By JEFF MACKLER
Fidel Castro Ruz, Cuba’s revolutionary leader, president, and prime minister for five decades, died in Santiago de Cuba on Friday, Nov. 25. He was 90 years old. Although one of the most profound, clear-sighted, honest, and dedicated revolutionary leaders of the past half-century, Castro has been demonized by the corporate media as a dictator, tyrant, murderer, and torturer.
These same critics—especially the government of the United States, whose 50-year illegal embargo/blockade of Cuba has been condemned by virtually every other nation—have no qualms about supporting the world’s real tyrants, provided only that they offer zero resistance to the interests of the world’s dominant imperialist powers. In the minds of Fidel’s critics, his “original sin” was to challenge and overthrow capitalist power and prerogatives in Cuba and to spread Cuba’s liberating message worldwide.
The 1959 establishment of the Cuban workers’ state on an island of only 11 million people shook the world and continues to do so.
“Fidel,” as he was referred to by friends and comrades around the world, was the son of a wealthy landowner. With a Jesuit secondary school education, he graduated from the University of Havana in 1945 with a degree in law. He engaged in radical student struggles, but was not yet dedicated to socialist revolution, and became a member of the traditional bourgeois opposition formation, the Orthodox Party. His 1952 candidacy for the Cuban national congress was cut short with the military coup of Coronel Fulgencio Batista, a former Cuban president (1940-44), who now abolished Cuba’s constitution and installed himself as dictator.
As a human rights attorney for the poor, Castro filed an unsuccessful lawsuit challenging Batista’s action on constitutional grounds. Not long afterward, he and a youthful band of radical followers, mostly students, organized a failed military attack on the Moncada and other police barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. While Fidel and his young comrades were foiled in their expectations that the Moncada attack would spark a nationwide revolt, the date nevertheless became synonymous with and is celebrated as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution.
Fidel was tried before a Batista court and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Less than two years later, however, and on the occasion of Batista’s 1954 post-coup election victory, the dictator, seeking a modicum of legitimacy for his regime, and facing broad opposition from working-class and bourgeois forces, declared an amnesty and freed all Cuba’s political prisoners, including Fidel and his brother Raul.
Fidel represented himself in court and defended his attack on Moncada. His concluding statement, four hours in length, typical of Fidel’s ever defiant revolutionary character, was a ringing denunciation of the Batista tyranny and a magnificent and prophetic statement of what was to come. He concluded: “ I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who snuffed out the life of 70 brothers of mine. Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Indeed it did! Two years later, Castro and 80 revolutionary fighters, including the Argentine doctor, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who had originally signed on as a medic, arrived in Cuba on a 61-foot well-worn wooden yacht built for a few dozen at best—the Granma. They set out to begin a two-year guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra, which defeated successive waves of U.S.-backed and armed Batista forces.
The guerrillas won the support of Cuba’s peasant masses and were aided by a well-organized underground support network in Cuba’s major cities. Their July 26 Movement, beginning with skirmishes at local Batista outposts, vanquished the main force of the Batista Army in Santiago de Cuba. In time, commanders of the revolution, including Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, led military columns that defeated qualitatively larger but increasingly demoralized and disintegrating Batista forces across Cuba.
The rebels enter Havana
In a speech from Santiago de Cuba, Fidel proclaimed the revolution’s victory on New Years Day, Jan. 1, 1959. Batista and his entourage fled to the Dominican Republic the following day. A week later, Fidel and his comrades, 10,000 strong, and having defeated an army five times their size, triumphantly entered Havana to be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of cheering Cubans.
The conservative Time magazine soon described the scene as follows: “The face of dictatorship in Cuba was the padlock on Havana University, the bodies dumped on street corners by casual police terrorists, the arrogant functionaries gathering fortunes from gambling, prostitution and a leaky public till. In disgust and shame, a nervy band of rural guerrillas, aided by angry Havana professional men (plus opportunists with assorted motives), started a bloody civil war that cost more than $100 million and took 8,000 lives. Last week they smashed General Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship.”
But Cuba’s socialist course was not immediately assured with the military victory of the July 26 Movement. The fundamentals of capitalist power, including the private, largely U.S., ownership of Cuba’s land and property, remained in the hands of foreigners or the Batista-era capitalist elite, including Cuba’s anti-Batista capitalist supporters of the 1959 revolution. The central question of which class shall rule—the masses of workers and peasants or the capitalist few—remained unresolved.
