A Tribute to Fidel: A True Revolutionary Who Inspires Us to fight for a Better World
Why do we celebrate his 80th birthday?
Why do we like him as a leader?
What can we learn from him?
By Tamara Hansen
“Sentence me. It doesn’t matter. History will absolve me.”
It was with these words that Fidel Castro, a fiery 26-year-old lawyer, closed his own defense statement in a courtroom in Cuba in 1953.
On July 26th 1953, Fidel and about 150 other young fighters had attacked the Moncada military barracks in an effort to begin an uprising against the dictator Batista. But many factors in this first attempt by Fidel at an insurrection were miscalculated, and many of the 150 fighters were murdered or tortured to death in Batista’s prisons afterwards. After giving his now famous courtroom speech against the brutal rule of Batista, Fidel and with his other compañeros were found “guilty” and were each sentenced to between 5 and 15 years. However, because of growing protests and discontent in Cuba, the dictator Batista was pressured to release them only two years later, in 1955.
That same year, Fidel Castro and other revolutionaries came together to form the July 26th Movement. They went to Mexico to re-group and plot their victory against Batista. Fifty years ago this month, Fidel, Che and 80 other revolutionaries boarded the Granma in Mexico and headed back to Cuba to begin their historic battle against Batista’s army in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.
There were 82 men and a heavy supply of weapons on the small yacht, which was really only meant to hold about 25 people. One engine failed during their journey and they were met with other delays because of the ship’s weight and miscalculations in their navigation. However, important lessons were learned on this trip, especially the story told by Norberto Collado, helmsman on the Granma, who recounted what happen when one of the men on the ship fell overboard only hours before their landing in Cuba. He said, “the search began. Many believed that because of the state of the waves and the weight of his clothes, he had drowned. The delay compromised the mission, but Fidel said, 'I won't abandon any of my comrades,' and after a great effort, we found him in the dark. Fidel's humanist position really impressed me. It's the same one he's maintained throughout the Revolution."
Only a few days after their arrival, Batista’s army ambushed the fighters. At the end of this fight, only 12 remained to re-group in the Sierra Maestra Mountains. But this did not dampen their spirits. It was then that Fidel said, with the outlook of a truly exceptional leader, "We will win this war…we're just beginning to fight!" And fight they did. They gained support from people throughout Cuba and fought against Batista’s forces for three years and one month. On Dec 31st 1959, Batista fled to Miami, and after three years and one month of intense and impassioned fighting, Fidel and the July 26th Movement had won!
THE UPHILL BATTLE OF THE REVOLUTION
But from there it was to continue to be an uphill battle. The dreams and visions of Fidel and those other revolutionaries ran very deep. They wanted to flip Cuba upside down. When they came to power, 90% of the land was controlled by US institutions, with the wealth of their country being swept into the pockets of a small minority. They planned for the wealth to be distributed among the poor, with land given to the landless, and fundamental human rights for ALL, such as education, housing, jobs and healthcare.
In his first speech upon his arrival in Havana on January 9th 1959, Fidel was very honest about these future battles to maintain the revolution. He explained, “The tyranny has been overthrown, but there is still much to be done. Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the future will be easy; perhaps everything will be more difficult in the future.”
The battles Cuba has fought since those days have not been easy. Some were physical battles, such as the battle against bandits in the Escambray Mountains or the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, most were not battles of physical might, but battles of ideas. But with every twist and turn, every up and down Fidel has been one of the first leaders to say, ‘this way forward’ or ‘we made a wrong turn, we must change course’.
Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 was the largest attempt by the US at a physical invasion of Cuba. The US backed and trained 1,500 men, to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel. The idea was that Cubans on the island would join the US in its fight to defeat Fidel and the revolution. However, after less than 72 hours, the frontline invaders were forced to surrender to the revolutionary army of Cuba. José Manuel Gutiérrez, one of the members of the US-backed invasion army said, “a jeep passed shooting and saying: ‘Surrender, surrender’; a little later, a group of us came out and turned ourselves over. It was Fidel in that jeep, and I said to someone: ‘That’s why we lost, because Fidel is with them, fighting on the frontline.’" Fidel, the strategist and frontline fighter in this battle had shown to people in Cuba that he was a visionary leader who not only talked the talk but also walked the walk.
