Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography – Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet

I write these reviews with the aim of keeping them under 500 words. Sometimes it is hard to even get that much down, while other times it feels like the exact right quantity for a review. And other times, 500 words seems so little as to be insulting. With this particular book, I could give you 500 words on the introduction alone.

That is never a good sign.

I will go ahead and put my bias out right before we begin. I like Cuba. I like Fidel Castro as a political figure. I think in the grand scheme of history, Fidel Castro will be looked upon as a positive force. I think he was probably a largely principled person, who really did practice what he preached. But I don’t believe he was perfect, and I don’t think everything he did was good.

But here is the thing – I’ve read John Rawls, and I don’t think it is a big ask to apply the veil of ignorance to as much as I can. I was able to do it with this book. In fact, let’s do it together. Take a moment and imagine a politician you hate – someone you truly think is vile. Now, imagine yourself reading that person’s biography and encountering the below paragraph:

I have never liked those narcissistic interviewers who never stop attacking their interlocutor and are eager to demonstrate that they’re cleverer, more intelligent and better prepared than the person they are interviewing. That type of journalist doesn’t listen to the person being interviewed, often cuts them off, and eventually frustrates the reader. Nor do I like those who think of the interview as a police interrogation in which there’s a cop on one side of the table and a suspect on the other, or as an inquisitorial relationship with a perpetrator of crimes standing before a harsh judge whose job it is to extract a confession. For this kind of interviewer, journalism is first and foremost a ‘trial’ – even, sometimes, a meting-out of justice – and stands above all other tribunals.

For me, this would be unacceptable for a person I loathe, and it is thus it would be equally unacceptable for people I like. And that’s about all I needed to know that I ultimately wouldn’t be enjoying this book. It would leave me with a with choice words for the author: Fuck you, and the horse you rode in on. This is a declaration of bias. This is a declaration of cowardice. You are no better than OANN and Newsmax. It isn’t about being smarter than your interviewee, but about the confidence that the truth shouldn’t be afraid of investigation. You don’t want to be an inquisitor? Get the fuck out of journalism. We need more trials, and the thing you have forgotten here is that you, the so called journalist, are the one meant to set it up so that it is honest. The fact that you were too chicken-shit to do so in this case is the biggest blemish to Fidel Castro’s reputation possible. It suggests to any astute reader, that Fidel Castro truly did have something to hide, and that he got your sycophantic ass to do a little kangaroo court trial to protect and stroke his ego.

You should be fucking ashamed of yourself.

So how did the revolutionary in you come forth?

For anyone to utter that above sentence, you really have to have taken a firm long drink from the pitcher of Kool-aid. Mind you, that’s from the first chapter. For what we know, these two have just met. For those of us not interested in Kool-aid, that is an extremely suspect sentence. It is the equivalent of asking Keith Raniere how long he knew that he was the messiah. Such sentences demonstrate that interviewer isn’t going to be critical of the subject, and it renders everything else in the description suspect as well. When later in the same chapter, Castro talks about some memories he has when he was four years old, that too isn’t questioned. Nor it is questioned that he never paid attention in school and somehow walked out with an education. As a person who has worked in education most of my life, I have good standing not to believe that shit. But that’s what the beginning of this book is – fishing stories of the ‘I walked to school and back eight days a week with no feet, and it was uphill both ways’ variety.

I think I am going to take an opportunity to try and throw my hat into the ring about what this book is. I am doing it at least partially because this review has already gone on far too long. This book isn’t journalism, and it isn’t biography either. It’s mythologizing in the worst form. I don’t want to be the kind of person who claims to read minds, but I got the impression that much of this book is about Castro cementing his place in history. He seems to be still subscribed to the ‘big man theory of history’ while the rest of us have clearly. Have you ever heard it said that if you want to humiliate your enemies just let them speak long enough? That should be the subtitle of this book:

That exact figure, 1,200, shows that when we reached that number we stopped recruiting future combatants.

Yup. Thanks, Fidel. That is exactly how counting works. I have many thoughts on what intelligence is and is not, and I am more than happy to say that I do not consider myself intelligent. The short of it is that I don’t actually think anyone is intelligent in the traditional sense, but people do instead have expertise in a limited and specific sense. Whenever someone tries to introduce me to a ‘really smart’ public figure, that figure disappoints me within hours. I am not saying I am better than them, but I am happy to call myself stupid. I know the limits of my expertise.

Throughout the course of this book Fidel Castro comes off looking not only clinically stupid, but not terribly good at reasoning either. In other words, this person so desperate to be absolved by history comes across looking pretty average. Do you want to know what happens to the average people of history? They are forgotten.

I was initially tempted to drown this review in quotes from the book. I decided against it for the sake of time, but most of the quotes were not the kind of nitpicking niche knowledge one expects. It was all those moments where an inclination towards charlatanry in the form of talking right our of your posterior and hoping no one fact checks you.

Fact check I did. Often. My suspicions were not always correct, but they were more often than not. It was an undertaking, but it showed clearly just how off he was. It did not make Castro look very good.

But the problem is compacted by the fact that polite conversation does not make for good reading, and the book is filled up the brim of places that needed editorializing. So not only is the book filled with the ramblings of an aging statesman, but the unedited ramblings:

Interviewer: An extraordinary amount.

Fidel Castro: [A description of about 26 words]

Interviewer: A considerable amount.

The above is really a choice description, because it is pointless, redundant, and with the surrounding context, sycophantic. It wasn’t a one off either, and I am sure you could have reduced the book by a third if you had removed all of the interviewers fluffing.

No one should read this book. It is hot garbage. You shouldn’t read it if you like Fidel Castro, and you shouldn’t read it if you dislike him either. The fairest thing I can say about this book is that it should never have been written. Castro was very old when he did these interviews, and his rambling old man is showing. A lot of the wrong and nonsensical. But I doubt I will be that lucid when I reach Castro’s age.

I truly hope I am ignored then.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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