Revolutionary activist Rosa Luxemburg, writing from prison in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on Sept. 3, 1918, exhorted colleagues not to relent in their struggles. “Stand your ground,” she wrote, “till we meet again at work!”
Many great leaders, writers, artists and intellectuals have revealed themselves, wittingly or not, in letters written from prison. Tom Paine, intellectual inspiration for the American Revolution, used some of his time in a Paris prison in 1793-94 to polish the manuscript of “The Age of Reason.”
Now Fidel Castro reveals his early self in “The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro,” published this year by Nation Books in the United States. This is the complete volume of 21 letters Castro wrote while incarcerated on Cuba’s infamous Isle of Pines for his part in leading a July 1953 raid on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba. The edition also includes the Spanish-language originals, which were published in Havana in 1959.
And what blazing insight these letters bring to the personality of the young Castro!
Here we see Castro the ardent polemicist, who frequently invokes the name of his hero, the poet and revolutionary Jose Marti, who was born exactly 100 years before Castro and his 134-strong guerrilla force attacked the garrison. According to Ann Louise Bardach, in her superb study of Cuban-American relations, “Cuba Confidential,” this anniversary was in no way lost on the fidelistas.
In a letter to his confidant, Luis Conte, dated Dec. 12, 1953, Castro quotes Marti: “No martyr dies in vain, nor is any idea lost in the motion of the waves and the blowing of the winds.”
One letter led to divorce
Like Leon Trotsky, who spent two years in a Russian jail from January 1898, Castro formulated in prison some of the ideas that underpinned the thrust of his movement. (Incidentally, Trotsky was able to marry while in prison, while a letter Castro wrote from prison to his mistress got into the hands of his wife, and apparently led directly to his divorce.)
In a letter dated Apr. 17, 1954 to Melba Hernandez, one of two women who took part in the raid, Castro urges her on: “We cannot for a minute abandon propaganda, for it is the soul of every struggle.” Castro the polemicist is a keen student of history, and uses his cell table as a platform to proselytize among his people. Again in this letter, he quotes Marti: “To know how to wait is the great secret of success.”
Castro’s stoic ability to endure prison life — something seen on an awesome level by Nelson Mandela, for instance — allows him to wallow at times in his solitary state. It is almost as if he is challenging his captors to a test of endurance. “Here I spend my days reading and exercising self-control,” he wrote on June 19, 1954. “I am convinced that [my jailers] want to provoke me at all costs, but I don’t pay any attention to their intentions.”
But we also see the soft side of the man, who in one letter refers to “the mysterious laws of sentiment,” as he must deal with the fact that he cannot be with his little son, Fidelito. “I have suffered,” he wrote on Nov. 29, 1954, “the unjustifiable and unforgivable absence of my son. . . . I presume they know that to rob me of that boy they will have to kill me. And not even then.” In a later letter he demonstrates his resolve to get his son back from his wife’s family, declaring: “I am wrapped in Buddhist tranquility and am prepared to reenact the famous Hundred Years War — and win it!”
His tenderness also shows through in a letter of consolation to Rene Guitart, the father of a comrade who died in the assault at Moncada. “I admire the courage, forbearance and greatness you have shown and the enormous sacrifice on your part to the ideals of your son.”
I was particularly drawn to an undated letter to Conte in which Castro records an exchange between himself and the minister of governance on the latter’s unannounced visit to his cell. There is wit and unctuous sarcasm in Castro’s retelling of the encounter, so much so that I can imagine this letter dramatized on stage: “Dialogue between the Prisoner and the Minister.”
What the prison experience meant
“Castro,” says the minister, “I want you to know that I am not a personal enemy of yours, neither is the president.”
“For my part,” Castro replies, “I have never considered the struggle a personal contest, but rather as combat against the political system in power. . . . I only hope you understand that the only time when there is no excuse for humiliating a man is precisely when he cannot defend himself.”
In the final letter, dated May 2, 1955, Castro recognizes what the prison experience has meant to him. “I have learned,” he wrote to his sister, “to live, and this makes me more feared as an impassionate defender of an ideal reaffirmed and strengthened by sacrifice.”
Fidel and his brother Raul had been sentenced to 15 years on the dreaded Isle of Pines. But corrupt President Fulgencio Batista made what Bardach has called “the mistake of his life” when he freed the Castro brothers as part of a general amnesty of political prisoners. Less than four years later, Castro sent Batista into exile and became prime minister of Cuba.
“The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro,” with an excellent introduction by Bardach, gives us a chance to witness Castro doing precisely what Rosa Luxemburg referred to during her struggle: Standing his ground until he met his comrades again at work.
“I have come to the conclusion,” Castro wrote to Conte on June 19, 1954, “that this crisis that the nation is suffering was inevitable and necessary. The greater the crisis is, so much greater the hope to conceive a different tomorrow . . . “
If Castro is right — that great crises engender equally great hope for the future — then these letters, whatever your feelings may be about their author, can be taken as an inspiration to many people around the world today. Stand your ground and no one can take it away from you.