“The Cuban Revolution has failed, Cuba is a basket case. Perpetual leader Fidel Castro is sick and suffers from a power complex. He and his regime will soon collapse. Democracy and the free market will return to make Cubans happy again.”
That was the mainstream media’s message for the 50th anniversary of the attack led by 26 year old Fidel Castro on Fort Moncada, the army barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953.
The Economist (August 2, 2003) characterized Fidel as “bearing an increasing resemblance to a Caribbean King Lear. Having outlived many of his enemies, he is busy finding more. Maybe that was because he has little left to celebrate, except survival.”
“Many poorer Cubans got some benefit from the radical egalitarianism of Mr. Castro’s revolution,” The Economist continues, substituting a snide writing style for knowledge, “especially from its achievements in health and education. The infant mortality rate is the lowest in Latin America, and similar to that in the United States. Yet such gains came at a heavy cost, in lost human freedom and in Soviet subsidies.”
Did The Economist forget that Castro’s predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, ran a thoroughly repressive regime? Indeed, most of Cuban history took place under Spanish authoritarian rule. Then, after 1898, the United States intervened three times in Cuba. Periods of freedom were few and characterized by dramatic political corruption.
Castro should take the blame for selling out to the dollar “to preserve his regime at the price of its principles,” states The Economist. Indeed, the article concludes, “the only things that now stand between Mr. Castro’s revolution and mass poverty are remittances from the 1.2m Cubans who live in the United States, and investors and tourists from the EU, whose governments he now abhors.”
Billions of dollars in remittances also go monthly into the treasuries of India, Pakistan, Mexico, the Philippines and countless other nations whose economies face the devastating after effects of centuries of colonial pillage and looting. In much of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the IMF-backed, free-market model that The Economist favors has led to disaster. In the recently bankrupt Argentina some 70% of the people live in poverty.
The writers could have praised Castro for using judo politics to turn the wealth of Cubans who migrated into cash for Cuba‘s national bank. Indeed, some of the most rabid anti-Castroites regularly contribute to his foreign exchange flow by sending money to their families on the island.
Castro’s political version of martial arts has also meant the exporting of his political enemies – why didn’t Machiavelli think of that? – so that they now cause trouble in the United States rather than on the island.
Instead of looking at the hard facts of Cuban-US relations, critics repeat trite mantras about “health and education gains at the cost of freedom.” Worse, The Economist falls into the predictable rut of comparing Cuba‘s economy to that of the United States – the country that had sucked out Cuban wealth for more than half a century and whose economy bears little resemblance to that of any third world country.
The Economist’s unstated message: “Get modern, Fidel. Let Cuban workers enjoy a 30 cent an hour wage working for a foreign multinational company in maquilas, let the transnational giants eat up your resources and give to the IMF and World Bank control of your budget! Or you will collapse!”
Such “Havanalogical journalism” persists. The July drama of Cubans floating in an old Chevy to get to Florida prompted the Miami Herald to repeat its chant about desperate Cubans “risking their lives for freedom.” They did not refer to the daily journeys of Mexicans, Haitians, Dominicans, Chinese and Central Americans who also risk their lives to enter the United States. Like Cubans, they come here because they want the better material life they are reminded of incessantly by global advertising.
Reporters rarely compare Cuba to neighboring or other third world countries where large percentages of the population would migrate to the United States – if possible. With Cuba, reporters often mistake frustration or desire for migration with imminent regime collapse. In 1992, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Andres Oppenheimer won himself a place in the forecasters’ hall of fame with his book, Castro’s Final Hour. He continues to pontificate in his Miami Herald columns about the best way to bring down the Cuban Revolution.
I say the Cuban Revolution was a success. Note the past tense. From 1959 through the late 1980s, it accomplished its major goals: sovereignty and independence, equalizing income and fostering social justice. Thanks to the revolution, Cuba was transformed from an informal United States colony through 1958, into a proud nation. In the 1970s and 80s, Cuban troops fought battles in Angola that changed the history of southern Africa.
How many other island peoples without major strategic resources have played in the limelight as have Cuba‘s? For forty plus years Cuban artists of all genres, athletes, doctors and scientists became world-renowned. The revolution took a relatively unhealthy population and made it healthy, a relatively illiterate people and gave it literacy.
