If there ever was in the history of humanity an enemy who was truly universal, an enemy whose acts and moves trouble the entire world, t...

Fidel Castro: life is truer than death || Azfar Hussain

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If there ever was in the history of humanity an enemy who was truly universal, an enemy whose acts and moves trouble the entire world, threaten the entire world, attack the entire world in any way or another, that real and really universal enemy is precisely Yankee imperialism.
— Fidel Castro
Revolution is not a bed of roses. Revolution is a struggle to the death between the past and the future.
— Fidel Castro
WASHINGTON and Wall Street want him to die.
And surely there are folks out there who have been wishing him a quick death — the sooner he dies, the better, as they would say — while he has survived as many as 638 assassination attempts on him, mostly credited to the US government and its secret services. It was only relatively recently, only last year, that a US presidential commission called for an $80 million program to support his opponents, his death-seekers. And guess what? That funding was billed as a ‘democracy operation’. Ah, democracy!
And it is he who has not only survived but has also braved demonisation and deification — both.
And it is he who has already appeared in both stories and films, eliciting responses that again alternate between commendation and condemnation. And it is he who continues to remain a threat and a challenge to capitalism and imperialism — US imperialism, to be specific — a challenge, whether pronounced or not, that keeps emanating from a small Caribbean island just a few miles away from ‘the most formidable imperial power ever known by humankind’, to re-deploy his own description.
It is true that he, at eighty now, is struggling in his death-bed; and even that kind of struggle continues to serve as a threat to those — oh yes! — who ‘wet their trousers’ (to borrow from the poet Antler) just hearing of revolution and mass movements and people’s struggles against oppression.
And his presence itself is not only an event in the history of human will-to-justice, but is also an exemplary case of a dialectical interplay between resistance and hope. His message always is: you can kill the rebel, not the rebellion. For him, indeed, resistance, like hope, never dies.
And ‘he cannot die,’ said the Kenyan writer-activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in one of our freewheeling conversations in 2004. For the eighty-year-old man continues to remain alive in the hearts of millions who believe in the possibilities of change, in the possibilities of building a world better than the present one, a world fully liberated. Indeed, way truer than his possible death is his own life, a life lived fully and passionately and eventfully and even stubbornly.
And he asserts with nothing short of life-celebrating aphoristic force: ‘North Americans don’t understand … that our country is not just Cuba; our country is also humanity.’ And his optative pronouncement remains an inspiration to revolutionaries all over the world: ‘If all roads lead to Rome, we can only wish for thousands of roads to lead to Revolutionary Rome!’
I’m speaking here of none other than Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary.
And celebrating Castro’s life — which is struggle and humanity and even victory made visible — Che Guevara, another revolutionary, wrote a lyric called ‘Song to Fidel’:
You said the sun would rise.
Let’s go
along those unmapped paths…
brows swept with dark insurgent stars
We shall have victory or shoot past death…
When your voice quarters the four winds
reforma agrarian, justice, bread, freedom
We’ll be there with identical accents
At your side.
Fidel Castro — whose full name is Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz — was born on August 13, 1926. It is significant that he was born on a sugar plantation in Birán, a place located near Mayarí, in Cuba. The Uruguyan historian Eduardo Galeano in his major work called Open Veins of Latin America — a work that traverses five hundred years of colonial-capitalist or capitalist-colonial exploitation and atrocities accompanied by indigenous anti-colonial revolts and struggles in Latin America — tells us of the significance of sugar to Cuba in particular: sugar is decisively political and political-economic in that it invariably attracted colonial investments and interventions, offering an entire scenario of a typical relationship between the exploiter and exploited, a relationship that Castro himself observed firsthand during his childhood days.
Also, Castro’s father Angel Castro y Argiz, a hardworking man, was directly involved in the sugar industry, one who prospered relatively well in his area. But Castro’s mother, Lina Ruz Gonzalez, was a household servant, according to some accounts. Angel Castro married again, although he dissolved his second marriage when Fidel was 15. Castro has two brothers and four sisters. His brothers are Ramon and Raul, while his sisters are Angelita, Juanita, Emma, and Augustina. He also has two half siblings: Lidia and Pedro Emilio. Castro grew up watching troubled relationships, struggling family members, and the plight of plantation workers around him — ones whose history he had to address and even change only later.
