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ISR Issue 54, JulyAugust 2007
Fidel Castro's political testament
Fidel Castro: Biografía a Dos Voces
Random House Mondadori • 2006 • 655 pages
REVIEW by SAM FARBER
THIS IS a book-long interview, the outcome of conversations that Ignacio Ramonet, the Spanish-born editor of the Parisian Le Monde Diplomatique, had with Fidel Castro from January 2003 to December 2005. A short time after the book came out, Castro stepped aside as head of state on July 31, 2006, due to a serious illness, the nature of which was declared a state secret. His younger brother Raúl, officially designated as his successor since the early days of the 1959 Revolution, replaced him “for the time being.”1 The timing of Castro’s illness and the release of Ramonet’s book led the Cuban government’s media to make a lot more out of this publishing event than might have otherwise been the case. Significantly, the ample coverage and serialization of Ramonet’s interview was accompanied by the Cuban media’s serialization of the Secretos de Generales,2 containing the biographies of forty-one top Cuban generals, which had already appeared and been serialized ten years earlier. The official media, while glorifying Fidel, were simultaneously building up the image of the top army brass.
Fidel Castro’s interview with Ramonet seems to have become, for all intents and purposes, his political testament. It is a very long and wide-ranging presentation of the worldview and values of an obviously knowledgeable political leader and an account of Cuban and world history and politics as he sees it. Castro also provides his views and impressions of the many foreign dignitaries he has met throughout his political career. Finally, this book is also an exercise in self-justification and a clear attempt to influence and shape how history will evaluate his very long (more than forty-seven years) record in power.3
The roots and nature of Fidel Castro’s view of emancipation
Among the many topics and issues addressed in this book, there are some that have special relevance to those who for decades have found ourselves as a small minority within the Left for insisting on Eugene V. Debs’ principle that if a Moses can lead the workers out of bondage, they can be led back in. Thus, the issue of whether the exploited and oppressed need to emancipate themselves or can be emancipated by others is central to our concerns.
As on many other occasions, Fidel Castro mentions his early upbringing when talking to Ramonet. He tells him that as a young boy, he identified with great generals such as Alexander the Great, Aníbal, and Napoleon. (57–58) He also expresses great respect and admiration, in spite of their political views, for the pro-Franco Spanish Jesuits who educated him. According to him, they “combined the tradition of the Jesuits—a military spirit, their military organization—with the Spanish character. The Spanish Jesuit knows how to inculcate a great sense of personal dignity, the sense of personal honor, he knows how to appreciate character, frankness, rectitude, the person’s courage, the capacity to endure sacrifice. They are values that he knows how to extol.”4
Perhaps most revealing are the terms in which he spoke of his father Ángel, a self-made man who originated from the Spanish province of Galicia, who made a lot of money in Cuba and who was neither cultured nor educated. Most important of all, Fidel points out that although politically conservative (he opposed the republic in the Spanish Civil War), his father kept close contact with and was accessible to the poor people who worked for and lived near the Castro family. As Fidel relates it, his father “was there, went out and saw people every day, he had no bodyguards or people who looked after his safety. He went alone along many kilometers, and people would approach him and had access to him. They had no access to the president of an enterprise, like United Fruit or others in New York, and that is why conditions were more humane under my father. I saw all that, and it helped a lot to mold my character.” (116) Fidel Castro shrewdly observed that had he been the grandson, instead of the son of a landowner, he would have grown up in a rich people’s neighborhood with no contact with agricultural workers and peasants; would have felt superior to them, and I may add, indifferent if not hostile to their fate and welfare. (59, 115) But revealing that these personal links existed within the context of certain power relationships, Fidel Castro relates in another interview that his father controlled most of the votes of the people working for him and living on his land because providing jobs and a place to live were considered big favors.5 Thus, while Fidel Castro’s comments to Ramonet show much insight into one type of impersonal, capitalist relationship, he ignores another and perhaps more subtle paternalist type of class relationship between his father and his subordinates. In light of this, it is easy to see how the elder Castro’s paternalism, a paternalism rooted in a precapitalist and Hispanic authoritarian tradition, “helped a lot to mold [Fidel’s] character.”
