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Makers of the Twentieth Century: Castro

Part of the series Makers of the 20th Century
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Alfred Stepan continues our series on Makers of The Twentieth Century, arguing that the romantic acclaim of Fidel Castro as a revolutionary guerrilla leader disregards the practical achievements and structural changes he has brought to Cuba and distorts his world-view of revolution.

Castro (left) alongside Che Guevara, 1961. Photograph by Alberto KordaWhether he is depicted as a romantic guerrilla in the Cuban Sierra, a mercenary pawn in Angola, or an exporter of arms to Nicaragua, the stress is usually put on his military role in discussions of Fidel Castro. Compared with Lenin or Mao, Castro had no early concern with creating a party organisation; to this day, despite his reputation as a rhetorician, there is virtually no Castroite corpus of social and political doctrine. Thus Castro appears to many observers to be the most ‘caudillo-like’, the most militarily 'voluntaristic' of the great modern revolutionaries. While certainly not without some validity, this perception of Castro distorts the structural and political context of his pre-revolutionary strategy and post-revolutionary policies within Cuba. Internationally, it prevents an appreciation of his involvement in the promotion of revolutions in countries as diverse as Vietnam, Angola and Nicaragua where, despite his military contribution, his independent ideological and political concerns may well weigh more heavily in the historian's balance.

My stress on political and structural factors may strike many as particularly perverse if we are concerned with Castro's role in the making of the Cuban revolution. Perverse because it runs counter to the famous interpretation of that revolution by Régis Débray in his Revolution in the Revolution , a work that was energetically distributed by the Cuban government throughout the hemisphere as the authorised account of the revolution. The book was based on extensive conversations with Castro and privileged access to the archives of the revolution. It was a paean to the military aspects of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. Some quotations will capture the flavour of the argument:

A significant detail: during the two years of warfare, Castro did not hold a single political rally in his zone of operations.
Under present conditions the most important propaganda is successful military action.
One must go from the military foco to the political movement.
The guerrilla movement could and has to provide a military solution to the political problem.

Unlike the guerrilla ‘base areas’ characteristic of the Chinese and the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Debray stressed that the Cuban contribution to revolutionary theory was the foco - a constantly moving rural military centre. He quoted Castro as saying that until the later stages of the revolution the guerrilla base was simply the ‘territory within which the guerrilla happens to be moving; it goes where he goes'. There was also an insistence on the intrinsic military and moral superiority of the rural over the urban revolutionary way. Indeed, not only was there a dichotomy between the two but an inherent conflict. The city was ‘a cemetery of revolutionaries and resources'. On the contribution of the middle class and traditional political groups to the making of the revolution, the book was virtually silent, except to note approvingly Castro's brusque rejection in December, 1957, of an overture to make a broad, multi-class political alliance called the Pact of Miami.

The picture of Castro that emerges both from the scholarly monographs and from the revolutionary diaries, published in 1979 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution, provides some obvious contradictions to the authorised version by Debray. They give plenty of evidence of the political tactics and overarching revolutionary strategy used by Castro in his march to power. Far from not holding a single political meeting, we now know that in the last nine months of the guerrilla struggle a small scale literacy campaign was conducted, a Peasant Congress attended by four hundred peasants organised, and the Tumbasiete Political School instituted to train people to distribute leaflets and revolutionary propaganda. These activities were only possible because in March, 1958, a political front, known as the Frank Pais Second Front and similar in conception to the Chinese fixed guerrilla bases, had in fact been created. In its nine months of existence, its guerrillas constructed four hundred small schools run by a revolutionary department of education, built twenty field hospitals, administered by a revolutionary department of health, and constructed fourteen airstrips. A close reading of the sources shows that while indeed the Havana-led general strike of April, 1958, was a failure, the urban guerrillas, headquartered in Cuba's second largest city, Santiago de Cuba, did play a critical role in supplying manpower, guns and intelligence at vital moments throughout the guerrilla struggle. And finally, despite Debray's emphasis on the centrality of the military in the revolution, Castro was, of course, a master of the political.

Early in the revolution, Castro's Radio Rebelde bad succeeded in reaching much of the Cuban population. Instead of rejecting contacts or alliances with the middle class, Castro was in fact adept at caching out to them. The interview with Castro by Herbert Matthews of the New York Times in the mountains in February, 1957, is the best known example of this tactic. A less well known, but domestically more important, example of Castro's bid to build broad, multi-class alliances is his participation in the construction of the Pact of Caracas, which was signed by almost all the anti-Batista groups in Cuba, from the former President, Carlos Prio of the Autentico Pirty, to trade union leaders from the United Labour Front. In broad terms, this Pact laid the groundwork for a more unified anti-Batista military struggle, the establishment of a provisional government after his fall, and a minimum programme of social reform. The specific details of the Pact included a consensus agreement that the well known lawyer, Miro Cardona, would serve as Coordinator of the 'Junta of Unity', Judge Urrutia as the 'President of Cuba in Arms', and Fide1 Castro, the most important insurgent signatory fighting within Cuba, as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces of the Revolution. In short, Castro's strategy in making the Cuban revolution was to incorporate the bourgeoisie and to present himself as their only military hope. In fact, Urrutia did serve as the Provisional President of revolutionary Cuba, Cardona as Prime Minister, and Castro's initial position was Commander-in-Chief of the Rebel Army.

