When I woke yesterday morning, I was told that Fidel Castro had died. For an American born in 1960 in a US fixated upon the Cold War and the “Communist threat,” Fidel Castro and Cuba were a fixture in my life. That little island had thrown off the chains of the imperialist neighbour to the north to choose their own way. The fact that the empire to the north could never forgive that choice and strove constantly to force both the population and its leader into submission seems rather amazing when you think of it. What threat could this tiny island be to its neighbour; so much overreaction to people choosing their own way of life. Fidel himself survived 600+ assassination attempts and still managed to outlive 11 American presidents hectoring him on democracy as they overthrew elected Latin American governments and whose democracy has always been rife with voter suppression; if you think the struggle against Jim Crow ended voter suppression you have not been looking close enough.
US intervention in Latin America has never been kind and supportive; overthrow of democratically elected governments either directly or through the use of proxies (both civilian and military) has been the norm. These actions arose from protection of direct economic interests, the need to protect a Comprador Bourgeoisie serving and maintaining its interests, and various American governments’ beliefs in its own manifest destiny to control the countries in its actual physical orbit. The threat to US government interests and fears of a Domino Effect (most often associated with its intervention in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but as true of the US’s perspective in Latin America) of the impact of one country actually falling out of its control, led to years of economic blockages against Cuba and literally forced it into the hands of the Soviet Union.
In response to the Declaration of San Jose forced through the Organization of American States (1960), the Cuba government responded with the Declaration of Havana of which the following is only a small quote. The Declaration of Havana (August 1960) situates the Cuban revolution clearly and expressed the hope of millions of peasants and working class people in Latin America and is essential reading to understand the history of struggle in Latin America against US imperialism both then and now. It is not as if the US has stopped interfering in the countries to the south, a quick look in the last 10 years and Venezuela and Honduras are not the only obvious examples.
“The National General Assembly of the People reaffirms—and is certain of doing so as an expression of a view common to all the people of Latin America—that democracy is incompatible with the financial oligarchy, racial discrimination, and the outrages of the Klu Klux Klan, the persecutions that prevented the world from hearing for many years the wonderful voice of Paul Robeson, imprisoned in his own country, and that killed the Rosenbergs, in the face of the protests and the horror of the world and despite the appeal of the rulers of many countries, and of Pope Pius XII, himself. The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba expresses its conviction that democracy cannot consist only in a vote, which is almost always fictitious and manipulated by big land holders and professional politicians, but in the right of the citizens to decide, as this Assembly of the People is now deciding, its own destiny. Moreover, democracy will only exist in Latin America when its people are really free to choose, when the humble people are not reduced—by hunger, social inequality, illiteracy, and the juridical systems—to the most degrading impotence.
For all the foregoing reasons, the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba:
Condemns the latifundium, a source of poverty for the peasants and a backward and inhuman agricultural system; condemns starvation wages and the iniquitous exploitation of human labor by immoral and privileged interests; condemns illiteracy, the lack of teachers, of schools, of doctors and hospitals, the lack of protection of old age that prevails in Latin America; condemns the inequality and exploitation of women; condemns the discrimination against the Negro and the Indian; condemns the military and political oligarchies that keep our peoples in utter poverty and block their democratic development and the full exercise of their sovereignty; condemns the handing over of our countries’ natural resources to the foreign monopolies as a submissive policy that betrays the interests of the peoples; condemns the governments that ignore the feelings of their people and yield to the directives of Washington; condemns the systematic deception of the people by the information media that serve the interests of the oligarchies and the policies of oppressive imperialism; condemns the news monopoly of the Yankee agencies, instruments of the North. American trusts and agents of Washington; condemns the repressive laws that prevent workers, peasants, students and intellectuals, which form the great majority of each country, from organizing themselves and fighting for the realization of their social and patriotic aspirations; condemns the monopolies and imperialistic organizations that continuously loot our wealth, exploit our workers and peasants, bleed and keep in backwardness our economies, and submit the political life of Latin America to the sway of their own designs and interests.
In short, the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba condemns both the exploitation of man by man and the exploitation of under-developed countries by imperialistic finance capital.