Basically a year later, Cuba had continued concerns about potential US attacks against the island. This factor, along with the US officially imposing an economic blockade against Cuba, caused Cuba to look to the Soviet Union for help. The Soviet Union snuck nuclear weapons into Cuba without the US knowing. This went against what Cuba had negotiated with them, and when a US spy plane discovered the weapons, the US came very close to retaliating against Cuba. The Soviet Union then went in, to negotiate with the US, leaving Cuba out of the discussions. Forty years later in an interview with Barbara Walters, Fidel remarked, "Believe me. We were not interested in becoming part of the whole contention between the two countries. We would not have accepted the missiles if they had said that it was related to the balance of power." This trick by the Soviet Union would put Fidel in a better position to understand how to work with the Soviet Union in the future.
Cuba sent 30,000 soldiers into Angola in 1975 to help with their fight for independence. After a small victory against the South African apartheid army, Cuba wanted to push forward, and in the words of Fidel “exact a heavy price from South Africa for its adventure, the application of UN Resolution 435 and the independence of Namibia.” However, Fidel also explained that, “on the other hand, the Soviets, worried about possible US reaction, were putting strong pressure on us to make a rapid withdrawal. After raising strong objections, we were obliged to accede, at least partially, to the Soviet demands.”
FIDEL’S HISTORICAL ROLE IN AFRICA
But in 1987, the South African apartheid army hit back again at Angola. This time Fidel took matters into his own hands. He explained how the South African army “advanced strongly towards Cuito Cuanavale, an old NATO airbase. Here it prepared to deliver a mortal blow against Angola. Desperate calls were received from the Angolan government appealing to the Cuban troops for support in fending off presumed disaster; it was unquestionably the biggest threat from a military operation in which we, as on other occasions, had no responsibility whatever.” Despite the fact that the responsibility to defend Angola’s sovereignty was not Cuba’s, Fidel sent 55,000 soldiers to Angola. Remaining in Cuba, Fidel spent days and nights strategizing the fight in Angola. These strategies were victorious, and the victory against the apartheid army in Cuito Cuanavale weakened them severely. Fidel again set an example of courage and leadership that not only awed military strategists, but changed the course of history for South Africans.
What were the people of Africa’s reaction to Cuba’s involvement under Fidel’s leadership? Angolans did not only feel the victory in Cuito Cuanavale. The famous anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral from Guinea-Bissau also said, "Cuban fighters are ready to lay down their lives for the liberation of our countries, and in exchange for this aid to our freedom and the progress of our people, all they take from us are their comrades who fell fighting for freedom."
Along with Amilcar is Nelson Mandela, who has said many times, “the defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today.” On Fidel, Nelson Mandela said in 1995, “I went to Cuba in July 1991, and I drove through the streets with Fidel Castro. There were a great deal of cheers. And I also waved back believing that these cheers were for me…But when I reached the square where I had to make some remarks to the crowd, then I realized that these cheers were not meant for me, they were meant for Fidel Castro…Then I realized that here was a man of the masses…Those are the impressions I have about Fidel Castro in Cuba.”
FIDEL: AN INSTRUMENT OF REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
A new and difficult challenge fell upon Fidel Castro in 1989. This was the case of his former comrade and friend Ochoa, or “Case No. 1 of 1989”. This was when four high-ranking officers in the Cuban military were caught involved in smuggling drugs through Cuba. One of these four was Arnaldo Ochoa, a highly decorated officer who had fought alongside Fidel in the Sierra Maestra. Cubans were outraged and felt a deep sense of betrayal, as these men’s actions left the Cuban government very vulnerable to be attacked by US.
