Fidel Castro has followed the career of America’s 44th president with interest. But what happened to that plucky community organiser from Chicago? Was he replaced by a robot?
The hunt for red Obama
Of all the nuggets of diplomatic gossip made public by WikiLeaks last year, one of the oddest concerned Fidel Castro's "doomed love" for Barack Obama. In 2009, US officials in Havana reported that Cuba's former leader - now in his mid-eighties and forced into retirement by ill-health - appeared obsessed with the new president's potential to transform American politics and foreign policy. As the year wore on, obsession gave way to dyspeptic gloom, as Castro concluded that Obama was not a true radical after all.
How did the US diplomats know all this? Did they have back-channel communications with Castro or a mole on the inside? The answer is more prosaic. Their analysis was based on Castro's regular opinion pieces for the official newspaper Granma, which are available online in English. Now Ocean Press has published a selection of these pieces, dating from May 2008 to June 2010, in a slim but prodigiously boring volume.
If Fidel Castro wasn't a political legend (at least for leftists) his political analysis wouldn't get any attention. Indeed, much of Obama and the Empire isn't by Castro at all, as large parts of his articles consist of lengthy quotations from international press agencies and Obama's speeches. Many of Castro's own interjections are wildly banal.
In a reflection published on the eve of the US elections in November 2008, for example, Castro felt it necessary to inform readers that "the Democratic candidate Obama is partly black" and that "the dark skin and features of that race are obvious in him". Now, my memories of the 2008 campaign are growing a little hazy, but I am reasonably sure that perceptive commentators and even sections of the general public had spotted this earlier than November.
Similarly, Castro welcomes the choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state by noting that she was "Barack Obama's rival and the wife of President Clinton". Who knew?
Occasionally, Castro shifts from stating the obvious into quirkier territory. He has a distinct interest in Obama's attitude towards the assassination of foreign leaders. This is understandable in someone who, in his glory days, was the target of persistent CIA plots (including, as the historian Howard Jones recently noted, "placing an exotic seashell filled with explosives in the waters where he went snorkelling").
Other recurrent themes are less easy to explain. Castro is, for example, concerned that Obama should sleep properly. At one point he ticks off American officials for waking the president up to inform him of a North Korean missile test. At another, he looks at Obama's schedule and concludes he is a "workaholic". Nonetheless, Castro is relieved to note that the "black president" enjoys "obvious good health and [an] agile mind operating like a working machine" (Castro simply can't get past the colour issue, which crops up everywhere).
It is natural that one international leader should be solicitous for the health of another. But Castro seems to have forgotten that his own ascent to power involved bitter guerrilla warfare in the Cuban mountains - surely more tiring than Obama's current schedule.
This is symptomatic of an undercurrent that runs through Obama and the Empire: Fidel Castro has gone soft. He's been around for so long that it's easy to forget how ruthless he was after he seized power in Havana in 1959, following up with mass executions of his political opponents. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Castro argued that Cuba and the USSR should not flinch from war with the US - even if this would almost surely have meant the nuclear obliteration of his homeland and many other chunks of the planet.
Now Castro is in a full-scale panic about the planet's future. He worries at length about the US nuclear arsenal, the international drugs trade and the "exceptional dilemma" of climate change. He has read a great deal on these topics (at one point he cites a report from the World Wide Fund For Nature, which isn't usually associated with violent revolutionists) and his writing gains real urgency when he considers environmental degradation.
It's not too hard to understand the evolution of Castro's thought. In his revolutionary days, he was ready to risk massive destruction in the fight against capitalism - now he believes that capitalist excess is destroying the planet anyway, as rich countries demand more and more energy and natural resources. Oh, and then there is the rise of the robots.
Castro is really worried about robots. He follows stories about US military innovation closely and is particularly exercised by the evolution of pilotless warplanes. "In 20 years," he writes of the US air force, "every single one of their warplanes will be robot-operated." And it won't stop there. "If robots in the hands of transnationals can replace imperial soldiers in the wars of conquest," Castro warns, the transnationals will "flood the world with robots that would displace millions of workers from their workplaces".
At about this point in Obama and the Empire, the reader begins to wonder whether the book is really the work of Fidel Castro at all, or whether it might just be the ravings of a paranoid teenager. But strip away the techno-fantastical stuff and you see that Castro's views are roughly identical to those of most American liberals. In sum: the world economy is out of balance, there is no global consensus on how to deal with climate change and Barack Obama should redefine US leadership to overcome these challenges.
A lot of US liberals feel that Obama has failed them by moving cautiously in his first two years in office. "It turns out Obama is a more conventional and limited politician than advertised," to quote an article picked almost at random from the progressive weekly The Nation, "more right-of-center than his soaring rhetoric suggested." As the US diplomats reported from Havana, Castro has experienced the same harsh disillusionment.
In the course of Obama and the Empire, the author veers from praising his subject's "intelligent and noble countenance" (in an article dated January 22, 2009) to announcing that "Barack Obama is a fanatical believer in the capitalist system imposed by the United States on the world" (March 24, 2010). He has some very specific reasons for doing so, including the president's decision to relax but not end US sanctions against Cuba.
But he also hammers home a broader critique: the president has failed to adapt to a changing world or break with the imperialist habits of his predecessors. Even in the later articles in this collection, he is sympathetic to the "clever and rebellious Obama, who suffered humiliation and racism in his youth", but believes that this idealistic figure has been subsumed into "the Obama educated by the system and committed to it". The community organiser from Chicago is a prisoner of the transnationals and their robots.
This isn't the most compelling explanation of Obama's behaviour. Someone should send Castro a copy of Jonathan Alter's The Promise, an enjoyable account of the president's first year in office (although he'd be sorry to note that neither "Castro, Fidel" nor "Cuba" features in the index). Like other up-close studies of the president, it shows that Obama is neither an abject prisoner nor a straightforward product of the US system - he is a pragmatist who plays the game in order to achieve deeply-held goals such as healthcare reform. He has suffered severe setbacks, but there are growing signs he could yet make a comeback.
More broadly, Castro's fascination with the power of the US political system may also be a symptom of his age. He has, after all, been fighting the American world order for over half a century. And yet, as Obama is fully aware, US primacy is now being corroded - not by revolutionaries in the Castro mould but by the success of Chinese capitalists.
Castro the radical nods to China's power, but never fully explores the limits it places on the president. Obama the pragmatist has to deal with new constraints on US action daily, including not only China's power but also that of India and other rising economies. The power-brokers of Washington are losing ground to those in Beijing and New Delhi.
So it's hard to be impressed when Castro's publishers at Ocean Press boast on the back cover of this tedious tome that "Barak Obama" is the "11th US president to confront the reality of the Cuban revolution". It's a nice line, but the president is looking in other directions entirely. And it's Barack. With a "c".
Richard Gowan is an associate director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.