Fidel Castro and the Cuban socialist revolution

SHARE   |   Monday, 16 January 2017   |   By Elmon M Tafa
Fidel Castro and the Cuban socialist revolution

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz - the undisputed author and leader of the 1959 Cuban socialist revolution – is no more. Fidel Castro was the illegitimate son of Angel y Agrgiz and Lina Ruz Gonzalez; hence for 17 years he used the surname Ruz. He will certainly go into the annals of history as a symbol of resistance and an icon of social justice and socialism in the eyes of all the oppressed workers and poor peasants of the world. He stood up to Yankee imperialism and survived the US economic blockade, several assassination attempts and counter-revolutionary machinations. During his school days he excelled in agriculture, history and Spanish and he was an exceptional athlete. He played for the school baseball team. Castro and his brothers were at one point expelled from school because of their activism. Castro’s revolutionary outlook was shaped by Havana University where he studied having enrolled in 1945. At the university Castro was exposed to different ideologies such as fascism and communism. He studied civil law, public administration and social sciences and later became president of the militant University Student Federation. In 1950 Castro graduated with a Doctor of Law and began his brief legal practice with Jorge Azpiazu and Rafael Rsende focusing on helping the poor assert their rights. The university was a hotbed of student activism, violence and gang fights. Since the fall of President Gerardo Machado in the 1930s student politics had degenerated into some form of   gansterismo dominated by factions. Convinced that some factions posed a physical threat to his university aspirations Castro was implicated in a number of shootings linked to Rolando Masferer’s MSR faction. So intense were the differences that Castro was apparently implicated in an attempt on Masfeeer’s life while Masferrer’s paramilitary group Les Tigers later became an instrument of state violence under the Batsiata regime.

At the University of Havana Castro joined one of the gangs called the Union Insurrectional Revolucionaria. He was suspected of murdering a rival student leader and other violent actions but the police did not have enough evidence to take action against him. While Castro developed a reputation for public speaking on several occasions he was defeated in student elections. Castro gained prominence and his anti-corruption and anti-violence speeches of the Grau regime earned him a place in the front page of every newspaper. Castro took time out of his studies to take part in an unsuccessful expedition led by Juan Bosch to overthrow the dictatorship of the Dominican Republic under Generalissmo Rafael Trujillo. The coup was abandoned during the ocean voyage to Dominica. Castro jumped into the shark-infested waters and swam to shore carrying a gun over his head. Fidel Castro joined the University Committee which opposed the intervention of the US in the Caribbean and fought for the independence of Puerto Rico. As President of the University Committee for Democracy in the Dominican Republic Castro took part in an attempt to overthrow the US backed Dominican Republic. Fidel Castro travelled to Venezuela and Panama before viding Bogota, Colombia.  In April 1948 as one of the organizers of a student congress at Bogota, Columbia, he took part in a series of violent uprisings known as the Bogotazo. He joined mobs and roamed the streets distributing anti-US materials and stirring revolt. Castro later flew back to Havana to resume his studies.  At that time he espoused liberal political ideas and occasionally clashed with Communists.  Castro started gravitating towards Marxism in the 1940s but his conversion to Marxism took place after the attainment of state power. Castro believed that in the McCarthyite, and anti-communist climate existing in Cuba and in the world, declarations of Marxism-Leninism faith would have been absurd. The point was not to make declarations but act and show in deeds how correct his revolutionary formulations were.  Indeed at that time Che Guevara regarded Castro as ‘a leader of the left-wing bourgeoisie’.

In 1947 Castro joined a non-Marxist party called the Cuban Peoples Party or the Orthodox Party led by Eduardo Chibas.  Castro was also a member of the Cuban Peace Committee during his university days. The populist Orthodox Party was led by the radical anti-imperialist nationalist bourgeoisie with some following from the workers and farmers.  Led by the charismatic and fiery debater, Eduardo Chibas the Orthodox Party opposed US monopolies and corruption, called for economic independence, political liberty and social justice. Within the Orthodox Party was a left-wing made up of university students and Fidel Castro together with future leaders of the Cuban revolution belonged to this group. The students were Marxist but had deep roots in Cuban traditions. They were especially steeped in the ideas of Jose Marti whose ardent patriotism, impassioned love for freedom, dignity and honour of man, boundless faith in the masses and repudiation of despotism were unparalleled. Reflecting on the role of Marxism in the struggle Castro observed that; ‘The class concept of society as divided between exploiters and exploited; the materialist conception of history; bourgeois relations of production as the antagonistic form of social production; the inevitable advent of a classless society as the result of the development of the productive forces under capitalism and of the social revolution’. ‘Marxism taught us,’ Castro added. ‘Above all about the historic mission of the working class, the class called upon to transform capitalist society to its very foundation and about the role of the masses in the revolution. Lenin’s State and Revolution enlightened us about the role of the state as the tool for domination of the oppressor classes and the need to create a revolutionary power capable of crushing the resistance of the exploiters. Commenting on the political nature of guerrilla warfare (regarded by some as 10% military and 90% political) Fidel Castro stated that when the guerrillas set off to attack the enemy in addition to military hardware they were required to put Lenin’s Blue Notebook or State and Revolution inside the rucksacks to learn about the state as a product of the irreconcilable class contradictions and an instrument of the economically dominant classes in society. Castro further observes that ‘The basic nucleus of leaders of our movement regarded Marxism as the only rational and scientific conception of revolution and the only method for fully understanding the situation of our country’.