Therefore, the National General Assembly of the People of Cuba proclaims before America:
The right of the peasants to the land; the right of the workers to the fruit of their work; the right of children to education; the right of the ill to medical and hospital attention; the right of youth to work; the right of students to free, experimental, and scientific education; the right of Negroes and Indians to “the full dignity of Man;” the right of women to civil, social and political equality; the right of the aged to a secure old age; the right of intellectuals, artists, and scientists to fight, with their works, for a better world; the right of nations to their full sovereignty; the right of nations to turn fortresses into schools, and to arm their workers, their peasants, their students, their intellectuals, the Negro, the Indian, the women, the young and the old, the oppressed and exploited people, so that they may themselves defend their rights and their destinies”. (www.walterlippmann.com/…)”
Castro was not a Marxist-Leninist in his beginnings; he was a revolutionary nationalist fighting for self-determination of Cuba inspired by José Martí struggling for self-determination and anti-imperialism rather than a follower of the ideas of Marx or Lenin. Again, it was the reaction of the United States that forced the Cuban revolution into this direction if only for survival of its population in the face of trade embargos, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and its political isolation.
While the socialism in Cuba was never the socialism that I want and have fought for, defending its revolution in the face of so much aggression became a point of principle if only to make clear to other Americans what the United States has done to Latin America and to stand in support of self-determination and in solidarity with its population and attempt to change the nature of life for its people while serving as a source of inspiration for the oppressed in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Led by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, the Cuban revolution entered the stage dramatically and in its early years, collective struggles against illiteracy and wealth inequality were the focal points. The Cuban Literacy Campaign was a year-long effort beginning in January 1961 and ending in December where literacy brigades were sent out into the countryside to teach 707,212 adults to read and write. It was a remarkable success; from an official literacy rate between 60-76% in 1959, the campaign raised the literacy rate to 96%. Current Cuban literacy rates are at 99.8%.
The Cuban healthcare system is widely lauded for good reasons. It is concentrated on preventive medicine and with strong links with research and development. Life expectancy is high at 78 years and infant mortality is at 4.2 per 100 births (far better than the rest of Latin America and better than its neighbour to the north. It shares it expertise by training young doctors from other countries (the Latin School of Medicine created in 1998 has trained over 20,000 doctors from 123 countries), by providing medical assistance both during and after crises in many peripheral capitalist economies. In conjunction with Venezuela, under the name of Operation Miracle, they provided free cataract surgery initially in Venezuela and then throughout the continent. Mission Miracle provides free eyeglasses and contact lenses for the visually impaired. Cuban physicians provide inoculations against malaria in Africa routinely saving many lives.
Economic policy and agricultural policy in the early years
Table 1: Major Economic Reforms, 1959-1961
|Date||Reform Measure||Specific Objectives|
|January||Creation of the “Ministry for the Recovery of Misappropriated Assets”||Confiscation of properties of Batista supporters, including 236 businesses|
|January-May||Elimination of foreign crime syndicates and prohibition of gambling||The Mafia departs; its properties seized by the state|
|March||Urban Reform Law||Reduction of urban rents, to be based on renters’ income levels|
|April||“Vacant Lot Law”||Confiscation of unused urban lands|
|April||Establishment of INAV,the “Instituto de Ahoro y Vivienda’||Promotion of housing construction|
|May||Establishment of the Instituto Nacional de la Industria Turistica||Promote tourism|
|May 17||First Agrarian Reform Law||Expropriation and redistribution of large estates (30% of cultivated farmland) including 480,000 acres owned by U.S. interests.
Numerous other components
|June||Establishment of the National Institute of Agrarian reform (INRA)||Implementation of the agrarian reform; preliminary management of the state sector|
|July||Tax Reform Law||Rationalize tax structure and raise revenues|
|November||Law permitting Ministry of Labor to expropriate firms involved in labor disputes||Takeover of 50 enterprises by March 1960|
|Institution for managing the oil sector|
|March||Establishment of the Junta Central de Planificacion (JUCEPLAN )||Institution preparatory for more centralized planning|
|June 29||Nationalization of oil companies|
|July 6,||Law 851, “Nationalization of US Properties” law
||Authorizing nationalization of all assets owned by US citizens
|July to September||Nationalization of foreign owned enterprises|
|October 13||Law 890||Nationalization of many Cuban owned enterprises|
|October 15||Urban Reform law||Nationalization of non-owner occupied housing and allocation to former renters under favorable terms|
(Source: Archibald R. M. Ritter, 2010, The Cuban Economy: Revolution, 1959-1990, thecubaneconomy.com/…).
