An icon, but not a model

Revolutionary, dictator - or both? Paul Demarty remembers Fidel Castro

Cuban students paying tribute

The most interesting thing about the death of Fidel Castro is that the reactions are so mixed.

There are, of course, jubilant cries of victory from the right - Donald Trump hailed the death of a “brutal dictator”, and the streets of Miami - famously home to many thousands of Cuban exiles - were alive with parties. The exile community, naturally, is chock-full of people who despise the Cuban regime on principled grounds, and even those who left in pursuit of better economic opportunities may be forgiven for blaming the Cuban government for the necessity of their flight.

Yet things are a little more complicated than one might expect. In the British context, we were not surprised to find George Galloway and Ken Livingstone (now that he is again, implausibly, out in the cold) praising the deceased; but Jeremy Corbyn, who can barely find the courage to mumble against the monarchy nowadays, was able to acclaim this “internationalist and champion of social justice”, and even Peter Hain could acclaim Fidel for his part in destroying apartheid. The tone of the BBC has been very much of the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ type; and the messaging from the White House itself - with Barack Obama clinging for now to the microphone, before it is seized by Trump - has been cautious, seeing as how one of Obama’s legitimate achievements from the point of view of US imperialism is having begun the process of normalising relations with Cuba.

Castro and his moment

So what are we to make of this man ourselves? The journey to political icon status began unassumingly, with a Jesuit education for Fidel and his brother Raúl; from his student days onwards, Fidel was a radical of one sort or another, a democrat flirting with socialism and Marxism for a decade or more. Various elected governments came and went, presiding over a corrupt and highly unequal society, albeit one with a strong and militant working class. Fidel’s sympathies, despite their unsophisticated quality, were with the latter from very early on.

The decisive moment in Castro’s life came with Fulgencio Batista’s military coup in 1952. Batista - who had been a populist president in the 1940s - was initially supported by the Popular Socialist Party, which was the ‘official’ Communist Party in Cuba; but he shifted drastically towards the United States, instituted a reign of terror and repression against the trade unions, and built his base among Cuban plantation owners and American Mafiosi. The Castros took up arms against him, launching a disastrous coup attempt in 1953 that landed both of them and more in jail, and gave a name - the July 26 Movement - to their later activities.

After their release by Batista, under intense pressure, the Castro brothers and their allies regrouped, and it was now that they would sail - crammed like sardines into the Granma - into history. Their boat landed on the Cuban coast in December 1956; within two years Batista had fled. The dictator’s forces were initially successful, killing three-quarters of the 80 or so guerrillas Castro brought over, but his regime rapidly began to collapse, and the question became: what would replace it?

Castro himself was, by background, a liberal nationalist, who decried Batista’s tyrannical measures against communists and other dissenters to his regime. In this era, however, Soviet foreign policy turned decisively towards supporting anti-colonial and anti-imperialist revolt in the third world, and thus there developed, for the nationalists themselves, a strong attraction for the Soviet model and ‘non-capitalist roads to development’. Among Castro’s immediate sympathisers were several communists, most notably Che Guevara; and, as he rode into Santiago, he was faced with the same issue as Batista years before: the size and influence of the Popular Socialist Party. He chose the opposite course to Batista, and embraced the Soviets and ‘official’ communism. At a time of escalating tension in the cold war, the Soviets allowed the construction of a Stalinist regime 90 miles off the coast of the United States.

The US reacted exactly as one would expect to such a development. On the campaign trail, John F Kennedy excoriated Eisenhower for propping up Batista, in spite of the bloodiness of his methods and the rampant corruption that characterised his regime. Yet Kennedy was equally an inveterate anti-communist and, as Castro slipped more and more decisively into the Soviet sphere of influence, so did the Gulf of Mexico seem to widen. The twin catastrophes of Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile crisis of 1962 (during which Castro was among those urging the Soviets to call the Americans’ bluff) soured affairs permanently.

Thus the next few decades of Castro’s life consisted of evading one US-sponsored assassination attempt after another, and his regime was battered by both the notorious blockade and endless CIA destabilisation operations. The Castros’ response was Soviet-style dictatorship - all power lay with the Communist Party, large swathes (even by Stalinist standards) of the economy were nationalised, and the whole thing was subsidised by the USSR, which bought up Cuban sugar. Dissidents were bullied, imprisoned and exiled.

