One man's island

<strong>My Life</strong>

Fidel Castro, edited by Ignacio Ramonet, translated by Andrew Hurley

After nearly half a century in power, Fidel Castro is too consummate a revolutionary to let his guard down in this autobiography (as told in a series of interviews to the Franco-Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet). His interviewer shares his preference for lengthy political disquisitions over anything more personally revealing; Ramonet notes pompously that "it never crossed my mind that we should speak about Castro's private life, his wife or his children".

Fans will enjoy the swashbuckling tales of adventure, from the Cuban Revolution to the 1962 missile crisis. Those hoping for an insight into the man behind the beard will have to read between the lines.

The most personal reminiscences come in the first two chapters, in which Castro describes his childhood in Birán, a poverty-stricken backwater of eastern Cuba. Even here, the anecdotes have been tailored carefully to fit the political agenda. Castro was the son of a wealthy farmer, a man of great natural authority who took pride in treating his workers well. He played with his poor neighbours and learned "to understand how much an illiterate person suffers". At the age of six, Castro became "the victim of exploitation" when his parents sent him off to Santiago, where he lived with a penny-pinching school mistress. He explains at length that he experienced hunger as a child, as the school mistress neglected and underfed him. He wreaked his revenge by firing catapults at her tin roof in his first act of rebellion.

It is revealing that, other than this odd story, Castro offers little explanation of how the son of a right-wing landowner grew up to become an iconic left-wing revolutionary. Unlike Che Guevara, who was famously politicised by the poverty he witnessed during a trip across Latin America on a motorbike, Castro was not an idealistic young man. He says that his childhood instilled in him a sense of the injustices of pre-revolutionary Cuban society, but this doesn't quite ring true - particularly as he later admits that when he arrived at university in Havana he was still a "political illiterate", more interested in sport than in studying. He was, however, always a "rebellious spirit", with prodigious energy and firm convictions about his own destiny: "I sensed from a young age that there were a great many things to do [in my life]."

Castro attributes his conversion to "utopian communism" to reading Marx at university, but just as significant to his choice of career was his appetite for a fight. As a boy, he locked horns with his quick-tempered father and attacked his teachers. His first foray into student politics involved a dramatic armed showdown with the pro-Batista "mafia" at Havana University. Soon afterwards, he experienced his real political awakening when he visited Bogotá in 1948 and witnessed the riots following the assassination of the liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. "I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle from a police station . . . I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous popular revolution." Amid the chaos and violence that sparked Colombia's long-running civil war, Castro found his calling.

For this keen sportsman, politics is primarily about strength. He praises Robert Mugabe as "an intelligent, tenacious, firm leader", and notes approvingly that Franco "clearly showed what he was made of". The most jaw-dropping example of his alpha-male approach comes in the chapter on the missile crisis, in which he reads out his correspondence with Nikita Khrushchev. Rather than consider compromise in the face of mutually assured destruction, Castro wrote to the Russian leader urging him to strike first: "however hard and terrible the solution might be, there is no other". Thankfully, the testosterone levels were slightly lower in Moscow. "This would not be a simple attack, but rather the beginning of thermonuclear war," Khrushchev pointed out in his reply. "Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I believe your proposal to have been wrong."

Castro's brand of strongman politics works best in a world polarised into two opposing camps. It fared well during the Cold War and, after a shaky period during the 1990s, has experienced a resurgence with George W Bush in the White House and Hugo Chávez in the Palacio de Mira flores. It is fundamentally incapable, however, of engaging with any more complex reality. Asked about the Varela Project, an internal Cuban pro-democracy movement that refuses US funding and denounces the blockade, Castro simply dismisses it as a "terrorist mafia . . . run by the American special interests office". It is, apparently, unthinkable that anyone could object both to the US's treatment of Cuba and to his own disregard for Cubans' political rights.

In this sense, Castro is perhaps very much like his father, the powerful but well-meaning land owner. He has assiduously doled out health care and education to his citizens, while refusing to countenance the idea that they might challenge his authority. Meanwhile, around him, things have changed. Other Latin American countries are gradually overtaking Cuba's social achievements - Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Costa Rica all scored higher in the United Nations Human Development Report of 2006 - without demanding such great sacrifices in return. Therein lies a challenge, and it will require more than machismo to meet it.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Merchant adventurer