“Condemn me. It doesn’t matter. History will absolve me.”
It was with these words that Fidel Castro, a fiery 26-year-old lawyer, closed his own defense statement in a courtroom in Cuba in 1953.
On July 26, 1953, Fidel and about 150 other young revolutionaries had attacked the Moncada military barracks in an effort to begin an uprising against the dictator Batista. But many factors in this first attempt by Fidel at an insurrection were miscalculated, and many of the 150 fighters were murdered or tortured to death in Batista’s prisons afterwards. After giving his now famous courtroom speech against the brutal rule of Batista, Fidel along with other compañeros were found “guilty” and were each sentenced to between 5 and 15 years. However, because of growing protests and discontent in Cuba, the dictator Batista was pressured to release them only two years later, in 1955.
That same year, Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries came together to form the July 26th Movement. They went to Mexico to re-group and plot their victory against Batista. It was in Mexico that Fidel met Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a young doctor, who agreed to join their group of 81 young revolutionaries planning to return to Cuba aboard the Granma. In the final days of November 1956, 82 men and a heavy supply of weapons loaded on to the small Granma yacht, which was really only meant to hold about 25 people.
They had coordinated the Granma’s arrival in Cuba with an uprising by the urban underground movement, led by Frank País, in Santiago de Cuba. However the Granma’s trip from Mexico to the eastern part of Cuba was not smooth and they arrived two days late. One of the reasons for their delayed arrival in Cuba was that a member of their team fell overboard. Norberto Collado, the helmsman on the Granma, later told the story of Fidel’s response, “the search began. Many believed that because of the state of the waves and the weight of his clothes, he had drowned. The delay compromised the mission, but Fidel said, ‘I won’t abandon any of my comrades,’ and after a great effort, we found him in the dark. Fidel’s humanist position really impressed me. It’s the same one he’s maintained throughout the revolution.” In addition to this near drowning, the Granma had a failed engine, and some miscalculations had been made in relation to the navigation time. This meant that they arrived in Cuba after the uprising in Santiago de Cuba had already been crushed by Batista’s forces.
Soon after their arrival, the fighters disembarking from the Granma, which had landed in a swamp in las Coloradas, were ambushed by Batista’s army. At the end of this fight, only 12 of those who arrived on the Granma re-grouped in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. Despite this seemingly impossible situation, with the outlook of a truly exceptional leader, Fidel told his small group, “We will win this war…we’re just beginning to fight!” And fight they did. This young group of revolutionaries gained support from people throughout Cuba, fought against Batista’s malicious forces and formed alliances with revolutionaries, workers and oppressed people across the country and around the world. On December 31, 1959, Batista fled Cuba, eventually for Miami, USA. It had been three years and one month since the Granma landed, and 5 years, 5 months and 5 days since the attack on the Moncada Garrison. Fidel and the July 26th Movement had won their revolution in favor of the people of Cuba!
The Uphill Battle of the Revolution
The triumph of the Cuban revolution did not mean a full victory for the Cuban people, indeed since 1959 the revolution has been a continuous uphill battle, even with all of its gains and triumphs.
The dreams and plans of Fidel and those other revolutionaries ran very deep. They wanted to flip Cuba upside down. When they came to power in 1959, 90% of Cuban farmland was controlled by U.S. companies and institutions, with the wealth of the country being swept into the pockets of a small minority of Cubans and foreigners. The new revolutionary government planned for the wealth to be redistributed among the poor, with land given to the landless, and fundamental human rights for all, meaning universal education, housing, jobs and healthcare. In his first speech upon his arrival in Havana on January 9, 1959, Fidel was very honest about these future battles to maintain the revolution. He explained, “The tyranny has been overthrown, but there is still much to be done. Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the future will be easy; perhaps everything will be more difficult in the future.”
In 1961, the Bay of Pigs invasion was the largest attempt by the U.S. after the triumph of the revolution at a physical invasion of Cuba. The U.S. backed and trained 1,500 men, to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel and the Cuban revolution. The idea was that Cubans on the island would join the U.S. trained forces because the U.S. believed Fidel was losing popularity. However, after less than 72 hours, the U.S.-backed invaders were forced to surrender to the revolutionary army of Cuba. José Manuel Gutiérrez, one of the soldiers for the counterrevolutionary forces said, “a jeep passed shooting and saying: ‘Surrender, surrender’; a little later, a group of us came out and turned ourselves over. It was Fidel in that jeep, and I said to someone: ‘That’s why we lost, because Fidel is with them, fighting on the frontline.’” Fidel, the strategist and vanguard fighter, was still on the frontlines working together with the Cuban people to defend his country and people from the imperialist attack. Fidel once again showed himself to be a visionary leader, who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk.
