Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fifty years of Castroism

THIS concluding installment on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution will be devoted to the "defence" of two of its leaders: Fidel Castro Ruz and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. None of the two is still in office. The former, on account of ill-health, refused to be re-nominated in February 2008 for the office of President of the Council of State while the latter had resigned his state and party positions in 1965, seven years after the Revolution seized power in Cuba and two years before he was killed in a Bolivian jungle. But their influence - nationally, regionally and globally - remains undiminished.

To review the Cuban Revolution is to review the life and career of Fidel Castro, and conversely. This phenomenon is not strange in political history. But Fidel Castro is unique in that historical phenomenon. We have attempted to do this double review in the first two installments. But then, no review of the Cuban Revolution, however brief, can be complete without the mention of the world-historic revolution icon called Che Guevara. I shall therefore briefly sketch (or rather, conclude) my defence of Castro and then turn attention to Che Guevara.

Fidel Castro is accused mainly by American rulers, their ideologues and their media of being in office for too long and not permitting "Democracy" in Cuba. By this, they mean specifically that he did not allow political "competition" against the ruling Communist Party. My answer here is what it has always been, namely: that Cuba has been in a state of military alert and mobilisation since the triumph of the revolution 50 years ago. And the whole population is the army. You don't organise "parties" and factions in an army that is engaged in combat, and you don't remove a capable and committed military commander simply because he or she has been in that position for too long - even when all the conditions that put him or her there subside.

If what I have said is incomprehensible to you, then shake off American propaganda and look at Cuba with human eyes, the eyes of oppressed peoples that we are. Then you will see that this tiny island has not demobilised since it won its freedom and dignity in 1959. Within 28 months of coming to power, the revolutionary regime had to engage a mercenary force sent from America to overthrow the regime. The attempt - called the Bay of Pigs invasion - failed. And barely a year later, America and the Soviet Union almost fought a nuclear war in and around Cuba. These two incidents led, indirectly, to the state assassination of the American President, John F. Kennedy (1963), and the removal of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet ruler, from office (1964). Under this situation, the question of multi-partism and change of leadership, whatever its merits, could not arise except through a counter-revolution. And the "credit" for this situation goes, undivided, to American imperialism.

Ernesto Che Guevara was born on June 14, 1928, in Rosario, then the most important city in Argentina after the capital, Buenos Aires. Che was asthmatic from childhood, and had to cope with this ailment for the 39 years he lived. He was a very brilliant student, obtaining his Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Buenos Aires in March 1953. By the time Che qualified as a medical doctor, he had become a Marxist and a revolutionary socialist. Immediately after his graduation, Che Guevara became an "itinerant" revolutionary, moving from country to country in Latin America, engaging in local struggles and looking for a revolutionary base. Eventually, he met Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, in Mexico in 1955. He became a member of the Cuban rebel army, the July 26 Movement. In December 1956, the rebels set sail for Cuba to begin a guerrilla war that ended on January 2, 1959, when they entered and captured Havana.

Che Guevara remained in the leadership of the Cuban revolutionary state and the ruling party until 1964, when he left Cuba for revolutionary combat in the Congo and Bolivia. He was killed in Bolivia on October 9, 1967. One of Che's biographers commented: It is quite clear that Che Guevara is more alive today than when he lived, for he is the only example in the history of social revolutions of a man having reached the top and then voluntarily started from the bottom again.

Jean-Paul Satre described Ernesto Che Guevara as, the most complete man of his time, a man distinguished by the stupendous many-sidedness of his personality: a doctor and an economist, a revolutionary combat soldier and a banker, a military theoretician and an ambassador, a deep political thinker and a popular agitator, able to wield the pen and the submachine gun with equal skill, the most important exponent of guerrilla warfare since Mao and Giap, the most romantic revolutionary figure since Leon Trotsky, and perhaps the greatest Latin American since Bolivar.

In a tribute to him, Fidel Castro said: Che's writings, his political and revolutionary thinking will be of permanent value in the Cuban revolutionary process and in the Latin American revolutionary process. And we do not doubt that his ideas as a man of action, as a man of thought, as a man of untarnished moral values, as a man of unexcelled human sensitivity, as a man of spotless conduct, have and will continue to have universal value. Later, Castro told an American journalist that if Che had been a Roman Catholic, he would have been made a saint.

During his tour of Algeria in 1965, Che told a large audience in Algiers: There are no frontiers in this struggle to the death. We cannot remain indifferent in the face of what occurs in any part of the world. A victory for any country against imperialism is our victory, just as any country's defeat is a defeat for all. The practice of proletarian internationalism is not only a duty for the peoples who struggle for a better future, it is also an inescapable necessity.

In his letter to Castro when he was leaving Cuba in 1965, Che said: I feel I have fulfilled that part of my duty which bound me to the Cuban Revolution on its own territory, and I bid farewell to you, to the comrades, and to your people who are now mine. I formally renounce my duties in the national leadership of the party, my post as minister, my rank of major and my Cuban citizenship. I have no legal ties to Cuba, only ties of a different kind which cannot be dissolved as official positions can, I have lived through some magnificent days, and at your side I have felt the pride of belonging to our people during those radiant yet sad days of the Caribbean crisis. Not often has a statesman acted more brilliantly than you did during those days, and I am so proud of having followed you unhesitatingly, identifying with your ways of thinking and realising the dangers and principle of our position.

But then: Other nations are calling for my modest efforts. I can do what you are unable to do because of your responsibility as Cuban leader. The time has come for our separation. I want it to be known that I do this with a mixture of joy and sorrow. Once again, let me say that I absolve Cuba from any responsibility, except for that which stems from the example it has set. If my final hour comes under distant skies, my last thoughts will be for this people and especially for you. I thank you for your teaching and your example, and will try to be faithful up to the final consequences of my acts.

In the letter to his family, Che Guevara said: Almost 10 years ago, I wrote you another letter of farewell. As I recall, I regretted not being a better soldier and a better doctor. I no longer care about the latter, but I am not such a bad soldier, now. In essence, nothing has changed, except that I am much more conscious; my Marxism has been deepened and purified. I believe in armed struggle as the only solution for people who are fighting for freedom, and I act according to this belief. Many will call me an adventurer, and I am, but of a different kind one who risks his skin in order to prove his convictions. Perhaps this will be my last letter. It is not my intention, but it is within the realm of logical probability. So, I send you a last embrace.

On April 16, 1967, a message from Guevara was published in Havana by the Executive Secretariat of the Organisation of the Solidarity of the people of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL). In the concluding paragraph of that message, he said: Our every action is a battle cry against imperialism, and a battle hymn for the people's unity against the great enemy of mankind: the United States of America. Whenever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this our battle cry may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons and other people be ready to intone the funeral dirge with the staccato singing of the machine guns and new battle cries of war and victory.