‘Fidel’s vision will live on’

Print edition : December 23, 2016

Sitaram Yechury: "Fidel Castro was a great humanist and hence a masterly visionary." Photo: K.V.S. Giri

Children from Cuba's Oriente province asking Fidel Castro to open some of the boxes of toys which were being loaded on a plane to be dropped throughout the province. The essence of the Cuban leader's political praxis was his abiding connect with the people, says Sitaram Yechury. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

December 1992: Fidel Castro speaks as CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjit and the party's Member of Parliament, M.A. Baby listen, along with others, at a ceremony in connection with the arrival of the Caribean Star carrying aid from India to Cuba, in Havana. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Interview with Sitaram Yechury, general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), remembers Fidel Castro in his many dimensions: as a revolutionary icon whose life remained a consistent inspiration for political activists; a political thinker and practitioner who charted new paths and advised fraternal parties on political and organisational matters; an emotional individual who expressed his affection ingenuously, made impulsive gestures and showed elderly concern towards those who met him. In particular, Yechury cherishes his memory of a meeting in Havana in 1993, when he and Jyoti Basu, who was then the Chief Minister of West Bengal, were called for a long discussion with Fidel Castro. The meeting went on late into the night. In between, Yechury made an excuse and stepped out for a smoke. Next morning, an aide of the Cuban President turned up at Yechury’s room with a special gift—a huge box of Cuban cigars—and a message for the Indian communist: “The Commandante wanted me to tell you that he too liked his cigars in his time, but there would come a stage when everybody, including you, would have to give it up on the diktats of our body.”

Yechury says that an abiding humanism held together the seemingly diverse characteristics in Fidel Castro. “In essence, he was a great humanist and hence a masterly visionary who crafted and led a unique and creative people-oriented political praxis.”

Here, Yechury shares his memories of the Cuban leader in conversation with Frontline. Excerpts.

Your immediate response to the news of Fidel Castro’s death contained reminiscences of a meeting in 1993. You have talked about having seen a revolutionary with great connect to the people as well as a leader of governance with great attention to details. Can you elaborate on the context of this meeting and how it brought out these two aspects?

That meeting started quite late at night and went on for many hours, almost into the early hours of the next day. The year was 1993, and it was one of the most difficult periods in the history of Cuba. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a direct bearing on Cuba and its economy. And 1993-94 was the worst. In fact, Time magazine did a cover story, just a few days before we reached Cuba, with Fidel’s photograph, questioning how long Cuba could survive now that the Soviet Union had fallen. There were shortages of virtually everything [in Cuba]. Yet, Fidel was in command and full of optimism that Cuba would survive and move ahead. We asked him for the reasons for this optimism. He responded in great detail, highlighting Cuba’s strengths and weaknesses. He listed the areas where Cuba could advance economically, pointing out where it could move forward smoothly, where it needed careful planning and where greater care was required. He spoke of the petroleum sector—how Cuba had planned and devised alternatives to go beyond the dependence on the Soviet Union in this sector. This involved domestic innovations using sugar cane with gasoline. This also involved exploring the Venezuelan alternative of going into that market. He delineated plans on developing tourism and the concept of special development zones.

Specifically, there was a road map to enhance the core strengths that Cuba possessed in the fields of science and medicine. The country was the pioneer in neurosurgery at a time when even many advanced countries would not venture into this field, as was later acknowledged globally. It was the first to develop the Hepatitis B vaccine. The human development indices were priorities right from the early days of the liberation, and these continue to be among the best in the world. But at that time, there was also a clear understanding that the focus on goods economy or manufacturing economy was deficient. Plans were being devised to address that. New avenues to generate productive employment were being charted out. It was in this context that he probably asked me about the details of what India was producing, how much steel, how much cement, and so on.

The relationship with China also improved during this period. We saw concrete signs of that when we were there. It was, literally, a reshaping of the Cuban economy and its inputs. Of course, he repeatedly stressed that all these plans were built on the great resolve of the Cuban people to protect and take forward the spirit and the gains of the revolution. During that conversation, it was evident that Fidel had imbibed Lenin’s definition of Marxism as a creative science that involved concrete analyses of concrete situations. So, concrete conditions had changed. If your analysis did not change, you were not a Marxist. In that sense Fidel was a living example of rallying people with revolutionary fervour going hand in hand with concrete analyses of concrete situations.

