Fidel remembered: a view of the Cuban revolution

Richard Gott
20 February 2008

The unusual circumstances that brought about the Cuban revolution of January 1959, with bearded guerrillas descending from the hills to seize power, and the dramatic arrival on the international stage of Fidel Castro, its eloquent and charismatic leader, had an extraordinary international impact from the first. Cuba's example was to spark off other revolutionary initiatives, large and small, in countries all over the world, and to affect the lives of millions of people. Perhaps for the first time since the end of the second world war in 1945, an event occurred of transcendent pleasure and excitement: the overthrow of a sanguinary military dictator and his replacement by an undisciplined bunch of youthful radicals with a revolutionary project. Castro and the revolution were soon indissoluble in the public mind, perceived as one and the same thing.

In the United States, at the end of the Dwight Eisenhower era, Cuba's revolution brought hope of the rejuvenation of politics at home and abroad. The same hope was raised in Europe, where pre-war figures like Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, and Harold Macmillan were still in charge. Even in the Soviet Union, where ancient revolutionaries like Nikita Khrushchev and Anastas Mikoyan were sloughed down by post-Stalinist bureaucracy, a cheer went up from the Kremlin when they saw the rebirth in the Caribbean of their own youthful dreams.

As for the peoples of Latin America, they could not believe their luck. They were suddenly presented with a revolution in the country most conspicuously under the thumb of Uncle Sam, having been told over the previous century that there was little hope for independence and freedom in the United States's backyard. Thousands flocked to Havana to sign up for the cause; hundreds were recruited into fresh armies of national liberation. Countries in Asia and Africa, engaged in their own anti-imperial struggles, also took heart from the Cuban example, providing the bedrock of the "third world" movement that promoted an alternative scenario to the dismal nuclear stalemate of the cold war.

Cuba swam into my personal view at the start of my second term at an English university. As history students, we were fascinated by the story of the Spanish civil war, the nearest event to the present day that we were then allowed to study. The bearded guerrillas led by Castro and Che Guevara burst in upon us with a flash of illumination, as though that recent past, only two decades earlier, had been suddenly brought back to life.

Richard Gott is the author of Cuba: A New History (Yale University Press, 2005); Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution (Verso, 2005); and Guerrilla Movements in Latin America (Seagull Books, new edition, 2007)

Many of us had already been radicalised for a hundred reasons: by the British catastrophe at Suez in 1956, by the survival of so many dark-suited and conservative politicians from the 1930s, by the end of military conscription, by the imminent collapse of the British empire, by the emergence of the third-world movement after the Bandung conference in 1955, by the political thaw in communist Poland, by the guerrilla struggle waged by the Algerians, and by the embryonic campaign against nuclear weapons and the new mood of anti-racism.

The rhetoric coming from Havana in 1959 - social justice, land reform, racial equality, anti-imperialism - seemed an answer to prayer, for it echoed what we thought and were trying to articulate. Even "armed struggle" had its heroic aspect, something almost unimaginable during today's "war on terror". Military dictators were not going to be toppled by non-violence, then the mantra of the peace movement. We purchased black berets to show our commitment, let our beards grow in conscious imitation of the Cuban barbudos, and investigated how we, too, could make the pilgrimage to Havana.

A revolutionary voice

I arrived in Cuba for the first time in 1963, with Castro's revolution now well established, and hardened - by the experience of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and the missile crisis of October 1962. The country was on a war footing and the threat from the United States still remained. An American warship hovered permanently offshore, visible from the window of my room overlooking on the Malecón, in the Hotel Riviera, a gambling den finished just before the revolution (with no thirteenth floor). Assorted leftists from Europe and the Americas descended on the island in huge numbers in those years, to discover what was happening at firsthand. I mingled with the admiring throng, going out into the banana plantations at weekends for "voluntary work" with attractive young secretaries from the foreign ministry, and signing up to join a street committee at a stall in Old Havana.

Fidel spoke at an evening meeting in the Plaza de la Revolución, in front of the National Library with the immense white statue of José Martí, erected by Fulgencio Batista, towering to one side. He spoke for several hours, to an audience of half a million. They listened with close attention, captivated by his message, the cadence of his voice, and his marvellous use of the Spanish language.