And during his school days, Castro was intellectually curious, eager to learn, and was also much interested in sports. He spent a number of years in private catholic boarding schools. In 1945, he finished high school at Belen, a Jesuit school in Havana; the same year, Castro joined the University of Havana to study law. That university immediately turned out to be a crucial site for the rapid intellectual-political-ideological formation of Fidel Castro, one who — only after a brief spell of his withdrawal from the university — decisively returned to the institution in question, involving himself with full force in its political activities, increasingly turbulent as they grew day by day.
Indeed, it was at this point that Castro began to see clearly the colonial relationship between the regime of Cuba and US imperialism, whose significant rise he himself later traced in terms of going back to three particularly crucial years in the history of Latin America and the US: 1823, when the infamous colonialist-racist Monroe Doctrine was fashioned and promulgated to make it clear that Latin America — in its entirety — would continue to remain the backyard of the US; 1848, when the US grabbed more than half of Mexico, dramatically turning the Mexicans in question into aliens in their own land; and 1898, when the US — through a series of remarkable manoeuvrings as well as direct military interventions — annexed to it as its colonies such areas as Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba itself. Indeed, in numerous speeches he had delivered later as a revolutionary and as president of Cuba, Castro’s message came out clearly like this: History — like theory — is a weapon provided you know how to hold it right.
In 1948, armed with his growing historical consciousness of the US role in the Western hemisphere, Fidel Castro visited Bogotá in Colombia to attend a political conference of Latin American students, a conference that significantly coincided with the ninth meeting of the Pan-American Union conference. The students of course intended to seize this particular opportunity to distribute pamphlets so as to expose and oppose US dominance over Latin America. But within a few days following the conference, massive riots broke out in the streets of Bogotá, as the populist Colombian Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliecier Gaitán was assassinated.
Eduardo Galeano, in his book Century of the Wind, narrates — in the style of a story-teller — a segment of this history of riots vis-à-vis Fidel Castro thus: ‘At 2 pm of this ninth of April, Gaitán has a date with one of the Latin American students who are gathering in Bogotá on the fringes of General Marshall’s Pan-American ceremony. At half past one, the student leaves his hotel, intending to stroll to Gaitán’s office. But after a few steps a noise like an earthquake stops him, a human avalanche engulfs him. The people, pouring out of the barrios, streaming down from the hills, are rushing madly past him, a hurricane of pain and anger flooding the city, smashing store windows, overturning streetcars, setting buildings afire. They have killed him! They have killed him! It was done in the streets, with three bullets. Gaitán’s watch stopped at 1:05pm. The student, a corpulent Cuban named Fidel Castro, shoves his cap on his head and lets himself blown along by the wind of people.’
Indeed, riots spread like fire to other cities and places in Colombia, marking the beginning of a turbulent period of bloody civil wars that came to be known as La Violencia in the history of Colombia, a period whose superb novelistic and partly magic-realist rendition we witness in the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel of epical amplitude called One Hundred Years of Solitude. And those moments of fire, the moments of confrontation and rage, the moments of insurrection, and their sheer power exercised quite an impact on Castro himself. In several speeches he delivered later, for instance, Castro ardently accentuated the power of people’s insurrection and the need for revolutionary violence with almost Fanonian zeal.
Castro returned to Cuba with experiences of riots, and then married Mirta Díaz-Balart (they divorced each other in 1955, and Castro later married Dalia Soto del Valle). In 1950, he received his Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Havana. He soon began practicing law, particularly lending legal support to those who needed it most — the poor and the marginalised. But his interest in direct, hard politics grew stronger day by day, and he eventually ended up becoming a candidate for a seat in the Cuban parliament at a time when, however, Fulgencio Batista led a coup d’état in 1952, overthrowing the government of president Carlos Prio Soccarras and cancelling the election.
Castro clearly saw the role of the US in instituting and backing this Batista regime, while of course he witnessed a flagrant violation of the constitution of 1940. A lawyer as he still was, he decided to wage legal warfare against Batista himself. But Castro’s initial attempt in the form of a petition, known as Zarpazo, was denied a hearing. This conjunctural crisis then prompted Fidel Castro to realise acutely that the answer to the Batista regime and US colonialism was neither law nor arguments, but Revolution itself.