Evidently, a principal factor in the conversation would have been the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. In many ways, the collapse was life-altering for the communist and Left movements across the world. Did the discussion at any point go into the reasons of the collapse, at least as a possible lesson or a warning while building up a socialist society?

Not directly. The CPI(M) had by that time formulated its opinion, and this had been conveyed to the Cuban party. The Cuban party had informed us separately, not in the conversation with Fidel, that it agreed with most of our positions and with our understanding of why the collapse happened. The fact that Fidel had also gone through our document or had been briefed about it became evident when he said during the conversation that he agreed that what happened in the Soviet Union was a convergence of the internal and the external. Our understanding was that while the Soviet Union had the might to face and even resist the external challenges, including militarily, the internal weaknesses had increasingly kept undermining it. That was the essence of our understanding of the situation, and he expressed his agreement. That was the only reference.

But I also remember an interaction between Fidel, comrades EMS [E.M.S. Namboodiripad] and Harkishan Singh Surjeet in 1987, when we all gathered in Moscow for the 70th anniversary of the October revolution. After one of the key sessions at the anniversary celebrations, EMS pointed out that some aspects of the new thesis that Gorbachev was proposing were problematic. It talked about inter-penetration of contradictions leading to some combination of socialism with facets of imperialism to create a superior model. EMS had called me to dictate an article at five in the morning, and obviously he was thinking seriously about this. Later, after discussions between EMS and Surjeet, it was decided that the CPI(M) would place on record its objections to these aspects of the Gorbachevian thesis and seek further discussions. We were the only Communist Party at that meeting to tell the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] this. That evening, Fidel happened to meet our delegation, and then he, too, agreed that the CPSU proposals required more consideration. Fidel, too, was, in his own way, making it clear that he had reservations about the Gorbachevian thesis. There was a level of clarity in this understanding. We were able to see this clarity manifesting at the level of governance in 1993.

When was your last meeting with him?

That was in 2002. This was the meeting of the Sao Paulo forum. Fidel was instrumental in forming the forum as part of the Latin American resistance against U.S. imperialism. I had to speak, and the custom there was that the speakers would be on the dais. So, there was personal interaction, though not at the same level as in the 1993 meeting. He was not very well when he came for the forum’s meeting. There were some doubts whether he would make a speech or not. But he did, and it was in his usual style. He spoke for about three hours and covered almost all the major issues faced by the world.

There is also the view that the Sao Paulo forum was one of the unique political instruments that Latin American leaders, including Fidel Castro, developed to build up a broad anti-imperialist movement leading to the generation and advancement of new ideologies of Left radicalism and concepts of building up a socialist society...

There were indications even in the 1993 conversation with Fidel that he had visualised the potential that the unification of the Left and democratic parties across Latin America on an anti-imperialist platform could have in ultimately building up new socialist state models. The movement was indeed founded on the Jose Marti thought that stressed on political independence for countries and intellectual independence for all people. Fidel had perceived the growing crisis in global capitalism even in the late 1980s, which should have hastened to a stage of recession in the early 1990s. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in the early 1990s and the economic globalisation that gathered momentum simultaneously put off the crash and the recession for another decade and a half. If the Soviet collapse had not happened, the recession of 2008 would have been witnessed in the 1990s. But it was Fidel’s “concrete analysis for concrete situations” approach that not only ensured the survival of Cuba in the face of the most despicable political, economic and military attacks by the imperialists following the Soviet collapse but also resulted in the articulation and formation of new modalities of struggle based on the Jose Marti thought. This consolidated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, leading to triumphs of the Left across Latin America, from Brazil to Venezuela to Bolivia.

But unlike in Cuba, many of these triumphs of the Left could not be sustained on a steady basis. There have been major political vacillations and fluctuations, which at times created social and economic havoc. There is also a view that Cuba has remained steady because the political leadership was able to invoke a sort of nationalism to retain support, while the Left leadership in other Latin American nations have not been able to do it.

