Fidel Castro, Book Critic

Foreign Policy magazine buffs a dictator’s image.

It’s been widely observed lately that Fidel-adoring artists and intellectuals in the United States never seem to mind whenever Cuba’s charismatic dictator tosses his own country’s artists and intellectuals into the slammer, as he did last month. (Their crime was to fraternize with U.S. diplomats. Their prison sentences range from 12 to 25 years.) Castro would appear to believe that free expression is a wonderful thing so long as it never enters his jurisdiction. Why do Fidel’s groupies stand for it? Writing in the Washington Monthly, Damien Cave says it’s because Castro is a master at the art of flattery. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Andrew Breitbart speculates that it’s Castro’s longevity. Writing in Slate, Mickey Kaus says “It’s the ‘ho’s!” (Havana’s “prostitution scene,” he explains, “is reportedly a shopper’s paradise.”) To these, Chatterbox would add his own suspicion that Fidel’s acolytes view Fidel’s jailing of artists and intellectuals as a form of literary expression. It’s his way of saying that he doesn’t care for their work.

That Castro is a literary critic is established in the March-April issue of Foreign Policy magazine, which publishes a book review by Castro of Gabriel García Márquez’s memoir Living to Tell the Tale. Márquez and Castro are, famously, pals—an association that’s never spoken well of Márquez—and executive editor James Gibney explained to Chatterbox that “Castro’s review brought that relationship into sharper relief.” But a reading of the review will quickly disabuse anyone of that notion. It is, as one would expect, amateurish, frequently unintelligible, and (of course) all about Castro himself. It’s Castro’s attempt to promote an idea of himself not as Communist dictator, but as littérateur manqué:

[A]s a public man forced to compose speeches and narrate events, I share the illustrious writer’s delight in searching for the precise word, a sort of mutual obsession that is unappeasable until the phrase is just right, faithful to the sentiment or idea we wish to express, even as we remain firm in the belief that it can always be improved.

These mots justes include “provocation” and “subversion,” which is what the latest crop of dissidents stands accused of. Maybe something gets lost in the translation from the original Spanish.

Foreign Policy has spiffed itself up lately, and as a result the magazine is much livelier and thought-provoking than it used to be. Gibney notes, correctly, that running Castro’s review does not imply any sort of endorsement. “We’d run a movie review by Kim Jong-il if we felt it might shed some useful light on his thinking and personality,” Gibney says. (Next month: Idi Amin reviews The Lovely Bones!) On reflection, Chatterbox can’t really dispute that it’s interesting to learn what dictators do in their spare time. But that doesn’t let Foreign Policy off the hook. A movie review by Kim Jong-il couldn’t enable any widespread belief that Kim is some sort of philosopher-king, because no such belief exists. It’s different, alas, with Castro. Many people think of Castro as some sort of Latin Papa Hemingway, and the publication of this review will only encourage them to go on believing it.