Indeed, to speak of Fidel Castro is certainly to speak of the Cuban Revolution itself. Although my purpose here is not to reproduce a detailed and chronological narrative of the revolution in question, I intend to chart out — briefly and quickly — some of its crucial trajectories. Indeed, the meaning of the Cuban revolution for Castro has characteristically been a loaded one in that the customary temporal attribution of the revolution to the period between 1953 and 1959 does not always wash with him, simply because the revolution did not stop after 1959, the year in which of course the US-backed-and-even-ruled Batista regime — colonial and dictatorial and militaristic as it was in character and content — was decisively overthrown by the Castro-led movement. Castro himself has suggested time and again that a revolution is not a product that comes neatly packaged at a given moment in history, but is a ruptural process that continues in the face of all kinds of odds and obstacles, while evolving its phases and stages in response to specific material circumstances and conjunctural pressures.
One particularly significant phase began with the famous attack on the Moncada barracks. On the July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro, along with his brother Raul Castro and roughly 135 revolutionary militants, launched an armed attack on the Moncada barracks, Batista’s largest garrison outside Santiago de Cuba. But the attack failed, and roughly 70 revolutionaries were killed, while Castro himself was captured. He was tried in the autumn of 1953 and was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment.
At his trial Castro delivered his famous speech ‘History Will Absolve Me’ with his characteristic ardentia verba and with the memorable energy of a stubborn revolutionary. To quote from his speech: ‘I warn you, I’m just beginning!… I know that imprisonment will be harder for me than it has ever been for anyone, filled with cowardly threats and hideous cruelty. But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.’
But Castro was released after roughly two years in May 1955 as a result of a general amnesty from Batista who at the time was under tremendous political pressure. Castro then went to Mexico where he began to organise what he came to call the 26th of July Movement, named after the very date of the failed attack on the Moncada barracks. It was in Mexico that the famous, historic encounter between Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara took place — an encounter that eventually and consequentially shaped the direction of the Castro-led revolution toward guerrilla warfare, something that was reckoned as a novel, creative intervention in Latin America.
On December 2, 1956, Castro — accompanied by 82 comrades aboard the Granma — landed in Cuba. Their fight began in Cuba with full force. Initially, Batista’s soldiers succeeded in decimating the numbers of Castro’s comrades, but some of the important revolutionary militants managed to move on to and hide in the Sierra Maestra mountains that eventually turned out to be the prime site of guerrilla warfare. But Castro and Che realized that guerilla warfare alone was profoundly insufficient; that it needed a strong mass base, which they built in the Sierra Maestra mountains, while subsequently the Castro-led movement gathered momentum in cities as well. Students got involved.
In December 1958, the columns commanded by Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Camilo Cientfuegos, and others fiercely and almost uninterruptedly targeted many of Batista’s huge army units. Batista’s soldiers found themselves unprepared as the guerrilla style of warfare proved disastrously alien to them. It did not take even a day of fighting for the revolutionary militants to capture the provincial capital Santa Clara on December 31, 1958. After seizing power in a number of places throughout the island, Castro’s army finally entered Havana victoriously on January 8, 1959, bringing that part of the military phase of the Cuban Revolution to a close.
It was in the same year — 1959 — that Fidel Castro became the prime minister of Cuba. Later, in 1965, Castro became the first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba. In 1976, Castro became president of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, while he serves as Commandante en Jefe — Commander-in-Chief — of the armed forces in Cuba. Now, after undergoing intestinal surgery, Castro delegated his responsibilities as president to his brother Raul Castro on July 31, 2006, and this delegation of duties has been described as temporary.
Indeed, since 1959, Castro and Cuba have not only remained alive but have also braved numerous and massive American hostilities — almost in headlong succession — including the famous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 by the US armed forces; the Missile Crisis itself; and certainly the embargo that has lasted for more than forty years now. The US military historian William Blum, in his book Killing Hope, offers us concrete and telling details of numerous assassination attempts made on Castro by the US. And yet, Cuba and Castro are still alive, and Cuba’s political, economic, cultural, educational, environmental progress — variously outstripping the records of such progress in numerous countries across the world — has by now been amply documented, the foul-mouthed detractors of Castro and Cuba notwithstanding.
