Fidel Castro passed away this week, bringing to a close an amazing life. Love him or loathe him, Castro and the Cuban revolution’s global impact cannot be denied. For many, the Cuban experiment is proof the US empire can be resisted; proof that another world is possible.
Despite being a small, agriculturally based third world economy, Cuba delivers world class health and education to its people. Internationally, Cuban soldiers have helped fight for liberation in Africa, and doctors and teachers went there to work with progressive governments tackling poverty. Environmentally, Cuba is the only state to achieve substantial sustainable development, and has led the world in calling for action on climate change.
This blog is not the place to give an exhaustive examination of the Cuban revolution, its achievements, its mistakes, and its attempts to overcome them. However, with Fidel’s death it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the lessons of the Cuban revolutionary experience. For those who would like to see social and environmental change happen in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Cuba offers rich experiences to reflect on.
Bringing Castro’s ideas to Aotearoa/New Zealand will not mean taking up arms in the Coromandel and smoking cigars. More important than romantic myths or individual policies is understanding the driving forces of revolution in Cuba.
1) The Radical Message
The Cuban revolution grew out of the struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950’s. Fulgencio Batista was a military leader who took power in a 1952 coup. He was strongly supported by Washington and American economic interests, and ran a regime largely indifferent to the needs of most Cubans, who suffered in deep poverty. Fidel Castro was then a student radical, becoming a leading organiser of resistance to the new regime. On July 26, 1953, Fidel and his collaborators attempted an uprising by attacking the Moncada barracks. The attack was crushed, but led to the formation of the revolutionary movement known as J26M (July 26th Movement).
After the attack on the Moncada barracks the J26M was dispersed and Castro arrested. It was then that Fidel Castro became a national political figure. Fidel survived the repression after the failed attack. He used the media around his trial to articulate his political position. His speech to the trial became widely distribute, its title declaring History Will Absolve Me. Fidel called for more than the restoration of democracy. He called for land reform, nationalization of key parts of the economy and a redistribution of wealth.
There is a common misconception Castro was not a radical until after the revolution. Some believe that Fidel only became a communist after the revolution when geopolitical realities made it necessary to strengthen ties with Soviet Russia. This underestimates Fidel’s politics, and betrays an unfamiliarity with the historical record.
It is true that Fidel did not call himself a communist. The revolution did not officially declare itself socialist until 1961, though some (such as Che Guevara) did use the term. Its radical content, however, was clear much earlier. Fidel’s courtroom defense outlines a dramatic and radical political program. While it might not formally be calling for a ‘socialist’ system, the program is one that can only be realised through a struggle of working people against the economic and political powers that exist.
The revolutionary content of Castro and the Cuban movement did not lie primarily in the adoption of radical rhetoric or labels. Rather, it stemmed from the fight for political change and the interests of working people, a fight that can only be won by the people themselves. As Che put it, “I am not a liberator. The people liberate themselves.”
The same is true today. We should see our allies not as those who think most like other radicals, but those most willing to fight concretely for another world. A revolutionary is not defined by geopolitics or by labels; a revolution is born from people articulating and fighting for a popular alternative.
2) Build on the Radical Traditions
When Fidel was working with others to build new revolutionary organisation the political challenges he faced were new. This is not to say the J26M was built on a rejection of the past. Instead, the movement sought to build on and grow out of the radical traditions that came before it.
In the late 1890s Cuba fought a war for independence from Spanish colonial rule. The war’s hero, Jose Marti, was a consistent reference point for these new revolutionaries. Fidel would quote Marti at length; not out of nostalgia, but instead using the experiences of sixty years earlier as lessons for new revolutionaries build on.
For Fidel and his comrades, this history was useful in many ways. It provided an experience of revolutionary change, which could be mined for examples to be replicated and mistakes to be avoided. It provided a commonly understood political reference point, which was useful for cohering activists and articulating a message for others. It was a shared analogy that provided a metaphor to help articulate the current political challenges. The struggle of the past had been Marti against the Spanish, now it was J26M against Batista and his American supporters.