Castro, still a revolutionary democrat, initially named key anti-Batista bourgeois figures to the central posts in the Cuban government, including anti-Batista politician Juan Miro Cardona as prime minister, Judge Manuel Urrutia as provisional president, and Cuban banker/economist Felipe Pazos, a one-time International Monetary Fund official in Washington.
In short order, however, beginning a few weeks after their initial appointments, these capitalist figures proved incapable of meeting the ever growing aspirations of the Cuban masses for land and fundamental changes that advanced the well-being of the vast majority. Thus, the modern history of the Cuban Revolution begins with the early and critical decisions of the Castro team as it confronted both U.S. imperialism and Cuba’s national capitalist class. Both forces fully expected that Castro and his followers would differ little from past idealistic and well-meaning bourgeois revolutionaries in other countries, who had illusions that their visions of justice, reform, and democracy could be achieved within the capitalist framework.
Castro himself had honestly explained to prominent U.S. journalists, like Herbert Mathews, a New York Times editorial writer who visited Castro and the July 26 Movement guerrilla fighters in the Sierras, that he was not a “communist” but merely a dedicated revolutionary whose interests were not in conflict with those of the United States.
Ed Sullivan, a right-wing New York Daily News columnist, flew down to Havana and interviewed Fidel on Jan. 11, 1959. Sullivan assured Castro that “the people of the United States have great admiration for you and your men because you are in the real American tradition of George Washington.” The interview was replayed on Sullivan’s CBS show, one of the nation’s leading popular entertainment television programs, and viewed by tens of millions of people.
The conquest of military power in Cuba marked only the beginning of a transformation process that would unfold over the next two years. At each juncture, the Castro team was confronted with decisions that would either return Cuba to the capitalist orbit or irrevocably embark it on a socialist course.
The first steps along the socialist road were taken when the initial capitalist appointees proved incapable of implementing the revolution’s most important promises—including a land reform that would, as Che Guevara, the first Minister of Agrarian Reform, argued, employing the credo of the 1911 Mexican Revolution, “grant the land to the tillers.”
In May 1959, under Fidel’s leadership, Cuba began confiscating U.S.-owned land and distributing it to Cuba’s poor peasant masses. This had been the policy of the July 26 Movement before the formal conquest of power. Land in the countryside that had been liberated during the course of battle with the Batista army was given to the affected peasants, thereby cementing their loyalty to the revolution while winning new fighting forces for the revolutionary army. In a similar vein, captured Batista soldiers were freed on condition that they did not return to fight the revolutionary fighters.
In the course of the next two years Cuba’s land reform exceeded any in modern history since the great Russian Revolution of 1917, when the party of Lenin and Trotsky nationalized the land of a nation that was one-sixth of the earth’s surface and granted it to peasant committees for distribution to Russia’s most oppressed, who represented 90 percent of the population.
Needless to say, Cuba’s evolving and ever-deepening land reform program alienated both U.S. business interests that were the predominant owners of Cuba’s arable land, and landed interests of Cuba’s national capitalist class. The latter increasingly separated themselves from the Castro-led revolutionary process, including financing and arming, with U.S. support, short-lived counterrevolutionary militias in the Escambray Mountains aimed at Fidel’s overthrow.
With every step toward implementing the revolutionary promises of July 26 Movement, the U.S. government countered with threats of dire consequences. Fidel and his evolving team consistently responded by deepening the ongoing revolutionary process. When the U.S.-owned oil refineries refused to process Soviet crude oil, they were nationalized. The U.S., under the Eisenhower administration, responded by cutting off Cuba’s sugar quota, which accounted for a huge portion of Cuba’s then largely “one-crop economy.”
With regard to the economy and the ouster of former Batista-era banker Felipe Pazos, the initial head of Cuba’s National Bank, Fidel, in search of a replacement, was said to have asked Cuba’s core leadership group if anyone in the room has experience as an economist. Che Guevara raised his hand and was so appointed. Soon afterward, this humorous but incisive episode reveals, when asked about his “economist” experience, Che responded, “I thought Fidel asked if there were ‘communists’ in the room.” As head of Cuba’s central bank Guevara proceeded to adopt a series of measures to centralize Cuba’s economy and organize Cuba’s wealth and industries to benefit the Cuban masses as opposed to the previous capitalist elite.
A critical choice was required when soon after the January 1959 victory, the Cuban masses organized mass tribunals and court martials to bring to justice some 500 of the worst of Batista’s murdering and raping death squad criminals. The ensuing public trials, often conducted in huge stadiums with thousands of Batista’s victims present, many of whom proffered uncontested testimony as to the old regime’s monstrous crimes, were challenged by the U.S. government on the grounds that “due process” in the U.S. definition of the term, was denied. Few, if any, however, denied the guilt of Batista’s assassins.