Karen Lee Wald, an American journalist, wrote “Most Cubans believed that all of the accused committed high treason… They tended not to ask whether Castro was guilty, too… but rather, ‘how could they do that to Fidel?!’” Wald continues, saying that Cubans generally flip-flopped during the trial as to whether or not they should be given the death penalty. However, after all of the members of the Council of State (including Fidel) explained their reasons for supporting the death penalty “most people in the country were convinced of the necessity of this action.”
This case was especially offensive to Fidel because Ochoa had been in charge of troops in Angola and they had pulled him out before the battle at Cuito Cuanavale, but had they not, who knows what might have happened. Years later, looking back at this case in 1999, Fidel stated, “they had taken part in the organization of drug trafficking through our country, an extremely serious offense that jeopardized the prestige and security of the nation. […] We had found their justification incredible, since they said that they had concocted the plan to help the country… even if drug smugglers had delivered a billion or five billion dollars, if they had paid Cuba's foreign debt, the Revolution would never accept the passage of even a kilogram of drugs, because our country is worth much more. What it has achieved in health, education and many other fields as a matter of sheer justice with the sacrifice of many lives is worth much more than that amount; the life of just one person is worth much more, and we had had to sacrifice many lives.”
THE DIFFERENCE OF TWO METHODS: SOVIET UNION DOWN, CUBA UP
But the challenges the Cuban revolution faced did not come anywhere near an end there. In the mid-1980s, the political and economic situation in Cuba began to show challenges ahead for the maintenance of the revolution. The country was showing signs of stagnation and increased bureaucratic tendencies. This was when Fidel called for Rectification.
When being asked why Cuba was not following the Soviet Bloc on its economic policy of perestroika, Fidel responded to the news agency Paris AFP in 1988, "problems must also be resolved with honor, morals, and principles." Soon after the process of rectification, the Soviet bloc collapsed.
The fall of the Soviet Bloc meant not only that Cuba was losing its main trading partner, but gave the US government an opportunity to tighten its grip around Cuba’s neck. Basically since 1959, but officially from 1962, the US government imposed an economic blockade against Cuba. This limited Cuba’s access to medicine, food, construction materials, etc. The US also stopped importing Cuban sugar, which meant that Cuba had been forced to rely instead very heavily on the Soviet Bloc for trade. The US government knew this, and after the collapse of Soviet Union, they passed the Torricelli Act in 1992 and the Helms-Burton Bill in 1996 (see article about US blockade on Cuba in this issue of FTT) in order to further strangle Cuba’s economy. These two things launched Cuba into the special period.
After the revolution, political and social education in Cuba was widespread, and most people in Cuba understood the importance of defending the gains of the Cuban revolution at this time of severe crisis. Most Cubans stood beside the revolution during the special period, despite delays and overcrowding of public transportation, power blackouts, food shortages, and long line-ups at stores.
Fidel, always the optimist, reminded people in 1996, “After five years of blockade combined with the special period, the people's spirit is stronger, because mankind is brave and gains strength under adversity, under struggles, under difficulties. Man is no meringue topping that fades under a whiff. Humans are children of their own history, and very few countries have a history as beautiful as ours." It is because of this belief that the revolution can overcome all obstacles and is fully supported by the people of Cuba, who continue to defend the revolution and their Comandante en Jefe Fidel.
In order to pull Cuba out of the immense poverty and hardship of the special period, Cuba opened its doors to tourism. This was basically what some call a “necessary evil”, meaning that although it went against the overall goals of creating equality among all Cubans it was the only solution for the revolutionary government of Cuba if it wanted the gains made by the revolution to survive. This was a difficult choice for Fidel, but he was willing to make it.
A fight against the corruption of the ‘new rich’ that resulted from tourism was presented by Fidel in a speech on November 17th, 2005. “We have a people who have learned to handle weapons. We have an entire nation which, in spite of our errors, holds such a high degree of culture, education, and conscience that it will never allow this country to become their colony again. This country can self-destruct, this Revolution can destroy itself, but they can never destroy us. We can destroy ourselves, and it would be our fault.” These statements by Fidel opened the idea that another rectification of Cuba’s direction could be necessary in the near future as the Cuban economy recovers from the special period.
