Fidel Castro (1926-2016)

A major feature of Fidel Castro’s 47-year-old rule was his manipulation of popular support and the creation of a political system that does not hesitate to use repression, and not only against class enemies, to cement its power.

Samuel Farber November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro speaking to the press after his arrival in Washington, D.C., on April 15, 1959,

After a long ill­ness that forced him to with­draw from office in July 2006, Fidel Cas­tro died on Novem­ber 25. Cas­tro had pre­vi­ous­ly sur­vived many U.S. efforts to over­throw his gov­ern­ment and phys­i­cal­ly elim­i­nate him includ­ing the spon­sor­ship of inva­sions, numer­ous assas­si­na­tion attempts and ter­ror­ist attacks. He held supreme polit­i­cal pow­er in Cuba for more than 47 years, and even after hav­ing left high office he con­tin­ued to be polit­i­cal­ly engaged for sev­er­al years meet­ing with numer­ous for­eign per­son­al­i­ties and writ­ing his Reflex­iones in the Cuban Com­mu­nist Par­ty press.

Under Raúl Castro, the government, particularly after the sixth Communist Party congress in 2011, promised significant changes in the Cuban economy that point in the general direction of the Sino-Vietnamese model that combines an opening to the capitalist market place with political authoritarianism.

Fidel was a son of Cuban-born Lina Ruz and Gali­cian immi­grant Ángel Cas­tro, who became a wealthy sug­ar land­lord in the island. Fidel attend­ed a Jesuit high school, regard­ed as one of the best schools in Cuba. Upon enter­ing the Uni­ver­si­ty of Havana Law School in 1945, he began his polit­i­cal life by col­lab­o­rat­ing with one of the var­i­ous polit­i­cal gang­ster groups that plagued the uni­ver­si­ty. As a mil­i­tant uni­ver­si­ty activist, Fidel par­tic­i­pat­ed, in 1947, in an attempt to invade the Domini­can Repub­lic to pro­voke an upris­ing against Tru­jil­lo, and in the 1948 Bogo­ta­zo,” the wide­spread riot­ing that shook the Colom­bian cap­i­tal after the assas­si­na­tion of Lib­er­al leader Eliecer Gaitán. The dis­or­ga­nized and chaot­ic nature of these failed enter­pris­es played an impor­tant role in shap­ing Castro’s views on polit­i­cal dis­ci­pline and the sup­pres­sion of dis­si­dent views and fac­tions with­in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary movement.

He then joined the cru­sad­ing Orto­doxo Par­ty led by the charis­mat­ic sen­a­tor Eduar­do Eddy” Chibás, where he became a can­di­date for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The Orto­doxo was a demo­c­ra­t­ic and pro­gres­sive reform par­ty unam­bigu­ous­ly opposed to Com­mu­nism, and focused on the elim­i­na­tion of the wide­spread polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion in the island. It was the youth sec­tion of this par­ty that became the main recruit­ing ground for Fidel Cas­tro when he turned to the armed strug­gle against the new­ly installed mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of retired Gen­er­al Ful­gen­cio Batista.

Batista took pow­er in a coup d’etat on March 10, 1952, to pre­vent the gen­er­al elec­tion that was sup­posed to take place — and which he was cer­tain to lose — on June 1 of the same year. By late 1956, a lit­tle over two years before Batista was over­thrown, Castro’s 26th of July Move­ment, named after the day of his failed armed attack in 1953, had begun to emerge as the hege­mon­ic pole of oppo­si­tion to the dic­ta­tor­ship. This was made pos­si­ble, in part, by the col­lapse of Cuba’s old­er polit­i­cal par­ties, includ­ing the Orto­dox­os, and by the fail­ure of the upris­ings led by oth­er orga­ni­za­tions. But his hege­mo­ny among the rev­o­lu­tion­ary ranks was also the out­come of his own polit­i­cal tal­ents. Cas­tro was a can­ny rev­o­lu­tion­ary politi­cian, and a mas­ter at uti­liz­ing the key ele­ments of the pre­vail­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal ide­ol­o­gy in the oppo­si­tion to Batista to attract and broad­en the sup­port of all of Cuba’s social class­es. This is how he repeat­ed­ly endorsed, before the vic­to­ry of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment, the pro­gres­sive and demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­sti­tu­tion of 1940, which was wide­ly pop­u­lar. This is also how, with­out dimin­ish­ing his polit­i­cal mil­i­tan­cy, he played down the social rad­i­cal­ism of his 1953 His­to­ry Will Absolve Me.