Basically a year later, Cuba had continued concerns about the U.S. organizing another invasion against the island. This factor, along with the US officially imposing an economic blockade against Cuba, caused Cuba to look to the Soviet Union for help. During that moment in history now known as “the Cuban Missile Crisis”, the Soviet Union moved nuclear weapons into Cuba without the U.S. knowing. This secrecy went against what Cuba had negotiated with the Soviet Union, and when a U.S. spy plane discovered the weapons, the U.S. came very close to retaliating directly against Cuba, During this crisis, Cuba was cut out of the negotiations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. Government. Forty years later in an interview with Barbara Walters, Fidel Castro remarked, “Believe me. We were not interested in becoming part of the whole contention between the two countries. We would not have accepted the missiles if they had said that it was related to the balance of power.” This trick by the Soviet Union was truly a lesson for Fidel and other leaders of the Cuban revolution, which would put them in a better position to understand how to work with the Soviet Union in the future.
Fidel’s Historical Role in Africa
In 1975, Cuba sent 30,000 soldiers into Angola to help with their fight for independence against colonial powers. After a small victory against the South African apartheid army, Cuba wanted to push forward, and in the words of Fidel, “exact a heavy price from South Africa for its adventure, the application of UN Resolution 435 and the independence of Namibia.” However, Fidel also explained that, “on the other hand, the Soviets, worried about possible U.S. reaction, were putting strong pressure on us to make a rapid withdrawal. After raising strong objections, we were obliged to accede, at least partially, to the Soviet demands.”
Again in 1987, the South African apartheid army hit back at Angola. This time Fidel took matters into his own hands. He explained how the South African army “advanced strongly towards Cuito Cuanavale, an old NATO airbase. Here it prepared to deliver a mortal blow against Angola. Desperate calls were received from the Angolan government appealing to the Cuban troops for support in fending off presumed disaster; it was unquestionably the biggest threat from a military operation in which we, as on other occasions, had no responsibility whatever.” Despite the fact that it was not Cuba’s responsibility to defend Angola’s sovereignty, Fidel sent 55,000 soldiers to Angola. Remaining in Cuba, Fidel spent days and nights strategizing the battle in Angola. Fidel’s plans were victorious, and the victory against the apartheid army in Cuito Cuanavale weakened them severely. Fidel again set an example of courage and leadership that not only awed military strategists, but changed the course of history for South Africans.
What were the people of Africa’s reaction to Cuba’s involvement under Fidel’s leadership? It was not only Angolans who did not felt the victory in Cuito Cuanavale. The famous anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau also said, “Cuban fighters are ready to lay down their lives for the liberation of our countries, and in exchange for this aid to our freedom and the progress of our people, all they take from us are their comrades who fell fighting for freedom.”
The late Nelson Mandela, has said many times, “the defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today.” On Fidel, Nelson Mandela said in 1995, “I went to Cuba in July 1991, and I drove through the streets with Fidel Castro. There were a great deal of cheers. And I also waved back believing that these cheers were for me…But when I reached the square where I had to make some remarks to the crowd, then I realized that these cheers were not meant for me, they were meant for Fidel Castro…Then I realized that here was a man of the masses…Those are the impressions I have about Fidel Castro in Cuba.”
As you can see, Fidel’s leadership in this battle of ideas has not only been as a military strategist or fighter. Fidel is also a revolutionary internationalist, he believes in struggling for a better world for all human beings, not only those of a particular nationality. As Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the world unite!” Many historians have argued that Che Guevara left Cuba for Africa and later to fight in Bolivia because he was somehow dissatisfied with the Cuban revolution or that Fidel was somehow dissatisfied with him. The reality is that both Fidel and Che were revolutionary internationalists who played different roles in the struggle. Che Guevara never would have made it into Bolivia without the support of the Cuban government and Fidel Castro.