Castro’s authoritarian paternalism can’t conceive the possibility that Cuban revolutionaries could effectively defend the country and socialism if they had political differences and were organized in more than one party. He makes it abundantly clear that his view of socialism requires a “unity” that is incompatible with the organized expression of differences of opinion. He asserts that as the Cuban people have become more cultured and gotten to know the world better, the more they value and the happier they are with their “unity.” He contrasts this with what he calls the “spectacle” of what occurs in some countries with a hundred or a hundred and twenty parties, which he sees as a crazy situation and a manifestation of alienation. (547) Thus, Castro asserts that had he followed Gorbachev and established perestroika on the island, “we would have divided ourselves into ten fractions and would have begun a great struggle for power…we would have self-destructed.” (325) He also condemned, in 1968, the emergence of various political tendencies in Czechoslovakia and supported the USSR’s invasion of that country on the grounds that, as he tells Ramonet, Czechoslovakia “was marching toward a counterrevolutionary situation, toward capitalism and into the arms of imperialism…[starting] from the [initially] just demands, they arrived at a frankly reactionary politics. And we had to approve, bitterly and painfully, that military intervention.” (522)
In other interviews, Castro has spoken about the lessons he derived from his participation in the aborted 1947 Cayo Confites expedition that was to invade the Dominican Republic in order to topple the Trujillo dictatorship, and the 1948 riots in Bogotá, Colombia, that followed the assassination of the popular Liberal Party leader Gaitán.6 He saw the failures of those efforts as being primarily the result of the lack of political leadership, organization, and education. Castro may well have been correct in his diagnosis of what went wrong with the Cayo Confites and Colombian events, but the political lessons he drew from those events were one-sided and heavily weighted toward the need for political order and control from the top. This is a key factor in explaining why in the Cuban Revolution, as compared to all other major social revolutions such as the Russian, Mexican, and Chinese Revolutions, there were so few spontaneous seizures of land, let alone commercial or industrial installations. When the old, pro-Moscow communists encouraged land seizures in the first months of the Cuban Revolution, Castro responded quickly and energetically with a decree depriving people who took part in land occupations from any future benefits under the Agrarian Reform Law that was eventually approved in May 1959. (222)
It should be noted that Castro does not come through in this interview as a run-of-the-mill Stalinist in the style of the old pro-Moscow communist parties. Thus, Castro tells Ramonet that Lenin believed, following Marx, that “there could not be revolution in only one country and that there had to be simultaneous revolution everywhere, on the basis of the great development of the productive forces.” (351–52) According to Castro, Lenin faced a great dilemma of whether or not to continue the revolution at home when the revolutionary movement failed in the rest of Europe. This, Castro argues, left Lenin with only one option: to build socialism in only one country—Russia—notwithstanding the difficulties of building socialism with 80 percent illiteracy, having to fight against all those who attacked them, and with all the principal intellectuals having left the country or having been shot. (351–52) In addition, he criticizes Stalin’s many abuses of power such as the policy of purges and the beheading of the armed forces, and for making many strategic errors, political as well as military. Castro insists, however, that in spite of his abuses and errors, Stalin deserves credit for the accelerated development of industry, an almost vital necessity, especially in the light of future defense needs against Hitler’s Germany, which would have won the war if the USSR had not been industrialized. Among the great political and military errors committed by Stalin, Castro included the invasion of Poland of September 1, 1939, and the “little war” against Finland. In addition, he made criticisms of the international policy of the Popular Front that resulted in the Cuban Communist Party being forced to ally itself with the bloody, repressive and corrupt Batista government. (67–68, 321)
Fidel Castro on civil rights and civil liberties in Cuba
Throughout the interview, Castro discusses the issues of civil liberties and civil rights at great length.7 This is interesting given the Cuban government’s position in the past that these issues are subordinate to the tasks of national liberation and “building socialism,” a position echoed by much of the international radical Left. It is possible that Castro’s detailed discussion of these issues is related to his concern about the legacy he is leaving behind. Be that as it may, there is no other topic that is more imbued with sophistry, self-contradictions, and outright lies. Independent and credible organizations such as Amnesty, PEN International Writers Union, and Human Rights Watch (and its predecessor, Americas Watch) have throughout the last decades collectively written hundreds of reports about Cuba. These reports have criticized and denounced stonings, beatings, and other physically abusive “repudiation acts” conducted by government-organized mobs, unjust arrests, sentences, and prison conditions that either because of reasons of omission or commission constituted physical abuse (i.e., torture.)
In recent years, the number of political prisoners has been in the hundreds (generally from 300 to 400), but there were a far larger number of political prisoners at least until the late seventies. During this time, the most egregious abuses were carried out against the plantados (the planted ones) who for many years demanded to be treated as political rather than common prisoners. The plantados, who are ignored by Castro and Ramonet in this interview, resisted their treatment as common criminals and refused to attend the “political education” classes offered by the authorities as a condition of better treatment and eventual release. It is important to underline in this context that the distinction between political and common prisoners is strongly rooted in Cuban and Latin American political culture and penal traditions. Historically, there has been a Latin American practice to allow political prisoners to dress in civilian clothes, create their own prison organizations, and to carry on their own, rather than the jailers’, political education. This held true, for example, for most of the time that Fidel Castro and his fellow Moncada attackers were in Batista’s prisons from 1953 to 1955.8 A couple of decades ago, much of the U.S. press lionized the account of prison conditions in Cuba written by Armando Valladares, a right-wing former political prisoner of questionable credentials and credibility.9 The Cuban official press, and its sympathizers abroad, had a field day discrediting Valladares in Cuba and throughout the world, with the implication, if not the outright claim, that there was nothing problematic about prison conditions on the island. However, about the same time, Americas Watch published a scrupulously objective, yet devastating account by the former Cuban political prisoner and Christian socialist Jorge Valls that was paid little attention by the U.S. press, and was of course totally ignored by the Cuban press and government and like-minded sympathizers abroad.10
In the 1960s, the Cuban government built the infamous UMAP (Military Units in Support of Production) camps that segregated religious believers, homosexuals, and other “deviants.” Castro’s response borders on sheer impudence when Ramonet broaches this subject: he tries to make the UMAPs appear as if they had merely been alternative service institutions. According to Castro, they were neither “internment units nor punishment units; on the contrary, we tried to raise morale, to offer possibilities of employment, and to help the country in those difficult circumstances.” (205)
In his conversation with Ramonet, Castro claims that in Cuba people are punished for actions, not ideas. (516) But he contradicts himself when discussing the oppositionist Varela Project earlier in the book, when he says that “our laws punish the slanderous campaigns that are made against the state, the campaigns that strengthen the arguments of our aggressors, that justify the blockade, even if they say that they are against the blockade; that justify the whole philosophy of aggression against Cuba, the economic blockade, the economic war against our country…. That is to say, these are crimes that are well defined and qualified in our laws.” (387) The “campaigns” that Castro is referring to are primarily Cuban dissidents writing and speaking their minds.