The challenges for Cuba and Fidel’s revolutionary leadership to maintain its road forward have been and continue to be numerous. Despite these ongoing challenges, Cuba has not stopped making large strides forward for its people. Javier Rodriguez, a writer for Granma International recently wrote, “Irrespective of the fierce US economic and commercial blockade, Cuba was able to develop education, health and other fields…Cuban experts and technicians joined with nations of the region to jointly work on projects targeting the quality of life of the most underprivileged of Latin America. Strategies to eliminate illiteracy through Cuba’s “Yo Sí Puedo (I Can Do It) system were successful in Venezuela and are being implemented in Bolivia and other countries. Medical assistance to the poorest populations in Latin America is complemented with the training of thousands of doctors.”
Cuban economist Carlos Tablada explained that even in the difficult times between 1985 and 1989, under the leadership of Fidel the Cuban revolution continued to fight for a better life for people in Cuba. He cited these statistics: "The number of inhabitants per doctor fell from 1832 to 303 over the same period, reaching 274 in 1990 … Infant mortality stood at 10.2 per thousand births in 1990, against 15 for the developed world, 52 for Latin America and 76 in the underdeveloped world.”
What we can see from this is that through many of the unforeseeable ups and downs of the revolution, Fidel Castro’s consistent revolutionary method in approaching Cuba’s challenges and his consistent visionary leadership role, has providing guidance in all difficult stages, has led Cuba to succeed. These battles have been fought and overcome through the pressure and devotion of the Cuban people to their revolution and its gains, but also through the clear foresight of Cuba’s revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro.
In a short interview with Armando Hart about his lifelong friendship with Fidel, he explained the basic concept that while imperialists attempt to “divide and win” in Latin America, Fidel and Cuba want to “unite and win”. Someone who I think would agree with this is Wayne Smith, former head of the US Interest Section in Havana under US President Jimmy Carter. Smith said, "Castro is celebrated as a hero throughout Latin America. It isn't because they all want to be socialist now. No, it's because he's the only one who stood up to us and succeeded.” Indeed! Fidel has now watched and outlasted 10 different US presidents. Along with this, the US government and the CIA have attempted to take Fidel’s life over 600 times since 1959.
But with all of these great accomplishments to celebrate (from surviving assassination attempts, to helping defeat the racist south African army, to the countless other feats we have discussed in this article) in August, only a few days before his 80th birthday, Fidel announced that he had had emergency surgery and that Minister of Defence Raul Castro would take over his responsibilities in government. This meant that his birthday celebrations were postponed until Dec 2nd, which also marks the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Granma. Despite his illness, Fidel declared, “In terms of my spirits I am perfectly well. What is important is that everything in the country is running and will continue to run perfectly well…We must fight and work.”
For the celebration of Fidel’s 80th birthday, 5,000 foreign visitors and Cubans came to the open night on November 28th, with 300,000 expected at his birthday rally on Saturday Dec 2nd. Others around the world who could not make it to Cuba are holding special celebrations in their countries. At the same time, earlier in November the world stood with Cuba at the United Nations, voting for a resolution to condemn the US blockade. 183 countries voted in favor of condemning the blockade, and only 4 voted against the resolution.
“Our enemies are counting the minutes, hoping and waiting for the demise of Fidel, but they fail to understand that Fidel is all the people; he is every man and every woman on the planet willing to fight for a better world," said Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Perez Roque, on November 30th 2006. He continued, "All that Fidel wants to bequeath are his ideas, nothing else. Recovering and returning to the struggle, he will once again be defeating his enemies, those who are so full of hatred and mediocrity."
We wish Fidel a speedy recovery from his illness, and call along with people across Cuba and around the world:
“¡VIVA FIDEL! ¡80 AÑOS MÁS!”
“Long Live Fidel! 80 more years!”
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