Following Fidel Castro’s death, Mike Gonzalez assesses his legacy
He was, by any standards, a giant of a man. In his frail late years his presence still resonated across Latin America, even among the generations that did not experience the exhilarating shock of the Cuban revolution of 1959. But that event is the source of Fidel’s reputation.
Before the revolution Cuba symbolised colonialism at its most pernicious and cynical. Its war of liberation from Spain (1895-8) was appropriated by the US, whose government claimed that victory as its own and rewrote the newly independent country’s constitution to ensure its continuing dominance. Its sugar was taken by the imperialist interests that maintained its subservient status. Its culture – the voice of slaves who refused to be silent – was emptied of its content and offered to tourists for their consumption.
All that ended on 1 January 1959. A U.S. confident of its vocation for global domination was challenged by a small Caribbean island, a weak link in its chain of command. And every occupied country, every independence movement crushed by the imperialist presence, stood up and celebrated. The giant, it seemed, had feet of clay after all.
Again and again over the years Fidel Castro refused to surrender to threat or blackmail– and it is that refusal that explains the blind fury and the vindictive wrath of his enemies. Republican and Democrat administrations, with minor variations, sustained the siege of Cuba for six decades – and ranted in disbelief at their own ineffectiveness. They may be celebrating in Miami, but it only serves to underline their own failure, and to pay tribute to the stubborn and immovable Fidel Castro.
It was, of course, collective resistance that foiled the U.S.-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. The Missile Crisis of 1962, when the presidential finger was poised over the nuclear button in Washington, showed that Castro’s courage was sustained by a will of steel. But it also showed the leadership in Havana that Soviet support was conditional, and Cuba a mere pawn in a global power game. When it distanced itself briefly from Moscow, that was the moment when Cuba moved into its most radical phase, and its most revolutionary, joining with the liberation struggles of the third world in a common front that stretched from Latin America to Vietnam. That was the moment when Cuba inspired and symbolised the rising of the oppressed – expressed in the image of Che Guevara.
Guevara’s death in Bolivia in October 1967, however, was a crossroads for the new revolution. In Peru, Guatemala and Venezuela, the attempt to repeat the Cuban experience had failed with disastrous consequences, just as it had in Bolivia.
Fidel, always concerned first and foremost with the survival of a Cuba under vicious imperial siege and trapped by its economic limitations, drew back from the guerrilla strategy.
A year later, the failure of the 1969 sugar harvest to produce 10 million tons (as was inevitable) marked an ending. Within a year, Cuba fell fully and definitively into the Soviet embrace, and publicly identified with its third world strategy of alliances and compromise. When Fidel went to Chile, the future supporters of Pinochet took to the streets to bang their pots in protest; yet he was there to congratulate Allende on his election victory and the success of his parliamentary road to socialism.
In 1961, after the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro declared that the revolution was socialist. Although Fidel himself came from a radical nationalist background, his announcement was both a recognition of both Cuba’s economic dependence on the Soviet Union and of the central role the Cuban Communist Party would play in its future. In this context, socialism was understood to mean a strong centralised state along Soviet lines. This coincided with both Castro’s and Guevara’s views of how revolutions are won – by the actions of small and dedicated groups of revolutionaries acting on behalf of the mass movement. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Castro defined the revolution as Marxist, confirming once again its dependence on the Soviet Union and the nature of the new state in the wake of Che’s death. In Southern Africa in the 1970s the role of Cuban troops was key to defeating right wing insurgencies and sustained Castro’s anti-imperialist reputation. Yet in the Horn of Africa Cuban troops defended governments allied with Soviet regional interests that brutally repressed internal liberation movements.
Fidel was never a pliant subordinate. He used his extraordinary charisma and his reputation to fire occasional warning shots towards Moscow on the one hand, and to reinforce his personal control of the state on the other. The survivors of the guerrilla force that landed from the ‘Granma’ in 1956 and brought down the Batista dictatorship within two short years remained, for the most part, at the centre of power for the five decades that followed. The socialism that Castro espoused had little or nothing to do with Marx’s “self-emancipation of the working class” or what Hal Draper would later call “socialism from below”. It was a socialism with a command structure much like that of the guerrilla army in which Fidel was Commander in Chief (as well as president and general secretary of the party). What held it together was Fidel’s incontestable authority on the one hand, and on the other the unrelenting hostility of the US, which not only tried to murder him hundreds of times but was willing to starve the Cuban people into submission – which in the end served only to reinforce his authority.
The single most important benefit of those times was an efficient and universal education and health system. Beyond that, daily life was hard, even before the withdrawal of Soviet aid and the “special period” that followed, which brought the island to the brink of disaster. It was collective solidarity and sacrifice alone that held back collapse then. Yet there was already serious discontent expressed in absenteeism, in resistance in workplaces, in the disillusionment of African veterans, for example, as the hopes of the first decade proved illusory. While there was basic social provision, there was little in the way of consumer goods and dissent was treated increasingly harshly, whatever its form. The extreme concentration of power (the leading organs of the state were run by a couple of dozen ‘historic’ leaders under Fidel’s control) at the top of the pyramid meant that democracy was notable by its absence. Political institutions were centrally controlled at every level; local organs, like the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, maintained vigilance against dissent. On occasions when dissidence grew too noisy, thousands of Cubans were dispatched to Miami amid clamorous marches denouncing the leavers as ‘scum’.
It was relatively simple to dismiss the calls for democracy from internal critics as imperialist propaganda, rather than a legitimate claim by working people that a socialism worthy of its name should transform them into the subjects of their own history. Public information was available only in the impenetrable form of the state newspaper Granma, and state institutions at every level were little more than channels for the communication of the leadership’s decisions. An opaque bureaucracy, accountable to itself alone, with privileged access to goods and services, became increasingly corrupt in the context of an economy reduced to its minimal provisions. Castro’s occasional calls for ‘rectification’ removed some individuals but left the system intact.
Yet Cuba survived, due in good part to Fidel’s sharp political instincts and his willingness to find allies wherever he could in the wake of the fall of eastern Europe.
Those who left the island for the U.S. had little that was positive to report about their experiences there. And elsewhere in Latin America, as the 21st century dawned, the new anti-capitalist movements, with their emphasis on democracy and participation, had little to learn from Cuba, though the symbolic power of Fidel and Che was unabated. The reality, however, was that both had favoured a highly authoritarian interpretation of socialism that could allow the repression of gay people, the denial of criticism, and the emergence of the corrupt regime that now prevails in Cuba under Raul Castro, where a small group of increasingly wealthy bureaucrats and military commanders manage and control the economy. They will be the beneficiaries of Cuba’s re-entry into the world market, rather than the majority of Cubans. The original promise of an equal distribution of wealth is now so remote that the largest multinationals are competing for access to its economy.
Fidel, who fell ill in 2006, said relatively little from then on. His death will be mourned across the third world, because Cuba for so long represented a possibility of liberation from imperial oppression. Its very survival inspired hope. And yet Fidel’s Cuba cannot offer a model for the participatory democracy and transparent government that subsequent generations are fighting for. That will and must be built from below, in the course of the struggles to come.