Fidel Cas­tro was also a con­sum­mate tac­ti­cian that instant­ly grasped and act­ed on the key issues of the moment. For exam­ple, after hav­ing been released from prison and tak­en refuge in Mex­i­co in 1955, he coined the slo­gan in 1956, we will be either mar­tyrs or free men.” He knew that with this pledge he was bound to return to Cuba on that year, even if he was not mil­i­tar­i­ly ready, or run the immense risk of los­ing cred­i­bil­i­ty. Nev­er­the­less, he decid­ed this was nec­es­sary to dif­fer­en­ti­ate his group from his armed com­peti­tors and to revive the pop­u­lar polit­i­cal con­scious­ness par­tic­u­lar­ly among the youth, which had become so erod­ed by dis­il­lu­sion. He kept his word land­ing in Cuba with 81 oth­er men aboard the Gran­ma in the ear­ly part of Decem­ber, 1956, which sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased his prestige.

After Vic­to­ry

Fidel Castro’s absolute defeat of Batista’s Army opened the way for the trans­for­ma­tion of a mul­ti-class demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion into a social rev­o­lu­tion. In the first cou­ple of years after the rev­o­lu­tion, Fidel Cas­tro cement­ed his over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar sup­port with a rad­i­cal redis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth that lat­er turned into a whole­sale nation­al­iza­tion of the econ­o­my that includ­ed even the small­est retail estab­lish­ments. This high­ly bureau­crat­ic econ­o­my led to very poor per­for­mance which was great­ly aggra­vat­ed by the crim­i­nal eco­nom­ic block­ade that the Unit­ed States imposed on Cuba as ear­ly as 1960. It was the mas­sive Sovi­et aid that Cuba received that made it pos­si­ble for the régime to main­tain an aus­tere stan­dard of liv­ing that guar­an­teed the sat­is­fac­tion of the most basic needs of the pop­u­la­tion, espe­cial­ly edu­ca­tion and health. Equal­ly impor­tant in but­tress­ing pop­u­lar sup­port for the Cas­tro régime was the revival of a pop­u­lar anti-impe­ri­al­ism that had been dor­mant in the island since the thirties.

Orga­ni­za­tion­al Control

Fidel Castro’s gov­ern­ment chan­neled pop­u­lar sup­port into pop­u­lar mobi­liza­tion. This was the Cuban government’s most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the inter­na­tion­al Com­mu­nist tra­di­tion. But while encour­ag­ing pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion, Fidel pre­vent­ed pop­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic con­trol, and kept as much per­son­al polit­i­cal com­mand as he could.

Under his lead­er­ship, the Cuban one-par­ty state was estab­lished in the ear­ly 1960s and was legal­ly sanc­tioned by the Con­sti­tu­tion adopt­ed in 1976. The rul­ing Com­mu­nist Par­ty uses the mass orga­ni­za­tions” as trans­mis­sion belts for the party’s ori­en­ta­tions.” When these mass orga­ni­za­tions” were orig­i­nal­ly estab­lished in 1960, all the pre­vi­ous­ly exist­ing inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tions that could have poten­tial­ly com­pet­ed with the offi­cial insti­tu­tions were elim­i­nat­ed. These includ­ed the sociedades de col­or,” which for a long time had been the bedrock of black orga­ni­za­tion­al life in Cuba, numer­ous women’s orga­ni­za­tions most­ly engaged in wel­fare activ­i­ties, and the trade unions which became incor­po­rat­ed into the state appa­ra­tus after a thor­ough purge of all dis­sent­ing views.

