Fidel Castro and the Cult of Personality

Marlene Azor Hernandez

Photo: Juan Suarez
Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve always thought that “a cult of personality” is a way of stupefying a country’s citizens. Achievements are exaggerated, mistakes and repressive measures are hidden, civil servants are put on a pedestal, who far from serving their countries, become untouchables whose words stand above and outside the law.

In the 20th century, right and left-wing dictatorships have used the cult of its own personalities in order to build a political system without the consensus of its citizens, out of “national” will. These always result in a mass “loser” majority and a meagre winning minority which unscrupulously controls the Nation’s wealth and leadership.

The procedure to bring about a cult of personality entails subverting all of the institutions of representative democracy. When these cease to exist, such as in the Russian case, monarchic structures become the next historic phase. There are no elections under a cult of personality, or if they still exist, the multi-party system is seriously affected, with attacks against the secret ballot, cutting off access or limiting access to mass media and the impossibility of legally forming a party.

Persecution of opposition candidates who rise against the government ultimately ends in the government eliminating any of these possible alternatives to the status quo. Without political rotation or a counterpart to the dictator’s centralized control -parliaments are just adornments in this political system-, their power is exerted by force, along with the gag put on national media and actions of intimidation and repression by the State’s security bodies against groups and individuals who attempt to take on this Cavalry of restrictions.

In 1997, I defended my doctorate thesis at Havana University for the second time and a military colonel from the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) who formed part of my degree panel, denied with his head that Fidel Castro was a charismatic leader in line with Max Weber’s definition. When I interrupted my dissertation in order to ask this colonel why the rejection with his head, he told me that he has his reasons. Military officers shouldn’t be committee members on a doctorate panel at Havana University, unless they first pass a basic knowledge exam in Social Sciences so that they can better understand some of what they’re supposed to judge as part of a Degree Committee.

Differences between Weber’s concept of charisma and the cult of personality of dictators are huge. While the former succeeds in subverting all of the original order and proposes “a happy order” in the future with great popular support at the beginning, cults of personality are the result of propaganda which has been developed by a great State mechanism, created for this purpose, and which grows – at the same time- with utter physical, economic and political repression of any divergent opinion to their system.

Hitler, Mussolini, Mao Tse Tung, Muamar el Gadafi and Fidel Castro were all charismatic leaders at the beginning. However, once they took control of the reins of power they all created a cult of personality with their respective propaganda spinning machines and efficient civil repressive forces. Stalin directly took one great leap from being anonymous to a cult of personality.

At the end of the day, the colonel was right but not because of the ideas he denied with his head. I understand that his response was negative because Max Weber was read in Cuba as a “bourgeouis sociologist” and therefore “an enemy” who couldn’t be used in a degree thesis unless it was to “destroy him” theoretical.

In 1997, I should have shown that Fidel Castro was a charismatic leader in the early ‘60s, who later converted his rule into a crude cult of personality with all of its respective propaganda and repressive mechanisms to brutalize the Cuban people. Yup, I lacked that clarity and now I’m giving it back to the colonel, the “ideology’s guardian” who is also a victim of the cult of personality we have in Cuba with its associated ignorance and fundamentalism.

8 thoughts on “Fidel Castro and the Cult of Personality

  • dannyR you obviously don’t know Cuba when you write that: “there is no serious multi-party system” and then continue: “does not necessarily entail that there is cult of the personality.”
    It is illegal for people to even discuss ANY alternative to communism. The Constitution of Cuba defines the role of education as the indoctrination of communism. Parents of children can be jailed for three (3) years if teaching their own children in their own home, anything that is contrary to communism.
    You cannot find a single classroom in Cuba that does not have a picture of Fidel Castro. Schools are plastered with images of ‘Che’ Guevara and Raul Castro. There are quotations of the Unholy Trinity painted on the walls of schools, state offices, post offices and other public buildings. There are massive billboards scattered around Cuba with similar images and quotes. School books – even for five year olds promote the same three personalities. For example in explaining different letters, C Is shown as Che, F is for la flor (Celia Sanchez Manduley), the final page has a “Thought from Fidel” which reads: “The child who does not study is not a good revolutionary.”
    and so on.
    If you care to purchase ‘Cuba lifting the Veil’ on the web for a very modest sum, you will find a chapter entitled: ‘Propaganda, Symbolism and the Cult of the Personality.’
    Remember that it was Raul Castro who declared that the names of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez are: “sacred”. if that doesn’t meet the description of cult of the personality, what does?

  • Regarding street names, do you approve of the endeavour by the Castro regime to change to the centuries old names of streets to those they regard as communist heroes? Don’t you find it confusing to have two names for the same street?
    Do you know of any school or public building in Cuba that does not have a portrait of Fidel Castro? If you do, then please name it? Have you noted the huge hoardings bearing portraits of the Castro brothers smiling down benignly upon the subjugated people of Cuba? Do you regard the actions of the Propaganda Department of the Communist Party of Cuba as a failure?
    As for Fidel Castro “keeping his family for half a century out of public view” do you really think that he wishes to publicize the fact that his dozen children are by six different women? His record year was 1956 when four different women had children by him. You say that the article is “embarrassing”, how about Fidel’s family – after all, he only married Dalia de Soto (mother of five of his children) after the death of Celia Sanchez from cancer in 1980.

  • The “cult of personality” as a political expression can be traced back to February of 1956 when Khrushchev denounced the crimes of Stalin in a secret speech to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
    In my view it is a superficial and inadequate explanation for what went wrong in the Soviet Union. I favour the explanation offered by Trotsky in his book The Revolution Betrayed. He described the rise of a privileged layer of the population in the midst of hardship and poverty. He called this privileged layer a “caste,” which viewed events in the Soviet Union and in the world from the point of view of their own interests.

  • But that there is no serious multi-party system does not necessarily entail that there is a cult of personality. Witness present-day China.

    Conversely, there are multi-party elections in present-day Russia, but a reasonable person would conclude that Vladimir Putin has become ensconced as a cult-leader among some 80% of the population.
    And, au contraire

    “…Fidel Castro, who has no public building, street, museum or schools named after him in Cuba.”

    If this is claim—which you have not rebutted—of Jones is true, it is a necessary and sufficient condition that there is an institutionalized anti-cult protocol of long standing re: Castro in Cuba.

  • The people today are not so enthralled, they have lost that loving feeling.

  • Don’t let the lack of a few monuments deceive you. In Cuba, even today, life is effected by “the bearded one” Someone who effectively destroyed my culture.
    The author states it best; “The procedure to bring about a cult of personality entails subverting all of the institutions of representative democracy….There are no elections under a cult of personality, or if they still exist, the multi-party system is seriously affected, with attacks against the secret ballot, cutting off access or limiting access to mass media and the impossibility of legally forming a party.”

  • It is embarrassing the read an article probably written in Miami where tens of streets have confusing, competing names and where eternal flames, museums and busts are erected as out of a shoe factory, in an attempt to perpetuate the image of thieves, crooks, opportunists and living pseudo-politicians, have not elicit the rejection the writer express in her article against Fidel Castro, who has no public building, street, museum or schools named after him in Cuba.
    Conversely, around the world and out of his control, many countries have erected every possible symbol to memorialize his life and history. It is cynical to twist one of Fidel Castro most visible trait of opposing all personal aggrandizing or celebrating his personal and family events, to the extent of literally keeping his family for half a century out of public view.

  • Pretty sad for those living in Cuba and have any initiative for improving their lives.

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