Published in the April 1969 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Castro’s Cuba” examines life in Cuba ten years after the overthrow of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. The full article is free to read at Harpers.org through July 6. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 165-year archive.
When Fidel spoke he got into it right away, stowing his gun belt in the lectern, and not wasting much time acknowledging the cheers. The effect, then, was of great urgency, and he got his first applause when he said there would be no military parade on this anniversary because a parade would waste motor fuel and keep people away from work longer than was good for them. An instant later he got his first laughs when he said that this marked the beginning of a year that would be eighteen months long. “Have you ever heard of anything so screwy?” a diplomat remarked the next day, and the hell of it was that Fidel was absolutely serious, and the people knew it, and there they were applauding anyway. “This year we have to complete the 1969 harvest and carry out part of the 1970 one,” he said. (Applause.) “Thus, we have to work in two harvests. Next year, the traditional year, that is, next December, and quite probably next January second, it is quite possible that we will not be able to gather here in this plaza since a great many of us in this country will be out in the fields cutting sugarcane.” (Applause.) “Thus, the next New Year will probably be celebrated on July first, while the next Christmas will be celebrated between the first and twenty-sixth of July.” (Applause.)
The diplomat was right; it was absolutely screwy, and there was no way of telling if all that the constituents were really thinking was, “Dear God, this guy is nuts,” or whether, in fact they thought it was a smashing idea. I do not think the Old Spellbinder knew either, but he acted as if he did, and acting as if you know something is 90 percent of the battle when you run a revolution. Therefore Fidel went on, unrolling his statistics, sometimes waggling the fingers of his left hand in and out of his beard, and occasionally, very occasionally, ranting. From New York, or Washington, or Waterloo, Iowa, Fidel looks like the last of the great ranters. Mostly, I think, this has something to do with that scraggly beard, and the army fatigues, and his being naturally windy. Up close he sounds better. When he ranted on January 2, jerking his body, tossing his head, it was over things that mattered. “When 80 or 90 percent of a country’s children don’t drink milk, then fifty thousand cows suffice to provide for all the children who do drink milk,” he said, ranting spectacularly about what things were supposed to be like in the old days, and also explaining why Cuba now needed a few million more cows. Fidel is hardly kindness itself, he is certainly graced with a monumental ego, and he is probably capable of great cruelty. Still, along with so much of what is Cuban and Communist, he robs himself of his own menace. While he was speaking some children were popping up in the visitors’ section, just about under his nose, and when one threatened to wet himself a soldier with about a four-pound automatic on his hip hoisted him up and carried him off to the can. It is no good trying to romanticize the revolution—one of the great crosses being thrust upon it by young American radicals—but it is no good trying to dehumanize it either. Children in Cuba threaten to wet themselves, even under Fidel’s nose.
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