Foreign critics, aware of the tedious speeches of their own politicians, often imagine that Fidel's long harangues must have been boring. This is not so. They were intensely political but often highly inspirational. Many of the twists and turns of the revolution have been spelt out in his speeches, as Castro engages in a one-man adult-education course, but there is always time for humour and poetry. Castro did for Latin America's tradition of political speechmaking what Gabriel García Márquez did for the novel: creating a memorable art form that transcends traditional boundaries. Winston Churchill was once awarded the Nobel prize for literature; Fidel deserves the same prize.

I have never read a proper study of Fidel's speechmaking, but he prepared them with great care, like a jazz musician. He blocks in the huge amount of factual material he needs to get across, he hits high spots of poetic language, he indulges in long riffs of reminiscence and shared endeavour, and then checks himself to return to his principal theme. He rounds off the entire structure with an optimistic message that sends his listeners home with the feeling that they have had a wonderful, theatrical evening.

People still remember the magnificent eulogy that he delivered on the death of Guevara in 1967, and I was present one warm evening in 1970 when he told his hushed audience of the death that day of Gamal Abdul Nasser, their far-away ally in Egypt. On one occasion, as I walked back to my hotel, a (black) Cuban whispered to me: "Batista used to do this very well too; he also could summon up a large crowd". It was an unromantic reminder of the continuing traditions of Latin America's political culture.

Also in openDemocracy on Cuba:

Bella Thomas,
"Paradox regained: a conversation with an old comandante in Cuba"
(19 August 2003)

Fred Halliday,
"Fidel Castro's legacy: Cuban conversations"
(24 August 2006)

Bella Thomas,
"Living with Castro"
(19 February 2008)

My ignorance of all things Cuban was extreme, so much so that I was surprised to find Havana so full of black people. No one had explained to me that Cuba was a country with as many blacks as whites; the iconic pictures of bearded revolutionaries arriving in Havana in 1959 had only shown lorry-loads of white guerrillas. Gazing at the black faces in the streets of Havana, I understood for the first time the significance of Castro's visit to the United Nations in New York in September 1960, when he stayed at the Hotel Theresa in Harlem. He was sending a message to the black population of the United States, then on the brink of creating a formidable civil-rights movement, but also to his own black population at home. When I met Nicolas Guillén, Cuba's great (and black) poet, I could see the local significance of Castro's close attention to the liberation struggle in Africa, and Cuba's participation in it. Guillén read me his wonderful poem evoking Cuba's structural relationship with Africa, which begins with a reference to his Yoruba heritage:

Cuba soy,

Soy Lucumí.

A political laboratory

I worked at the time as a researcher at London's Chatham House, the establishment think-tank then in a social-democratic, post-colonial, and pro-European frame of mind, and I had useful introductions to the principal figures of the revolution. The British establishment did not share the hysteria about Cuba that had overtaken the United States. Britain and the United States had competed fiercely for business in Cuba for more than a century, and businessmen knew that the Americans had only pulled ahead after the invasion and occupation of the island in 1898. The Conservative government of Harold Macmillan, as well as quite a few bankers and diplomats, were influenced by centuries of experience in the Caribbean. They had a sneaking admiration for Castro's ability openly to defy the Americans. Britain's Cuban railway company had been successfully sold to Batista ten years earlier. So why should the British care about the fate of US banks and sugar plantations?

Fascinated by what I found in Cuba, and intrigued by Castro's ambition to spread his revolutionary message to Latin America, I resolved to try to live and work in the continent, and I found a job at the University of Chile, in Santiago. Chile in the 1960s was a unique vantage-point from which to view the rest of the continent, a surprisingly free country in a region already beginning to be submerged by the incoming tide of military rule. The US helped stage a coup in Brazil in 1964, the first of many that would sweep the continent in the 1960s (in Argentina and Bolivia) and the 1970s (in Chile and Uruguay). The entire continent was talking about "revolution", with guerrillas in the mountains and jungles of half a dozen countries, all influenced by Castro's revolutionary project. From a base in Santiago I travelled around in search of the separate stories of these various guerrilla movements, culminating in the final campaign and death of Che Guevara in Bolivia in 1967.

