In the movies, evil bad guys are often stupid and hire stupid people to do the wrong thing. Fidel Castro shows that evil people can be very smart, and find bright people who do the right things in advancing their goals, no matter how twisted. In My Cuba Libre (Beverly Hills: Story Merchant Books, 2013), eminent maritime attorney George Fowler has written a very insightful memoire of growing up in Cuba prior to Castro's revolution, while leveling a searing indictment of Castro's rule. Fowler exposes the dark underbelly of a repressive dictatorship that persists despite media reports - he is especially critical of The New York Times - that Castro is receding into the background and turning over power to his brother Raoul.
Castro is still the string puller. And the strings he pulls are often around the necks of dissidents who criticize him or challenge his ham-fisted regime. "There is no questioning Castro's intelligence," Fowler acknowledges. "He is brilliant, manipulative, and resourceful." Anyone who doubts that can read part of the eloquent defense that Castro delivered at his trial after an armed attack in 1953 on Moncada Barracks failed. William Safire has hailed it as a classic example of exceptional rhetoric. Castro sounds like Thomas Payne, not Joseph Stalin, in accusing the Fulgencio Batista regime of precisely the blood-thirsty crimes that on seizing power Castro perpetrated, describing the Barracks as a "workshop of torture and death."
It was a lie. As a University of Havana law student, Castro earned the nickname dirtball, writes Fowler, a reputation he feels Fidel managed to overdo during a long career in power. Many feel that Batista gave up prematurely and could have defeated the revolution, but he chose to flee with his cash, leaving behind the hapless citizens of a country that was prosperous and had a growing middle class. Fowler points out that in a population of only 7 million, Castro has since 1959 sent over 500,000 Cubans through prisons and concentration camps, and argues that the dictator's henchmen shot between 15,000 and 17,000. An extensive security apparatus monitors behavior and conversation.
Even slight infractions can send a citizen to infamous prisons like Kilo 5.5., infamous for using sleep deprivation, or the G-2 prison of Santiago de Cuba, where cells are kept at very high or very low temperatures with prisoners stripped, thrown into isolation chambers, and awaken after twenty minutes - causing irreversible psychological damage. Cuba may be situated 90 miles from Florida, but Castro's agents, Fowler cautions, are active inside the U.S. and act vigorously to murder dissenters inside U.S. waters who try to aid refugees escaping from the Communist dictatorship.
Fowler's prose is concise and clear, but his passion is evident on every page, as he calls for the U.S. to indict Castro criminally, and warns that tourists who see a charming, benign Havana are seeing a carefully orchestrated charade that hides the ugly, everyday reality that Cubans confront. Only Fidel's death will bring change, insists Fowler, and opening up trade or giving the regime access to foreign currency through commerce or tourism will merely prolong the suffering of Cubans.
A good part of the book - in many ways for me the most interesting - is Fowler's account of growing up in Cuba as a young boy and his family. Today a wealthy, esteemed expert on maritime law with an international reputation, he was born to wealth. But the revolution sent his family into severe financial straits. He worked during high school as a construction worker, and studied at a very tough, disciplined Jesuit high school in Puerto Rico before college and law school. He earned his success the old-fashioned way: through hard work and talent.
Still, his portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba is fascinating. His affection for his large family runs deep in his roots, and his parents and grandparents - successful in the sugar business - emerge as vivid, colorful, fascinating individuals in their own right. Havana and the life they led was exciting, and while the wealthier classes enjoyed an elegant lifestyle, Fowler is emphatic that prosperity was shared and that the family went out of its way to ensure the well-being of those it employed.
Fowler's beautiful wife, Christina, hailed from a similar background, and endured a heart-breaking experience at the age of 12 when Castro jailed her father and her mother managed to get her out of Cuba. Christina was one of the "Peter Pan" children, placed on an airplane with her sisters after Castro goons smashed their dolls, and sent to the U.S., where stern Catholic nuns shipped her to a cold, inhumane existence at a Catholic school in Indiana until a farming couple took Christian and her older sister Mercedes in to live with them. The story has a happy ending: Castro released and exiled her father, and the family reunited in Laurel, Mississippi.
Fowler has a formidable intellect and he is a relentless advocate for his ideas, but writing the book, like the experiences he has gone through, proved deeply emotional for him. That he makes no effort to conceal the pain and hurt that he and those he have known strengthens this compelling story, which anybody interested in Cuba ought to read.