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November 15, 2006

Harry Phibbs discovers a new genre - coffee table agitprop: Fidel Castro Handbook - George Galloway

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Fidel Castro Handbook
by George Galloway
London: MQ Publications, 2006
Hardback, 14.99

I have been to Cuba and often puzzled over how the Communists have managed to maintain their grip on power in that beautiful island while the regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed at such a dramatic rate circa 1990.

Havana might be partly sustained by tourism, although here there is an element of making a virtue out of necessity. There are all these quaint old cars, because there is no money for new ones. There is some fizzing enterprise - but it is confined to the black economy of moonlight production and theft of cigars from the state factories, illegal restaurants paying bribes to state officials, and prostitution which is rife and unofficially sanctioned. Galloway laments that Cuba was once a brothel for the mafia. Well, now it is a brothel for the state mafia.

The colonial architecture survives and is a welcome contrast to the dominance of a concrete jungle in other capitals. But the buildings in Cuba are in a terrible state of repair. Venture outside Cuba and the poverty is stark with a ragged populace and emaciated cattle.

Galloway says:

Mass tourism had negative associations for Fidel and many Cubans. In the 1940s and 1950s it had symbolised dependency and exploitation. Fidel wanted this tourism to be of a new type. But, however it was organised it was simply an economic necessity.
One of the ironies is that Cuba has ended up being the most class ridden country I have ever visited. Hotels, shops and beaches for tourists where the indigenous population is banned from entry unless they are there to serve - not that as customers they could afford anything anyway.

So how did Castro cling on? Was it the warm weather and the jazz keeping spirits up? Castro's random pragmatism in sometimes allowing opponents to leave for America? Castro's populist nationalism in denouncing efforts by the superpower neighbour to push around the plucky island?

This book has not really given me a convincing answer. It is a curiously light read. The dust jacket mentions that "other handbooks in the series" include the Elvis Handbook and the Marilyn Handbook. There are lavish photographs. There is great stress on how good looking Castro was and how successful he was at athletics when at school - the charges that he oppressed and impoverished his people as not so much disputed as ignored.

So the explanation is weighted to Castro's personal qualities:

Of course it helps, as the pictures in this book make clear, that Castro, Guevara, Celia Sanchez, Camilo Ciefuegos and their cadre were some of the most handsome revolutionaries who ever took to the stage of battle. In wondering how things might have been different if the Cuban revolution instead of being so romantic, had looked like the brown box-suited apparatchiks who ruled much of socialist world, I always remember the joke that one of the most significant differences there would have been if Khrushchev had been assassinated instead of Kennedy is that Aristotle Onassis would never have married Mrs Khrushchev.
This is an agitprop coffee table book. It is, as they say, "lavishly illustrated". Galloway writes:
Unsurprisingly I owe unparalleled thanks to the subject of this book, Fidel Castro, for, among many other things, making available his personal and Cuba's state archives from which we selected the remarkable images that illustrate the book.
For a Lefty it is the equivalent of a glossy book about the Queen or a fanzine annual for a pop group.

This is an unashamed hagiography. Galloway describes himself as:
a partisan, for Cuba, for its revolution, for its leadership, for its role in the world. The reader should know this is no dispassionate, "on the one hand but then again on the other hand" account.
Don't worry, George. We can spot that.

For all that, there are some fascinating nuggets included. Awkward aspects of Castro before coming to power are handled with care. Fidel came from a wealthy background. How very embarrassing - but hardly something that could quite be ignored. But we learn that he was reassuringly nouveau riche so not immersed in social snobbery. Fidel says:

I think that if I had been the grandson or great-grandson of a landowner, I might possibly have had the misfortune of acquiring that class culture.
Also Fidel's father was that rare commodity a nouveau paternalist. As Fidel puts it:
My father would invent new tasks which were not strictly necessary so as to provide work, even though it didn't make sense from an economic point of view.
So Fidel's father must have been an early inspiration for Communist economics. But just when did Fidel become a Communist? Galloway's version is that he was one pretty much all along but stayed in the closet until after coming to power. But I wonder if some may wince a bit at the photograph of Castro standing next to a US flag in 1955, with the explanation by Galloway:
Continuing his fund raising, Fidel was always careful not to give the impression he intended to oppose the interests of both countries.
Keeping quiet about his Communism didn't just mean conning US businessmen but also the Cuban people.

Galloway notes that one of Castro's favourite slogans is: Socialism or death. So don't let anyone say he denies the Cuban people a choice.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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