With such high expectations, the results were disappointing. Large amounts of Cuba’s economy both for internal production and consumption and for foreign trade were dependent upon the US. The US embargo had significant impact and production was significantly impacted. Continued transformations towards centralised planning became the core of their industrial and agricultural policies.
Table 2, State Ownership Shares in the Cuban Economy, 1959-1988
Source: Mesa-Lago, 2000 (Source: Archibald R. M. Ritter, 2010, The Cuban Economy: Revolution, 1959-1990, thecubaneconomy.com/…).
Attempts at rapid industrialisation failed and Cuba falls back on primary product production with trade predominantly occurring between the Soviet Union and the so-called Socialist bloc of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union quickly replaced the US as primary trading partner but lack of access to local markets has severe economic impacts upon Cuba leading to long-term poverty; trade provided far too much of food for domestic consumption. Even more so, primary product production is always subject to wide variations in pricing in international markets and dependence upon one primary consumer even with subsidised terms of trade will always be problematic; moreover, dependency on food imports leads you very vulnerable. In many senses, Cuba wound up in the situation that it was desperately trying to avoid.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Cuba in a severe crisis as its own agricultural production was geared more for export rather than internal consumption. Moreover, use of pesticides and petroleum in production was creating pollution damage. The loss of oil and other external inputs at subsidised prices left them in serious crisis, food production was insufficient and a disaster of incredible proportions that many fear had arrived. They rose to the occasion and changed course.
“They brought in experts in Permaculture from Australia and launched a national drive toward diversified, organic, polycultural, restorative agriculture. They did not do this because they wanted to save “the environment,” they did it because they wanted to save themselves. And that is why they succeeded. By the end of that first decade the average Cuban was getting 2600 calories and more than 68 grams of protein, an amount considered “sufficient” by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2006 average caloric intake was up to 3356 calories.
A lot of this food was produced not in the countryside (requiring transport to the cities) but in urban gardens, where food was grown and consumed in the same neighborhood. By 2002, 35,000 acres of urban gardens produced 3.4 million tons of food . In Havana, 90% of the city’s fresh produce came from local urban farms and gardens, all organic. In 2003, more than 200,000 Cubans were employed in urban agriculture. In 2003, Cuba had reduced its use of Diesel fuel by more than 50%, synthetic fertilizers by 90%, and chemical insecticides by 83% (www.dailyimpact.net/…).”
The creation of ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) in 2004 by Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro has provided Cuba and other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with a degree of economic independence from the US, additional sources of trade at better terms, and a united platform to struggle against political and economic interference by the US. The alliance offers much to its members beyond trade and the sharing of knowledge and international solidarity. For those following the situation in Latin America, the threat to this alliance due to the falling price of oil (Venezuela is dependent upon oil export) and increasing instability in Venezuela will have significant effects on the whole region and the alliance.
But things are changing in Cuba. The dual currencies encourages wealth accumulation as access to the foreign pesos means access to more things (extra homes, higher quality commodities) as they can be used to buy things that others do not have access to. There has always been a small private sector, but Fidel used the private sector and kept them on a tight leash; Fidel allowed them access to the economy when needed and reined them in when not. The opening to the US, who has been so successful undermining things that stand in their way, is worrying.
Cuba’s international solidarity extends beyond healthcare in Latin America and Africa. In Africa, Fidel’s opposition to apartheid in South Africa and belief in self-determination led to Cuba joining the struggle in Angola meant not only repeating the word solidarity it meant sending troops and fighting together with those struggling in these countries. In 1975, Cuba entered the battle after Angola’s independence in support of the MPLA(People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola). The defeat of Zairean and South Africa supported forces in Angola played a strong role in enabling the overthrow of apartheid. Cuba not only provided troops, it provided educational and medical support as well.