U.S. officials demanded that Castro intervene to stop these trials with forces from the revolutionary army. Once again, he and his team refused. The murderers were shot before the firing squads of the revolutionary people when the mass verdict, “Al paredón por los terroristas!” (To the wall with the terrorists!) was proclaimed by Cuba’s aroused and participating masses. As with every serious revolution in history, including the 1776 American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War, justice is rapidly dispensed by the long brutalized victims of ruling-class murder and tyranny.
The Bay of Pigs invasion
In addition to U.S.-backed military incursions, not to mention some 100 recorded U.S.-orchestrated efforts at Fidel’s assassination (some put the figure at 600), the U.S. terminated all diplomatic relations with Cuba and imposed soon afterwards a vicious and illegal embargo/blockade that continues to this day.
The U.S. break with Cuba was followed by the CIA’s secret organization and training in Nicaragua and Guatemala, both U.S.-backed dictatorships, of some 1500 Miami and New Jersey-based Cuban exiles for the infamous April 17 invasion of Cuba at the remote Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs). Two days earlier, CIA pilots employed B-26 bombers in a failed effort to cripple Cuba’s modest air force. But the attack signaled to Fidel and Cuba’s armed forces that an invasion was imminent.
U.S. intelligence agencies had predicted that their sponsored invaders would be immediately welcomed by what they conceived of as the “Communist-oppressed Cuban masses.” It never happened. In truth, the invasion was secretly conceived by the U.S. military as a plan to enable the invaders, the sons or heirs of Cuba’s expropriated capitalist class, to quickly establish a beachhead at the Bay of Pigs and beyond, then plant their counterrevolutionary flag as occupiers of Cuban territory, and immediately call for U.S. official recognition and military support.
For the Cuban revolutionary government, the quick defeat of the invaders was crucial. Fidel himself, in a tank at the Bay of Pigs, and at the risk of his life, took command of Cuba’s defense. In less than three days, over a thousand invaders were captured and 100 were killed. Cuban government losses were also significant.
The John F. Kennedy administration initially denied any U.S. involvement, only to be discredited around the world by the direct testimony of many of the invaders. The U.S. propaganda machine shifted to arguments that the Castro-led government would soon execute all those captured. Instead, the Cubans negotiated an agreement that returned almost all of the invaders to the U.S. in exchange for a U.S.-funded pledge to supply medicines sufficient to inoculate the entire Cuban population against diseases like polio, diphtheria, measles, and other preventable diseases.
Whatever remnants of capitalist property remained at the time of the 1961 U.S. invasion were eliminated outright when, in the name of the Cuban people, Fidel announced that his revolution would proceed to nationalize the holdings of the Cuban capitalist class and all foreign-owned capitalists, “down to the nails in the boots of their shoes.”
It was only after the Bay of Pigs that Fidel formally announced, on Dec. 2, 1961, that he was a Marxist-Leninist. The previous month, he had declared that Cuba’s revolution was socialist in character.
Fearing yet another invasion, this time perhaps with the open participation of the U.S. military, the Castro government shocked the world in 1962 when it called on the USSR to aid in the construction of nuclear missile sights on Cuban shores. As Russian ships headed toward Cuba loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles, President Kennedy ordered the U.S. to intercept them while proclaiming that if Cuba fired a missile at the U.S. the U.S. would consider it an act of war by the Soviet Union and would respond in kind.
This Cuban Missile Crisis put the entire world on edge. For the first time, the possibility of a nuclear war between the Russia and the U.S. loomed as a distinct possibility. At the last moment a negotiated agreement was reached wherein the missiles were withdrawn in return for a U.S. pledge to never invade Cuba.
Cuba’s revolutionary internationalism included its sending thousands of Cuban fighters to support the Angolan government’s defense of its sovereignty when confronted with a massive armed invasion by South Africa’s military aimed at restoring a pro-U.S. regime in that country.
At the famous 1986-87 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban troops defeated the U.S.-backed South African invasion, in time contributing to the end of South African rule of its protectorate in Namibia, and, in 1994 to the end of South Africa’s apartheid system. Nelson Mandela, in a subsequent address to the Cuban people, stated that Cuito Cuanavale was “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people.”