In Aotearoa, building a movement for change will require new thinking, but like in Cuba, we are not starting from scratch. Radicals are building on important tradition of struggle. Labour radicals like Harry Holland spoke out and went to jail to fight unjust wars. Popular movements changed the course of the nation in the Springbok tour of 1981. Kiwi environmentalism is born in key part from the anti-nuclear movement. Te Ao Maori’s resistance to colonization continues today. The Land March and Bastion Point are common reference points of just causes that won, and Parihaka remains an injustice to be redeemed. The trade union movement fought for and won a level of prosperity that working people have rarely enjoyed anywhere in the world, although this has been lost in recent decades.
Cuba’s revolution was successful in part because it was able to authentically build on its own radical traditions and express them in a new way. This did not happen overnight, but was a long process of threading together the strands of activists.
3) Unite the Fighters
After the failed uprising, Castro was convicted and sent to jail in 1953, but was released only two years later after a campaign by his supporters. Fidel fled Cuba and went to Mexico, returning – as he provocatively promised publicly to do – in 1956 with a band of rebels to wage a guerrilla war on the dictatorship. The war raged until the collapse of the regime in 1959. Most history on the Cuban revolution focuses on the guerrilla army in the mountains, but while the guerrillas were an essential component, an exclusive focus on the army misses the thousands of people who made the revolution possible.
While there were only a few hundred guerrillas, there were many more thousands in the revolutionary movement. These supporters gathered information, recruits and supplies in the cities and sent them for the fighters in the hills. They organised in urban sabotage and held rallies against the dictatorship. Strikes organised to coincide with guerrilla action were repeatedly used to great effect. In the end it was a mass strike that brought down the old regime, not a battle in the hills.
The J26M was the largest of the revolutionary organisations, but they were not the only ones. The revolutionary movement included the pro-Moscow Popular Socialist Party who were active in many unions and communities. The student based Revolutionary Directorate had their own guerrilla units, and at one point came close to assassinating the dictator. There were many other localized groups and committees.
Fidel Castro was an important figure, but the J26M wasn’t built by him barking demands to brainwashed drones. Fidel created an articulation of revolutionary ideas, but it gained traction because it resonated with many layers of people. As the revolution progressed it brought these threads together in greater collaboration. Often the collaboration was driven by local activists, not by the official organisational leadership.
Building revolutionary organisation was as much a process of binding together the different threads of struggle as anything else.
This process of building organisation should be seen as important here in Aotearoa. We don’t need a new organisation or new leader to come in with a message from ‘higher up’. The key challenges for organising is finding and uniting those who want to fight for their own class interests and broader political change.
These are the people who helped shut down Auckland in the TPPA protest on February 4th. It’s the union delegates organising their workplaces. Student activists trying to protect education and environmentalists concerned about climate change. While we shouldn’t overestimate the left’s strength, it would also be a mistake to think that there aren’t people out there hungry for a political alternative. Unfortunately, right now they have nowhere to go.
Radicals must try to articulate an alternative, and work with others to express it.
4) A Revolution Is Not a Man
Fidel’s fame and influence developed not so much because of his individual brilliance but because of what he represents. The Cuban revolution could have never survived with Fidel alone. Through many a political or economic crisis, the revolutionary government has fallen back upon popular participation. From the guerrillas in the hills, to community agriculture in the 90’s economic crisis, the Cuban revolution can only be understood as a living process, kept alive with the participation of the masses. They are the ones who, at every level of the Communist Party of Cuba, the state apparatus, the mass organisations and the local neighbourhood committees, keep the flame of revolution and socialism alight.
Fidel is gone now, but the many who helped build Cuba’s achievements and who shoulder the burdens of its ongoing problems remain. Fidel may have been a figurehead, but it was these people who made change possible. The best possible lesson to take from Fidel is to be inspired. The left should take the spirit of the Cuban people and fight for change here. Our revolution will not look the same, but if we are to win it will have a fundamental similarity – it will be driven by ordinary people fighting for a better world.
Ben Peterson is a human rights activist and Union organiser.