The revolution started in 1952 when former army Sergeant Fulgrencio Batista seized political power when it became clear that he was going to lose the election. The coup caused widespread indignation among Cuban people. Fidel Castro had planned to run for congress elections but this could not happen because of the coup. With all constitutional avenues to change government closed Castro prepared for a revolutionary overthrow of the Batista regime. Fidel was deprived access to radio stations, meetings at which he was scheduled to speak were banned and the newspaper, La Calle, in which he published articles, was closed down. By July 1953 trained 1 500 soldiers and was ready to mount an attack on the Santiago garrison using only 151 soldiers because of scarcity of arms. On July 26, 1953 Castro’s guerrillas stormed Moncada military barracks in Oriente Province. Castro’s guerrillas were routed by the regime. However 19 federal soldiers were killed.   The attack was a failure. Castro and his brother Raul Castro escaped but were later arrested. Castro was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison. As an accomplished lawyer Castro conducted his own defense in court and turned the tables against the Batista regime.  His self-defense translated into the political programme of the July 26 Movement. In his courtroom speech Castro identified the following progressive classes;
• ‘The six thousand Cuban without work
• The five thousand farm labourers  who live in mixable shacks
• The four thousand industrial workers  and labourers whose homes are wretched  quarters
• The one thousand small farmers who live and die working land  that is not theirs, looking at it like Moses gazing at the promised land
•  The thirty thousand teachers  and professors who are so badly treated and paid
• The twenty thousand small businessmen  weighed down by  debts and ruined by the crisis and harangued by the plague of grafting and venal officials
• The ten thousand young professional people – doctors, engineers, lawyers, centenarians, school teachers, dentists, pharmacists, newspapermen, painters sculptors etc. who finish school  with their degrees, anxious to work  and full of hope, only to find themselves at dead end, all doors closed to them.’

 Castro instructed comrades Sanatamaria and Hermandez to print and distribute among Cubans and to all journalists, teachers’ organizations attorneys’  and other professional groups 100 000 copies of his court room speech.  He made the following prophetic statements; ‘I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took 70 of my comrades. Condemn me, it does not matter. History will absolve me.  Marta Harnecker reproduces and ably analyses Castro’s courtroom speech in a book titled, From Moncado to Victory; Castro’s Political Strategy with ‘History Will Absolve Me.  Castro was released in 1955 under a general government amnesty. He was sent to Mexico City, Mexico from where he met up with Ernesto Che Guevara and together they plotted the downfall of the Batista regime. Che Guevara another iconic product of the Cuban revolution became Castro’s close ally and confidant. Together they organized the July 26 Movement (named in honour of the first attack on Moncado). On December 2, 1956 Castro and 80 other men landed in Oriente Province. All but 12 of his men were killed or captured. Castro fled to Sierra Maestra Mountains with a small band of guerrillas who engaged the Batista regime. Fidel Castro organized a parallel government alongside that of Batista and started building resistance forces in cities and small towns across Cuba. He enforced some agrarian reforms and controlled provinces with agricultural and manufacturing   production. In 1958 the government succumbed to Castro’s guerrilla warfare and Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. Castro assumed the role of Commander-in-chief of the army and on February 1969 became the Prime Minister of Cuba. Under the corrupt pro-American Batista dictatorship Cuba was a playground for the American bourgeoisie. The US owned and controlled virtually all the sugar factories. The crisis in the semi-colonial economic structure had deepened. Castro nationalized factories and plantations to put an end the American stranglehold on Cuba’s economy.

