Tom Hennigan writes: On July 11th, 1989, at the height of glasnost, Régis Debray, in his role as one of François Mitterrand’s in-house intellectuals, was in Moscow attending a Franco-Soviet ceremony to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution.
In his memoir Praised Be Our Lords, Debray remembers half the politburo on the stage of a “seedy theatre” in front of a distinguished audience to whom Debray spoke on “the fate of revolutions and how to finish them without betraying them”. “Our own answer was the Republic,” he told his audience. “Dear Soviet friends, now that the counter-revolution has arrived among you, as it always does after a revolution, why not build a republican state in your turn?”
Though by then a creature of the French establishment, Debray was well-positioned to discuss revolutionary endgame strategies with the heirs of October 1917. Having studied in Paris under Louis Althusser he was set fair to pursue a comfortable career as a left-bank philosopher. But caught up in the political enthusiasms of the 1960s he instead relocated to revolutionary Havana, where he taught philosophy, wrote the seminal text Revolution in the Revolution? and, eager to put his Marxist theorising to the test, fought with Che Guevara on his last campaign in Bolivia.
Debray was captured before his commander and sentenced to thirty years in prison though released after three following a high-profile campaign backed by Jean-Paul Sartre, André Malraux, Charles de Gaulle and Pope Paul VI. He went to Chile, where he published another book, this time on the Chilean Revolution under Salvador Allende, before fleeing back to France and a place among its governing elite after the Chilean counter-revolution was unleashed by General Augusto Pinochet.
What the political heirs of Lenin and Stalin, just two years from being consigned to the ash heap of history, made of Debray’s advice he does not record. But then he had other more immediate matters on his mind. As the two delegations spilled from the auditorium he sought out Eduard Shevardnadze, Soviet foreign minister and one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s closest collaborators on glasnost, and Alexander Yakovlev, ideology enforcer within the politburo and driving force behind perestroika.
Debray wanted to discuss with them the previous day’s events thousands of miles away in Cuba. Two of his closest friends from his time in the country had just been sentenced in the most sensational, mysterious and disturbing show trial during what was by then already thirty years of Fidel Castro’s rule. Debray first met Los Jimaguas (The Twins) in 1961, the year Fidel revealed that his revolution was socialist and that Cuba would be allying itself with the Soviet bloc. Antonio and Patricio de la Guardia, by breeding, should have already been in Miami along with much of their pre-revolutionary classmates. Rich, US-educated brothers, they were roaring around Havana in a raspberry-red Studebaker convertible when the French intellectual first met them. Their yacht, seaside villa, private plane and family fortune had already been donated to the revolution, which they had served since Fidel’s failed attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953.
Debray describes the brothers as “a pair of irreverent and cultivated anti-conformist sportsmen ... Daredevils who introduced Fidel to underwater fishing, water sports and hunting, and generally the most exhilarating of companions”. It was the youthful glamour of men like Tony and Patricio that helped convince Debray that the Cuban revolution was nothing less than the rejuvenation of the communist revolutionary ideal since grown stale in the hands of the Eastern European apparatchiks: “Those high-living sophisticates made the grubby academic bolsheviks I knew turn pale, but I liked them a lot.”
He came across Los Jimaguas again in 1966 during the anti-imperialist Tricontinental Conference and later at the top secret guerrilla camps that the Cuban regime had set up across the island to train the vanguard that would liberate the rest of Latin America.
The cultivated informality of the Cuban leadership meant titles could be a misleading guide as to one’s position within the revolutionary power structure but Los Jimagua were close to Fidel and so to the centre of power during Debray’s time on the island. They were among the prime movers of an elite Interior Ministry unit known simply as Tropas. This force existed outside the regular military hierarchy and was kept isolated even from Soviet advisers. Tropas would win a measure of global fame and legendary status within Cuba itself for beating back the South African invasion of newly independent Angola in 1975.
Debray describes the twins as: “Fidelist in spirit, communist by necessity (or rather, like nine Cubans out of ten, by chance), and answerable directly to the Comandante en Jefe, whose adoptive sons everyone thought them to be. Of course they were never given written orders.” That last observation was a measure of the regime’s trust in the brothers (as well as its conspiratorial nature - after all, they were involved in training guerrillas hoping to overthrow governments that Cuba was cultivating in an effort to break the US siege of the island). But it was also to be their undoing.
The Frenchman came across the brothers once more in 1971 during his stint in Santiago, where they were organising rear bases for various planned guerrilla insurgencies, and later in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas. But then som etime in the 1980s Debray says Fidel called on his friends to work in a new secret venture ‑ contraband. They were to be part of an effort designed to bypass the US blockade and accumulate as much hard currency as possible. In the Caribbean of the 1980s the surest means of doing this was by entering the cocaine trade.
