Ever wondered why Cuban leader Fidel Castro — now off the limelight after nearly 50 years at the helm of the Caribbean nation — has always sported a luxuriant beard?
It’s not just because it harks back to the anti-bourgeois ethos of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, but also because it is a practical expression of the old revolutionary’s workaholism.
By his own calculation, Castro saves up to 10 working days a year by not shaving.
“The story of our beards is very simple: It arose out of the difficult conditions we were living and fighting in as guerrillas. We didn’t have razor blades, or straight razors. When we found ourselves in the middle of the wilderness, up in the Sierra, everybody just let their beards and hair grow, and that turned into a kind of badge of identity,” the ailing 82-year-old former president reveals in his spoken autobiography: Fidel Castro: My Life, published by Scribner.
“For the campesinos [farmers] and everybody else, for the press, for the reporters, we were los barbudos — the bearded ones. It had its positive side: In order for a spy to infiltrate us, he had to start preparing months ahead — he’d have had to have a six-months’ growth of beard, you see. So the beards served as a badge of identity, and as protection, until it finally became a symbol of the guerrilla fighter. Later, with the triumph of the revolution, we kept our beards to preserve the symbolism,” Castro says.
“Besides that, a beard has a practical advantage: You don’t have to shave everyday. If you multiply the 15 minutes you spend shaving every day by the number of days in a year, you’ll see that you devote almost 5,500 minutes to shaving. An eight-hour day of work consists of 480 minutes, so if you don’t shave you gain about 10 days that you can devote to work, to reading, to sport, to whatever you like.”
Castro, commonly referred to as Comandante, adds: “Not to mention the money you save in razor blades, soap, after-shave lotion, hot water... So letting your beard grow has a practical advantage and is also more economical. The only disadvantage is that grey hairs show up first in your beard. Which is why some of the men who had let their beards grow, cut them the minute the grey hairs started to show, because you could hide your age better without a beard.”
In the autobiography — drawing on more than 100 hours of interviews with journalist and author Ignacio Ramonet — Castro narrates a compelling chronicle of his childhood, rebellion at home and school, the Revolution and meetings with prominent public figures (Nehru, Tito, Arafat, Jiang Zemin, Nelson Mandela, Noam Chomsky and others).
He also tells of his dealings with no less than 10 successive American presidents (from Eisenhower to Bush II).
The long conversations on capitalism, the World Trade Organisation, the death penalty and other contemporary global issues began in late January 2003 and would bring Ramonet back to Cuba several times over the succeeding months, through to December 2005.
Castro proudly talks of the achievements and challenges of the revolution.
He shares recollections about more personal matters, like his successful attempt to give up cigars.
He discusses the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp on Cuba.
He concedes that corruption exists in the country.
And he reveals how he threatened to burn the family home if he was not sent back to school when he was in fifth grade; how he forged grades to buy comic books, sweets and go to the movies; how at the age of 21, he joined the Cayo Confites expedition to fight against the dictatorship of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in July 1947 and his experiences in the Bogota Uprising in Colombia in 1948.
Ramonet asks him why he attends international events in a suit and tie, but in Cuba is almost always dressed in his trademark olive-green uniform.
The answer is vintage Castro, “Because, with the uniform, I don’t have to put on a tie everyday. It avoids the problem of what suit to wear, what shirt, what socks... so everything goes together. I put on suits only for very special circumstances, some international conferences, or when the Pope came, or a meeting with some head of state, although even that protocol has been simplified here in Cuba.”
He thinks the first time he appeared dressed in civilian cloths was at the Ibero-American Summit in Cartagena de las Indias in 1994, because the Colombian hosts asked all participating heads of state and government to wear a guayabera (a men’s shirt popular in Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the West Indies).
“Since then, I’ve worn civilian cloths to other international meetings, but also for special occasions here in Cuba. But this uniform which I’ve always worn since the Sierra, is what I ordinarily wear. I’m used to it and feel perfectly comfortable in it. It’s not a sophisticated uniform. It’s very simple, almost like the one I wore in the war. We’ve just made a few modifications to it.
