The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Death of Fidel Castro:
What the Cuban Revolution Represented

Dec 5, 2016

This is translated from an article in the December 2nd Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary workers group of that name active in France.

Fidel Castro, the main leader of the Cuban revolution, died on November 25th, ten years after he handed over power to his brother Raúl. Neither Barack Obama nor French President François Hollande attended the funeral services, but the leaders of Latin American and African countries were there. Even after Castro’s death, the imperialist powers cannot bring themselves to commemorate a man who stood up to them for so long! Nonetheless, in Cuba, the population continues to render homage to Castro.

The Cuban revolution overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista on January 1st, 1959. Batista was a military man who had dominated the country since 1933 and had carried out a coup d’état in 1952 to formally seize power. He was supported by the U.S. government, whose aim was for U.S. businesses to control the Cuban economy, including its oil refineries and sugar industry.

A lawyer and son of a landowner, Castro was twenty-six years old at the time of Batista’s coup. In 1953, he and a group of companions attacked the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, hoping to set off an uprising of military officers against Batista. When he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to prison for this action, Castro transformed his trial into a denunciation of the dictator with his declaration, History Will Absolve Me.

A Guerrilla War Supported by a Peasant Uprising

Castro was released from prison and left for Mexico, but he returned in November 1956 aboard the yacht Granma with 82 men, including his brother Raúl and Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Most of these men were massacred by the army, but twelve of the survivors regrouped in the Sierra Maestra mountains. It was their luck to find support from local peasants for whom the guerrilla army was a way to put a stop to the confiscation of their land by U.S. companies. Guevara would later say: “the agrarian reform was a demand imposed by the peasants on our revolution.” The ferocity of Batista’s dictatorship would push many people to become fighters for the guerrilla movement.

Castro did find support among the moderate bourgeoisie of the cities weary of the dictator, but for him, the countryside had to come before the city. This is because, as Guevara explained: “In these rural areas, the construction of a future state apparatus begins. The guerrilla army possesses an organization, a new structure, all the characteristics of a miniature government.” The corruption of Batista’s regime pushed the movement towards a quick success, since Batista was also the man of the mafia. Havana was the brothel of the Americas, with gambling dens, casinos, and nightclubs. Batista’s fall set off a real celebration among the population and had a global impact.

A provisional government was established with the mission of organizing new elections, and it included a pro-U.S. corporate lawyer as Prime Minister, as well as various rivals of Batista within the military and anti-communists, while the Castro brothers and Che Guevara had no official government position. However, for the population, Castro was the architect of victory, the only possible mediator between the different political forces, and the real leader of the situation. The supporters of Castro wanted to see an end to despotism and corruption, an improvement in the lives of the poor masses, and true political independence from the United States.

Confrontation with the United States

Castro traveled to the United States in April 1959 in the hope of establishing friendly relations with Washington, but the U.S. government refused to talk with him. On May 17th, Castro launched a moderate agrarian reform, identical to the one that Batista had carried out in 1940. The reform only applied to uncultivated lands, the owners of which were to be gradually compensated. The United States demanded a higher level of compensation, to be paid immediately. Castro didn’t back down. The Cuban Army seized the land of U.S. companies.

In April 1960, when U.S. refineries in Cuba refused to refine Russian oil, Castro seized them. The U.S. Senate responded by ending its agreement with Cuba to buy sugar. Castro nationalized a portion of U.S. property on the island and accelerated the agrarian reform.

In October 1960, with Castro refusing to bow down, the U.S. government declared an embargo on Cuban exports. The Cuban government seized more companies. Cuban capitalists, executives, mafia men, and those around them left for Miami, Florida. The people who have been celebrating the death of Castro in recent days are often the children or grandchildren of this group.

These nationalizations were far from being part of a long-developed socialist project. They were the pragmatic response of a leadership determined to defend Cuban national sovereignty in the face of intransigent U.S. imperialism.

On January 3rd, 1961, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Cuba. On April 17th, the U.S. government tried to impose its will by force. This was the Bay of Pigs invasion, a total fiasco for anti-Castro Cubans and their U.S. advisors. The population mobilized to defend the island against these invaders, showing the level of popular support existing for the new regime.

A general embargo against Cuba began on February 3rd, 1962, with the goal of provoking the Castro regime’s rapid fall by depriving the island of food and medicine. So Castro and the Cuban leaders looked to the Soviet Union for help. Castro had already proclaimed the socialist character of the Cuban revolution on April 16th, 1961. This began a thirty-year period of economic aid from the Soviet Union, which assured a certain level of prosperity for Cuba until the beginning of the 1990's, and the Cuban government aligned itself with Moscow. It was the hostility of the United States towards the Cuban Revolution that eventually pushed the Cuban government into the arms of the Soviet Union.

The United States’ greatest fear was that the success of the Cuban Revolution would serve as an example to others all across Latin America. And it did awaken enthusiasm in an entire generation struggling against the dictatorships that ruled under Washington’s command. The Cuban Revolution inspired those who wanted to put an end to the economic pillage that the imperial power of the north carried out against the working classes and the peasants.

The Dead End of Nationalism

In 1967, Che Guevara died in the jungles of Bolivia. Che, who in his own way had wanted to extend the revolution, failed, while Castro succeeded in preserving the Cuban state. The Cuban government was nevertheless isolated and at the mercy of pressure and support from abroad.

This national limit of the Cuban revolution was also, in fact, the political limit of its leaders. Although they were always conscious of the need to maintain their popular support in order to resist the grasp of the United States, they were in no way revolutionaries of the working class aiming to lead the struggle to overthrow the system of imperialist domination.

The Cuban state has remained isolated but stable, even without any democratic functioning, because it guaranteed a high level of social protection for the population, most notably in terms of health and education. These gains are rare enough in Latin America and elsewhere to promote the reputation of the regime born out of the revolution of 1959. But they will not hold off the pressure of the imperialist world in the long term, at the risk of seeing the return of all the old garbage from the time of Batista.

It isn’t certain whether history will absolve Castro or not, but what is clear is that he knew how to stand fast against the pressures of imperialism, with the support of his people. This will remain as a testimony to the force that a revolution can give. And this is the fundamental reason for the hatred that the Cuban Revolution still continues to incite, almost 60 years later, in the hearts of the ruling classes.