A revolution lives on

Print edition : January 16, 1999

Led by Fidel Castro, Cuba celebrates 40 years of its revolution.


IT has been a triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. Forty years ago on New Year's Day, dictator Fulginio Baptista fled Havana. Fidel Castro and his band of fighters entered the Cuban capital to be ecstatically greeted by the people as liberators. With Castro were his comrades-in-arms, Che Guevara and Camilio Cienfuegos. The three were involved in many a famous battle that led up to the revolution.

Castro first launched his armed struggle against Batista on July 26, 1953 with an attack on the Moncada Barracks. Many of his comrades were killed in this heroic attack and Castro himself was arrested. Batista later granted a general amnesty in which Castro and other revolutionaries were freed. They then left for Mexico and returned clandestinely a year later along with 82 revolutionaries.

After some initial setbacks, Castro and his band took refuge in the Sierra Maestra mountains and launched the struggle which liberated the island in three years. Many of the battles they fought are now part of revolutionary folklore. The decisive victory in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara under the leadership of Che included the capture of an armoured train packed with anti-aircraft and machine guns. The victors comprised a few hundred highly motivated fighters facing a full-fledged government army. The capture of Santa Clara cleared the way for the revolutionary army to move into Havana.

Cuban leaders walk arm-in-arm at the head of a March 5, 1960 funeral procession for the victims of the La Coubre explosion, blamed by the Cuban Government on a United States bomb attack on the ship, La Coubre, in the Havana harbour. (From left) Fidel Castro, Osvaldo Dortico, the first President of post-Batista Cuba, and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara with Ministers and other revolutionaries.-AP

Cuban President Fidel Castro said last fortnight in a speech to mark the historic occasion: "More than three and a half centuries of colonialism and 60 years of hateful Yankee neo-liberal domination began to be definitively annihilated on that first of January, and Cuba became from that time and forever a free country." At the time of liberation, U.S. control over Cuba's agricultural, industrial and financial affairs was total. This was buttressed by growing investment by U.S. mafia groups in the island. Washington had imposed a government on Cuba in 1898 after hijacking the struggle for freedom led by the great Cuban patriot, Jose Marti. When the Cubans were on the verge of victory in the war against the Spanish colonialists, the U.S. stepped in.

Washington has still not given up its efforts to dominate the island, 200 km off the Florida coast. Ever since Castro took over, successive U.S. administrations have tried to subvert the will of the Cubans. Within a year of the revolution, the U.S. imposed a partial economic embargo on Cuba - the only country professing socialism in the region.

In January 1961, Washington broke diplomatic relations with Havana. Three months later, Cuba declared itself a socialist state. Another struggle had started - this time for the defence of socialism and sovereignty. Che Guevara had been given the important assignment by Castro to develop ties with countries of the socialist bloc and other friends. In fact, it was Che's vision that initially saved Cuba from a dire economic predicament. Che as head of the National Bank of Cuba learned that Cuba's gold reserves were held in Fort Knox in the U.S. He ordered that the gold be immediately sold in the international bullion market and converted into hard currency. When in early 1960 Washington froze all of Cuba's assets in the U.S., Che's bold move saved the country from immediate bankruptcy. As Castro's emissary to the socialist bloc, Che had also secured guarantees of financial and political support from Moscow and Beijing.

Three days after Cuba was declared a socialist state, the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion was launched. About 1,300 Central Intelligence Agency-backed Cuban counter-revolutionaries landed on Cuba's southern coast. Ninety of them were killed and the rest were captured. Wealthy Cuban exiles in the U.S. backed by the CIA paid the Cuban Government $53 million in food and medicine to secure the release of the prisoners apprehended after the Bay of Pigs misadventure. At Washington's initiative Cuba was expelled from the Organisation of American States (OAS) in January 1962 and the U.S. imposed a total economic blockade on Cuba, which continues till this day. This was followed by the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. U.S. President John F. Kennedy's brinkmanship forced Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev to blink first. The Soviet leader withdrew its missiles from Cuba without consulting the rest of that country's leadership.

