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How the world's left loved and loathed Fidel Castro

AFP file photo | Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba in 1959

Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution was often hailed on the left as a new utopia, but by the 1970s Castro’s vision had lost its lustre leaving many writers, philosophers, and activists deeply disillusioned.


A leftist icon of the second half of the 20th Century, Fidel Castro was a charismatic figure who stayed true to his ideology beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union and long after his Cuban socialist model fell out of favour.

But when he took power in 1959, the spirit of revolution inspired some of the era’s greatest intellectuals who shared Castro’s desire to stamp out colonialism and exploitation.

Friends of the Revolution

In 1960, the French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir arrived in Cuba during the 'high point' of the revolution and quickly became enamoured with Castro’s revolutionary ideals.

Beauvoir wrote, “after Paris, the gaiety of the place exploded like a miracle under the blue sky.”

Sartre’s philosophical ideas were being debated around the world and as he stepped up his political advocacy -- speaking on issues like the war in Algeria -- he earned a moral authority among those keen to denigrate colonial and capitalist ideologies. In a televised press conference Castro honoured Sartre and Beauvoir by presenting them to the nation as friends of the revolution.

When the couple returned to Paris, Sartre published a string of articles praising the revolution and Castro’s leadership.

On a return trip to Cuba a year later, however, the joy Beauvoir had earlier described had all but disappeared.

She and Sartre would come to reject Castro’s socialist dream.

From Paris to New York

Across the Atlantic In the leftist circles of 1960s New York, Castro’s Cuba was as fashionable a topic of debate as women’s liberation, the war in Vietnam and civil rights.

Enthusiasts like beat poet Allen Ginsberg who welcomed Castro to New York in 1960 and feminist writer Susan Sontag, saw the Cuban socialist model as a counterbalance to Soviet repression and US capitalism.

They, like many academics on the left, argued that Cuba would never be like the Soviet Union – a one-party regime intent on ruling by oppression.

C. Wright Mills who popularised the term ‘new left’ wrote that the Cuban government of the mid-1960s was "not communist in any of the senses legitimately given to this word”.

Castro’s ambitious social programmes -- which included boosting home ownership in cities, land redistribution in rural areas and literacy campaigns -- gave the intellectual left much to hope for.

Writer Norman Mailer said of Castro that he was “the first and greatest, hero to appear in the world since the Second World War".

But as Castro loyalists on the left focused on the achievements of the regime in ending poverty and improving health and education, many Cubans were slowly losing their freedoms.

Words as weapons

In 1961 Castro’s Words to the Intellectuals speech delivered in the national library marked the beginning of a period of censorship of writers and intellectuals. Castro warned of things to come when he said: "Within the revolution, everything. Without the revolution, nothing."

Castro was taking Cuba towards a more hardline socialist model. It was a sign that the love affair between the intellectual left and the beguiling revolutionary leader was coming to an end.

For Sartre and Beauvoir, along with other writers and thinkers, the turning point came with the arrest and imprisonment of Cuban poet, Herberto Padilla in Havana.

Sartre, Beauvoir, Ginsberg, Sontag and Colombian author and friend to Castro Gabriel Garcia Marquez were among several writers who denounced the Cuban leader in an open letter published in the New York Review of Books in May 1971. They urged Castro to release Padilla, writing:

“……the use of repressive measures against intellectuals and writers who have exercised the right of criticism within the revolution can only have deeply negative repercussions among the anti-imperialist forces of the entire world, and most especially of Latin America, for which the Cuban Revolution is a symbol and a banner.”

Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, wrote of Castro's "love of the word" as being one of his defining traits but not above his competitiveness and desire to win.


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