Fidel and Me

BY KATHY PERUTZ

1959.  Spring in New York.  Still early, not yet the blooming gardens of English squares and perfumes of French parks, but the bird was on the wing from Brooklyn to the Bronx and in upper Manhattan on April 22, the students were waiting.  We from Barnard had crossed the mighty river of Broadway onto the campus proper of Columbia (of which we were the female part) and were standing on the steps outside Low Library waiting.  We’d heard a lot, read a lot about the guerilla fighters with bushy beards who’d toppled the dragon Batista and were taking control of their own island in the name of the people. A rousing call to revolution for 19-year olds like me, hoping to be part of something that would sweep away inequality and bring liberty and justice for all.

A great cheer went up. He was here, entering the campus from the Broadway gate, walking east across 116th Street towards Amsterdam.  In rugged gear, cap on head, booted and bearded he came striding past us, waving.  Fidel!  Stirring our hopes and libidos, swelling our chests.  The man of the hour (with Ché Guevara, even more handsome according to the pictures, more rugged, and a quasi-intellectual besides, a wide and deep reader who was familiar with Faulkner and Kipling, Marx and Gide, Neruda and Sartre.)  What more could a college girl dipped in ivy want?  We were in love, we fell for them in every way.

So did the New York Times. So did most everyone I knew, though Ike was not impressed.  But then again, we were the girls who as freshmen had canvassed for Stevenson against Ike in the 1956 election even though we were too young to vote (21 was then the legal voting age, and we were not yet 18), and in Nancy Sternheimer’s room she’d put up a banner saying: I’d lay for Adlai.

***

April, 1961 was warm and lush in southern Spain in the village of Torremolinos near Malaga where drunken second sons of England’s finest families stayed up all night gambling and making intermittent passes at the young women who came by, among them Iris Owens, an American writer who published under the name of Harriet Daimler with Olympia Press in Paris, an English-language publisher of non-traditional books (William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch) and novels heavily invested in sex.  Iris was the first female pornographer I’d ever met, and certainly the only one who made her living (or some part of it) by her pen.  The pale Brits and their Yank companions, along with a few scattered self-exiles from other lands usually rose at dusk and headed for the bars, where the latest drink was a Fidelista, formerly known as a Cuba Libre, or rum coke.

I was there with my mother, who had picked me up in London, where I was then living, to take me off to a warmer and more congenial spot for conversation. Her mission was to convince me to return home to New York in light of the Bay of Pigs invasion (the CIA had attempted a military invasion of Cuba, which was put down in 3 days by Fidel Castro’s troops) and, since the Soviets had Cuba’s back, the threat of war, possibly nuclear war which hung across America like disused curtains, constantly rustling.  She came as an emissary from my father, who wanted the family united at such a time.  I could understand; he and my mother had fled Austria as Hitler’s troops entered the Alps during the Anschluss of 1938, annexing Austria into the German Reich.  The unthinkable had happened then, and it could be happening now.

But I was adamant. I was firmly set on the path of my own life, I’d had a novel accepted for publication by one of Britain’s most prestigious publishers (and by an new American publishing house as well) and I needed the break from the person I’d been up to graduation.  It was only a few months since I’d left home and fewer than that since my Christmas visit, and to return now would be to lead an interrupted life, possibly forever.  Besides, I reasoned, if it was going to be a nuclear war, we’d all be incinerated within minutes and what would be the use of a family reunion then?   My mother naturally didn’t think much of the argument, but I had a Welsh film director in London who was driving me crazy by refusing to go to bed with me.  He wanted us to wait (he knew me well without knowing me) though when I returned from Spain, he’d promised, I could have my way with him.

So in the end I stayed in Europe, flying from Madrid back to London and into the arms of my brilliant strategist. We made love, not war, and the sixties unfolded, England swings and the Beatles ruled, and I flew back home for the March on Washington, 1963, where Martin Luther King spoke about his dream.

Fidel Castro, too, had a dream, and it caught fire all over the world. How could it not?  It’s always the same dream: “. . .that all men are created equal;” “liberté, égalité, fraternité;”  “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” or the Marxist dream of fairness, “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”  “Venceremos!”

What happened afterwards in Cuba is not one story but many, an accordion of stories, glorious and calamitous, leading to the major paradox of most revolutions: that they become established, and the leader becomes a cult. It happens on the right and on the left. Stalin, Lenin, Hitler.  I had been in Franco’s Spain when I was 18 and at a gathering with my parents a young officer invited me to have dinner with him the following night.  He was one of Franco’s men, a Falangist, (I didn’t know) and though I had not rejected his offer, my father did with great vigor.  My closest brush with dictatorship, though when I was much younger we’d been in Buenos Aires, in Juan Perón’s Argentina, from which I remember very little: that they had a Pink House instead of the White House and he had a wife, Eva, called Evita by the people, who adored her.  I also remember hearing that whenever the workers were dissatisfied, Perón declared another national holiday, on which they wouldn’t have to go to work.  He remained quite popular.

