14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 6 July 2019 — While in the official media Fidel Castro was presented as an austere ruler, reserved with his private life and little given to worldly pleasures, in the American press the image of him was closer to that of a superhero, a villain and a seducer. In his new book on Fidel Castro, the historian Abel Sierra has traced with precision the contrast between the sober comandante en jefe projected by Cuban newspapers and the sensationalist tints that accompanied his name in most of the media across the Strait of Florida.
The man who upset Cuban history and radiated his willful personality throughout Latin America took great advantage of the fascination he generated among reporters in the United States, using them to export an oversized and irresistible image of himself. That relationship began before the triumph of the Revolution, when he was in the Sierra Maestra. Journalists of the time, such as Herbert Matthews from The New York Times, helped create an epic story about revolutionary exploits, which their readers devoured with delight.
Castro knew well the importance of using the front pages of newspapers to erect the myth of the system he built. He used the foreign press to reinforce certain clichés about the Cuba of the past — clichés that would justify the excesses after January 1959 — and to charm his ideological sympathizers such that they set aside their criticisms and only applauded. To expand his myth he used publications such as The New York Times, Time and Playboy, but he was also helped in that endeavor by cartoons and comic strips, and these pages were one of the many battle fronts on which he fought for power.
Fidel Castro, El Comandante Playboy: Sexo, Revolución y Guerra Fría (Fidel Castro, The Playboy Commander, Sex Revolution and the Cold War) is the story of a fascination, the meticulous description of how the American press contributed to the creation of a leadership that allowed the authoritarian Commander in Chief to become a figure familiar to the citizens of the United States. With this book, readers now have before them the detailed itinerary of a romance, between the media and the guerrilla; between the editors and the dictator.
Many of the attractions of the ideological theme park into which Cuba was converted, and whose montage Abel Sierra describes chronologically, are born of that romance. A parallel island that is formed not only from a carefully made-up reality, but also a skillful directing of the eyes of foreign visitors and reporters. With overwhelming effectiveness, Castro sends them to see for themselves, but sets a tight schedule that does not let them peer beyond the windows of their air-conditioned car, and rewards them when their articles follow the script of the Plaza of the Revolution.
For decades it has been very difficult for professionals of the press to escape from this warped view and to avoid swallowing whole the information pap fed to them by the Castro regime. Those who did not want to put aside their professionalism to engage in propaganda for socialist Cuba were considered traitors, revisionists or CIA agents, and in most cases they were not allowed to step foot in utopia ever again.
In his book, Sierra also finds the points of contact between the magnetism of the worlds created by Hugh Hefner and his Playboy fantasies on the one hand and, on the other, the revolutionary universe Castro tried to establish on the island. A bubble that has fascinated a good part of the international left for decades. If the American magnate promoted a life of pleasure surrounded by bunnies, the Cuban leader reciprocated with a country of docile militia members ready to die at the slightest wave of his hand.
This world created by Castro attracted comrades from other parts of the planet who arrived eager to find the keys to the materialization of an ideology on the island of Cuba. For them. There was a broad repertoire of statistics that insisted on the superiority of the system, which they found evidence of in their visits to schools and hospitals, the long speeches expounding on “the conquests of the Revolution” and, for the most incredulous, scenes of the leader surrounded by children and chanting young people could always be arranged.
The several interviews that Fidel Castro offered to Playboy also speak of his astuteness in placing himself in one of the most read magazines of those years, a way to reach the average American who came to those pages in search of nudes, celebrities and interviews with controversial personalities. Between an highbrow photo on one page and a photo of a nipple on another, Castro hurled his political darts.
This book shows an impressive sequence of covers of those years in which the Cuban dictator alternated with faces such as Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley on the cover of Playboy. But what follows is not only a collection of covers, references and dates, but a pleasant journey through the years in which Castro’s profile was chiseled for the American people.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, we assist in shaping an image with some pieces that are pleasing and others terrible, but all extremely alluring. The mere mention of Castro’s name was a profitable hook to sell more copies of magazines and newspapers, in addition to the damage that this massive dissemination posed for the present and the future of Cuba.
The media-savvy Commander always saw the press as an animal to domesticate, hypnotize and hold tightly by the reins. Thus, reporters who managed to reach the island to interview him, after having pressed numerous contacts and appealed to influential intermediaries, had to spend long weeks waiting docilely by the phone for the call confirming that they could approach Castro and ask him questions.
Over time, the circle of chosen reporters narrowed and by the end of the last century only figures very close to the Plaza of the Revolution managed to interview the Cuban leader. Beyond interviews, the result of those talks carried all the traces of a sounding board from which only one voice was heard, as in the books published by Frei Betto and Gianni Miná after several meetings.
In one of life’s ironies, the last years of Fidel Castro’s life passed away from the public scene and the press. Only the most trusted fellow travelers, comrades such as Evo Morales, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner or Nicolás Maduro, served as chroniclers who told the national and international public how the former president was doing. They were, at that moment, the “complicit reporters” of his end, and tried to create, like so many others described in this book, the legend of his exceptionality, the false impression that he was an extraordinary man who had to be allowed everything.
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