president stories about how immigration policies had impacted members of their congregations” (Talk Radio News Service, April 16). “Faith leaders” are of course religious leaders, but let’s keep religion out of politics, shall we? Apparently these spokesmen for faith-in-politics spend their time picking through the debris left by their congregants’ (sorry, constituents’) collisions with immigration policies, searching for stories about how the poor folk have been impacted. This time, at least, I’m sure that the meaning is negative, but maybe the same people can come back tomorrow and tell the president stories about how their constituents were positively impacted by Obamacare.

Speaking of impacts, wouldn’t you be positively impacted if somebody used a word that could be distinguished from just any other word? I mean, think of all the synonyms for positive, as in positive impact: favorable, beautiful, helpful, wonderful, splendid, slightly encouraging . . . . And the synonyms for negative are much more fun. Why lessen the impact of what you want to say by using the most nondescript term available? Maybe because you’re lazy?

But it’s not just impact that’s at stake; it’s also knowledge. You might like to know precisely what kind of impact those policies had. Or, to use another example (I have plenty), if you’re concerned, as maybe you ought to be, with the chronic mystery of how many of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were communist agents, intentional or unintentional, and you happen to look up the name of his intimate friend Harry Hopkins, this is what you’ll find in a defensive but fairly well informed Wikipedia article:

Hopkins was the top American official charged with dealing with Soviet officials during World War II. He interfaced with many Soviets, from middle ranks to the very highest — apart from Marshal Stalin, most notably Anastas Mikoyan, Hopkins's counterpart with responsibility for Lend-Lease. He often explained Roosevelt's plans to Stalin and other top Soviets in order to enlist Soviet support for American objectives, and in turn explained Stalin's goals and needs to Roosevelt.

Sounds pretty suspicious to me. And it all turns on that word “interfaced.” The word originates, not in the Roosevelt White House (which was much more literate than the White House of today) but in the kingdom of the computer. Its tendency, if you take it seriously, is to deny human agency. You don’t blame one computer for interfacing with another. But what went on? Did Hopkins just download his memory and upload his hosts’, or did he talk, negotiate, party, parry, gossip, conspire, or idly chat with the Soviets? Our author saith not. Then why is he writing? Surely not to give us knowledge. Maybe it’s just his way of interfacing with the ethereal blur.

It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year.

I’m not asking for more words. I’m not arguing that more is always more. Oh no. I think that President Obama has communicated all the knowledge he has in about the first 30 seconds of a speech, the part in which he thanks his introducers. He knows enough for that. If, as the Book of Common Prayer would have it, you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the rest of what he says, you’ll end up knowing a lot less than you knew when he was thanking Senator Foghorn.

But now we have the peculiar, yet somehow representative, case of José Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Southern California. It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year. No, it was more; it’s just been discovered that the board also gave him two life insurance policies that he can cash in at any time, and their annual payments on these policies bring the total to around $750,000 a year. All this for someone who went bankrupt twice in his life and, according to a recent report, had been fired from his job as assistant superintendent.

The explanation, as alleged by Fernandez’ foes, is that a large construction company financed a school board election, and the resultant school board hired Fernandez, and Fernandez pushed through some large construction programs. This accusation may be relevant to the approach Fernandez adopted when his takings became public knowledge and angry constituents showed up at a school board meeting (February 25):

Fernandez declined to address any of the complaints about his compensation package, choosing instead to express his appreciation to the board for its support and touting his accomplishments.

“I want to thank the board for their support,” he said, over catcalls coming from a few members of the audience. “I want to thank residents in the area who voted for the bonds that funded new buildings, new science labs.

“I do hear you. I’ve listened very carefully and I will sit and work with the board on your concerns. I want to thank you all for coming here and expressing your concerns. I want to thank you all again. Good evening.”

The public wanted more, and got some of it: on April 9, Fernandez was placed on “administrative leave” (you guessed it — a paid leave). The surprising thing is this: Fernandez didn’t get away with his lessened approach to public controversy. How many politicians — and political CEOs, and other figures of supposed authority — have you heard mouthing syllables like “I hear you”; “I’ve listened very carefully”; “I will work on your concerns”; “thank you for expressing your concerns”; “thank you again”; “good evening,” and then shutting up, hoping that if nothing is uttered except a handful of subcommunicative syllables, nobody will recognize the difference between that and real public discourse?

The answer is, almost all of them — and almost all of them are getting away with it, despite Pawgress Reports that correctly name them Lessen.




