All posts by Ike Nahem

Trump, Trade Wars, and the Class Struggle

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and [humans are] at last compelled to face with sober senses [our] real conditions of life, and [our] relations with [our] kind.

— Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

An unfolding trade war pitting the United States simultaneously against China, the European Union, Canada, and Mexico has begun. The economic and political consequences – intended and unintended – are now unfolding.  How this trade war develops and “ends” is a political question that cannot be predicted concretely. But the framework to foresee what is coming down the road is coming into focus.

There is no letup in the continued erosion and breakdown of the post-World War II, post-“Cold War” eras characterized at their core by the predominance of US capital in the institutions of world capitalism and in world politics.

China

On June 15, 2018 the Donald Trump Administration announced it will be adding a 25% tariff-tax on some $50 billion worth of Chinese goods imported into the United States. On June 18 Trump then threatened another 10% tariff-tax on $200 billion worth of additional Chinese commodities, raised to $500 billion on July 5, affecting virtually every Chinese product throughout the US-China production-to-exchange chain.

The first-round of tariffs, $34 billion worth, took effect on July 6, applying to 818 commodities and products. The second round, $16 billion on an additional 284 items, await “reviews,” that is vetting by the major industrial and financial oligopolies whose profits may be more or less directly affected. They are lobbying Trump and his enforcers for exemptions, waivers, and dilutions individually and collectively.

Trump’s threats to escalate were presented as being contingent on any Chinese government and state counter-tariffs on US goods and services. These, of course, were bound to happen; there could be no other political choice for the Xi Jinping government. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce immediately announced counter-measures “of the same scale and the same strength.” The statement further announced as “invalid” the recently reported “progress” on a deal that would have led to an additional $70 billion in US imports to China, based on a negotiated reduction of Chinese tariffs and other legal barriers to selected US commodities and services, including energy, agricultural, and high-tech products. Agricultural commodities were an initial focus of Chinese counter-tariffs, since China is a major market for US agricultural products, especially soy beans.

Trump’s announcement was rolled out with provocative and jingoistic rationalizations. Uncle Sam as bumbling sucker, the victim of nefarious Chinese practices. They are stealing our technology. They carry out “state subsidies” of industries and dump surplus production stealing the jobs of American workers. And so on…as if the entire system of world capitalist production, finance, and exchange were not lubricated and dependent as a whole on such practices. Practices by which the most advanced capitalist states and industrialized economies – the United States, the former colonial powers of western Europe, and Japan – are the historic masters and mentors.

At a July 5 campaign rally in Montana which drew thousands, Trump thundered:

We are bringing back our wealth from foreign countries that have been ripping us off for years…For too long we watched and we waited and we saw as other countries stole our jobs, cheated our workers, and gutted our industry.

With his trademark national chauvinism and demagogy, Trump continued:

The United States of America was the piggy bank that everybody else was robbing. Our allies in many cases were worse than our enemies. We opened our country to their goods, but they put up massive barriers to keep our products and our goods the hell out of their country because they didn’t want that competition.

Trump is upending the decades-long, highly profitable arrangements between the US capitalist class, its various governments in Washington, and the Chinese state. US capital would invest in commodity production inside China for sales to the US and other developed capitalist markets. It has been an arrangement that has been crucial in the formation and accumulation of state and private capital in China by Chinese business owners and government officials.

While it is very difficult to calculate precisely balance-of-trade surpluses and deficits of nation-states within globalized production chains, as well as calculating so-called “services” onto the balance sheets, China’s trade “surplus” in finished goods with the United States has been in the low-to-mid 100s of billions of dollars range for many years. A good slice of which is recycled and parked in US Treasuries. This greatly cushions the impact for US debt markets, making it easier for US federal and private banking institutions to obscure, dilute, and hide dollar-denominated debt. It also helps the US Federal Reserve suppress higher interest rates, and keeps low or non-existent tax rates and outlays for billionaires, millionaires, and US-style oligarchs.

China today owns nearly $2 trillion in US Treasury securities, which makes it the largest US “foreign creditor” and the second largest owner of US bonds, after the Federal Reserve itself. No one can know for sure what the impact of the unfolding trade war will be on Chinese purchases of US Treasuries, insofar as the US-China balance of trade numbers and those of China’s purchases of US government debt have become the intertwined sine qua non of the entire economic and financial relationship. China’s vast holdings register both leverage and vulnerable dependency. China’s decades-long massive economic expansion and growth (high single-digit to low double-digit GDP rises every year since 1991!) has been strongly predicated on maintaining China’s access to US markets for the wholesale and retail sales of these commodities.

Over the decades US-China economic ties and exchange led to the massive expansion of Chinese factory manufacturing and industrial development, as well as huge profits for US capitalists and their Chinese state and private partners.

This process also contributed mightily to the large expansion of the Chinese industrial proletariat, including a super-exploited sector of migrant workers, and urban petty bourgeoisie, with the concurrent reduction in the size of China’s peasant population. All of this has led to the massive production and reproduction of surplus value in the country based on the application of labor power to produce commodities to be exchanged, that is, sold in the US and world markets.

This massive production and reproduction of real value, real social wealth, and real capital was certainly siphoned off disproportionately and corruptly by Chinese bureaucrats and capitalists. But it has also been massively invested in infrastructure and urban development projects, led by high-speed rail production and construction.

Two giant Chinese initiatives in the past period highlight these historical developments. First, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which promotes regional “connectivity” through infrastructure and other economic projects, and second, the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which finances infrastructure and other economic projects in the Asian-Pacific region. AIIB is headquartered in Shanghai and has 86 members, including a number of US NATO “allies.”  Washington, from Barack Obama to Trump, has so far declined to be any part of it. Moreover, China has publicly issued its Made in China 2025 plan to be world leaders in future industrial applications in artificial intelligence, robotics, and chip manufacturing, which is viewed with hostility in Washington.

Looming Recession?

Washington – and this is a largely bipartisan cry – gets particularly worked up over so-called state aid and subsidies to Chinese industries and companies that are themselves state or quasi-state-owned or nominally private. China also attempts to get around efforts led by Washington to pressure companies to restrict Chinese access to some technologies by making such access a condition for sales and commercial exchanges in the vast Chinese markets themselves.

A June 29 column in the Financial Times (“Bond markets send signals of a looming recession”) by University of Chicago “Professor of Finance” Raghuram Rajan states:

[E]conomic metric estimates of the effects of one or two rounds of tariff rises are small. But the models do not capture the intertwined nature of global supply chains. Moreover, the effect on business sentiment, as well as the pall of uncertainty cast over investment will be considerable, A trade war will be costly.

Rajan points to the political difficulties for any governments and national leaderships today “to be seen [as] giving in to threats, making trade conflicts more likely.” He then continues with:

… a final reason for concern. China is cleaning up its financial system, an immensely complicated task given the debt that has built up. Growth has slowed, the cost of riskier loans has been rising, as have defaults. The Chinese authorities are working to spread losses across the system, but this needs to be managed carefully to avoid panic. If China is caught in a trade war while it is still restructuring its financial system, its difficulties could spread abroad.

If the dynamic of a large-scale US-China trade war is unleashed, then it will have critical economic and commercial – and therefore political — consequences for the trade and diplomatic regime that has been built up and stabilized over many decades between Beijing and Washington – and Wall Street and China.1

The EU, Canada, and Mexico

The tariffs on China set in motion by Trump and his Executive Branch team of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came on top of tariffs on steel and aluminum exports carried out against Canada, the European Union, and Mexico, announced with great hoopla, earlier in the June month. These ostensibly aim at boosting US domestic steel and aluminum production, but also led to immediate retaliatory measures of equal reach and value by all. So far, every dollar-value of US tariff-taxes have been met with an equal value in counter-tariffs. Can that be sustained?

On June 29, 2018 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freedland defiantly announced Canada’s response to the Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum. “We will not escalate — and we will not back down,” said Freeland. (Before her current gig as Foreign Minister for the Justin Trudeau government, Freedland was a leading editor of the Financial Times, the quintessential organ of British and world capital.)

She unveiled counter-tariffs on US goods entering Canada, including whiskey, toilet paper, washing machines, and motorboats. Altogether, Canada will tax $12.6 billion worth of American goods, which matched the value of the US tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.

“I cannot emphasize enough the regret with which we take these countermeasures,” Freedland added. She emphasized that the only way Canada might reverse them would be if the Trump White House rescinded first. There are always political dangers when many faces need saving at once.

Trump’s Executive Orders were invoked under the cover of “national security.” This provoked umbrage from Canadian, EU, and other US post-World War II era NATO “allies.” They pointed to the various imperialist wars they fought over the years hand-in-glove with Washington.

The current framework and regime for the regulation of tariffs and the resolution of trade disputes is the World Trade Organization (WTO). The US tariffs are already being contested in WTO bodies in a likely bruising battle. The WTO as an “objective” arbiter and judge, is clearly in danger of losing authority and fraying under great pressure. Trump’s back-to-back measures are bound to accelerate a breaking down of world capitalist trading norms and stability.

Allies and Competitors

The EU bloc, most of its individual nation-state components, and Canada are military allies of Washington — still by far the predominant military power with the most firepower and global reach on Earth – through the NATO alliance. But, at the same time, all are home bases for some of the fiercest competitors of US based multinationals and other capitalist firms in world markets. In a time of intensifying, cutthroat global competition, with financial volatility and turbulent waters ahead, the “competitors” side is being more sharply expressed and rising to the fore. The political fallout from policy choices and decisions on trade, tariffs, currency manipulations, debt and capital flows are, at the very least, posed more sharply in today’s world. Old trading blocs and ties come under pressure and weaken, rebooting political policies and alliances.

Consequences, Intended and Unintended

While Trump’s public utterances – “Trade wars are good and easy to win” – exude typical flippant political confidence on his part, these policies are highly contentious within the broader US capitalist class. Within these circles there is growing anxiety and dread that Washington will not be able to drive things through without serious political consequences in the world arena.

The shift that Trump looks to realize registers the political erosion internationally of the “neoliberal globalization” regime which greatly benefited many US-based giant corporations, banks, and businesses – and the mounds of capital behind their brands – as they set up shop in China, Mexico, and elsewhere with greatly increased profit rates. The major benefit of this inside the United States for US capitalists was the lowering of the value of labor and the evisceration of industrial jobs and industrial unions. The decisive factor involved is relatively cheaper (usually very much so) labor costs, which outweigh other disadvantages and extra costs for US-based capital in production outside the US, such as in transport costs, management training, and so on.

Of course, US capitalists couldn’t care less about the social devastation in working-class communities in the US.2

US Capital is Divided

Opposition to Trump’s measures is strongest among business groups and elected officials from both the Republican and Democratic parties who have been identified with the general “free trade” neoliberal policies worldwide that have dominated trade pacts and mainstream bourgeois economics for decades. These anti-working-class policies have increased in unpopularity since the so-called Great Recession and financial crisis of 2007-08 and are now widely discredited and hated in the US and around the world, especially among working people. But the opposition to them takes varied “populist” forms – left and right — that have done and can do little to effectively counter them or provide any program and perspective of mobilization and independent working-class political action and power. In the face of popular hostility and battered credibility, almost by inertia, the “neoliberal model” limps on.

What will be the impact on world economic developments of Trump’s tariffs? Does it give a push to the next – inevitable – financial jolts and economic downturn-recession? Will the EU, Canada, and Mexico have the political will and strength to counter them? Is there space for increasing domestic US assembly and manufacture of commodities, finished products, and capital goods (machinery, etc.) that have been “farmed out” for decades now that US labor value and costs has been driven down in recent decades? Can increased US domestic manufacturing (up 36,000 in June 2018 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) sustain sales volume and profit rates?

Diminished US Political Power

There are wide layers in top US business, financial, and social circles who do worry that Trump is accelerating and deepening the deterioration in US political influence worldwide. They are anxious that Trump’s course, rather that restoring the post-World War II full-spectrum dominance of US capital – capsulized in his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” – will do the opposite and actually accelerate US decline.

There is considerable substance to this anxiety. Under Trump there has been a striking US political isolation in world political forums on one major international political question after another: Washington’s withdrawal from the (fairly toothless, in any case) Paris climate change accords; Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear production and activity, an agreement which was ratified by China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the EU as a body; Washington’s humiliating isolation every year in the UN over its criminal and hated blockade of revolutionary Cuba; and issues around Israel and Palestine that might ameliorate Palestinian conditions and advance a two-state solution.

Korea is Hardly a Trump Triumph

Trump’s escalating moves on US trade and exchange with China were announced when the ink was hardly dry on the document issued, amid great world attention and hoopla, after the June 12 Summit between Donald Trump and the Kim Jong-un government in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

While the Trump White House has been eager to spin the Summit results as a feather in its cap, his ability to do so was necessarily predicated on the US suspension of “war games” and other joint US-South Korean military maneuvers off the North Korean coasts. Maintaining Washington’s “right” and political will to do so became politically untenable following the Kim government’s ending of missile launches, atmospheric and underground tests, and even the verified destruction of one nuclear site while at the same time the two Korean governments deepened relations through friendly encounters amid popular enthusiasm. No one can seriously doubt that the Moon Jae-in government in South Korea favored and pushed for the US suspension of the “joint” war games.

It seems apparent that China and South Korea forcefully intervened behind the scenes to keep the US-DPRK talks on track. In reality, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (with National Security Advisor John Bolton kept in the shadows) found themselves in an isolated diplomatic and political corner and risked a politically unwinnable confrontation with both China, South Korea and the United Nations large majority. This became even more dangerous politically for Washington on the heels of the US withdrawal from JCPOA treaty with Iran.

As this article was being finished, the US-DPRK negotiations had a negative public eruption after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with top North Korean authorities in Pyongyang. The DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a detailed statement on July 7, calling the meetings “regretful” and Pompeo’s apparent sole focus on unilateral DPRK denuclearization “gangster-like.” The DPRK statement promoted, “in the spirit of” the Singapore Summit and its written statement signed by Trump and Kim, an interconnected focus on issues like a formal peace treaty replacing the “Armistice” ending military combat in 1953; improved US-DPRK bilateral relations; and building a “peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” that is, building on the momentum of improving relations between the two Korean governments and states. Pompeo and Trump have both downplayed the DPRK statement, with Trump on July 9 spinning that China “may be exerting pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade – Hope Not!”

Of course, as the DPRK statement said, “suspension of one action called exercises is a highly reversible step which can be resumed at any time or any moment as all of its military force remains intact in its previously held positions without scraping even a rifle.” Nevertheless, for the Trump Administration to revert to a “maximum pressure” policy while demanding North Korean capitulation and permanently subordinating all other political issues, starting with formal and actual bilateral and multilateral peace, is not politically tenable, starting with South Korea and China and, overwhelmingly, world public opinion.

Mexico

The July 1 landslide election in Mexico of left-wing “populist”Andres Manuel Lopez Abrador (AMLO) is also setting Washington’s nerves on edge. It is not Lopez Obrador’s political orientation and program, per se, that is setting off (mostly muted) alarms. While he is solidly progressive with anti-imperialist instincts flowing from Mexican and Latin American historical experience, AMLO has sent out clear signals that he is loath to directly promote anti-capitalist measures and policies. His campaign focused on the corruption of private capital and the Mexican capitalist state and the intertwined, massive violence and death associated with the illegal capitalist drug cartels.3

What is worrying for the US (and Mexican) ruling classes is the tremendous enthusiasm and mobilizations around AMLO’s campaign, which points to the rising expectations among Mexican working people and youth who want action and who are saying Enough is Enough! Rather than channel mass political combativity into harmless electoralism and parliamentary wrangling, it is more likely that any significant progressive measures promoted by the Lopez Obrador government and its clear majority in both houses of Mexico’s legislature, will spur on the class struggle. This is particularly worrisome for the guardians of US imperialism, given the remarkable history of gratuitous, patronizing insults and anti-Mexican demagogy employed by Donald Trump since the beginning of his campaign for US president. And his reactionary and brutal anti-migrant policies once in office.

In any case, a window into the arrogance of the US ruling rich came with a short editorial in the July 3 Wall Street Journal, titled “The Peso Federales.” Acknowledging Lopez Obrador’s “landslide” and “mandate,” the Journal’s editors warn of the pressure coming from a “different sort of election – the one that takes place daily in financial markets.” Pointing to a 1% drop in the Mexican peso (that “recovered” the next day) following the election, the editorial continued “the president-elect now has to worry what the markets think if he wants to improve the lives of Mexicans.”

One of the biggest concerns for the academic, journalist, and big-business monitors of world economic developments today, prior to the next sharp economic crisis and recession-depression, is that there has been a significant and growing outflow of capital from so-called “emerging” countries into the capital markets of the most advanced capitalist economies, especially the US. This is reversing a mild trend otherwise in recent years.

Sharp turns down for the Argentine peso is the starkest expression of this tendency. In June 2018 the IMF came up with a $50 billion “loan,” a bail out for austerity package, that has already provoked the biggest labor mobilizations in that country for over a decade.

The Class Struggle Will Ratchet Up

When you enter a period like the current one, within the transition from one era-epoch to another, old truisms become stale, alliances and allies can and do change, traditional state-to-state relations become strained and even boil over. No one can doubt that class struggle, social polarization, and political volatility is likely to be ratcheted up considerably in the context of the coming global economic downturn. This will happen everywhere and anywhere. In the United States itself we can expect more massive working class and popular eruptions – seemingly coming out of nowhere – like the wave of solid, disciplined, and victorious teacher’s strikes in the US states of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in early 2018.

The unfolding trade wars unleashed by Donald Trump are now facts on the ground. To cite the great socialist pioneer Frederick Engels:

Those who unleash controlled forces, also unleash uncontrolled forces.

  1. The origins of the contemporary US-China relationship and the deeply intertwined  economic ties between both came during the final period of the Vietnam War. US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger carried out a secret diplomacy with the Mao Zedong-Zhou Enlai Chinese government in the early 1970s to establish mutually beneficial ties. The context was the sharp crisis and looming defeat of the US war effort in Vietnam and Indochina. Nixon and Kissinger were under tremendous pressure to end all US military operations and withdraw US troops from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. They were keen to preserve the “South” Vietnamese neo-colonial state and hoped to manipulate China (and China’s fierce political antagonist, the Soviet Union) to pressure the Vietnamese revolutionaries – who they both gave crucial military aid to — to make concessions to Nixon. This failed and Washington went down to final military defeat in 1975. Nevertheless a de facto political alliance and the foundations for the massive expansion of economic exchange between the United States and China was consolidated over four decades under both Republican and Democratic White Houses and Congresses.
  2. Before retiring in 2016, I was a Locomotive Engineer for Amtrak and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the teamsters Union. I operated the high-speed Acela and other passenger trains between New York city and Washington, DC. For some 25 years, I would see, along the main line tracks from the locomotive cab, on the Northeast Corridor tracks, especially along the stretches between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia towards Trenton, New Jersey, mile after mile of rotted out and abandoned industrial facilities, factories, plants, mills, metal shop, giant behemoths and myriad smaller ones in what were once, in the world War 2 era and subsequent decades, I imagined thriving working-class communities employing many tens and hundreds of thousands of workers. Today they really look like documentary films from the Battle of Stalingrad on the World War 2 Eastern Front. The authorities, decade after decade, never even bothered to tear them down. I would joke to younger workers in my cab qualifying on the physical characteristics of the territory – track speeds, interlocking rules, industrial sidings, and so on – when we would pass these areas, that the state should put a giant bubble over it all and open up “The Museum of American Industrial Glory.”
  3. The stunning failure of Mexico’s “war on drugs” has left hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated without making a dent in the production, consumption, or the profits of the cartels, and the corrupt wealth of officials up and down the supply chain. The production, marketing, and commercial exchange of cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, cocaine, opium, and heroin is a major component of the Mexican capitalist economy as a whole, counting for perhaps up to 10% of GDP, as well as propping up Mexican banking.

The Life of Fidel Castro: A Marxist Appreciation


Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.