At the same time, the discussion of the death penalty, which Castro acknowledges is currently used more for common than political crimes, is full of diplomatic formulations aimed at friends of the regime abroad who oppose capital punishment. The discussion of this topic is also full of circumlocutions and vague promises about the future elimination of the death penalty in Cuba. (341–48, 443–46) In this context, Castro also claims that there has not been a single case of extra-judicial execution or torture in Cuba under his rule. (191) Notwithstanding Ramonet’s willingness to accept this claim at face value, (15) it is disingenuous since there is no need for extrajudicial executions when the legal system itself openly and officially allows for execution under a wide variety of circumstances.
There is only one civil rights and civil liberties issue where Fidel Castro usually responds in a brutally frank and straightforward way. When Ramonet broached the issue of freedom of the press, Castro responded that the press organs were not in the hands of the enemies of the revolution, nor in the hands of the agents of the United States, but in the hands of revolutionaries. He added that if freedom of the press meant the right of the counterrevolution and of the enemies of Cuba to speak and write freely against socialism and against the revolution, then “I would say that we are not in favor of such ‘freedom.’” (491) Castro justifies his stance claiming that as long as there was a U.S. blockade against the island and the country was threatened by the president of the United States, “we cannot give that ‘freedom’ to the allies of our enemies whose objective is to struggle against socialism’s reason for existence.” (491) This is an argument that might have a place under conditions of outright military warfare where it could reasonably be claimed that action is imminent and that there is no room left at that particular time and place to use persuasion and the open struggle of ideas to win people to one’s side. Castro, however, surreptitiously transfers this argument to a situation that does involve struggle but differs dramatically from actual military combat. In this manner, Castro replaces the open political struggle with police and bureaucratic administrative repression as the favorite means to deal with what are in fact peaceful political opponents.
It is Fidel Castro and his close associates who have had the monopoly of defining what is and what is not revolutionary, and therefore of who is allowed and on what terms to have access to the Cuban media. The Cuban leaders have historically used censorship over their own people to impose their own particular view of the world, and to present the news according to their own interests. This has included, for example, delaying for several days the news of such major events as the 1979 USSR invasion of Afghanistan, the Cuban radio stations’ decades-long ban of Celia Cruz, imposing strict controls on Internet access, the attempt to almost ignore and distort the coverage of the Cuban intellectuals’ protest at the beginning of 2007, and the deliberate failure to translate into Spanish Noam Chomsky’s critique of the human rights situation in Cuba in an appearance on Cuban television during a recent visit to the island. Censorship reflects the state’s lack of trust in people being able to obtain unfiltered information and arrive at their own best judgment. That leads to the very thing that Rosa Luxemburg warned of in her critique of the Russian Revolution: “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all.” She pointed out that serious consequences would follow from such repressive policies, namely that “with the repression of political life in the land as a whole, life in the Soviets must also become more crippled…life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep,”11 and that is the case in Cuba.