In one of the murkier incidents of US-Cuban relations since the revolution, the US is said by Debray and others to have got wind of this Cuban contraband operation and threatened exposure if Fidel did not shut it down. Exposure would have been an obvious propaganda coup ‑ humiliating the revolutionaries by exposing them as dope peddlers. But with the Cold War in a delicately poised endgame maybe Washington decided a quiet word in the ear of Havana would better serve its interests.
Debray writes that Fidel decided a gesture was needed to convince the yanquis that his regime’s drug trafficking days were over. He quotes Napoleon, after whom Fidel named his dog: “When you play with men some of them get eaten.” Before a stupefied nation Tony and Patricio de la Guardia and twelve others, including General Arnaldo Ochoa, “Hero of the Revolution” and the Saviour of Luanda were put on trial. They were convicted of drug trafficking and treason. The defendants’ docility during proceedings has variously been ascribed to them being drugged, victims of intense psychological torture or believing in a promise of clemency in return for playing the sorry roles assigned to them.
It is likely that several interconnected factors were at play during those early months of 1989. The full history of Causa número 1, as the trial was known, will probably only be written once the Castrist regime falls, so we must instead largely rely on anecdotal information to fill in some of the many gaps. Tony’s daughter Ileana ‑ like so many children of the revolutionary elite now an exile ‑ saw the trial as a warning by a power-mad Fidel that he would never tolerate any rival, which is how he had come to see the wildly popular Ochoa. One leading Cuba analyst at the CIA describes the drug charges as “trumped-up” and part of a Stalinist purge designed to deter high-ranking members of the regime from defecting at a time when the Soviet bloc was unravelling. After the purge the secret services were put in the hands of a crony of Raúl, Fidel’s hardline and often brutal younger brother.
Cuba and its defenders abroad of course dismiss the possibility that Fidel was involved in drug trafficking. But there are a few straws in this particular wind. In her memoir, Ayda Levy, the widow of Roberto Suárez Gómez, the Bolivian “King of Cocaine”, tells how her husband and Pablo Escobar travelled to Havana in 1983 following an invitation from Tony de la Guardia and there met with Fidel. The deal cut during the visit, which allowed the two drug lords transship product through Cuban airspace, supposedly lasted two years and netted Havana $500 million.
With the trial, Fidel publicly stated that part of his state apparatus, run by members of his inner circle, was involved in drug trafficking in the 1980s (which would have put it in the company of state elements all across the region, including the CIA) and that he knew nothing about it and would not stand for it. But Tony’s widow claims he told her before his execution that interior minister José Abrantes, another defendant despite a long-standing friendship with Fidel, said he’d kept El Jefe informed about every stage of the operation, a claim easy to accept considering that Fidel, one of the great spy-masters of the twentieth century, knew about everything stirring on his island.
This suspicion that Ochoa was following a direct order from Fidel is strengthened by the memoir of another disillusioned revolutionary, Dariel Alarcón Ramírez aka Benigno. He fought in the Sierra Maestra with Fidel; in the Congo and Bolivia alongside Ché; served as a courier strapped to a suicide bomb in order to protect the blueprints for the 1968 coup in Peru carried out by pro-Cuban General Juan Velasco Alvarado and then had plastic surgery in preparation for an attempted relaunch of guerrilla activity in Bolivia.
The suspicion that Fidel had abandoned Che in Bolivia planted the seed of doubt in Benigno’s mind about the revolution and Fidel himself. He sought explanations from his Jefe about why a vital liaison officer between Havana and Che was withdrawn just as the CIA was directing the Bolivian army’s encirclement of the guerrillas. Fidel brushed him off. Benigno also eventually came to work for Tropas and served on Fidel’s private security detail. In his memoir, written after going into exile in France, he recalls General Ochoa ‑ with whom he had fought during their guerrilla days ‑ coming out of a private meeting with Fidel and exclaiming “So, I’m going to be the Al Capone of Cuba!”. Fidel angrily told him to watch his mouth. We can assume with a reasonable degree of confidence that Ochoa’s orders were verbal rather than written.
Benigno believed General Ochoa, Los Jimaguas and the others were offered up as payment to Washington for not revealing Fidel’s drug trafficking. Debray, like other close observers of the Cuban regime, was aware that what had taken place was the most sinister of Fidel’s show trials since coming to power, though he understood why it was so hard to convince people that this trope of the 1930s was taking place in 1989 when If You Don’t Know Me By Now by Simply Red was riding high in the charts. In the Moscow theatre he pleaded with Shevardnadze and Yakovlev to intervene to save men he knew to be good revolutionaries. But they just shrugged. “They turned their eyes heavenwards. ‘We haven’t got any real leverage these days, and Castro’s frightfully haughty. He just does what he wants.’”
Tony de la Guardia and Arnaldo Ochoa were executed, along with two other officers. Facing the firing squad about to kill him a tearful Tony said: “Make sure my sons don’t become soldiers like me, because I’ve been betrayed. Let me serve as an example at least.” It is believed Fidel had the execution videotaped and watched it later.
