Communist money and military might fed his ego and sank his nation.
WHEN FIDEL Castro passes from the scene, will he be remembered as he portrays himself — a selfless revolutionary leader who struggled against imperialism and for the good of his people? Or will he be seen as an all-powerful, egocentric charismatic leader who used his unrestrained authority to advance his grandiose ambitions to the detriment of his people?
The hundreds of thousands who have fled Castro's Cuba over the last 47 years have already voted. But clearly some portion of the island's 11.2 million people still fervently support "Fidel," though how many remains guesswork because Cubans don't have the freedom to speak negatively about their lider maximo. Leftist and populist leaders in Latin America lionize Castro for having defied the Americans, but they are too realistic to adopt the Cuban model for their own countries.
Despite some notable benefits, such as the nation's acclaimed free public health system, Cubans have paid dearly for Castro's years in power. They have endured a highly repressive totalitarian state, all the while putting up with a command economy marked by food rationing, chronic shortages of essential consumer goods, dilapidated housing, aging public works and uneven growth.
Then, in 1991, Cuba suffered a terrible blow when its economic and military patron, the Soviet Union, imploded. Its economy plummeted by more than 33%; the nation's standard of living will not return to its 1989 level for years.
Hitching his country's fate to the Soviet Union was Castro's most consequential mistake. The conventional wisdom is that the Eisenhower administration "pushed" Castro and his young regime into the hands of the Soviets because of its hostile reaction to the Cuban revolution. But this is not borne out by the historical record.
The Eisenhower administration sought to reach some kind of accommodation with Havana between April 1959 and January 1960, only to be shunned time and again by Castro. The conciliatory U.S. approach ended when Soviet First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan arrived in Cuba in early February 1960 for a 10-day visit
The 1997 book "One Hell of a Gamble," by Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Natfali, offers a behind-the-scenes explanation. The book draws heavily on Soviet intelligence archives and communiques from Moscow's man in Havana, Aleksandr Aleksiev. It shows that beginning in October 1959, Castro, his brother, Raul, and Ernesto "Che" Guevara conspired with Aleksiev to radicalize the revolution, heighten Cuban anti-American sentiment and exacerbate the rising tensions with Washington. All this was done to justify Cuba's realignment with Moscow, which commenced with Mikoyan's visit.
What prompted Castro's premeditated turn to Moscow? Clearly, his was a preemptive, calculated move that sought to guarantee the long-term survival of his revolution in anticipation of U.S. economic sanctions and possible armed aggression. But this explanation begs the more basic question of whether Castro was a crypto-communist who early on was bent on creating a socialist revolution and joining the Soviet bloc.
The answer comes from Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, a member of the Cuban Communist Party's political bureau who spoke to me in his private office at party headquarters in Havana late at night on Aug. 14, 1967. Rodriguez volunteered that Castro had been neither a communist nor a socialist when he came to power in 1959, and added that "even today, Fidel is not a communist."
This was a startling, heretical assertion. In 1961, Castro had claimed that he was a "Marxist-Leninist," and earlier in 1967, he had proclaimed that Cuba had started down the path of building "genuine communism."
What Rodriguez was hinting at was that Castro was really a fidelista — a radical revolutionary who sought maximum political power through permanent struggle with his enemies, but who lacked a well-formed ideology.
Cuba's charismatic leader was overflowing with narcissism and hubris. His ambition to do battle with the hated United States would make him Latin America's greatest leader since Simon Bolivar, achieving eternal glory for himself.
Soviet economic and military backing enabled Castro to bask in the limelight on the world stage. It extended Cuba's influence not only throughout Latin America but to Africa and other Third World arenas.
In sacrificing his country to advance his grandiose ambitions, however, Castro dealt a grievous blow to Cuban society. He has left the island exhausted, disillusioned, divided and with little hope of a better future — at least as long as he remains on the scene.
Edward Gonzalez is a professor emeritus at UCLA and an adjunct political scientist at the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on August 13, 2006.