***

November in New York, 2016.  The darkest November I’ve known.  The will of the people has been recognized and the leader chosen.  A less committed one, a less informed one, a less admirable man could not be imagined.  The other dictators rode in on dreams – often vicious, mad dreams – and plans.  What we have now is Mr. Tabula Rasa, President-elect, a figure on whom anyone can project whatever they imagine him to be.  He has no policies, no agenda, no logic, no heart and no convictions beyond his absolute confidence that he is the Sun God, anointed by himself to be forever the love-object of his people.  He is us, our chosen one, the image of ourselves.  Narcissus looked upon the surface of a lake and fell in love with the image he saw.  Our Narcissist-in-Chief is our mirror and what we see is darkness, rage, a sense of entitlement and of  injustice (the motivator of so many revolutions)  but this time we’ve chosen a blind man who sees nothing beyond himself.   A man who when he looks at a map of the world sees only his own face.  The world is himself, as it was for Lucifer, flung down from heaven to reign far below as Satan: Whither I fly is Hell; Myself am Hell. (John Milton, Paradise Lost.)  If only our president-elect had as much self-awareness!

The winter of our discontent is now fairly established. Personality has won out over issues, values, morals, honesty, history and people.  I do not know how to deal with this, but intend to keep my head firmly ensconced in bubble wrap, avoid newspapers and TV and try to think of other things.  Spring, for instance, when the earth will inexorably bring forth new blossoms, new births, and when young girls will again think of nothing but how handsome a man can be, or how to change the world.  Farewell, Fidel, and hiya Donald.

8 thoughts on “Fidel and Me”

  1. Magnificent piece, Kathy – Fidel and you! Great job! And you have brought New York and London in the early 60s to vibrant unforgettable life! The paradox of a tyrant’s life (no matter how appealing Fidel and Che were in their beyond sexy macho youth) until Fidel died at 90 yesterday and Che was cut down so young, assassinated in Bolivia, the handsome Argentinian compadre of Fidel in the Sierra Maestra and on their victorious march into Havana for the liberation of Cuba from Batista in 1959. And then the Hydra heads of Communism -it’s tentacles which grasped all of Cuba since Fidel’s revolution. Communism fell all over the world save in Cuba and the Peoples Republic of China. Even today Communism exists side by side with capitalism in that island nation so close to Miami, so far from our American values.

    And now we are awaiting the dawn of the rule of a new kind of tyrant in the United States of America. A billionaire carney-barker from Manhattan via Queens – unqualified in every respect – for our Presidency – whose lack of character, bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia, denial of climate change, hatred of Obama and Mrs. Clinton (“lock her up!” “Drain the swamp!”) and plutocratic sycophancy of the very rich while stomping on the poorest and least educated American people, makes our hair stand on end with fright. Your ending, Kathy, “Farewell, Fidel and hiya Donald” chills the marrow of my bones. Only thing we can do during however brief a time (devoutly to be wished) President-elect Trump’s administration lasts, is unplug social media, ignore journalists and talking heads and live just for the day enjoying whatever real live pleasures and loves we may.

    1. Absolutely right, Nan – that IS all we can do. But all the enthusiasm for this empty vessel of self-love is in itself wildly depressing – compared to the kind of hopes we had back then – and even 8 years ago, when we saw the Obamas and the Bidens and their children all together, and the pride we felt, thinking THIS is my country! – all turned to ashes, through the evil Midas touch of that man who worships gold, real or fake or lying on his head like road kill. Whatever we think of Fidel now, he was a man led by passion for making the world a better place, or at least his corner of it. What happened then – the CIA, the Soviets, the embargos, the suffering, all of it changed the world around. But at the start, it was full of the powers we knew and felt, hope and youth and the energy – sexual, political, intellectual, gustatory; all of it – that charged us.

  2. Another good one Kathy. Did you see Garrison Keillor’s column in which he wrote: “We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids and we Democrats can go for a long brisk walk and smell the roses.” I think Keillor is right, too, when he wrote: “Alas for the Trump voters, the disasters he will bring on this country will fall more heavily on them than anyone else. The uneducated white males who elected him are the vulnerable ones and they will not like what happens next.” Well, maybe the disasters will fall more heavily on the deported kids, if he really does deport them.