If Washington had indeed forced Havana’s hand over the trial and its grizzly conclusion many veterans of Cuba desks across Washington must have celebrated a grim triumph ‑ Fidel executing some of his most loyal men to placate them. Patricio and nine others were jailed. The former minister Abrantes died in prison. Though sentenced to thirty years Patricio was suddenly released after serving eight years, in time to attend the wake of his ninety-six-year old father.
In recalling the execution of his friend Debray returns to his theme of the two great European revolutions. “The difference between the communist Saturn and the Jacobin one is that with the first, children sacrificed to the Cause are required to thank the Father for the just punishment with which he means to honour them, at such cost to his own happiness and peace of mind. There are several indications that Ochoa and his co-accused faced their friends’ firing squad despising Castro but retaining ‑ a paradox of prolonged enchantment ‑ the image of another Fidel in their hearts. Hearts blown apart by the bullets of the same Jefe whom Tony had served, had loved to distraction. And who afterwards watched (because you never know) the videotape of the execution.”
Prolonged enchantment might explain much of the eulogising that followed Fidel’s death. The Left, increasingly an accumulator of bitter defeats, prefers to keep the image of another younger Fidel in its heart rather than the ruthless, self-serving dictator who forced on his fellow Cubans a sort of infantilism that is the result of having one man make every decision for his country during fifty years.
But the fate of Los Jimaguas and those tried with them is a reminder that our knowledge of the Cuban revolution is far from complete and many of the episodes still to be fully told are likely to further damage the reputation of the Castro brothers. Those who still defend Fidel by pointing to Cuba’s health and education systems risk in the future seeming as stupid or as sinister as the likes of George Bernard Shaw were in brushing off the crimes of the Bolshevik Revolution.
After Tony was shot Debray ceased to defend the Cuban revolution he was once so closely identified with and started referring to Fidel as Castro. “No animosity motivated this change of name. It was effected with sadness and in silence, as in the wake of a private disaster. I cannot be sure that I have aged more gracefully that my former mentor (who is surely more exposed to the disfigurements of age than a marginal memorialist would be). You have to take care not to hate yourself through your defunct fathers.”
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is Tom Hennigan’s 2016 assessment of Fintan O’Toole’s political commentary, “The Analyst as Eeyore”. Here is an extract:
This mixed track record in forecasting did not prevent him from making dire predictions as Ireland signed up to the punitive terms of the bailout. As well as forecasting that this would fail he also warned that the EU itself would now be subject to a crisis of legitimacy for its failure to mutualise its crisis resolution. Here he might yet be proved correct if austerity helps deliver power to anti-EU parties. But this possible outcome should not distract from the fact that the EU’s opting for austerity was in part a response to the reluctance, enshrined in treaty, among voters in the EU core to bail out the periphery. For it to have gone ahead anyway and done so might have been the morally satisfying path but could well have provoked a very different crisis of legitimacy rooted in the union’s own democratic deficit that might have led to disintegration anyway. History rarely presents leaders with a set of clear binary options, no matter how much columnists pretend otherwise. One might say that the solutions are not always as obvious as the problems, or at least those that seem obvious should be treated with suspicion.
In this binary framing of choices, usually between good and bad, O’Toole and those like him who draw clear moral lines downplay the difficulty of navigating a path out of crisis for a supranational organisation built on top of multiple democracies, all to one extent or another wedded for better or worse to a model of turbo-charged global capitalism whose unruly energy is rapidly transforming our global society in ways that are contradictory and fiendishly difficult to predict.
O’Toole’s analysis consistently seeks to exclude the broader economic and geopolitical forces in play. His analysis of Germany’s role in the Irish bailout exists only to provide a villain for his story rather than involving any serious engagement with the complex realities and conflicts within that country. In O’Toole’s view, if the deal was morally wrong then it could not work. But when his predictions of failure were proven to be off the mark he had his answer ready, writing at the end of 2015 that “all of the things that have rescued the Irish economy from disaster are strokes of fortune”.
Contrasting this analysis with the one he provided on the causes of the crash exposes a double standard. When things go wrong in Ireland it is the fault of our corrupt political class, while external factors (which from abroad look suspiciously like determining factors) are relegated to the footnotes. When things go right, disproving his own predictions that they could not, then the role of the Irish state and behind it the sacrifice of the population in turning things around is to be ignored. Instead it is all down to “cheap oil, cheap money, the ECB’s belated reversal of policy, the strength of the US and British economies and the weakness of the euro. Luck, by definition, is about the things you can’t control and, for us, those things have turned out spectacularly well.”
Of course international factors have played a role in the recovery, just as they did in the crash. But behind the contradiction in O’Toole’s analysis lurks the suspicion that he cannot reconcile himself to the reality that the process of Irish modernisation with which he is centrally identified has so far failed to break the old Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael duopoly on power and that having led the country into disaster this stale double act is now leading it out of it. His frustration at the country’s peculiar political features is a familiar one among Irish progressives.