I would think the latter part of your question reflects an incorrect understanding of both the problems that one has seen in many Latin American countries as well as Fidel’s political and historical legacy. The essence of Fidel’s political praxis was the abiding connect with the people. The very history of the Cuban revolution, including the failed attempts in the early 1950s to the victory in 1959, is testimony to this. It was the constant fostering and development of connect with the people that created the rousing support to the young revolutionaries in 1959. Because of this connect, Cuba was able to take important, decisive steps towards building up a socialist state and society right from its early days. This could not be replicated fully or satisfactorily in other Latin American countries where the Left came to power. In other words, Fidel was the one who understood and implemented the slogan “all power to the Soviets”. Now, what does it mean? The communist party may be the ruling party. But the real power vests with the Soviets, with the local communities. In the local communities, the majority may be non-communist. The job of the communist is to convince the non-communist about the relevance and importance of a course that the party has visualised under the circumstances. It underscores both the primacy of people’s power as vested in the local communities and the organisational rigour that communist organisations should have in maintaining and advancing a constant dialogue with the people. Fidel’s contribution to the international communist movement should be understood from this organisational perspective, too.

A constant debate within the Left, especially the communist parties, across the world is about the deviations of the revisionist or sectarian variety that the political organisations of these parties make from time to time. This, according to these parties, has hampered the progress of the party organisations as well as the Left movement and its ideology. Given your experience of Cuba and Fidel’s political praxis can it be said that it contains some model of a non-revisionist, non-sectarian Left.

You cannot have an organisational structure that is completely bereft of revisionist or adventurous tendencies. The dangers of both the deviations are inherent. The strength of an organisational and political structure would be in being able to identify these deviations and resist them in time. That can only happen if your links with the people are strong. If you are divorced from the people, then both these deviations will triumph. You will start thinking that what you are thinking is what the people are thinking. Then you may jump into adventurism and decide that if you just give a gun to the people, a revolution would happen. Similarly, a right-wing deviation also happens when your original objective of giving a political alternative to capitalism is given up and when you are looking at only giving reforms within capitalism, you are not actually improving the livelihoods of the people. Instead, you are getting sucked into the capitalist system. The organisational structure set up and led by Fidel for a long time had the safeguards to resist these deviations. And the major and primary safeguard was the continuous emphasis on the live links with the people. As all of us know, the Cubans are extremely fun-loving people. I have seen members of the central committee or the provincial committees after their party meetings going to the local councils and their areas and mixing with the people in their sessions, meeting, dancing, drinking and eating. In all these sessions, the political and governance issues also would come up regularly. It is a very organic and creative organisational way. And this was shaped to a great extent by Fidel. This is what I had seen always among Cuban communists, pre-Soviet fall, post-Soviet fall and through the rise and trajectory of the Latin American Leftist upsurge.

Did you see the same stream even after Fidel retired from active politics and governance?

More or less. The reason I say “more or less” is because the Cuban leadership itself had pointed out that there were times when moves in one direction were pursued rather one-sidedly, such as in areas like promotion of the tourism industry. Similarly, there were some issues in the development and strengthening of economic self-reliance. Some of these tendencies were visible in the late 1990s, too, when Fidel was in office. But, once again, most of these have been addressed and corrected, leading to a judicious mix.

With Fidel becoming a historic memory now, how do you think Cuba will cope with the situation?

We need to look at things in perspective while answering this question. Fidel voluntarily stepped down from office 10 years ago. Before that he had survived 10 U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Bush junior and the 638 assassination attempts that the U.S. Presidents and their multifaceted machinery had unleashed on this small country’s leader. Cuba, too, has moved on without Fidel at the helm of affairs. Now, he is no more. But, as we know, Fidel will live on not only in Cuba but across the world among millions of people. At this juncture, the biggest thing for Cuba is to demonstrate that what Fidel created was not fragile and vulnerable. It is challenging. But I am sure that the whole of Latin America will stand with Cuba in facing this challenge. Notwithstanding the reverses to the Left in some countries, the Jose Marti vision is something that unites the whole of Latin America. And I am certain they will unite and stand up for this vision and the legacy of Fidel.