Conversations with Castro

Aged
81, the world’s longest-serving leader is turning his thoughts to his
legacy and the succession. In an exclusive extract from his
autobiography, Fidel Castro talks to Ignacio Ramonet about vanity and
cruelty – and reveals his salary and plans for retirement

Saturday October 27, 2007
The Guardian

 

 

Those who criticise the revolution blame you entirely – they talk about "Castro’s Cuba".
Those
people tend to personalise, to make me the representative, as though
the people didn’t exist. The millions of people who have struggled, who
have defended the revolution; the hundreds of thousands of doctors, of
professional people; those who farm, produce, study – those people
don’t exist. All that exists is this evil guy named Castro.

The
number of times I have to sign autographs – you can’t imagine. When I
meet Americans who come here and talk to me … sometimes there are 50
people at a meeting, they give me a bouquet of flowers or something,
and the number of books, cards, things I have to sign, the number of
pictures I have to let them take and so many flashbulbs that you can
hardly see, it’s hardly to be believed. So I guess I’m some kind of
strange, unreal figure …

A star?
Yes, somebody you have to get quick, so you can say, "Look, I got a picture with so-and-so."

But
I’m very self-critical. When I say too much or something comes out of
my mouth that might sound a little vain, I’m hard on myself, really
hard. You have to keep a watch on yourself.

Throughout the
years, influence, power, rather than gradually making me conceited,
vain and all that … every day, I think, I’m less conceited, less
pretentious, less self-satisfied. It’s a struggle against your
instincts, you know. I believe that it’s education, or sincere and
tenacious self-education, that turns a small animal into a man.

How do you think history will judge you?
That’s
something it’s not worth worrying about. Napoleon talked about la
gloire – he was constantly concerned with glory. Well, in lots of
countries today, the name Napoleon is known more for the cognac than
for all the things done by the real general and emperor. So I say, why
worry?

Have you ever thought about retiring?
We know that
time passes and that human energies fade. But I’m going to tell you
what I told our compañeros in the national assembly in 2003, when they
elected me president of the council of state. I told them: "Now I see
that my fate was not to come into the world and rest at the end of my
life." And I promised them to be with them, if they wished, as long as
necessary – so long as I knew myself to be useful. Not a minute less,
or a second more.

Every year, I devote more time to the
revolution, I think; I give it more of my attention, because one has
more experience, one has meditated more, thought more. Plato said in
The Republic that the ideal age for occupying ruling positions is after
55. In my opinion, according to him, that ideal age should be 60. And I
imagine that 60 in Plato’s day would be somewhere around 80 today …

How is your health?
Well,
I’m fine. Generally speaking, I feel fine; above all, I feel full of
energy, I have great enthusiasm for things. I feel quite, quite well
both physically and mentally. I’m sure the habit of exercise has
contributed to that; in my opinion, physical exercise helps not just
the muscles, it also helps the mind, because exercise has an effect on
blood circulation, on the delivery of oxygen to all the cells,
including the brain cells.

In 2005 the CIA announced that you have Parkinson’s disease. What comment do you have about that?
It
must be a confession of what they haven’t been able to do for so long:
assassinate me. If I were a vain man, I might even be filled with pride
by the fact that those morons now say they’ll have to wait until I die.
Every day they invite some new story – Castro’s got this, Castro’s got
that. The latest thing they’ve come up with is that I have Parkinson’s.
Well, it just doesn’t matter if I get Parkinson’s. Pope John Paul II
had Parkinson’s and he travelled all over the world for I don’t know
how many years.

If for some reason you should die, your brother Raul would be your undisputed successor?
If
something happened to me tomorrow, the National Assembly would meet and
elect him – there’s not the slightest doubt. But he’s catching up to me
in years, so it’s also a generational problem. We’ve been fortunate
that we who made the revolution have brought up three generations.
There have always been close ties with young people and students.

I
have a great deal of hope, because I see clearly that these people I
call the fourth generation are going to have three or four times the
knowledge that we in the first generation had.

So you think the baton can be passed on without trouble?
Right
now there wouldn’t be any problem of any kind, and there won’t be
later, either. Because the revolution is not based on the cult of
personality. It’s inconceivable in modern society – people doing things
just because they have blind faith in the leader. The revolution is
based on principles. And the ideas that we defend have been, for quite
some time, ideas shared by the entire nation.

