Castro, Che Guevara, and other leading revolutionaries, marching through the streets in protest at the La Coubre explosion, March 5, 1960. Public Domain.
“A man is not great because he colours major historical events with his individual personality, but because he possesses qualities that enable him to serve the major social needs of his time, needs that have both general and specific causes.” Georgy Valentinovich Plekhanov
While some of the main media do their unsuccessful best to sully Fidel Castro’s image, thousands upon thousands of messages of tribute have reached Cuba from literally all parts of the world.
The truth is that, following a long and serious illness in 2007 when he was 80, Fidel realised that the inevitable end was in sight and therefore, as a consummate political leader, he prepared the way with his customary prescience for his final departure - which occurred on Friday, 25 November.
In 2008, Fidel relinquished all his official and political roles in the Cuban State thereby allowing a transition of the revolution without political upheaval. He did so in order to prevent any possible disturbance or destabilisation that might be caused if he were to die while still in power. Superficial right-wing commentators predicted the end of the revolution at the time of Fidel’s serious illness, and again when he formally handed over authority. On both occasions they were wrong.
And current predictions that his leaving will bring about the end of socialism in Cuba are also mistaken. Fidel’s 50 years of revolution - of defiance and resistance to the imperialist arrogance and aggression of the United States is his legacy not only to the Cuban revolution but to humanity in general. In the today’s world, no one more than Fidel symbolises the modern revolutionary spirit.
From his first incursion into politics, he seems to have been imbued with an almost fanatical faith (bordering on the irrational) in victory even though he often acted in extraordinarily adverse circumstances.
This was the spirit in which, on 26 July 1953, he organised and directed the attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba when he was not yet 27 years old. The attack was exceptionally risky, involving 137 ill-equipped and badly-trained combatants against 500 soldiers in one of the country’s largest and best-armed military bases. The insurgents confronted very superior firepower and their only chance of success lay through surprise - which in the end failed. Following his capture, Fidel ran the risk of defending himself in the subsequent trial in a political context dominated by Batista’s repressive dictatorship.
In October 1960, then US senator John F. Kennedy stated ”...perhaps most disastrous of our failures, was the decision to give stature and support to one of the most bloody and repressive dictatorships in the long history of Latin American repression. Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years - a greater proportion of the Cuban population than the proportion of Americans who died in both World Wars, and he turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state - destroying every individual liberty.”
This terrifying context conveys an idea of Fidel’s audacity in conducting his own legal and political defence. His closing speech, “History will absolved me”, has arguably become one of the most impressive political statements not just about why Cuba needed a revolution but about its moral, intellectual, historical, social and political basis. In that speech, Fidel formulated the principle that was to inform his political life: “No weapon, no force is capable of defeating a people that has chosen to fight for its rights.” The speech includes a post-Batista programme for the country’s structural transformation, a notable feature of his entire political career: coherence between rhetoric, principles and practical action.
The Moncada adventure and Fidel’s extraordinary performance at the trial brought him national prominence and taught him a key political lesson in terms of his political vision: be audacious regardless of the chances of success.
From there to a training camp in Mexico, the seemingly crazy sea voyage to Cuba in the Granma with 89 combatants, the establishment of a guerrilla base in the Sierra Maestra with the 12 survivors of the disastrous disembarkation from the Granma, and Fidel’s unshakeable conviction that Cuba was ripe for revolution. A similar strength of conviction was apparent during the missile crisis of 1962 when Fidel cleverly steered his country through one of the most dangerous episodes in the history of the twentieth century.
It was under Fidel’s leadership that Cuba inflicted Latin America’s first defeat of US imperialism at Bay of Pigs on 17 April 1961 - a conflict that he directed personally from a tank on the battlefield.
The foundation of Fidel’s vision of revolution is the idea of Third World liberation from imperialism. His internationalism therefore is based on the need to build a wide anti-imperialist consensus in solidarity with the struggles of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America. For Fidel, solidarity went much further than verbal declarations of support however well-formulated. It meant unprecedented levels of direct action which, in many cases, involved the active participation of tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers in exceptionally complex and dangerous operations. Fidel shared Che Guevara’s concept that “… always to be able to feel profoundly any injustice suffered by anyone in any part of the world” was “…a revolutionary’s most beautiful quality.”
North-American imperialism fully understood the emancipatory significance of the Cuba revolution and the potential for contagion. Ever since January 1, 1959, the US has therefore tried to stifle it. Under Fidel’s leadership, Cuba has not only developed the most sophisticated conception of Latin America as a whole, it has also strongly influenced some of the region’s most salutary political movements. Fidel’s sense of solidarity with Latin America led him to give political support to Salvador Allende even though the Chilean road to socialism seemed to contradict the Cuban strategy of armed revolution. He understood the profoundly revolutionary nature of Allende’s government, and he paid a visit to Chile in 1971 where his speeches still echo as strongly as they did then. He also championed the revolutions in Nicaragua and Grenada - thereby provoking the anger of the United States.
From the 1960s, Fidel gave support - usually by sending soldiers and doctors - to revolutions in Algeria, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Ghana, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Eritrea. With the collapse of the Portuguese African empire, Fidel took the remarkable decision to send thousands of Cuban troop to Angola - twice. The first occasion was in 1975 which turned the tripartite anti-colonial struggle decisively in favour of the Popular Movement for the LIberation of Angola (MPLA), thereby guaranteeing the country’s independence. The Cuban intervention in 1975 took place when the troops of the South African apartheid government made a rapid incursion into Angola with the aim of destroying the MPLA. Cuba’s intervention in 1976 both helped to expel the South African racists and to assist the MPLA to win the war.
