World Politics

From Democrat to Socialist Revolutionary: The Legacy Fidel leaves


From the late 1980s, the bureaucracy dominated states posing as socialist entered their terminal crisis. Tien an Men Square saw workers and students being murdered in China. Angry popular revolts brought down the regimes in East Europe. The USSR collapsed. And it was therefore being said everyday, that Castro’s days are numbered. The days turned into weeks, months and then years. But while China became a strong capitalist power with as utter a disregard for the environment and for workers’ rights as any US Rightwing politician could desire, while the collapse of the USSR was followed by a dramatic lowering of the quality of life in the ex-USSR, Cuba survived. And continued on its path. And if it was not the credit of one man alone, certainly leadership counted. That leadership was provided by Fidel Castro Ruz. The greatest evidence came from his enemies – with the CIA reportedly attempting 638 assassination attempts on him.

Born on August 13, 1926, Fidel Castro was a radical student, then a young lawyer. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista, dictator of Cuba from 1933 to 1940, President from 1940 to 44 under a constitution of his making, again took power through a military coup. A comprador of the American mafia, which controlled the drug, gambling and sex-trade of Cuba, and of US multinationals who were awarded lucrative deals, Batista destroyed liberties, including the right to strike. As an activist lawyer Castro first went to courts with a petition against Batista. After his case was thrown out, he concluded that Batista could not be removed by using the legal structures, and planned an armed uprising, recruiting mainly among disgruntled workers of Havana. On 26 July 1953, Fidel and his brother Raul attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, but were defeated. Sixty-three were either killed in battle or executed subsequently. Put on trial, Fidel delivered the first of his long speeches, ending: Condemn me. I do not mind. History will absolve me.

Sentenced to jail for fifteen years, he and Raul were released in 1955 under international pressure demanding release of political prisoners. They left Cuba to join other revolutionaries in Mexico, where they also met the Argentine Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In 1956, they returned to Cuba in a yacht named Granma. Only 12 of them survived long enough to launch a guerrilla war in the remote Sierra Maestra mountains. Despite this, the group endured and attracted fresh recruits. By the summer of 1958, they had 200 members. Yet, in January 1959, they entered Havana.  It was the guerilla war, supported by peasants, radical intelligentsia, that initially shook Batista. But in the final stages, they were also joined by the workers, in a general strike that paralyzed Havana.

The US regarded Central America and the Caribbean as its ‘backyard’. Nominally independent states were run by US client regimes formed of assorted generals, landowners, industrialists, and gangsters. Assuming that this was no more than a middle class led “revolution” that simply removed one leadership for another, the US leaders were willing to cut a deal with Castro.

What happened was unexpected. Castro was, to use a term the Bolsheviks had used for themselves in 1907-1914, a consistent democrat. As such, trying to look after the interests of peasants and workers, he found that without making serious inroads into the rule of capital, nothing constructive could be done. A genuine but independent “bourgeois democratic revolution” was impossible.

Castro’s First Declaration of Havana made clear that the Cuban revolution was not one more typical Latin American military revolution. It declared total independence from the US. While Cuba with its sugar industry was a small fish economically, it had strategic importance to the US rulers as a gatekeeper to the Caribbean and to the southern continent as a whole. Washington reacted angrily and hastily, trying to cordon off the new regime from the rest of the continent. This led to a radical response by the Cuban leadership. It decided to nationalize US-owned industries without compensation. Three months later, on 13 October 1961, the United States severed diplomatic relations; subsequently, it armed Cuban exiles in Florida and launched an invasion of the island near the Bay of Pigs. US planes, painted to look like Cuban aircraft, flew into bomb airports, aiming to paralyse the Cuban airport. The attack was repulsed. When huge masses turned out to pay homage to the dead, Castro delivered a speech, in which he declared the goal of the revolution to be socialist.

Facing open US threats, the Cubans were compelled to seek soviet support. This resulted in missiles being placed in Cuba. Between mid to late October 1962, this led to a major crisis. What is most significant is, the Soviet Union concluded a deal with the USA, without even informing Castro, whereby Soviet missiles in Cuba were to be traded off against US missiles in Turkey. Castro was outraged, and warned that the Cubans would not tolerate US intrusion in Cuban airspace. The decision to place the missiles was Khruschev’s, a decision at least partly spurred by the Sino-Soviet split and his desire to appear anti-imperialist.

When Castro is accused (whether by pro-US commentators, or by those who would be perfect revolutionaries), of being “Moscow dependent” they need to remember that a revolution that was radicalising, 90 miles from the US, at the height of the Cold War, had limited options if it wanted to survive. When the Bay of Pigs invasion was defeated, Kennedy imposed a total economic blockade on Cuba. On 4 February 1962, the Second Declaration of Havana denounced the US presence in South America and called for the liberation of the entire continent. Fidel Castro realised that the survival of the Cuban revolution and its ability at achieving lasting social transformation called for an internationalisation of the revolution. Even specifically regarding the Missiles Crisis, he had objections and forty  years on in an interview, he said that Khruschev aggravated the stand-off by insisting to Kennedy that there were no nuclear weapons on Cuba and that all Soviet activity was defensive.

His actions thereafter can be seen under a few heads. A radical social transformation was planned in Cuba. Illiteracy, which stood at 23% in 1958, was abolished in one year, by mobilising volunteers. Free education at all levels was introduced, and in the early 21st Century, Cuba had more teachers per capita than any other country.

