A review of Fidel & Gabo: A portrait of a legendary friendship, by Angel Esteban and Stephanie Panichelli
Two of the best-known Latin American figures of the twentieth century, Fidel Castro and Gabriel Garcia Márquez (Gabo) were close friends. This book claims to be the story of their relationship, but does it do it justice? It records many of the known (and some little known) facts, but what does it tell us about the nature of the friendship itself?
Of course, a book of this kind is hardly likely to be impartial – Fidel is both a hero and (it can be agreed) an authoritarian, whom his enemies would call a dictator. Gabo was fascinated by political power, and by Latin American dictators in particular. He had his own imperfections. But was it really to the dictatorial aspects of Castro’s personality to which he was drawn? This is the book’s thesis (‘the lure of power’), but to my mind the evidence presented is thin, and in pursuing this line so assiduously, the authors fail in what one assumes was their main task, to explore what these two men really thought about each other.
Dictators feature in much of Gabo’s work, most notably in The Autumn of the Patriarch, whose protagonist is a composite of the various vicious dictators of whom Gabo was very aware, including the Somozas in Nicaragua and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and several more. The novel’s location appears to be the Caribbean coast of South America, and could be Venezuela or the coastal region of Colombia where Gabo grew up. But part of Esteban and Panichelli’s argument derives from their conviction that Fidel is a key element of the composite dictator which Gabo creates in his novel. They point out that various friends and commentators mention similarities between the book’s patriarch and Fidel, but of course the similarities with the real violent dictators of Latin America, of whom there are many more than the small number Garcia Marquez is known to have drawn on, are far more numerous. Spending two chapters analysing whether and how far Gabo drew his inspiration for this book from his growing knowledge of Fidel is poorly justified.
There may be more to the authors’ argument that The General in his Labyrinth, written rather later, draws inspiration from Fidel. After all, in this re-imagined history of the last weeks in the life of an earlier Latin American hero, Simon Bolívar, Gabo must have drawn on people who were known to him – with Fidel as an obvious choice – in developing his characterisation of the Great Liberator. But on what basis can it be suggested (as Esteban and Panichelli do), that Gabo is repaying an ‘old debt’ to Fidel, counterbalancing his unfavourable portrayal of Fidel in Autumn with a favourable one in The General? This surely takes speculation much too far.
Esteban and Panichelli would have more credibility if their bias against Castro were not so obvious. They quote anti-Castro jokes that are hardly relevant to their main subject matter. They are barely critical of the Cuban exiles in Miami who have perpetrated many unjustified attacks on Cuba. They tell a very biased version of the story of the young boy Elián González, put on a raft by his Cuban mother (in defiance of the child’s father from whom she was separated), and who was the only survivor when the remains of the raft were discovered off the coast of Florida. Gabo’s criticism of the (drowned) mother and of the reaction of Miami’s Cuban exiles (who tried to prevent Elián returning to his father in Cuba) is cited as evidence of Gabo being a pro-Fidel propagandist, even though Elián’s story undoubtedly sparked Gabo’s humanitarian instincts, as it would in most people (including, at the time, President Clinton).
It is almost as if the friendship that grew between Gabo and Fidel has to be explained away or treated as a contrived one, as less than genuine. Gabo sought the relationship because of his ‘ambition and obsession for power’. Fidel apparently used him as an unwitting propagandist for his politics, notably when the Cubans sent armed forces to help liberate Angola. Any relationship can appear less than 100% pure if subjected to close enough scrutiny. Yes, there were compromises, yes there were times when Garcia Marquez might have spoken out about abuses of power in Cuba (and, of course, there were other times when he did). But it is unclear to me that Esteban and Panichelli, in pursuing all the negatives, have really added to our understanding of this friendship between two giants of Latin American history. They may have assembled the evidence, but the use they have made of it is far from convincing.