Chile in those years was an experimental laboratory of political science, yet the Chileans were engaged in a different experiment from that of the Cubans. They were trying to create a revolutionary anti-body, helped and financed by the United States, which would prove capable of crushing the Cuban example. They called it a "revolution in freedom", and its chief protagonists were members of the Christian Democrat party. These Christian, conservative revolutionaries operated in Cuba's shadow, seeking to inoculate their society against revolutionary socialism by introducing radical reforms of their own. They discussed the need for land reform and for the strategic copper industry, run by US companies, to be brought under some kind of national control.

Their imaginative project ran into the sand, and in 1970 Chile launched itself on a new and more dangerous development: taking the road to Cuban-style socialism through the election of Salvador Allende, yet with only 43% (at best) of the popular vote. Castro was pleased to find an ally on the continent, for the United States had imposed a diplomatic as well as a trade boycott of the island in the early 1960s. Yet when he arrived for a month-long visit in 1971, he was unimpressed with what he found. Political disunity and economic disruption were the chief characteristics of Allende's revolution, overlaid with high-flown socialist rhetoric increasingly out of touch with reality. Castro saw nothing but chaos and the impending threat of fascism. General Augusto Pinochet seized power two years later.

Castro at that time had already taken the decision to join the communist bloc. Cuba became a formal member of Comecon, the trading organisation of the communist world, in 1972. Many people assume that Castro turned directly to communism almost immediately after the revolution. This is not so. During the first decade after 1959, Castro tried to maintain his revolution as an independent force in world politics, maintaining close relations with the Soviet Union, but keeping a critical distance. That was its charm, and the reason why it received such unswerving support from leftist intellectuals in the west, who dreamed of an alternative to the Soviet Union. Long before Alexander Dubcek, Castro stood for "communism with a human face".

A global commitment

Castro abandoned his independent stand in 1968, precisely over the question of Czechoslovakia. When the Warsaw Pact countries took part in the overthrow of Dubcek, Castro surprised and appalled his admirers by supporting the invasion. He had his reasons, although they were opaquely explained. The death of Che Guevara the previous year had meant an end to the guerrilla struggle to liberate Latin America, a strategy disapproved of by the Russians who were busy constructing a policy of détente with the United States; the search for an alternative to Cuba's sugar economy meant the resurrection of the sugar industry and the country's total economic dependence on its principal purchaser, the Soviet Union; and the Cuban revolution itself, never a significant source of intellectual debate, had run out of ideological steam.

The Soviet Union and its satellite states provided a wonderful stream of revenue and international support, but more importantly they supplied a convenient model of how to reorganise a country's institutions according to a socialist blueprint. Castro bought the entire Soviet package, and fitted Cuba into its straitjacket. The Soviet constitution, the Soviet economic plan, and the Soviet way of running schools, universities, hospitals and state industries were all adopted, and imposed over a period of two decades, from approximately 1970 to 1990.

The decision brought squeals of pain and disappointment within Cuba itself, and much disenchantment abroad. The French intellectuals who had led the international support campaigns were vociferous in their opposition. Cuba lost its focus of interest as a special case. In my own case, as Cuba turned to the Soviet Union and the rest of Latin America fell under military rule, I looked for revolutionary possibilities elsewhere. I moved continents, taking up a newspaper job in Dar es Salaam, where the guerrilla movements of southern Africa had their headquarters. I did not return to Cuba until years later, in the 1990s, after the Soviet yoke had been cast off.

Paradoxically, Africa became the scene of some of Castro's greatest triumphs, often undertaken to the surprise and amazement of the Soviet Union. Castro allowed the Russians free rein in reorganising the Cuban economy, but in foreign affairs he ran the show himself. Unique among Cuban politicians, Castro had a real sense of the country's African heritage. The revolution itself had been born during the great Algerian struggle for liberation in the 1950s, and the Cuban guerrillas were well aware of the parallel war being fought out in Africa. Cuba's first "internationalist" support was sent to Algeria, to be followed by Che Guevara's expeditionary force to the Congo in 1965. The African guerrilla leaders I met in Dar were in constant communication with the Cubans, sending their guerrillas to Cuba for training and their supporters to be educated at schools specially created for them.

