Graeme Pente reviews Reinhard Kleist’s graphic novel surveying the life of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Erstwhile‘s Graphic Histories series.
“No one fears that we should transform ourselves into dictators. Only he who does not have the support of the people becomes a dictator.” — Fidel Castro, January 1959
Few figures of the twentieth century are quite as divisive as Fidel Castro. The obituaries that poured out in the wake of the former Cuban leader’s death last November were symptomatic of this polarization. Ultimately, the United States is not the place to obtain a true picture of Castro, due to the country’s Cold War hangover, the political influence of the Cuban exile community in Miami, and resentment at no longer being able to dominate the island. Given the Cold War context and Castro’s political repression, many Americans seem to forget that Castro led a popular movement to overthrow a brutal, US-backed dictator in Fulgencio Batista, who, in a move symbolic of his whole rule, absconded with the contents of the Cuban treasury before he fled to the United States.
Once outside the United States, Castro generally becomes a more nuanced figure. Beyond American borders, people must struggle with the mixed legacy of socialism in Cuba. Was the assertion of sovereignty in opposition to the influence and meddling of the United States enough to constitute the Revolution’s success? What about Fidel Castro’s authoritarian rule of the island? Could the healthcare and education achievements of his regime possibly outweigh the repression of political dissent? What might a more democratic outcome of the Revolution have looked like? Was the regime’s campaign against racism a success? With the reemergence of many of the problems that plagued Cuba before 1959—such as wealth inequality and prostitution—after the reintroduction of (limited) market measures and mass tourism, how much staying power does the Revolution have? If even its accomplishments are now being eroded, what is its legacy? Castro was undoubtedly a charismatic, larger-than-life figure, and the shape of the Cuban Revolution was consequently bound up in his person. Now that he is gone, will the Revolution survive? And is its survival even desirable?
It is fitting that the author of Castro: A Graphic Novel (2015), Reinhard Kleist, hails from outside the United States. Kleist’s book was originally published in his native Germany in 2010, and the publisher of the English translation is based in Canada. In Castro, Kleist invents a protagonist, German photographic journalist Karl Mertens, that allows Kleist to tell Castro’s story and the story of the Revolution from a distance. Mertens follows in New York Times reporter Herbert Matthews’s footsteps to interview Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains in 1958 during the rebellion against Batista’s dictatorship. There, Mertens becomes enamored of the guerrillas’ movement and, ultimately, remains in Cuba for the rest of his life. Through this contrivance, Kleist examines the history of the Cuban Revolution and Castro’s rule.
Kleist’s artwork is appropriately realistic and often moving. He effectively captures Castro’s dynamic gestures and his charismatic countenance. Mertens is a photographer, so the realism of Kleist’s drawings makes the whole conceit of his protagonist more believable. Kleist noticeably changes his style to depict the CIA’s various plots to kill Castro in a fittingly cartoonish manner, as these plans notoriously involved exploding cigars and poisoned milkshakes. Kleist does an admirable job recounting the history of the Cuban Revolution, but his artwork is the real strength of the book.
Kleist puts his deft hand to good work in recounting Castro’s life and the story of the Cuban Revolution through the eyes of Mertens. The German ex-pat serves as narrator, telling of his experiences in Cuba to the reader in the early twenty-first century. Through Mertens, we learn of Castro’s willful childhood in the eastern part of the island as the son of a local landowner who had an unusual sympathy for his father’s workers. Mertens then takes us through Castro’s political evolution as a law student at the University of Havana amid Cuba’s violent political culture to his ill-fated assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953, becoming a major enemy of the Batista regime. After the triumph of the guerrilla forces in 1959, Mertens’s unwavering commitment to the socialist project in Cuba provides an effective contrast to the alienation of his friends from the new regime. Kleist powerfully depicts the subtle shift from Castro’s support for the democratic 1940 Constitution to the emergence of his militaristic and authoritarian regime. During this shift, Mertens spends his time among the people of Cuba, who grow increasingly disillusioned with the course of the Revolution amid shortages of consumer goods and constraints on free speech.
One major criticism to level at the history in Kleist’s work applies almost as much to the broader historiography on the Cuban Revolution, which is the imbalance in focusing on Cuba in the 1960s to the exclusion of more recent decades. In many histories of the Cuban Revolution, authors cover the exciting, dramatic early years of the Revolution and generally end their accounts in the early 1970s with the failure of the ten-million-ton sugar harvest (which Kleist treats, as well) and Cuba’s subsequent political restructuring along Soviet lines. In most accounts, the 1970s and 1980s pass by with little note. Historians will give some attention to the “Special Period” of the 1990s when the Cuban economy contracted dramatically in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. But generally, there is little investigation into the most recent decades of Cuban history. Consequently, Cuban society appears to take its final shape in the 1970s as though it has not changed in forty years.
Unfortunately, Kleist’s history does not stray far from this model. He spends the first 250 pages of his graphic novel on Castro’s youth and the 1960s. Then, he covers over forty years of the country’s most recent history in less than that many pages. He refers briefly to key moments, such as Cuba’s involvement in national liberation struggles in Africa in the 1970s, the mass exodus of Cubans from Mariel harbor in 1980, and the challenges of the Special Period of the 1990s. But these events would have benefitted from the careful treatment that Kleist gives to the 1950s and 1960s to produce the full picture of Castro’s life and rule.
In one crucial way, Kleist strays from the historiography to the detriment of his story. He places blame for the “betrayal of the Revolution” on the influence of Communists, both Soviet figures and guerrillas who were more sympathetic to Communism than Castro, such as his brother Raul Castro and Che Guevara. In the main, however, historians see Castro’s turn to Communism as a consequence of the Cold War geopolitical situation and the anti-American thrust of his regime. They characterize the authoritarian shape of Castro’s rule more as the result of his personal style of leadership than the political tendencies of twentieth-century Communism. After all, he began limiting freedom of the press and independent union activity some eighteen months before declaring the Revolution’s socialist character.
Kleist’s focus on the 1950s and 1960s makes the book an excellent classroom resource, and Castro would not be out of place as assigned reading in a course on the mid-twentieth century. Kleist’s book would make an effective addition to courses on global history, the non-aligned movement and the Third World, Caribbean history, or even World History at the high school level—or at least as an additional resource for particularly motivated or curious students.
Kleist’s faithfulness to the historiography and his inclusion of dramatic moments in Castro’s life—such as Castro’s leadership of the defense against the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion from atop a tank or his egoism in challenging a would-be assassin to shoot him because “no one can kill me”—make Castro a page-turner for casual readers and historians alike. Kleist’s artwork brings this dynamic and divisive figure to life.