Yet the repression was not on the same scale as in the German Democratic Republic, never mind Maoist China or the USSR in its Stalin-era prime. As an indicator, some 217 people were formally executed by the Castro regime up to 1987, compared to 20,000 in the Batista era; extra-judicial killings are, of course, not included, but neither are Batista’s.

Are we to conclude that the better angels of Castro’s nature prevented the sort of horrifying bloodletting seen elsewhere? Hardly - the truth is that the Cuban regime enjoyed broad popularity from its inception. The Batista regime, by the time of its downfall, was widely hated and propped up by the Mafia. The country was reduced to the status of an offshore brothel for rich Americans. Whatever the privations and political restrictions of Stalinism, that particular problem went away overnight. Castro’s Stalinism, in short, was successful in competing for hegemony over Cuban nationalist sentiment; and, just as the USA was terribly concerned to see a Soviet satellite pop up just off the coast of Florida, so Cubans worry about how their small nation can resist the imperial behemoth just to the north. Fidel, whatever his faults, was the man with the cojones to stand up to Uncle Sam, for five decades.

Bad blueprint

That attitude was attractive not only to Cuban nationalists, of course: Castro survives as an icon because his July 26 Movement proved such a rich source of inspiration to revolutionaries across the third world, and indeed in the imperialist heartlands.

And yet ... there is a quite striking phenomenon at work here. Che, growing impatient with ‘winning the peace’ in Cuba, exported the method himself; yet the results were disastrous. He met his end in Bolivia, having attempted to begin a peasant war against the central government, only to discover that - among other unforeseen circumstances - the peasants in his base area did not speak Spanish, but a local indigenous language. The record, across the board, is one of abysmal failure: where such agrarian guerrilla struggles have succeeded in overthrowing regimes, Cuban-style ‘socialism’ has not been the replacement. The greatest success of Cuban anti-imperialist foreign policy - the rout of the apartheid regime’s invasion of Angola in the middle 70s - was essentially a conventional war, in defence of the most likely replacement for Portuguese rule.

That leaves the Cuban revolution not as a model, but as a striking exception in an overall litany of failure. Yet, on closer examination, that should hardly be surprising; for 1950s Cuba was already thoroughly proletarianised, in the city and the country, and had (as already mentioned) a militant workers’ movement. Castro and his comrades arrived in Santiago to find the workers on a general strike, led by the PSP; the fusion of the July 26 Movement with the latter to form the Communist Party of Cuba put Fidel in the president’s office, but only worked because the PSP was already a mass workers’ party. Che’s attempts to repeat the trick failed because he misunderstood the reasons for his own success - the USSR’s caginess about provoking the USA, as détente gained traction in cold war diplomacy, hardly helped matters.

Yet did it work even in Cuba? ‘Revolutionary’ Cuba has, in recent years, been steadily on its way in from the cold. It is reversing many of its nationalisation programmes, and making up for the gap in revenues left by the collapse of the Soviet Union by aggressively building up its tourist industry once again. The government has essentially created a parallel capitalist economy, with its own currency, to serve as an island resort, while natives must make do with their national pesos and rations; large infrastructure projects have gone to foreign capital.

The last decade or two have seen Cuba edge down the Chinese road, albeit without the massive industrialisation. Thus, in the end, it is yet another example to add to the pile: socialism in one country is an illusion. It leads on a path, more or less bloody, more or less honourable, back to capitalism. Apologists for the Cuban regime will cite, unfailingly, the US embargo and associated skulduggery as a proximate cause for its deformities, and not without justice; it would be fatuous to doubt the revolutionary fervour of the young Castros and Guevara and their comrades. Yet that is surely the point: what else do you expect the global hegemon to do with a ‘socialist’ republic just off the coast?

We should remember that the old adversary, the United States, has had a political shock of its own recently; and if Hillary Clinton had won the election the case would be straightforward: the thaw would continue. Castroism would die, not long after Castro - and not with a bang, but a whimper. Donald Trump could slam things violently into reverse, perhaps giving the regime a reason to exist for a little while longer - a perfectly counterintuitive possibility for our chaotic times.