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Castro Uncovered

LATE one night last April, Fidel Castro rose to address an outdoor rally of the Union of Communist Youth in Havana. Party officials prompted the throng to greet him with a playful nationalist chant: "El que no brinque es Yanqui" - "Anyone not jumping is a Yankee." Thousands of young Cubans bobbed up and down. Only a handful of people didn't follow suit: my fellow foreign journalists and I (we were Yankees) - and Fidel Castro. Glowering through his whitening beard, Fidel merely moved his hands up and dow n. The strange, stiff motion was intended, I suppose, to symbolize jumping. Of course, Fidel Castro is the one person in Cuba exempt from compulsory public displays of loyalty; he can choose to jump or not without fear of being labeled a Yankee. But his odd behavior that night was also characteristic of the extent to which Castro, after 32 years in power, has gradually excised spontaneity and humor from his public persona.

Nowadays, everything that once seemed fresh and fun about Fidel has become solemn, ritualized. His jaunty combat fatigues have evolved into a political-military costume. His personal life is a state secret subject to painstaking official historical revision.

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Indeed, the more desperate conditions have gotten in Cuba, the more energy Fidel has devoted to his aura of revolutionary gravitas. In the last year, as communist Cuba's isolation has deepened, along with its poverty and official corruption, it has sometimes seemed that the essential function of the Cuban state is to deny that any of the island's problems could be the fault of the man in charge.

Georgie Anne Geyer is intent on debunking these official myths. She bills her book as an "unprecedented" tale, an "untold story" that will blow the cover off what she considers to be Fidel's unbroken record of political and (especially) private transgression. Her account is based on dozens of secondary sources and an extraordinary number of interviews with people who knew Fidel in the difficult years before and just after he seized power in 1959. (One nugget: Richard Nixon, who met Fidel in Washington i n 1959, calls him "someone I'd like to have on our side.")

Much of what she has dug up will, no doubt, make Castro wince. It was widely known, or believed, in his rural Cuban home town that Fidel was illegitimate. He raged against his father, Angel Castro, even while collecting a $100 per month stipend from the old man - then showed no grief at all upon hearing of Angel's death. He abandoned his upper-class wife, Mirta Diaz-Balart, to pursue politics, then attempted to kidnap their only son from her and give him to a Mexican family Mirta barely knew. Since then , Geyer reports, Fidel has used a variety of women as playthings.

Geyer musters this information to show that the origin of Castro's appetite for power and conflict does not lie in communist ideology, to which he committed himself belatedly in exchange for Soviet support against the United States. Rather, she argues, his political excesses stem from his own psychopathology - shaped as it was by the absolutism and romanticism of Hispanic political culture and the anti-American nationalism popular in the corrupt, leaderless Cuba of the 1950s.

FOR Fidel, she implies, revolution meant that no one would ever dare laugh at Fidel Castro again, as the children of his rural hometown had laughed when they got wind of the rumors about his dubious parentage.

Fair enough. But the question is, just how new is Geyer's "unprecedented" thesis? Similar psychobiographical arguments have appeared already, notably in "Castro, Cuba, and the World," by Edward Gonzales and David Ronfeldt of the Rand Corporation, and in "Insider," the memoir of Cuban defector Jose Luis Llovio Menendez. (The former book is cited in Geyer's bibliography; the latter is not, although she interviewed its author.) Some of Geyer's anecdotes are old chestnuts of Fidelology, such as the tale of how Fidel duped New York Times correspondent Herbert Mathews into believing his handful of rebel fighters was a vast army.

Conversely, Llovio Menendez's book, for one, has plenty of fascinating material on Fidel's personal life that we don't find here. Busy with Castro's distant past, Geyer apparently had no time to plumb the most intriguing contemporary question surrounding Fidel's secret life: his precise role in the drug trafficking scandal that led to the trial and punishment of much of his inner circle in 1989.

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So bent is Geyer on finding Castro's hand behind all the upheaval in the Americas since 1959 that she ventures into sweeping assertions that are poorly sourced, or not sourced at all. How does she know, for example, that Castro "personally oversaw" the military operations of Nicaragua's Sandinistas during their 1979 battle for power, issuing them "precise orders"? How does she know that in 1980 Castro planned to move the Americas Department of Cuban Intelligence to Michael Manley's Jamaica? The problem is compounded by Geyer's system of citation. She simply lists the books or interviews used for each chapter, without mentioning which facts came from which source.

The text is marred, too, by factual and spelling glitches. Managua, Nicaragua, was leveled by an earthquake in 1972, not 1970; Cuba's former Interior Minister spelled his name Abrahantes, not Abrahante; El Salvador's guerrillas are commonly known as the FMLN, not the FMNLF. Geyer lapses into ungainly writing: More than once she uses the adjective "behemothic," and at one point ascribes to Castro "a fury so consuming it would have burned the calluses off the feet of Lucifer himself."

For all its errors of omission and commission, "Guerrilla Prince" is a worthwhile corrective to many of the clich 142>s that cloud the discussion of this complex, magnetic man. Anyone who writes about Castro in the future will have to take Geyer's contentions into account. She serves Fidel a taste of his own polemical medicine; but in a way she has also fallen into his trap by dealing with Fidel's life in the same global, apocalyptic terms by which he himself defines it. What we need now, perhaps, is a book that somehow finds the absurdity in Fidel's grave, tumultuous story.

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