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Rising Star

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Liberty is always delighted to acclaim the artistic success of libertarians. Our delight is increased when they are Liberty’s own authors.

Today it is my pleasure to introduce a book by one of my own favorites, Garin Hovannisian. The book is Family of Shadows, it’s published by HarperCollins, and it’s causing a stir on several continents.

Family of Shadows is the story of Garin’s family — who were by no means vague or ghostly people. They were vivid presences, taking their part in some of the most interesting events of the 20th century, from the massacres in Armenia during the time of “the breaking of nations” to the destruction of the Soviet Union. The book is a story of survival, and of the individual freedom that makes survival worth the effort.

It’s also a story told with great style and insight. All historians deal with “shadows,” but a good historian makes them more substantial than the ostensibly real people who surround us daily. And a good historian, like a good novelist, makes us wiser as we read. While reading Family of Shadows, I kept thinking, “This is a very good novel.” But it’s not fiction, nor is it fictionalized. It’s an exhaustively researched history, free of the shallow assumptions, inane theorizing, and formulaic prose of normal historical writing.

Read it for yourself. You’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in knowing more about the author. So I asked Alec Mouhibian, himself a writer for Liberty, to interview his friend Garin.

Here’s a look into the writer’s workshop.

 — Stephen Cox

***

AM: Stories ask to be told. But some stories prefer to be left alone. Why, and how, did this story call to you?

GH: It's strange; I can remember exactly when and where it happened. It was in the fall of 2007. I was all alone in a computer lab on the eighth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. I was a student there, writing my master's thesis about a group of magicians who had been meeting in secret for generations. . . . I'm not sure that's important. But what happened to me that afternoon is, I think, what writers waste their lives waiting for, one of those cosmic events — when stars seem to align into a constellation. . . .

What I mean to say is that I discovered, suddenly and for the first time, that all the details and metaphors and meanings of my family history somehow belonged to a great narrative.

My great-grandfather Kaspar had survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and escaped to the vineyards of California's San Joaquin Valley. My grandfather Richard had left his father's farm to pioneer the field of Armenian Studies in the United States. My father Raffi had left his law firm, the American Dream itself, to repatriate to Soviet Armenia, where he went on to serve as the new republic's first foreign minister.

So I realized that the family story was about three men who left — individuals who cheated their destinies — but it was also about men who, unbeknownst to them, had been serving a pattern greater than themselves. A homeland lost, remembered, regained — it was a perfect circle!

Then I knew I would have to write Family of Shadows.

AM: You mentioned how this story hit you as you were wandering the world of magic. You're quite the magician yourself. What connection is there between your history with magic and the discovery that led to this book?

GH: My father gave me my first magic set when I was five, and I knew immediately that I would become a magician. I loved to make the impossible happen, to play at the border of reality and fantasy. Of course I also loved to watch the reactions of people — the astonishment spread upon the faces of strangers. Anyway, I long ago gave up the wand for the pen, but not, I think, the passions that run through both of them: mystery and vanity.

AM: Explain where you had to go to write this book, what you had to explore, and how this vastarray of settings get along with each other in the story and in your mind.

GH: I didn't know, when I decided to write the book, just how far I would have to travel. I couldn't imagine that I would have to spend countless hours at the National Archives in Washington or the Armenian academy called the Jemaran in Beirut or the National Library in Yerevan or the Tulare Historical Museum in the San Joaquin Valley of California. But I think it was that other kind of travel — not through space, but into lost time — that was the most exhilarating. I realized that if I were to tell my story straight, I would have to conduct some difficult interviews — to go deep into the minds and memories of my living characters, where so many details of my story had been trapped for decades.

AM: Your book is evenly divided between the histories ofthree men. Before we go further, explain your process for choosing what to include and what to leave out of their story, and the stories of the many characters surrounding them.

GH: The book, as I first wrote it, was about 450 pages long. The one you'll find in bookstores today is 300. You know very well that you were in part responsible for this. I remember the first time you read the manuscript. I was sitting across from you, minding my coffee, pretending not to notice your reactions. You were quiet, mostly, but every so often, you would emerge from silence to sing the blues, and I knew this wasn't a good sign.

AM: I never thought my rendition of "My Baby Ain't No Baby No More" could be so pregnant.