Race, marginality, and the culture of poverty
Ramonet also asked Fidel Castro about the issue of racism in Cuba. Castro’s answers go beyond the traditional Cuban government claim (supported by Ramonet himself in the introduction to the book12) that racism had been abolished. According to this official view, only attitudinal leftovers have remained and they will disappear as the educational and cultural level of the population continues to develop and the racist heritage fades into memory. Instead, Castro acknowledges that Cubans of African origin live in worse housing, work at harder and lower paid jobs, and receive from five to six times fewer dollar remittances than their white compatriots. (210)
The issues of race and class have been more intermingled in Cuba than in the United States; consequently, much of white Cuban worries and hostility toward Black Cubans have been so mixed in with the issue of social marginality that it has been very hard to separate one from the other. This historical entanglement was exacerbated by the serious economic effects of the special period after the collapse of the USSR that led to the growth of a mass of disproportionately Black unemployed or underemployed people living in highly precarious conditions. This context helps to explain why Fidel Castro brought up the “culture of poverty” theory and its link to race in his interview with Ramonet: “at the beginning [of the revolution] we eliminated some marginal neighborhoods. But already a culture of marginality had been created, that even if you make new houses for them, the phenomena that took place in those areas, persevere. That is a culture that repeats itself and then with their children….” And elsewhere in the interview:
I remember that we discovered that there was a culture of rich people and a culture of poor people. That of the rich, very decent: I buy and I pay. That of poor people: how can I get this? How do I steal from rich people or from whomever? Many good, humble, and patriotic families, told their son who works, for example, in the hotel industry: “Hey take away a bedsheet, a pillow, bring me this, bring me that.” Those attitudes are born from the culture of poverty, and when social changes are made to change all that, habits last a much longer time. (211, 323–24) Castro adds a twist to his “culture of poverty” theory that has a special resonance in Soviet-type societies such as Cuba with their highly selective educational institutions such as the famous Lenin school outside Havana. As Castro explains it, the Cuban government had come across the law of the inverse relationship between knowledge and culture and crime. He cites, for example, that only 2 percent of prison inmates in Cuba are the children of professionals and intellectuals. (211) Then he adds that the country’s selective and meritocratic education system created a situation where the children of workers and of Afro-Cubans tended to perpetuate themselves in the lower levels of society. He explains that this had happened because
the parental level of schooling, even where there has been a revolution, continues to have a tremendous influence in the eventual fate of the children. And you see that the children whose parents come from the humblest sectors, or with less knowledge, don’t get the necessary grades to enter the best schools. And that tends to perpetuate itself through the decades. And if you leave things as they are, you can predict the children of those people will never be directors of enterprises, managers, or will occupy important positions because you cannot direct anything without a university education. What they can expect, in the first place, is to go to prison. (365) It is important to keep in mind in this context that, ever since the early days of the revolution, the Cuban government has adhered to a “color-blind” policy that allowed Black Cubans to make some progress but fell far short of what an “affirmative action” policy could have accomplished.13 Under its color-blind policy, Cuban-style segregation was abolished and darker Cubans, who have been a disproportionately large part of the Cuban poor, have been able to benefit from measures designed to help the poor, particularly in terms of health and access to educational facilities. As a result, many more Blacks have, proportionately speaking, ended up in positions of influence and power than there were before the revolution, but are still substantially below their overall proportions in the population as a whole.14 Most of all, under the one-party system prevailing in Cuba, Blacks (along with any other groups such as workers, women, gays) are not allowed to independently organize to defend their interests.
According to Fidel Castro, the Cuban government began to tackle the problem of educational disadvantages in 2001 by substantially expanding access to higher education through a system of university extensions in a variety of locations such as municipalities, sugar mills, and even prisons. As Castro explained it, this expansion transformed people between seventeen and thirty who had not finished their secondary education into state-supported university students. Some, for a variety of causes, were neither studying nor working when they were drafted into the program. It also turned into adjunct professors personnel who had been laid off from the administrative staff of enterprises such as the sugar industry. According to Castro, in 2005 there were 500,000 university students15 in Cuba of which over 90,000 [or approximately 20 percent of the total] were recruited through these new means. (365–67) Castro left unsaid that this was a program designed, in great part, to deal with substantial unemployment in Cuba.
Leaving aside the intrinsic merits or flaws of his educational innovations, Castro seems to assign an excessive weight to the role that education has had on the fate of Black and marginalized people in Cuba. It is his characteristic way to change the subject; in this case, to avoid dealing with the state of the Cuban economy since the collapse of the USSR, and particularly with the devastating and sharply inequitable effects of the establishment of a two-track economy of pesos on one hand and hard currency on the other. Castro’s talk about educational inequalities, as real as they undoubtedly are, is a way of not talking about class and race as such or about the fundamental economic inequalities mentioned above, and certainly not about the political inequalities of the highly hierarchical one-party state. It remains to be seen what impact these changes in higher education will have, first, on the educational system, and second, on the composition of the higher circles in Cuba. It will be important to find out the impact that a program not explicitly oriented to the elimination of racial exclusion may have on the latter.
Cuba’s foreign policy
As one might expect, the Ramonet interview covers a great deal of material about Cuba’s foreign policy, including Cuba’s conflict with the U.S. and its relations with Latin America, the USSR, and the rest of the Soviet bloc. Castro’s conversations with Ramonet about Cuba’s relations with U.S. imperialism breaks no new ground, probably because the topic has often been covered at great length elsewhere.16 Nevertheless, we can find here a fairly extensive narrative of the big crises that Cuba confronted in resisting its northern neighbor’s efforts to impose its will on the island. Castro provides detailed descriptions of the April 1961 U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion and of the October 1962 missile crisis. At that point, 300, 000 armed Cubans, supported by 42,000 Soviet soldiers stationed on the island, confronted the U.S. at the moment when the Cold War came closest to a nuclear holocaust. The migration crises with the U.S. are covered at considerable length. This allows the Cuban leader to score some points as, for example, when he underlines the favored treatment given to Cubans entering the U.S. as compared to people from the rest of Latin America and elsewhere. As one would expect, Castro does not mention that ordinary Cubans do not have the right to travel even as the government has liberalized its emigration policies. Surprisingly, the 655-page book contains very little material on Luis Posada Carriles, (233, 486) the notorious terrorist who has now been set free after a judge in Texas dropped federal immigration charges against him. The U.S. government pursued this legal route instead of prosecuting Posada as a terrorist in order to hide his previous extensive ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. Posada Carriles’s terrorist activities have resulted in the death of numerous innocent civilians as in the case of the 1976 mid-air explosion of a Cubana Airlines plane that killed seventy-three people.
