Valediction for the Comandante

Fidel Castro’s vision was at the root of what his comrades and then increasingly larger numbers of his compatriots began to aspire for. Fidel, the original leader, also became the symbol of what others who came after him managed to achieve collectively.

Published : Dec 07, 2016 12:30 IST

The urn with the ashes of Fidel Castro is driven trhough Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, on December 1, during its four-day journey across the island for the burial in Santiago de Cuba.

The urn with the ashes of Fidel Castro is driven trhough Sancti Spiritus, Cuba, on December 1, during its four-day journey across the island for the burial in Santiago de Cuba.

"Revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past."

--Fidel Castro

"You made this possible."

-- Nelson Mandela to Fidel at his own inauguration as President

"We lost Fidel. We gained a history of examples and wisdom."

-- Joao Pedro Stedile

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, son of a Galician immigrant, chief among the makers of the Cuban Revolution, as commanding a figure in the history of Latin America as Bolivar or Jose Marti, is no more. He survived 10 United States Presidents who all tried to kill him—in over 630 documented assassination plots—and finally succumbed to natural death, due to prolonged, fatal illness and advanced old age.

Fidel Castro was the last of the great revolutionary figures in the political tradition traceable to 1917: Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and a few others. He mentored his younger friend, Hugo Chavez, to inherit his mantle in Latin America and beyond, but Chavez was himself cut down by a mysterious cancer, at much too young an age and at the prime of his powers, even as he was just beginning to garner a global stature. Fidel was 90, ill for over a decade, a fighter in the realm of ideas until the very end, as he had promised when he stepped down from the presidency in 2008, but he was also almost unique in the history of the great charismatic leaders to have methodically prepared, since at least 1997, a transition from his own leadership to a set of institutions that were led by revolutionaries drawn from three successive generations, ranging from Fidel’s own comrades of 1959 to much younger ones born after the revolution. His dying feels very much like the closing of a heroic age. The revolutionary process, of course, goes on, in all its complexity and with great many twists and turns, producing magnificent new leaders in their own time and place, but it is difficult to think of one who occupies quite so central a position, beyond his own country or continent.

The loss seems to be all the greater in this precarious present of ours in which proto-fascist forces of the Far Right are ascendant in so many parts of the world. Progressive forces still seem to be more powerful in Latin America than elsewhere, but the region is beset by at least two worrisome processes. First, Cuban socialism is itself going through a process of profound restructuring, with elements of market economy and consequent market rationality getting assigned an increasingly larger role; a process that is likely to lead eventually to a system not unlike that of China or Vietnam though in a much smaller national economy that is proportionately very vulnerable to the possible aggression but also to the lure of its mighty, wealthy neighbour only 90 miles away. Second, the turn toward the Left that had characterised so much of Latin America in the recent past seems to be faltering as the constitutional coup in Brazil, the electoral results in Argentina and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela would testify. In this difficult situation, Fidel Castro’s special acumen, with its unique combination of revolutionary optimism and lucidly rational calculation of the balance of force, shall be greatly missed.

We shall return to some of this. The Comandante has in any case departed, and the torch shall soon be passed to a younger generation.

An audacious revolution All revolutions require great audacity. The Cuban one was more audacious than perhaps all others. The two great revolutions of the 20th century, the Russian and the Chinese, occurred in backward, mainly agrarian societies but in countries of continental size that had centuries of great imperial history and cultural sophistication behind them. Russia had great natural resources at its command, and the Soviet Union rose to become a superpower second only to the U.S. China had been the world’s largest economy for a long time, its experience of having been eclipsed by the West was not very old, and it has again risen now, after radical departures from the original revolution of 1949, as the world’s largest economy. Neither had ever been fully colonised. The Czarist Empire actually had colonies of its own, and China could only be categorised as a semi-colony even in the worst days of Western domination. Each of those revolutions occurred in the midst of chaos caused by a World War, led by well established communist parties, with the experience of many years of revolutionary struggle, and commanding a mass base—especially so in the Chinese case.