    1. Spot on, Jack. That’s the bitterness of all this – that those who saw in him a leader saw nothing but their own needs and didn’t realize the apparition in front of them was made of air. (Hot air, of course.) It is, basically, a refusal to accept that the world has changed, jobs have changed with technology and that the people who are out of work or underpaid are not adapted to the New Economy, which is global and must look ahead to new forms of education, ways of dealing with the environment, and with each other. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Remember how you felt, Kathy, when Fidel was swept into power–and how wrong you all were. He was a brutal murderer who initially stood for freedom but held onto power for fifty years and now passes it to his family. I only hope you are just as wrong about Trump. We can feel the breeze of uncertainty stirring, as you did those years ago in Spain, and we continue to live our lives as though things are normal when they sure look bizarre. We will survive this, thanks to the Constitution, which is Athena enshrined.

    Narcissus gets a bad rap. Since the Middle Ages, the Church has held him up as someone in love with himself, when in fact he was in love with the boy in the reflecting water. He was in love with reflection and was a god of the Underworld, of dreams and images. You are like Narcissus when you prefer to dwell among images over living in reality, like when you’re in the middle of writing a novel.

    Trump’s obsession is with fame. He is a caricature of Hera the Queen, the Personal Self that has become so exaggerated in our time. People look in the mirror and they read the headlines and they think, ‘that’s me, the face of celebrity’. Trump lives in the eyes of others not in his own eyes; he’s too shallow for that. He’s like the Wicked Queen in Snow White who asks, ‘who’s the most famous of them all’?

    Again, the extraordinary life that you have led, Kathy, leaves me amazed. The gods have blessed you as they bless the very few. Do not worry that the country is going to pieces as you struggle with mortality; everyone thinks the world is ending when their own lives are in peril. History isn’t going to end anytime soon and change is the one thing we can count on. The strange man who lives for popularity may be motivated to do what is most popular instead of what he promised, if we’re lucky.

    Just remember how promising Fidel looked back in ’59 and how even now, 11 presidents later, his country continues in a burdensome, state-run economy with little capital and no freedom of the press. Perhaps this Trump will motivate the left to put forth an electable candidate next time.

    1. Yes, Michael, I know and respect your explanation of the Narcissus myth, but am using it here the way it has been appropriated to mean what it means when we talk of Narcissism, and super-Narcissism. And you’re right that our only hope is his obsession with fame, or perhaps with “being loved,” as he keeps telling us he is. But what his admirers believe he has promised is a bit of skywriting that will vanish by the time he’s sworn in. There are no more mining jobs and manufacturing jobs and the little woman who comes running with your slippers (maybe not even the dutiful dog who does so.) And this is a country of many stripes (literally and figuratively), a collage made up of people from all over the world, raised in very different surroundings, eating different food, speaking different languages, rearing their children differently, marrying within and without traditions, and so it is not a country to be run by someone who can’t see. He doesn’t even realize we’re here. Fidel was a man who lived by his convictions and then believed, as did so many kings and emperors and czars in the past, that he was chosen, touched with immortality perhaps, the appointed and anointed leader of his people. And so he failed. Hitler failed, ultimately. Stalin too, and Lenin and Mao, and Idi Amin, all of them after immeasurable loss of life. But this man headed to the White House is a terrible, immoral and to all intents criminal person, whose cult of personality is already on him, so we must be very, very careful. Many people took him casually during the campaign; it would be a mistake to give him the benefit of the doubt now, when he has shown his greed and ignorance and inhumanity.

  4. Dear Kathy,
    What a beautifully written reflection of moments in your remarkable life put in the context of equally remarkable changes in our world these past 60 years. We’re fortunate to have you as a muse, and also to be able to separate ourselves from the TV news, the endless coverage of the ego-in-chief-in-waiting as he preens and prances and pivots without pause from one broken promise to the next.

    But I find myself concerned each day with the fate of those who cannot sit comfortably ensconced in our security and privilege, protected from (at least the worst of) the consequences of his coming reign. Already the attacks on the poor, the black and brown, the children of immigrants, and all those disempowered citizens (except the disempowered rubes, now feeling empowered, who voted for him) have been growing in frequency and variety. What of their future, their needs, their very safety?

    I am torn almost daily between pushing my representatives to fight back at every turn, on every policy, against every proposal that would hurt the least of these; or, conversely, saying (from the comfort and security of my middle-class, educated life), “They have taken absolute power; let them use it, abuse it, and then pay for it; we’ll survive, as we did Reagan and Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney.”

    But at what cost?

  5. I’m so glad you’ve picked up the pen again. Please don’t stop; we need your sanity, clarity of thought and depth of feeling… Now more than ever! xo

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