POLITICS: Castro's sinking ship

MEA CUBA by G Cabrera Infante trs Kenneth Hall, Faber £17.50
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The Independent Culture
FROM his place of exile by the Thames, the novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante has turned a malevolent eye on the absurdity of Fidel Castro's Cuba for many years. As the shadows lengthen over Fidel's decaying Communist paradise, Cab-rera Infante i s inclined neither to excuse nor to pardon. This collection of essays and articles from 1968 to 1993 is described as the writer's political testament, and the frustrated bitterness of exile reeks from every page.

Bombast, conformity, machismo and bullying typify the regime. Its egalitarian pretensions are enacted against the backdrop of an ornate, decaying Old Havana, with a strong injection of the surreal. Dour existential novelists arrive from Europe to expressapproval of the revolution's economic austerity and its ethic of puritan self-sacrifice. At the same time fellow-travelling Americans, like the poet Allen Ginsberg, appear in search of lissom Cuban boys. (Ginsberg, we are informed, expresses an unrequited wish to sleep with Che Guevara.) Castro, meanwhile, persecutes known homosexuals with a curiously obsessive enthusiasm. Hundreds are dragged off to re-education camps. The effect, to borrow an epithet from Cabrera Infante's essay "Portrait of the Artist as a Commissar", is one of venereal rococo.

Cabrera Infante grew up in a Communist household where a portrait of Stalin hung next to one of Christ. Contradictions formed part of his young world. Few recall that the hated Batista was elected with the help of the Communist Party. The revolution was founded upon fraud and sustained by myths. Divorced from the United States, estranged from South America, with one eye always on the Iberian motherland, Castro's Cuba came to feel like a vessel adrift. "Nothing resembles a ship more than an island," remarks the author, and the good ship Cuba, with Castro at the helm, had slipped its cultural moorings.

Cabrera Infante sums up its troubled identity with a geographic metaphor. Cuba is dragged by the Gulf Stream, never anchored in the Caribbean Sea and cast aside by the European Atlantic. After the revolution, "geography was alive but history had died." Add to this the personification of Castro as navigator, engineer and master, and one now has the perfect symbol of people fleeing his sinking ship as thousands of Cubans fling themselves upon rafts and makeshift rowing boats to reach the shores of Florida.

These writings speak for an outraged tradition. Authors, playwrights, journalists and academics were dragooned into versifying nonsense in praise of Castro's social engineering. The proud Latin American writer, in Cabrera Infante's memory, once inhabitedgardens of delight - a cultivated audience on two continents and a position of esteem in society. The last colony to become in-dependent of Spain (in 1902), Cuba retained a Latin air comparatively unaffected by American influence. In addition to Spanish, writers tended to speak French rather than English, and felt part of a cosmopolitan world extending from Paris to Buenos Aires. In Castro's Cuba, a tropical version of Enver Hoxha's Albania, they could only choose between "interior exile" and the real thing.

Cabrera Infante chose the real thing, as he constantly reminds us. It is not, therefore, surprising that this is an exterior view of Cuba. Cabrera Infante never tires of polemic. His villains are not just Cuban Marxists but foreign dupes. He savages the tame novelist Alejo Carpentier at tedious length. But his real bile is reserved for the likes of Edna O'Brien, who visited Cuba "the way Alice travelled to the other side of the looking glass - darkly but gladly". Graham Greene was no better, argues Cabrera Infante. With his bleak admiration for Philby and his belief that Castro had changed Cuba from a pleasure-capital into a country, Greene felt pulled for religious reasons to support the revolution. "He sees himself as Castro's paraclete when he is only the devil's advocate," writes Cabrera Infante with scorn.

Writers and journalists can occasionally intrude upon history. One who did so to poor effect, in the author's eye, was Herbert Matthews of the New York Times. A veteran of the Spanish Civil War, Matthews came to Cuba while Batista ruled and found Fidel with his small band in the sierra. Written with a hint of drama and discovery, Matthews' reports helped to create the mythology that proved so important to the eventual Communist success. Like some journalists who purported to comprehend the philosophy ofthe Khmer Rouge or to sympathise with the motives of Hizbollah, Matthews became - to Cabrera Infante at least - a useful idiot. This is a troubling verdict. It seems as simplistic a condemnation as any to be found in the pages of the Cuban press. On theother hand, journalists reporting in troubled Third World countries enjoy one advantage over the inhabitants whose destiny they may occasionally affect. The plane ticket out carries its responsibilities.

Despite his use of polemical journalism, the touch of the novelist is never far from Cabrera Infante's political writing. He encompasses Hemingway and the photographer Walker Evans. He delves into analysis: "The French diplomats of the last century invented Latin America. De Gaulle, more ambitious, created the Third World." But his most interesting essays are those where strong characters - usually writers, drunks or homosexuals, occasionally all three - weave a picaresque, erratic path through the dangerous wonderland of Castro's Havana. Here the storyteller's art is at its best and one can forget the harping tone of the exile's lament.