— Fidel Castro

[Humans] make [their] own history, but [they] do not make it out of the whole cloth; [they] do not make it out of conditions chosen by [themselves], but out of such as [they] find close at hand.

Karl Marx

The Epoch of Fidel

Fidel Castro was one of the outstanding revolutionary leaders over the entire course of recorded world history. His astonishing and heroic life experiences are intertwined with the accomplishments, example, and practice of the Cuban Revolution that he was the central leader of.

The political and personal integrity of Fidel Castro stood rock-solid in the face of decades of tremendous, unremitting pressures directed by the US government to destroy the Cuban Revolution (and him personally through murder).

The skilled resistance Fidel personified at the head of the politically conscious, organized, and mobilized Cuban masses gave him the moral high ground over decades in the treacherous waters of world politics in the “Cold War” era and beyond.

As I wrote in my October 9, 2017 essay “Our Che: 50 Years After His Execution“:

… During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after negotiations.

The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel protests in 2017 Miami were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated ‘dictator.’ Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for ‘the undefeated’ Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.

The ashes of Fidel Castro on the way to Santiago de Cuba

Fidel and the enduring example of the Cuban Revolution consumed the US ruling class with an unrelenting scorn and hatred. They seethed at the sheer effrontery of the Cuban revolutionaries carrying out a socialist revolution in the interests of the working class, the peasantry, and the oppressed, that is, in the interests of the vast majority of the Cuban people.

This is the case, notwithstanding the mass migrations encouraged – and uniquely expedited legally to the United States – by Washington for decades. This reached 7-10% of the Cuban population, resulting in a kind of Cuban diaspora. This self-exiling was centered initially on the Batista-era police, army, and gangster personnel, followed by the Cuban ex-bourgeoisie and owners of expropriated latifundia, and, finally, as the political confrontation between revolutionary Cuba and the United States government intensely sharpened, quickly came to include broad layers (but by no means all) in the Cuban professional and middle classes, a relatively affluent small minority. For example, some 3,000 out of the 6,000 doctors in Cuba before the Revolution emigrated from Cuba to the United States in this period. Most Cuban workers and peasants rarely, if ever, saw a doctor their entire lives in “the good old days” when median life expectancy in Cuba was 52 (it’s now 78). For many years now, the island has produced some 10,000 Cuban doctors a year and, at the Latin American School of Medicine, the largest medical school in the world, has trained, free of charge, tens of thousands of doctors from all over the world who are now practicing in working-class and impoverished communities in their countries. Similar comparisons can be made for all other contemporary Cuban professions.

The special venom and hatred preserved for Fidel Castro by Washington and Wall Street, by all the representatives and spokespeople of world capitalism and imperialism, was, of course, a badge of honor for the Cuban revolutionary. Certainly, the once powerful virtual industry of anti-Castro misinformation and propaganda has been politically defeated worldwide. But it has resources and lingers on in the continued, weakened US anti-Cuba policy of economic war and political hostility, and in the renewed efforts by the Donald Trump White House to pressure and threaten socialist Cuba, following the establishment of formal Washington-Havana diplomatic relations in 2015.

Of course, genuine social and people’s revolutions, such as the Cuban Revolution, inevitably generate bitter hatreds and resentments from the overthrown and vanquished ruling classes. The special hatred of the overturned Cuban ruling classes, allied with Washington and defeated in the course of the Cuban Revolution, toward Fidel, the personification of their social and political vanquishers, is of a piece with how the representatives and beneficiaries of the Confederate slavocracy in their era – and their dwindling band of political heirs, to this day – felt about Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ulysses S. Grant, and others, not to speak of revolutionary abolitionists like John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Harriet Tubman.1

Fidel after laying a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC in 1959.

The fact is that Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution successfully and heroically, under the banner of revolutionary socialism, defied the US government diktat. At the time, this was unique in US-Latin American relations. This in an era of full-spectrum US economic, financial, military, and political dominance across the Americas. This was seen by successive US White Houses and Congresses as an utter and unacceptable affront. Rampant CIA (always under the direction of the Executive Branch of the US government) disinformation and misinformation campaigns – perhaps the classic “fake news” model – began in the 1960s in response to the Cuban Revolution and its successful development and world resonance. This is factually unassailable and has long been part of the public record from released, once “classified” documents.

Two books that document covert US anti-Cuban subversive campaigns.

Washington’s Factories of Fabrication

There were, in fact, (now known in detail from then-secret government documents released under the US Freedom of Information Act), major US government operations, with significant assigned personnel and large budgets, employed specifically to disseminate disinformation and misinformation, that is false information with the deliberate intention to deceive, about the actual reality and facts of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership. This was a classic “fake news” model.

Many millions of dollars, employing no doubt hundreds of personnel directly and indirectly – were spent on so-called “psychological-warfare operations” (psy-ops) to spread lies – about revolutionary Cuba in the form of gossip, innuendo, and rumors made up out of whole cloth, on the theory, I suppose, that if you throw enough bullshit against a wall, some is bound to stick.

The modus operandi in the CIA’s factories of falsification were the spreading of conspiracy theories, fabricated to cause confusion and, hopefully, cause divisions and splits in the revolutionary leadership. Among the most notorious lies spread far and wide concerned two of the Cuban Revolution’s most revered revolutionary heroes and martyrs, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Che Guevara.

Camilo Cienfuegos and Fidel Castro

Revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos didn’t really die in a plane crash after a mission to counter anti-revolutionary activity centered around Huber Matos in Camaguey, but was actually killed by Fidel Castro, who was “threatened” and “feared” Camilo’s popularity. (Matos, an icon of counter-revolutionary exiles for years, was sentenced and incarcerated for 20 years for sedition and treason, that is, collaboration with US government agencies in the period leading up to the Bay of Pigs mercenary invasion. Camilo Cienfuegos was dispatched to relieve Matos of his military command and arrest him and his top adjutants. Matos was one of a relative handful of revolutionary combatants in M-26-J who opposed the radicalization of the Revolution in a socialist direction, politically split from the Movement, and went over to the side of US subversion and intervention.)

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

Another particularly notorious example of such CIA “psychological operations” was the worldwide effort to plant false stories in big-business and other media outlets, about a supposed falling out and political rupture between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Che Guevara did not really go out of public view to organize anti-imperialist struggles in Africa and Latin America, but was actually imprisoned and even killed by Fidel Castro. (When that Big Lie was no longer operative, a new mendacity was promoted that Fidel refused to “rescue” Che in Bolivia and “allowed” him to die, still peddled to this day.)

This was during a period in 1965-66 where Che, with the full moral and political support of Fidel and the central Cuban communist leadership, had disappeared from public view and was preparing and organizing revolutionary armed struggles in first the Congo, and then Bolivia.

Such efforts by US intelligence agencies over the years were, of course, accompanied, and complemented by, more direct, material attempts – hundreds of times in documented fact – to assassinate Fidel Castro and other popular leaders of the Revolution and the Cuban government and other repeated acts of terrorism and economic sabotage.

The ”Dictator”

Commitment to overturning the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro in Cuba was never, for over five decades, a source of serious division between the Democratic and Republican parties ruling in Washington. The Fidel Castro government was caricatured and slurred as a personal dictatorship in Cold War propaganda, as well as a puppet and client of the Soviet Union.

The most common presentation and image of Fidel Castro in these circles was that of a “bellicose” and “unaccountable” dictator. The more “moderate” version, which, more or less, acknowledges the big social and human advances of the Cuban Revolution and its record, unmatched in this world, of international solidarity, presents a “benevolent” dictator (whose absence would surely be the end of Cuban socialism).

Contrary to this boilerplate of anti-Castro propaganda, perhaps Fidel Castro’s most distinct leadership quality was how he continually, in the most difficult and challenging circumstances, before, during, and for decades after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, was his skill, ability, and political perspective to forge teams of outstanding individuals, the opposite of “yes-men,” toadies, and sycophants. There has never been anything in Cuba remotely resembling a state-fostered Stalin- or Mao-like “cult of personality” around Fidel. Just the opposite, laws were enforced keeping his name, and any other living leader, off public sites such as statues and streets. Raul Castro, in his moving tribute to Fidel on December 3, 2016, said, “Fidel was always against the cult of personality until his dying days. He was consistent with that attitude, insisting that after his death his name and figure never be used to name plazas, avenues, streets, and other public places, as well as the building of statues.” The Cuban National Assembly has passed a law implementing Fidel’s wish.

The reality was that Fidel Castro was never any kind of personal dictator with the inclination, desire, or power to rule arbitrarily. Undoubtedly Fidel Castro had great political authority and personal popularity. Nevertheless, one of Fidel Castro’s greatest strengths and characteristics as a revolutionary and a leader was his ability to foster and develop united team leadership based on ideas, program, and revolutionary ethics. To forge inclusive and collaborative teams of revolutionary fighters, men and women, of Spanish, African, and other national origins, and from different social and class backgrounds.

This was the case not only during the revolutionary struggle for power, but over decades in the face of all the enormous challenges and threats from a resentful imperial ex-overlord ninety miles away during the Cold War. These disciplined and revolutionary teams navigating the treacherous waters of that tumultuous era in world politics. Revolutionary fighters such as Ricardo Alarcon, Juan Almeida, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Victor Dreke, Vilma Espin, Ernesto Che Guevara, Armando Hart, Melba Hernandez, Jose Ramon Machado, Frank Pais, Manuel Pinero, Jorge Risquet, Raul Roa, Celia Sanchez, Haydee Santamaria, Ramiro Valdes, Harry Villegos, and countless others who were the remarkable individual products of the struggle for the Cuban Revolution, its defense, and its revolutionary internationalism around the world. Such individual human material, capable of organizing, leading, and sustaining a mass revolutionary struggle for power, has to have within themselves the discipline, sacrifice, creative thinking, tactical savvy, culture, and humanity that are the opposite of sycophants and toadies.

At any rate it is ludicrous beyond even the most primitive logic to think that “one-man rule” (as Hillary Clinton once described the Cuban government led by Fidel) could have survived the unremitting onslaught of US imperialism – the most powerful economic and military counter-revolutionary machine in world history – for nearly 60 years. Actually, all of the truly bloody right-wing military and family dictatorships that Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean endured throughout the 20th Century – from Batista’s Cuba to Somoza’s Nicaragua to Pinochet’s Chile, from Guatemala to Haiti to Uruguay to Argentina — were sustained, supported, and armed by Washington.

This era of US domination peaked during the era of “Operation Condor,” from the mid-1970s, where Washington and its ultrarightist military partners in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay ran death squads and other terrorist operations against working-class, peasant, democratic, and revolutionary forces across the Americas. In those terrible years, “totalitarian” “Communist” Cuba was perhaps the major force in the Hemisphere that was actively promoting grass-roots struggle to restore democratic rights and space in Latin America and fight for social justice. This goes a long way to explaining the broad contempt and derision held for US anti-Cuba policy across the Americas.2

Under the leadership of this popular revolutionary team, with the indefatigable Fidel as the central spokesperson and holding great political authority, Cuba forged an infant revolutionary government stamped by the interests, social dominance, and political authority of workers and farmers.

This translated socially and politically to concrete measures and progressive policies, backed by mass mobilizations and assemblies of Cuban working people and the clear, large majority of the Cuban population. These policies included: radical land reform; massive youth-led drives that succeeded in eradicating illiteracy; the legal obliteration of race discrimination and historic advances for Afro-Cubans; the self-organization of Cuban women into the Federation of Cuban Women and truly remarkable in policies and practices promoting women’s rights and equality; the massive expansion of trade unions and workers control and management of industry; and the establishment of free, high-quality health care and education for all Cubans.

All of this was in the interests of, and with the participation of, the large majority of Cuban society. Counter-revolutionary organizations grew up that became aligned to the US government and acted under its general political direction. Like all great revolutionary transformations and overturns in history, the Cuban Revolution became marked by profound social and class – and thereby political – polarization. There never has been, and never will be a genuine people’s revolution – overturning the existing social and political order – that does not, by definition, impose its authority on the defeated classes.3

The Main Source of Fidel’s Legacies

Fidel Castro was a great humanitarian, one of the world’s great promoters of universal health care and universal access to quality education. He inspired and led the organization of an amazing legacy of Cuban medical internationalism and relief and aid for peoples devastated by hurricanes, earthquakes, and other so-called “natural disasters.” All of this has gained near-universal recognition and love.

Fidel Castro led some of the greatest advances in the fight against racism and white supremacy and the oppression of women for any nation-state in world history.

Fidel Castro had a mastery of the strategy and tactics, the art, of revolutionary politics. But this was never not some abstract Machiavellian skill-set in intrigue, as portrayed in literature and drama from time immemorial.

Fidel Castro was a world-historic military figure and commander. This aspect of his legacy is often ignored or downplayed in the “democratic West.” But the truth is that Fidel was at the center of two distinct, major, world-impacting military campaigns: the 1956-1958 Cuban revolutionary war and the war with apartheid South Africa from 1976-1990 in Angola and southern Africa. In both cases Fidel stands out as a practitioner of military science and the logistics, organization, strategy, and tactics that were tested and led to clear victory. In both cases Fidel was fighting forces backed clearly, albeit covertly, by the United States government. These were two world-changing events with a decisive military component. Both unfolded under the military command of Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro also became, as head of state, a skilled and savvy “statesman” and negotiator who advanced and expanded Cuba’s diplomatic ties and relations on a world scale in the face of the US blockade, as well as in Cuba’s highly complex relations with both enemies, allies, and friends. Picking up steam in the 1980s and 1990s Cuban diplomacy eventually established diplomatic relations with every country in the western Hemisphere, Washington being the last holdout until 2015 under the Barack Obama administration. Fidel had an important political part in breaking open negotiations that led to cease-fires and an eventual end to decades of armed conflicts and war in Colombia.

Fidel Castro had great oratorical and literary skills. He communicated largely through speeches. These may have been famous, generally, for their length, and were thus easily and cheaply caricatured by his opponents as a way to avoid dealing with their content. I have had the personal privilege and excitement of witnessing a dozen or so speeches by Fidel Castro, short, long, and very long (up to six hours), in both massive and much smaller settings. While sometimes exhausted and straining to concentrate, I was never bored.

Fidel’s speeches, especially addresses to the Cuban people, registered the candor and transparency of familiarity, taking up the social, economic, international, and other challenges facing Cuba. Fidel’s speeches were full of statistics and empirical data, quotes from studies, news accounts, books, political opponents word-for-word, and international press agencies. But they were also filled with big ideas, razor-sharp analysis, political acuity, and philosophical depth.

Fidel sometimes found it hard to resist imparting any and every important fact, document, or statistic to his audience. How his clearly “photographic memory” could even retain ten percent of them all (as he generally spoke with few notes, and, of course, without a teleprompter) was beyond my wildest ability to understand. All of this without a trace of the racist, “populist,” megalomaniacal bombast associated with the most effective fascist demagogues like Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler.

Fidel often said his style was not to impose his ideas but to convince.  In the early years of the Revolution Fidel’s speeches explaining to Cubans the historic roots of racist discrimination and the oppression of women and the revolutionary government’s policies are master classes in this method.4

In his speeches to mass rallies, workplaces, large and very small communities, revolutionary international gatherings, and in historic speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, Fidel retained an unsurpassed ability to break down and communicate big ideas and history. This rational and fact-based mastery of the spoken word undoubtedly places Fidel Castro in the pantheon of great orators in contemporary history. (See a comprehensive archive of Fidel’s speeches here.)

Fidel’s Marxism

Any of these specific accomplishments stand out on their own.  Any one by itself would mark an exceptional life. Taken together, looking at Fidel’s life and practice as a whole, they all flowed from Fidel’s embrace of socialism and Marxism as a coherent world outlook and guide to revolutionary action, as he understood it and further developed it, in the course of the Cuban revolutionary struggle. Fidel fought his entire conscious political life under that banner.  Moreover, Fidel’s works – written and spoken – made a great contribution to the development of Marxism and socialism, in theory and practice. Fidel’s life underlines the truth of Lenin’s political and organizational perspective that ‘’without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement.”

Influenced by revolutionary democratic, socialist, and Marxist ideas and theories as a young, rebellious man, already familiar with the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, he embraced, assimilated, and developed the dialectical and materialist world outlook and methodology.

Fidel defended the Marxist method and the integrated philosophical world outlook of dialectical and historical materialism. And yet Fidel Castro, the staunch communist and materialist-atheist, inspired and was embraced by countless Christians, Muslims, Jews and believers of every denomination and creed. Of course, as with everything else about the “polarizing” Fidel this was usually – but not mechanically or uniformly – expressed along class lines. (See the brilliant dialogue between Fidel and the Christian Liberation Theologist Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo, known as Frei Betto, in the best-selling, widely translated Fidel and Religion (Ocean Press, 2006).5

Proletarian Internationalism

All of us are products of the space and times we live in, but Fidel, to an extraordinary degree, also shaped his times, the times of an entire epoch. Fidel’s impact was not in the interests of the oppressors and exploiters, the colonial masters and white supremacists; the imperialist warmongers out for markets and loot; and the ruling-class beneficiaries of grotesque inequality, racism, and misogyny. His life, and the historical impact of his life, was dedicated to the interests of toiling humanity, of workers and peasants, of oppressed nations and nationalities, of women ground down by unspeakable subjugation and “tradition.” Fidel Castro was the ally and champion of all who fought for social justice, for human progress and a better world, and for the revolutionary transformation of the capitalist world order and its inhuman social relations. Fidel practiced international solidarity decade after decade, under always changing objective circumstances in the world, and often under conditions of great difficulty and danger for revolutionary Cuba.  He embodied what the Marxist movement had once termed proletarian internationalism. Fidel and the Cuban Revolution’s legacy of international solidarity remains the anchor of Cuba’s foreign policy to this day.

For Fidel and the young Cuban revolutionaries he was part of and led, this was not a hollow, ritual phrase, something to give lip service to only to contradict in practice, but a genuine belief and a genuine practice. In 1976 Cuba sent volunteer revolutionary combatants to the front-line of newly independent Angola to beat back the invading behemoth of the South African apartheid state (covertly backed by Washington). In 2014 Cuba rushed doctors and medical personnel to West Africa in what became the decisive turning point in containing and overcoming the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic.

Marx and Engels

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, gave, as theoreticians, activists, and political leaders, a tremendous impulse and dynamic to the modern workers movement in the late 19th Century and beyond to this day. But, of course, neither revolutionary wielded governmental or state power, although they both, as leaders of the International Working Men’s Association, keenly observed and drew the lessons from the 1871 Paris Commune – following the unfolding Franco-Prussian War which exploded in the heart of Europe – the first seizure of governmental power by a mass working-class and popular movement.

Marx and Engels

Furthermore, both Marx and Engels died at the dawn of the qualitative leaps in the development of 19th Century capitalism. Their prescient writing on the development of British imperialism in their lifetimes anticipated, but did not directly experience, the qualitative, epochal transformation of world capitalism into 20th Century nationally-based, monopolized, and oligarchic finance capitalism. And the concurrent revival of direct imperialist expansion out of the rapidly industrializing capitalist centers and a massive overproduction of capital searching for raw materials, cheap labor, new markets to conquer and subordinate, and super-profits.

Colonial Empires were spawned in the United Kingdom, France, and much of the rest of Western Europe; e.g., Belgium in the Congo, the Netherlands in Indonesia, and so on. German colonialism was late to the European enterprise and the United States entered the “Age of Empire” signaled and accelerated by the 1898 Spanish-American War. This directly impacted on the burning question of Cuban independence and sovereignty, as the colonial rule in Cuba of the pre-capitalist fraying and hollowed-out Spanish Empire disintegrated, and was displaced by US neo-colonialism and decades of yanqui economic and political domination.

The 20th Century Latin American political arena which was characterized by a state of, more or less, permanent political turmoil and intensifying class struggle under conditions of massive poverty and social inequality, that was interlocked with foreign, mainly US, economic and political domination. Since the 1898 Spanish-American War, which marked the origins of the modern American Empire, Washington engaged in frequent overt and covert violent invasions, interventions, and subversion across the Americas, over the subsequent decades. (For a comprehensive list of US interventions in the Americas since 1898 click here.)