And Cuba? It was a tiny island, barely 90 miles from the U.S. coast of Florida, with a long history of settler colonialism and a plantation economy based on two centuries of slave labour. It had experienced a violent transition from centuries of formal Spanish colonisation to informal U.S. colonialism in 1898, followed by successive dictatorships that were beholden to their U.S. overlords and were supported by the Catholic Church. Like many of the smaller African countries, Cuba was a single-crop agrarian economy; the sugar cane was king. Havana boasted a very urbane, highly sophisticated upper class. Gambling casinos and widespread prostitution businesses were the underbelly of that sophistication, a veritable playground for American tourists and playboys. Unlike in prerevolutionary Russia and China, there was no significant culture of Marxist or communist ideas.

Fidel Castro was a revolutionary since his student days, participating in uprisings in Colombia and the Dominican Republic even before he and his comrades organised an attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, on July 23, 1953, with a view to inciting an uprising against the U.S.-sponsored dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. However, he was, until the seizure of power in January 1959 and for quite some time after that, primarily a left-wing democrat and an anti-imperialist nationalist, not by any means a communist. Che Guevara, his closest comrade, and Raul, his younger brother who is now the Cuban President, were more conversant with Marxist ideas, but they, too, were engaged in anti-imperialist struggle and a democratic uprising against the dictatorship of a foreign agent. In its origins and in its seizure of power, the revolution was nationalist. This is of great significance. The key distinction here is between two kinds of modern nationalisms in countries that have suffered Western capitalist domination in either the colonial or some non-colonial form. On the one hand, we have the bourgeois nationalism of the sort that we have had in India and which is deeply devoted to safeguarding the bourgeois interest, first the national bourgeois interest and then, logically, bourgeois interest in general, insofar as the national and the metropolitan units of capital do eventually converge. On the other hand, we have what I have here called anti-imperialist nationalism, of the genuine kind, which has an irreconcilable conflict with imperialist capital. The U.S. welcomes and embraces one kind of nationalism (bourgeois nationalism) and fights against the other kind (the anti-imperialist kind).

I have argued elsewhere that U.S. imperialism in fact makes little distinction between communism and anti-imperialist nationalism. Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Joao Goulart in Brazil, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala—and many others like them—whom the U.S. tried to overthrow, often successfully, were by no means communists, and it was as nationalists that they sought to nationalise foreign assets of the imperialist kind. The U.S. views all such nationalists as communists. In the process, they force some of these anti-imperialists to become communists. Serious Chinese scholars have suggested to me that Mao Zedong himself was primarily an anti-imperialist nationalist, that his New Democracy theses and other such writings suggest that what he envisioned was not a socialist appropriation of private property but a mixed economy and a multi-class alliance that included the national bourgeoisie, and that it was the experience of the Korean War, in which some key members of the U.S. establishment contemplated a full-scale invasion of China as well as a possible use of the atom bomb against it, which convinced him to abandon that nationalist model and implement the fully communist programme of a socialist transition.

Fidel started out as a nationalist That argument about Mao has much weight but is still debatable. About Fidel Castro, there can be little debate. He was not, and he never claimed to have been, a communist when he led a successful national uprising against Batista and captured power in January 1959. The main point, however, is this: Fidel had actually led a genuinely nationalist, ant-imperialist revolution. He was forced by the American reaction to his anti-imperialist nationalism to become a communist. The irony here is that Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, the two U.S. Presidents, and Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, drew the same conclusion: that his refusal to retreat from his genuinely anti-imperialist convictions would necessarily lead him to becoming a communist. In other words, the settled position of U.S. imperialism to treat anti-imperialist nationalism and communism as equally dangerous to it is in fact correct. The logic of anti-imperialism necessarily leads to communism—and the imperial centre knows it.

Fidel Castro and his comrades captured state power in January. The U.S. authorities grasped the logic correctly, from the standpoint of their own class interest, and as Noam Chomsky summarises the reactions from the U.S. government: “Eisenhower’s March 1960 plan called for the overthrow of Castro in favour of a regime ‘more devoted to the true interests of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the U.S.’, including support for ‘military operation on the island’ and ‘development of an adequate paramilitary force outside of Cuba’. In May, the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] began to arm guerillas inside Cuba. ‘During the Winter of 1959-1960, there was a significant increase in CIA-supervised bombing and incendiary raids piloted by exiled Cubans.’”