Cuba was first to provide help to the resistance forces against Portugal's colonial rule, first in Guinea-Bissau, and later in Angola and Mozambique. In 1975, and again in 1988, Cuban troops proved essential in repelling the white South African regime's invasion of Angola. The Russians came in later, with money and troops, but Castro's personal quick reaction had save the day. The Cubans were also vital in helping the Ethiopians to defeat the Somalis in the Ogaden in 1977. The Cuban victory in Angola of 1988 had a wider impact, as Nelson Mandela explained later, for it gave inspiration to the people of South Africa by destroying "the invincibility of the white oppressor."

Today there are people who complain that there are not enough black faces at the top of the revolutionary leadership in Cuba. This is a reasonable complaint. As befits a regime modelled for years on the Soviet system, racism in Cuba is assumed to be a product of poverty. The blacks are poor and things will get better when people are richer. So runs the argument. Cuba has never taken the United States road of supporting positive discrimination, and remains a country, typical of Latin America, where racist attitudes persist. Yet blacks in general do better in Cuba than in the US. They are represented at all levels of government except the top. The revolution has recognised them as equal citizens, and they remain the regime's most solid bulwark.

Castro's staunch support of liberation struggles in Africa, and his subsequent project of sending doctors rather than soldiers to work there and in other parts of the third world, gave him a unique position in the affections of the entire world, recognised in the annual votes in the general assembly of the United Nations on the issue of the United States economic boycott. In October 2007, only three countries in the world - Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau (with Micronesia alone in abstaining) - supported the US position.

A special period

Castro's revolution recovered some of the spirit of the early years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Suddenly Castro was able to be his own man again, forced to think for himself. He had to provide a new vision for his country without its Soviet prop. Many outside critics imagined optimistically that Cuba would go the way of the Soviet satellites states of east-central Europe. Much of the Cuban exile population in Miami thought he might receive the humiliating fate of Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. But the Cuban revolution was woven from stronger material. Castro had not come to power with the bayonets of foreign armies; his revolution was homegrown, the product of a long tradition of nationalist struggle going back for more than a century. Whatever the circumstances, the Cubans would fight to retain what they had achieved.

The period since 1991 in Cuba, described by Castro as "a special period in time of peace", have shown what deep roots the revolution has developed. Deprived very suddenly of Soviet and Comecon economic support, with a collapse of economic activity on a scale rarely seen anywhere except in the aftermath of war or recession, Cuba managed to struggle through, using bicycles instead of cars, and oxen instead of tractors. Only at the dawn of the 21st century, with the timely arrival of Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and the exchange of doctors for oil, has Cuba managed to bounce back again. Having survived this extraordinarily difficult economic period, Cuba should have little difficulty in navigating the political waters that lie ahead without their maximo líder.

In his final years, the people of Latin America have suddenly woken up again to the huge historical significance of Fidel Castro, the great figure in the continent of the 20th century. Wherever he has travelled, he has been mobbed by those who want to see him, to hear him, to interview him. They have finally recognised that he is now in the continental pantheon with Simón Bolívar and the liberators of the 19th century, and that he will not be on show much longer.

A new history

A few years ago, I returned to Havana to write a history of Cuba, which was published in 2005. On its final page, I wrote the following words about Castro:

"He remains a figure from all our yesterdays, grey-bearded but eternally youthful like an ageing rock star. He does not run the country, but he presides over a government that is his creation. He has changed his slogan from ‘socialism or death', suitable for the violent 20th century, to ‘a better world is possible', appropriate for the more pacifistic revolutionaries of a new era. When he dies, there will be little change in Cuba. While few people have been looking, the change has already taken place."

Hugo Chávez is the natural successor to Castro, as a new and radical period opens up in Latin American history. Castro's revolution brought the great mass of the Cuban people onto the political stage, and successfully fought off the US ambition to recover its control over the island. Today the challenges are different but also similar. Latin America faces something new: the political awakening of the indigenous peoples, kept from power over five centuries. They are the real power that lies behind what is sometimes described as a move to the left in the great tranche of elections in 2006. They have the capacity to write an entirely new history.

At the same time there is a rich country, Venezuela, with unparalleled resources at its command, intent and capable of using them to benefit the people and to stir up others to do the same. No previous revolution has had such economic strength at its command. Yet the threat remains the same today as it once was against Cuba: the United States has still not learned to keep its meddling fingers out of Latin America's future. Its long record of military as well as other forms of intervention has not suddenly ground to a halt. The real battle over Latin America still lies ahead.

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