Since very early in the revolutionary process, Cuba developed a “globalist” orientation and policy, quite a feat for a developing country approximately the size of Pennsylvania with a population of some eleven million people. In a brief but remarkable survey of revolutionary Cuba’s activities abroad, Castro describes the well-known Cuban military presence in Angola in the seventies and eighties, which at one point reached 55,000 soldiers (295) and defeated the South African army in conventional warfare involving tanks, planes, and artillery. But in his survey Castro also includes lesser-known episodes of Cuban foreign policy such as support for the Algerians in their independence struggle against France and sending arms and soldiers to support Algeria in their 1963 war against Morocco. (280, 529) He also reveals that an entire Cuban tank brigade was stationed in Syria (facing the Golan Heights) from 1973 to 1975 after the Israeli victory in the fall 1973 Yom Kippur War; and that Cuban blood was shed in the Congo, in the independence struggle of Guinea and Cape Verde led by Amílcar Cabral, and in Nicaragua and Grenada. (529–30) Because of Cuba’s general foreign policy and particularly its support for anti-imperialist resistance movements many leftists and progressive people, who have had no particular admiration for Cuba’s socioeconomic and domestic political system, have concluded that the Cuban regime deserves to be supported. This type of sympathy for the Cuban regime was considerably strengthened in the last decades when Cuban opposition to U.S. imperialism and neoliberalism ran contrary to the growing number of supporters of the “Washington consensus” that included many former leftists and even erstwhile revolutionaries.
In response to this view of Cuban foreign policy, there are two considerations that need to be kept in mind. One involves the relationship between foreign and domestic policy. According to the famous postulate that war is the continuation of politics by other means, it can be similarly stated that the foreign policy of a country is the continuation or extension of its domestic politics abroad. What are the domestic politics in the Cuban case? Nothing less than the building of a new form of class society similar to those previously existing in such countries as China and Russia in opposition to U.S. imperialism and capitalism. It goes without saying that Fidel Castro and his associates have attempted to bring this about under highly unfavorable conditions considering Cuba’s size, degree of economic development, and, of course, proximity and previous subordination to the U.S. Empire. The attempt to undertake this task already presupposes a substantial degree of political militancy and willingness to take major risks.
The second consideration is that the foreign policy of a revolutionary regime is related to the kind of revolution that the leadership is trying to create within its own society. A revolution involves both the overthrow of the old regime as well as the creation of a new form of society. How and by whom the old society is overthrown has a decisive impact on the nature of the new society that emerges from the successful revolution. The relevance of these distinctions about the how and by whom of a revolution can be shown with a couple of examples. Let’s take the rather extreme case of the Afghan communists in the 1970s. The Afghan communists overthrew that country’s feudalistic system, but their revolution was not deeply rooted in the population at large. The new leaders attempted to change the oppressive customs of Afghan society, but in such a radical, thoroughly elitist, “from above” manner, including at one point a Soviet invasion. It provoked a popularly supported response that eventually developed into the very reactionary Taliban.17 Second, the guerrilla warfare that spread throughout Latin America in the 1960s in the wake and imitation of the Cuban Revolution is another well-known example. Guerrilla warfare was not and is not merely a technical military matter about how a movement can best overthrow a government and reach power. As famously espoused by the French thinker Régis Debray, acting as ideological spokesperson for the Cuban regime in his “Revolution in the revolution? Armed struggle and political struggle in Latin America,”18 the “foco” theory was designed to create an armed minority that would take control of one or more strongholds from which the “liberation” of the rest of the country would be launched. This was a political strategy, as Debray clearly outlined, that consciously and explicitly did not rely on the self-organization of the working classes and people at large. This had unambiguous elitist implications for both the struggle and the nature of the society that would have been established by the successful guerrilla movements.
There have been three major periods in Cuban foreign policy. First, from the revolutionary victory in 1959 until the middle and late sixties; second, from the early seventies to the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early nineties; and third, from the early nineties until today. The first period, at a time of high revolutionary ardor when the ruling group in Cuba was only beginning to consolidate itself as a ruling class, was the most militant period of Cuban foreign policy, with its heavy emphasis on the creation and support for guerrilla movements in Latin America. This was a political strategy based on the principles outlined by Debray that we just described above. These movements would have likely resulted, in the event of victory, in some form of society run from the top. Therefore, the problem here was certainly not lack of militancy on the part of the guerrilla movements, but a leadership substituting itself for the mass of the working class and peasantry. In any case, the guerrilla movements of the sixties were all defeated.