Lenin

Vladimir Lenin

V.I. Lenin, the central leader of the November 7, 1917 Russian Revolution, and the Communist International founded in 1919, died in January 1924, at the age of 55, as the Soviet workers state he led, was beginning to recover from the utter devastation of the 1918-22 Civil War. This was an exceedingly brutal war, coming directly on top of the carnage of World War I, starting in 1914 on the Eastern-Russian front. Millions upon millions of dead and brutalized.

The Civil War pitted conservative and reactionary forces from the overthrown ruling classes – with liberal and “moderate socialist” forces forming at the end of the anti-Bolshevik line – aiming to crush the new revolutionary power.  These fragmented forces, without any agreed social or military policies between them, gained strength as they were soon backed up, armed, and otherwise supported by the allied major powers; e.g., Great Britain, France, and the United States, who were still, but not for much longer, furiously engaging in the World War I bloodbath.

These forces were beyond livid that Lenin’s government had withdrawn Russia from the war and called for the immediate end, on all sides, to what they accurately termed an imperialist war. The Bolshevik-led government dispatched People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Leon Trotsky to negotiate with the German imperialists in the name of the Russian state they now headed, and which was still formally at war with Germany and its allies (and losing badly to).

Adding insult to injury, in what was a huge political blow and embarrassment, Trotsky was authorized to publicly release the secret protocols between the overthrown Tsarist Monarchy (and the “Provisional Government” which followed it) and the European military powers. These released documents were politically explosive as they exposed the expansionist, aggrandizing, and colonial aims of the warring imperialist powers.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution accelerated and deepened the growth of global mass anti-war sentiment and action, including among soldiers. With the – totally intertwined politically with the Bolshevik Revolution – outbreak of anti-war and revolutionary struggle inside Germany in 1918, and the political collapse of its war effort, the political imperative to end the inter-imperialist slaughterhouse became inevitable, and an armistice was signed in November 1918.

The thus victorious – if exhausted and facing political turmoil and instability at home – British, French, and US “Allied Powers” hardly lost a beat and stepped up military attacks and intervention against the Bolshevik government. Eventually well over a dozen other major or lesser powers directly intervened on Russian territory, joining in the cause to overthrow Lenin’s government, fighting in conjunction with the so-called “White Army.” This greatly added to the length and ferocity of the Civil War.6

Lenin’s revolutionary government was under siege from practically the moment it took power through the mass organizations of elected workers, soldiers, and poor peasant councils (soviets) in November 1917. There was hardly any period of time while Lenin was alive that his revolutionary government could lose its focus on defeating the imperialist-backed counterrevolution.

When Lenin died in January, 1924, his actual political legacy became practically buried inside the Soviet Union by the massive impoverishment and military bleeding of Russian society over the entire period. The subsequent political developments in the battered Soviet Union after Lenin’s death, and the consolidation of governmental power under Joseph Stalin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, led to the eventual physical elimination of the entire generation of revolutionaries, including virtually the entire Red Army leadership, identified with Lenin, from 1936-1938. Conservative figures for the Stalinist purges start with over 100,000 Communists executed. And yet another false, endlessly repeated, assertion and narrative is that Stalinism was the continuation of Leninism when the two were actually antithetical. As I will return to below, opponents and propagandists against the Cuban Revolution, including those positioning themselves on the left, have generally tried to smear Fidel Castro and the Revolution itself as “Stalinist.” (For Fidel’s actual views on Stalin and Stalinism, see the last sections of this essay.)

The Longevity of Fidel

In Fidel’s political lifetime, peers such as Malcolm X, Maurice Bishop, and Thomas Sankara also emerged as outstanding revolutionary leaders. Malcolm X was a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution. More and more consciously in the last two years of his life, following his split from Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam, Malcolm X had started to embrace anti-capitalist and socialist views when he was murdered in February 1965. (See my essay “To the Memory of Malcolm X: Fifty Years After His Assassination.)

Maurice Bishop led the 1979 Grenadian Revolution and Thomas Sankara led a revolutionary popular government from 1983-87 in Burkina Faso. Both were conscious revolutionary Marxists who briefly wielded central governmental and state power. Maurice Bishop was overthrown and murdered in a coup by counter-revolutionary secret factions in the government and state led by Bernard Coard. Thomas Sankara  was overthrown and assassinated in a coup led by Minister of State Blaise Compaore, with covert support from the French state, in October 1987.

The brutality, terror, and chaos from Coard’s counter-revolutionary coup became the pretext for the Ronald Reagan Administration to invade and occupy Grenada and dispatch Coard’s hated regime. Cuban construction workers, who were working on the unfinished, renamed in 2009 Maurice Bishop International Airport, resisted the US invasion. Fidel Castro was furious at the anti-Bishop coup and Maurice Bishop’s murder along with seven of his leading comrades from the New Jewel Movement-led revolutionary government that lay destroyed.

Compaore managed to consolidate a repressive and regressive regime, under the cover of a series of rigged elections, that lasted 27 years. He was forced to resign in October 2014 after a sustained mass uprising, fleeing to the Ivory Coast. Maurice Bishop was 39 and Thomas Sankara was 37 when they were executed.

Fidel and Malcolm X

Fidel and Maurice Bishop

Fidel and Thomas Sankara

Ernest Che Guevara, born in Argentina and of Irish heritage, was recruited to Fidel Castro’s July 26 Movement as the guerrilla army’s doctor in Mexico in 1956. In the Cuban revolutionary war, Che became a top military commander and led the decisive Battle of Santa Clara that opened the road to the collapse of the Batista regime and the triumphant march of Fidel into Havana.  Che left Cuba in 1965 to organize revolutionary internationalist missions in the Congo and then Bolivia, fully backed by Fidel and the Cuban government. Che was executed after his capture in Bolivia in October 1967 at the age of 39. (See my essay Our Che: Fifty Years After His Execution.)

Che Guevara

Fidel survived and carried on. His example is bound to be a permanent, weighty, and material political force for future generations and time immemorial. Fidel’s example is certain to be continually renewed and embraced again and again by new generations of social-justice fighters and revolutionaries.

Without exaggeration or illusion, this is politically true also in the United States, where accurate information about Cuba is available and disseminated, and where there is clear and large majority opposition to continuing US economic and travel sanctions. There is also a growing layer of Americans who are politically sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution and its social and internationalist policies, as they hear even some of the truth.

Many hundreds of thousands of US citizens and legal residents have visited the island over the decades and especially in recent years, and seen its reality with all its strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and contradictions, which the Cuban people and government disdain to ignore or sweep under the rug.7

Unintended Consequences of World War II

An entire epoch of anti-imperialist and revolutionary struggle was ushered in by the titanic consequences and dynamics of World War II and the post-war era. A new world relationship of forces was consolidated “geopolitically” in the post-war “Cold War” period. There was a shift in the gravitational forces of revolutionary struggles towards colonial independence struggles which became intertwined with class struggles in the advanced capitalist-imperialist states.

Coming seemingly out of the blue, less than fifteen years after the end of World War II, the Cuban Revolution entered the world as the dust was starting to settle from the consequences of the post-World War II.

These consequences, intended and unintended, included:

1) The decline and displacement of the British, French, and other European colonial Empires. These had been, more or less, maintained up until World War II but were now completely upturned by the actual unfolding of events during and after the war.

2) The rise of US imperialism, which displaced the European powers militarily, economically, financially, and politically in world capitalist economic and military structures. This registered the relative dominance of US capital in the post-war capitalist order. US capitalism boomed during the war, which was not fought on continental US soil. In heavy and industry, manufacturing, finance, and living standards, US capitalism dwarfed its capitalist rivals.

3) The rise of the Soviet Union – its survival and geographic and political expansion – followed its utterly heroic victory over Nazi Germany at an exceeding bloody price in the largest bloodbath in human history on the World War II Eastern Front. The Soviet government and Red Army went from the cusp of annihilation in the opening five months of Hitler’s invasion with the Nazi war machine advancing on Moscow in late 1941 to the conquering of Berlin in April 1945.  This gave a new lease on life and great political prestige to the Stalin-led Soviet Union and the “world Communist movement,” despite gross political errors and crimes (a point I will return to). In Europe, Communist Parties in a number of countries such as Yugoslavia, Italy, France, and Greece became mass parties leading broad military formations and where they were leading forces in largely working class and popular anti-Nazi resistance movements. A people’s revolution became a socialist revolution in Yugoslavia. Communist Parties in France and Italy for many years after got up to 40% of the vote in national parliamentary elections.

Revolution in Asia

Japan was the most advanced, industrialized capitalist economy in all of Asia and had secured its colonial rule in a territorially united Korea from 1905-10. A brutal, militarized Japanese imperialism struggled mightily to displace European colonial rule with its own in the World War II period.  That war era in the entire Asian Continental and Pacific Rim, South Asia, and southeastern Asia began militarily years sooner than the September 1, 1939 German-Nazi invasion of Poland. Imperial Japan’s 1931 invasion and occupation of Chinese Manchuria deepened in 1937 into full-scale Japanese anti-China aggression. This was ineffectively countered by the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-chek. After the Japanese government decided to bomb the US territory and major naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941 the so-called “Pacific Theater” became a bloody back-and-forth war between the established colonial powers and the ambitious Empire-building and consolidating (or so they hoped) Japanese imperialist aggressors, who became allied with Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and other Axis forces.

The main unintended consequence of World War II in Asia was that the violent and bloody conflict between imperialist powers created space for independence and national liberation struggles. Invariably the most consistent and courageous independent fighters were influenced by, and many embraced, left-wing, socialist, and communist world outlooks, looking to the oppressed masses, workers and peasants, as the primary force to deliver national salvation. The war and the erosion of the colonial empires accelerated an unstoppable dynamic toward national sovereignty and independence. In particular, the Chinese and Vietnamese Revolutions, led by liberation forces and leaderships identifying themselves as Communist, such as Mao Zedong and Zhu De in China and Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam, had a worldwide political impact and influence.

This was certainly the case with Fidel Castro’s generation of revolutionary-minded patriotic youth in Cuba and throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, including Ernesto Guevara in Argentina, all living under the dominance of the US behemoth in the Western Hemisphere. This domination of US capital and US power in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America generally took different forms than direct colonial rule on the European model.

Fidel Castro devoured these world events as he came of age in exactly this mid-20th Century vortex of history growing up as a teenager, student, and young adult on the island of Cuba in the center of the Caribbean. Fidel developed a political consciousness and identity that was forged, in its essential core, out of the global colonial independence and national liberation struggles.

Fidel and the Historical Moment

The Cuban Revolution took place in a Western Hemisphere firmly in the “sphere of influence” of Washington and US capital. Cuba found itself at the center of the Cold War. The Cuban Revolution ushered out the 1950s period: from the Korean War and its stalemated end; the 1953 death of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khruschev’s “de-Stalinization; the 1954 Vietnamese victory over French imperialism at Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Accords imposed on the Vietnamese; the 1956 British-French-Israel Suez War with Egypt; the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary; and the late-Eisenhower era abortive thaw and détente of US-Soviet relations.

In any case, immediately upon the seizure of power, the Cuban revolutionaries began to establish fraternal, internationalist links with anti-imperialist fighters worldwide. But Fidel and the other young revolutionary fighters around the July 26 Movement also looked to and had an independent political (and sympathetic) stance toward the legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, augmented by their total embrace of the 1949 Chinese Revolution and the Ho Chi Minh-led national liberation movement in Vietnam. Cuba was the first Latin American nation to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1960.

Volatility and Permanent Crisis in Today’s Capitalist World Order

Today’s volatile political world – over 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact-allied governments – is increasingly marked by an accelerating unraveling of that great post-World War II capitalist world order, politically dominated by US military and economic power and a so-called “socialist camp” centered on the Soviet Union, that was also a world military power. Nevertheless, the old, fraying world structures still stamps the framework of world economics, finance, politics, and social relations towards the end of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century.

What has been developing, with accumulating force again today, ten years after the financial crash and near-meltdown of the so-called “Great Recession” of 2007-08, is the relative erosion and decline of US economic, financial, and political power, and Washington’s overall weight in world politics and “global affairs” today. This has been unfolding objectively over a number of years, in this still-young 21st Century.

This political reality has been much lamented by Democratic and Republican party establishments, and has deepened political divergences and factionalism within, across, and between both big-business parties. This has been deepening in the opening period of the Donald Trump White House. (As the US rulers wring their hands over whether Trump is accelerating this erosion and decline with his impulsive methods and demagogy in the US and internationally, I cannot recall, in my lifetime, such a joint crisis within both capitalist parties, and the lesser-evil, two-party oligarchy.)

In this context, revolutionary Cuba today – and this is the living legacy of Fidel – has become, in word and deed, the leading voice for working people and oppressed nations and peoples in every tribune at hand in today’s world.  In the worldwide Battle of Ideas that Fidel stressed continually in his last years, the Cuban Revolution is the living, resonant, politically attractive socialist alternative to today’s capitalist world disorder with its grotesque inequality and permanent fueling of war. Understanding this is the opposite of any residual 1960s or ancient Cold War-era nostalgia.

Before the Revolution: Fidel the Activist and Organizer

Fidel Castro, the offspring of a Spanish-immigrant who became a prosperous landowner, entered political life as a student activist at the University of Havana. He set up a law practice under permanent financial stress insofar as his clients were invariably poor and destitute working people facing the daily blows and rigged social relations of the Cuban neo-colonial state. And he could never bring himself to charge them.8

Fidel remained true to his rebel student youth in this period. He deepened his youthful convictions and principles through theoretical and political study, with and was active in, the multi-class Orthodox People’s Party founded and led by Eduardo Chibas in 1947. That party put the fight against the corruption that enveloped Cuban politics and economics at its center and projected what could be termed a left-wing “populist” program for the promotion of a Cuban identity, economic independence, and social reforms. (See Ramonet p. 83-88 for Fidel’s assessment of the Ortodoxos and the other middle-class political tendencies.)

The late-1940s and early 1950s was a rich period in Cuban politics in general, and student and youth politics in particular. Revolutionary ideas were in the air, transmitted through such figures as the revolutionary socialist martyrs Julio Antonio Mella and Antonio Guiteras. This was a period of mounting social and political crisis in Cuba leading up to the 1952 military coup that installed Fulgencio Batista in power. Fidel entered into this with all his heart and soul and brain. “I began to acquire a more radical political awareness, and I was learning more and more about Marx and Lenin. I was reading Engels and other authors and works on economics and philosophy, but mainly political works – the political ideas, the political theories of Marx.” (See Ramonet, p. 89-90.)

The seizure of power by military forces led by Fulgencio Batista on March 10, 1952 abrogated the 1940 Cuban Constitution, a relatively progressive document that incorporated land reform, health care, public education, and a minimum wage. The 1940 Constitution was itself inspired by the 1933-34 mass struggles of workers and youth and the political upheavals that followed the collapse of the repressive regime of Gerardo Machado. Batista, a prominent military figure, had emerged from the turmoil and political instability of the “1933 Revolution” as the dominant figure in the Cuban state across a series of “elected” weak and corrupt regimes.

Batista managed to get himself directly elected President during World War II from 1940-44, posing as a progressive in the “anti-fascist world camp.” Cuban Communists, renamed the Popular Socialist Party (PSP) in 1944, actually joined the Batista Cabinet, taking two ministerial posts in those years. This became an important factor in the development of the July 26 Movement as an independent revolutionary formation in the period that opened up after the Batista coup.9

During this time Batista accumulated a tidy fortune, living it up in south Florida after his single term allowed under the Constitution ended. Facing certain defeat in the 1952 election he was contesting, Batista orchestrated the military coup which was backed by Washington, the real power in the Cuban neo-colony.

Batista’s coup accelerated the political and social crisis in Cuba, as he moved to consolidate an exceedingly venal and repressive regime. Batista’s government allied itself with top US organized-crime mafias, promoting a tourism based on promoting Cuba’s island beauty and beaches with casino gambling and prostitution on a grand scale. The period is captured with great artistry and verisimilitude in the classic Francis Coppola film The Godfather Part II. The dictatorship allied with the most reactionary sectors of Cuban society, and with the US organized crime families and gangster enterprises that had become a key component of Havana and Cuba’s economic and commercial activity. Even as the Batista government became more unpopular and more hated by the year, it necessarily became even more dependent on, subservient to, and propped up by Washington, then under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower Administration, with Democratic Party control of both the US House of Representatives and Senate. The support for Batista was solid and bipartisan, if increasingly anxious, in Washington right up to the collapse of the regime.10

Under the conditions of Batista’s deeply unpopular regime, there sprung up a plethora of competing factions, student and left-wing radicals, the Popular Socialist Party, small groups calling themselves “Trotskyist,” militant workers in the divided Cuban labor movement working clandestinely, and among the bourgeois liberal and conservative opposition political forces. All contested for political influence and a mass base amidst the general opposition and revulsion to the Batista coup and its attempts to consolidate a stable government.

Fidel exploded into the center of Cuban politics on July 26, 1953 with a highly organized armed attack by 160 young, largely working-class, fighters on the Moncada and Bayamo Barracks of the Batista dictatorship. These were highly disciplined and trained combatants motivated by patriotic and revolutionary purpose.

Along with Fidel, the other central leaders of the preparation and organization of the July 26, 1953 attacks were Abel Santamaria and Jesus Montane. The plan and political perspective of the Moncadista insurrectionists was to seize the two Barracks, disarm the government troops, seize broadcast and other means of communication, and call for a mass uprising.

The outcome of the assault can be said to be a classic example of military defeat becoming political victory. In this case a military defeat transformed into a dynamic political advance and the ultimate victory of the Cuban Revolution within less than five years. (See Ramonet pages 104-134 for a fascinating account of the Moncada assault, the unanticipated difficulties and errors, and the necessary retreat and aftermath.)

Abel Santamaria was tortured to death by Batista’s troops following his surrender and capture. Fidel, Jesus Montane, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida and other rebels survived with some luck, but the post-attack scene was mark by extraordinary bestial conduct, which quickly became public, on the part of Batista’s henchmen, with unspeakable torture and murder of disarmed youth being the fate of most. Cuban public opinion was horrified, and this became a factor in preserving the lives of the survivors.

Public revulsion also began to overlap with growing sympathy for the July 26 youth. Growing anti-Batista mass demonstrations and protests mounted against the increasingly isolated and repressive regime. Fidel’s stirring speech in his defense before the kangaroo court – “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” – presented the program and political orientation of the insurrectionists. It was reproduced and widely circulated by the growing cadre of organized supporters who became the July 26 Movement (M-26-J). The pamphlet History Will Absolve Me became a key recruiting tool for the Movement and its major programmatic document.

Political pressure on the Batista government became focused on a mass campaign for amnesty for the Moncada fighters, which also built the Movement. All the fighters were released after barely two years of incarceration. Batista and his goons evidently believed their death squads would be more likely to get away with murder outside the prison walls than within. The July 26 Movement emerged as the most, dynamic, creative, and attractive political force in the unfolding pre-revolutionary situation developing inside Cuba in the mid-1950s.

Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, Fidel Castro and other Moncadistas released in May 1955

Fidel, Raul, Juan Almeida, and other Moncadistas were eventually able to get to Mexico where colonies of Latin American freedom fighters were to be found, and who worked and played in overlapping social and political circles.

In Mexico, Fidel and his team began recruiting cadre who received military training (from a veteran Republican fighter in the 1930s Spanish Revolution and Civil War) for a planned landing in the Cuban countryside, the launching of a rural guerrilla war, and the concurrent launching of a nationwide revolutionary movement politically connected to the armed struggle in every corner of Cuba. What became a vibrant, clandestine urban movement led by figures like Armando Hart, Enrique Oltuski, Frank Pais, Celia Sanchez, and Haydee Santamaria whose responsibilities included funneling arms and trained cadre to the guerrilla army.