Although the Cuban Government was unhappy with the Soviet Union's handling of the missile crisis, economic ties between the two countries were further strengthened in the process. But at no time did Cuba become an appendage of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, many of the initiatives the Cuban leadership took in the 1960s and 1970s to show solidarity with the countries of the Third World were independent ones. Che's secret departure to Africa to initiate popular uprisings in some countries is an illustration. He first went to the Congo to fight against the puppets of colonial powers such as Mobutu Sese Seko. The current leader of Congo, Laurent Kabila, fought alongside Che and his comrades.

Cuban internationalism came sharply into focus in Africa. It was the presence of Cuban forces in Angola coupled with the decisive defeat they inflicted on South African troops in the Battle of Cueto Cuinavale that accelerated the decolonisation process in southern Africa, leading to the independence of Namibia and the birth of a multiracial South Africa. Very few countries the size of Cuba have had such a level of positive impact on world affairs in the last 40 years.

ON the domestic front, the Cuban revolution has achieved goals that even many developed countries are envious of. Despite the severe constraints imposed by the economic blockade and the collapse of Cuba's trading partners in the Soviet bloc, the state ensures lifelong health care, free and universal education, generous social security benefits and free housing for its people. All these have materially raised the standard of living of the vast majority of the Cuban people to levels undreamt of before 1959. In fact, the quality of health care in Cuba is comparable to that of the U.S., despite shortages in medicine caused by the economic blockade. After the revolution, most of the qualified doctors had left Cuba for greener pastures. Today, Cuban doctors are helping the deprived in far off countries like South Africa (Frontline, June 5 1998). The average Cuban knows that these benefits are under siege from Washington. Cubans have made tremendous sacrifices in the "special period" that has followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

From Castro downwards, Cubans are not happy with some of the compromises they have had to make to safeguard the achievements of the revolution. Cuba, which is denied access to funds from the International Monetary Fund/World Bank and other international agencies, had to take recourse to some piecemeal measures to tap hard currency resources. Encouraging tourism and foreign investments were some of the important measures the Government took in the 1990s after Washington further tightened the economic blockade with the Toricelli and Helms-Burton laws. The Helms-Burton law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 seeks to penalises foreign companies that invest in Cuba. The European Union has filed a case before the World Trade Organisation challenging the U.S. law. None of Washington's allies supports the economic blockade. The only country that has supported the U.S. stand on Cuba in the United Nations General Assembly in the recent times is Israel. Canadian and Mexican companies have invested heavily in Cuba.

Even within the U.S., there are growing demands from members of Congress, cutting across the political divide, against the rationale of the U.S. blockade. The Clinton administration in the first week of January eased a few restrictions but rejected any fundamental change in U.S. policy towards Cuba. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has formally recommended the lifting of some of the restrictions on the remittance of money to Cuba by Cubans based in the U.S. More direct flights between the two countries could be restarted and direct mail services renewed. On March 20, 1998, Clinton had announced the resumption of direct passenger charter flights and permission for Cuban-Americans to send remittances to families on the island.

THE attempt by Washington to isolate Cuba diplomatically has failed dismally. In international forums, Castro has become a star attraction. Barring a few Western capitals such as Washington and London, he is feted as a great statesman. When most world governments jumped onto the globalisation bandwagon in the 1990s, Castro warned about its grave pitfalls. Now in his own continent, he is being once again perceived as a visionary. Many of the Latin American countries that whole-heartedly embraced neo-liberalism are now in crisis. In Venezuela, which is considered the trend-setter in Latin American politics, Colonel Hugo Chavez, a proud admirer of Castro has been overwhelmingly elected President. He campaigned on an anti-liberalisation platform. Castro has been predicting for some time the inevitability of the collapse of the current capitalist dominated world economic order.

Fidel Castro, speaking on the 40th anniversary of the revolution from the historic city of Santiago de Cuba, the "cradle of the Revolution", to an audience that included the Nobel laureates, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and this year's winner Jose Saramago, paid tribute to the Cuban people's resistance to "40 years of aggression, blockade, and economic, political and ideological war from the most powerful and richest imperialist power that has ever existed in the history of the world." Castro described Cuba as a "bulwark" against the onslaught of a capitalist system that had "created inequality, misery and death". "Nobody is or can be secure under such a system, which has turned the planet into a giant casino," he said.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor