William Rowlandson, University of Kent
As a historical figure, Fidel Castro presents some juicy conundrums: justice and injustice, revolution and state power, citizens’ rights and state authority, artistic freedom and restriction, high literacy rates and censorship, communist economics and private enterprise, socialism and tourism.
The news of his death at the age of 90 brings many of these thorny questions to mind. And there are many anecdotes to illustrate them. I would like to draw on one in particular – the case of Jean-Paul Sartre and his observations of the Cuban leader as they toured Cuba in the back of Castro’s car in the spring of 1960.
Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had accepted an invitation to visit and arrived in Havana during the festivities of Carnaval. They listened to Castro’s speeches, they met Che Guevara, ministers, writers, artists, university students, factory workers and cane-cutters.
Sartre spent long hours locked in conversation with Castro, many of which he recorded in the series of articles he later published with France-Soir entitled Hurricane over the Sugar. He was praised and condemned in equal measure for his admiration of Castro and the revolution. But although he did write quite breathlessly about Castro – and was absolutely clear in his support – there is a subtle tension in his writing that reveals something troubling him about the bearded comandante.
They visit a now-public beach being developed for internal tourism. They are given warm soft drinks. Castro asks why there is no ice. Because, replies one of the three slightly dazed workers, the refrigerators do not work. Castro cannot tolerate such un-revolutionary lethargy and bangs around the machines trying to get them to work, animating the workers to take the initiative. Sartre figures out Castro’s essential dynamic: “He is an agitator, thought I for the first time.” And yet, Sartre observes, he cannot animate them to oppose the system that is failing them, which is his own ministry of tourism, the INIT. Castro is aware that he can agitate against the old system, but cannot agitate against his own.