Among the first recruits to the expeditionary army was Dr. Ernesto Guevara, an Argentine and the only non-Cuban among the guerrilla army in formation. Guevara had organized a clinic for impoverished workers and peasants in Guatemala before escaping, and also ending up in Mexico, one step ahead of the death squads of the CIA-installed murderous military regime that overthrew the democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz government. Soon he had befriended a number of July 26 Movement cadre, including Raul Castro. Ernesto became Che, the affectionate moniker affixed to him by his Cuban pals soon to become his comrades.

It was the July 26 Movement that emerged at the head of a genuinely mass, revolutionary movement to overthrow Batista and his regime. M-26-J seized state power under a clear and definite social and political program that it began to implement. Fidel became the central leader of a revolutionary government directing and organizing a new type of state power and social relations in the 20th Century and reaching out politically everywhere across the Americas and worldwide.

The July 26 Movement was, in practice, a centralized combat organization, the expression, in a political-military form, of a political vanguard. In the military defeat of Batista’s US-backed Cuban army, what became, from the twelve or so (out of 82) ambushed survivors of the Granma expedition, the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) that defeated the far more numerous – and strongly equipped and armed by Washington –  Cuban army under Batista’s command.11

Leading a Socialist Revolution

In the definition given by Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution, “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historic events…the forcible entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.” In that sense, the Cuban Revolution was a genuine people’s revolution.

Its radicalization and transformation into a socialist revolution was based on mass mobilizations and mass participation. All flowing out of a new mass consciousness. But this collective united action of the popular majority was the concentrated political expression of the transformation of millions of individual human beings who, in the words of Karl Marx, describing the insurgent workers of the Paris Commune, decided to “storm the heavens.” This dialectical interplay between individual and mass is the dynamic human spring in any genuine people’s revolution.

The working teams of outstanding cadre forged and trained under Fidel’s central leadership had boundless faith in the ability of working people and the oppressed to enter the realm, on a truly mass scale, of struggle and organization. These were professional revolutionaries, volunteers for a cause, motivated by patriotic and, for many, socialist convictions. Individuals prepared to embrace the discipline required for effective action, if, and it was a big “if,” there was a leadership that was honest, self-sacrificing, politically savvy, courageous, and prepared to go all the way. In a 1987 interview with Italian television journalist Gianni Mina, Fidel said, “You can’t be a revolutionary without a large dose of idealism and a tremendous confidence in human beings. A sceptic can’t be a revolutionary. A revolutionary is an optimist, someone who believes in human beings.”

What the Cuban Revolution conquered socially, in the interests of the large majority in its opening years, is all the more remarkable when we realize it was done in the teeth of violent, unscrupulous, permanent aggression by the United States government. This aggression included the April 1961 mercenary invasion by counter-revolutionary exiles organized by the CIA that was smashed at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron to Cubans).12

President John Kennedy’s “Operation Mongoose,” a program of unbridled terrorism, economic sabotage, death squads and assassination teams (some 600 assassination plans and programs were put into play against Fidel Castro alone by the spooks of Washington in these years) was now intensely in play after the Bay of Pigs debacle. Concrete preparations and projections were well underway for a direct US invasion, which “Mongoose” aimed to soften the ground for.

These were the conditions, with Cuba facing the total devastation of a full-scale US assault by air, land, and sea, that led the Soviet government led by Nikita Khrushchev to propose to the Cuban government placing nuclear weapons in Cuba as a deterrence to the coming US invasion. Decisive in the Cuban government’s reluctant acceptance, was the Soviet presentation of the necessity of the missile placement, in order to, as Castro put it in the Ramonet interviews, ”to improve the balance of strategic forces.” Specifically, Khrushchev hoped to acquire, with a fait accompli, the leverage to eliminate operational US nukes near Soviet borders in Turkey. (See my essay55 Years After: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis” for more on Operation Mongoose and the unfolding of events leading to the nuclear missile crisis.

Revolutionary Cuba in the 1960s became the political and organizing center across the Americas for revolutionary struggle against US domination and the rule of the oligarchies – two things that were hand in glove.

In the early years after the triumph of the Revolution, the CIA set up in South Florida the largest base operation at that point, in its history. Daily operations were spun and run into Cuba involving plans for sabotage, terrorism, assassination, and so on. Organized, trained, funded, and directed from Washington, the operatives – by and large – were Cuban exiles. Thousands of Cuban citizens lost their lives as a result of such actions over the years.

The Agrarian Reform

With all this as a daily backdrop, Fidel and the Cuban revolutionaries carried out their program and policies, with mass support and mobilizations, utterly transforming Cuba.

The centerpiece for implementing, through popular mobilization and governmental power, the July 26 Movement’s program of radical social reforms was the transformation of the Cuban countryside by the Agrarian Reform Law. Agrarian reform was the fulcrum for the social and economic transformations heralded by the Revolution. Deliberations to codify in law, and implement in practice, a comprehensive agrarian reform began within the central July 26th Movement leadership almost immediately after the military victory, and the establishment of a provisional government. The most profound direction and input came from the collaboration between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The agrarian reform was seen as the necessary foundation and catalyst for Cuba’s industrial development.13

The National Institute of Agrarian Reform was organized to implement the Law, with Fidel Castro as President and Che Guevara appointed head of the Department of Industrialization on October 8, 1959. Che held the central political and administrative responsibility within INRA.

Che organized and trained an INRA militia of 100,000. Their responsibilities included seizing control of expropriated land, supervising distribution, and helping to establish viable farm cooperatives. Some 500,000 acres of confiscated land was owned by US corporations. INRA, under Che’s direction, financed highway construction, built housing for peasants and farming cooperatives, and other industrial projects, including resorts for tourists.

All these economic measures dynamically interacted with the implemented radical social policies and laws that fundamentally altered and transformed social relations on the island to the clear benefit of the oppressed and exploited large majority of the Cuban population. These included a massive, successful campaign to wipe out illiteracy, and, what was particularly annoying to foreign and domestic big-business owners, progressive labor laws that greatly expanded trade-union membership and facilitated struggles for higher wages and better working conditions. Revolutionary laws and policies abolished racist Jim Crow-style segregation and discrimination policies, leading to huge advances for Cubans of African origins. The Revolution dealt big blows against the oppression of women including: legalizing the right to abortion (the first country in the Western Hemisphere to do so); the establishment of day-care facilities; equality in pay; greater access to education and professional training; and the eradication of organized prostitution with job training for ex-prostitutes. (It is estimated that one out of three women in Havana were super-exploited in the gangster-run commercial “sex industry.”)

These measures were not yet explicitly socialist; banking, manufacturing, and large-scale wholesale and retail distribution remained in private hands. However, the anti-capitalist tendency was clear and the encroachments on the prerogatives of domestic and foreign capital were intolerable to the ruling classes. With the implementation of the Agrarian Reform Law it was clear to all that social relations in Cuban society were being fundamentally transformed and that working people in the city and countryside were becoming politically and socially dominant.

Moreover, the evaporation of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive apparatus – the Cuban “deep state” so to speak — left a vacuum in political and social relations, into which stepped the highly radicalized, organized, and mobilized Cuban working people and youth led by the team around Fidel Castro. This was a leadership team of exceptional political and personal audacity and courage, who knew where they wanted to go and were not afraid of the dangers and consequences. The neo-colonial Army, police, courts, prisons, and the entire “criminal justice system” evaporated and were dismantled, with the new bodies and institutions stamped with a different class character.

The unfolding of the Cuban Revolution recalls the poetry of Bob Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are A-Changin’:

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

Fidel and the Liberation of Southern Africa

April 1974 saw a coup by left-wing military officers in Portugal against the semi-fascist Salazarist regime there and its unsustainable colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and the Cape Verde Islands where Portugal held colonies, more or less, for centuries. The coup unleashed pent-up mass struggles inside Portugal for democratic and workers’ rights. First and foremost, it expedited the collapse of Portugal’s colonial holdings. Negotiations with the new Portuguese government led to the target date of November 11, 1975 for the establishment of formal Angolan independence.

The broadest-based and predominant Angolan independence organization was the Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) which was poised to take governmental power out of the political situation left with the disintegration of Portuguese rule and the withdrawal of Portuguese troops.

The South African apartheid regime sensed the danger to it in these developments. Prior to the formal, scheduled Angolan Declaration of Independence, South African forces forged alliances, which they clearly dominated, with reactionary forces of the more narrow and insular, ethnic-tribal-based Angolan FNLA and UNITA organizations. These organizations were also aligned with the United States as well as the pro-imperialist and exceedingly venal Mobutu dictatorship in “Zaire.” (Joseph Mobutu’s regime had changed the name of the Congo to “Zaire,”) The apartheid South African regime, with covert US support, had begun incursions into Angola, which led to a full invasion on October 1975, weeks before the formal establishment of Angolan Independence.

With Mobutu’s troops directly supporting the FNLA from Zaire to the west, and apartheid South Africa’s troops accompanying UNITA from bases in the South African colony of Namibia (an illegal occupation under rulings by the United Nations), the South African apartheid army and its pro-imperialist allies were on the verge of seizing the Angolan capital of Luanda when, in one of the most selfless acts of revolutionary internationalism in history, the Cuban government dispatched the first contingents of what became tens of thousands of combat troops. Within months the Cuban forces had routed the South African-Zairean invasion.

Cuban leader Jorge Risquet, the African director of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, who was centrally involved in the policymaking and execution of policy within the Cuban government in those historic days, pointed out in an interview from the excellent French documentary “Cuba: An African Odyssey,” that “Angola needed soldiers and weapons at that time. The South Africans were advancing, so they couldn’t wait until the 11th because the South Africans and Mobutu would reach Luanda. There’d be no independence. [Angolan President Augustino] Neto sent a message to the Soviet government, but they said they weren’t prepared to do anything inside Angola before November 11. We, however, were ready.”

Fidel Castro said, in the same film, “When on October 23, Angola was invaded by regular South African forces, we couldn’t just sit and watch. And when the MPLA asked for our help, we offered the aid necessary to prevent apartheid from being installed in Angola.”14

The Cubans assembled every available, and then some, air transport carrier to transport heavy-weapons specialists and Special Forces on the first flights, making 70 transatlantic crossing round trip to Luanda between November 7 and December 9, 1976. The bulk of Cuban troops, which initially reached 35,000 infantry by the end of 1976, and equipment were transported by ship, boats, and other waterborne vessels commandeered from all available ships in the Cuban Merchant Marine. The volunteer troops were conscious of the political and military imperative of the mission at the gates of Luando.

The Cuban leadership carried this out without even informing the Soviet government beforehand, which they knew would have opposed the Cuban intervention as an obstacle and irritant to their pursuit of post-Vietnam possibilities of détente with Washington. What Cuba did was done for nothing material in return, out of pure revolutionary duty, and human solidarity.

Cuban troops routed the South African-led invasion and repelled the otherwise inevitable South African seizure of the Angolan capital of Luanda. Cuban troops remained in Angola for over a decade to check South African military aggression. During this extraordinary period the clear victories of the largely Afro-Cuban military forces and their African allies defeated the mighty apartheid army. The political impact of South African military reversals inspired the entire continent, not least of all the militant, revolutionary-minded youth of South Africa’s townships and the South African Black working class.

The South African racists were bitter that the covert support and encouragement given to them by the Ford-Kissinger government could not be publicly expressed. As word of the South African aggression became public, Washington was paralyzed politically, unable to identify openly with the apartheid regime it was allied with covertly. South African Defense Minister and future South African President P.W. Botha, said in 1978, “[W]e crossed a border …in the case of Angola [and] we did so with the approval and knowledge of the Americans. But they left us in the lurch. [We] …went in there and operated in Angola with their knowledge…they encouraged us to act and, when we had nearly reached the climax, we were ruthlessly left in the lurch.”

The stunning “fact-on-the-ground” was that the mighty white supremacist army (which included puppet African troops) had been stopped and pushed back on the road to Luanda by largely dark-skinned Cuban and Angolan forces, with Cuban combat fighters the decisive factor.

Months after the victory over the apartheid army by the Cuban armed forces – made up of internationalist volunteers – came the June 1976 mass upsurge inside apartheid South Africa. The urban townships exploded following the historic high-school student uprising in the impoverished Johannesburg ghetto of Soweto (South West Township). There is no question of the interconnection. Oppressed South Africans, especially industrial workers and youth in the Townships and “Bantustans,” connected to the mass African National Congress underground resistance, knew about, and were emboldened by, the defeat of the racist army in Angola by the revolutionary Cuban combatants. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu certainly knew about it in the prisons of Robben Island, apartheid’s Alcatraz, off Cape Town.

Despite bloody repression that murdered 600-700 in the streets of Soweto, the South African regime began to weaken and politically disintegrate. The Soweto Uprising, in fact, signaled the beginning of the end for the apartheid regime and that hated imperialist bastion.

At each political and military turning point of the 1976-1999 war between Cuba and its allies and apartheid South Africa and its allies, covertly backed by Washington, Fidel’s clear Marxist revolutionary perspective was that a military victory of apartheid South Africa in Angola would inevitably be a decisive victory that would prolong the life of the white-supremacist regime for an entire, and not inconsiderable period. It would be akin in its political impact to Hitler’s destruction of the German worker’s movement, Franco’s defeat of the Spanish Republic, and Pinochet’s coup in Chile. It takes a long time for the working class and oppressed nations to recover and revive after an historic defeat or major setback. This is a law of the class struggle and politics.

The ability to clearly see the price, first of all for the African masses of every country in southern Africa, of an apartheid state victory, is what led to the bold (and exceedingly risky for the Cuban state) measures undertaken in 1976 and again in the decisive 1988 crisis and emergency. The latter events involved initially an on-the-ground and in-the-air debacle and disaster, under the direction of Soviet military advisors, that went forward against the strong, razor-sharp opposition of Fidel and all the top Cuban leadership on-the-ground in Angola. What Fidel and the Cubans did was to turn a disaster into a decisive military victory at the small town of Cuito Cuanavale on the banks of the Lomba River in Angola.15

After the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the apartheid army was forced into a headlong retreat back to South Africa where the African townships were now in open, permanent, mass rebellion. It was Endgame for the apartheid regime. The South African rulers, and eventually their covert allies in the Ronald Reagan Administration, were forced to negotiate massive concessions in formal talks with revolutionary Cuba, the ANC, and other southern African liberations forces. In 1990, Namibia won its independence; Nelson Mandela and all the anti-apartheid political prisoners were freed; and the ANC and all the banned anti-apartheid organizations were legalized.

Over 300,000 Cubans – doctors, teachers, and engineers alongside combatants – served in Angola in the over ten-year period. Over 2,000 died.

Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela

These giant, world-historic, world-changing accomplishments – defending the sovereignty and independence of Angola, winning the independence and sovereignty of Namibia, and the unraveling and defeat of the apartheid state – unfolded with Fidel’s political and military leadership the decisive factor. These events without question laid the historic foundation for the new, relative rise of Africa in the world. This alone would be enough to secure Fidel’s role at the top summits of history’s liberators.

Preventing “Another Cuba” in the “Cold War” Years

Cuba did become allied to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact-states during the “Cold War” decades. This was probably decisive in preventing the Cuban Revolution from being overwhelmed by the economic and military power of the United States in the first years of the Revolution. The fate and survival of the Cuban Revolution – at the Bay of Pigs and during the Cuban Missile Crisis – became a major “flashpoint” of that “Cold War” period.

From its beginning, the Cuban Revolution and its leadership found a great resonance worldwide, and especially across Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Both big-business parties in the US were determined to use the apparatus of US power in the Hemisphere to counter that sympathy and prevent the emulation of the Cuban Revolution, and its extension in a period of intensifying national liberation and class struggles in the Americas. This included inside the United States with the rising Black liberation struggle and the growing mass movement against US aggression in Vietnam and Indochina. There was a growing layer, particularly among African-Americans, Latinos, and student youth, but also many others, who were attracted to and sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution.

Washington’s policy was to overturn the revolutionary Cuban government and stamp it out as a dangerous, but short-lived, revolutionary meteor that would crash back down to earth. But, Washington failed to defeat the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, US imperialism did manage, at a huge cost to the working people and for democratic rights in the Hemisphere, to defeat revolutionary struggles and popular upsurges in Latin America in the 1960s and 70s, and again in Central America in the 1980s.

It was the liberal Democratic Administration of Lyndon Johnson, continuing the policy of his assassinated predecessor, that orchestrated and provided key material and political support to the 1964 military coup in Brazil that deposed the reformist government of Joao Goulart in Brazil. The brutal military regime there lasted until 1985. Among the greatest of Goulart’s sins in the eyes of Washington was his government’s refusal to break diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Johnson Administration invaded the Dominican Republic with nearly 25,000 troops in 1965 to “restore stability” after a military coup against the elected, progressive government of Juan Bosch, and to prevent an unfolding revolutionary dynamic there. Johnson demagogically presented this gross violation of Dominican sovereignty as the need to prevent “another Cuba.”

Additionally, the Johnson White House, as it was escalating the US war against Vietnam, also oversaw the defeat of continental guerrillas, under the leadership of Ernesto Che Guevara, that were battling US-backed military and oligarchic regimes across the Americas from bases in Bolivia. The Johnson “National Security team” expedited the murder by summary execution of Che – captured in combat and unarmed – by US-backed Bolivian military forces in October 1967. The subsequent Republican White House of Richard Nixon, at the same time it was exerting itself to prevent a political-military collapse and defeat in Vietnam and Indochina, closely collaborated with the Chilean military and bourgeoisie to overthrow the elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in September, 1973.

Chile

On September 4, 1970 Salvador Allende was elected President of Chile with a plurality of the vote, 36.6 percent, against two divided liberal and conservative bourgeois parties. Allende was a leader of the Chilean Socialist Party (SP), a mass working class party. The SP-led government and coalition, Unidad Popular, included the Chilean Communist Party, another large working-class party, and liberal middle-class parties and groups.

Allende’s government coalition in its first year carried out a number of far-reaching and popular reforms, including nationalizing foreign holdings in the copper, nitrate, iron, and coal industries. Land reform legislation passed under previous capitalist Christian Democratic-party led government began to be implemented, in a political dynamic where landless peasants were already seizing land and working it. Space was conquered for increased trade union organization and workers won and received under Unidad Popular significant wages increases. A law was passed guaranteeing a daily quart of milk for children. Thousands of political prisoners were released. Allende’s government re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1971 and quickly developed warm relations with the revolutionary Cuban government. It spoke out strongly against US aggression in Vietnam, infuriating the Richard Nixon Administration.

In subsequent municipal and national legislative elections Unidad Popular increased its vote to up to nearly 50%, some 44 per cent in the 1973 parliamentary elections. Class, social, and therefore political polarization sharply increased. The Allende-led governmental coalition faced tremendous pressures from big-business and financial class forces, the Catholic Church hierarchy, and broad middle-class layers in Chile. These forces, in turn, were backed by, and actively collaborated with, United States government agencies and spooks. Washington carried out destabilization projects and plots, under the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger White House and State Department. These were widely known at the time, but, many years later, have been officially documented in great detail from records and archives released under the Freedom of Information Act.

(Pathfinder Press has published Fidel Castro on Chile, New York, 1982 with an introduction by Elizabeth Stone, a comprehensive compilation of speeches, interviews, press conferences, and interactions with Chilean workers and trade unionists, peasants, and students from November 10 to December 4, 1971. In speech after speech, Castro foresees – in a cumulative master class in the Marxist method – the gathering, impossible-to-be-avoided political, social, and class showdown. He did everything in his power to prevent a historic defeat and slaughter of working people in Chile similar to what Che Guevara had witnessed in 1954 Guatemala. The classic documentary The Battle of Chile, shot during the Allende years, smuggled out of Chile, and finished in Cuba, shows how workers and peasants, ready to defend their gains, arms in hand, waited in vain to be mobilized, organized, and armed as the defense of democratic space and constitutional legality that was being abandoned by the Chilean ruling classes and was, in fact, collapsing.)

