Most people remember January 1, 1959 — if they remember it all — as the day Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba. Yet, in the span of Cuban history, or even the modern political history of the world, New Year’s Day, 1959, is no more sacred than the day General Cornwallis surrendered to General Washington at Yorktown — October 19, 1781, — a date which almost no Yankee remembers.
But July 26 holds a more hallowed place in the Cuban soul.
It was just after sunrise, 64 years ago this week, that a 26-year-old Fidel led his brother Raúl and a group of young Cuban rebels — including the future heroines of the revolution, Haydée Santamaría and Melba Hernández — in an surprise attack on the Moncada Barracks.
While Fidel’s convoy took on the guards at Moncada, another group of rebels attacked the barracks in nearby Bayamo. The hope was that these strikes against the dictatorship of Colonel Batista would spark a nationwide uprising which would become a revolution.
Instead, the attacks turned into a debacle, with 61 of the rebels killed and around 50 captured. Batista’s men brought Haydée her brother’s eye and threatened to tear out the other if she didn’t cooperate. They then showed her the severed testicle of her fiancé Boris, but all of this only hardened her resolve. She never saw her brother and her fiancé again.
Castro, a trained lawyer, defended himself in the subsequent trial in September, declaring his right as a citizen to rebel against an unjust government and citing Martí as “the intellectual author” of his movement.
At his sentencing in October, Fidel gave a four-hour speech outlining the historical and contemporary conditions which forced him to launch the revolution and laid out his radical-democratic vision for Cuban society, finishing with one of the most famous lines in political history: “History will absolve me!”
Fidel and Raúl were sentenced to Isla de Pinos for 15 and 13 years, respectively. They were freed in less than two, with Batista releasing the rebels in an effort to appease the Cuban masses who now considered Fidel a hero and were already fuming under the U.S.-backed dictatorship. Batista’s reprieve of Fidel and the rebels, whom he considered relatively harmless, would go down in history as one of the gravest political blunders of all time.
The Castros fled to Mexico in 1955. There they met a young Argentinian doctor named Ernesto Guevara, whom they soon nicknamed “Che” for the South American slang word which loosely translates to a combination of “hey” and “bro” — as in, Che, hand me that rifle or You need to brush up on your Martí, che.
Three and a half years later, on New Year’s Eve, 1958, Fidel would be hiding in the Sierra Maestra as the commander-in-chief of a guerrilla army calling itself the 26th of July Movement, and “Che” would be leading one of its columns toward Havana where in a few hours Batista would tell his cabinet that the party was over before hopping on a plane to the Dominican Republic.
This history is the reason July 26, not the first of January, blazes so brightly in not only the Cuban mind but also Latin American and Latino minds as well. For a Latin American or a Latino, especially a leftist, the 26th of July commemorates the most important grito of the last 100 years. It is our Bastille Day.
The Cuban Revolution has since inspired a wave of revolutionary leftist movements across Latin America, from Chiapas and Nicaragua, to Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina. Fidel’s most famous protégé, of course, was the late Hugo Chávez, whose rise to power partly mirrored that of Cuban leader: his founding of a revolutionary movement in 1982, his failed coup in 1992 and resulting imprisonment, his early release in 1994, and then his coming to power — this time democratically — only five years later.
Chávez called his revolution “Bolivarian” for the same nationalistic reason Fidel invoked the spirit of Martí; however, the firm anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist stance of the Bolivarian Revolution is much less Bolívar, a liberal-bourgeois revolutionary in the image of Washington and Lafayette, and much more Fidel, who has become the spiritual father of revolutionary socialism not only in Latin America but Africa, too.
Thus, if the Russian Revolution and the movements it inspired in Europe are considered Leninist, and the Chinese Revolution and the movements which it spawned across Asia are called Maoist, then the Cuban Revolution and the leftist movements in Latin America which it gave rise to can and should be described as Castroist.
