Opinionista Justin McCarthy 28 November 2016

The Fable of Fidel, revolutionary liberator

Winston Churchill is widely credited with the assertion that history is written by the victors, but when there are no victors which version does one choose? The answer of course is all, at least if you possess the instinct of a critical mind. This column is an attempt to counter the idolisation of a deeply flawed man attributed iconic status by many.

The death of Fidel Castro is yet another occasion on which many versions will present themselves, especially in southern Africa, where he is widely lauded for his role in promoting Marxist ideological solutions for African states in their battles for self-determination with imperialist overlords. Just one example of this is Vashna Jagarnath’s well crafted piece in this very publication. While I admire the eloquent verse, I have little empathy with its analysis, falling squarely as it does into the all too common liberal trap of romanticising revolutionaries.

There is absolutely nothing romantic about war and conflict, and the idolisation of perpetrators thereof, whatever their purpose or guise, serves only to teach our children the mistakes of our ways. Thus beatification of Castro and storybook romanticisation of the 82 men aboard the Granma headed for the Playa de los Colorados is problematic. Storied images conjured in impressionable young minds of brave men sailing across the Gulf of Mexico in pursuit of noble ideals is as dangerous as any CIA narrative.

Castro’s November 1956 MR-26-7 militia journey from Túxpan, Veracruz was disastrous. A distance of 1,200 miles across the Gulf of Mexico, it is by today’s measure a 6.5-hour commercial flight. The Granma was unseaworthy, overcrowded (designed for 12, it carried 82), overloaded with 12,000 litres of fuel and munitions, and the radio could only receive, not broadcast. The vessel fell two days behind schedule, exposing the Cuban-based MR-26-7 forces to a futile un-coordinated uprising while Castro was still far out at sea, and missed its landing point by some 15 miles. This meant it also missed a rendezvous with ground supplies and support, vehicles and a decent beachhead. Instead, the Granma was forced to beach in a mangrove swamp after being spotted by a military helicopter, and within hours was under attack from a naval vessel. The militia scattered as Batista’s Rural Guard ambushed them. Dispersed and on the run, only 12 reached safety in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. It was hardly a glamorous start to the glorious revolution. (Versions of this account vary, with most reporting that 19 members survived. I have chosen the one I believe to be most authentic, as the source names all twelve individuals.)

The Castro brothers survived, regrouped and eventually succeeded in overthrowing Batista two years later – the man who had pardoned Fidel in 1955 after serving just two years of a 15-year sentence for insurrection. It was during this trial that he gave his famous “History will absolve me” speech. On release, the brothers fled to Mexico City, where Raúl befriended Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who joined their expedition across the Gulf in his official capacity as doctor. Guevara later wrote, “I had been linked to him (Castro) from the outset by a tie of romantic adventurous sympathy,” a typically misty-eyed idealistic statement from one bourgeois romantic turned saviour to another.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Fidel was sworn in as Cuba’s Prime Minister, having been double-crossed by Batista’s military head General Eulogio Cantillo, who garnered the support of the US government. A fierce Marxist, Castro set about nationalising everything, including about $1-billion worth of US economic interests. He dispossessed big landowners and introduced a 402-hectare cap on ownership while prohibiting foreign land ownership. Strangely, he repeatedly denied his government was socialist and denied being a communist, contrary to all indicators. His appointment of numerous Marxists to senior positions belied this position, most notably the appointment of Che Guevara as Governor of the Central Bank and later Minister of Industries. This was no more than a thin cover to make him more appealing to those less enthusiastic about communism, which he eventually abandoned, once firmly in control.

In short, Castro introduced by force a command economy. Through radically redistributive economic reforms that nationalised even mom and pop corner stores, he transformed Cuba into the most egalitarian society in Latin America. Healthcare, education and social security were declared human rights and provided free. Income disparities shrank as wage differentials narrowed and basic consumer goods were provided to all through rationing at heavily government subsidised prices. As history has repeatedly demonstrated, this came at a huge cost. With the link between workers’ compensation and productivity shattered, growth stalled. And in the service of creating this egalitarian utopia, he crushed Cuba’s bourgeoisie. Once the direction of the revolution became clear, the upper and middle classes began their migration north into exile. Roughly 10% of the entire population found a way out of their country, never to return. Castro established a strict system of exit visas intended to block the brain drain, deliberately more flexible than the Soviet Union’s, which suited his purposes. If the émigré community of about a million had remained in Cuba, they could have formed a political party to rival his own.

