The death of one of the most poignant figures in politics, Fidel Castro, on Saturday 26th of November has provoked mixed reactions from around the world. Donald Trump has condemned Castro as a ‘brutal dictator’ while Barack Obama, perhaps ironically, said that America is extending a ‘hand of friendship to the Cuban people’. On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn has praised Castro’s ‘revolutionary heroism’. While the Cuban leader’s death seems to have ignited debate around the world, there is no denying how important Castro and his actions were. I however think that this in itself, is the wrong approach. We should not mourn the death of a dictator, nor support the rhetoric of those who would use Castro’s death to further an equally oppressive agenda. Instead we should be using this point to both call out the oppression carried out by the Cuban regime, and to call for an alternative that rejects both US imperialism and authoritarian socialism, instead embracing direct democracy and workers self-organisation.
Before the 1959 revolution, Cuba symbolized Imperialism ant it’s most pernicious. Its war of liberation from Spain was appropriated by the US, whose government claimed that victory as its own and rewrote the newly independents country’s constitution to ensure its dominance. Cuba’s sugar was taken by imperialist interests that maintained its subservient status. Its culture – the voice of the slaves who refused to be silent – was emptied of its content and fed to the tourists for their consumption. The dictator of Cuba at the time, The U.S backed, Fulgencio Batista, revoked most political liberties, aligned with the wealthiest landowner who owned the sugar plantations, and presided over a stagnant economy that widened the gap between the rich and poor significantly. Batista also carried out wide scale violence including torture and public executions; killing thousands of people.
All that ended on January 1st, 1959 when a United States confident of its global dominance was challenged by a small Caribbean island. Following this, every national liberation movement and every occupied country stood up and celebrated. Imperialism, it seemed, was not so impenetrable after all. Again and again, the Cuban revolutionaries refused to surrender to threat or blackmail – it is that refusal that explained the blind wrath of its enemies. Republican and Democrat administrations sustained the siege of Cuba for six decades, angry in disbelief at their own ineffectiveness. It was of course, this kind of collective resistance that foiled the 1961 US backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. The 1962 Missile Crisis, however, showed the leadership in Cuba that Soviet support was conditional and that Cuba was a small actor in a Global Power Game. Distancing itself briefly from Russia, that was the moment when the country moved into its most radical phase, joining with the liberation struggles of the Third World in a common front that stretched from Latin America to Vietnam. That was the moment when Cuba began to symbolize for many people the rising of the oppressed, expressed in the image of Che Guevara.
After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Castro declared that the revolution was socialist. This was surprising, given that Fidel himself came from a radical nationalist background. His announcement was mainly a recognition of both Cuba’s dependence of the Soviet Union and of the central role the – soon to be refounded - communist party would play in the country’s future. Indeed, Cuba’s move to Socialism became increasingly clear through the inevitable failure of the 1969 sugar harvest to produce ten million tons, strengthening the country’s dependence on Russia. Indeed, when Fidel went to Chile the future supporters of the viciously anti-communist dictator Pinochet, took to the streets to ban their pots in protest. In this context, Socialism was understood to mean a strong centralized state along Soviet lines. This concided with both Castro’s and Guevara’s view of how revolutions are won – by the actions of a small and dedicated group of Guerrillas acting on behalf of a mass movement. What this meant is that when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1969, Castro supported the action, confirming once again Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union. Cuba’s alliance with Russia was, in a sense, part of a new state following Che Guevara’s death, which rejected Guerrilla tactics and looked towards forging alliances with likeminded countries.
However, Cuba asserted its own bolder foreign policy. During the seventies, the role of Cuban forces were key to defeating right wing insurgencies and sustained Castro’s anti – imperialist image. There is little doubt that their actions hastened the end of apartheid, yet in the horn of Africa, Cuban troops defended governments allied with Soviet regional interests that brutally repressed internal liberation movements. In addition to this, Fidel refused to be a subordinate to Russia. He used his Charisma and clout to fire occasional warning shots towards Moscow on the one hand, and to reinforce his control of the state on the other. The survivors of the Guerrilla force that brought down the Batista dictatorship remained, for the most part, at the centre of power for the five decades that followed.
The Socialism that Castro espoused unfortunately bore little resemblance to the work of eighteenth century scholars like Marx or Proudhon, speaking about the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’ or how ‘anarchy is order’. It was a Socialism with a command structure much like that of the Guerrilla army in which Fidel was Commander in Chief. What held it together was both Fidel’s incontestable authority and the unrelenting hostility of the United States, which not only tried to murder Castro numerous times but was willing to starve the Cuban people into submission. This is not to suggest that the system built by the revolutionaries had not heralded gains. Most celebrated of these were efficient and universal systems of health and education. However, beyond that life was hard, even before the withdrawal of Soviet aid and the period which followed, which brought the island to the brink of disaster. While it may have been dictatorial authority that foiled the attempts on Castro’s life by the US government, it was collective solidarity that held back collapse following Cuba’s darkest moments. Yet there was always serious discontent expressed in workplace resistance and the disillusionment of African veterans, as many of the promises of the revolution proved to be illusionary. While there was basic social provisions there was little in the way of consumer goods and dissent was treated harshly, whatever its form.
The extreme concentration of power at the top of the pyramid structure stifled any hope of socialist democracy. Political institutions were centrally controlled at every level; local organs of the government, like the committees for the defence of the revolution, maintained vigilance against dissent. On occasions when discontent grew too noisy, thousands of Cubans were dispatched to Miami amid clamorous marches denouncing the departed as ‘scum’. It was relatively simple to dismiss calls for democracy from internal critics as ‘imperialist propaganda’, rather than a legitimate claim by working people that a socialism worthy of its name would guarantee them that right. Public information was available only in the form of state newspaper Granma, and state institutions at every level were little more than channels for the communication of the leaderships decisions. An opaque bureaucracy, accountable to itself alone, with privileged access to goods and services, became increasingly corrupt in the context of an economy reduced to its minimal provisions. Castro’s occasional calls for rectification removed some problem individuals but kept the system intact.
Yet Cuba survived, due in good part to Fidel’s sharp political instincts and his willingness to find allies wherever he could in the wake of the fall of Eastern Europe. However, though ‘Pink Tide’ leaders celebrated Fidel’s legacy, as the twenty first century dawned, new anti-capitalist movements, with their emphasis on democracy and participation, had little to learn from Cuba. The reality was, after all, that the island featured a heavily authoritarian version of socialism that could allow the repression of gay people, the denial of criticism, and the emergence of the regime that now prevails in Cuba, where a small group of Bureaucrats and military commanders control the economy. They will be the beneficiaries of Cuba’s re-entry into the World Market, not the majority of Cubans. Fidel, who fell ill in 2006, said relatively little from then on. His death will be mourned across the Third World, because Cuba for so long represented a possibility of Liberation from Imperial oppression. Its very survival inspired hope, and yet the state that Castro built serves as a constant reminder that any socialism worth its name requires deep and radical democracy.