Fidel Castro: 1926-2016

Fidel pointing

‘I am a Marxist-Leninist and I shall be a Marxist-Leninist until the day I die.’ – Fidel Castro after the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

On 25 November, Fidel Castro Ruz, Commander in Chief of the Cuban Revolution, died aged 90. The Revolutionary Communist Group pays tribute to this great revolutionary communist and sends condolences to his family, the Cuban people and those millions of people from every region of the world who claimed Fidel as their own.

The news comes three months after Fidel’s 90th birthday was celebrated in Cuba and internationally. As we said at that time: ‘His longevity is a source of comfort and pride.’ Fidel risked his life on the front line in Cuba’s revolutionary armed struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s, he faced hundreds of assassination attempts and acts of terrorism over the subsequent 50 years, and he pulled through a grave illness which took him to death’s door in 2006. And yet, he died a natural death in peace in Havana, having seen off nine hostile US Presidents. Cuba faces many challenges today, with economic changes underway and the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States, but the revolutionary society built under Fidel’s leadership remains solid, as does the political commitment to the path of socialist development he led it down following the Revolution of 1959.

Fidel’s genius was his ability to meet the need for tactical steps, responding to the day’s urgencies, without losing sight of the strategic direction – the revolutionary principles – that have driven Cuba’s progress. In the 1950s, Fidel set out the Moncada Programme, which committed to bringing social welfare and land reform to the Cuban people, and confiscating the ill-gotten gains of the Cuban elite. This was his promise to the Cuban people, who came out in their masses to cheer Fidel on the long road to Havana in the first days of 1959. And in this, clearly, Fidel has been absolved by history. Equally important was the ‘wonderful quality’ that Che Guevara noted: his capacity to establish direct contact with the masses, always communicating, explaining, motivating and responding to the Cuban people.

As a young anti-corruption lawyer, Fidel understood that the brutal military coup that returned Batista to power in Cuba in 1952 signalled the impossibility of a peaceful constitutional path to reform in Cuba. Together with his brother Raul and others, he launched the 26 July Movement, named after the day of simultaneous attacks on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago and the Bayamo Barracks in Oriente by 160 young militants.

This action was not intended to carry out a putsch, mirroring Batista, but to disarm the enemy and arm the people. Fidel knew that armed revolutionary action was the only way that the people could gain the organisational space to defend themselves and together build a new economic and social system free from foreign oppression and poverty. This was characteristic of Fidel Castro’s politics. ‘The energy and strength of the masses must be converted into efficiency’ to build the revolution. ‘This efficiency cannot be obtained from above: that efficiency can only be obtained from below.’ At the trial after Moncada, Castro conducted his own legal defence, later published as the manifesto, History will absolve me.

Since the 1959 Revolution, Cuba has emerged as a nation with outstanding human development indices in health, education, sport and culture, with a globally recognised record of international solidarity. This is the example of democracy and freedom which Cuba has contributed to the world – not the charade of parliamentary liberalism, or the two-party system of neoliberal multimillionaires competing for power which we have just witnessed in the United States.

The challenges of building socialism in Cuba provide vital lessons for all who use the word ‘socialism’ lightly. There were failures, as in the 1970 goal of harvesting 10 million tons of sugar, which fell short by a wide margin and disrupted the economy in the process. In the spirit of self-criticism, Castro talked publicly about the mistakes in planning. He set out on the hardest possible path of building the greatest possible involvement of all the population in the Revolution’s tasks. Today, participatory democracy, ‘People’s Power’, is at the heart of Cuban society, ‘from below’ at every level: neighbourhood, community, regional and national. In 2011, nearly nine million Cubans participated in grassroots debates about the draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy in preparation for the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party.

From 1959 Fidel Castro was the constant target of death plots. US presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy planned the Revolution’s overthrow by any means necessary. Presidents Nixon, Johnson and Reagan provided covert support for Fidel’s assassination. Cuban exiles Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch worked with Mafia and CIA-trained mercenaries. Fidel was targeted in the belief that his removal would behead the Revolution and that acts of terrorism against the entire Cuban population would discredit the leader and destroy socialism. Since the defeat of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Cuba has suffered continuous terrorism, biological warfare and sabotage.

