- Created: Thursday, 23 April 2009 15:48
- Written by Cat Wiener
‘Behind me are others more radical than I.’
Fidel Castro, 1997
In 1997, Raul Castro, head of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), was appointed Vice-President of Cuba and therefore the person who would step into President Fidel Castro’s shoes if it became necessary. With Fidel currently recovering from illness, Raul has taken his place. Raul Castro, a revolutionary of nearly 60 years’ standing and one of the pivotal figures in Cuba’s march towards socialism, is more than equal to the task.
Already a committed communist, from his university days, he fought in the Moncada Uprising against the hated Batista regime in July 1953, and was captured and imprisoned on the Isle of Pines before being released in a general amnesty in 1955. He then travelled to Mexico with Fidel to organise insurrection against Batista – the Granma expedition of late 1956. During this time he met Che Guevara and introduced him to Fidel.
For the next two years he fought in the Sierra Maestra. But in 1958, Raul’s organisational skills and political vision were thrown into sharp relief as the Frank Pais Second Eastern Front, led by Raul, swept into the Oriente eastern province of Cuba. As Batista’s forces were driven back, Raul set about mobilising the peasants and industrial and agricultural workers, setting up a comprehensive civil administration that was later seen as the model for the revolutionary regime. In every locality peasants were organised into revolutionary committees and involved in political education to prepare for agrarian reform. 200 disused schools were reopened and another 300 set up, with teachers and students drafted in from the cities to begin a literacy campaign. Watching the flames rising after his forces had burned down a Batista garrison, he wrote: ‘In the distance the flames of liberty can be seen burning over the garrisons of oppression. Some day soon we will raise schools on those ashes’. 20 hospitals were set up, and in those areas infant mortality dropped from 40% to 5%. Raul also ensured his troops received political, cultural and ethical education to equip them not just as soldiers but as revolutionaries.
After the Revolution in 1959, Raul became leader of FAR, setting up training schools for military cadre while also promoting the doctrine of War of All the People, with a civil population armed, trained and ready to defend its revolution. He remained a key figure in the July 26 Movement, the band of radical revolutionaries grouped around Fidel who were the driving force towards socialism, and was instrumental in forming close ties with the Soviet Union. He married Vilma Espin, who had fought in the underground movement and the Sierra Maestra against Batista and after the Revolution fought for women’s emancipation and equality. Today she is head of the Cuban Women’s Federation.
Battles as crucial as those of the Rebel Army lay ahead. In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union when the Special Period began to bite, Raul articulated the challenges that lay ahead for the Communist Party as it tried to navigate the new economic and political reality – what he called a ‘life or death’ battle for the survival of the Cuban Revolution (see FRFI 131, June/July 1997).
‘The only form of socialism possible in Cuba today [requires] us to assimilate such difficulties as mercantile commercial relations and even certain elements of capitalism and reinsert ourselves into the world economy dominated by the monopolies of the imperialist powers.’ He recognised that this was a setback for socialism and would inevitably create inequality and give rise to a privileged, proto-capitalist class defined by individualism, personal enrichment and corruption; a breeding ground for counter-revolutionary tendencies. Only by working with the mass of the people could this be overcome. ‘We must convince the people or the enemy will do it.’ Measures that appeared to benefit the few – such as hard currency stores – must be shown to be in the interest of the masses, generating resources to provide 10,000 children with a litre of milk a day. Communists must work in people’s assemblies and workers’ parliaments so that the ideological struggle and measures to defend socialism would become ‘a mass movement, a work of the masses’.
Unrest on the streets in the late 1990s was faced down by ordinary workers, not the army. Raul set the armed forces to growing vegetables and fruits to be sold at lower prices than the private farmers’ markets: ‘The people need beans, not guns’, he commented.
Chairing the Non-Aligned Summit held in Havana in September, it was Raul who was the leading voice demanding the regeneration of a global movement against imperialist brutality and devastation and for internationalist solidarity, equality and justice.
Raul Castro has always said that carrying a party card confers no special rights or privileges: the respect of the people must be earned through hard work and sacrifice. It is clear that in the new battles to regenerate the Cuban economy and deepen the socialist consciousness of the people, Raul Castro will continue to win that respect.
FRFI 193 October / November 2006