Review: Fidel Castro: a revolutionary life

FRFI 204 August / September 2008


My Life Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet, Allen Lane 2007, £25 hbk, 724pp

‘I said once that one of our greatest errors in the beginning and many times down through the years of the Revolution was to believe that somebody knew how socialism ought to be constructed’ (My Life, p623).

This book is, then, a tremendous testament to almost 50 years of constructing socialism without a blueprint. In it Castro details the Cuban people’s incredible social, political, educational, cultural and international achievements during his life. The book takes the form of a series of conversations between the Cuban leader and the former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Ignacio Ramonet. In a hundred hours with Castro, recorded between 2003 and 2005, we are given an unprecedented account of his life so far, from the schoolboy forging a glowing report card for his guardians to secure centavos for ice cream, to the mature revolutionary, on the phone advising President Chavez of Venezuela to stand firm during the April 2002 coup.

The unique value of this 700-page volume lies in the additional material detail which illustrates Castro’s strategic and tactical skill. Every setback, every apparently hopeless situation has been made to yield something useful and progressive. After the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26 July 1953, Fidel is betrayed and captured. Batista’s soldiers are for shooting the prisoners without knowing Castro is amongst them. He relates the episode to make the point that a black Cuban Army officer restrained the troops by repeatedly arguing: ‘Don’t shoot. You can’t kill ideas’ (p162).

Ramonet tells us in the introduction that Fidel often says: ‘It’s ideas that transform the world, the way tools transform matter’ (p14). Castro’s own life of ceaseless revolutionary organisation and action demonstrates his central, Marxist understanding that it is the practical application of ideas that changes and transforms the world, not the individualistic heroism of a single person. Reflecting on the historic importance of particular men, Che’s virtues of ‘moral value... and conscience’ are praised but also seen as ‘of no importance unless one believed that men like him exist by the million – millions and millions of them – within the masses’ (p307).

From privilege to protest
In describing those Cubans who allied themselves with the US to attack the Revolution at Playa Giron in 1961, he comments that ‘among the invaders there were many who were the sons of large landowners and wealthy families. There you see clearly the class nature of the invasion’ (p263).

How was it then that Fidel, the son of a large and wealthy landowner, was able to publicly declare on the day before that counter-revolutionary invasion: ‘This is a socialist and democratic Revolution of the humble, by the humble, and for the humble’ (p638)?

The answer lies in part, as he points out, in his family’s class origins. Castro’s father, Angel Castro, had been an illiterate immigrant from Galicia in Spain who had known grinding poverty and who never forgot his roots. Castro describes his father’s concern at the plight of the landless labourers during the tiempo muerto, the period of near starvation between the end of the sugar harvest and planting, and the measures he took to alleviate the situation.

At Havana University in 1945, Castro tells us, ‘The leftists saw me as a queer duck – they’d say, “Son of landowners and a graduate of the Colegio de Belen, this guy must be the most reactionary person in the world”’ (p94). While 20 years earlier, student Julio Mella, founder of the Cuban Communist Party, had been ‘the presiding spirit’, the odds were considerably different now: ‘Of the 15,000 students... there were no more than 50 active, known anti-imperialists’ (p94).

During this period of early political agitation, which led to his being physically excluded from the university precincts by thugs and police, Castro and his friends committed themselves to organising a challenge to injustice by building a federation of Latin American students, demanding ‘the sovereignty of the European colonies throughout the hemisphere. That was our programme which was anti-imperialist and anti-dictatorial’ (p99). In 1947 Castro headed for the Dominican Republic to lead a company of volunteers against the US-backed dictator there; in Panama he encountered students inflamed by US soldiers who had machine-gunned anti-occupation protesters and in Venezuela he noted the progressive promise of President Betancourt and the Revolutionary Junta. The developing student movement supported the Argentinean demands for the return of the Malvinas and expressed solidarity with the struggle for Puerto Rican independence. In 1948 he travelled to Colombia, where he met presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan who agreed to support a congress of Latin American students. However Gaitan was assassinated in Bogota as the congress was in progress. Castro was caught up in the response of ‘a people seeking justice... I joined the people; I grabbed a rifle in a police station... I witnessed the spectacle of a totally spontaneous popular revolution.’ (p98)


Out of this crucible of experience Fidel was forced to make some sense. He is unequivocal that it was his encounter with Marx which took him forward. Reading the Communist Manifesto:

‘Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest who doesn’t even know where north and south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.’ (p100)

Castro describes himself as a ‘utopian Communist’ then, but goes on to state: ‘By 10 March 1952, the day of Batista’s coup d’état, I’d already been a convinced Marxist-Leninist for several years’ (p103).

However, as Lenin pointed out forcefully to those who sniffed haughtily at the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, only the most ‘hopeless doctrinaires’ could think that there was anything like a ‘pure social revolution where one army lines up on one side and declares “we are for socialism” and another lines up saying, “we are for imperialism”.’ Castro quotes from Jose Marti, hero of the Cuban War of Independence, in his argument that winning battles can involve guile and concealment as well as courage.