Once the Pact was sealed, Castro, as the recognised military leader of the anti-Batista forces on the island, began to receive aid from a variety of middle-class groups, especially from the former President, Carlos Prio, who directed supplies from Miami via the Caribbean to Castro's mountain headquarters in the Sierra. Most of it went in fact to the airstrips built by the Frank Pais Second Front. Batista, defeated politically and psychologically but by no means militarily, fled Cuba on New Year's Eve, 1958, less than six months after the Pact of Caracas was signed.

Thus Castro began his career as a maker of the modern world not by following a military, rural strategy based on the foco , which rejected alliances with other groups, but by developing an integrated, rural-urban political-military network. Castro established his own broad base and eventually achieved recognition by the most important middle-class, labour and political party groups as the island-wide, revolutionary co-ordinator against their common enemy, Batista. In almost all its emphases, in fact, the account authorised by Castro of how the revolution in Cuba was made is misleading. The question is - was it self-deception or a revolutionary tactic?

To be frank, I am not completely sure. However, subject to further testimony which could clarify the matter, the most plausible explanation is that the 'official' account of the revolution was drawn up in the context of tensions within the Soviet-Cuban alliance and Cuba's decision to embark on a new phase in her export of revolution to Latin America.

Revolution in the Revolution? was released in Havana in January, 1967. Castro's relations with the Soviet Union had been souring since 1965, when the Soviets failed to react strongly to the American military intervention in the Dominican Republic, to protest adequately at the American bombing of North Vietnam, or to support the export of revolution to Latin America. In January, 1966, Castro sponsored a Tri-Continental Congress in Havana where Cuba's divergencies with the Soviet Union and the traditional Communist parties of Latin America began to surface. Just as Yugoslavia's break with the Soviet Union had stimulated her search for an ideologically distinctive position, so the conflict between Cuba and Russia in the period 1966 to 1968 coincided with, and probably stimulated, a Cuban search for doctrinal originality, an originality built into the Debray version of the revolution. Finally, Che Guevara had secretly begun his campaign in Bolivia a month before the release of Revolution in the Revolution? Thus the account of Cuba's revolution authorised by Castro should be read not as an interpretation of how the Cuban revolution was made, but as a primer by Castro, Guevara and Debray on how to make revolution under conditions in which opposition from traditional Communist parties was to be expected. One must also remember that Guevara, furious at the North American attack on Vietnam and eager to divert American energies, saw the revolution in Bolivia as a way of sparking 'one, two, three, many Vietnams'.

The voluntaristic, military dimension of the Cuban revolution is not found primarily in Castro, but in Castro as interpreted by Debray and in Che Guevara himself. The Che Guevara who was killed in Bolivia was a Guevara attempting voluntaristic military acts with almost no overt political connections with national Bolivian social groups, a Che Guevara who was attempting to create a Cuban-led military movement among non-Spanish speaking Bolivian peasants, a Che Guevara who was not a revolutionary 'fish in the water' (as Mao advised he should be) but are isolated, almost lumbering animal out of his element, an easy prey for the Green Beret-trained counter-insurgents. The book by Debray was not a cynical deception, but a deadly misperception of the relationships between the possibilities of revolutionary voluntarism, social structures and politics.

Successful revolutionaries change structures by their acts of courage and will. But these successful acts take place within existing structures. For Fidel Castro, this has been true of his politics just as much after as before the revolution. A practical revolutionary as opposed to a theoretician, his genius has been to build upon, exploit and finally transform elements of the pre-revolutionary social structure for his own revolutionary ends. The simplest example of this has been his use of television. Castro was the first revolutionary to come to power in a technologically advanced society. Despite the existence of great social and political inequalities, Cuba had by 1958 the third highest per capita income in Latin America and more television sets per capita than France. Unlike many African countries, where no more than 35 per cent of the population speaks the same language, all Cubans spoke Spanish. In addition, the island was small, with good air and road links. The potential for communication of revolutionary messages was there, and Castro exploited it to the full. The perception abroad that he harangues his audiences misses the political significance of his speeches. At his best he talks softly, intimately, conveying a sense of sharing his thoughts about a current crisis with those citizens present in the plaza or watching throughout the island on television. Some of the major initiatives of Castro's government, as well as some of its more important institutions, such as the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, grew out of such dialogue.