A wave of brutal, bloody US-backed military regimes ruled across the South American continent during this period. Washington’s policies were largely motivated by a hatred and fear of the consequences of any potential extension of the Cuban Revolution. That is, revolutionary Cuba’s appeal to the oppressed and exploited peoples of the Hemisphere to rise up and conquer their national and social liberation. During these dark days of brutal rule by the US-backed militaries and oligarchies it was, in fact, the Cuban “dictatorship” that aided in every way it could – in a non-sectarian manner – the progressive and revolutionary forces defending democratic freedoms, political space, trade union legality, farmers rights, and so on. Is it any wonder that Washington’s shameless lectures to Cuba on “human rights” and “democracy” are met with such derision and contempt and have been unable to gain significant political traction in this Hemisphere.

Fidel speaking to a mass rally in Chile, November 1971

Certainly Washington’s problem with Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution is that, to his everlasting credit, the revolutionaries he led did not turn the other cheek, and give in, in the face of imperialist subversion and aggression. Revolutionary Cuba did not turn into 1954 Guatemala or 1973 Chile. They defended themselves and continue to defend themselves. Washington, the European Union “statesmen,” and the big-business media and house pundits call this “violations of human rights.”

Central America Revolutionary Upsurge in the 1980s

A decade of revolutionary upsurge, fierce counter-revolutionary response, in the finest traditions of the Latin American oligarchies and ruling classes, and US covert and increasingly open intervention and threats, was ushered in with the 1979 triumphs of the Nicaraguan Revolution, led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and the Grenadian Revolution, led by Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement. Revolutionary armed struggles against military tyrannies in El Salvador and Guatemala unfolded in the early-1980s.

The response of Washington, under the new Ronald Reagan White House, and Democratic Party majorities in both Houses of Congress, was the not-secret-for-long covert campaign to arm, train, finance, and organize logistics for the terrorist contra army. The contras naturally drew heavy on remnants of the overthrown Somoza-family dictatorship and oligarchy. Washington fostered a large base in Honduras to stage bloody terrorist raids into Nicaragua.

In El Salvador, Reagan’s team worked hard to put a “democratic’ face on the “moderate” “center” Jose Napoleon Duarte regime, but the operative, dynamic force, over this entire period, umbilically tied to the growing US military presence and intervention, were the rightist death squads slaughtered some 70,000, in a country of around 4.5 million at the time. (That would be the equivalent of 3.5 million people in the US at the time or 1,167 separate 9-11-2001 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center at around 3,000 an attack.)16

Fully in line with its proletarian internationalist traditions, Cuba did everything its could to promote and defend the Sandinista Revolution, the Grenadian Revolution, and the liberation forces in El Salvador and Guatemala. In Nicaragua and Grenada, the revolutionary workers and farmers governments and mobilized working people and youth in both countries were carrying out powerful economic policies and social programs in the interests of workers and peasants, with immediate results in massive growth is popular access to health care, education, and the arts.

The Reagan Administration counter-revolutionary drive also targeted Cuba, which, in the words of then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig, was the “source of the problem.”

In Nicaragua, despite the military defeat of the contra army, the war-battered, exhausted, and devastated country saw an erosion of mass participation and support for the Revolution by the late-1980s. In that context and pressure, there were also important political shifts in Sandinista policies, in particular delays in the implementation of land reform, that contributed to the electoral defeat and collapse of the Sandinista-led government in 1990. In this same period, by the late 1980s, military and political stalemates led to negotiated settlements in El Salvador and Guatemala. All of this meant that the revolutionary wave from 1979 had definitively ended without further victories, and with two historic losses in Nicaragua and Grenada.

The shock, and accompanying positive material effect for the capitalist class, of the political and economic stabilization of neo-colonial capitalist rule, after the great expectations and inspiration 1979 ushered in, could only lead to a widespread political demoralization and a trend toward the rejection of Marxist and socialist ideas for so-called “neo-liberalism” exemplified by the rightist trajectory of some prominent ex-leftist intellectuals such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Teodoro Petkoff, and Jorge Castenada. Suddenly, the “Washington Consensus” and “neoliberalism” were ascendant. Neo-liberal governments were elected from Argentina to Peru to Brazil carrying out the Pinochet “Chicago School” economic program under a veil of capitalist “democracy.” A decade of “neo-liberal globalization” carried out a program of attacking workers and unions, driving down the value of labor, driving farmers off the land, and promoting anti-labor austerity and cutting already minimal social programs while promoting financial speculation, borrowing, and massive debt.

Moreover, by 1991, the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp” had politically collapsed. Triumphalist propaganda exalted the supposed “triumph of liberal capitalist democracy,” “the end of socialism,” and even “the end of history” altogether. The capitalist ideological and political offensive, full of righteous arrogance and full of itself, was on full throttle.

Nevertheless, in the “neo-liberal decade” of the 1990s, it was Cuba, and popular organizations like the Confederation of Cuban Workers CTC) or the Cuban Institute for Friendship With the People’s (ICAP) that called and organized trade unionists and solidarity activists across the Western Hemisphere and around the world to Conferences dedicated to struggle against “neo-liberal globalization.”

The “Special Period”

The collapse of the USSR and the “socialist camp” devastated the Cuban economy, threatening the gains of the Revolution and the Revolution itself, more than it had ever been, before or since, even when Washington nuclear missiles were aimed at it, when US invasion forces were gathering, and when the US Navy was sealing Cuba off from the world.

Cuba’s economy had become tied to the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp” to the point where 85% of its economic exchange was with it. Fidel had attempted to shift the Cuban economy, through the mid-1980s “Rectification” campaign, a politically-led attempt to revive Che’s economic policies and orientation, among other important social and political changes. But this was aborted under the rapid unfolding of events in the USSR and Eastern Europe from 1989-1992.

Almost overnight economic exchanges and ties to the “socialist camp” evaporated. Cuba’s economic output fell 35%. Factories shut down for lack of parts. Produce rotted in fields as farm equipment could not move. Oxen replaced tractors. Surgeries were performed in the open sun for lack of electricity. Blackouts were the norm. Those dog days across the 1990s became known as the “Special Period.”

It was precisely at this time that US economic and travel sanctions were deepened and intensified. Bipartisan Washington, under both the first George Bush and William Clinton White Houses hoped that, once and for all, it could be rid of the “pestilence” of the Cuban Revolution, its example and outsized political resonance and influence in the Americas and the world. It was inconceivable to the US government that the “Castro” Revolution could survive these blows. Washington passed legislation, the Torricelli and Helms-Burton “Acts,” that tightened the US economic, commercial, and financial embargo and attempted to “internationalize” it into a de facto military blockade. This was to be done by pressuring and threatening with penalties other countries or enterprises that independently traded with Cuba.17

The Cuban Five meet Fidel and his wife Dalia Soto del Valle

It can be said that Fidel’s last great triumph as a revolutionary leader was the struggle, with the Cuban people, to successfully lead the nation through, and beginning to fight its way out of, the “Special Period.”

Cuba began to climb out from the “Special Period” at the turn of the 20th Century. Fidel’s government deployed teams of economists, diplomats, and negotiators around the world seeking investment capital, negotiating trade deals and financing, figuring out ways of getting around the US blockade, and so on, and making important progress. Cuban working people stepped up to the plate to build high-rise and other new hotels and food markets to rebuild the tourism industry. Tourism, which quickly expanded, brought in urgently needed foreign exchange to maintain the basic conquests of the Revolution in free and high-quality medical care and education. A key to Cuban economic advances was new economic and political relations with Venezuela, Brazil, and other Latin American countries that were prepared to stand up to Washington’s pressure, as well as increased economic ties with China and Vietnam.

At this time Latin America was undergoing major political shifts with mass resistance growing to the so-called “neo-liberal Washington Consensus” policies of austerity and assaults on working people. In particular, the Bolivarian government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, elected President in 1998 after a mass uprising against austerity measures was met with murderous repression, forged a close alliance with revolutionary Cuba, that included providing oil and energy needs to the island, while Cuba provided 30,000 thousand doctors and teachers that greatly boosted the access to 10 million Venezuelan working people to quality medical care and education. Over time, in this period, all Latin American governments united to oppose Washington’s attempts to isolate and overturn the Cuban government and Revolution. It was Fidel Castro’s government that mobilized world public opinion against the US-backed attempted coup of April 2002 in Venezuela.

Fidel, the “world Communist movement” and Socialism

Fidel politically defeated his enemies in his lifetime and in history. The Cuban Revolution not only survived the decades-long US government onslaught, but implemented and consolidated historic social and cultural advances. To this day, Cuba’s example and its deeds of international solidarity resonate in today’s political world and with new generations of socialist and revolutionary-minded fighters in every corner of the globe.

It is clear that Cuba punches “way above its weight” in world politics. Fidel’s enemies for all their efforts have not been able to manufacture a false narrative – and have it stick – on the great Cuban revolutionary.

Fidel was an opponent of dogma and often expressed a striking critique of the stultification of Marxism in the Soviet bloc. In a January 12, 1968 speech at the closing session of the Cultural Congress of Havana at the Charles Chaplin Theater, Castro said:

[N]othing could be more anti-Marxist than dogma, nothing could be more anti-Marxist than the petrification of ideas. And there are even ideas propounded in the name of Marxism which seem to be truly fossils. Marxism has had thinkers of genius: Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, Lenin, to mention the outstanding founders. But Marxism needs to develop, break away from a certain rigidity, interpret today’s reality from an objective, scientific viewpoint, conduct itself as a revolutionary force and not as a pseudo-revolutionary church. These are the paradoxes of history. How, seeing sectors of the clergy becoming revolutionary forces, can we resign ourselves to seeing revolutionary forces become ecclesiastical forces.

The emergence of the independent Cuban communist leadership was a political and ideological challenge to the bastions of “official” Marxism in the Soviet Union of the post-Stalin and Khrushchev era from 1953-1964 and also to the variant coming out of the political, economic, and human turmoil in China during the era of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution where intense political-factional warfare broke out within the Chinese Communist Party and government.

There may seem to be little immediate residual relevance to these decades-ago polemics and divisions within what was once called the “world Communist movement.” But for a revolutionary Marxist and the working-class movement, understanding the lessons and history of the past are indispensable in developing a consciousness, methodology, and program for today and tomorrow.

Today, all “traditional” political tendencies in the workers movement and the “left” are being shaken up by the ascent of so-called populist movements and parties, “right” and “left.” Longstanding social-democratic parties and organizations have been thrown into turmoil and crisis in country after country in Europe and attempts to forge a similar “progressive,” “mixed economy” perspective in in Latin America and elsewhere in the so-called “emerging markets.” (What I would call a “Left Keynesian” outlook and perspective.)

Today, the permanent crisis of building effective, international working-class leadership and organizations, based on fraternal collaboration and solidarity in common struggle, remains weak and unresolved. But it is increasingly on the table as social and class polarization, and inevitable political volatility and instability, mounts everywhere, from the richest to the most destitute countries on Earth, and everywhere in between.

Today, the permanent crisis of building effective, international working-class leadership based on fraternal collaboration and solidarity in common struggle, remains weak and unresolved. But it is increasingly on the table as social and class polarization, and inevitable political volatility and instability, mounts everywhere.

Yet, this is also an era where the fact and example of the Cuban Revolution survives and leads. It is this anti-imperialist, socialist, and Marxist legacy of Fidel Castro needs to be studied by young people turning to anti-capitalism and socialism, and to revolutionary struggle around the world, including in the United States, Europe, and other industrialized capitalist countries. Many will perhaps be surprised at the fruits of their study.

Fidel and Stalinism

Political and ideological attacks on Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolutionary government from the propaganda machinery of the capitalist world have generally attempted and continue to attempt to identify the Cuban Revolution with “Stalinism,” no matter how little serious understanding of that actual historical phenomenon there is on the part of anti-Cuban propagandists. Of course, defenders and apologists for capitalism and imperialism love to equate “Communism” and Marxism with Stalinism, and to collapse the latter into the former.

Historically, the terms “socialism” and “communism” were more or less interchangeable. After the Russian Revolution, a sharp polarization in the workers movement developed between supporters and opponents of the Bolsheviks in the radicalizing workers movement, with Lenin and the Bolsheviks identifying as “Communists.” This political division was reflected and registered in the different labels. This deepened with the consolidation of Stalin’s regime which retained the label “Communist” as did the large majority of Communist Parties in the world that allied with the Soviet government and Stalin’s Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The objective and subjective circumstances facing the Cuban Revolution, and the responsibilities upon Fidel as the central spokesperson of the revolutionary leadership, made a certain circumspection a necessary political quality and characteristic. The art of revolutionary politics – a test that every sectarian fails – is not always saying everything you may think you know, but saying what is necessary, always speaking the concrete truth, and backing up your words with deeds, and with action.

At the same time, the alliance – including the military component – with the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp,” was decisive in the very material survival of the Cuban Revolution, at least in the crucial early years when Washington’s open commitment, backed by furious actions and deeds, was to utterly eradicate the revolutionary government. Moreover, Fidel and the Cuban leadership were genuinely grateful for the solidarity and material aid they received from the Soviet Union and its allies.

The Fidelistas were drawn into, whether they liked it or not, the raging political battles within the “world Communist movement.” This was a period where the schisms between the Soviet and Chinese Communist Parties and governments were becoming toxic even as US aggression against Vietnam began to escalate and eventually dominate world politics throughout the decade of the 1960s and early 1970s. The contemporary questions roiling the “world communist movement” essentially dealt with the long decades of the rule of Joseph Stalin’s government in the Soviet Union from its consolidation of power by the late-1920s, following the January 1924 death of Lenin, and the failure of Lenin’s death-bed attempts to remove Stalin as the General Secretary and a central leader of the Soviet Communist Party.

The Cuban leaders thought deeply about all these questions. Che Guevara, in particular, grappled with these questions very concretely as he prepared to depart from Cuba to provide central revolutionary political-military leadership for revolutionary armed struggle first in the Congo and then Bolivia and the Latin America Continent. Even before that in the period prior to 1965, when Che was a primary spokesperson and emissary of the Cuban Revolution in world politics, making numerous political and diplomatic travels, establishing relations with many countries, and visiting the “socialist camp.” The experience led him to think out, develop, and write down serious criticisms of the economic, social, and political practices of the Soviet and Eastern European governments and parties.

Cuban practices, despite pressures to conform to and assimilate the economic and social policies of their Soviet bloc allies, tended to diverge in many concrete arenas: land reform, the approach to family farmers and the peasantry as a class, culture and art, criminal justice and legal norms, hostility to torture, electoral procedures, women’s rights, and foreign policy. But, and this was central to the “Rectification” campaign, and, later, the lessons drawn from the “Special Period,” there was a tendency to copy, especially in economic practices, the experience and mechanisms of the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp.”

Under these circumstances, Fidel and the Cuban revolutionary leadership could not say everything they thought publicly, although if we look at the actual historical record, it is quite remarkable how much was said and how the independent revolutionary perspectives of the Cuban leadership was projected internationally. Vietnam was the sharpest expression of this, in the public speeches and statements of Fidel and Che.18

Fidel’s 1973 visit to Quang Tri in southern Vietnam raising the Khe Sahn Battalion Flag

The Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia

As I note in the essay, “55 Years Later: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis“:

Soviet-Cuban tensions escalated in this mid-1960s period, although never to the point of a public break. Nevertheless, sharp, concrete political and theoretical differences were registered between the Soviet and Cuban leaderships in this period over the US escalation in Vietnam and serious political divergence in Latin America. In several speeches in 1966 and 1967 Fidel Castro publicly excoriated the Soviet government for its economic and political relations with Latin American repressive and reactionary regimes.

The betrayal and execution of Che in 1967 sharpened the existing tensions and was followed by the [Anibal] Escalante intrigue and covert plotting against the revolutionary government. In terms of the economic relations and exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during these clashes, there was limited but noticeable Soviet measures affecting the struggling Cuban economy which was being whipped by the US economic blockade, particularly in the Americas. In this period, the first decade of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba struggled with diplomatic isolation in the Western Hemisphere under US pressure, with only Canada and Mexico maintaining formal diplomatic ties.

While all of this was impacting on the Cuban leadership and Cuban-Soviet relation –  and while, at the same time, the United States government, on the cusp of the Vietnamese “Tet Offensive,” had 500,000 troops and personnel in Vietnam, employing massive, destructive, and murderous firepower – in August 1968, the Soviet Union, with the participation of troops from four other of its allied Warsaw Pact states, invaded Czechoslovakia with some 200,000 troops, and overthrew the “reform” and popular government of Alexander Dubcek, who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

Fidel Castro gave very critical, even bitter, support to the invasion in a highly anticipated public speech. The speech was so critical that the Soviet press maintained a censorious public silence on its content, despite the bottom-line support. Aside from the inevitable denouncement from Washington and the European capitalist powers who had been handed by Moscow a propaganda bonanza and opportunities for political advantage in the “Cold War” chessboard, the Soviet invasion caused huge divisions and opposition from large Communist Parties in Europe and elsewhere, and near-universal opposition among left-wing forces and revolutionary-minded tendencies worldwide.

Fidel’s position as elaborately, and even passionately, presented in an August 23, 1968 highly anticipated speech, was internally consistent. He said the invasion “unquestionably entailed a violation of legal principles and international norms” and “it cannot be denied that the sovereignty of the Czechoslovak State was violated. That would be a fiction [and] an untruth. And the violation was, in fact, of a flagrant nature…From a legal point of view, this cannot be justified…Not the slightest trace of legality exists. Frankly, none whatsoever.”

Nevertheless, Fidel accepted the premise and assertion that Czechoslovakia was heading toward a restoration of capitalism which meant it would fall into the arms of world imperialism, weaken the “socialist camp,” and thereby greatly weaken anti-imperialist struggles around the world, particularly in Vietnam, but also the Cuban Revolution at that conjuncture. Leaving aside whether Fidel Castro was accurately assessing the dynamics of the so-called “Prague Spring” of Dubcek reforms and government, it is clear that Fidel’s position was shaped by anti-imperialist “camp” theories that was a seemingly intractable political framework at that height of the Cold War.

The Cuban Revolution paid a high price politically for a number of years for their position, despite the harsh criticisms and nuances in Fidel’s speech. It reinforced the views of those who identified the Castro leadership with “Stalinism,” and won over even more liberals, progressives, and leftists to that subjective, shallow viewpoint.

Nevertheless, Fidel never reversed his initial judgment and position of critical support for the Soviet invasion. (In the Ramonet interviews, Fidel said “[F]urthermore, we said we thought that the first issues raised in Czechoslovakia were unobjectionable, because they tended to improve Socialism. The denunciation of the methods of governance, the bureaucratic policies, the divorce [from] the masses, all those denunciations were unquestionably correct. But from fair slogans there had been a move towards an openly reactionary policy.  And we – bitterly, sadly – had to approve that military intervention. The preservation of the unity and strength of Socialism in the face of imperialism was for us vital, of first priority.” For his full nuanced position in Ramonet see pages 579-580. (In 1979 Fidel opposed the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan on grounds of international law.)

Fidel on Stalin

On a number of occasions Fidel Castro spoke clearly and forthrightly, with great reflection and insight, on the figure of Joseph Stalin and Stalin’s impact on history and world politics, including the politics of the “world Communist movement.” In the Ramonet interviews Fidel said,

I, deep inside, was more critical of Stalin, because of some of his mistakes. He was to blame, in my view, for the invasion of the USSR in 1941 by Hitler’s powerful war machine, without the Soviet army ever hearing a call to arms. Stalin also committed serious errors – everyone knows about his abuse of force, the repression, and his personal characteristics, the cult of personality. But yet he showed tremendous merit in industrializing the country, in moving the military industry to Siberia – those were decisive factors in the world’s fight against Nazism. So, when I analyse it, I weigh his merits and also his great errors, and one of those was when he purged the Red Army due to Nazi misinformation – that weakened the USSR militarily on the eve of the Fascist attack…He disarmed himself, he weakened himself, and he signed that terrible German-Soviet pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and other things.

