Larger than life. Fidel Castro is a liberal utopian of the 19th century rather than a 20th-century totalitarian. He has moved with the times and, thanks to him, Cuba has been spared the neo-liberal chaos that engulfed the former Soviet bloc

The Real Fidel Castro

Leycester Coltman <em>Yale University Press, 335pp, £25</em>

ISBN 03001018

Half a dozen former British ambassadors to Havana assembled at a London University seminar re- cently to discuss their experiences of more than 40 years in Cuba. I wondered for a fleeting moment whether the British state had really been justified in deploying such a concentration of educated talent on the affairs of a small island nation over which the British had long since lost to the Americans their 19th-century bid for financial domination. Yet the ambassadorial furlough in Cuba for the individuals concerned was clearly a high spot in their diplomatic lives. All had been beguiled by the Cubans, by the revolution, and by the larger-than-life figure of Fidel Castro. Indeed, so fond were their memories of the maximo lIder that one of them had to return to the platform to remind them as well as the audience of the various flaws in Cuba's model society.

Yet on the subject of Castro himself, each former diplomat perceived a hero on the grand scale, a leader with magnetic appeal, respected and revered by his people. So different was their appreciation of his talents from the perception that prevails in the United States that I suggested the British Council should be persuaded to fund them to do an American speaking tour, to share their enlightened views with a more hostile audience.

Leycester Coltman, one former ambassador who should have been present, and whose biography of Castro was the occasion for the seminar, sadly died before publication. Although a late-comer to the malady, he too was beguiled by Cuba. After an unobtrusive diplomatic career in Brazil and Mexico, he ended up as our man in Havana in the early 1990s, at a time of maximum crisis for the Cuban government in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Coltman's biography is a useful contribution to the immense library that already exists on the Cuban revolution, and he brings to the story an interesting dual perspective, as a diplomat and a European. Cuba is too often viewed through the distorted American view-finder.

Good diplomats are usually a combination of reporter and secret agent, but their reports often moulder in the files for 30 years before anyone bothers to disinter them. Coltman has accelerated the process, turning his reports into instant history. He has a good eye for detail and the telling anecdote, although he devotes rather too much space to Castro's early life, galloping though the 1990s about which his personal experience and insights might have been better deployed at greater length. He does, however, reveal that Castro usually prefers conservative politicians to social democrats, finding common ground (as fellow Galicians) with Manuel Fraga, a relic of Franco's Spain, and with Margaret Thatcher's junior ministers.

When told over lunch of Tory enthusiasm for cutting taxes, Coltman reports Castro saying to his finance minister: "Did you hear all that? We should follow the example of the British Conservative government. Don't make the rate of taxation too high. If you set the rates too high, it will encourage tax evasion and discourage hard work and initiative." In Havana a few months ago, I was told how difficult it was to raise taxes (which are extremely low). Now I know who is applying the brake.

Coltman's volume is closely rivalled in time and scope by another biography, written by Volker Skierka, a talented and observant German reporter who also spent time in Havana in the 1990s. Most journalistic accounts of Cuba in that decade were written in the belief that the reporter was present during the fag-end of a political era. "What will happen when Castro dies?" was the invariable subtext of every article, with the implicit assumption that only Castro's physical survival prevented Cuba from following the route to extinction pioneered by the countries of eastern and central Europe. Skierka, writing from a European perspective, is sharp enough to realise that Cuba's experience in the 1990s was much more significant than such accounts suggest. The decade witnessed the emergence of something entirely new, not the death of something old. It saw the rebirth, not of the revolution, but of the immense power of Cuban nationalism, which had fuelled the island's identity and culture for more than a century. For the first time in their history, the Cubans were free of outside controllers, shaking off the shackles of the three empires that once used to bind them - Spain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Skierka recognises this novelty, writing of how Castro grasped this "macabre opportunity for genuine independence under the least favourable circumstances". The German investors and businessmen that Skierka has talked to also seized their chance, the head of the German CBI finding "an amazing number of areas of agreement" after a four-hour meeting with Castro. Skierka comments that "the fact that 'Castroism' not only outlasted Soviet communism but was able to spare its people the neo-liberal chaos which engulfed other eastern-bloc countries led many western businessmen with a stake in the Cuban economy to make a (by no means politically correct) admission: 'When you compare Cuba to Russia, they've done pretty well.'" This is not an insight that appears much in the US press.

Skierka's publisher makes much of how the author had access to the archives of the former East Germany, yet little of fresh interest emerges about the Soviet period. East German diplomats were rather less in Castro's personal loop than Leycester Coltman, and most of their reports tell us more about their values and attitudes than those of the Cubans. Skierka uses the East German documents to try to flesh out the alleged disagreements between Castro and Che Guevara, but the material is thin and inconclusive. On the evidence of these two biographies, British diplomats were better informed, and better political analysts, than their East German counterparts.

For the first time, we now have two full-length studies of the Cuban leader that reflect a European view. It makes a salutary change, and both diplomat and reporter have original things to say. Coltman's book is more measured, Skierka's more timely, yet neither strays far outside their specialist expertise. The diplomat's stock-in-trade is gossip, the journalist's is secret documents and conspiracy theories. Coltman repeats more stories about the love-lives of senior revolutionaries than I found interesting, while Skierka reads more into his East German revelations than a sceptical historian would accept. Yet both of them, with their contacts in the British and German business communities, provide revealing anecdotes about the baneful impact of the US Helms-Burton legislation of 1996 on European companies.

Coltman tells how British Petroleum withdrew from its initial investigations into Cuban oil after pressure from its Washington office, while (Anglo-Dutch) Unilever was frightened off manufacturing detergent on the island after a warning letter from (US) Procter & Gamble. The Germans were less pusillanimous. Skierka explains how Mercedes-Benz was able to establish a joint venture with the Cuban government to assemble buses and small lorries, with a view to expanding its markets in the Caribbean. It escaped US censure by operating in Cuba as a Cairo-registered company.

From these accounts, Castro emerges more as a liberal utopian of the 19th century than a 20th-century totalitarian, a Garibaldi more than a Joseph Stalin. Both books explain why the heart of "old Europe" still beats in sympathy with Fidel. He remains a figure from all our yesterdays, grey-bearded but eternally youthful, a man who effortlessly changed his slogan from "Socialism or death", suitable for the violent 20th century, to the more emollient "A better world is possible", appropriate for the more pacifistic revolutionaries of the present era. When he dies, there will be no change in Cuba. Few people have been looking, but the change has already taken place.

Richard Gott's new history of Cuba will be published in the autumn by Yale University Press

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Those WMDs - The blame game