Significantly, Fidel Castro’s Cuba reacted by refraining from any aggressive response and went to the Security Council instead, with all the evidence. That was of no avail and U.S. hostility continued. In early 1960, the then Senator John F. Kennedy spoke of Cuba as a “communist menace” imperilling “the security of the whole Western Hemisphere” and raising the question of “how the Iron Curtain could have advanced almost to our front yard”. The Bay of Pigs invasion came a year later in April 1961 after Kennedy had become President. This continuity between Eisenhower and Kennedy, the Republican and the Democratic Presidents, the military General and the Boston liberal, shows that in fact the U.S. ruling class as a whole formulates a policy that is then implemented regardless of who is at the helm of government, with undoubtedly some minor differences between one administration and another. Kennedy’s hostility towards Fidel Castro of course continued unabated, in plans and policies that need not detain us here, except to point out that, as Chomsky puts it: “Ten days before his assassination he approved a CIA plan for ‘destruction operations’ by U.S. proxy forces ‘against a large oil refinery and storage facilities, a large electric plant, sugar refineries, railroad bridges, harbour facilities, and underwater demolition of docks and ships’. A plot to kill Castro was initiated on the day of the Kennedy assassination.”

So much for liberalism and its deep commitments to the empire.

Fidel Castro had of course been exposed to Marxist ideas, but it was the implacable hostility of the U.S. that convinced him that the anti-imperialist content of nationalism could not be actually realised within the parameters of capitalism and that he must move to communism for the practical realisation of that anti-imperialist project.

From nationalism to communism As it made its transition from anti-imperialist nationalism to communism, Cuba was still a small, poor, beleaguered island-nation. It had all the disadvantages but none of the compensating endowments of a Russia or a China as they embarked upon the historic adventure of building socialist societies: vast territories, natural resources, old civilizations, well established progressive cultures, disciplined communist parties with seasoned cadres, fairly diversified agricultures, at least some significant industrial bases. Cuba had hardly any of it and yet made the hard choice: “Liberation or Death”, as a famous slogan has it.

There is a certain history to it. European ideas of the revolution presume that a socialist revolution is possible only after a very high level of industrial development; the irony of the situation of course is that several Western societies have achieved those high levels but there has been no revolution in those societies. Indeed, the more successful they become in building industrial capitalism, the more remote they seem to get from revolutionary politics. Tricontinental revolutions, by contrast, have been historically based on a wager: that decent, egalitarian, fundamentally good and gracious societies can in fact be built at relatively low levels of industrial production and material wealth; that it is possible to try to transform not only the relations and forces of production as conventionally understood, so as to produce the material conditions essential to the security, well-being and intellectual development of the people, but also to help recover those potentialities of human nature that capitalism distorts and destroys and which are essential for the building of a socialist culture and a humane society.

Dialectic of nationalism and internationalism What all this implies is that the worst crime of imperialism is that it distorts human nature itself, suppressing the sociality and spontaneous openness to others that is intrinsic to human nature, and creating, instead, self-centred and acquisitive individuals that are indifferent to the well-being of others. Fidel Castro was the great philosopher of this particular understanding of what socialisms and revolutions should be about. This broader conception can be grasped if we attend to only two aspects of it. At one end of his vision were the basic structures of well-being for Cubans themselves, that is, the material securities without which moral solidarities with others are very difficult indeed, that is, provisions for health, education and nutrition, not to speak of the ability to endure and develop despite the extreme imperialist violence against the Cuban people collectively. At the other end was a vision of international solidarities and obligations. The dialectic of nationalism and internationalism, so to speak. The credit for the achievement of the goals is of course collective, but his own vision, stated repeatedly and at copious length, has been decisive for the making of a collective imagination.

What does that mean, concretely?