In a 1992 interview with Sandinista leader Tomas Borge, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro went into more detail:

We should keep in mind, first of all, that the Soviet Union had the misfortune of Lenin dying relatively young. It needed him to live a further 10, 15 or 20 years…Lenin would have been able to rectify many of the negative trends that arose within the soviet revolutionary process after his death. Thus, Lenin’s absence – the vacuum his death left in the theoretical sphere as well as the construction of socialism in the Soviet Union – is a factor that had a great influence on what happened next.

Castro then focused on “first of all, for his infringements on legality. Stalin committed enormous abuses of power,” as well as “Stalin’s character, his terrible distrust of everything, [which] made him commit several other mistakes: one of them was falling in the trap of German intrigue and conducting a terrible, bloody purge of the armed forces and practically beheading the Soviet Army on the eve of war.”

Going into detail Fidel contrasts the practice of revolutionary Cuba to Stalin’s “worst mistakes” in agricultural policy and “forced collectivization” of farms.

It seems to me that the process of socialization of the land should have been started earlier and developed progressively…It seems to me that the attempt to socialize the land in an extremely short period of time historically, by means of violence, was very costly, both economically and in terms of human suffering. That was a serious mistake under Stalin’s leadership…What I don’t believe is that anything forced them to have then carried out an accelerated process of compulsory collectivization…We’ve always understood that small plots of land have limited production possibilities, but we never engaged in any compulsory collectivization.

Estimates of the number who died in the mass famines in Soviet Ukraine in this period are in the millions.

Castro credits Stalin’s organizational and administrative talents, and his eye for detail, for the relatively rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and for the, by any measure, heroic accomplishment of Soviet workers of dismantling and transporting whole war industries and factories east of the Ural Mountains, and out of the range of the Nazi Luftwaffe, as the Nazi onslaught advanced, a process Stalin evidently directly oversaw and supervised. By this point, Stalin had given considerable ground in military decision making to the rebuilt Red Army officer corps.

Castro’s stated views on Stalin are particularly animated and sharp on the period leading up to and during World War II, particularly on the political morality of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact. These give important insights into the primacy that Fidel gives, in revolutionary politics, to internationalist Marxist principles, and not giving up the moral high ground. He contrasts and compares – within the limits of any analogy – the practice of the Cuban Revolution to Stalin and Stalinism. The Borge interview takes place in the real-time period where the Soviet Union had just collapsed as a nation-state. As he recalled to Borge:

I was 13 when World War II began, and I read all the newspapers. I had been avidly reading all of the newspapers, all the international news, ever since the Spanish Civil War…I read the newspapers in the years proceeding World War II, and I read the news every day during the war years. This is without mentioning the books I read about the military events of the time and about political events after the war.

Stalin [did] something that I will always criticize, because I think it was a flagrant violation of principle: his seeking peace with Hitler at all costs, to gain time. In our long revolutionary life and in the already relatively long life of the Cuban Revolution, we have never negotiated even one principle to gain time or obtain any other kind of practical advantage…all my life, ever since I developed a political and revolutionary awareness, I have considered that pact to have been a terrible mistake in Soviet foreign policy, a mistake that Stalin made in those years leading up to the war…Moreover, I think that, far from providing more time, that nonaggression pact reduced the time available…I think it was a terrible mistake from the point of view of principles and of international opinion…all my life, I’ve thought that the little war against Finland was another terrible mistake, both from the viewpoint of principles, and from that of international law. That’s what I have always thought.

He drives home this crucial point, which was also made in the November 2005 speech at the University of Havana:

[Stalin] went on making one mistake after another that brought the Soviet Union into disrepute among large sectors of world public opinion and placed Communists around the world…in an extremely difficult position, having to defend all those things in their own countries. Communists all over the world…had to engage in a kind of hari-kari to defend the Soviet Union…they found themselves forced to defend such unpopular things as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the occupation of a part of Polish territory, and the war with Finland.

At this point he tells Borge:

Now that we’re talking about this, I should take the opportunity to tell you that I’ve never spoken about these things this way with any journalist before.

Castro continues:

I think they were terrible political mistakes – and mistakes of principle as well – that we would never have made. The history of the Cuban revolution bears this out, because the Revolution never abandoned its principles. Never, for national convenience or any other reason, did the Revolution abandon any legitimate cause in the world, nor did it abandon any revolutionary movements, even though our adversary was the powerful US government….The things I mentioned go contrary to…doctrine…[and] political wisdom. Even though it is true that the Soviet Union had a year and nine months between September 1939 and June 1941 in which to rearm, the one who made himself much stronger – ten times as strong – was Hitler. If Hitler had gone to war against the Soviet Union in 1939, he would have done it less damage than in June 1941…He made another extremely serious mistake in June 1941 when the German had concentrated millions of soldiers, thousands of planes, tens of thousands of tanks and armored vehicles and hundreds of divisions…along the border. Faced with such clearly aggressive intentions – it was impossible to disguise them – Stalin clung to the theory that it was an act of provocation…and acted like an ostrich, sticking his head in the sand. He didn’t mobilize the troops…So what happened?…Hitler launched a “surprise” attack on the Soviet Union…How do you launch a “surprise” attack with millions of soldiers? Well, it was done, and Hitler’s troops attacked a country that wasn’t mobilized.

Fidel on Stalinism – Brazil 1990

In March 1990 Fidel traveled to Brazil to attend the Inauguration of Fernando Collor de Mello, the first directly elected president since the Brazilian military regime gave up formal political power in 1985. Collor de Mello defeated the left-wing Workers Party candidate Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva by 6%, in what was widely considered a manipulated outcome. Collor de Mello was the scion of one of the top ruling-class families of Brazil with vast media holdings. His was one of the first governments identified with the “Washington Consensus” and “neoliberal austerity” policies, registering pro-imperialist advances under conditions of inflationary spirals and massive state debt, to take office in the wake of the end of the revolutionary upsurge in Central America and the Caribbean and the collapse of the USSR and the governments of its Warsaw Pact allies. Within two years Collor de Mello was impeached for numerous “gross corrupt acts.”

In that period, the political dynamic in Latin American, where mass struggles for democratic rights were growing, was also prying open democratic and political space in a number of countries and, at the same time, registering a relative political slippage and retreat in Washington after the brutal “Condor” years. Politically, Fidel’s visit was part of the successful initiatives of Cuban revolutionary diplomacy in this period. The Cuban government saw, and seized on, the new, and highly contradictory, political conditions in Latin America in that period, to break out of Washington’s imposed diplomatic isolation for socialist Cuba in the Americas. This was a very successful campaign over a number of years, occurring at the same time Cuba was reeling from, coping with, and struggling mightily to ameliorate and get out of the “Special Period.”

Fidel’s expansive trip to Brazil was six days full of speeches and encounters up and down Brazilian society.

In 1990 Brazil, in this period when the “socialist camp” was disintegrating in real time and the Cuban government had begun preparing the Cuban people for the economic tsunami that they knew was about to smash into Cuba, Fidel spoke expansively on Stalinism and the Cuban Revolution. The political importance represented by Fidel’s remarks was underlined by the publication in Cuba of the small book Back in Brazil in 1990, under the copyright of both Fidel and the Jose Marti Publishing House.

In a meeting with a Christian “base community” at the Anhembi Convention Center in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 17, 1990 Fidel gave an extensive back-and-forth in the mass meeting attended by 1300 activists and chaired by prominent Catholic theologian Leonardo Boff, Methodist Minister Taria Marra, and Lutheran Minister Milton Schwantes.

Asked about Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika in the USSR (in what turned out to be the last year-and-a-half of the Soviet state) and if Cuba would have such an “opening” and “democratic process,” Castro answered:

[We] had already begun our process of rectification of errors and negative tendencies. Naturally, our process couldn’t be the same as that of the USSR, because we didn’t make the same mistakes they made.  We made other mistakes of a different kind and we had to rectify them, because doing the things they did over there would have been like removing a corn with a remedy prescribed for a toothache…We didn’t have phenomena like those stemming from Stalinism in our country – that never occurred and neither did abuse of authority, for at certain historical moments highly negative violent processes against peoples took place in the Soviet Union.

We’ve never used violence against even a single one of our citizens; we’d never stoop to doing that, because the day we did such a thing, using torture, committing crimes, we’d be outraged ourselves. There’s never been a case of political crime in our country; we had revolutionary laws, revolutionary courts, revolutionary trials, and even spies, terrorists who were executed with due process, but we’ve never laid a finger on anybody to make him speak or tell anything…That hasn’t stopped people from spreading the most atrocious and infamous lies about our country…but, obviously, great abuse of authority took place at certain times in the USSR, and there were phenomena which did not exist in Cuba.

…Other things happened in Cuba and one of them was that, in spite of the originality our Revolution always had, there were some things we copied from them and in our process of rectification this is one of the things we’ve rectified so far. I mean methods we copied from them with bad results in our country…We are distancing ourselves from mistakes; we don’t think much of using capitalist categories in constructing socialism while they, on the other hand, are moving in the direction of introducing capitalist categories more and more…We respect what they’re doing, because I really think [what] a country does must be respected. I’m simply answering your question…We’ve been careful to avoid as much as possible privileges for our leaders, officials, cadres; we struggle against that but, above all, we’ve made a big effort to uphold the unity between our Party and the people, between the Revolution and the people. Because what has happened in several of these countries is that there was a gap between the Party and the people, between the government and the people. If we commit those mistakes we won’t last two minutes next to the United States, a powerful country that blockades us, pressures us, harasses us, wants to destroy us. Without a united, organized, and armed people to defend the Revolution, we couldn’t exist next to the United States, and so reality shows that we haven’t made those types of errors.

Driving home the point, Fidel indicates the steely political resolve that led Cuba successfully through the “Special Period” and into the new horizons, and challenges, for Cuban socialism today:

Does it seem like the easiest thing in the world to make a revolution 90 miles away from the United States and resist for over 30 years the imperialist blockade, the hostility, the slander, the war against us, the permanent threats, which have forced us to invest so many resources and so much energy, and make so many sacrifices. Who was going to save socialism in Cuba, the Soviet tanks? The Soviets were over there, far away from us, they couldn’t have arrived in Cuba in time. The tanks that can come rapidly to Cuba are the US tanks, do you understand? That actually helped us a lot.

Instead of saying, what a misfortune it is living so close to the United States, I can say, what a good fortune to have lived so far away from the borders of the Soviet Union. It never occurred to us to trust that the Soviets would come to save our Revolution, had we divorced ourselves from the masses and the people and started to make all sorts of mistakes. And, in addition, what good fortune that was, because any revolution that is unable to defend itself is a revolution not worth saving. What good is any revolution that must depend on others to save it?

Fidel Castro and the Crisis of Revolutionary Leadership in the World

History will record that the team of revolutionary fighters gathered around Fidel Castro made a giant effort to move forward the struggle for revolutionary leadership in the world. Cuban revolutionary theory and practice was animated by a strong anti-bureaucratism articulated in the speeches and writings of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, that was bound together by a profound internationalist spirit of solidarity. This entire perspective and outlook was a return to – and spurred the revival of in a new generation of revolutionary-minded youth – a creative, and human-being centered, Marxism after decades of stultification and dogma in theory, as well as horrible crimes and betrayals in its name in practice, by the government led by Joseph Stalin and his acolytes in the Soviet Union and the so-called “socialist camp.” (See especially Socialism and Man in Cuba by Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press edition and Fidel Castro’s 1962 speech on sectarianism and bureaucracy.)

The consolidation of the socialist Cuban Revolution meant that for the first time since the opening years of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, revolutionary internationalists were in the leadership of a workers’ state. They not only held domestic power but, in their foreign policy, had the political perspective of extending the Revolution and using the political authority and material resources of the workers state – within the limits of the possible – to collaborate with and aid fellow revolutionists.

Taken as a whole, Fidel’s accomplishments stand unique in the history of the revolutionary workers’ movement and the national independence and liberation struggles that unfolded fiercely in the blood-soaked 20th Century.

In the following year after the 2005 University of Havana speech, Fidel underwent emergency intestinal surgery with a long recovery period. In February 2008 Fidel announced that he would not take up his government positions and on February 24, 2008 Raul Castro became President of the Cuban Council of State. On April 19, 2011 Fidel resigned from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba. At each step of Fidel’s illness and his physical inability to continue in his positions, his class enemies and anti-Cuba propagandists, who were tied to the line of “the dictator” and the “one-man show” smugly prophesized the quick collapse and implosion of the Cuban Revolution. Some are reverting to the same nonsense as President Raul Castro prepares to step down in April 2018 at the end of his term.

When Fidel Castro delivered the famous October 18, 1967 memorial speech for Ernesto Che Guevara in the Plaza de la Revolucion before over one million Cubans, he said about Che that, “An example such as this can never be eliminated by anything or anyone.” No more profound truth can be said about Fidel. It was Fidel’s fate, to the great benefit of oppressed and exploited humanity, to survive as a revolutionary fighter, head of state, dominant figure in international politics, and so much more until the age of 90. His ideas, ethical revolutionary practice, moral stature, and identification with revolutionary Marxism and the struggle for a socialist world and a classless society are immortal and imperishable and will never be erased.

As Frederick Engels said at the graveside of Karl Marx:

Marx was before all else a revolutionist. His real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat…Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival… His work [including]… a host of militant pamphlets, work in organizations in Paris, Brussels and London, and finally, crowning all, the formation of the great International Working Men’s Association — this was indeed an achievement of which its founder might well have been proud even if he had done nothing else. And, consequently, Marx was the best hated and most calumniated man of his time. Governments, both absolutist and republican, deported him from their territories. Bourgeois, whether conservative or ultra-democratic, vied with one another in heaping slanders upon him. All this he brushed aside as though it were a cobweb, ignoring it, answering only when extreme necessity compelled him. And he died beloved, revered and mourned by millions of revolutionary fellow workers — from the mines of Siberia to California, in all parts of Europe and America…His name will endure through the ages, and so also will his work.

Let the oppressors, the warmongers, the racists, the oppressors of women, the oligarchies, and the capitalist ruling classes rage and tremble at the memory of Fidel Castro, and rejoice at his passing. His towering physical presence is now ashes buried in Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of the Cuban Revolution. But they are not finished, they will never be finished, with Fidel Castro. And he is not through with them.

• Author’s Note: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Elizabeth Febe Velasquez

  1. Lincoln’s great merit was sanctioning and implementing, in the crucial 1863-64 period culminating in his 1864 re-election, truly revolutionary measures to actually abolish slavery on the ground (and later constitutionally with the Congressional passage of the Thirteen Amendment), and thereby implementing the radical abolitionist program. These measures included the recruitment and training of free Black and ex-slaves into the Union Army, which became a decisive factor in the defeat of the Confederate Army, as the Union forces became a vehicle for the escape, migration to Union Army lines, and liberation of millions of slaves (although large numbers died of disease, malnutrition, and poverty in the process). In my judgement, this fact transcends and overcomes the bulk of Lincoln’s pre-Civil War political and legislative career, with its fine distinctions, measured gradualism, adaptations to white-supremacist ideology, and his overweening pragmatism on the “slavery question.” Fidel was a lifelong admirer of Lincoln, laid a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1959, and always kept a bust of Lincoln in his office. Also see Karl Marx and Frederick Engels profound and essential writings and correspondence on the US Civil War and Lincoln.
  2. See Isaac Saney’s “Cuba, Human Rights, and Self Determination: A Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Commission” for an objective, fact-based, and compelling presentation of Cuban election procedures and participatory democratic norms, constitutional, and political space. Fidel once commented on the development of Cuban political institutions, “You strangle us for forty years and then criticize us for the way we breathe.”
  3. See Frederick Engels seminal essay and polemic “On Authority”.
  4. On March 29, 1959, for example, Fidel took up, without pandering one milligram to residual popular prejudice or social backwardness, the question of racism at a mass rally of Cuban workers: “I believe it is my duty to tell the people about the things on my mind and how they must collaborate with their revolutionary government and how it is helping them…But not everybody’s mentality has developed enough in the revolutionary way; a revolutionary consciousness is lagging behind the people’s feelings.  The people’s feelings are all revolutionary, but their mentality is still not wholly so.  The people’s mentality is conditioned by many inherited prejudices, many vestiges of the past, and many old customs.  If the people want to overcome this evil they must begin by recognizing it…Battles must be won by us…the battle against unemployment; the battle to raise the standards of the lowest paid workers; the battle to bring down the cost of living; and one of the most just battles that must be fought, a battle that must be emphasized more and more, which I might call the fourth battle — the battle to end racial discrimination at work centers. I repeat:  the battle to end racial discrimination at work centers.  Of all forms of racial discrimination, the worst is the one that limits the colored Cuban’s access to jobs.  It is true that there is in our country in some sectors the shameful procedure of barring Negroes from jobs. Everybody knows I am not a demagogue. Everybody knows I hate demagogy…[The first form] of racial discrimination we must combat is racial discrimination at work centers…

    [This]…limits access to places where a living can be earned.  It limits the Negro’s chances of satisfying his needs, and so we commit the crime of denying the chance to work to the poorest group particularly. While the colonial society made the Negro work as a slave, made the Negro work more than anybody else, and without pay, we commit the crime in our current society, which some have wanted to call a democratic society, of doing just the opposite and trying to prevent him from working to earn a living.  And so, while the colony worked him to death and beat him to death, we want to starve our colored brothers to death. It ought to be necessary to issue a law to establish a right that is earned by the mere fact of being a human being and a member of society.  It ought not to be necessary to issue a law against an absurd prejudice.

    What should be proclaimed is anathema and public condemnation against those men, full of leftover prejudices, and who are unscrupulous enough to discriminate against a Cuban, to mistreat a Cuban, over a matter of lighter or darker skin, because, after all, we all have a lighter or darker skin…But nobody can consider himself of a pure race, least of all the whites. The same way that we are going to organize and wage a campaign for buying domestic products, without a law or legal penalties being needed, we are going to put an end to racial discrimination at work centers by waging a campaign to end this shame, to end this hateful, repugnant system with a new slogan:  work opportunities for every Cuban, without discrimination for race or sex.  Let there be an end to racial discrimination at work centers; let whites and blacks all get together to end hateful racial discrimination at work centers.  In this way we will gradually build the new fatherland. We must mingle at recreation centers…At school black and white learn to live together like brothers. And if they mingle in the public schools they mingle afterwards at recreation centers and they mingle everywhere. But when they are educated separately, and the aristocrats educate their children apart from the Negroes, it is logical that later whites and blacks cannot mingle at cultural or recreation spots. [We will build] playing fields at public schools where blacks and whites can play together, and also establish clubs — or let us change the name and call them recreation centers — as we are going to do at all beaches; we are going to provide recreation centers for public school children, where they can have fun, play, and enjoy the bounties of nature, and know the joy to which every child has a right, the white child and the black together, as in the schools…”

  5. There has never been, in the practice of the Cuban Revolution, any laws or campaigns against religious belief or believers, although religious cover was often used by CIA-trained counter-revolutionary enemies of the Cuban Revolution in their violent struggle against the revolutionary Cuban government, leading to tensions and pressures, including with church hierarchies. A sectarian rule barring religious believers from being members of the Cuban Communist Party was not overturned until 1991. In 1992 the Cuban Constitution was amended to deem Cuba a secular state, as opposed to the previous characterization as “atheist.”
  6. The caricature that has become the mainstream narrative of the Russian Revolution in “Western” academic and journalistic circles paints it as a minority coup against a “democratic” government. This will be repeated ad nauseum in this centenary year of the Bolshevik triumph. In actual fact, the overthrown Provisional Government was never elected to anything by anyone and continually postponed having universal parliamentary elections. Such elections were actually held after the November 7 Revolution, under Lenin’s government, from previously drawn up candidate lists, that no longer accurately registered the fundamental changes on the ground, most importantly the major split of the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party, with the reconstituted Left SR’s now allied with the new Bolshevik government, that was carrying out land reform and ratifying land seizures taking place on a mass scale by landless peasants, including soldiers from the broken ex-Tsarist Army.