Toward the end of the first period, two major forces began to make themselves felt and significantly affect Cuban foreign policy: the nascent nationalist-communist ruling class and its definition of Cuban state interests, and the close relationship between this new ruling class and the USSR. To assure the economic survival of their state, the Cuban rulers became very dependent on the USSR. This presented a big problem. The USSR, under heavy pressure from their U.S. rival, was compelled to at least tacitly accept the notion that the Western hemisphere was the geopolitical sphere of influence of the United States. This is something the USSR had failed to do with its previous support for the Cuban revolutionaries at the end of the fifties and early sixties. As a result, the USSR successfully put a great deal of economic and political pressure on Cuba to step back from its open and aggressive support for guerrilla warfare in Latin America.
The Cuban government complied with Soviet pressures but not entirely, by adopting a lower profile in its foreign policy, particularly in Latin America. It continued to support insurgent movements in the Western hemisphere but in a more restrained and discrete manner under the control of the Department of the Americas of the Cuban Communist Party headed by Major Manuel “Barbaroja” [Redbeard] Piñeiro. This was an important turn in Cuban foreign policy that helps to explain why Che Guevara, a man much more suited to be in the opposition rather than a government communist, departed the island and entered into an ambiguous relationship with the Cuban government while he was trying to organize a guerrilla movement in Bolivia.19 During this period, in the seventies and eighties, the Cuban government also considerably diversified and broadened its relations with Latin American and Caribbean governments. This new strategy was facilitated by the 1975 decision of the Organization of American States (OAS) to lift its multilateral sanctions against the island and allow each of its member states the freedom to decide on whether or not to establish relations with Cuba. This new stage in Cuba’s foreign relations involved the establishment of not only formal but also substantially friendly links with the Peruvian military reformist junta, as well as with such governments as those of Michael Manley in Jamaica and Forbes Burnham in Guyana. On the whole, the new Cuban foreign policy of this second period consisted in establishing formal relations with any Western hemisphere government that was willing to be independent enough from the U.S. to establish relations with Cuba, and beyond that to develop friendly relations with even moderately liberal or reformist governments. This general rule does not quite fully capture Cuba’s relations with the authoritarian, Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)-led Mexican government, the only Latin American regime that failed to obey the U.S.-controlled Organization of American States instruction to its member states to break diplomatic relations with Castro’s government. The PRI played a clever double role, expressing sympathy for Castro’s government in an attempt to coopt its internal left opposition while secretly collaborating with U.S. government agencies in a number of hostile activities against Cuba. The no longer reformist but still statist PRI leaders (they were only beginning to adopt neoliberalism as their banner) had a degree of sympathy for the Cuban leaders based on their own roots in the much decayed but still relatively recent Mexican Revolution. Accordingly, one of the Mexican groups most strongly supporting the Cuban government was the statist “dinosaur” PRI faction led by Fernando Gutierrez Barrios, a rather sinister figure who headed the secret police from 1964 to 1970 and was governor of the state of Veracruz from 1986 to 1988. The Cuban government responded to the affections of the still dominant PRI statist dinosaurs by withholding any public criticisms of their crimes and misdeeds, and by presenting to the Cuban people a benevolent image of the PRI’s Mexico as a progressive political system.
Soviet pressure to force Cuba to reduce its militant posture in Latin America also helps to explain why the Cuban government increasingly turned toward Africa, an area where Cuban militant initiatives were much more compatible with Soviet foreign policy. The African continent was outside the immediate geopolitical sphere of influence of the U.S., and was thus relatively less important to Washington than Latin America. Castro told Ramonet that Cuba sent troops to Angola without first consulting the USSR but that it depended on the material support of the Soviets to support the Cuban presence in that country. Similarly, as Fidel Castro made it abundantly clear, Cuba’s withdrawal from Angola in the late eighties was at least partly due to Soviet pressure. (289) In my view, the Cuban intervention in Angola was politically justified in that it occurred in response to the previous intervention of the U.S. and South African governments and other reactionary forces in the continent in support of the right-wing pro-imperialist forces opposed to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). But it was not free of cost to the Angolan people. Thus, for example, Cuban troops actively intervened in internal disputes within the Angolan MPLA as when they insured the victory of the Neto faction in its struggle against the Alves faction. While the Cuban government followed a “left” pro-self-determination line in the case of Angola, it followed a “right” line in the case of the Ethiopian attempt to suppress the Eritrean people’s struggle for national self-determination. In that case, the Cuban position was at best neutral and the help that Cuba and the USSR provided to the Mengistu Ethiopian leadership allowed it to shift resources to attack the Eritreans, who were fighting for independence from Ethiopia. The single most important factor in this case was the Ethiopian nationalist dictatorship’s support for the USSR in the Cold War, which converted it into an international “progressive” force regardless of its crimes at home. Cuba’s policy in Africa underlined its role as a junior partner of the USSR, analogous to the way Israel has been a junior partner of the United States.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early nineties and the severe economic crisis that it unleashed in Cuba, greatly accentuated the “pragmatic” features of the foreign policy that Cuba had been pursuing in the seventies and eighties. The Department of the Americas of the Cuban Communist Party that had directed Cuban underground activities in Latin America was closed. Although the Cuban government has continued to proclaim its anticapitalism, when it comes to foreign policy, particularly in Latin America, it emphasizes far more its opposition to neoliberalism and to U.S. imperialism. But even this has to be qualified, as Castro, notwithstanding his recent criticism of Brazil’s ethanol policies, has turned a blind eye to Lula’s neoliberal practices in Brazil. Thus, he told Ramonet that he saw