The battles Cuba has fought since 1959, both in Cuba and internationally have not been easy. Some were physical battles, such as the battle against bandits in the Escambray Mountains or the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, most were not battles of physical might, but battles of ideas. In December 1998 at the Union of Young Communists’ 7th Congress, Fidel explained this battle, “the struggle we are speaking about will not, in essence, be a war, but rather a battle of ideas. The world’s problems shall not be solved through the use of nuclear weapons --this is impossible-- nor through wars. What’s more, they shall not be solved through isolated revolutions that, within the order installed by neo-liberal globalization, can be crushed within a matter of days, weeks at the most.”
The Difference of Two Methods: Soviet Union Down, Cuba Up
In the mid-1980s, the political and economic situation in Cuba began to show challenges ahead for the maintenance of the revolution. The country was showing signs of stagnation and increased bureaucratic tendencies. It was at this time that Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and brought forth the economic, social and political policy of Perestroika and Glasnost [Reconstruction and Openness], which was in place from 1985 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Interestingly, in 1988, the news agency Paris AFP asked Fidel Castro why Cuba was not following perestroika. Fidel responded, “problems must also be resolved with honor, morals, and principles.” These honors, morals and principals were present in Cuba’s economic plan, presented in 1989, as the rectification process.
In his book, A Nation for All: Race, Inequality, and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba, Harvard professor Alejandro de la Fuente explains that Cuba’s rectification period, “called for a reversal of the market-oriented pragmatism that characterized the 1971-85 years, a recentralization in decision making, and the reintroduction of mass-mobilizations and voluntary work as forms of labor organization.” This is partly true.
In February 1990, Fidel Castro spoke at an extraordinary session of the National Assembly of the People’s Power and explained further. “It was in the report to the third party congress (in February 1986) where the process of rectification began. It began at a time when no party in the socialist arena talked about those things, nor did they talk about restructuring, or anything else. [...] Our rectification started before anyone else’s, before any party’s rectification. We have followed our path. We have not copied anyone’s path. One of the things that rectification consisted of was to sweep away a set of concepts, ideas, or ways of constructing socialism that we had copied. We discovered many peculiarities in what we had. We said, this leads nowhere. We must improve this. So we worked hard. We have worked a lot. [...] Like I told the workers: Yes, we will have change, but it will be revolutionary change to get more revolution, to make the revolution more solid. Do not let anyone dream that we will head toward capitalism, or to anything that looks like private property for production.” This battle of ideas, to maintain and deepen socialism, is a debate and discussion in Cuba that continues today. Fidel has also taken a firm position, that while Cuba has to be flexible and reject rigidity, that flexibility will never mean abandoning Cuba’s socialist principals for equality and justice.
Cuban economist Carlos Tablada explained that even in the difficult times between 1985 and 1989, under the leadership of Fidel, the Cuban revolution continued to fight for a better life for people in Cuba. He cited these statistics: “The number of inhabitants per doctor fell from 1832 to 303 over the same period, reaching 274 in 1990 … Infant mortality stood at 10.2 per thousand births in 1990, against 15 for the developed world, 52 for Latin America and 76 in the underdeveloped world.” Cuba prides itself in the fact that throughout difficult times they have always maintained the social safety net in place for the most vulnerable and continued pushing forward the gains of the revolution in healthcare and education. We know that outside of Cuba, when capitalist countries like the U.S. or Canada face economic challenges these programs are always the first on the chopping block.
Fidel: An Instrument of Revolutionary Change
A new and difficult challenge fell upon Fidel Castro in 1989. This was the case of his former comrade and friend Ochoa, or “Case No. 1 of 1989”. This was when four high-ranking officers in the Cuban military were caught involved in smuggling drugs through Cuba. One of these four was Arnaldo Ochoa, a highly decorated officer who had fought alongside Fidel in the Sierra Maestra. Cubans were outraged and felt a deep sense of betrayal, as these men’s actions left the Cuban government very vulnerable to be attacked by the U.S.
Karen Lee Wald, an American journalist, wrote “Most Cubans believed that all of the accused committed high treason… They tended not to ask whether Castro was guilty, too… but rather, ‘how could they do that to Fidel?!’” Wald continues, saying that Cubans generally flip-flopped during the trial as to whether or not they should be given the death penalty. However, after all of the members of the Council of State (including Fidel) explained their reasons for supporting the death penalty “most people in the country were convinced of the necessity of this action.”