Cuba has suffered a nasty blockade since John F. Kennedy imposed it at the very beginning of the revolutionary period. That blockade is said to have inflicted on the Cuban economy damage estimated at one trillion dollars. As a result, Cuba is still a very poor, underdeveloped country. Yet literacy rates and life expectancy in Cuba are at the level of the most industrialised countries, quite comparable to Scandinavia’s. The infant mortality rate in Cuba has come down to only 4.2 deaths per 1,000 births, far lower than even in the U.S.; and Cuba provides 59 doctors for every ten thousand people as compared with 26 for ten thousand in the U.S. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Cuba has the lowest child mortality rate in the Americas and is the only country in the Americas where child malnutrition does not exist. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Cuba was the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV. There are 70,000 doctors for a population of 11 million; yet, health care delivery costs are around $200 per capita annually, which compares rather favourably with the roughly $7,000 in the U.S.. This is quite additional to the fact that Cuba provides universal primary and timely care for everyone, and that it devotes over 50 per cent of its national budget to health.

We could go on providing such statistics. The point, however, is that there really is a clash of visions of the good life here: the idea in advanced capitalism of spectacular consumption as the zenith of life for individuals who are eternally at odds with each other (“And, you know, there is no such thing as society ,” said Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister “. ... only complex entities composed of individuals .”) versus the Tricontinental socialist idea of the duty of the whole society to ensure highest levels of personal security for all, even at a low level of the development of the forces of production. We can call that the idea of the national within socialism, that is, what society owes to the individuals within it.

But then Fidel Castro was also fond of quoting Jose Marti, the greatest Cuban hero before Fidel Castro himself: “Humanity is the Homeland”. Socialism is essentially an internationalism. But Fidel Castro’s was an internationalism with a twist. It is offered not only to other socialists (“socialist internationalism”) but to all human beings, socialist or not. Philosophically, a radical humanism: the whole world is the only home, neither nation nor religion nor any other particularity; only the universal. Politically, teaching through exemplary conduct; it is by serving the best interests of all the people that socialism can prove its moral superiority to others.

The New York Time s reported in 2009 that “[i]n the 50 years since the revolution, Cuba has sent more than 185,000 health professionals on medical missions to at least 103 countries”. Cuban medical and educational assistance programmes have gone as far as Vanuatu and East Timor. Cubans, in fact, are invited to aid the Pakistanis, the Saudis, the Hondurans and even European nations that want to deal with the issue of illiteracy. Cuba had Venezuelan literacy tutors trained in the “Yo si Puedo” pedagogical method created by the Cuban educator Leonela Realy. As a result, Cuba helped the Venezuela government make one and a half million people literate. The Yo si Puedo programme is found in more than 30 nations, in countries as far apart as Mexico and Australia. As Joao Pedro Stedile, the legendary leader of MST, the Brazilian Landless Movement, put it: “They have created preventive, solidarity, and humanitarian medicine which has sent more than 60,000 doctors to just about all countries in the world, surpassing all the countries and international organisations combined. For us they have sent 14,000 doctors so that 44 million Brazilians could experience, for the first time, preventive, quality medical care.”

Leader and icon But then there is also the issue of laying down one’s own life for the liberation of others. As the British journalist Richard Gott puts it: “Some know of Che Guevara’s failed 1965 guerilla mission in the Congo. Few know that in 1963, Cuban troops helped Algeria deflect an invasion threat from Tunisia; or that Cuban doctors served as battlefield medical personnel in the Vietnam war. In 1973, Fidel dispatched a 1,500-man tank division to fight alongside Syria against Israel.

“In 1975, Cuban soldiers fought U.S.-backed forces from Zaire and South African armoured divisions to maintain the integrity of Angola, and later helped bring about Namibian independence. Cuba’s successful military engagement against the South African apartheid regime in the 1987-88 battles of Cuito Cuinavale in southern Angola helped shape the future of the region. Just four years later, at his inauguration, Nelson Mandela shook the hands of heads of state but grabbed Fidel in a bear hug and said in a voice audible to the network microphones: ‘You made this possible.’”

The great achievements of the Cuban people, which include their sacrifices, are not reducible to Fidel Castro’s own vision. And yet, that vision was at the root of what his comrades and then increasingly larger numbers of his compatriots began to aspire for themselves, imagining a better world and then making it possible through their actions. Fidel Castro, the original leader, also became the symbol of what others who came after him managed to achieve collectively.