The differences between the three branches of Marxism are more than just mere name and region alone. Each is an adaptation of Marxism suited to the unique history and conditions existing in each place and time. In other words, Castroism, or fidelismo, is a Latin American form of Marxism, fitted to the history, culture and circumstances which nearly all of the countries in the region share in common.
So July 26 is as good a day as any to reassess the triumphs and failures of the Castroist revolutions, particularly in Cuba and Venezuela — which remain ongoing — in order to judge whether what Fidel and his comrades attempted in 1953, and finally achieved in 1959, was a good thing or not.
More than half a century later, two things seem clear: first, that the Castroist revolutions have yet to fully deliver on their promise; and second, that U.S. intervention — especially in the form of military threats and economic sabotage — has had a lot to do with the failure of the revolutions to deliver on that promise.
There’s still debate as to how much of the economic weakness and political authoritarianism exhibited by the Castroist revolutions is the fault of the Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan governments, and how much is to be blamed on U.S. imperialism and international capitalism. Sadly, and frustratingly, no amount of words I or anyone else can muster to the defense of these revolutions is likely to change enough people’s minds either way. Nonetheless, it’s always important to remind the public of a few key facts.
The first is that, while Fidel and the other captured rebels were awaiting trial in Cuba in the summer of 1953, the U.S. and British governments carried out a secret coup to remove the Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. As recently as this past Monday, a report of newly declassified U.S. State Department records confirmed the long-held suspicion that the main goal of the Iranian coup (which the revolution in 1979 would seek to avenge) was to protect U.S. oil interests.
Then, as ever, there’s Guatemala. Less than a year after the storming of the Moncada Barracks, the CIA would carry out another secret coup (which had become its modus operandi) overthrowing the left-leaning democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz. There, too, the U.S. used the threat of communism as a fig leaf to cover the fact that the coup came at the behest of the United Fruit Company, whose regional empire was being threatened by the popular president.
Last week, in light of the controversy swirling around the Trump-Russia scandal, I published a lengthy summary of some of the other instances of U.S. meddling in Latin America over the last century. Cuba made the list, of course, not for the Bay of Pigs or the trade embargo, but for the Platt Amendment forced on Cuba by a U.S. military occupation, giving Uncle Sam the right to intervene in Cuban affairs. Platt is partly the reason why the United States maintains a naval base at Guantánamo Bay to this very day, despite the Cuban government’s repeated demands that it be removed.
I’ve also written, along with plenty of others, on the various covert methods used by the U.S. government and its proxies to undermine the Castroist revolutions in Cuba and Venezuela, including but by no means limited to the setting up a “fake Twitter” in Cuba to spread anti-government messages and the failed coup attempt in Venezuela in April 2002.
For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to rehash the details of what the U.S. government has done and has tried to do against the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Venezuelan governments — especially since members of the opposition are wont to deny that such methods either are anything but democratic or have even been used at all.
My only question is this: What is a democratic government to do when faced with covert and overt attempts to destroy its economy and subvert its leadership?
Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are casually referred to in the mainstream press as socialist dictatorships, owing to the authoritarian measures their governments have taken to forestall some sort of crisis. It’s usually the same crisis, in fact, imposed by the U.S. government and its éminences grises on Wall Street and adapted to the unique characteristics of each country.
In terms of the economic sabotage employed, the U.S. has always and everywhere pinpointed the screws to turn in order to “make the economy scream,” as it did in Chile in the years leading up to the U.S.-orchestrated coup there in 1973.
In Cuba, it was the thriving sugar industry that was attacked, with the United States slashing imports of Cuban sugar — widely considered the best in the world — only a year after Castro came to power. The Cuban economy is still hobbled by a U.S. embargo, and the United States spends tens of millions of dollars every year making sure it’s strictly obeyed around the world.
In the closing years of the Cold War, President Reagan moved to ban imports of Nicaraguan coffee in an effort to stall the Sandinista Revolution. Reagan’s successor, the first Bush, promised to end the embargo against Nicaragua if his preferred, neoliberal candidate won the presidential election in 1990 — which Violeta Chamorro did, before promptly undoing much of the progressive gains made by the Sandinistas and instituting harsh austerity measures in their place.