Fidel Castro’s per­son­al con­trol from the top was a major source of eco­nom­ic irra­tional­i­ty and waste. The over­all bal­ance of his per­son­al inter­ven­tions in eco­nom­ic affairs is quite neg­a­tive. These ranged from the eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­as­trous cam­paign for a 10-mil­lion-ton sug­ar crop in 1970, which failed to achieve its sug­ar goals and great­ly dis­rupt­ed the rest of the econ­o­my, to the eco­nom­ic inco­her­ence and intru­sive micro-man­age­ment of his Bat­tle of Ideas” short­ly before he left office.

Manip­u­la­tion and Repression

A major fea­ture of Fidel Castro’s 47-year-old rule was his manip­u­la­tion of pop­u­lar sup­port. This was espe­cial­ly evi­dent in the first two years of the rev­o­lu­tion (19591960) dur­ing which he nev­er revealed even to his sup­port­ers where he intend­ed to go polit­i­cal­ly. The sys­tem­at­ic cen­sor­ship that his gov­ern­ment estab­lished since 1960 is intrin­sic to the manip­u­la­tive pol­i­tics of his régime, and has con­tin­ued under Raúl Cas­tro. The mass media, in com­pli­ance with the ori­en­ta­tions” of the Ide­o­log­i­cal Depart­ment of the Cuban Com­mu­nist Par­ty, pub­lish­es only the news that sat­is­fy the polit­i­cal needs of the gov­ern­ment. Cen­sor­ship is most strik­ing in radio and tele­vi­sion, which is under the aegis of the ICRT (Insti­tu­to Cubano de Radio y Tele­vi­sion — Cuban Insti­tute of Radio and Tele­vi­sion), an insti­tu­tion despised by many artists and intel­lec­tu­als for its cen­so­ri­ous and arbi­trary prac­tices. The sys­tem­at­ic absence of trans­paren­cy in the oper­a­tions of the Cuban gov­ern­ment has con­tin­ued under Raúl Castro’s rule. A clear exam­ple is the sud­den removal, in 2009, of two top polit­i­cal lead­ers, For­eign Min­is­ter Felipe Pérez Roque and Vice Pres­i­dent Car­los Lage, with­out a full expla­na­tion from the gov­ern­ment for the deci­sion. Since then a video detail­ing the government’s ver­sion of that event has been pro­duced but shown only to select­ed audi­ences of lead­ers and cadres of the Cuban Com­mu­nist Par­ty. Cen­sor­ship and the lack of trans­paren­cy has at times turned into out­right men­dac­i­ty, like in the case of Fidel Castro’s repeat­ed denials of phys­i­cal mis­treat­ment in Cuban pris­ons, in the face of its well doc­u­ment­ed exis­tence by sev­er­al inde­pen­dent human rights organizations.

Fidel Cas­tro cre­at­ed a polit­i­cal sys­tem that does not hes­i­tate to use repres­sion, and not only against class ene­mies, to cement its pow­er. It is a sys­tem that has recurred to police and admin­is­tra­tive meth­ods to set­tle polit­i­cal con­flict. This sys­tem has used the legal sys­tem in an arbi­trary man­ner to sti­fle polit­i­cal dis­sent and oppo­si­tion. Among the laws it has invoked to achieve this aim are those pun­ish­ing ene­my pro­pa­gan­da, con­tempt for author­i­ty (desaca­to), rebel­lion, acts against state secu­ri­ty, clan­des­tine print­ing, dis­tri­b­u­tion of false news, pre-crim­i­nal social dan­ger­ous­ness, illic­it asso­ci­a­tions, meet­ings and demon­stra­tions, resis­tance, defama­tion and libel. In 2006, Fidel Cas­tro admit­ted that at one time there had been 15,000 polit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Cuba, although in 1967 he cit­ed the fig­ure of 20,000.