One African newspaper commented: “Black Africa is mounting the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola. Black Africa is savouring…the possibility of achieving the dream of total liberation.”
Then in 1987, at the request of the besieged MPLA government of Angola which was confronting a wholesale military assault and invasion by tens of thousands of elite soldiers from apartheid South Africa, Fidel took the extraordinary decision to send 50,000 troops. They defended Angola against the invaders at Cuito Cuanavale in the south east of the country. Fidel himself explained the significance of this initiative: “The Cuban revolution itself was on the line in risking a pitch battle against military forces armed to the teeth from one of the richest, most industrially advanced and powerful countries - a challenge we undertook, moreover, in a Third World country far distant from our tiny island using solely our own resources and strength of purpose.
“We did it also at the risk of weakening our own defences. We used our own ships and only our own ships, and we used our own people and equipment to alter the military balance - all of which contributed to our success on the battlefield. We risked everything in this engagement.”
The geopolitical impact of the South African defeat was enormous and in no small measure it helped to bring about the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s freedom from jail, and the independence of Namibia.
No other non-African leader has contributed more to the liberation of Africa from colonialism and imperialism than Fidel; and all with the limited resources of a Caribbean island small in size but giant in its ethics.
“Cuba is the only Third World nation with the foreign policy of a major power,” wrote one scholar with considerable justification.
The defeat of revolutions in Nicaragua and Grenada and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which led to the eventual disappearance of the socialist block and the collapse of the Soviet Union, left Cuba very isolated and the revolution in extreme danger. The United States intensified its blockade in an effort to strangle the island. Former Eastern European allies became committed enemies. Fidel responded by defending the socialist character of the revolution regardless of cost: “Cuba’s socialism was not constructed after the arrival of a victorious Red Army. Our socialism was forged by Cubans on the anvil of struggle,” he affirmed.
Fidel’s special capacity to combine solid principle with agile pragmatism emerged when Cuba entered the “special period”. This opened the door to some small-scale capitalist enterprise, joint ventures with foreign capital, and foreign investment, but it also paved the way for Cuba to reengage with the world economy, though always under its own ground rules. It took the country a mere five years to emerge from potential economic meltdown.
Fidel was the only political leader to grasp the political significance of Hugo Chavez and to invite the Venezuelan presidential candidate - as he then was - to Cuba for discussions and to explore possible forms of collaboration with what was known rather hazily as the Bolivarian Revolution. The youthful Chavez visited Havana and was well received by Fidel. Havana was where Chavez properly formulated his Bolivarian project.
Here was also the first sign that the neoliberal nightmare of the previous three decades in the region was beginning to fade, that Cuba’s isolation was coming to an end, and that Fidel’s vision of a radical Latin America, united, independent and integrated might become a reality. Chavez’ visit took place in 1994, four years before he became president of Venezuela and long before the region’s subsequent “red tide” of progressive governments.
Fidel’s vision and Cuba’s example after half a century of resistance and adhesion to socialist principles have not only born fruit, but widespread emulation of Cuban policies by “red tide” governments have allowed tens of millions of formerly impoverished and marginalised people to reap the benefits of a better world.
A fifty-year campaign of aggression against Cuba by the United States has repeatedly been defeated by Fidel’s agile political leadership. The aggression began in 1960 with President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s attempt to humiliate the Cuban delegation to the United Nations by having it thrown out of the Manhattan Shelburne Hotel. Fidel turned the episode into a sensational political triumph by booking into Harlem’s Theresa Hotel where he was given an enthusiastic welcome by Harlem’s African American residents.
From then on, Fidel has inflicted one defeat after another on imperialism, not only by defending the Cuban revolution, but also by providing tangible material support for anti-imperialist struggles elsewhere in the world. Hardly surprising then, that he was so hated in the United States which reportedly made 638 attempts to assassinate him.
American efforts to assassinate Fidel are the clearest manifestation of its absolute failure to counteract - much less to destroy - Cuba’s attractiveness as an example for others to follow and emulate.
Evidence of the degree to which Fidel understood the imperialist structure of world politics can be seen in the messages from heads of state paying tribute to his legacy - most of them coming from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. A few have been from Europe, while the reaction of the United States has been at best equivocal and at worst hostile.
The UN General Assembly observed a minute of silence to commemorate Fidel’s death - at the request of UN president Peter Thompson, who highlighted the Cuban leader’s legacy, especially his “dedication to (Cuba’s) progress in the fields of education and health” which would long be remembered, and he added that Fidel’s tireless struggle for international justice made him “ an inspiration to developing countries in particular.”
In Latin America, the Cuban revolution of 1959, demonstrated that a better world is possible. It unleashed a major historical movement which, despite its ebbs and flows, set in motion the long march of peoples towards liberation - a factor recognised in the Declaration of Havana (October 1962) which specified the socialist character of the revolution. Fidel’s words echo as powerfully today as they did then in Cuba and in all Latin America “Because this great mass of humanity has cried “Enough! It has begun to move. And this giant march will not cease until true independence is won for which so many have died in vain.”
We will keep faith with your legacy, Comandante Fidel Castro!