“I also have a uniform for receptions that I wear for some occasions, with a shirt and tie, a little more formal. But the one I feel most comfortable in, is this one.”
Castro was born on August 13 1926, on his father’s farm in Biran, Cuba.
His father, Angel Castro Argiz, had migrated from Galicia in Spain and later became a wealthy landowner.
He died on October 21, 1956 in Biian.
His wife Lina Ruz, who was Cuban-born and bore him seven children, died in 1980.
“Where I was born, I lived with people of the most humble origins. I remember the illiterate unemployed men who would stand in line near the cane fields, with nobody to bring them a drop of water, or lunch, or give them shelter, or transport. And I can’t forget those children going barefoot...” Castro recalls.
In October 1948, Castro married Mirta Diaz-Balart, daughter of a wealthy, politically influential Cuban family (they divorced in 1955).
His first child Fidel Felix Castro Diaz-Balart, “Fidelito” was born on September 1, 1949.
Nothing is included in the book on his wife — about whom there is said to be considerable mystery — and children.
As Ramonet states: “It never crossed my mind that we should speak about Castro’s private life, his wife or his children.”
In school, Castro was outstanding in basketball, football, baseball — almost all the sport.
“I’d go to class but I never paid much attention, and then I’d go and study... So I turned into even more of a self-taught man, you might say, an autodidact in mathematics, algebra, physics, geometry. I’d study those theorems and whatnot on my own... I’d just let my imagination fly [during lessons] and study at the end of the term, just before the exams. At the University of Havana [where he enrolled in September 1945 to study law], I never went to class, either. What I’d do was talk to other students in the park.
“In a relatively short time, on my own and with very little knowledge of economics or other essential subjects, I started becoming what today I would call a “utopian communist.”
And if I tell you that I became a revolutionary at the university, it’s because I came in contact with certain books.
But before I’d read any of those books, I was already questioning the political economy of capitalism, because, even then, it seemed irrational.”
Castro was admitted to the bar in 1950.
By March 10, 1952, the day of Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état, Castro had already been a Marxist-Leninist for several years.
“I’d already formulated a plan for the future. I decided to launch a revolutionary programme and organise a popular uprising. I already had the idea that a revolutionary takeover of power was necessary.”
Castro, leading a group of 165 young people, attacked the Moncada Military barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.
This action, which Castro hoped would trigger a popular insurrection against the Batista dictatorship, was thwarted by a series of chance incidents.
“If I were to organise a plan for taking the Moncada barracks again, I would do it exactly the same way; I wouldn’t change a thing. What failed there was that we lacked sufficient combat experience,” he says.
On August 1, 1953, Castro, had retreated into the mountains after the Moncada failure, was ambushed by a military patrol and taken prisoner.
He was later sentenced to 15 years in prison on October 16 1953.
With his brother Raul and others who took part in the Moncada assault, Castro was released from jail on May 15, 1955, having been granted amnesty by Batista in the face of overwhelming popular pressure.
In July of the same year, he went into exile in Mexico, where he laid the ground for an armed popular insurrection.
The revolution by Castro and his men began in December 1956.
Ultimately, Batista fled Cuba for the rebels to take power on January 1, 1959.
Castro was then barely 32 years old.
He was first named commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces while Manuel Urrutia was installed as president.
Castro later became premier of the Revolutionary Government in February 1959, a position he held for almost 18 years.
From December 1976 to February 2008 he was president and commander-in-chief.
His younger brother, Raul Castro Ruz, was elected president on February 24 to replace him.
“My elemental duty is not to cling to positions, much less to stand in the way of younger persons, but rather to contribute experience and ideas whose modest value comes from the exceptional era in which I lived. It would be a betrayal of my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer. This I say devoid of all drama,” Castro wrote in his resignation letter dated February 18, 2008.
He continued writing the column, Reflections of Comrade Fidel, published and broadcast in the country.