For­eign Policy

For many Latin Amer­i­cans and oth­er peo­ple in the Third World it is not the estab­lish­ment of Com­mu­nism in Cuba that elicit­ed their sym­pa­thy for the Cuban leader. It was rather his out­right chal­lenge to the North Amer­i­can empire and his dogged per­sis­tence in that effort, not only affirm­ing Cuban inde­pen­dence but also sup­port­ing and spon­sor­ing move­ments abroad against the local rul­ing class­es and the U.S. empire. Fidel’s gov­ern­ment paid the price for this with Washington’s spon­sor­ship of mil­i­tary inva­sions, assas­si­na­tion attempts and ter­ror cam­paigns, in addi­tion to the long stand­ing eco­nom­ic block­ade of the island. Stand­ing up to the North Amer­i­can Goliath was not only a mat­ter of over­com­ing a vast­ly supe­ri­or pow­er, but also the arro­gance and racism of the pow­er­ful north­ern neigh­bor. As the his­to­ri­an Louis A. Perez has not­ed, Wash­ing­ton often saw Cubans as chil­dren who had to be taught how to behave.

Yet there are numer­ous mis­con­cep­tions on the left about Cuban for­eign pol­i­cy. While it is true that Fidel Cas­tro main­tained his oppo­si­tion to the U.S. empire to his last breath, his Cuban for­eign pol­i­cy, espe­cial­ly after the late 1960s, was moved more by the defense of Cuban state inter­ests as defined by him and by his alliance with the USSR than by the pur­suit of anti-cap­i­tal­ist rev­o­lu­tion as such. Because the Sovi­et Union regard­ed Latin Amer­i­ca as part of the U.S. sphere of influ­ence, it applied strong polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pres­sure on Cuba to play down its open sup­port for guer­ril­la war­fare in Latin Amer­i­ca. By the late 1960s, the USSR suc­ceed­ed in this effort and that is why in the 1970s Cuba turned to Africa with a vig­or that came from know­ing that its poli­cies in that con­ti­nent were strate­gi­cal­ly more com­pat­i­ble with Sovi­et inter­ests, in spite of their many tac­ti­cal dis­agree­ments. This strate­gic alliance with the USSR helps to explain why Cuba’s African pol­i­cy had quite dif­fer­ent impli­ca­tions for Ango­la and South African apartheid where it was gen­er­al­ly on the left, than for the Horn of Africa, where it was not. In this part of the con­ti­nent, Fidel Castro’s gov­ern­ment sup­port­ed a left­ist” bloody dic­ta­tor­ship in Ethiopia and indi­rect­ly helped that gov­ern­ment in its efforts to sup­press Eritre­an inde­pen­dence. The sin­gle most impor­tant fac­tor explain­ing Cuba’s pol­i­cy in that area was that the new Ethiopi­an gov­ern­ment had tak­en the side of the Sovi­ets in the Cold War. It was for the same rea­sons that Fidel Cas­tro, to the great sur­prise and dis­ap­point­ment of the Cuban peo­ple, sup­port­ed the Sovi­et inva­sion of Czecho­slo­va­kia in 1968, although it was clear that Castro’s polit­i­cal dis­like for Dubcek’s lib­er­al poli­cies played an impor­tant role in his deci­sion to sup­port the Sovi­et action. Fidel Cas­tro also sup­port­ed, at least implic­it­ly, the Sovi­et inva­sion of Afghanistan in 1979, although he did it with much dis­com­fort and in a low-key man­ner because, as it hap­pened, Cuba had just assumed the lead­er­ship of the Non-Aligned Move­ment, the great major­i­ty of whose mem­bers strong­ly opposed the Sovi­et intervention.