But Cuba is no paradise, nor is Castro a faultless revolutionary figure of our time. Yet the fact that both Cuba and Castro have remained alive under the very jaws of US imperialism itself marks one of the most spectacular achievements in the history of human will-to-struggle, solidarity, unity, dignity, conviction, commitment, courage, and creativity.
To see the significance of Fidel Castro in our time, let me return to the lyrics of Che Guevara I cited in the first section of this piece. Che’s lines evidently underline some of Castro’s own activist agendas. But the foremost agenda for Castro was clearly reforma agraria or agrarian/land reform, reminding us of the famous slogan — ‘land first, talk later’ — that emerged from the heart of some indigenous movements on the Caribbean, a slogan that the Native American writer-activist Leslie Marmon Silko captures well in her epic-novel Almanac of the Dead.
Indeed, as Castro has suggested on more occasions than one, no revolution in Cuba — and, for that matter, no mass movements in many parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa — can bypass the land question and thus the peasant question itself. After 1959, Cuba quickly turned out to be an internationally exemplary site of land reform. The poor peasants in particular experienced and acknowledged a hitherto-unknown radical reconfiguration of political economy in the entire history of Cuba. It is not for nothing, then, that the Nicaraguan Marxist poet-priest-liberation-theologian Ernesto Cardenal characterised Castro as a genuine leader and comrade of peasants. So did the Latin American novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, an ardent admirer of Fidel Castro.
Today’s unprecedented capitalist urbanisation notwithstanding, peasants have not at all disappeared from the stage of history. Under global capitalism itself, peasants still continue to constitute the actual masses in many, if not all, parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. And their primary, if not only, concern has historically been land or landlessness. Thus, for immediate but crucial political-economic reasons, the land question already directly preoccupied a whole host of tricontinental revolutionaries — from, say, the Chinese communist revolutionary Mao Tse-tung and the Vietnamese anti-colonial freedom-fighter Ho Chi Minh to such African socialists as Amilcar Cabral and Kwame Nkrumah to Castro and Che themselves. And the land question also inflected and informed Marxism-Leninism in ways in which it was possible, rather absolutely necessary, to posit a relatively new revolutionary agent of change in history other than the urban proletariat in the classical Marxist sense of the term. And that new agent was the peasant, of course.
Fidel Castro — actively concerned as he is with the peasant question — can certainly be located within a tradition of those revolutionaries who have decisively contributed to what I wish to call the third-worldisation of Marxism. And those re-Marxianising Marxist revolutionaries — from Mariategui to Mao, from Cabral to Castro — keep making the points that Marxism is not just a Eurocentric or metropolitan phenomenon as such, and that, thus, to argue that Marxism is Eurocentric — as some ‘post-al’ or postmodern-poststructuralist-postcolonial theorists already did in the metropolis — is to fall into the trap of an utterly shoddy Eurocentrism itself. For the very argument that Marxism is Eurocentric violently erases the actual life-and-death histories — macro and micro — of Marxism being creatively applied to and even transformed by the deep specificities of certain sites and subjects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, for instance.
And, indeed, to speak of Castro is to speak, all at once, of Cuba, the Cuban revolution, and the Cubanisation of Marxism-Leninism — interconnected as they all are — that together continue to take up the challenge of not only responding to the crises of our contemporary conjuncture as such, but also braving US imperialism at every turn.
In fact, the question of US imperialism is acutely relevant to our understanding of the historically and politically significant role of Fidel Castro. He is an exemplarily uncompromising and committed anti-imperial figure of our time — a decisively Cuban communist and an internationalist, one who has combined the late-nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti’s unflagging revolutionary fervour with the Peruvian Marxist Jose Carlos Mariategui’s Leninist penchant for the concrete, the daily, and the detailed.
