He didn’t make it to the 50 year mark as Cuba’s Supreme Leader, but Fidel Castro has managed to hand over power, peacefully. He did so, despite repeated predictions he wouldn’t do it, or that once he did, the system he created would collapse.
More than that, Castro continues to be a figure admired by those who admire Socialism and who believe it can provide an alternative path to development.
So tonight, we’ll take a look at El Commandante, the Fidel of legend and reality. It’s Castro Night on the The Explainer, and I’m Manolo Quezon.
I. El Comandante
From the last international destination of Jose Rizal, to our flag, to the Constitution of the Biak-na-Bato Republic, to the Spanish-American War, the Philippines and Cuba were contemporaries and suffered similar fates.
We were among the last of Spain’s colonies to seek our freedom, and then four ourselves under the sway of a new American empire.
Cuba, then, is in many ways, a sister country, a sister nation in the fight for freedom, a sister country in terms of political adversity. It’s even been said that one inspiration for Fidel Castro in his guerrilla days, was the guerrilla movement here during the Filipino-American War.
In another life, Fidel Castro, instead of being a dictator, might have become a famous baseball player. Or so the legend goes. More accurately, he might have become just another prosperous, politically-active attorney, with a reformist frame of mind.
Instead, he became one of the best-known radicals in modern history.
Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz was born in 1926, his parents were Spanish, his father a sugar planter and his mother, a maid; then his parents married when he was 17. As a hacendero’s son, he went to the best schools, and it was in boarding school that he was a pitcher in the school’s baseball team. Then he went to law school and began to be involved in politics.
Castro’s political development was determined by his opposition to one man: Fulgencio Batista, who’d mounted a coup against Cuba’s democratically elected government and made himself dictator in 1952.
Faced with a dictatorship that tolerated the Mafia, that built casinos, and which did nothing to help the peasants and factory workers, Castro the lawyer became Castro the rebel.
Captured after a failed attack on the Moncado barracks, he was charged with crimes familiar to us: sedition, rebellion, to name just a few charges.
In 1953, Castro made a four-hour speech in court, whose main theme was, “History Will Absolve Me.” By Castro’s later standards, four hours for a speech was brief; but it was enough to cement his reputation as the symbol of a new generation.
Pat, with your declaiming skills, would you read a brief exerpt from that speech?
We were taught that… liberty is not begged for but won with the blade of a machete. We were taught that … “The man who abides by unjust laws and permits any man to trample and mistreat the country in which he was born is not an honorable man … In the world there must be a certain degree of honor just as there must be a certain amount of light. When there are many men without honor, there are always others who bear in themselves the honor of many men. These are the men who rebel with great force against those who steal the people’s freedom, that is to say, against those who steal honor itself. In those men thousands more are contained, an entire people is contained, human dignity is contained …” … We were taught to cherish and defend the beloved flag of the lone star, and to sing every afternoon the verses of our National Anthem: “To live in chains is to live in disgrace and in opprobrium,” and “To die for one’s homeland is to live forever!” … We were born in a free country that our parents bequeathed to us, and the Island will first sink into the sea before we consent to be the slaves of anyone.
He later turned his speech into a political manifesto with five main goals:
1. The reinstatement of the 1940 Cuban constitution which Batista had discarded.
2. Land Reform.
3. Industrial workers should get a 30% share of company profits.
4. Sugar workers should receive 55% of company profits.
5. The confiscation of holdings of those found guilty of fraud under previous governments.
An amnesty in 1955 secured Castro’s release, and he went into exile in Mexico where he made friends with a young doctor named Ernesto “Che” Guevera. There, they planned taking to the hills in order to wage guerrilla warfare. They hired a yacht, sneaked back into Cuba in 1956,
When the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled his country in January 1, 1959 with over a hundred of his cronies and a 100 million dollars of loot, Cubans from all walks of life joyously lined up to pay their back taxes.
They greeted Castro as a liberato when he entered Havana, the capital, mere days after Batista’s escape. Castro was 32.
A broad, united front of oppositionists established a council and Castro became Prime Minister.
Castro began bravely: he immediately instituted land reform, and the first plantation to be taken over by the state was his family’s (his mother never forgave him).
America opposed his reforms, which began with land reform decreed in May, 1959. By January, 1961, the USA had broken off diplomatic relations with Cuba and in April of that year, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion took place. In December, Castro proclaimed himself a Communist and Cuba, a Communist state. In 1962, the world came the closest it’s ever come, to nuclear war, with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As Castro put it, “The people do not want elections. In the past, they produced bad governments.” Soon after he began the first round of arrests -20,000 people- that continue to this day, 47 years after he came to power.
The story of Fidel Castro serves as a cautionary tale. If you impede reforms, you radicalize reformists and turn them into revolutionaries.
When we return, a quick look at Castro’s continuing revolution in Cuba.
II. Syringes, not butter
If you remember our show on North Korea, which was the first father-son handover of power in the Communist world, what does it say about Cuba’s Communism that it’s gone from older to younger brother? It presents, perhaps, a conundrum.
noun ( pl. -drums )
a confusing and difficult problem or question : one of the most difficult conundrums for the experts.