Cuban has made significant strides in the social sphere namely health and education. In his seminal book Martin Carnoy, (2007) Cuba’s Academic Advantage: Why students in Cuba do better in school captures the educational reforms that have enabled Cuba to outshine its richer neighbors. Teacher-pupil ratios have been reduced to 19.  Cuba has a lower child and infant mortality rate and a higher life expectancy than the richest country in the world – the United States.  Infant mortality rate in Cuba is 4.76 per every 1000 live births while in the US it is 5.90. Child mortality rate in Cuba is 6 per every 1000 live births while in the US it is 8 per 1000 live births. Cuba’s life expectancy is 79.2 while in the US it is 78.8 – a clear testament to the success of the socialist revolution. Spectacular achievements have been made in the medical field to a point where Cuba exports doctors to other countries. Cuba’s progressive foreign policy has endeared it to many countries including African countries. At the famous Battle of Cuito Cuanavale between 1987 and 1988 Cuban forces in collaboration with Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola defeated the Apartheid SADF forces forcing the Apartheid regime to withdraw both from Angola and Namibia paving the way for the liberation of Namibia.  The socialist reforms made him a hero in the eyes of the workers and poor peasants but he alienated the bourgeois classes - doctors, engineers and professionals hence their mass migration to the US which was also hostile to the Cuban government. Castro forged close links with the Soviet Union which agreed to organize Cuba’s defense committee. Castro agreed to buy oil from the Soviet Union which enabled him to expropriate the US owned refineries in Cuba. In 1961 the US, which regarded Latin America as its ‘backyard’ organized the counter-revolutionary Bay of invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles but failed to overthrow Castro’s government. To counter US aggression against Cuba Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles in Cuba leading to the Cuban missiles crisis in which the US demanded their removal from Cuba and the Soviet Union relented.   

The Cuban revolution has tended to be portrayed as a mystery. The romantic tale told by journalists and film-makers of revolutionary individuals who defied all odds by defeating the regime with only 80 guerrillas turns out to be misleading as it completely ignored the powerful role played by the working class in the Cuban revolution.  How could a small band of 80 guerrillas led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara overthrow the American backed Batista regime?  Without the concerted struggles of a combative and courageous and organised labour movement from 1952 to 1959 the revolution could not have succeeded. The 1.25 million workers embarked on major strikes in the sugar industry, the tobacco industry, on buses and trains, in the communications industry, textile and electricity industries often in the midst of brutal regime repression using its machinery of coercion - the police and the army.  In response workers organized occupations, mounted road blocks, burnt sugar fields, derailed trains, and burnt bridges and engaged in other acts of political sabotage.    The sugar strike was total and national. The workers mass actions and general strike completely paralyzed the regime and helped to bring it down to its knees. Often the labour movement’s insurrection worked in tandem with guerrilla operating from the mountains. When the guerrillas landed in Cuba at the end of 1956 workers in the eastern province of Oeriente  engaged in armed insurrection and a political strike  in the docks was organized to draw attention  away from the rebel landings nearby in Manzanilla and to tie the troop up in putting down the local insurrection. There were similar coordinated political strikes by the railway workers in Guantanamo which disrupted the plans to send government troops to intercept Castro and his rebels. The strike spread to the whole town which was in lock down for some time. The railway strike went on for five days.

 Meanwhile the Orthodox Party split into several confused warring factions. The military incursion was not a coup attempt against the regime. It was meant to trigger off masses insurrections or as Castro put it, ‘we have to start a small engine to help start up the big engine. The small engine would be the capture of Moncado fortress, the one farthest from the capital, the one which, once we held it, would trigger the big engine, the people fighting, with weapons we seize, for  the laws and measures , the program that we would proclaim’.  The guerrillas who attacked Moncado planned to seize the radio station and urge people to rise up against the Batista regime. The Communist Party discredited itself in the eyes of the militant workers through its opposition to armed struggle, compromise and united front with the more ‘progressive’ bourgeois parties. This created opportunities for Castro’s more militant and revolutionary party – the July 26 Movement which called for mass insurrection and a general strike. More workers gravitated towards Castro’s July 26 Movement which became particularly strong in Oriente province in the East of the country and around Guantanamo and Santiago. However the Communist party and the July 26 movement forged some united front tactical alliances despite their differences over armed struggle. In fact in 1962 the Communist party and the July 26 Movement merged into the United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution and finally in 1965 transformed into the Communist Party of Cuba The Communist party had a big influence on the shop floor, but was very conservative and imbued with the Stalinist line of peaceful co-existence with capitalism and a hostility to armed resistance.  The longevity of the new United Party of the Cuban Socialist Revolution is explained in part by the fact that the organization was not tainted with Stalinist deformation which led to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. 
Elmon M Tafa is the Botswana National Front’s (BNF) Secretary for Political Education