Fidel’s consistent support with the Palestinian people who struggle for justice met nothing but lip-service, indifference and malice from the rest of the world made Fidel a hero to Palestinians. In both the 6 day war and in 1973, Cuba sent forces to help besieged Arab forces. From the condolences issued by the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), you can see the gratitude of members of the PFLP and this holds for all Palestinians:
“Throughout Castro’s life, and throughout the history of the Cuban revolution, support for the Palestinian people’s national liberation movement and the Palestinian revolution has been central to its anti-imperialist approach that centered the construction of revolutionary alliances between the progressive forces and struggling peoples of the world. The Palestinian people and the Cuban people have stood together at all levels, in confronting imperialism and its forces, from Latin America to Africa to the Arab world. In the Tricontinental alliance and the Non-Aligned Movement, Cuba stood with the Palestinian people and their liberation movement in all facets of international struggle, building a revolutionary alliance for collective movement against imperialism, colonialism and its particular manifestation in Palestine, Zionism. Zionism has been a key weapon of racist oppression, a fact recognized by Fidel Castro and the Cuban people and state. This popular unity has not faded over the years; as Zionist weaponry pounded Gaza in 2014, Castro slammed this “repugnant fascism” against the Palestinian people. Dozens of Palestinian students continue to study in Cuba today through its long-running scholarship program (pflp.ps/…).”
We must be critical of his relationship with Qaddafi and the Assads (in fact, I still cringe when I see pictures of Fidel with these people and for that matter others whose politics and human rights records are appalling) and which leaves his legacy in the Middle East and in other places a mixed one as an understatement; but we must recognise the fact that international solidarity was a central component to Fidel’s vision.
However you view Fidel Castro, he lived an extraordinary life; he serves as a continued source of inspiration for those fighting imperialism and for self-determination whether you appreciate that inspiration or not.
How will Fidel Castro be judged by history? There is much to laud and also much to criticise. Historians of the left and the people of Cuba will be the final judges … we already know what the right, conservatives and liberals think. Maybe they will revise their opinion, maybe not. History is often the history of the victors … sometimes this can change. On this piece, homage to Fidel Castro, thoughts turn to Shakespeare “Julius Caesar” and the opening of Mark Anthony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral …
“Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar”
So here is my acknowledgement that Fidel was not perfect and made errors. I hold to a very different understanding of democracy as compared to bourgeois democracy and the political situation in Cuba. For me, democracy begins in the grass-roots, without that democracy means little. Politically, I have always felt that democracy must be an essential part of the revolution and socialism. Like other so-called socialist leaders during the Cold War and in its remnants, the lack of democracy in the countries in which they ruled is problematic. And while democracy is more than the ballot box, it also must also exist throughout the economic, political and social spheres and not imposed top-down. One of the main problems with centralisation of the economy and of political leadership is precisely the loss of a socialist democracy. The ability to criticise, offer alternative paths economically and politically is essential for socialism to thrive. So the treatment of political prisoners both left and right does not sit well with me if I were to make a true judgment as a Marxist.
One thing that stays in my mind (which to me is unforgivable) was the government’s initial treatment of homosexuals and those with AIDS which was appalling. When I was in Havana, I passed a small medical clinic which had on its windows a sign that said (in Spanish), discrimination and degrading comments against homosexuals is illegal … they learned … this is more than I can say about others. I actually stood there in silence when I read that sign … the treatment of those with AIDS has changed for the betterand has been rather successful, with mother to foetus transmission negligible, combined with sex education for the young, and the struggle against a machismo and patriarchal culture as a component of that change. Does this mean that it has been eliminated? Does this make up for initial behaviour? No to both. Elimination is doubtful … it takes a long time to change culture which is why we need to struggle to fight before the revolution happens or change will not occur.
The history of modern Cuba (from 1959 forwards) is a history of fighting for self-determination against the odds. The struggle is ongoing and what will happen in Cuba now that the old guard is dying will result in change. What will happen will depend on both subjective and objective forces in Cuba and in the rest of the world; hopefully trade unions and a more democratic left will continue the struggle for socialism.
For me, Cuba will always be a light towards the potential of what can be rather than what we are trapped in. History will judge Fidel Castro, but tonight I will say farewell to our comrade Fidel (with his warts and all).
I leave you with Fidel’s last words to Obama on the latter’s visit to Cuba
Hasta la victoria Fidel!