Fidel Castro was “a bit Marxist, a bit Jesuit,” wrote American journalist Ann Louise Bardach; its sharp insight summarizes the controversial argument of this book by Loris Zanatta, one of the best-known historians in Argentina today. His work, Fidel Castro, the last Catholic king, of inescapable academic reference, develops with solid erudition a simple and forceful thesis, which on the other hand the author publishes with regular frequency in the main local newspapers.
In his first book, published in 1996, he showed how the nationalist tradition, invigorated by European fascism, and the Catholic tradition converged in the Argentina of the 1930s, in the comprehensive and militant version that symbolizes the slogan of Christ the King. The renewed myth of the Catholic nation at that time conquered the hearts of the military, who assumed the mission of imposing the cross by the sword. Perón, who was formed in that world, appealed to the popular sectors and formed an effective and lasting political formula. Despite its originality and its variations – maintains Zanatta – Peronism did not depart from the core of the Catholic conception of society, considered as a community organized from the State.
The idea refers to the Latin Catholic monarchies, which the author projects, in more recent works, to Latin American populisms. About them Zanatta offers an explanation as forceful as it is controversial. It places the common Catholic matrix at the center of these experiences, with which he even explains the internal divisions – the “wars of religion” – and the conflictive competition of the states with the Church.
Fidel Castro portrayed with Pope Francis.
In Fidel Castro, the last Catholic kingZanatta takes a remarkable leap, surprising for those who always thought of the Cuban Revolution as a version, perhaps somewhat tropical, of the communist regimes. Remember that Fidel was born into a prosperous Spanish, white and Catholic family – quite a definition on the multi-ethnic island., and that he was educated in a Jesuit school, which reinforced the family heritage and consolidated a peculiar type of Catholicism whose distant models were Ignacio de Loyola and the Jesuit missions. A Catholicism that, although it did not make it a practitioner, conformed its mentis form.
Fidel was an unruly, violent young man, with something of a gang member, racist, homophobic – all worthy of a Latin Catholic – and with an anti-North American roots that led him to politics. In its initial and heroic stage, it raised the democratic flag and obtained very varied support and, even, the sympathy of the hated Uncle Sam. Once in government, he broke with them, approached the Soviet Union and proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist. A great change? This is how Zanatta responds: “Marxism was Fidel’s new profile. He was not talking about anything else. But you could see the Catholic whiff through which he read it! He spoke of thesis, antithesis, synthesis: Thomistic syllogisms, old wine in new barrels ”.
This quote synthesizes the perspective with which the author analyzes, in almost 500 pages, the ideas of Fidel Castro, expressed in innumerable and interminable speeches, which he confronts in numerous footnotes with references from the archives and the bibliography, exhaustively reviewed.
Zanatta does not find great variations in his Marxist-Jesuit creed throughout his sixty years in power. It underlines his resounding voluntarism and his decision to change reality completely, through a concentration of revolutionary action. His purpose was – in short – to create a better world and a new man, which can be understood as the classless society of the Marxists or as the kingdom of God in the land of the liberation theologians. His clashes with the harsh and opaque reality – which Zanatta points out – led him to repeatedly change his specific goals. But they didn’t make a dent in his idea that will is enough to transform the world.
Some words, constant in his speeches, indicate how he imagined it: equality, virtue, obedience for all; mission and sacrifice for the executing vanguards. The great enemy – always in his words – was not capitalism but “modern life”, vicious and corrupt, the same that the popes condemned, from Pius IX to Pius XII. His ideal model – Zanatta maintains – was the Jesuit paradise of the missions, as closed to the world as was later the Paraguay of Dr. Francia.
The test of this hypothesis is based on the meticulous analysis, year by year, month by month, of Fidel’s word, which is both ideological and performative. Constant in its essentials, the word is flexible enough to pass from the initial omen of infinite abundance to the final eulogy of virtuous poverty, with which it justified successive economic failures, only mitigated by Soviet aid. Between both extremes, Fidel intersperses praise for the lengthy Cuban armed intervention in a despised black Africa, which he justified – with words worthy of Rudyard Kipling – as a civilizing mission.
Zanatta – who grew up in a communist family, in an essentially Catholic country – tends to declare himself “secular” and distant from both “churches”. As Lucien Febvre said of the great historians, he pursues an idea: the permanence of the root organic conception of society and the missionary character of the faith, typical of Catholicism and present in its Latin American Marxist version.
In his books, this obsessive detection was supported by a detailed narration of the events, of the objective history that surrounds the idea. Lately, in his journalistic interventions, he analyzes the discourses of contemporary populisms –And especially that of Pope Francis– with a direct and confrontational style, carrying out an invaluable exercise of liberal pedagogy.
His book on Fidel Castro combines both styles: that of the rigorous academic and that of the apostle of the idea. He dialogues with Fidel’s word, with short sentences and abundant exclamation marks. He challenges him, sometimes indignantly, sometimes ironic, always colloquial. The organization of the book is not conventional either. It consists of 485 brief sections, one page each, grouped into five large parts, corresponding to the stages of Castro’s public life. In each fragment the ideas of the Catholic community and of the crusade reappear, with few variations, the tasks to be accomplished and the failures, conclusively demonstrating that Fidel himself was a man of one idea, which he expressed simultaneously in two keys, one Marxist and the other Catholic.
The book is that. The reader should not expect a biography or a history of the Cuban Revolution. There is no context or other characters in it, so to take advantage of the specificity and novelty of this work, it is convenient to be previously informed.
Fidel Castro with Ernesto Che Guevara.
In ecclesiastical terms, the book deserves to be described as “scandalous” and it is not the least of its merits. The author seeks to confront outraged readers. With those Catholics who consider Fidel Castro the Antichrist, the expression of “materialistic and atheistic communism.” Also with those who today sympathize with regimes such as the Venezuelan or Nicaraguan. Even with those who, trained in a left-wing tradition, although today they admit that it is a dictatorial regime, retain an affectionate memory of their revolutionary utopias. Who takes distance from indignation and reads it with an open mind and willing to think about things from other perspectives You will find in this Last Catholic King an original thesis that shakes up established ideas, removes many “a priori” and encourages us to review the past and its interpretations.
Luis Alberto Romero is a professor of History at the UBA and teaches postgraduate courses at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and at Flacso. He was principal investigator at Conicet until 2014.