The relationship between social structures and Castro's revolutionary politics is even clearer in the case of agriculture. In the Soviet Union collectivisation generated great resistance and the government responded with massive repression. Revolutionary Cuba, on the other hand, collectivised without encountering rural resistance; indeed, collectivisation generated increased levels of support from rural workers, and today Cuba has one of the most collectivised agricultural systems in the world. How did Castro manage this, especially since, while in the Sierra Maestra, he had promised to distribute individual plots of land to the landless? In this case, the fact that most rural workers had worked on sugar plantations had a special significance. The rural workers were as much members of a rural proletariat as they were peasants, but many were unemployed for six or even eight months of the year during the dead season that follows the end of the sugar harvest. Such a work force could have demanded individual plots. But Castro urged them to organise collective farms by arming that he could transform the expropriated plantations into diversified, rural productive communities that would create full-time employment and provide their members with the collective services of schools, public health stations, and stores, services which would be almost impossible to deliver to scattered, individual farmers.

To a large extent Castro fulfilled his promise. With farmers of lands beneath the size established for compulsory collectivisation, Castro used face-to-face persuasion rather than force to induce them to join collectives or more decentralised co-operatives. He recognised that since for these farmers the pre-revolutionary structures had not made them into a semi-proletariat, compulsory collectivisation was beyond the realm of the politically possible. Rather than use force he accepted the objective limits to the creation of new revolutionary institutions imposed by pre-revolutionary structures.

How was Castro able to win wide support for what became a Communist revolution in a Catholic country, while in Poland the Catholic Church remains a major obstacle to the legitimacy of Communism? The main difference between Cuba and Poland is that Castro was able to link his revolution to the major themes of Cuban nationalism. In his speeches he refers constantly to the Cuban patriots of the nineteenth century, such as José Marti, and attempts to show how the revolution of 1958 is the logical fulfilment of the revolutions of 1895 and 1932, both of which many Cubans view as true revolutions that were thwarted by the United States. In Poland, the Communist government is less nationally authentic in origin. It came to power largely by imposition not only by a foreign power but a power that was an historic enemy of Poland. The Church in Poland had often been, and is now, a repository of Polish nationalism, and remains a powerful ideological competitor to the Communist government. In Cuba, by contrast, the long nineteenth-century struggle for independence was waged by Cuban nationals against Spain and the Spanish slave holders with whom the Church was closely identified. The Church emerged from these wars particularly weak in the countryside, especially among the rural working class. The result was that, even before Castro came to power, the base of the Catholic Church in Cuba was one of the narrowest of any country in Latin America. By the 1950s this base was largely urban and upper middle class, precisely the social strata from which came the bulk of the 800,000 or so people – 10 per cent of the total population – who left the island after the revolution. Thus, despite the absence of any sustained institutional or ideological attack against the Church of the sort that emerged in Mexico during its revolution, the Church in Cuba was left with its physical infrastructure intact after the revolution but with its constituency enfeebled. The interaction between Communism and nationalism, which gave strength to the Catholic Church in Poland and made it critical to the political process, worked in the opposite direction in Cuba. As a result the Church was weakened and made marginal. By 1968 Poland had fifty-two priests per 100,000 people, giving the country one of the highest number of priests per capita in the world, while Cuba, with three priests per 100,000 had the lowest ratio in Latin America. The Church's anti-nationalist legacy and weak social base meant that Catholicism was no serious obstacle to Castro's attempt to create new revolutionary values and institutions. To a great extent, and especially since the mid-1960s, Castro has avoided any governmental attack on what remains of the Catholicism in Cuba.

Turning now to the realm of international politics, what are we to make of the fact that Castro has committed his revolutionary support, and at times troops, to revolutionary causes around the world? What weight should we attach to political, ideological, diplomatic or purely military factors? Many policy analysts subscribe to the view that in Africa Cuba is acting simply as a Soviet proxy or 'hired gun'. They emphasise once again the military dimension of Cuba's international role, though even in this role Cuba is taken to be dependent on Soviet support. But such an interpretation does an injustice to the complexity of Cuba's ideological and political history, and to the strength and variety of Castro's commitments to international solidarity. While a case can certainly be made that Castro followed the Soviet line in Ethiopia, one must not forget Cuba's leng history of initiatives abroad. In 1960, for example, only a year and a half after the success of the Cuban revolution, Castro sent arms to the Algerian Liberation Front. In 1961, he established a military mission in Ghana, and in the mid-to-late 1960s, against strong Soviet resistance, he supported armed revolution in Latin America. Castro was also perhaps the first head of state to establish an embassy to the Vietcong in South Vietnam, right at the height of the US armed commitment. In 1973, when Soviet aid was described as inadequate by a Southern Yemen rebel leader, the Cubans responded by providing more extensive aid than the Soviets.