You’re a man who’s admired, but others accuse you of being a cruel dictator …
I
don’t understand why I’m called a dictator. What is a dictator? It’s
someone who makes arbitrary, unilateral decisions, who acts over and
above institutions, over and above the laws, who is under no restraint
but his own desires and whims. And in that case, Pope John Paul II, who
always opposed war, could be accused of being a dictator, and President
Bush considered the most democratic of rulers. That’s the way the
industrialised countries in Europe treat him, without realising that
Bush can make terrible decisions without consulting the Senate or the
House of Representatives, or even his cabinet. Not even the Roman
emperors had the power of the president of the United States!

I
don’t make unilateral decisions. This isn’t even a presidential
government. We have a council of state, and my functions as leader
exist within a collective. I have authority, of course, I have
influence, for historical reasons, but I don’t give orders or rule by
decree.

What about the charge of cruelty?
I really think that
a man who has devoted his entire life to fighting injustice, oppression
of every kind, to serving others, to fighting for others, to preaching
and practising solidarity, I think all of that is totally incompatible
with cruelty.

All that propaganda is based on hate and on lies.
How can people say that even one man has been tortured in Cuba? Or that
I’ve ordered a man tortured? Here, no one has ever been imprisoned for
being a dissident or because they see things differently from the way
the revolution does. Our courts sentence people to prison on the basis
of laws, and they judge counter-revolutionary acts. Down through
history, in all times, actions by people who put themselves at the
service of a foreign power against their own nation have always been
seen as extremely serious.

The idea that in Cuba we send people
to prison for having a belief that’s different from the revolution’s is
ridiculous. Here, we punish acts, not ideas.

Do you agree that terrorism is the biggest threat to the world today?
Cuba
condemned the crime committed on September 11 in no uncertain terms.
And we have reiterated our condemnation of terrorism in all its shapes
and forms. The US has cynically included Cuba among the countries
sponsoring terrorism, but Cuba will never allow its territory to be
used for terrorist actions against the people of the US or any other
country.

I agree that terrorism is a serious threat to the world
today, but I believe humanity is facing other threats of equal or
greater seriousness: the accelerating destruction of the environment;
the deepening of poverty; the lack of health care. To all of which one
would have to add the hegemonic designs of the only superpower that
aspires to become the ruler of the planet, and its arrogant policy of
domination.

In 2005 you declared an "all-out war" on certain problems Cuba was facing – theft from the state, the misappropriation of funds.
That’s
right. We’ve invited the entire nation to take part in a great battle
against any and all offences, whether petty theft or grand larceny.
Because we have several tens of thousands of parasites that don’t
produce anything yet are getting rich. You should see how deep-rooted
some of these vices are, how much pilfering was going on, how people
were diverting resources, the way things were being stolen.

Don’t you think Cuba’s one-party structure is ill-adapted to an increasingly complex society?
In
many countries, the classical, traditional electoral system with
multiple parties becomes a popularity contest and not, really, a
competency contest. People wind up electing the most likable person,
the person who communicates best with the masses, even the person who
has the most pleasant appearance, the best advertising on television,
or in the press or on radio. Or, in the end, and this is practically a
rule, the person who has the most money to spend on advertising.

Is there corruption among the Cuban leadership?
It’s
happened with some officials who were negotiating with powerful foreign
businesses, and we’ve had to take measures. But it’s not easy to fix.

As
for me, I honestly don’t own a thing. I have a few pesos, because after
you’ve paid the amounts that have been in place since the first year of
the revolution for each service, which are pretty reasonable, you may
have some left over. I’m paid the same salary I always was, and out of
that I have to pay the Party dues, so much per cent for housing, you
pay that every month … I lack for nothing, materially speaking. I
have what I need. But I don’t need much.

My salary, at the
exchange rate of 25 pesos per dollar, is $30 a month. But I’ve been put
on that list of the world’s richest people twice now. I have no idea
why they do it, what they’re trying to achieve; it’s ridiculous. I
don’t have a cent of my own.

And I’ll have the glory of dying
without a penny of convertible currency. I’ve been offered millions to
write memoirs and books, but I’ve never done it.

Castro on …

Cigars
It
was my own father who gave me my first cigar; I must have been 14 or
15. And I remember that I smoked that first puro, and I didn’t know how
it was done. Fortunately, I didn’t inhale the smoke. Although you
always absorb a little of the nicotine, even if you don’t inhale at
all. I’ve smoked too much in my life. Until one day, over 20 years ago,
I decided to stop. Nobody made me. I just decided to make myself stop
smoking. I believed that giving up that habit was a necessary
sacrifice, for the good of the country’s and the people’s health.

Listening
to people talk so much about the necessity of a collective fight
against obesity, the sedentary lifestyle, smoking, I became convinced
that the ultimate sacrifice I should make on behalf of public health in
Cuba was to quit smoking.