As a gen­er­al rule, Fidel Castro’s Cuba has, even in the first stages of its for­eign pol­i­cy in the ear­ly 1960s, refrained from sup­port­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ments against gov­ern­ments that had good rela­tions with Havana and reject­ed U.S. pol­i­cy towards the island, inde­pen­dent­ly of the ide­o­log­i­cal col­oration of those gov­ern­ments. The most par­a­dig­mat­ic cas­es of the rea­sons of state” approach of Cuban for­eign pol­i­cy are the very ami­ca­ble rela­tions that Cuba main­tained with the Mex­i­co of the Insti­tu­tion­al Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Par­ty (PRI) and with Franco’s Spain. It is also worth not­ing that in var­i­ous Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries such as Guatemala, El Sal­vador and Venezuela, Fidel Castro’s gov­ern­ment favored some guer­ril­la and oppo­si­tion move­ments and opposed oth­ers depend­ing on the degree to which they were will­ing to sup­port Cuba’s policies.

Fidel Cas­tro in His­tor­i­cal Perspective

The estab­lish­ment of a Sovi­et-type régime in Cuba, can­not be explained on the basis of gen­er­al­iza­tions about under­de­vel­op­ment, dic­ta­tor­ship and impe­ri­al­ism, which have been applied to the whole of Latin Amer­i­ca. The sin­gle most impor­tant fac­tor that explains the unique­ness of Cuba’s devel­op­ment is the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship of Fidel Cas­tro that made a major dif­fer­ence in the tri­umph against Batista and in deter­min­ing the course tak­en by the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion after it came to pow­er. In turn, Fidel Castro’s role was made pos­si­ble by the par­tic­u­lar socio-eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal make-up of the Cuba of the late 1950s. This includ­ed the exis­tence of eco­nom­i­cal­ly sub­stan­tial but polit­i­cal­ly weak class­es — cap­i­tal­ist, mid­dle, and work­ing class; a pro­fes­sion­al and in many ways mer­ce­nary army whose lead­er­ship had weak ties with the eco­nom­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful class­es; and a con­sid­er­ably decayed sys­tem of tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal parties.

Castro’s lega­cy, how­ev­er, has become uncer­tain ever since the col­lapse of the USSR. Under Raúl Cas­tro, the gov­ern­ment, par­tic­u­lar­ly after the sixth Com­mu­nist Par­ty con­gress in 2011, promised sig­nif­i­cant changes in the Cuban econ­o­my that point in the gen­er­al direc­tion of the Sino-Viet­namese mod­el that com­bines an open­ing to the cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket place with polit­i­cal author­i­tar­i­an­ism. The reestab­lish­ment of diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with the Unit­ed States announced in Decem­ber of 2014, which Fidel Cas­tro reluc­tant­ly endorsed some time lat­er, is like­ly to facil­i­tate this eco­nom­ic strat­e­gy espe­cial­ly in the now unlike­ly event that the U.S. Con­gress mod­i­fies or repeals the Helms Bur­ton Act approved in 1996 (with Pres­i­dent Clinton’s con­sent) that made into law the U.S. eco­nom­ic block­ade of the island. Mean­while, cor­rup­tion and inequal­i­ty are grow­ing and cor­rod­ing Cuban soci­ety, con­tribut­ing to an over­all sense of pes­simism and the desire of many, par­tic­u­lar­ly young peo­ple, to leave the coun­try at the first opportunity.

In light of a like­ly future state cap­i­tal­ist tran­si­tion and the role that for­eign cap­i­tal and polit­i­cal pow­ers such as the Unit­ed States, Brazil, Spain, Cana­da, Rus­sia and Chi­na may play in it, the prospects for Cuban nation­al sov­er­eign­ty — per­haps the one unam­bigu­ous­ly pos­i­tive ele­ment of Fidel Castro’s lega­cy — are high­ly uncertain.

Samuel Far­ber is a pro­fes­sor of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Brook­lyn Col­lege. Born and raised in Cuba, his books include Rev­o­lu­tion and Reac­tion in Cuba, 1933 – 1960, The Ori­gins of the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion Recon­sid­ered, and most recent­ly The Pol­i­tics of Che Gue­vara: The­o­ry and Prac­tice (Hay­mar­ket Books, 2016)
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