Fidel: the evolution of a revolutionary
Fidel Castro was a bold and courageous revolutionary fighter who came to realize from direct experience that his democratic and egalitarian aspirations could not be realized within the framework of the capitalist system, which is inherently oppressive and predatory.
Under his leadership and with the massive political and moral support of all Cuba’s oppressed and exploited, Fidel first led in the conquest of military power against a brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship. He proceeded to lead in the establishment of what he hoped would be an egalitarian capitalist democracy with equal rights for all. He quickly came to understand that his initial liberal capitalist allies had no intention of sharing their wealth and economic prerogatives with the Cuban masses, and they were quickly eliminated from formal government power.
For another six months, more or less, Cuban society existed in a contradictory form that revolutionary socialists characterize as a workers and farmers government—that is, a government in which the political forms are under the control of the representatives of the mass of workers and small farmers while the economic forms remain dominated by capitalist property relations.
The Castro leadership resolved this contradiction early on, with each adopted measure increasingly limiting the economic power of Cuban capitalism—both the foreign and the native variant. By mid-1959 Cuban became a workers’ state, having effectively and qualitatively eliminated almost all capitalist private property relations.
For the first time in the Western Hemisphere, a free nation, revolutionary Cuba, devoted its resources to the advancement of the interests of the vast majority. Cuba’s literacy program became of model for the world. On a volunteer basis, students—more than half were women—were encouraged to leave their schools and universities to head for the countryside with only a Coleman (kerosene) lantern and the barest possessions in hand.
By day, the students joined the newly landed poor peasant farmers to toil in the field; by night, in the still electricity-lacking rural areas, they taught these same poor farmers to read and write, in short order raising Cuba’s literacy levels to the highest in the world.
Cuba’s prostitutes (Havana had become infamous for its mafia-owned gambling casinos and brothels) were trained to take their place among Cuba’s finest teachers. Rent on all forms of housing was limited to 10 percent of income, and soon phased out completely. A qualitatively expanded and free system of quality health care and education was established throughout the island. Cuba today graduates a higher percentage of its population with post-college degrees than any other nation.
All kinds of government financial support to Cuba’s peasant poor were advanced, including low or zero-interest loans for the purchase of seeds and machinery. Cuba abolished all forms of institutional racism, established mass women’s organizations, trade unions and the famous Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The latter were neighborhood-based and armed committees to defend Cuba against U.S.-initiated terrorist activities.
Indeed, revolutionary Cuba functioned as a nation of armed people with weapons in hand to defend their own interests – perhaps the most striking example of the Castro leadership’s confidence in the Cuban masses.
Cuba established a world-class biomedical industry devoted to finding cures for diseases that plague people around the world. Cuban culture—art, music, ballet, sports, literature—flourished as never before in the modern era, with Cuba becoming a world cultural center. Its ballet ranks among the top 10 in the world. For a small nation, its athletes win unprecedented numbers of Olympic metals, often ranking in the top 10-20 of all participating nations.
All of the above, and more, were realized in revolutionary Cuba only as a consequence of its abolition of capitalism, led by the Fidel Castro leadership team.
While Cuba’s example permeated the consciousness of the youth and revolutionary fighters around the world, U.S. imperialism employed the most monstrous of methods of destruction, including using biological warfare to wipe out Cuba’s banana crops and to kill an estimated 100,000 pigs, not to mention bombing Cuban hotels and shooting down a commercial aircraft that killed Cuba’s Olympic fencing team and many other passengers.
Fidel Castro never relented in his defense of the interest of the Cuban and the world’s peoples, whose periodic popular and massive mobilizations in the many millions of people exceeded almost any in human history.
Cuba, thoroughly racist and segregated under Batista rule, boldly brought its anti-racist message to the U.S. in 1961 when a Castro-led team attended a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. When news that a high end mid-town Manhattan hotel had refused rooms for the multi-racial Cuban delegation, Malcolm X, then a leader of the Nation of Islam, invited the Cubans to stay in Harlem.
The New York chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, led by Bertha Green, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, followed up on Malcolm’s challenge and reached an agreement with the Cubans to spend their days in Harlem’s Hotel Theresa, where Fidel met with Malcolm—a stunning rebuke not only to U.S. racism but to a good portion of the U.S. socialist left who at that time rejected Malcolm’s revolutionary black nationalism as “racism in reverse.”
The Castro-team’s internationalism was not limited to words. Believing that Cuba’s guerrilla example could be extended to other countries, in the mid-1960’s Cuba organized teams of fighters to establish guerrilla “foci” in every Latin American country except Paraguay and Mexico.