the reforms that Lula is carrying out with the greatest sympathy…because it is not a matter of making a revolution, it is a matter of winning a challenge: to make hunger disappear. He can achieve that goal. It is a matter of making illiteracy disappear. And he can achieve that too. It is a matter of giving land to those who don’t have any. And he can achieve that as well. And I believe that we should all support him. (480–81)Although it is clear that Fidel Castro is much closer to the Venezuelan Hugo Chávez than he is to the Brazilian Lula, there is not the slightest evidence to suggest that he is advising Chávez to accelerate or be more aggressive in his measures against capitalist interests in Venezuela. Fidel Castro is certainly not advising Chávez to emulate the Cuban example. The present mood and posture of the Cuban leader toward Latin America becomes evident in his conversation with Ramonet through his retrospective criticism of Che Guevara for not having made a sufficient effort toward unity in his dealings with Mario Monje, the leader of the Bolivian Communist Party. (269–70) Castro’s present criticism of Guevara stands in contrast with his stand in the sixties when he furiously criticized the traditional Latin American communist parties for their reformism and lack of revolutionary zeal. The Cuban leadership’s present-day pragmatism has also buttressed Fidel Castro’s long-standing tendency to put on all his charm and make gentlemanly and generous assessments of foreign leaders. This is particularly true of those who are either dead, or, for one reason or another, unable to respond or behave in ways that may embarrass the Cuban leader. Thus, Castro goes out of his way to praise King Juan Carlos of Spain, (464–67) Charles de Gaulle, (537–38) and Pope John Paul II, singling out for praise the Pope’s opposition to the war in Iraq. (446) Most surprising perhaps is Fidel Castro’s generous appraisal of the presidential accomplishments of John F. Kennedy, under whose leadership the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba was carried out in April of 1961. (246–47, 534–35) After the failure of the invasion, President Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy became obsessed with Fidel Castro and in November 1961 inaugurated Operation Mongoose to eliminate the Cuban leader. Castro mentions this operation’s connection to the Kennedys only to note (256) that President Kennedy suspended it (on January 3, 1963). One cannot help but suspect that Castro’s benign talk about JFK is a tactical public relations ploy to court American liberal public opinion.
Among the most peculiar but little known aspects of revolutionary Cuba’s foreign relations were its long friendly relations with Franco’s regime in Spain. Few people outside of Cuba are aware of the enormous importance that the Spanish Civil War and its Francoist sequel had for Cuba, and particularly for the Cuban Left, both communist and noncommunist. On a proportional basis, Cuba sent more volunteers to fight in support of the Spanish republic than any other country in the Western hemisphere, and opposition to the Franquista dictatorship was a major theme of the Cuban Left in the forties and fifties. Relations between Cuba and Spain were rocky during the first two years after the victory of the revolution, and included an ugly incident in early 1960 when the Spanish Francoist ambassador tried to break into a televised interview with Fidel Castro to respond to the Cuban leader. After that incident, relations between the two countries were mended and then settled into a quiet but friendly economic and diplomatic relationship that lasted for many years until Franco died in the mid-seventies. Castro is less than candid when he claims that this friendly relationship was maintained even though the Cuban government remained openly connected with Spanish communists such as La Pasionaria. (459) What Castro does not tell us is that the Cuban press maintained almost complete silence with respect to Spanish affairs during the sixties and seventies, in stark contrast with the constant criticism of the Franco regime in the Cuban media before the revolution.20
Fidel Castro’s explanation as to why Franco maintained such good relations with revolutionary Cuba goes back to the defeat that Spain suffered at the hands of the United States in Cuba in 1898. Castro tells us that at that time Franco was growing up in the Galician port of El Ferrol, headquarters for the Spanish Navy squadron that was annihilated by the U.S. Navy in southeastern Cuba. Castro thinks that the humiliation inflicted on the Spanish Navy by the U.S. may have helped to shape Franco’s attitudes to the American Empire and its relations with Cuba. Beyond that, he echoes some of the themes about his admiration for the precapitalist Spanish values expressed in the personal qualities of his father and his Spanish Jesuit high school teachers. Accordingly, Castro plays down the significant economic ties that Spain and Cuba maintained during the late Francoist period, and instead concludes by suggesting that the Cuban people in confronting and resisting the U.S. “have reclaimed Spanish sentiment and honor. That historic, almost sentimental factor must have influenced Franco’s attitude. I don’t believe in economic explanations, nor in explanations of any other type” (regarding Franco’s attitudes and behavior towards Cuba). (460) It is interesting to note in this context that Castro and the Cuban state have officially honored the heroism of the Spanish sailors whose navy squadron was devastated by the far superior power of the U.S. Navy in the bay of Santiago de Cuba.