Teach by example. I gave up tobacco, and I’ve never missed it.

Tony Blair
I saw Blair one time, in Geneva at a meeting of the World Health Organisation.

He
had a swagger, he was haughty, as though he were looking down his nose
at people. We had a few words – brief but sharp. He had been talking
about child labour and I said to him, "Listen, I saw that you were
talking about child labour throughout the world, but I understand that
in England there are 2 million children who are working."

I said it very calmly. I think he thought it was a piece of insolence from a nobody, a nit, a third-world know-nothing.

Wearing uniform
More
than anything, I wear it for practical reasons, because with the
uniform I don’t have to put on a tie every day … It avoids the
problem of what suit to wear, what shirt, what socks, so everything
goes together. I only put on a suit for very special circumstances,
some international conference, or when the Pope came, or a meeting with
some head of state.

My usual uniform is very simple. I also have another, more formal uniform that I wear for some occasions, with a shirt and tie.

Carrying a gun
Since
those people in the CIA are always thinking things up – assassination
attempts and so on – you can imagine that I carry a weapon, and a
weapon ready to be used. I have a 15-shot Browning. I’ve shot a lot in
my life. I’ve always been a good shot – it was just luck – and I still
am.

The Third Way
I read Anthony Giddens’ book, which
contains the theory out of which arose the so-called "Third Way".
There’s nothing of a third way in it – it’s the "way" taken by every
turncoat in this world. Oh, I could see that it was aimed against the
social-security state achieved by the Europeans: fewer resources for
the retired, less aid to the unemployed, because [aid] turns [the
unemployed] into a bunch of lazy bums – according to this theory – who
then won’t work, you have to force them in some way. Well, I admit that
you have to educate people, but you don’t have to force them.

The assassination of JFK
It’s
all very strange. With the expertise I acquired in sharpshooting, I
can’t imagine that with a rifle with a telescopic sight such as Lee
Harvey Oswald had, you can fire, load and fire again in a matter of
seconds. Because when you shoot with a telescopic sight, if the weapon
moves a fraction of an inch you lose your target. Firing three times in
a row, so accurately, for somebody who almost certainly didn’t have
much experience – that’s very difficult. What the official version says
is quite simply not possible – not just like that, bang bang bang.

The
other thing that is just incomprehensible to me is that once Oswald was
a prisoner, this charitable, noble soul, Jack Ruby, was so consumed
with grief that right there in front of the police and the TV cameras
he killed Oswald. I don’t know if anything like that has ever happened
anywhere else.

Mao
I’d like to have met Mao. That wasn’t
possible because of all those problems and differences that came up
because of Sino-Soviet conflict. Among the great political strategists,
great military leaders of any era, one would have to include Mao
Zedong. I can’t forget the posthumous letter from Mao asking China and
the USSR to put their rivalries aside and join forces.

This
is an edited extract from My Life by Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet,
published by Allen Lane on November 1 at £25. © Ignacio Ramonet and
Random House Mondadori, 2006, 2007. Translation © Andrew Hurley 2007.
To order a copy for £23 with free UK p&p go to
guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875

Though
the son of a wealthy landowner, Fidel Castro grew up in rural Cuba,
where his friends went barefoot and were largely illiterate. In the
second extract from his autobiography, he talks about snobbishness, the
cruelty of his schooldays, and being a ‘vengeful little devil’.

Read the first extract

Monday October 29, 2007
The Guardian

I
was born 81 years ago on a farm called Birán, in the former province of
Oriente, not far from the Bay of Nipe on the north-east coast of Cuba.
There wasn’t a town, or even a village, just a few isolated houses in a
landscape regularly shaken by hurricanes, cyclones, waterspouts and
earthquakes. The road that passed through the settlement, the old
Camino Real, was nothing more than a mud track along which people
travelled on horseback or in ox carts. There were no motor vehicles.
There was no electric light either. When I was little, we lit the house
with candles and kerosene lamps.

My father was a Spaniard from
the village of Lancara, in the province of Lugo, where the custom was
to shelter the animals underneath the house. So our home was built on
wooden piles, like stilts, and I remember that when I was three or
four, the cows slept under the house, alongside chickens, ducks, guinea
fowl, turkeys and even a few geese. Two floors above was a little
superstructure that we called the mirador. And it was there that I came
into the world, on August 13 1926, at 2am.