And Fidel Castro has been alive and alert in a number of instructive, even inspirational ways. Given his long and inordinately eventful career, it is impossible to relate and evaluate all aspects of his life, his work, and his contributions within the relatively brief space of the present write-up. What, however, I intend to do is first underline a particularly famous and still relevant characterisation of Fidel Castro that has come from none other than Che Guevara himself, and then spell out a few theoretical-political propositions, emanating as they do from Castro’s own constellations of activities, underlining their relevance to our struggle against capitalism and imperialism today.
To quote, then, Che at some length: ‘He [Fidel Castro] has the qualities of a great leader added to which are his personal gifts of audacity, strength, courage, and these have brought him the position of honour and sacrifice that he occupies today. But he has other important qualities — his ability to assimilate knowledge and experience in order to understand a situation in its entirety without losing sight of the details, his unbounded faith in the future, and the breadth of his vision to foresee events and anticipate them in action, always seeing farther and more accurately than his companeros. With these great cardinal qualities, his capacity to unite, resisting the divisions that weaken; his ability to lead the whole people in action, his infinite love for the people; his faith in the future and with his capacity to foresee it Fidel Castro has done more than anyone else in Cuba to create from nothing the present formidable apparatus of the Cuban Revolution.’
What, then, can we keep learning from Castro at a time when capitalism, imperialism (sometimes in the form of re-colonisation: witness Bangladesh), racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression and domination have been more profoundly and intricately interconnected than before?
One can go on and on citing numerous lessons from Castro’s own life-experiences, his world of activities, and from thousands of speeches he has already delivered with superb energy. But let me categorically and quickly focus on a few relatively distinct yet interconnected areas relating to Castro’s work.
First, as Castro teaches us, revolution means a fundamental rupture with — or violence perpetrated on — a given mode of production in order to inaugurate a new one as well as inaugurate new epistemic-cultural modes of production and exchange in the interest of the total liberation of humankind. And revolution is not a product but a process that calls for continuously creative and critical interventions. As Castro puts it in his On Imperialist Globalization: ‘We, the revolutionaries, have discovered an even more powerful weapon: men think and feel.’
Second, the unity and conviction and commitment of the masses can make a relatively small geographical territory powerful and invincible even vis-a-vis an antagonistic superpower. It is not for nothing that Castro could say with utmost confidence, ‘We have come here to stay. And we do not fear Yankee imperialism.’
Third, as Castro teaches us, leadership is not a noun but a verb — one that continuously needs to derive its energy and inspiration from a thorough knowledge of and undiminished commitment to specific subjects and sites, dialectically capturing the specific within the general and the general within the specific.
Fourth, US imperialism is simultaneously most aggressive, most naked, and most crisis-ridden at this conjuncture when the people of the world are way more vocal against US imperialism than ever before. And the fundamental sites of both imperialist aggression and opposition to that aggression are Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Thus the national-colonial question returns with a vengeance. And national liberation then comes to mean people’s liberation from both the exploitative or plundering national ruling classes as well as from imperialism itself, organically tied as they are. And, in this instance, of course, the primary and secondary contradictions as well as their various shifting aspects would depend on a given calculus of historical-material contradictions operating and obtaining within a given society.
Fifth, there is then no alternative to building a national liberation movement as well as a tricontinentalist movement against capitalism and imperialism (Che and Castro learned from one another regarding what Che called ‘tricontinentalism’).
Sixth, Castro himself teaches us that a leader — no matter how powerful and knowledgeable s/he is — is not a superhuman but an imperfect, vulnerable, mortal being, as certainly Castro is. Our struggle, therefore, is to be directed against, among other things, all imperfections and against romanticising or fetishising a few individuals as the only protagonists of history as opposed to the masses who themselves change and create history.
Seventh, Marxism-Leninism is not to be fixed and frozen in time and space, but to be reinvented at every turn in response to the specific pressures and rhythms of specific conjunctures, moments, histories, and spaces.
Let me now close with a few lines Che Guevara wrote in his last letter sent to his children: ‘If imperialism is finished, you, Camillo, and I will take a vacation on the moon.’ While Che was killed, Fidel Castro has never been on a vacation! No, the struggle doesn’t end but only begins anew.

Azfar Hussain is vice-president of US-based Global Centre for Advanced Studies and associate professor of liberal studies/interdisciplinary studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. This article originally appeared in Slate, the monthly magazine from New Age, in February 2007.


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