    The election results were majorities or large pluralities for the Bolsheviks in the cities and majorities for the former Socialist Revolutionary (SR) party in the countryside, and the collapse of electoral support for the liberal capitalist and “moderate” socialist parties. The Bolsheviks were the overwhelming choice of soldiers who voted at the various war fronts. (See John Reed’s 10 Days That Shook the World for the actual numbers of the Constituent Assembly elections). After foreign subversion and intervention began and the bloody Russian Civil War broke out and deepened, and the Bolshevik government dissolved the, by then, incoherent “Constituent Assembly.” The Bolshevik idea was to transcend and replace the bourgeois parliamentary system that had developed out of early British class struggles, the 1776 US and 1789 French Revolutions, 19th Century Latin American independence struggles, and the 1848 bourgeois-democratic revolutionary upsurge in Europe, with the soviet system of mass workers, peasants, and soldiers elected councils. This political program and perspective came under overwhelming pressure during the Civil War and its aftermath and Lenin’s death in January 1924. The soviet system eventually became, under Stalin’s rule, a formal construct with little political content or genuine working-class or popular participation. The closest approximation to the forms and norms the Bolsheviks tried to develop is in Cuba today.

  7. Every year since 1992 the United Nations General Assembly has voted to condemn Washington’s “Economic, Commercial, and Financial Embargo” against Cuba.  As I wrote in a 2013 article, “Isolation: Another Vote on Washington’s Anti-Cuba Policy at the United Nations“:

    Washington’s formal political isolation over its anti-Cuba policy can hardly be more complete. Is it possible to imagine any significant political issue in world politics uniting so many disparate entities often in significant conflict with each other — from the semi-feudal ultra-reactionary ‘Sunni’ Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the ‘Shi’ite’ Islamic Republic of Iran, from India to Pakistan and Syria to Turkey; ‘North’ Korea and ‘South’ Korea; Russia and Georgia, and so on across the spectrum from the most industrialized capitalist ex-colonial powers in Europe and Japan to their most ‘underdeveloped’ ex-subjects in the so-called Third World?

    And, it has to be underlined, that this vote was in defense of Cuba — a revolutionary socialist government ruling over a state where capitalist property relations have been overturned since the early 1960s and which has renounced nothing of its revolutionary legacy, heritage, and program even as it maneuvers and navigates in the reality of a disintegrating capitalist world order?

    On November 1, 2017 the UN General Assembly voted by the margin of 191-2 (with the United States and Israel voting no) registering the posture of the Donald Trump White House which has escalated bellicose rhetoric against Cuba and moved to further restrict travel back and forth between Cuba and the United States. In 2016, in the last period of the Barack Obama Administration, which had seen through the establishment of US-Cuban formal diplomatic relations in 2015, Washington and Tel Aviv had abstained. US bilateral and extraterritorial economic, commercial, and financial sanctions against Cuba continued under the Obama Administration. Despite its deferential vote with Washington at the UN, Israel and Cuba have significant economic exchanges with no sanctions and freedom of travel between the two nations.

  8. In Fidel Castro: My Life, A Spoken Autobiography by Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet, Scribner 2008, Fidel describes how “[In] July 1947, at the age of twenty-one I joined the Cay Confites expedition to fight against the dictatorship of Trujillo, since in my first year [at the University of Havana] I’d been designated chairman of the [Federation of University Student’s] Committee for Dominican Democracy. I’d also been named Chairman of the Committee for Puerto Rican Independence.” While the expedition was a debacle, Castro called it “an experience of great political importance,” which he describes on p. 97-98.
  9. In one of his last addresses to the Cuban people on November 17, 2005, Fidel gave a major speech at the University of Havana before becoming ill and undergoing major surgery less than one year later.  The wide-ranging speech is a remarkable and noteworthy document for many reasons. In it Fidel zeroed in on questions of economic waste, bureaucracy, and corruption as Cuba was beginning to emerge from the economic crisis and “Special Period” starting in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    In the speech Castro spoke candidly about how the PSP was politically discredited among the revolutionary-minded youth of his generation, when it allied with Batista and joined his government. Referring to “the erroneous direction that was imposed by Stalin on the international movement,” pushing the PSP alliance with Batista. “By then, Batista had suppressed the famous strike of April 1934 that followed his coup against the provisional government in 1933 which was unquestionably revolutionary in nature and to a large degree, the result of the historical fight of the workers’ movement and the Cuban communists. Before that anti-fascist alliance, Batista had assassinated countless numbers of people and robbed incredible sums of money, and had become a flunky of Yankee imperialism.  The order came from Moscow: organize the anti-fascist front.  It was a pact with the devil.  Here the pact was with the fascist ABC and Batista, a fascist of a different color, who was both a criminal and robber of the public coffer. And further in the speech, “[T]hat alliance with Batista…who had repressed students and the public in general. The young people resented [Batista’s] power very much; the workers who had always seen their interests continuously defended by the communist leaders were firmly loyal to the Party, but it was amongst the youth and wide popular sectors of society that there was the most justified rejection of Batista.”

  10. See Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution by Thomas Patterson, Oxford University Press, 1994 on the Dwight Eisenhower White House’s endeavors to make contact with anti-Batista forces, including the July 26 Movement. This, of course, was conditioned by the growing political turmoil and crisis in Cuba as the Batista regime grew more hated and isolated, and as the armed struggle – politically led by Fidel Castro – was advancing.
  11. Ernesto Che Guevara’s Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War 1956-58, (Pathfinder Press, New York, 1996), remains the classic, first-hand account of the course of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. It is a literary and historical gem.
  12. A panel at The Cuban Playa Giron Museum commemorates the defeat of the counter-revolutionaries. One of its panels reads: “The social composition of the mercenary brigade revealed the interests that they hoped to re-establish. An analysis of prisoners demonstrated that 800 of them, or their families, had owned 370,628 hectares of land [around 916,000 acres], 9,666 houses or buildings, 70 factories, 10 sugar refineries, five mines and two banks. They also included 135 soldiers of the tyrant Batista, and 65 criminals, among whom were three known murderers and torturers.” Fidel Castro personally interviewed and interrogated each prisoner and reported these figures and more at a massive May Day 1961 rally in Havana, eight days after the Cuban victory.
  13. Accurate statistics for pre-revolutionary Cuba regarding social and class composition and demographics are often incomplete, unreliable, and easy to manipulate. Slightly less than half of the Cuban population lived in the countryside according to the 1953 Cuban Census. Categories of landless peasants, family farmers (also mostly impoverished), and agricultural workers overlapped. Land ownership was dominated by giant monopolies or latifundia. The overriding factor to understand the pre-revolutionary social and class structures and system in Cuba was the domination of US capital in the overall Cuban economy. In his first-hand 1968 account, The Economic Transformation of Cuba (Monthly Review Press, New York), Edward Boorstein writes, “Sugar dominated the economy. Together with its byproducts, alcohol and molasses, sugar made up about 80 percent of the exports and paid for the bulk of the imports. The sugar companies controlled 70 to 75 percent of the arable land; they owned two-thirds of the railroad trackage; most of the ports and many of the roads were simply adjuncts of the sugar mills. The sugar industry employed about 25 percent of the labor force. The export of sugar and its byproducts constituted 20 to 30 percent of the gross domestic product. But this last percentage does not give sugar its true importance: most of the rest of the gross product depended on sugar.

    “The sugar industry was seasonal, unstable, and stagnant, and it imparted these characteristics to the whole economy. It employed about four to five hundred thousand workers to cut, load, and transport the cane during the three or four months of the harvest season, and then left them to starve during the rest of the year. The price and demand for sugar rode up and down with war and peace and business cycles, taking the whole Cuban economy with them. Since export outlets for Cuban sugar were growing only slowly, the whole Cuban economy stagnated.

    “Even apart from sugar, there was great concentration in Cuban exports. When tobacco, minerals, and coffee are added, 94 to 98 percent of total exports is accounted for. Tobacco exports, next in importance after sugar, also stagnated. They were about as high in 1957-1958 as in 1920-1921. The earnings from minerals and coffee were small and uncertain.

    “With exports stagnating, the only way the Cuban economy could have advanced was by increasing production for domestic use…[But] diversification and growth of agricultural output was blocked by the landholding system…Some new manufacturing industries producing for the Cuban market were being established, but they were foreign enclaves, appendages of the American or some other foreign economy…

    “Most of the land in Cuba was monopolized by huge latifundia – sugar plantations and cattle ranches – that sprawled across the countryside. Both sugar grower and rancher practiced extensive agriculture which wasted land, limited employment opportunities, and kept agricultural output down.”

  14. For a dramatic, beautifully rendered account, by the Nobel Prize in Literature-recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of the Cuban mission, named “Operation Carlota,” in honor of an African slave in Cuba who, in 1843, was killed leading an uprising of women slaves in the city of Matanzas, against the Spanish slave masters and colonizers, click here.
  15. For the full, documented, and riveting account of all of this, see Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991 by Piero Gleijeses, University of North Carolina Press, 2013. This volume, along with the previous Conflicting Missions University of North Carolina Press 2003 are classic works where Gleijeses weaves together in meticulous detail and documentation, the amazing history of Cuban internationalism in Africa, telling the full story of the defeat and unraveling of the South African apartheid state. Gleijeses, a noted scholar at Johns Hopkins University, was able to gain unprecedented access to US, Soviet-bloc, apartheid South African, and Cuban previously secret archives and documents.
  16. I visited El Salvador in November 1988 as part of an international labor delegation, representing the Washington Area Labor Committee on Central America and the Caribbean. We went there to attend the 20th Congress of the National Federation of Salvadoran Worker’s Unions (FENASTRAS). FENASTRAS organized, at the time, some 20,000 workers in many industries, including textile, garment, transport, and fishing. FENASTRAS wanted to test the waters and political space to hold a public Congress. Having an international trade-union delegation, with representatives from the US, UK, and other European countries (including, as I remember, a top Norwegian union leader) to physically attend the Congress was not only an act of solidarity but would hopefully be a protection for the gathered Salvadoran workers. The US folks flying into San Salvador were met furtively by two FENASTRAS leaders. Both were targeted by death squads. We learned details of the astonishing 800 FENASTRAS members and leaders who had been murdered by right-wing death squads tied to Washington. When we arrived to the FENASTRAS headquarters sandbags were stacked ten-feet high. I remember five minutes before the Congress was to start there were only the international delegation and a handful of Salvadorans. As I was thinking to myself, “well, this is a bust,” within the next five minutes hundreds of workers poured in using routes and means planned out for enhanced security. The Congress was a big success, but one year later, two of our hosts, including the dynamic and courageous General Secretary Elizabeth Velasquez, affectionately called Febe by workers, a textile worker and mother of three who organized a large plant making Levis and Calvin Klein jeans in San Salvador, and another FENASTRAS leader, Jose Daniel Melendez were among the ten people murdered when a powerful bomb devastated the FENASTRAS headquarters.
  17. At this time, anti-revolutionary Cuban-American organizations, with histories of violence and terrorism against Cuba, illegally organized from US territory, stepped up subversive provocations against Cuba, targeting in particular the rapidly expanding Cuban tourism industry. A terrorist bomb killed an Italian tourist. After repeated attempts to get the US government to act against this, a team of Cuban revolutionaries were dispatched to South Florida to infiltrate and monitor these groups clandestinely. Until they were arrested in 1998, the Cuban Five – Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez, Antonio Guerrero, Gerardo Hernandez, and Ramon Labanino – preempted a number of planned attacks. A major international campaign organized over many years demanding freedom for the Cuban Five. The last three incarcerated Cuban heroes were released in December 2014, as part of the agreement between Cuban President Raul Castro and US President Barack Obama to restore US-Cuban diplomatic relations. Fidel had promised the Cuban people they would return, and he lived to see it.
  18. Che’s “Message to the Tricontinental,” was published by the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Ospaal) in April 1967, while Che was fighting in Bolivia. It included a direct, stinging rebuke to the Soviet and Chinese governments: “US imperialism is guilty of aggression — its crimes are enormous and cover the whole world. We already know all that, gentlemen! But this guilt also applies to those who, when the time came for a definition, hesitated to make Vietnam an inviolable part of the socialist world; running, of course, the risks of a war on a global scale-but also forcing a decision upon imperialism. And the guilt also applies to those who maintain a war of abuse and snares — started quite some time ago by the representatives of the two greatest powers of the socialist camp.

Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The First Use of Nuclear Weapons

In August 1945, the United States government, having, at that moment, a monopoly on the “atom bomb,” unilaterally dropped nuclear explosives, successively, on the civilian inhabitants of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time of this clear war crime Japanese imperialism’s conquests and vast expansion in China, the Pacific Rim, and Southeast Asia, that began in the 1930s, had shrunk sharply. The Japanese rulers were utterly alone and isolated politically; their German Nazi ally was defeated, smashed, and under occupation. Japanese imperialism was in headlong retreat under intense attack from, on the one hand, rival colonial powers and imperialists fighting to get their colonial territories back, and indigenous independence forces in the remaining lands they occupied on the other. The latter was a mass upsurge for national independence and included resistance to Japanese aggression in parts of Manchuria in China, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and the “Dutch East Indies,” now Indonesia. At the time the decision to explode the nukes on Japanese cities was made, the Japanese navy was incapable of any operations and the Japanese merchant fleet was destroyed. The Japanese government had begun to send out “peace feelers,” fully aware of its hopeless situation. Washington’s utterly ruthless action – rationalized as necessary to prevent mass casualties for US soldiers in a ground invasion of Japan – finalized the defeat and prostration of the Japanese Empire in the Asian-Pacific “theater” of World War II…and sent an unmistakable shock and signal to the world for all time.

Cuba in the Eye of the Storm

The young leaders of the Cuban Revolution, now holding governmental power, were in the very eye of the storm during those last two October weeks of 1962. In the end the diffusing and resolution of the Missile Crisis – in the sense of reversing and ending the momentum toward imminent nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union – came when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave way to US President John Kennedy’s demands and agreed to halt further naval shipments of nuclear missiles to Cuba and withdraw those already in Cuban territory. Khrushchev further agreed to the removal of Soviet medium-range conventional bombers, very useful to the Cubans for defending their coastlines, and a near-complete withdrawal of Soviet combat brigades.

For his part, Kennedy made a semi-public conditional formulation that the US government would not invade Cuba (this was not legally binding or attached to any signed legal or written document). Kennedy also agreed, in a secret protocol, to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey that bordered the Soviet Union.

The Cuban government, which had, at great political risk, acceded to the Soviet proposal to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles on the island, was not consulted, or even informed, by the Soviet government, at any stage of the unfolding crisis, of the unfolding US-Soviet negotiations. With Cuban representatives completely excluded, the five points Cuba wanted to see addressed and included in any overall agreement coming out of the crisis were ignored altogether under US insistence and Soviet acquiescence. The entire experience was both politically shocking and eye-opening for the Cuban revolutionaries. They came out of it acutely conscious of their vulnerability and angered over their exclusion.

[Footnote 1: In a public statement on October 28, presenting the five points, Fidel Castro said, “With relation to the pronouncement made by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in a letter sent to the premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, to the effect that the United States would agree, after the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to eliminate the measures of blockade in existence and give guarantees against any invasion of Cuba, and in relation to the decision announced by Premier Khrushchev of withdrawing the installation of arms of strategic defense from Cuba territory, the revolutionary government of Cuba declares that the guarantees of which President Kennedy speaks–that there will be no aggression against Cuba–will not exist unless, in addition to the elimination of the naval blockade he promises, the following measures among others are to be adopted: 1) Cessation of the economic blockade and all the measures of commercial and economic pressure which the United States exercises in all parts of the world against our country; 2) Cessation of all subversive activities, launching and landing of arms and explosives by air and sea, the organization of mercenary invasions, infiltration of spies and saboteurs, all of which actions are carried out from the territory of the United States and some other accomplice countries; 3) Cessation of the pirate attacks which are being carried out from bases existing in the United States and Puerto Rico; 4) Cessation of all the violations of our air and naval space by North American war planes and ships; and 5) Withdrawal of naval base of Guantanamo and the return of the Cuban territory by the United States.”]

Washington Plans Direct Invasion

By April 20, 1961, the revolutionary Cuban armed forces, led by Fidel Castro, was victoriously mopping up on the coastal battlefields and detaining survivors from the routed counter-revolutionary Cuban exile “army.” An army organized by the US government and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron to the Cubans). This major operation to overthrow the “Castro” government and destroy the Cuban Revolution had been devised by the Dwight Eisenhower White House and carried out by the new Kennedy Administration in its third month after taking office.

At the time of their April 1961 victory at the Bay of Pigs over the counter-revolutionary exiles, Fidel Castro declared that the Cuban Revolution was a socialist revolution and that he was a “Marxist-Leninist.” Castro’s declaration corresponded to the social and economic deeds and policies being implemented by the revolutionary government (and to the profound internationalism of the Cuban leadership team). By 1962 the major domestic and foreign privately-owned major means of production in utilities, transportation, heavy and light industry, manufacturing, mining, and oil refining had been nationalized (mostly with fair compensation) by the workers and farmers government.

[Footnote 2: The private owners of nationalized foreign enterprises in Cuba, with their governments, negotiated satisfactory compensation with the revolutionary Cuban government, in accordance with international law. The US government, at the time, was already planning and organizing for the overthrow of the “Castro” government and was therefore in contemptuous rejection of any negotiations for compensation to US owners of Cuban assets being nationalized. This was a large swath of the Cuban economy, which was dominated by US capital]

Concurrent with this, the revolutionary government established a state monopoly of foreign trade and the first shoots of central economic planning began which would supersede the old neo-colonial capitalist market. With all its flaws and contradictions, pressures and counter-pressures, a qualitative class transformation of the Cuban state had been realized in a dynamic way. Certainly, bipartisan Washington and the entire bourgeois political spectrum in the US from left to right had no illusions in this regard The hostility of the US Democratic and Republican parties to “Castro’s Revolution” was monolithic and poised for aggression at that time.

Playa Giron was as humiliating and unacceptable for Washington as it had built confidence and was invigorating for the Cuban revolutionaries. It was certainly no secret to anyone paying the slightest attention that not even a nanosecond passed between Washington’s debacle at the Bay of Pigs and the planning for a new invasion. But this time it would be directly by US forces without the proxy agency of the mercenary “troops” of the former ruling classes of Cuba, who were by then ensconced in southern Florida. Since October 1961 the Pentagon officers assigned to prepare for the US invasion of Cuba had been revising, updating, and “polishing” the concrete details. These “operational plans” were continually reviewed with President Kennedy.

Cuba faced an imminent, violent one-two punch: intensive aerial bombardment followed by large-scale invasion on multiple fronts. It was less than ten years since the last major US war in Korea, a former Japanese colony artificially divided in the aftermath of World War II. The impact of US bombing on the northern Korean state and its capital of Pyongyang, could not have been encouraging to the Cuban leadership. Virtually the entire city was flattened by US carpet bombings. According to the Australian journalist and eyewitness to the carnage Wilfred Burchett, “There were only two buildings left standing in Pyongyang.”

Pyongyang, Korea in 1953. US saturation bombing flattened 18 of North Korea’s 22 cities, an unequaled level of destruction in modern wars.

All in all Washington dropped some 635,000 tons of bombs (plus over 30,000 tons of napalm) on northern Korea. This compares to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific Theater during World War II by all sides.

While the numbers of civilian deaths from the US bombing assaults in Korea are inexact, well over 1 million Koreans in the north died, some 12-15% of the total population by conservative estimates. If you add injuries and missing the figure reaches 3 million. (For a comprehensive, classic account of the origins and development of the Korean War see The Hidden History of the Korean War by legendary US journalist I.F. Stone first published by Monthly Review Press in 1952. It can also be downloaded at the Amazon Kindle Store.)

The 2017 Kennedy Assassination Files

At the end of October 2017, amid some hoopla, the Donald Trump White House allowed the release of nearly 2900 previously “classified” US government files and documents pertinent to the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Other files and documents were held back for now.