This case was especially offencive to Fidel because Ochoa had been in charge of troops in Angola and they had pulled him out before the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, but had they not, who knows what might have happened. Years later, looking back at this case in 1999, Fidel stated, “they had taken part in the organization of drug trafficking through our country, an extremely serious offense that jeopardized the prestige and security of the nation. […] We had found their justification incredible, since they said that they had concocted the plan to help the country… even if drug smugglers had delivered a billion or five billion dollars, if they had paid Cuba’s foreign debt, the revolution would never accept the passage of even a kilogram of drugs, because our country is worth much more. What it has achieved in health, education and many other fields as a matter of sheer justice with the sacrifice of many lives is worth much more than that amount; the life of just one person is worth much more, and we had had to sacrifice many lives.”
Cuba, Fidel & the Special Period
The dissolution of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s meant that Cuba lost its main trading partner, and over 80% of its foreign trade virtually overnight. This loss for Cuba, gave the U.S. government the idea to tighten its imperialist grip around Cuba’s neck. Basically since 1959, but officially from 1962, the U.S. government imposed an economic blockade against Cuba. This limited Cuba’s access to medicine, food, construction materials, etc. The U.S. also stopped importing Cuban sugar, which meant that Cuba had been forced to rely very heavily on the Soviet Bloc for trade. The U.S. government knew this, and after the collapse of Soviet Union, they passed the Torricelli Act in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Bill in 1996 in order to further strangle Cuba’s economy. These two events launched Cuba into what they called the “special period”.
After the triumph revolution, political and social education were popularized in Cuba, so the U.S. did not have an easy task ahead. The Cuban people generally understood how their families as well as their communities, society and nation had gained from the revolution,. Despite the U.S. government’s hopes, the vast majority of Cubans stood beside the revolution during the special period, despite delays and overcrowding of public transportation, power blackouts, food shortages, and long line-ups at stores.
Fidel, always the optimist, reminded people in 1996, “After five years of blockade combined with the special period, the people’s spirit is stronger, because humankind is brave and gains strength under adversity, under struggles, under difficulties. Human is no meringue topping that fades under a whiff. Humans are children of their own history, and very few countries have a history as beautiful as ours.” It is with the belief that the revolution could overcome all obstacles that the people of Cuba continued despite huge difficulty to defend the revolution and their Comandante en Jefe, Fidel Castro.
In order to pull Cuba out of the immense poverty and hardship of the special period, Cuba opened its doors to tourism. This was basically what some call a “necessary evil”, meaning that although it went against the overall goals of creating equality among all Cubans, it was the only solution for the revolutionary government of Cuba if it wanted to maintain the universal health and education system that the revolution had developed. This was a difficult choice for Fidel and the Cuban leadership, but they were willing to make it.
Similar to the rectification process of the 1980s, in the early 2000s Fidel launched another fight against the corruption of the ‘new rich’ that resulted from tourism. In a speech on November 17, 2005, Fidel declared, “We have a people who have learned to handle weapons. We have an entire nation which, in spite of our errors, holds such a high degree of culture, education, and conscience that it will never allow this country to become their colony again. This country can self-destruct, this revolution can destroy itself, but they can never destroy us. We can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.” These statements by Fidel opened the idea that another rectification process could be necessary in the near future as the Cuban economy recovers from the special period.
The Gains of the Cuban Revolution
The challenges for Cuba and Fidel’s revolutionary leadership to maintain its road forward have been and continue to be numerous. Despite these ongoing challenges, Cuba has not stopped making large strides forward for its people. In 2006, Javier Rodriguez, a writer for Granma International wrote, “Irrespective of the fierce US economic and commercial blockade, Cuba was able to develop education, health and other fields…Cuban experts and technicians joined with nations of the region to jointly work on projects targeting the quality of life of the most underprivileged of Latin America. Strategies to eliminate illiteracy through Cuba’s “Yo Sí Puedo (I Can Do It) system were successful in Venezuela and are being implemented in Bolivia and other countries. Medical assistance to the poorest populations in Latin America is complemented with the training of thousands of doctors.”
