My Life

By Fidel Castro.
Edited by Ignacio Ramonet.
Translated by Andrew Hurley.
Penguin (UK), 2007. 724 pp (hb). RRP (Australia) $59.95.

Reviewed by Allen Myers

Revolutions are big events, even when they happen in relatively small countries. The Cuban Revolution has had, and continues to have, a profound impact on world politics, particularly in Latin America. This fascinating volume provides a priceless insight into that revolution. To appreciate its importance, we need only speculate on how much better we would understand the Russian Revolution if Lenin had survived, had led the Soviet Union until 1950, and then had written his recollections and views of his experiences.

Fidel Castro’s My Life is at once something less and more than an autobiography. Less in that Fidel did not sit down and write out the events of his life. More in that it is based on 100 hours of interviews that Ignacio Ramonet (the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique) transcribed and arranged, and which Fidel then edited or expanded.

The result of this interaction between subject and interviewer is more a wide-ranging political and historical dialogue than a traditional biography, even though the biographical details are all there. It also allows the book to be arranged by subject matter rather than strictly chronologically.

My Life is a must-read for every serious socialist. The chapters on more recent events have the most immediate relevance for current politics, and they are packed with useful facts and arguments. For example, Australian tertiary students, paying outrageous sums (now or in the future) for their education, might be interested to learn that Cuba, with a fraction of Australia‘s per capita income, manages to provide free education, from pre-school through postgraduate study, for all its students, plus thousands of other students from Third World countries.

More than that, 100,000 young people between the ages of 17 and 30, who were unemployed and not in school, are now attending classes — and being paid to do so. Similarly, when falling world sugar prices and rising costs of fuel and fertilisers persuaded the Cubans that their planned economy should drastically reduce its production of sugar, the 40,000 sugar mill workers whose jobs were abolished were not thrown on the scrap heap, as they would have been in Australia. They are now being paid their salaries, but their job is to attend school rather than to process sugar.

An especially interesting account of recent history is Fidel’s extensive report on the April 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and the telephone conversations between Cuba and Chavez’s supporters as the coup unfolded and then was defeated by the April 13 “military-civilian revolution”. But the book also contains a great deal of material from earlier periods that will reward careful reading, such as Fidel’s account of the 1962 “missile crisis” or his views and comments on various US presidents.

Its descriptions of Fidel’s childhood, youth, early education and entry into revolutionary politics are also intriguing, and no doubt will provide considerable material for studies of what it is that creates revolutionaries, and for the internet debates about when Fidel became a Marxist.

Last but far from least, the book is a pleasure to read for its ideas and the clarity and simplicity of the translation. It is a long time since I have so much enjoyed reading a politically instructive book.