When the U.S government, in collusion with Venezuela’s neoliberal press, failed to remove President Chávez from power in 2002, they resorted to an oil strike which crippled the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., shrinking GDP by 27 percent in the first four months of 2003. As a reminder, Venezuela sits on the largest oil reserves in the world, so any attack on its oil industry is a strike at the heart of its economy.
These attempts at regime in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are so well documented and so blatant as to suggest that there have been plenty of other attempts made by the United States over the years. And there have, but again, for brevity’s sake I’ve only chosen to highly a few undeniable examples. Just because we’ve caught Uncle Sam’s hand in the cookie jar once or two in these countries — and it’s been plenty more times than that — doesn’t mean he isn’t always sticking his hand in the jar. He is.
So, again, I ask: How is a democratic government to defend itself against such designs to undermine its society?
The United States and its allies maintain that the principles of liberal democracy must always be upheld, no matter what. There must be open elections, says the U.S. government, even when a global superpower has been shown to be meddling in the elections of other countries with abandon.
There must be a free press, says Sam, even after we’ve discovered how he uses the press to spread lies against leaders and incite discontent. (The failed coup in Venezuela was carried out almost singlehandedly through the mainstream media.)
And who are we in the United States to judge the democratic merits of other countries, when our own liberal democracy has been nothing but a veneer for the rule of the rich? Hillary Clinton won the most recent election by a few million votes, which didn’t keep a billionaire buffoon from occupying the Oval Office. Imagine how such a result would look in Venezuela; there might’ve been U.S. Marines marching down the Avenida Libertador at this very moment.
Imagine if a foreign enemy constantly attacked the United States, militarily, economically and covertly. The U.S. Congress would throw itself on a bill much harsher than the PATRIOT Act, which practically destroyed whatever shred of democracy Yanks pretend to have.
If ISIS weren’t some measly little wannabe-caliphate halfway around the world, but an exponentially richer, more powerful, more conniving hegemon closer to home, we’d chuck all of our democratic values into the sea to save ourselves. We already have the blood of democracy on our hands, not only for what we’ve done abroad but also for what we’ve done to ourselves here at home — Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, the Sedition Act of 1918 and the Smith Act of 1940, Japanese interment during World War II, McCarthyism, COINTELPRO…
Like any American (in the Bolivarian and Martian sense), I’m not happy about the restrictions on civil liberties in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. But I do understand why those restrictions have been implemented. It may be that Fidel, Chávez and Daniel Ortega really did plan on installing socialist dictatorships all along, but thanks the the United States’s constant meddling and warring, we will never know.
(“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war” against the fabled socialist dictatorship, which is usually a pretext for the use of covert means to sabotage a foreign government and its economy. After all, as Rosa spelled out, “There is no democracy without socialism and no socialism without democracy.”)
The constant threat, as well as the reality, of U.S. intervention is equally to blame for the deformed democracies of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. (Bureaucratic corruption — the bane of all democracies — is the other culprit.) Their barricaded governments seem grotesque when compared to the seemingly exposed governments of the Washington, London and Paris, but that’s because the United States and its sidekicks have little to fear from threats, both foreign and domestic; because their democracies aren’t liberal but neoliberal, acting as the glove which sheathes the hidden hand of global capitalism, a hand with its grip firmly on the throat of the seemingly open societies of the West.
We Yanks don’t expect a socialist revolution to occur here anytime soon, and not because our fellow citizens aren’t clamoring for it, but because our so-called liberal democracy would never allow it.
For all their faults (and there are plenty), the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are the only organized powers in their respective countries still defending their Castroist revolutions. Leftists must remain critical of them and their authoritarian, anti-socialist policies. But so long as they continue to move their societies toward socialism, and so long as the opposition expresses its wish to end the socialist experiments and return to neoliberalism, the Castroist revolutions must be defended.
Down with corruption, yes. But viva la revolución!
Featured image: Pedro/Flickr