Most recently, in the last 3 years, headlines around the world have praised Cuba, as the country’s revolutionary internationalism lead it to sending doctors to West Africa in the fight against Ebola. Headlines reading, “Cuban doctors take leading role in fighting Ebola” (UK Telegraph), “Why Cuba Is So Good at Fighting Ebola” (Time Magazine), and “W.H.O. to Announce End of Ebola in Liberia, Thanks to Cuba” (Telesur) have promoted Cuba’s leading role in combating a global crisis. In October 2014, Fidel Castro expressed in his reflection “Heroes of our time”: “May the example of the Cubans heading to Africa also capture the hearts and minds of other doctors around the world, especially those who possess resources, practice a religion or have the deepest conviction to fulfill the duty of human solidarity.[...] The personnel heading to Africa are also protecting those who remain here, because the worst that can happen is that this epidemic or other more serious illnesses reach our continent, or the heart of any community in any county in the world, where a child, mother or human being could die. There are enough doctors on the planet to ensure that no one has to die due to lack of medical attention. This is what I wish to express.” What we can see from this is that through many of the unforeseeable ups and downs of the revolution, Fidel Castro’s consistent revolutionary method in approaching Cuba’s challenges has led Cuba to succeed. These battles have been fought and overcome through the pressure and devotion of the Cuban people to their revolution and its gains, but also through the clear foresight of Cuba’s revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro.
In a short interview with Armando Hart about his lifelong friendship with Fidel, he explained the basic concept that while imperialists attempt to “divide and win” in Latin America, Fidel and Cuba want to “unite and win”. Someone who I think would agree with this is Wayne Smith, former head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana under U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Smith said, “Castro is celebrated as a hero throughout Latin America. It isn’t because they all want to be socialist now. No, it’s because he’s the only one who stood up to us and succeeded.” Indeed! Fidel has now watched and outlasted 10 different U.S. presidents (11 when Obama leaves office in January 2017). Along with this, the U.S. government and the CIA have attempted to take Fidel’s life over 600 times since 1959.
In August 2006, only a few days before his 80th birthday, Fidel announced that he had had emergency surgery and that Minister of Defence, Raul Castro, would take over his responsibilities in government. This meant that his birthday celebrations were postponed until December 2, 2006 which also marked 50th anniversary of the historic landing of the Granma. Despite his illness, Fidel declared, “In terms of my spirits I am perfectly well. What is important is that everything in the country is running and will continue to run perfectly well…We must fight and work.”
Over the past 10 years, since stepping aside from his role as president of Cuba, Fidel has continued his own work in other leadership roles. He continues to meet with foreign leaders and dignitaries, to write educational articles and occasionally give speeches at national and international functions.
In his most recent public speech on April 19, 2016 at the closing of the 7th congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, Fidel Castro addressed many of the concerns of the Cuban people and international community now that the revolution will be handed over to a new generation who were not yet alive during the battles in the Sierra Maestra. Fidel said, “I shall soon turn 90, such an idea would never have occurred to me and it was never the result of an effort, it was sheer chance. I will soon be like everyone else. We all reach our turn, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof that on this planet, working with fervor and dignity, can produce the material and cultural wealth that humans need, and we must fight relentlessly to obtain these. To our brothers in Latin America and the world we must convey that the Cuban people will overcome.” Fidel not only reached out to the Cuban people to encourage them to continue building on the gains of the Cuban socialist revolution. True to his revolutionary socialist internationalist perspective he also spoke out against climate change, imperialism, war, hunger and poverty. To enjoy Fidel’s full speech in English and Spanish, please read Fire This Time Volume 10 Issue 5.
While many debate and dispute the role that a single individual can truly play in history, we have watched as many other revolutionary peoples lose or face deep setbacks in their revolutions. This can be due to many factors, both external and internal. However, we do know that in Cuba the people have fought to defend their revolution, partly because of their confidence in its leadership, their confidence in the fact that Fidel has always been able to criticize himself and the mistakes of the revolution and to push forward always looking for positive and principled solutions. It is because of this aspect of his character that he has maintained his leadership role in Cuba since July 26, 1953 when he lead the group of young revolutionaries to attack the Moncada army garrison in Santiago de Cuba. While the attack on the Moncada was a huge defeat, those who study history and are fair about the real challenges Cuba has faced, know that Fidel was correct when he pronounced that it did not matter if that courtroom found him guilty of crimes against Batista. As Fidel said, “Condemn me. It doesn’t matter. History will absolve me.”
¡Viva La revolución Cubana!
LONG LIVE FIDEL!
Long live the Cuban revolution!
Article first appeared in Fire This Time Newspaper, November 2006.
Edited and revised for Fire This Time special issue for Fidel, December 2016.
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