In conclusion, while it is true that at various times Cuba has supported progressive causes abroad, there were other times, as we have seen above, when that was not the case. In the last analysis, it was the defense of Cuban state interests as defined by its rulers, and not a general commitment to revolutionary doctrine, that determined what causes to support abroad and how.
Samuel Farber is a long-time socialist born and raised in Cuba. He is the author of numerous works on that country including The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (University of North Carolina Press). He recently returned from a trip to the island.
1 At the time of this writing (early May 2007) it seems that Fidel Castro’s health has improved and that he has resumed some activities, but it does not seem likely that he will return to his full duties as commander-in-chief. For one thing, he did not show up at the important May Day parade as some observers had predicted.
2 Luis Báez, Secretos de Generales (Havana: Editorial Si, 1996).
3 During his illness, Castro continued to make changes and corrections on his published interview with Ramonet. On this basis, a new French and two new Cuban editions have been published. According to Granma, this has resulted in the addition of sixteen pages, containing a considerable number of formal corrections and specifications and, most of all, a lot of materials that had been added to the French edition with additional comments by Fidel Castro on French politics and personalities. Pedro de la Hoz, “Memoria y Lucidez,” Granma, December 7, 2006.
4 Ramonet, 82. This and all subsequent translations from the Spanish have been made by the author.
5 Deborah Shnookal and Pedro Alvarez Tabío eds., Fidel, My Early Years (Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press, 1998), 42.
6 Ibid., 86–88, 123–27.
7 I prefer to use the terms “civil rights,” “civil liberties,” and “socio-economic rights” instead of the rather vague term “human rights.” This latter term more easily lends itself to political confusion and manipulation. Thus, the capitalist democracies often pretend to defend “human rights” when they mean “civil rights” and “civil liberties,” while dictatorships such as Fidel Castro’s also frequently pretend to defend “human rights” when they mean “socio-economic” rights.
8 In fact, Mario Mencía wrote an informative book about this experience under the title The Fertile Prison: Fidel Castro in Batista’s Jails (Melbourne, Australia: Ocean Press, 1993).
9 Armando Valladares, Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Knopf, distributed by Random House, 1986).
10 Jorge Valls, Twenty Years and Forty Days: Life in a Cuban Prison (New York: Americas Watch Committee, 1986).
11 Cited from Rosa Luxemburg’s pamphlet on the Russian Revolution by Peter Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, abridged ed., (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 434.
12 From the introduction to the book being reviewed here titled “Cien Horas con Fidel” (“One hundred hours with Fidel”), 16.
13 In an apparent paradox, Fidel Castro admitted that the Cuban government used “quotas” to reduce the numerical preponderance of women in medicine and the technical professions. According to Castro, 65 percent of Cuban technicians today are women. (214–15)
14 An article by Henley C. Adams in the Latin American Research Review (February 2004) painstakingly documents the relatively small proportion of Blacks in the Political Bureau and Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, in the Council of Ministers, and among top officers of the Cuban armed forces.
15 Castro is probably overestimating the total number of university students. According to official Cuban sources there had only been 192,864 students in higher education in the academic year 2002–03 (i.e., at the time that Ramonet began to interview the commander-in-chief). This figure in turn represented a 20.4 percent decline from the 242,366 students registered for the academic year 1989–90 (i.e., before the collapse of the Soviet bloc). See table twelve in Carmelo Mesa-Lago and Jorge F. Pérez-López, Cuba’s Aborted Reform: Socioeconomic Effects, International Comparisons, and Transition Policies (Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2005), 88.
16 For a detailed historical discussion of U.S. policy toward Cuba until 1961 see chapter three of my book The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
17 Of course, the participation of the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan was critical to the development of the fundamentalist-led opposition to Afghan communism. For two excellent accounts and analyses of Afghan society and Afghan communism in the seventies, see Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan: A Firsthand Account, trans. Khalid Hasan (London, New York: Verso, 1988) and Jonathan Neale, “The Afghan tragedy,” International Socialism 12, (London, U.K.), Spring 1981, 1–32.
18 Régis Debray, “Revolution in the revolution? Armed struggle and political struggle in Latin America,” Monthly Review, July–August 1967.
19 Che Guevara’s case also starkly poses the distinction I made above between the destructive and constructive aspects of revolution. One may admire Che’s efforts to overthrow Latin American reactionary governments while having a very different attitude to his guerrilla warfare approach, let alone to the type of socioeconomic and political system he would have tried to establish had he been victorious. See my article “The resurrection of Che Guevara,” New Politics VII, 1, Summer 1998.
20 Of course, there were right-wing newspapers such as the Diario de la Marina that supported Franco.