Typical of dictators, Castro didn’t tolerate dissent. “All criticism is opposition,” he declared, “All opposition is counter-revolutionary.” He was ruthless in his repression of criticism, his appetite for imprisonment unrivalled. By the early 1960s, Cuba had between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners. Batista, a “rapacious dictator”, held no more than 1,600.

It is true that he built excellent education and healthcare facilities, but these highlights must be contextualised within the broader economic and social paradigm. Freedom of choice was effectively prohibited. He banished all private employment, education and media, thus tightly controlling every aspect of his subjects’ lives. Citizens had no option but to work for the state, even those working abroad. Doctors earned the same as hospital receptionists, neutering the fundamental human desire for self advancement and ushering in the conditions under which corruption blossomed.

The absence of an independent press, political parties, and civil society associations left the state without the self-correcting mechanisms of a pluralist democratic society. As in any country with a command economy, the state shops of Cuba are empty, while the black markets thrive. Today the best paying job is a tour guide. Following the relaxation of tourism laws, guides have direct access to wealthy foreigners accustomed to tipping. Their monthly average income of between $20 and $30 can be significantly augmented. Imagine for a moment teachers, medical doctors and engineers abandoning their jobs to be tour guides – that alone reveals enough about the dramatic failure of Castro’s policies.

Castro pivoted from a US-backed economy under Batista to a Soviet-backed one under himself. The price of freeing Cuba from US domination was an alliance with the Soviet Union and a focal point of the Cold War. Cuba’s proximity to the US was a compelling reason for Soviet support, as evidenced by the Cuban missile crisis. During this time Cuba enjoyed $3-billion of Soviet support every year, conveniently masking ruinous socialist policies. Between the late 1960s and 1990, the Soviet Bloc provided $62-billion in direct financial aid to Castro’s government. This came to an abrupt halt following the collapse of the USSR, plunging the country into a deep depression known as the “Special Period”. The loss of economic assistance triggered a downward economic spiral. Between 1989 and 1993, GDP dropped by 35%, and real wages even further.

Perhaps worse was Castro’s persecution of opponents. Cuba Archive a US-based Cuban human rights organisation, estimates murders under his rule of between 6,000 and 17,000. Castro had a habit of assuming the role of ultimate arbiter. If he disliked a court judgment he would simply overrule it and order a different outcome. Cubans could never escape the eye of the state – they were always being watched by spies in the vast network of 133,000 CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution). To end up on the wrong side of the revolution meant being ostracised. Even if you didn’t land in prison, you were left with no job and no future. No other regime in Latin America cornered its own citizens like Fidel’s. He never delivered the social revolution promised in his four-hour Moncada trial speech made in his own defence. He never delivered on the Mexico City promise, “We will return when we can bring to our people the liberty and the right to live decently without despotism and without hunger.”

In relative terms, Castro left Cuba in a worse position than when he took over, way back in 1959. With massive sums of foreign funds underpinning his regime, Castro prostituted his people in order to retain control while he played revolutionary hero and villain to global audiences. He made most Cubans desperate or dissatisfied, but he also made a few eminently conservative and content. Their conservatism remains one of the most serious obstacles to a democratic transition in Cuba today.

South Africans should put this history in context and draw their own conclusions apropos the ruling party and the EFF, both of which are slick masters of the revolutionary quip. The parallels are evident, from state capture to foreign influence, sovereignty, human rights and populist claptrap. Buying blindly into the rhetoric is typical of liberals who’ve never lived under a repressive communist system. A deeper dig into the realities of half a century of Castro’s rule is warranted before proclaiming:

Indeed it is better, in many ways, to be poor, and especially to be black and poor, in Cuba than the United States – or, for that matter, South Africa”. DM