Michael Arkus, who covered Fidel Castro just after he seized power in Cuba — winning a memorable interview while swimming with “El Comandante” — reflects on what might have been.

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Michael Arkus was a Reuters correspondent in Cuba at the start of Fidel Castro’s rule. He has written a book about his experiences, entitled Swimming with Fidel.

By Michael Arkus

More words have probably spewed out in newspapers worldwide in the

past few days on the death of the patriarch Fidel Castro than Marcel Proust invested in over a dozen years in his seven-volume À la recherche du temps perdu. So it’s pointless to try to give a brief overview of this titan of Latin American and world geopolitics.

But there are several aspects of the “what if” game in the early days of the Cuban revolution that can be instructive as lessons in what went wrong.

What if Eisenhower, playing the sensible adult, had gone along with Fidel’s nationalist and nationalizing demands, accepting the compensation plans, and had not opted for outright confrontation? (Ed: The Cuban state under Castro seized private farmland, and the United States under President Dwight Eisenhower rejected the proposed compensation terms.)

Cuba would never have been a grovelling ally of the United States, but Fidel could probably have been maintained as a difficult neighbor. But then again, this was 1959-1961, not the Obama era, and it would likely have unleashed a tsunami of continent-wide me-too demands, leading to the downfall of the other outposts of American economic imperialism.

What if in the early years Fidel had kept to his mantra that those who are not against the revolution are for it, instead of changing it in 1964 to those who are not 100 percent for the revolution are against it, thus alienating a far larger segment of the population than the wealthy bourgeois?

He would have had a far larger pool of competent people to help improve the economy than the mess the state bureaucracy inflicted.

He should have learned that “money doesn’t stink.”

What if Fidel had had the natural resources of Venezuela or Mexico, instead of being restricted to the mono-culture of sugar, a highly unstable source of revenue?

This, of course, is a purely theoretical issue, since Cuba didn’t have oil, but it will lead into the following “what if”:

A Western intelligence agent I knew in Havana said Castro would have just used such resources to stir up more revolution around the world. He probably would have done that, but I’m sure a lot of the extra wealth would have gone into social and economic programs to improve the overall lot of Cubans. He would not have allowed anything like the theft and corruption of Venezuela or Mexico, or had a Swiss bank account.

What if Fidel hadn’t been wedded to hatred of the old pre-revolution view of Cuba as the “Brothel of the Caribbean”and had embraced the one great natural resource it did and does possess beyond the mono-culture of sugar – as a superb mecca for tourism?

His visceral loathing and continual attacks against the island’s previous mafia-owned tourist industry blinded him to these possibilities. It was decades before he finally, and cautiously, allowed foreign tourist investment in.

The tourist industry makes much more sense than his scatter-brained ideas of trying to produce beef or Camembert cheese when the island’s grass is not suited, or throwing the whole economy out of whack for years by trying, vainly, to produce 10 million tons of sugar, depressing its market value in the process.

He should have learned from the old Roman saying that “money doesn’t stink.” When Emperor Vespasian introduced a tax on urine gathered from urinals for use in chemical processes such as tanning, his son and future emperor Titus was horrified. So Dad held a golden coin to sonny’s nose and asked him if it stank. Sonny said no. “But it comes from urine,” Dad said triumphantly.

Fidel failed to realize that it’s not – within reason – where the money comes from that’s the problem; it’s what it’s used for.

Fidel remained frozen in ideological time.

What if he hadn’t gone nuts in his nationalization of just about everything in his revolutionary offensive of 1968, and had left private entrepreneurs to carry out many tasks, such as marketing farm produce?

One can go on forever about this but one thing should be clear: Don’t nationalize if you don’t have an efficient parallel system up-and-running and ready to take over. That’s something that one of Fidel’s disciples, Chile’s ill-fated president Salvador Allende, should have considered when he nationalized the truckers, the sole means of product transport in that 3,000-mile long country, leading to his eventual downfall.

An overview: Much has been said about the great benefits in health care and education that the revolution brought. They were saying that in 1966, and they’re still saying that in 2016. Shouldn’t there be something more? After, it’s the economy, stupid!

But in the early decades of Fidel’s reign, one should consider what the neighborhood was like in judging him – the Trujillos and Somozas, the Papa Docs and Stroessners, the repression and 1968 massacres in single-party Mexico and the kleptocrats in party-switching Venezuela, the heinously murderous military regimes in Brazil and Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

It was a very ugly neighborhood, indeed. Not that Cuba was all roses, by any means. Could Fidel have maintained his dominance and his social programs with much less repression? I think the answer is yes.

In later years the rest of the neighborhood moved on, at least to some degree. Fidel remained frozen in ideological time.

What comes next? In a year that has birthed Brexit and Trump, foolhardy indeed would be the person to prognosticate. One would hope a gradual relaxation, a meeting of the minds among more pragmatic realists on both sides of the Fidelista revolution and the counter-revolution, to find the golden mean.

But then humankind hasn’t managed to do that in some 100,000 years of evolution, have we?


markus-266x245Michael Arkus was a Reuters correspondent and editor for more than four decades, including a stint in Havana shortly after Castro seized power. He writes about his experiences in Cuba in his entertaining book, Swimming with Fidel. His other assignments brought him to Paris during the closing days of the Algerian war, to Israel during a war of attrition with Egypt over the Suez Canal and to Brazil during the torture-filled years of military dictatorship.

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