GH: Oh, it was — and actually it made me realize just how big my own book had become. The truth was that those 150 pages were important — they told so much history and gossip — but they weren't important for this book. So I began to cut. It was slow and deliberate and painful at first. But then you remember what happened to me? Suddenly, I was slashing away at my pages — reversing months of labor. I bet I lost a lot of good lines, too, but it was necessary and, ultimately, deeply liberating.

AM: Homeland. Patterns greater than self. These fall under the greater concept of "Armenia," toward which all the dream-roads in your book lead. Define Armenia — in your own terms — for those (including Armenians) who have no idea what it might mean.

GH: To begin with, Armenia is an actual land — stretching between the Black and Caspian seas — where the Armenian people have lived for thousands of years. We used to have our own empire, but for most of history we were content merely to survive the rise and fall of neighboring empires — the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Arab. Armenia was where kings came to do battle. And so the blood, the ethos, the mythology of countless civilizations is in our soil.

Armenian history forever changed in 1915. Western Armenia was cleansed of all Armenians by the nationalist Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire; those who survived the genocide scattered to new diasporas across the world. Eastern Armenia, meanwhile, was absorbed into the Soviet Union as the smallest of the 15 socialist republics. That tiny sliver of land is the Armenia you'll find on modern maps.

But for much of the 20th century, Armenia existed mostly as a dream. My father and my grandfather before him spent their childhoods yearning for a "free, independent, united Armenia." Forgive me, I do have to be poetic, because the truth is that for us, the millions of Armenians living in exile and dispersion, Armenia had become something like a poem: a spiritual landscape blossoming with metaphor and mystery and apricot. It is there that Family of Shadows is set.

AM: Mmm, metaphor. That strangest and most bitter Armenian crop.

Let's talk about Liberty, and its own role in the soil. I've known you for years, but I never really wanted to know you until your byline appeared in this magazine at the tender age of 17. How does individual liberty figure in the Armenian-American dream? How does it contend with the shadows that haunt every corner of the real and imagined Armenia?

GH: You're testing me. "Let's talk about Liberty" — wasn't that the slogan of the Cato Institute conference we attended in San Diego ages ago? That's where we first met Stephen Cox — followed him into literature and then into Liberty. It was our breakthrough!

Now you know as well as I do that Family of Shadows isn't a libertarian manifesto. But it is, I've long secretly believed, a kind of allegory of individualism and rebellion. At its deepest level, it is the story of three men who were born into times and places where they did not belong, who defied the great forces of history, who defied destiny. My great-grandfather defied his destiny of death during the genocide of 1915. My grandfather rejected his destiny on his father's farm. My father abandoned his destiny in the American Dream.

Maybe that's not fair, though. For my father, I think, the American Dream was never about achieving and enjoying liberty for oneself, but about spreading liberty across countries and continents.

AM: Is there no tension between the spread of liberty and the participation in an ethnic-national heritage, which might be at odds with individualism? How can this be reconciled in Armenia?

GH: Governments don't have ethnicities. People do. So I confess not to feel the tension. I don't see why an individual, living in a free society, shouldn't feel free to seek his private solace or meaning or peace wherever he pleases — in philosophy, religion, even national heritage. You build yourself a free country, but then what? You still have private problems. You still have to deal with death and salvation.As the great poet sings, "you're still gonna have to serve somebody."

AM: Classic Milton. Always comes through. Now of course your book is a powerful human drama, and should therefore matter to anyone who ranks himself among the humans. But perhaps you can explain why Armenia should matter to America.

GH: After the genocide of 1915, an unprecedented human rights movement swept through the United States. American citizens collected more than a hundred million dollars to help the surviving refugees; kids who didn't finish their suppers were told to remember "the starving Armenians." The most important witnesses and chroniclers of the genocide had been American ambassadors and consuls, and now it was the president himself — Woodrow Wilson — who was proposing an American mandate to safeguard Armenia.

In those years, the American people invested their spirit in the Armenian struggle — and I think the mysterious logic of that investment has revealed itself slowly through time. It's been forgotten, but in February 1988, half a million Armenians gathered in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, to launch the first successful mass movement against Communist rule. Independence followed in 1991. That's when my father, an American citizen, returned to Armenia. That's also about the time when a million Armenians left a newborn Armenia to seek more certain destinies in the United States.

The stories, the histories, the Armenian and the American Dreams, were in conversation long before I tried to capture that conversation in Family of Shadows.

AM: The Russians have a saying: “Every grandmother was once a girl.” Perhaps it can also be said that every answer was once a question. So...any questions before you go?

GH: You know, I have been wondering: who is John Galt?




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