Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolution and its lessons for Latin America

By Rodrigo Acuña

Progress in Political Economy (PPE))

Blog of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney

20 December 2016. 

Cuba’s nine days of national mourning for former leader and founder of the Cuban revolution Fidel Castro Ruz recently ended. Expectedly, cheers upon the news of Castro’s death at age 90 were heard around the world. In Miami, Florida the old guard of right-wing Cubans, many of whose parents worked for the Washington backed dictator Fulgencio Batista whom Castro overthrew in 1959, took to the streets.

In Australia, Julie Bishop – Minister for Foreign Affairs – stated that while she applauded the recent rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, Castro’s “antagonism toward the West and the United States in particular did cause hardship to the people of Cuba for decades”. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott went even further claiming that “Castro was a brutal dictator. He killed thousands of people.”

Such statements were thrown around with easy after the Cuban’s death. The Caribbean island Castro led after all has only one political party so no further evidence is required of its brutality. For those actually interested in the political history of the country, the available evidence presents a more complex portrait.

While sections of the U.S. media made much of the executions of Batista’s henchmen after the triumph of the revolution– approximately 550 according to Castro himself – the liberal journalist John Lee Anderson has written that the majority of those put to death were: “sentenced in conditions … above board, if summary affairs, with defence lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, and an attending public.” Tad Szulc, who wrote for the New York Times for close to twenty years, in his biography of Castro commented that the “Cuban revolutionary trials… bore no resemblance to the real bloodbaths that followed the Mexican, Russian and Chinese social revolutions in the twentieth century.”

Prior to those trials, of course, Batista’s record is seldom discussed. In a rare admission of guilt, in 1960 at a Democratic Party dinner, John F. Kennedy as a Senator noted that by 1953 the average Cuban family lived on US$6 a day while the country, whose economy was disproportionately controlled by U.S. corporations, had fifteen to twenty percent of its labour force “chronically unemployed.” Noting how Washington supplied the dictator with arms throughout his rule, Kennedy stated that “Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in 7 years.”

Decades later, conservative Cuban American scholars have tried to place Batista’s record in a better light. Lillian Guerra, in her book Visions of Power in Cuba (2013), claims that the dictatorship was really responsible for the murder of “three to four thousand” people. Were we to accept these figures, and taking into consideration the real abuses that occurred against some dissidents and the gay and lesbian community in the 1960s and 1970s, the revolution’s own problems with human rights pales in contrast to Batista’s crimes, or those of the U.S.-backed psychopath juntas in Latin America during the Cold War.

As with the case of Batista’s record, the level of aggression by the United States against Cuba after the 1959 revolution is rarely seriously discussed, despite it helping to explain why the island’s leadership developed a siege mentality, and why it aligned the country with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. In fact, even prior to the revolution, rebel leader Ernesto Che Guevara had been in Guatemala. There he witnessed the 1954 overthrow of Jacobo Árbenz’s moderate reformist government thanks to the aid of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a local corporate media whose shrill calls about a ‘red menace’ bore no resemblance to reality.

Returning to Cuba, once Batista and his cronies fled the capital, the Republic’s national treasury was left almost bankrupt with only US$424 million. With the U.S. unwilling to return the stolen funds, at a National Security Council meeting in January 1960, Roy Rubboton – State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs – noted that, by mid-1959, the Eisenhower administration concluded that working with the new leadership in Havana was untenable hence Castro had to go.

Bordering on the comical, the CIA, the Cuban exiles and even disgruntled members of the mafia then did their best to assassinate El Comandante through 634 plots involving, ex-lovers, poison pens, exploding cigars and a seashell. Less humorous of course were the actions of Cuban trained mercenaries from Miami who terrorised the island via the burring of sugar cane fields, bombing factories, tourist resorts, harbours and (amid a long list), murdering teachers who engaged in the revolution’s literacy campaign. By 1976 a terrorist bomb killed 73 passengers on board Cuban Flight 455 while in May 1981, Cuban authorities alleged that a type of dengue fever virus had been introduced to the island by U.S. agents affecting 350,000 civilians and killing 158 people (including 101 children).

In May 1999, after 40 years of covert U.S. actions, the People of Cuba filed a suit in a Havana court against the Government of the United States claiming that its acts of subversion and terrorism had left 3,478 civilians dead and 2,099 wounded. A year later in Panama, an old crew from Miami was again trying to assassinate Castro. By then Cuba’s intelligence agencies had decades of experience while back on the island every neighbourhood had set up Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR).

In terms of the U.S. economic blockade imposed on the island since the early 1960s, despite a warming of relations, earlier this year the Obama administration once again reissuedtrade restrictions – albeit until September 2017. Presenting a report to the United Nations General Assembly, Havana claimed the blockade had cost Cuba “US$4.7 billion over the last year and US$753.7 billion over the last six decades.”

At Castro’s immense memorial service in Havana, much of the above history was recalled by numerous Latin American and Caribbean leftist and progressive leaders. Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, noted that to evaluate Cuba one must understand that it has lived a “permanent war.”

In his view: “Evaluating the success or failure of the Cuban economic model, disregarding a criminal blockade of more than 50 years, is pure hypocrisy. Any capitalist country in Latin America would collapse within a few months of a similar blockade.”

With this background in mind, Correa added, “[i]n the most unequal continent in the world”, the Cuban leader still “left us the only country with zero childhood malnutrition, with a higher life expectancy, with 100 percent school enrolment [and] without a single child living on the street.”

As Latin America once again sees the return of the political Right due to a series of rigged electionseconomic pressuremedia warssoft coups and yes, the standard narrative, a fall in commodity prices, current and future generations will long examine Fidel Castro’s legacy and that of the Cuban revolution. A persistent question on their minds will be: how does one engage with recalcitrant local elites and their northern backer who have long blocked most moves towards creating more equitable societies and genuine national sovereignty?

Like it or not, the bearded Cuban might have some answers.

Posted on May 26, 2019 .