My father was a
landowner, who owned and rented some 11,000 hectares (42 square miles)
stretching over mountains and into valleys, filled with pine forests,
sugar cane and livestock. Don Angel Castro was highly respected, a man
of great authority in that almost feudal area and time. But he had
worked hard to reach that position: the son of poor campesinos –
peasant farmers – he had come to Cuba in his early 20s to fight in the
second war of independence, which began in 1895. No one knows exactly
how he came, in what conditions. Even after I was old enough to do so,
I never talked about those things with my father. But my brothers and
sisters believe that my father was one of those hard-up Spanish boys
who was paid to do military service in the place of some rich man.

There
are many stories of his generosity. When the tiempo muerto came – the
time after the harvest when there was very little work – then often a
man would come and say, "My children are hungry … we have nothing, I
need work." My father would invent some new field that needed clearing,
just to make jobs for people.

My mother, Lina, was a Cuban. Her
family was originally from the Canary Islands. She, too, was of
campesino origin, and her family was very poor. Her father was a
carter, who transported sugar cane in an ox cart.

My mother was
virtually illiterate, and, like my father, learned to read and write
practically on her own. I never heard her say that she’d gone to
school. She was a cook, a doctor, a carer for all of us – she provided
every single thing we might need, and she was a shoulder to cry on for
any problem we might have. She brought seven children into the world,
all born in that house, and nobody ever knew where she got the time and
energy to do everything she did.

When I was a child in Birán,
fewer than 20% of the people who lived there knew how to read and
write, and even those did so with great difficulty, so I understand how
much an illiterate person suffers. What is an illiterate person? He’s
the guy on the last rung of the social ladder, way down there.

In
Birán, the people who didn’t know how to read and write would ask those
who did to write a letter to the woman they were courting, for example.
But a man didn’t dictate a letter – tell her so-and-so and so-and-so,
that he had dreamed about her last night and that he was not eating for
thinking about her, that sort of thing. No, he’d say, "No, no, you just
write whatever you think I ought to write to her." To win over the
girlfriend! I’m not exaggerating. I lived during a time when things
were like that.

As for me, I learned to read and write with the
help of my mother and by sitting in the village school, in a class of
25 children of whom I was the youngest. I don’t know quite how I picked
it up – probably by watching the other kids, there in the front row
where the teacher had put me.

I was lucky to be the son of a
landowner, not the grandson. If I’d been the grandson of a rich family,
I’d have had an aristocratic birth, and all my friends and all my
culture would have been marked by a sense of superiority. But where I
was born I mixed with people from the humblest of origins.

Not
far from my own house were some rickety barrack-like buildings, some
huts with dirt floors and palm-leaf roofs, where a few dozen Haitian
immigrants lived in grim conditions; they worked during the cultivation
and harvesting of the sugar cane, which was the farm’s major activity.
A few years later, after protectionist laws were passed under President
Ramón Grau San Martín, I saw Haitians with whom I had eaten roasted
corn on the cob expelled from Cuba, to face who knows what terrible
hardships in their own country – which was and is even poorer than Cuba.

I
also remember the illiterate unemployed men who would stand in line
near the cane fields, with nobody to bring them a drop of water, or
breakfast, or lunch, or give them shelter, or transport. And I can’t
forget those children going barefoot. All the children I played with in
Birán, all those I grew up with, ran around with, all over the place,
were very, very poor. At lunchtime, I would bring some of them a big
can full of the food that was left over from meals at my house. I would
go with them down to the river to hunt birds – a terrible thing but it
was common to use a slingshot. Later, when I went to school in Santiago
and then Havana, I mixed with landowners’ children, but I didn’t
acquire bourgeois culture. My parents didn’t visit people and rarely
had guests. They didn’t have the culture or the customs of a family
from the wealthy class – or the snobbishness. My parents never told me,
"Don’t play with this boy or that boy!"

About 100 yards from our
house was a cockfight enclosure. That was the main entertainment in the
countryside, apart from dominoes and cards. My father, when he was a
young soldier, loved to play cards, and was apparently excellent at it.
And in my house there was also, from the time I was about three years
old, one of those wind-up phonographs to play music. Nobody even had
radio until I was 10 or 11.

Long before then, because I was the
son of a rich man, I had become the victim of exploitation. When I was
six, my parents thought it would be a good idea for me and my sister
Angelita, who was three years older than me, to study in Cuba’s second
city, Santiago de Cuba, in the south-east of the island. There we would
live at the house of Birán’s schoolteacher, Eufrasia Feliú. I was
curious to see what that would be like, so I went without a second
thought.

Santiago was a small city at that time, compared with
what it is today, but it still made a tremendous impression on me, very
similar to when I was 16 and saw Havana for the first time. It was here
that I first saw the open sea, and I was stunned.

