WASHINGTON -- Kim Il-Sung is gone. Deng Xiaoping has passed on to those glorious riches in the sky. Peron, Khrushchev, Kadar, Franco and Tito -- all, long departed.
But Fidel Castro, like "Ol' Man River," he just keeps rolling along.
We know why the Great Mississippi keeps rolling, but how does Fidel -- now the longest-serving leader of any country in the world, and a man who has all but destroyed his country with his manifold caprices -- do it?
In one fanciful, flexible memory of the roots of his incredible power over people, Castro has recalled that he was born at 2 in the morning in Cuba's rustic Oriente Province in the midst of a devastating cyclone. "I was born a guerrilla," he said once. "It was a little like a conspiracy."
Maybe. What we do know is that Castro was born on Aug. 13, almost surely in 1926 (some insist it was 1925). While all the other charismatic dictators have fallen or died after infinitely fewer years in power, Castro remains solidly ensconced in his palace in Havana. Foreign visitors who see him describe him as a little like Howard Hughes, with long nails and a thin beard. Others call him a "quirky grandpa" or classic "sick leader."
The fact remains that this septuagenarian, in his astonishing 38th year as president of Cuba, has as much total power as anyone has ever had -- and all quite despite his "accomplishments."
Recent data, for instance, indicate that nearly half the Cuban work force is unemployed and that most Cubans live on a miserable 1,400 calories a day. Foreign investment, which peaked at $563 million in 1994, was probably as low as $30 million last year.
Worst of all, economists this year say that Cuba has incredibly lost its traditional position as the world's largest producer of sugar. Barely 3 million tons are being produced this year, an all-time low.
And yet, there he is, a true study in the most clever manipulation of power. The relevant question is, "Why?"
First of all, Castro was a classic dictator in that he emerged not from the historical center of his society but from its physical and moral peripheries. His father was a rough and deceitful "Gallego" from the impoverished north of Spain. This is typical: Napoleon, the Corsican; Hitler, the Austrian; Stalin, the Georgian.
In fact, at times of trauma in a nation's life, leaders like these most often emerge. They come from outside, from Moses' biblical "mountainside," supposedly to bring "salvation" to their long-suffering people. (In truth, they more often usher in regimes of terrible punishment.)
Second, Fidel was a perversely captivating combination of seductiveness and violence. As a boy, he tried to burn down his parents' house and burn up his father's car, and he would regularly hang over a canyon on the railings of the railroad while the trains thundered by.
Above all, he was always the perfect Machiavellian, naturally mastering every technique of political, physical and (above all) psychological control over not only the Cuban people but elitists across the world.
In the turbulent 1930s when he was at the Jesuit high school, Fidel deliberately studied the European fascists. From Mussolini, he took the Italian's hysterical rhetorical gestures. From Hitler, he borrowed the Austrian's lessons in the sociology of revolution. Hitler had created a power base from the alienated and atomized German lower classes; Castro created his own base from the workers and farmers.
And so, once he marched down onto Havana in January of 1959, Castro almost immediately began his unique system of revolutionary replacement. First, he moved out the upper classes, then the middle classes, through a tactical combination of seizing their lands and privileges and simply terrorizing them.
Throughout his whole life, he has simply gotten rid of any competitors to power, either by sending them to places where they would surely die (Ernesto Che Guevara, Bolivia, 1967; Frank Pais, the streets of revolutionary Santiago de Cuba, 1957) or by executing them (Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, Havana, 1989).
Meanwhile, his military and intelligence organizations assured -- and still assure -- his physical control over the island. (It is said that, every day, one of his personal bodyguards has no bullets in his gun but no one knows which one.) And of course, Castro has been extraordinarily adept at using the traditional Cuban fear of the "Miami Cubans" and the hated "Americanos" to hold his own people in check.
Having interviewed Castro and written a biography of the man
("Guerrilla Prince: the Untold Story of Fidel Castro"), I have long
refused to answer one question: "When will Castro fall?"
Copyright © 1998 Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.