Cuba sponsored the famous OLAS conference (Conference of Latin American Solidarity) in 1967 where the vast majority of delegates favored the extension of Cuba’s socialist revolution. Fidel’s closing remarks noted that a minority of the conference delegates were not in agreement with this perspective, an unmistakable allusion to Moscow-oriented Communist Parties.
OLAS’s concluding declaration stated in part: “Revolutionary armed struggle – triumphant in Cuba and already started in Venezuela, Colombia, Guatemala and Bolivia – will not end until the bureaucratic and military apparatus of the bourgeoisie and the landholders is destroyed and the revolutionary power of the working people is established, confronting at the same time the internal counterrevolution and Yankee intervention, to resolutely tear out imperialist domination at its roots.”
Cuba and permanent revolution
There was no doubt that Cuba’s revolutionary idealism and dedication to peasant centered rural revolutionary struggle to remove Latin American dictatorships flew in the face of the Stalinist USSR’s view that socialist revolution in poor countries was not on the agenda.
But Fidel and his well-intentioned revolutionary fighters tended to underestimate the critical importance of constructing urban-based mass revolutionary workers’ parties of the Leninist type and instead focused on relatively isolated rural guerrilla warfare, not as an adjunct to the seizure of power but rather, as the central directing agency of the revolution.
While successful in Cuba, Cuban-supported rural guerrilla warfare had to be abandoned as it became clear that isolated guerrilla struggles, especially with U.S. imperialism on the alert as never before, could not substitute for the construction of deeply rooted and disciplined, urban-based, revolutionary working-class parties.
Like all human beings, Fidel Castro and his compañeros in the Cuban leadership were never without flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings. Despite its socialist and democratic spirit and practice, beleaguered Cuba failed to establish the forms of direct democracy that characterized the highest point of the Russian Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky.
Soviets (the Russian word for workers’ councils, as the basis for the political rule of the working masses) do not exist in Cuba. In essence, Cuba’s Communist Party makes most of the key decisions in Cuban society.
In Socialist Action’s view, a revolutionary workers state finds its fullest expression in the formal, direct, democratic, and institutionalized rule of the working masses. A revolutionary party, no matter how dedicated to the people’s cause it may be, cannot substitute itself for the working masses.
The Cuban leadership’s forging of democratic workers’ councils today would be the surest way to ensure the ongoing commitment of the Cuban people to the revolution’s historic goals, as well as the efficient planning of an economy that best represents the interests of the Cuban masses.Fidel was keenly aware of the Stalinist nature of Cuba’s Batista-era pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party. The latter opposed Fidel’s July 26 Movement’s struggle for power as “ultraleft,” if not “Trotskyist.”
In the view of Cuban Stalinists, whose policy was to seek a rapprochement with so-called progressive capitalist governments, including Batista’s during his first presidency, socialist revolution was premature and impossible in poor and neo-colonial countries. This contrasted with Trotsky’s conception of the revolutionary process in the modern era—demonstrated to the world with the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Trotsky believed that, as in Russia, any successful revolution must be “permanent,” that is, it has to both accomplish the democratic tasks that modern capitalism could no longer implement and it has to place the working class, as opposed to capitalist reformers, in power.
The Cuban Revolution amounted to a rejection of the Stalinist “two-stage” conception of revolution, wherein overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a workers state with the goal of building socialism are relegated to the distant future, if at all. This remains the critical issue that today separates revolutionists from pro-capitalist reformists.
Venezuela is a prime example of the latter strategy, where the Hugo Chavez/Maduro governments, unlike revolutionary Cuba, failed to challenge the essential framework of Venezuelan capitalism. Venezuela’s land, banks, and key financial institutions, as well as significant portions of its massive fossil fuel resources, have remained in the hands of its capitalist ruling class. This single fact explains Venezuela’s tragic devolution today.
To his death, Fidel remained the harshest critic of U.S. imperialism, constantly cautioning Cuba’s leaders to beware of the capitalist-restorationist intentions that underlie the Obama administration’s current overtures.
Cuba’s historic socialist revolution, its fundamental break with capitalism, demonstrates to revolutionary fighters everywhere that capitalism cannot be reformed, that capitalism is incompatible with human progress, that capitalism cannot exist without racism, sexism, exploitation, and war. This is Fidel Castro’s lasting contribution to humanity’s future, a legacy of uninterrupted struggle to usher in the world socialist order.
Top photo: Tony Savino / Socialist Action