Cas­tro and dead utopi­anism

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Ge­orge Will

— With the end of Fidel Cas­tro’s nasty life Fri­day night, we can hope, if not rea­son­ably ex­pect, to have seen the last of charis­matic to­tal­i­tar­i­ans wor­shiped by po­lit­i­cal pil­grims from open so­ci­eties. Ex­pe­ri­ence sug­gests there will al­ways be tyranny tourists in flight from what they con­sider the bor­ing ba­nal­ity of bour­geois so­ci­ety and ea­ger for the ex­cite­ment of so­journs in “pro­gres­sive” despo­tisms that they are free to ad­mire and then leave.

Dur­ing the 1930s, there were many apol­o­gists for Josef Stalin’s bru­tal­i­ties, which he com­mit­ted in the name of build­ing a work­ers’ par­adise fit for an im­proved hu­man­ity. The apol­o­gists com­pla­cently said, “You can’t make an omelet with­out break­ing eggs.” To which Ge­orge Or­well acidly replied: “Where’s the omelet?” With Cas­tro, the prob­lem was lemon­ade.

Soon af­ter Cas­tro seized power in 1959, Jean-Paul Sartre, the French in­tel­lec­tual whose Stal­in­ist pol­i­tics were as grotesque as his phi­los­o­phy was opaque, left Les Deux Magots cafe in Paris to visit Cuba. Dur­ing a drive, he and Cas­tro stopped at a road­side stand. They were served warm lemon­ade, which Cas­tro heat­edly said “re­veals a lack of rev­o­lu­tion­ary con­scious­ness.” The wait­ress shrugged, say­ing the re­frig­er­a­tor was bro­ken. Cas­tro “growled” (Sartre’s ap­prov­ing de­scrip­tion): “Tell your peo­ple in charge that if they don’t take care of their prob­lems, they will have prob­lems with me.” Sartre swooned:

“This was the first time I un­der­stood — still quite vaguely — what I called ‘ di­rect democ­racy.’ Be­tween the wait­ress and Cas­tro, an im­me­di­ate se­cret un­der­stand­ing was es­tab­lished. She let it be seen by her tone, her smiles, by a shrug of the shoul­ders, that she was with­out il­lu­sion. And the prime min­is­ter ... in ex­press­ing him­self be­fore her with­out cir­cum­lo­cu­tion, calmly in­vited her to join the re­bel­lion.”

Another po­lit­i­cal in­no­va­tor, Ben­ito Mus­solini, called his regime “en­no­bled democ­racy,” and as the Amer­i­can columnist Mur­ray Kemp­ton mor­dantly noted in 1982, pho­to­graphs of Cas­tro “cut­ting su­gar cane evoke the bare-chested Mus­solini plunged into the bat­tle for wheat.” Cas­tro’s di­rect democ­racy was par­si­mo­nious re­gard­ing elec­tions but per­mis­sive of shrugs. It did, how­ever, for­bid “acts of public de­struc­tion,” mean­ing crit­i­cism of com­mu­nism..

This charge con­demned Ar­mando Val­ladares,T then 23, to 22 years in Cas­tro’s pris­ons. Stalin’s ter­ror was too high a price to pay for a great novel, but at least the world got from it Arthur Koestler’s “Dark­ness at Noon.” And although Cas­tro’s regime, sat­u­rated with sadism, should never have ex­isted, be­cause of it the world got Val­ladares’s tes­ta­ment to hu­man en­durance, his pri­son mem­oir “Against All Hope.” Pri­son food was wa­tery soup laced with glass, or dead rats, or cows’ in­testines filled with fe­ces, and Cas­tro’s agents had spe­cial uses for the ditch filled with the sewage from 8,000 peo­ple.

On April 15, 1959, 15 weeks af­ter cap­tur­ing Ha­vana, Cas­tro, then 32, landed in Wash­ing­ton at what is now Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port. He had been in Amer­ica in 1948, when he stud­ied English and bought a Lin­coln. This time, on April 16, in a con­ces­sion to bour­geois ex­pec­ta­tions, he dis­patched an aide to buy a comb and tooth­brush. His con­nec­tions to com­mu­nism? “None,” he said. He en­dorsed a free press as “the first en­emy of dic­ta­tor­ship,” and said free elec­tions were com­ing soon. Then he was off to a Prince­ton sem­i­nar and a lec­ture in the chapel at Lawrenceville prep school, well re­ceived at both places.

By July red stars were be­ing painted on Cuban mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles. Three years later, Soviet bal­lis­tic mis­siles were ar­riv­ing. A year af­ter that, a Cas­tro ad­mirer mur­dered the U.S. pres­i­dent whose ad­min­is­tra­tion had been in­ter­ested in, in­deed al­most ob­sessed with, re­mov­ing Cas­tro.

U.S. flings at “regime change” in dis­tant lands have had, to say no more, un­even re­sults, but the most spec­tac­u­lar fu­til­ity has been 90 miles from Florida. Cas­tro was the ob­ject of var­i­ous and some­times un­hinged U.S. at­tempts to re­move him. Af­ter the Bay of Pigs de­ba­cle, the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion dou­bled down with Op­er­a­tion Mon­goose, which in­cluded hare­brained as­sas­si­na­tion plots and a plan skep­tics called “elim­i­na­tion by il­lu­mi­na­tion” — hav­ing a U.S. sub­ma­rine sur­face in Ha­vana har­bor and fire star shells into the night sky to con­vince Catholic Cubans that the Sec­ond Com­ing had come, caus­ing them to rebel against Cas­tro the anti-Christ. Nev­er­the­less, Cas­tro ruled Cuba dur­ing 11 U.S. pres­i­den­cies and longer than the Soviet Union ruled East­ern Europe.

So­cial­ism is boun­ti­ful only of slo­gans, and a Cas­tro fa­vorite was “so­cial­ism or death.” The lat­ter came to him decades af­ter the for­mer had made Cuba into a gray mu­seum for a dead utopi­anism.

Ge­orge Will is a syn­di­cated columnist. Con­tact him at georgewill@wash­post.com.

WASH­ING­TON

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