‘All that I have done up to now, and all I will do, is for that [to thwart US imperialism through Cuban independence]...It has to be done in silence, and indirectly, for there are things that must be concealed in order to be attained.’ (p173)

It is a central axiom of Marxism that while the people do indeed make history they do not make it in circumstances of their own choosing. Castro explains that in 1960, after the Revolution, he had at first ‘to appeal to every recourse of my imagination to persuade them without giving our position away (ie, that we were going to proclaim socialism)’ (p243).

But once the Revolution came under armed threat by US imperialism a year later, new, open tactics were necessary. On 16 April 1961, Castro openly proclaimed ‘the socialist nature of our Revolution’ (p 257). The US invasion of Cuba was launched the next day at Playa Giron. Within 60 hours the Cubans had routed the invaders. Castro had appealed now to the working class and peasants to defend their Revolution under the banner of socialism. The attempted invasion had ‘accelerated the revolutionary process’ (p269). And, as Castro says later, ‘Imperialist treachery, imperialist perfidy, stung by every measure of ours that benefited the people or consolidated national independence, forced us to keep our boots on and our combat equipment ready’ (p308).

Castro considers an arc of liberation can be drawn from the landing of the Granma in Cuba in 1956, beginning the revolutionary war, to November 1975 when a small group of Cubans first engaged the forces of the racist army of apartheid South Africa. In the ultimate defeat of the apartheid army by Angolans, Namibians and Cubans: ‘The imperialists and their pawns suffered the consequences of a Playa Giron multiplied many times over’ (p334).

Cuba and Africa
Cuba deployed 300,000 armed and 50,000 civilian internationalist volunteers in support of the Angolan people. By 1988 they had broken the back of the fascist apartheid army at Cuito Cuanavale. Castro’s account provides a timely antidote to the disinformation passed off by the multinational media as to how apartheid was overcome. As Nelson Mandela is feted by the shameless imperialists who once branded him a ‘terrorist’, new generations should know just who stood behind apartheid in South Africa. Castro castigates the US alliance with: ‘a South Africa whose troops Washington didn’t hesitate to use to invade Angola. Dictators, terrorists, thieves and confessed racists were constantly, and without the slightest scruple, incorporated into the ranks of the so-called “free world”’ (pp316/317).

The Cubans mobilised support, soldiers and military equipment across 6,000 miles to confront: ‘the richest and best armed of Europe and the United States’ African puppet regimes. Castro was in command of Cuban, Angolan and Namibian fighters in the largest military operation that Cuba had ever mounted. He directed generals whom he remembered as boys in the Rebel Army. Their struggle for justice which had begun in the mountains, plains and cities of Cuba was elevated to an international level a quarter of a century later. Castro reveals here that the US, using Israel as a proxy, was involved in the supply of atomic bombs to the racist apartheid regime. As the imperialist vultures circle Africa again, from Sudan to Zimbabwe, Castro’s stirring account here confirms what has to be made common argument and knowledge today: that not one battalion, not one soldier, not one rifle was ever mobilised by Europe and the United States against apartheid in South Africa.

Winning the war?

However, history has bitterly demonstrated that while this battle was won resoundingly by Cuba and the liberation army of Angola, fatally wounding the racist regime, it was the imperialists who went on to win the war. From the triumph of Cuito Cuanavale it was only three short years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fidel tells it like it was:

‘When the Soviet Union and the Socialist Camp disappeared, no one would have wagered one cent on the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The country took a stunning blow when that great power collapsed and left us out in the cold, all by ourselves, and we lost all our markets for sugar, we stopped receiving foodstuffs, fuel, even the wood to bury our dead in’ (p365).

Yet Cuba has survived. Why? ‘Because the Revolution always had, has, and increasingly will have the support of a nation which is increasingly united, educated and combative.’ (p366)

Ramonet presses Castro on issues that reflect the concerns of fixed liberal opinion in the West such as emigration from Cuba, the death penalty, the treatment of political dissidents and freedom of the press. Castro patiently refutes these prejudices, pointing out, for example, the obvious paradox that freedom of the press in the West is difficult to square with exclusive ownership of the media by rich individuals. Patient and diplomatic, yes, but also direct and combative in defending Cuba – it is easy to imagine Fidel raising that authoritative finger as he says emphatically ‘Listen: I tell many of our friends who sometimes criticise us that they should try to understand the circumstances under which this country has to defend itself’ (p479).

Meanwhile, the Cuban Revolution is looking to the future, cementing new alliances in Latin America. Castro describes the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia as ‘the expression of the fact that the political map of Latin America is changing. New winds are blowing in this hemisphere... Imperialism no longer has the instruments it once had, nor can it apply them.’ (pp522/523)

These inspiring accounts from the frontlines in Cuba’s 50-year battle against imperialism are of inestimable value to today’s political struggles. We are made privy to the finest analysis of when to apply force, when to negotiate, when to dissemble and bluff, when to pause to analyse and reflect and when to act decisively – a constant ratiocination of the balance of class forces in the anti-imperialist battle for socialism. And yet sometimes his valour, optimism and audacity are simply breathtaking. Castro’s life has been the Cuban Revolution, the building of socialism in that country and the sure marshalling of the forces – the growing masses of the poor around the globe – who are uniting to defeat imperialism. As Castro remarked of the Irish hunger strikers of 1981: ‘Tremble, tyrants, before the courage of such men!’
Michael MacGregor


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