Castro reveals that Ernest Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, helped him conceive the Cuban irregular war.
The book deals, among other things, “with a struggle in the rear of a conventional army. And it talks about life in the rear; it tells of the existence of a guerrilla force, and how that force may act in a territory that’s supposedly controlled by the enemy.”
“I’m referring to the very precise descriptions of war written by Hemingway in that novel. Because, in all his books, Hemingway describes things in a very realistic way, with great clarity. So that book became a familiar part of my life. And we always went back to it, consulted it, to find inspiration, even when we were already guerrillas.”
Hemingway had a house in Cuba for 20 years, leaving for the last time a year after the revolution and a year before his suicide, and was reported to have been on good terms with Castro and the new regime, who turned his house into a museum.
Castro says immediately after the triumph of the revolution, the conspiracies began.
“Sabotage, the infiltration of men and the draining off of military equipment in order to sabotage us and encourage uprisings and terrorist activities. Our country has been the object of the most prolonged economic war in history, and of a fierce and unceasing campaign of terrorism that has lasted more than 45 years. They sent in planes to spray the cane fields with incendiary materials...”
In December 1959, US President Eisenhower approved a CIA-proposed plan whose objective was to “topple Castro in one year and replace him with a junta friendly to the Unites States.”
This included the elimination of Castro, who has subsequently had to deal with over 600 attempts on his life, which he believes were directly organised by the CIA.
On April 17, 1961 about 1,500 CIA-trained mercenaries landed on Playa Giron (Bay of Pigs) in Cuba, only to be defeated by the Cuban forces within about 60 hours — between dawn of the 17th and 6pm on the 19th, Castro narrates.
“The battle was fought within sight of the American ships offshore. We took about 1,200 mercenaries prisoner, almost all the enemy forces who had been in the battle, the exceptions being, of course, the dead.” Cuba latter traded the prisoners for medical supplies.
Former American President Jimmy Carter, who Castro says is the most honest president the US has ever had, gets a word of praise.
“He wanted to straighten out, to a degree, the relations between our two countries. Some of his people visited us in Cuba, but there was always a demand. There was the situation in Angola, and the revolutionary struggle in El Salvador — that is, problems and situations with regard to which we couldn’t make any concession whatsoever. But there was a man there who wanted to change the policy with Cuba.”
In the face of the US blockade and economic war that has lasted almost half a century, Castro says: “Cuba has been able to eradicate illiteracy in one year. Cuba has given free education to 100 per cent of its children. It is also first in the world in teacher-per-capita ratio. The average education of a Cuban citizen today is at least ninth-grade.
“Eighty-five per cent of the population owns its own home, tax free. The other 15 per cent pay an absolutely symbolic rent — barely 10 per cent of their salary.”
With respect to its health policy, Cuba has an infant mortality rate under 6 per 1,000 live births.
With a 0.07 per cent Aids rate, it has one of the lowest indexes of Aids in the world.
It has more than 70,000 doctors (30,000 abroad and no fewer than 40,000 on the island), plus 25,000 medical students.
“Today, Cuba has the highest number of doctors per capita in the world. Its international contingent of doctors specialising in disaster situations and epidemics work all over the world. Africa alone has more than 3,000 Cuban doctors.”
The US declined to accept the 1,610 doctors offered by Cuba during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Castro has been put on a list of the richest men in the world, which he denies, saying: “I honestly don’t own a thing. I lack for nothing, materially speaking. I have what I need. I don’t need much. Let people try to find any leader of the Revolution who has an account in some foreign bank; we’ll give anybody that manages to find such a thing whatever they want. My salary, at the exchange rate of 25 pesos per dollar, is $30 a month. But I’m not dying of hunger.
“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. I’ve always said, ‘If I do it, it’ll be for schools.’
“And a person is at peace in his own mind, really happy and strong, with that sort of rule.”
Authors: Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet
Translator: Andrew Hurley
Publishers: Scribner, 2008
Price: $40, hardback