Worldwide reactions Worldwide reactions to Fidel’s death and comments by leaders of the various countries fully reflect the global alignments of today, the isolation of the U.S. in the emerging world order, and even the conflicting tendencies within U.S. politics. Thus, statements and messages ensuing from China, Russia and Iran are quite obviously different in the nuances of the phrasing but almost equally warm in their attitude towards the departed leader. President Xi Jinping of China, for example, said: “Chinese people have lost a close comrade and a sincere friend….Comrade Castro will live forever. History and people will remember him.” Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “The name of this distinguished statesman is rightly considered the symbol of an era in modern world history….Fidel Castro was a sincere and reliable friend of Russia.” On his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif praised Castro as an exemplary figure “in the fight against colonialism and exploitation….and the independence-seeking fight of oppressed nations”. Even Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was not to be left behind: “Goodbye, Comandante. Until the people’s eternal victory.”

Words of the highest admiration, solidarity and grief were of course expected from most Latin American countries and even such far-flung countries as South Africa and Algeria (which declared eight days of mourning). Even Canada and France, close U.S. allies, sent messages of fulsome praise; Justin Trudeau, Canada’s liberal Prime Minister, described Fidel Castro as “larger-than-life leader….legendary revolutionary and orator”. Far more significant, however, were the contrasting reactions from Barack Obama, the outgoing lame-duck President of the U.S., and Donald Trump, the President-elect and a Far-Right demagogue. Obama’s three-paragraph statement was the model of diplomatically correct prose, the conciliatory posture inherent in his resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba after half a century, and the misleading rhetorical finesse so typical of Obama’s mode of expression: “During my presidency, we have worked hard to put the past behind us, pursuing a future in which the relationship between our two countries is defined not by our differences but by the many things that we share as neighbours and friends—bonds of family, culture, commerce, and common humanity.” Friends and neighbours, indeed—with a history of over 600 documented plots devised by U.S. intelligence agencies to assassinate Fidel Castro, the one man they hated the most!

In sharp contrast to Obama’s suave prose designed to entice Cuba’s current leadership, Trump was unsurprisingly abusive in his invective: “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator….Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty….”, etc.

Why such a contrast of attitude and rhetoric between the outgoing and incoming Presidents of the U.S.? There has been an enduring rift within the U.S. ruling circles—the rift between hard power and soft power, so to speak: the rift between those who still believe in violent overthrow of the communist government in Cuba and those who believe that not just fractions of the Cuban leadership but even large numbers of the Cuban people can be seduced through the lure of American money and technology. Obama is now in the twilight days of his administration and can afford to advocate relative sanity, defying vast pressure groups in his country. Trump, the incoming President and a representative of those very Far Right pressure groups, is understandably more belligerent. How far this belligerence will go, we shall see.

Most intriguing reaction By far the most intriguing reaction, though, came from President Xi, who went to the extraordinary length of going personally to the Cuban embassy to sign the Book of Condolences and write: “I believe that under the strong leadership of Comrade Raul Castro, the Cuban party, government and people will carry on the will of Comrade Fidel Castro, turn sorrow into strength and continue to make new achievements in national construction and the development of socialism.”

We know that relations between China and Cuba have been improving, especially since Fidel Castro stepped down from all his key posts and Raul, his younger brother and comrade in arms from the beginning, stepped into his shoes. There has developed a remarkably positive relationship between the two heads of state. And we also know that Cuba has embarked upon “reforms” in structures of institutional power as well as in the economy that look remarkably similar to what began to happen in the early days of the Deng “reforms” in China. In Cuba, this process in fact began in what has been called the “Special Period”, that is, the period immediately following the dissolution of the Soviet Union; a process that produced a condition in which earnings from tourism —with all the attendant ills, ranging from prostitution to the black market in currencies and commodities—now exceed earnings from sugar. We have witnessed a much wider expansion of the market economy and it is difficult to know how far the opening up will go. We do know that 43 per cent of the national wealth in China—with its system of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”—is now owned by the 1 per cent.

Cuban society and economy are in a period of transition. Will China now play the supportive and partially directive role that the Soviet Union had played in yesteryears, though possibly with quite a different conception of what socialism really means? It is too early to say.

While Fidel Castro was alive, Cuba under his leadership played a role in the liberation movements around the world and in global politics that changed the world for the better. May that unique legacy live forever.

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