The US blockade since 1960 has been the greatest genocidal act against Cuba. Calculated at today’s prices the blockade has cost Cuba over $1.2 trillion and the deaths of thousands denied the medicine they needed. It has been ‘a slow atomic bomb’, Fidel said in 1995. Despite the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US in July 2015, the US blockade remains intact and while the US abstained last month at the United Nations vote to condemn the blockade, there is little short-term prospect that the US Congress will vote to lift it.

Almost as soon as diplomatic relations were broken, talks were underway about restoring or improving them. Most striking is the fact that Fidel rejected US offers to reduce hostilities, to lift the US blockade for example and all the benefits that would have brought to the Cuban people, because they were conditional on abandoning some anti-imperialist (and in the case of Angola, anti-racist) internationalist cause: withdrawing troops from Southern Africa, ending support for Puerto Rican independence, ending support for the Central American revolutionary movements, and cutting off ties to the Soviet Union. These were demands that Fidel would not countenance. Commitment to international anti-imperialism could not be traded.

After his release from 27 years in prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela prioritised a visit to Havana to thank Fidel Castro. ‘What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?’ he said. Cuba sent 25,000 troops to Angola in 1975 at the request of the newly independent state to fight against the invasions of South African and US-backed forces. Triumph in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1988 was a turning point in the defeat of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Some 450,000 Cubans – military personnel and civilians – went to Angola over 16 years.

In 1986 Castro warned Cubans that market-style changes were leading the Soviet Union down the capitalist road. When the Soviet bloc collapsed, Cuba lost 85% of its trade and investments, including oil supplies. Castro declared a Special Period and implemented plans to safeguard the people. The survival of the Cuban Revolution depended now on the participatory democracy and socialist consciousness that had been built since the 1970s – and it succeeded.

Fidel was an enthralling orator. His famous address to the United Nations in 1960 condemned the injustices of imperialism and colonialism and he emerged as a world leader at a time when liberation struggles for self-determination and socialism were widespread. As the tide of progress retreated, as economic war against underdeveloped countries devastated possibilities for human-centred development, Fidel’s voice could not be silenced.

In the 1960s, Fidel committed Cuba to support revolutionary movements in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere, and hosted the Tricontinental Conference to co-ordinate anti-imperialist forces internationally. From the 1970s Cubans were sent to defend Angolan independence from imperialist intervention. In the 1980s Fidel called for the cancellation of unpayable Third World debt. In the 1990s he stood with the victims of the rapacious multinationals and global corporations supported by the IMF and World Trade Organisation, exposing the genocidal results of neo-liberal policies, and warning the world about the ecological crisis which threatened humanity and the planet. ‘Tomorrow will be too late,’ he said at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, addressing the urgency of the environmental threat and placing responsibility for unsustainable development on global capitalism. In the 2000s he opened the doors of the Latin American School of Medicine (set up in 1999) to poor students from Africa, Asia and elsewhere, so that they too could study for free and return to serve their poor communities, and the Battle of Ideas he led showed what could be achieved in the field of culture and education. He embraced Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, setting up ALBA with the left governments of the region. It was based on Cuba’s internationalist principles and the idea of production and exchange determined by need, not profit.

Cuba’s internationalism and efforts to build regional south–south trade with the countries of ALBA and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution show the possibilities for challenging the global power structure. Cuba’s medical and educational missions throughout the oppressed world are vehicles for building resistance, training new generations of fighters for justice against global capitalism and for the sustainable development of planet earth.

Of these important contributions by Fidel and the Cuban Revolution, little has been spoken in the mainstream media. Instead it has provided a forum for reaction: a platform for powerful, right-wing Cuban exiles, and their allies, to spout their ideological lies and distortions. These sectors, whose interests align with imperialism, have converted Cuba into a domestic political issue in the United States and have dominated academic writing and media commentary on Cuba. Their ideological attack is intended to obstruct our ability to understand Cuba as a country, Fidel as a revolutionary, and socialism as the only alternative to imperialism. We are not surprised that on his death, Fidel is not forgiven the ‘crime’ of building socialism and continues to be lambasted as a dictator. The Revolutionary Communist Group understands this diatribe for what it is: fear. Fear of the example of a great revolutionary leader, who spoke up for the poor and oppressed, who showed that principles do not weaken with age, and showed us that another world is possible. That world is socialist.

Revolutionary Communist Group