FIDEL Castro was the archetypal revolutionary − beard, military fatigues and cigar were glamorous left-wing symbols of the 1960s. At the age of thirteen he organised a strike amongst his father’s workers and during the guerrilla war of the late 1950s he burned his mother’s sugarcane fields. Castro never lacked confidence or revolutionary zeal, declaring famously in self-defence at the trial after his rebel attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago in 1953, ‘History will absolve me’. With his death, history is now in a position to judge.
He was born the illegitimate son of a relatively prosperous farmer. His education was privileged and he studied law, although at university he also became acquainted with political gangsterism. As a member of the Ortodoxo party, which revered the Cuban nationalist leader Jose Martí, Castro’s political philosophy was broadly socialist. By personality he was never a democrat, although he always emphasised the importance of consultation.
Castro had resolve, political acumen, a prodigious memory, great physical energy, a ruthless streak − and luck. After the 1953 uprising he served only eighteen months in jail before going into exile in Mexico where he met the Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto (Che) Guevara. His perilous return to Cuba in 1956 saw the beginning of a slow guerrilla war fought from the Sierra Maestra, a textbook example of the use of limited resources. He benefited from the failure of others, particularly the urban revolutionaries, and from the heavy-handedness of Fulgencio Batista’s regime. Astute tactics made up for his small following as he disarmed and released soldiers and co-opted other groups with vague promises. Ironically, his 26 July Movement may have been equipped or funded by the CIA.
He entered Havana in January 1959 as the effective head of the armed forces. In classic Leninist fashion he conflated party and state structures, soon absorbed key elements of government and was installed as president within six months. An armed citizenry was henceforth to blur the distinction between civil and military. The question of whether he was a dedicated communist like his brother Raúl, or saw the party as an instrument to gain and maintain power, is unresolved. As the Russians were to find, he was his own man. Indeed, he was as much caudillo as communist with an air, according to historian Hugh Thomas, of Garibaldi romanticism about him, a patriotic socialist above all.
His major achievement was to bring self-respect to the Cuban nation by throwing off the burden of American colonialism that ranged from economic domination by companies like United Fruit to the corruption, sleaze and gangsterism of pre-revolutionary Havana, which Clive Foss describes as the ‘whorehouse of the western world’. Cuba sí, Yanquis no was an understandably popular slogan along with the more problematic patria o muerte, venceremos (nation or death − we shall triumph). Castro elevated a small nation to international status and created education and health systems equal to any in the world. Before Castro, politics in Cuba was simply a ticket to wealth. His regime undoubtedly benefited the masses; but they paid for their socio-economic rights, forfeiting other freedoms of religion, expression and association. In 1969 he abolished Christmas. It was this Stalinist behaviour that was to lose Castro his credentials in global left-wing intellectual circles.
The cost was considerable. Castro’s was a truly fundamental revolution based on so-called democratic centralism that involved the very worst aspects of totalitarianism. There were no elections, street committees spied on neighbours, the free press was abolished, the church suppressed, and every possible aspect of economy and society nationalised. However, although Castro was prepared to use the firing squad, the Cuban revolution was relatively bloodless. He preferred the safety valve theory: his opponents were allowed to emigrate, as ten per cent of the population chose to do. Those Cubans who remained were subjected to effective, routine repression.
In a sense the Americans made Castro. Their role in Cuba spawned a revolutionary, nationalist leader whom they then proceeded spectacularly to misunderstand. When he failed their expectations, Washington allied itself with the worst of his enemies including the mafia. A massive CIA operation, that lacked the crucial element of intelligence, tried to kill him using exploding seashells and cigars or impair his dignity by making his beard fall out. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a disastrous failure and only succeeded in enhancing Castro’s revolutionary allure. For all his failings Castro stands head and shoulders above his enemies: that unholy alliance of the exile community, CIA, the mob and the Pentagon. The threat of Cuba to the USA, once the missile crisis of 1962 was overcome, was never more than psychological and the blockade was totally unjustifiable. In some ways it provided Castro with a political crutch, a ready excuse for every failure. John F. Kennedy and Castro respected one another, raising unresolved questions about the course of Latin American history had Kennedy not been assassinated.
Castro’s greatest failures were economic and international. A centralised Marxist state used military conscription to pursue economic policy with predictably poor results: on one occasion the entire population of Camagüey was forced into the sugar fields. Castro’s economics were based on dogma, enthusiasm and a misreading of human nature. He was against corruption and materialism and in favour of productivity and moral values, but instead of liberating the Cuban people he simply created a new dependence on the Soviet Union. When that failed him, the economy nosedived into autarky. While he correctly recognised the importance of diversification away from sugar, he took the disastrous course of nationalising small business. Some of the successes, like organic farming, were a result of circumstance rather than planning. The Cuban economy simply stagnated and when eastern Europe opted for glasnost and perestroika Castro took Cuba in the opposite direction.
Foreign policy was a disaster. Castro micro-managed military involvement in Syria, Somalia and Ethiopia and counted the murderous Mengistu as an ally. His greatest investment was in Angola to which he bequeathed landmines and amputees. Much was made of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, but it was no military victory and afterwards Castro had his veteran commander General Arnaldo Ochoa shot on trumped-up charges. His foreign adventures, inspired by the fantasist Guevara with his theories about the export of revolution, achieved nothing and seriously called into question both judgement and non-aligned status as Cuba appeared to be the surrogate enforcer of the Soviet empire.
Castro was by far the longest-serving republican head of state. He was an autocrat, sometimes a ruthless dictator and he ran a police state. But he had a cause to which he stuck resolutely without apparent personal gain. Absolution seems inappropriate. What is beyond dispute is that he was a remarkable leader who attracted and held great loyalty from significant numbers of his compatriots for over 50 years.
Fidel Castro born Birán, Santiago de Cuba, 13 August 1926; died Havana, 25 November 2016
Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 50, 27 November 2016