In one of the most famous instances of Cuba's supposed mercenary activity – Angola in 1975 – a plausible case can be made for an original Cuban foreign policy. Since 1966 Cuba had maintained close personal and political ties with the top MPLA revolutionary leadership, a relationship which includecl an independent arms and training programme within Cuba and in the Congo-Brazzaville. Moreover, Soviet aid to the MPLA began to diminish in 1972 and for a while in 1974 stopped altogether. The Soviets ultimately supported Castro's decision to increase Cuba's presence by sending combat troops to reinforce the MPLA, which was retreating under the attack in October, 1975, of a South African armed column that had already penetrated several hundred kilometres into Angolan territory. Available accounts indicate, nonetheless, that the first major contingent of Cuban combat troops was transported to Angola in a Batistavintage Dutch ship, two Cuban merchant marine ships and a number of Cuba's old Bristol Britannia turbo-prop planes.

The point worth stressing is that Castro's foreign policy objectives and ideological preferences in Angola played a significant part in determining Cuba's actions. In fact the speed and vigour of Castro's commitment to the MPLA may well have drawn the Soviets more deeply into the conflict than would otherwise have been the case. Cuba, rather than being the military surrogate of the Soviet Union, may well have seized the political initiative.

Despite continuing economic difficulties, Castro continues to play a controversial international role, witness the Nicaraguan revolution. But the weight of Castro's purely military influence is often overestimated amd misunderstood. The Sandinista Guerrillas in Nicaragua began their offensive against the Somoza régime in 1960 under the strong ideological influence of Castro. By the late 1960s the guerrillas, following a predominantly rural-military strategy similar to that advocated in Revolution in the Revolution? found themselves isolated and far from victory. Their success grew in the 1970s, as other social groups within Nicaragua, starting with the Church and then the Chamber of Commerce, and eventually other countries such as Panama, Costa Rica and the members of the Andean Pact, joined in the anti-Somoza struggle. Castro, by his example, his internal reforms, his convictions, as well as his arms, did stimulate the Nicaraguan revolution, but US policy makers were so preoccupied with Cuban and Sandinista military factors that they neglected to see the internal weaknesses of the régime and the national alliances that were shaping the balance of forces. As in Cuba, victory came to the guerrillas only after they were able to co-ordinate urban and rural insurgents, and win support from the middle classes. To say that Cuban military support was decisive to the 'Nicaraguan revolution misses the social and political factors at work in Nicaragua, just as Debray's interpretation of the Cuban revolution is to miss the political dimension of Castro's strategy in Cuba.

Will Fidel Castro continue to play an energetic role in the world? One area where there is significant potential for Cuban influence is the Caribbean. When Fidel Castro came to power the only independent island countries in the Caribbean were Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Rapid decolonisation by England, and to a lesser extent by the Netherlands and France, ushered in a period of proliferation of new 'mini-states' – Grenada (1974), Surinam (1975), Dominica (1978), St. Vincent and the Grenadines (1979), and St. Lucia (1979). By the end of the 1980s the number of independent countries in the region could reach twenty. Cuba is by far the largest and the most powerful of these states. To the extent that many of the mini-states have substantial black populations and major problems of unemployment and national integration, the Cuban model could well prove extremely important to the region. There is no doubt that in general Cuba will be a serious contestant for regional influence,along with Venezuela and the United States.

But Castro faces problems as well as possibilities. Cuba's withdrawal of its bid in 1980 for a seat on the Security Council of the United Nations (following the loss of a dozen or so vital votes from Third World countries who wanted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) complicates Castro's leadership of the Conference of Non-aligned Nations. It goes without saying that Castro's continued overseas military connection with Russia impedes normalisation of relations with the United States.

Finally, Castro's great initial victories within Cuba involved the redistribution of existing wealth and the mobilisation of the people from above. If the Cuban model is to retain its appeal in the 1980s, Castro must address successfully the issue not of mobilisation but of participation, and not of redistribution but of growth. Failure in these two areas will decrease not only the external but also the internal attractiveness of Castro's revolution.

Further reading: 
  • Ramon Bonachia and Marta San Martin, The Cuban Insurrection 1952-59 , Transaction Books (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1974)
  • Richard R. Fagen, The Transformation of Political Culture in Cuba , Stanford University Press  (Stanford, California, 1969)
  • Jorge I. Dominguez, Cuba: Order and Revolution , The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachussets, 1978)
  • Régis Débray, Revolution in the Revolution? , trans. Grove Press (New York, 1967)

Alfred Stepan is Professor of Political Science and has the Chair in Latin America Studies at Yale.

Historical dictionary: Castro, Fidel


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