Yes, Cubans paid a price: divided families; injustices committed in the name of the revolution; abridgement of civil liberties – albeit this was certainly not new. It did not allow a free press nor foster competitive politics Those with material aspirations suffered the frustration of egalitarianism.
The revolution destroyed the old society, which merited obliteration. The reactionary Catholic Church hierarchy and the hypocritical upper class left the island, along with the mafiosos who ran the hotels and casinos, in collaboration with the Batista government. The revolution replaced the old society with the state, which would be the instrument to bring Cuba out of underdevelopment and then, according to Marxist theory, disappear. But the bureaucracy endured, to the dismay of most Cubans.
Most of those who left in 1959-60 assumed that the US Marines would eliminate Castro so they could return and retake their property, power and privileges. The United States had, after all, established this pattern with other disobedient governments in the hemisphere and elsewhere. Just five years before, the CIA had dispatched the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and installed a gang of military thugs to preserve security, fight communism, whatever. A year earlier, the Agency had done a similar job in Iran.
In light of the US determination to punish disobedience, the survival of Cuba‘s revolution appears miraculous. In April 1961, the CIA sent 1500 Cuban exiles to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It failed. Between 1961-3 alone, the CIA backed thousands of violent sabotage operations, including dozens of assassination attempts.
CIA labs devoted countless “creative” hours to devising murder weapons to dispatch Fidel Castro. In 1968, while I was making a documentary film with him for public television, Fidel recounted the story – which he also told Frank Mankiewicz in 1974 — of a “pernicious poison they had developed, which would metabolize and show no signs after I died of a mysterious disease.”
Reacting to the US-based counterrevolution, Cuba built a state security aparatus. Once operational, these kinds of repressive bureaucracies reproduce. Indeed, we have seen how an agency like NATO, created in the United States to combat Soviet aggression during the Cold War, has expanded since the Soviet demise.
The Cuban revolution does repress those who disagree. I think this is a serious issue. But this should not obscure the fact that it has real enemies who have attacked it violently for forty-four plus years. But to understand it, one must place it inside its historical context.
By 1959, colonial nations had begun to revolt against their masters for independence and development, to right the wrongs of centuries in decades. But unlike most of the experiments gone sour – Zimbabwe, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan as some examples – the Cuban revolution has maintained threads of historical coherence. In the 1860s and then again in the 1890s, Cubans tried to gain independence from Spain. Castro picked up on this historical thread when he led his 26th of July force against Fort Moncada. Like Jose Marti’s charge on horseback into the Spanish machine guns in 1895, the Moncada assault smacked of desperation – and conviction.
Those who carried out these acts believed that a display of dramatic heroism would light fire to the popular will. Five and a half years after the Moncada assault, Castro’s guerrillas marched triumphantly into Havana.
Fidel will turn 77 this month. The Economist concedes that “the revolution’s past social achievements still give Mr. Castro a certain aura among people such as members of the European Parliament, Hollywood film directors and Latin American students. But like the 1950s American cars and decaying Spanish-colonial tenements, Mr. Castro has become part of the island’s time warp.”
Many diverse audiences get into that “time warp” when they applaud Castro. He received standing ovations at the 2002 Monterrey UN Summit on Financing for Development and at Nestor Kirchner’s presidential inauguration this year in IMF-ravaged Argentina, just as he did in past years in Europe and New York. Latin Americans never disobeyed the United States before the Cuban revolution. And even Castro’s ideological foes acknowledge their debt to him for standing up to Uncle Sam.
The revolution ended in the late 1980s when the Soviet Union collapsed. Cuba no longer had the resources to change itself or the world. Tourism and dollarization have introduced dubious values. A black market thrives. Where is Cuba going? Where is Peru or Mexico going? Most third world country without major strategic resources don’t possess economic road maps. Cubans at least have the advantages of institutional equality and services sorely lacking in most of the third world- thanks to their Revolution.
Landau’s new book, PREEMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH’S KINGDOM will be published in September by Pluto Press. His columns appear regularly at www.rprogreso.com He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University.