Major strides were taken in health care. In the early 21st century again (that is, around the time Castro stepped down due to ill health), the WHO estimated that Cuba had a life expectancy of 76 years for men and 80 for women. In 2008, infant mortality in Cuba was 5.9 per thousand against 7 per thousand in the US.

Advances were not made uniformly, nor at the same time, in all sectors. But Cuba fought seriously against racism and sexism. From March 1959, anti-racism was a public issue, and Castro spoke often on the subject. The fight for women’s equality was also a difficult one. But in terms of certain vital areas, changes were ensured. By 2002, women were a majority of university graduates, and a good many were studying non traditional areas like science and economics. 51% of scientists and 72% of the doctors are women.

From 1966, the Cuban leadership was becoming aware that homophobia was a major issue. By 1995, the May Day march was led by Cuba’s drag queens, a remarkable development not mirrored everywhere in the left. But this was not a very easy process. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Cuban government had clearly negative attitude to Gays and Lesbians. It would be in 1979 that same sex relations were legalised. But non-discrimination laws are still considered inadequate, and to that extent, sometimes threatening to the LGBT community.

Colonialism and dependent capitalism had left Cuba an environmental nightmare. This was attacked in many ways. The collapse of the USSR and Cuba’s determination not to switch to being a US client led them to turn seriously to organic farming. Even in urban areas, like Havana, this was practised, with Havana now producing much of its food from the urban gardens. Cuba is also leading in struggles against fossil fuel. Once again, the relationship between class issues and policy can be seen. Centralised power structures, dependence on fuels and equipment requiring Western support, would come at a price. Richard Levins writes of his experience, where in a Communist Party debate, it was argued that that far from ecology being "idealist," it was the height of idealism to suppose that the party or the government could pass resolutions and have nature obey.

The political system was more complicated. Cuba never went the Stalinist way. “There is no cult of personality around any living revolutionary,” Castro said on May Day 2003. “The leaders of this country are human beings, not gods.” But, facing a US threat and with a lot of Soviet advisers, Castro also did not go for a socialist multiparty system.  The fact that his comrades fused with the old Stalinist party also meant that local Stalinist influence also came in. But the “people’s power” structures that Castro and his comrades put in place gave a degree of rights to Cuban workers and peasants which compare favourably with not only the majority of so-called socialist experiences, but also most bourgeois democracies, since there the system is loaded against any attempt by toilers to organise or put in their own people at any level. Nonetheless, the fact also remains that Cuba is a one-party state, even if the party permits different viewpoints to exist within it (one can mention the late Celia Hart Santamaria, a Trotskyist member of the party). But when Cuba is accused of its prisons and its political prisoners, we also need to examine the rights of political dissenters in the US client states of South and Central America. When Castro is accused of rights violations by Indian media, we need to look at how they have consistently NOT reported the attacks on the Native Americans at Sanding Rock, at the Israeli violence on Palestinians in recent years. Without idolising or idealising Castro, we also need to say, that while we, revolutionaries, have our criticisms, we do not take our cures from those who defend capitalist violence in Kashmir, in Bastar, in Odisha and elsewhere. But as revolutionaries, we must also say that the lack of institutionalised workers’ democracy, through factory committees, socialist multiparty politics, the organization of forums for debates over various issues, has weakened and not strengthened the revolution. At the same time, it is the US imperialist threat that has led to such a response from the Cuban leaders.

In their international relations, Castro and his comrades had an internationalist perspective very unlike the others. The Tricontinental Congress in the early period of the revolution was an attempt to bypass the bureaucratic, electoralist, bourgeois ally-seeking communist parties and build alternative revolutionary forces. Even later, Casto and his comrades distinguished themselves. During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he was critical of the economic policies of the Czechoslovak government, which was one thing, but he described the Czech supporters of Dubcek as counter-revolutionaries, which they were not. But he also argued that what had happened was an invasion, and asked how it could be, that a country had a supposed communist revolution for twenty years but then had to be rescued by fraternal invasion? Interestingly, this was why, despite Castro’s clearly declared support for the invasion, which was politically completely wrong, the Soviet regime hardly circulated his full statement widely. 

Again, he had a nuanced political line over the Chilean regime of Salvadore Allende. He identified himself with the anti-imperialist measures of the Unidad Popular government, unlike those who simply condemned out of text books from the outside. But he consistently argued that it was simply a small step. He criticised the Chilean left for “the weakness of ideological battle, the weakness of mass struggle, the weaknesses displayed in the face of the enemy”. And a month before the US sponsored coup of Pinochet, he urged Allende to mobilize the working class.

If the Cuban revolution finally collapses, if US capitalism is able to return and bring Cuba under its control, it will not be because Castro was not a revolutionary. The principal reason will be the failure of revolutions and radical forces in the region. As Castro’s old comrade had urged, to save one revolution it was necessary to create two, three, many Vietnams.


When Castro died at the age of 90, the signboard of a Communist Party meant little in reality in Moscow, Beijing or Hanoi. That is meant something far more in Havana or Santiago, was certainly due in good measure to his leadership. And yet, as Machiavelli warned in his Discourses, it was not enough to have leaders with virtus. It was necessary to have good ordini, which in today’s terms means institutions of Socialist democracy. It is this failure that may haunt a post-Fidel Cuba.

Radical Socialist, 27 November 2016