The teacher’s
home had a porch with a beautiful view of the Sierra Maestra mountain
range and the Bay of Santiago was nearby. But the interior was narrow,
dark and damp – just a little living room with a piano, two bedrooms
and a bathroom. The roof would leak when it rained and everything would
get wet; it seemed to rain more inside than out. This was home to me
and Angelita, the teacher’s father, Néstor, and his other daughter,
Belén, who supposedly taught the piano but didn’t have a single
student. Later on, there was also a campesina, Esmérida, whom they
brought in as a maid. They never paid her a penny. The teacher herself
remained in Birán during the school year but came home during the
holidays.

I had gone to Santiago for my education, but once I
was in the teacher’s house I was never given a single lesson. I was
just there, without even a radio to pass the time. The only thing I
ever heard was the piano: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, bang, bang,
bang. Can you imagine, a couple of hours every day listening to that
piano? It is amazing I didn’t turn out to be a musician.

The
teacher’s sister, the pianist, was meant to give me my first-grade
classes, elementary school, but it never happened. Instead, I taught
myself to add, multiply, subtract and divide from a school notebook,
whose back was printed with the basic tables. But that was all I
learned, except perhaps "French manners". The family, who I think had
Haitian roots, spoke French perfectly, and they had a very good formal
education. And all those rules, all those rules of etiquette, they
taught them to me from the very beginning. You had to speak very
politely, you couldn’t raise your voice, you couldn’t say a single
improper word. Once in a while they would spank you, to keep you in
line.

I soon tired of that life, that house, that family, those
rules. It was the instinctive reaction of a small, mistreated animal.
Worst of all, though, was the hunger. Birán was like a paradise of
abundance, and my parents had to scold us to make us eat: "Eat this
soup, eat that meat, eat this, eat that." In Santiago, they would serve
just a little bit of food, and what arrived for lunch was also supposed
to do us for dinner. The food came from the house of one of the
teacher’s cousins, whom they called Cosita – "Little Thing". She was a
very fat lady, and apparently she was the one who ate all the food. The
cooking would be done at her house, and another cousin would bring over
the cantinita, a stack of round metal containers holding a little rice,
some beans, sweet potato and plantains. I remember using the edge of my
fork to pick up the last grain of rice on my plate. And rice was cheap!

Of
course, there were mitigating circumstances: the teacher’s family was
poor. They lived on her salary; that was all they had. And the
government often didn’t pay teachers their salary. Sometimes they would
have to wait three months or more for their money. That created
uncertainty and self-centredness. Every centavo, the way it was spent,
was a question of life and death for Eufrasia Feliú and her family.

At
least, it was at the beginning. After a while, my older brother Ramón
came to join us, which meant three sets of fees coming in. As the
household became richer, the teacher saved up money, bought some
furniture and even went on a trip to Niagara Falls. She brought back
some little flags as souvenirs. What misery! You can’t imagine the
hours I spent listening to her talk about her journey. It was Niagara
this and Niagara that, the same stories over and over. And all of this
was paid for with our hunger! My sister recently told me that she tried
to write to our parents to tell them what we were going through, but
our hosts intercepted her letters.

Eventually, however, my
mother visited Santiago and discovered that all three of us were skinny
and half starving to death. That day she took us out of there and
carried us to the best cafe in town; I think we devoured every bit of
ice cream in the place. It was also mango season, so she bought a sack
of delicious little Toledo mangoes. That sack didn’t last 10 minutes.

The
next day Mother took us home to Birán. By now, we three children were
sworn enemies of that teacher, who would come to our house to have
lunch and always pick the best pieces of chicken out of the rice.
Perhaps what came next was my first act of rebellion; it was definitely
vengeance.

During term-time, the teacher lived in Birán’s
schoolhouse, which had a roof of corrugated metal, and one evening, as
it got dark, we armed ourselves with slingshots we had made from forked
branches from a guava tree and some strips of rubber. There was a
bakery nearby, and we took all the firewood for the oven and made
ourselves a fort, and we set up a bombardment that seemed to last half
an hour. It was wonderful! The rocks landing on that zinc roof above
the teacher’s head! By the time two or three were hitting the roof,
there would be two or three more in the air. You couldn’t even hear the
yells and screams that we imagined the teacher was making for the noise
of the rocks hitting that roof. Oh, we were vengeful little devils.

Read the first extract

·
This is an edited extract from My Life by Fidel Castro with Ignacio
Ramonet, published by Allen Lane on November 1 at £25. © Ignacio
Ramonet and Random House Mondadori, 2006, 2007. Translation © Andrew
Hurley 2007. To order a copy for £23 with free UK p&p, go to
guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.

… Marco Antonio Salas Flores (Tampico, 1970).

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