• a question asked for amusement, typically one with a pun in its answer; a riddle.
The Castro Conundrum is this: here was a man who began as a reformist, turned Socialist, has been, essentially, a dictator, and has now handed over power to his brother.
Here’s an interesting book, “Caudillos: Dictators in Spanish America.” It’s an interesting collection of views on different Latin American dictators, of whom we know the story of many, from Juan Peron in Argentina, to Chile’s Agusto Pinochet, to Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner.
The book also includes Fidel Castro, and this is interesting. The chapter on Castro says that to understand Castro, we have to see him first and foremost not as a Communist, but as a nationalist. And therein lies his appeal, even to non-Communists.
Americans, of course, never understood this. They preferred to look at Castro, even when he denied he was a Communist, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. As we saw in the previous gap, it only reinforced his attitude that the Communists in Russia and elsewhere must be on to something good.
And the Cubans, seeing their charismatic leader becoming the target of invasion attempts and the hostility of the American government, adopted Castro’s red flag of Communism as their badge of courage, too.
The best book I’ve ever read on the Kennedies, this one, “The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Mediation on Power” by Gary Wills, looks at Castro from the point of view of John F. And Robert F. Kennedy.
The two Americans were basically engaged in a high-stakes pissing contest with Fidel.
Robert F. Kennedy had been put in charge of coordinating the plan to have Cuban exiles invade Cuba and topple Castro; the failure of that plan was a major humiliation for Bobby Kennedy’s brother, Jack.
The brothers’ shared sense of hurt and humiliation, in turn, pushed Castro into the arms of the Soviets, who he convinced to situate nuclear missiles in Cuba as a deterrent to future American invasions. In turn, this pushed the Kennedy brothers and Nikita Krushchev of the USSR, to the brink of nuclear war.
In the end, war was avoided, and in a sense, Cuba’s independence guaranteed.
Castro, deprived of access to American markets, however embarked on agrarian and urban land reform. As he nationalized American businesses, confiscated haciendas, and then confiscated apartments and other urban properties, he also created one of the finest health systems in the world.
And one of the most effective free education programs in modern history.
But it came at a cost.
Some estimates put the total of Cuban exiles at 2 million, or slightly over 10% of the Cuban home population of 11.3 million. These exiles are the people who left in several waves. The first, in 1959 when Fulgencio Batista fled; the second, in 1961 when Cuba officially turned Socialist; the third, from 1965-1972 when flights were allowed from Miami; in 1980, when, in mere weeks, after Castro said that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, 125,000 Cubans did. And all the time, since then, individual Cubans have tried to escape to Florida by means of improvised rafts and boats.
And at the cost of human rights. Amnesty International, which hasn’t been allowed to visit Cuba since 1988, summarizes the Cuban human rights situation as follows. Pat?
Freedom of expression, association and movement continued to be severely restricted. At least 69 prisoners of conscience remained imprisoned for their political opinions. Political dissidents, independent journalists and human rights activists continued to be harassed, intimidated and detained, some without charge or trial. Cubans continued to feel the negative impact of the US embargo.
And time has caught up with the Comandante.
Nina Kruschev, writing in the Nation, compared the goings-on in Havana to a novel.
The death watch for Fidel Castro is something that only Gabriel Garcia Marquez could get right. His novel “Autumn of the Patriarch” captures perfectly the moral squalor, political paralysis, and savage ennui that enshrouds a society awaiting the death of a long-term dictator.
That was in January, 2007. and as we all know, Fidel Castro is still very much alive.
Castro had fallen ill on July 31, 2006. He’d developed intestinal bleeding, which required surgery. He handed power over to his brother –temporarily.
Temporary, in communist terms, ended up lasting two years. During that time, Castro hasn’t been seen in public.
Only recently, did Castro finally announce he was retiring.
The thing that impresses people the most about Castro is his inexorable will.
And so, let me invite our guest to join us.
Francisco Nemenzo is a fan of Castro, the author of this pamphlet, “Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution.”
Let’s ask him to summarize his thoughts…
When we return, more on Castro-style Socialism.
It’s worth returning to Titus Livy on the decline of Rome as quoted by William Shirer to explain the Fall of France.; Livy wrote of Rome, “We reached these last days when we could endure neither our vices nor their remedies.”
Fear of change, or the costs of change, leads to paralysis. The result of this paralysis neither the extermination of vice nor the institution of any actual remedies.
It results in no real peace, but instead, mass migration.
Fully a tenth of our population are economic and social refugees, like the boat people of Vietnam or those trying to float from Havana to Miami on inner tubes, except our countrymen are fleeing not war, but what passes for peace!
Unlike Fidel Castro (who called his fleeing countrymen “worms” and “trash”), our refugees are proclaimed modern-day heroes.
But the cautionary tale is this, and it’s as old as Rizal, and as recent as Cuba’s unfolding drama. From Rizal, this warning: the slaves of today can be the tyrants of tomorrow. From Castro, this lesson: that elections are not enough, and not the sole measure in addressing a nation’s age-old need for social justice.