A number of these documents reference US violent plots against Cuba, including assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders by the Kennedy Administration. These reconfirm what has long been known on the massive military force Washington was planning to employ to invade and occupy Cuba and crush the revolutionary government after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

One document, a memo from August 8, 1962 – over two months before the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban territory – states, “In order to seize control of key strategic areas in Cuba within 10-15 days with minimum casualties to both sides [an absurd throwaway line regarding what could only have been horrific slaughter and massive dead and wounded] about 261,000 US military personnel would participate in the operation.” The memo was addressed to a “Special Group” within the Kennedy White House that was coordinating intensifying US efforts to eliminate the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. The October 30, 2017 USA Today writes, “While this and other documents had nothing to do with the actual assassination, it was included in the files because of the connection between Kennedy’s desire to remove Castro from power, his support of Cuban exiles to help him, and the affinity of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for the Castro government.”

The “operational plans” for the US invasion of Cuba were to involve the initial dispatching of 90,000 troops and was projected to reach the 261,000 figure. This for a country of six million people. (For comparison, the population of Vietnam was around 40 million during the years of the US war in the 1960s and early 1970s. US troop levels reached over 500,000. Massive US military operations, in the air and on the ground, killed millions of Vietnamese, perhaps 10% of the Vietnamese population).

There is no question that once “the dogs of war” were unleashed against Cuba, with the accompanying propaganda onslaught, Washington would wage a war of annihilation under the rote cover of “democratic” and even “humanitarian” verbiage. Cuban resistance would be fierce. Mounting US casualties would, in the initial period, feed war fever and US aggression. In short: Cuba faced unheard of death and destruction…and the clock was ticking.

Operation Mongoose

By this time President Kennedy’s “Operation Mongoose” was in effect. “Mongoose” was essentially a large-scale terrorist campaign and US intervention inside Cuba employing sabotage, bombings, murder, and so-called “psychological warfare.” Kennedy’s cynical purpose was to undertake and carry out any means deemed necessary to disrupt and demoralize Cuban society through constant, incessant violent attacks and economic sabotage to the point where the social and political conditions would be created for a full-scale US invasion.

But Kennedy and his civilian and military “advisors” continued to underestimate both the caliber of the revolutionary leadership and the capacities of the Cuban working people and youth they were terrorizing, as well as the Revolution’s determination and competence to organize their defenses.

Above all, the US rulers were not used to facing such a politically savvy enemy. The young Cuban revolutionary government, with the indefatigable Fidel Castro as its main spokesperson, was adept and quick on its feet in effectively exposing to world public opinion Washington’s anti-Cuba campaign through a vigorous, public, and factually accurate counter-offensive based on telling the truth about what the Revolution was actually doing and what the US government was actually doing.

The logic behind “Operation Mongoose” was bluntly laid out in an internal memorandum of April 6, 1960 by L.D. Mallory, a US State Department senior official: “The majority of Cubans support Castro … the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship. … every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.” Mallory proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.”

On July 26, 1961 – the national holiday declared by the revolutionary government commemorating the July 26, 1953 attack led by Fidel Castro and Abel Santamaria on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba – the CIA attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara during the celebrations. The CIA plan was, if the murders were “successful,” to stage a provocation against the US base at Guantanamo and make it appear to be Cuban revenge for the murder of their top leaders. This would then be the pretext for a full-scale US invasion. Here on full display is the cynical mendacity operating at the top of the US government in the drive to bring back the power of the landowners, rich playboys, segregationists, gangsters, and pimps – the full flower of “democracy” to the benighted Cuban masses suffering under literacy drives, free medical care, desegregated public facilities, and the crushing of the US Mafia.

During the next month of August 1961, the CIA organized one of its most pernicious campaigns against the revolutionary government. Its agents spread lies through a built-up rumor bill that there was a Cuban government policy to take all children away from their parents by force and raise them in “state institutions.” Some 15,000 Cuban families, overwhelmingly from middle- and upper classes full of prejudice and hostility to the Revolution, panicked and sent their children mostly to the US in response to a Big Lie, under the CIA’s infamous “Operation Peter Pan.”

The Revolution Advances Its Social Program

So, while all this criminal activity was going on, the Cuban Revolution advanced its program of social justice and human liberation for the oppressed and exploited majority as the most effective counterforce to the Yanqui aggression. On February 26, 1962 Cuba’s now fully legal and rejuvenated labor unions provided the people power for the campaign of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Health to carry out a nationwide drive for vaccination against polio. By the end of the year the disease was completely wiped out on the island. It took the United Nation’s World Health Organization, then far more subject to pressure from Washington than now, 43 years to finally recognize that Cuba was the first nation in the Americas to accomplish this.

Things like this, and the full array of revolutionary advances taking place in the face of Washington’s mounting terrorist campaign, convinced General Maxwell Taylor, who oversaw Operation Mongoose with Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the White House, that the terrorist operation “mak[ing] maximum use of indigenous resources,” could not and would not do the job of overthrowing the revolutionary government. “Final success,” Taylor explained in a March 1962 report to President Kennedy, “will require decisive US military intervention.” US spies inside Cuba, at most, could help “prepare and justify this intervention and thereafter facilitate and support it.” With the Bay of Pigs debacle still fresh in his mind, and without some of the blinders of more gung-ho invasion advocates, Kennedy hesitated to give a green light to the invasion plans he himself had ordered up. It remained yellow-lighted however, and Kennedy directed that Mongoose terrorism continue and step up.

The terrorist anti-Cuba campaign was not limited to Cuban territory. On April 28, 1962 the New York offices of the Cuban Press Agency Prensa Latina was attacked in New York, injuring three staff members.

More seriously, from May 8-18, 1962 a “practice run” for the US invasion of Cuba took place. The full-scale “military exercise” was code named “Operation Whip Lash” and sent an unmistakable signal of intimidation from the US military colossus to the six million people of Cuba.

All this mounting imperialist intervention had only one possible ending point – short of a Cuban surrender, which would never come. Events were coming to a head in Washington, Moscow, and Havana. Events that ineluctably posed and placed the nuclear question in the equation.

While the Cuban government and overwhelming popular majority were mobilized, armed to the teeth, and prepared to fight to the death, they wanted to live in peace and to enjoy the fruits of building a new society after a hard-fought revolutionary triumph. The Cuban leadership fully understood that a US invasion would kill many hundreds of thousands and destroy the Cuban infrastructure and economy.

Khrushchev Rolls the Dice

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, the Soviet leadership was facing a decidedly negative nuclear relationship of forces vis-à-vis Washington. This position of inequality (in the framework of the aptly acronymed Mutually Assured Destruction – aka MAD – nuclear doctrine) was perceived in Moscow as an impediment to carrying out political negotiations and maneuvering with Washington and the NATO powers, and defending Soviet interests in the “geopolitical” Cold War arena.

By April 1962 fifteen US Jupiter nuclear missiles had been installed and were “operational” in Turkey on the border of the Soviet Union. “Operational” meant ready to launch at any moment. Each missile was armed with a 1.45 megaton warhead, with ninety-seven times the firepower of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The official estimate of the “fatality projection” for each missile was one million Soviet civilians.

The Jupiter deployment in Turkey added to the overwhelming US superiority in quantity and quality in the “nuclear arms race” between Washington and Moscow. According to Anatoly Gribkov of the Red Army General Staff (cited in the television program DEFCON-2 shown on the US Military Channel), “The United States had about 5000 [nuclear] warheads, the Soviet Union 300. And of those [300] only two or three dozen that could hit the United States.” Khrushchev decided to alleviate this “imbalance” by placing missiles on the Cuban island if he succeeded in selling the idea to the Cuban leadership.

[Footnote 3: In the 1960 Presidential election, the liberal Democrat John Kennedy shamelessly promoted as an important campaign issue a supposed “missile gap” – in the Soviet Union’s favor – between Washington and Moscow, a conscious fabrication. Kennedy also postured to the right of his Republican opponent, Eisenhower’s Vice-President Richard Nixon, on “getting tough with Castro.” On this, Nixon had the disadvantage, as Kennedy was no doubt aware, of being unable to publicly tout the Eisenhower White House’s already advanced plans for the mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which Kennedy carried out three months after his Inauguration.]

Sometime in the spring (April-May) of 1962 the Khrushchev government of the Soviet Union proposed to the Cuban government that Cuba receive nuclear-tipped missiles on Cuban territory.  In no other country (including none of its “Warsaw Pact” allies, who were all politically subordinate to the Soviet government) had the Soviet government located nuclear missiles outside of Soviet territory.

Washington, by contrast, had openly placed nuclear missiles in numerous western European countries as well as Turkey and secretly in Okinawa, Japan, aimed at China. (The United Kingdom and France, both US allies, also had nuclear arsenals by that time. China detonated its first nuclear bomb in an October 1964 “test.”) Additionally, US “strategic” nuclear armed aircraft were in the air ready for attack orders 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. US nuclear submarines were in similar mode, and even more difficult to detect.

While Soviet capabilities undoubtedly lagged behind the US, it was not so much so as to preclude inevitable reciprocal attack in response to any US “first strike.” Soviet missiles in Cuba would theoretically be a further deterrent to any US “first strike” threat. Placing the missiles in Cuba was clearly seen by the Soviet government as a bargaining piece to advance Soviet strategic interests in the nuclear chessboard that animated US-Soviet “diplomatic” maneuvers and intrigue and political objectives on both sides.

Khrushchev evidently presumed that, faced with a fait accompli, Washington would redress the imbalance to the benefit of the Soviet Union. The Soviet missiles, upon being fully operational, would be able to strike major population centers and whole geographic regions of the US, roughly equivalent to the potential death-dealing capacity Washington had through its missiles in Europe surrounding and targeted on the Soviet Union. Of course, the big “if” in all of this reasoning was getting to the accompli. Given US technical proficiency this was a fantasy.

Cuba Accepts the Soviet Proposal

At the end of May 1962 the first direct presentation of the Soviet proposal was delivered to Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in Cuba by a Soviet delegation led by an alternate member of the Soviet Presidium (an executive decision-making body). The Soviet officials revealed to the Cuban leaders that their “intelligence” told them conclusively that a US invasion was being seriously prepared, to be implemented at any time over the next months. Of course, the Soviets were not telling the Cubans anything they did not already know in general, but there were new specific facts and details. The now-concrete proposal that measures to fortify Cuban defenses would include the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island naturally led to intense consultations within the top Cuban leadership. The chief government ministers involved were Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Osvaldo Dorticos, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, and Blas Roca. The day after the proposal was received the Cuban leadership told the Soviet delegation that the nuclear deployment was acceptable in principle.

In extensive discussions with European journalist Ignacio Ramonet (which became the book My Life: A Spoken Autobiography by Fidel Castro, published in 2006 by Scribner) Fidel Castro referred to the discussions within the Cuban central leadership. He said that besides Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership’s “sincere desire to prevent an attack against Cuba…they were hoping to improve the balance of strategic forces…I added that it would be inconsistent of us to expect the maximum support from the USSR and the rest of the Socialist camp should we be attacked by the United States and yet refuse to face the political risks and the possible damage to our reputation when they needed us. That ethical and revolutionary point of view was accepted unanimously.”

In a speech many years earlier in 1992 Fidel Castro had said, “We really didn’t like the missiles. If it had been a matter only of our own defense, we would not have accepted the deployment of the missiles. But not because we were afraid of the dangers that might follow the deployment of the missiles here; rather, it was because this would damage the image of the revolution, and we were very zealous in protecting the image of the revolution in the rest of Latin America. The presence of the missiles would in fact turn us into a Soviet military base, and that entailed a high political cost for the image of our country, an image we so highly valued.” (cited in October 1962 The ‘Missile’ Crisis As Seen From Cuba by Tomas Diez Acosta, Pathfinder Press)

Legality, Secrecy, and Lies: Losing the Moral High Ground

Having agreed in principle, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara, repeatedly argued with the Soviet leadership that the deployment should be open and public. The fact was that there was nothing in the Soviet-Cuban agreement to deploy the missiles that contravened any existing international law. In any case, the Cuban leaders were certain that it would be virtually impossible for the shipment, site construction, and land deployment to remain concealed from the highly sophisticated US surveillance technology. Furthermore, that, on the face of it, given the US missiles in Turkey and Italy surrounding the Soviet Union, and with practically open US plans to invade Cuba, open and transparent was the way to go politically and morally. All of this was rejected out of hand by the Khrushchev leadership. The Cuban leaders chose not to push the point and deferred.

In the book with Ramonet, Fidel Castro speaks of the “strange, Byzantine discussion” over whether Soviet arms shipments to Cuba were offensive or defensive. “Khrushchev, in fact, insisted they were defensive, not on any technical grounds, but rather because of the defensive purposes for which they’d been installed in Cuba… [We felt there was] no need to go into those explanations. What Cuba and the USSR were doing was perfectly legal and in strict conformity with international law.”

Castro continued, “We didn’t like the course the public debate was taking. I sent Che…to explain my view of the situation to Khrushchev, including the need to immediately publish the military agreement [on deploying the nuclear missiles in Cuba] the USSR and Cuba had signed. But I couldn’t manage to persuade him…For us, for the Cuban leaders, the USSR was a powerful, experienced government. We had no other arguments to use to persuade them that their strategy for managing the situation should be changed, so we had no alternative but to trust them.”

For the Cuban revolutionaries, the economic, military, and political ties forged with the Soviet Union had been a decisive, irreplaceable factor in their survival from the period after the January 1959 triumph of the Revolution through the April 1961 Playa Giron defeat of the US-organized mercenary invasion. Nevertheless, the unfolding of the Missile Crisis, and its ultimate resolution, left the Cuban leadership feeling vulnerable, bypassed, and insulted by the perceived highhanded behavior of the Soviet government led by Nikita Khrushchev.

Fidel Castro’s Secret Speech

In a major speech over two days to a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) on January 25-26, 1968 Fidel Castro reviewed the entire Missile Crisis. (The entire speech, previously unpublished in any public medium, was printed in 2002 with an official Cuban Council of State English translation, in the book Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis by James Blight and Philip Brenner published by Bowman and Littlefield Publishers.) Combining great emotion with sharp, cool logic Castro detailed how the “Missile Crisis” unfolded and how Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union emerged out of the crisis different from what they had been before.

Castro stated that Cuba’s revolutionary leadership looked to the Soviet Union for, “…measures that would guarantee the country’s safety. In that period, we had tremendous faith in the Soviet Union. I think perhaps too much.” Furthermore, “I am sincerely convinced that the Soviet Party bears great responsibility in what happened and acted in a totally disloyal manner in its relations with us.” Referring to the continuing terrorist attacks against Cuba that never stopped after Soviet missiles, planes, and combat troops were removed from Cuba at the “end” of the October Crisis, Castro stated, “Together with the pirate attacks and the U-2 flights, incidents began to flare up at the Guantanamo base [The US military base on Guantanamo Bay was ceded to the US government in the notorious neo-colonial Platt Amendment of 1901 passed by the US Congress and has been maintained to this day against the demands for its return to Cuban sovereignty.] The same Guantanamo base which, we are certain, would have been dismantled had there been a modicum of serenity and firmness during the October crisis. Had they had the presence of mind to have posed and demand correctly from a principled standpoint, had they said that they would withdraw the missiles if satisfactory guarantees were given to Cuba, had they let Cuba negotiate, the crisis might even have turned into a political victory…All the rest are euphemisms of different kinds: Cuba was saved, Cuba lives. But Cuba had been alive and Cuba had been living, and Cuba did not want to live at the expense of humiliation or surrender; for that you do not have to be a revolutionary. Revolutionaries are not just concerned with living, but how one lives, living most of all with dignity, living with a cause, living for a cause…Cuba did not agree with the way the issue was handled; it stated the need to approach the problem from different, more drastic, more revolutionary and even more legal positions; and it totally disagreed with the way in which the situation was terminated.”

“[Around July] we saw that the United States was creating an atmosphere of hysteria and aggression,” Castro bluntly spoke, “and it was a campaign that was being carried out with all impunity. In the light of this we thought the correct thing to do was to adopt a different position, not to get into that policy of lies: ‘we are sending Cuba defensive weapons.’ And in response to the imperialist’s position, the second weakness (or the first weakness) was not to stand up and respond that Cuba had every right to own whatever weapons it saw fit…but rather to adopt a policy of concessions, claiming that the weapons were defensive. In other words, to lie, to resort to lies which in effect meant to wave a basic right and principle.”

Decades later, in the Ramonet book, Castro returned to this crucial political approach, which is much more powerful than the usual technical cast of events when things had reached the stage of the actual nuclear standoff: “There was nothing illegal about our agreement with the Soviets, given that the Americans had missiles in Turkey and in Italy, too, and no one ever threatened to bomb or invade those countries. The problem wasn’t the legality of the agreement – everything was absolutely legal – but rather Khrushchev’s mistaken political handling of the situation, when even though both Cuba and the USSR had the legitimate right, he started spinning theories about offensive and non-offensive weapons. In a political battle, you can’t afford to lose the high moral ground by employing ruses and lies and half-truths.”

The missile transport was the largest sea-borne operation in Soviet history. By the time of the detection of the missiles, and Khrushchev’s decision to remove them under US pressure, there were already 134 nuclear warheads in place and on the ground in Cuba. All three of the SS-4 missile regiments were operational even as Soviet ships stopped moving towards Cuba.

The January 25-26, 1968 speech went into scathing detail on how shocking, given the Soviet insistence on secrecy, the lack of discretion on the Soviet side was in the actual deployment of the missiles, crossing into outright recklessness.

“Uncontrolled Forces”

At the height of the crisis, the central Cuban leadership was certain that a full-scale invasion of the island was imminent. As the latest batch of 2017 declassified Kennedy-assassination related documents reconfirm, preparations – “contingency plans” – for such an invasion had been in place for many months prior to the secret installation of the Soviet missiles. This was the only conceivable basis for Khrushchev to make the missile proposal to the Cuban leaders and expect their agreement. In fact, a US invasion of Cuba was on the hair-trigger of being ordered at several concrete conjunctures in the course of the crisis.

The decision to actually carry out a direct, large-scale US military assault was being furiously debated within the Kennedy Administration and the narrow circle of bipartisan Congressional leadership that was privy to the deliberations at the top. As President and Commander-in-Chief, Kennedy had to choose whether to give the order to invade – again, everything was already in place for the execution of an invasion – the island where many nuclear warheads were already in place, targeting US territory and where Cuban armed resistance to the invading troops was certain to be massive, highly motivated, well-led, and creative.  For the immense majority of the Cuban population, having just experienced a profound social revolution, drawing millions into revolutionary struggle and consciousness, Cuba would be fighting from their own territory against a foreign invasion force and massive bombing assaults. Thousands of Cuban civilians would have been instantly killed in these air strikes.

The political consequences of this carnage – against a sovereign people with the gall to make a Revolution, throw out a venal dictator, institute land reform, literacy campaigns, rent reduction, abolishing Jim Crow-segregation, etc. etc. – would certainly have been devastating for Washington even if nuclear warheads were never launched on either side, a dubious prospect at best. Washington would lose the “moral high ground,” so crucial in concrete questions of world politics. Cuba would regain what had been eroded by the secretive, clumsy adventurism of Khrushchev’s “initiative” and its incompetent implementation.

The question of the nuclear weapons that were already on the island and the more that were en route would likely have been rendered secondary and the question of Cuba’s right to self-determination would have again risen to the fore. Kennedy was politically savvy enough to realize all of this and finally rebuffed the advocates of launching an invasion.

Uppermost in Kennedy’s considerations were the physical presence of thousands of Soviet combat troops and military personnel (there were some 40,000 Soviet mechanized combat divisions in Cuba, although the Kennedy Administration seems to have counted less than half the actual number). This fact posed the question that Soviet casualties would be inevitable, further sharply posing the question of questions…would the US invasion inexorably lead to nuclear exchanges? Who actually would – in a hair-trigger political atmosphere – fire first becomes almost a moot, secondary question in the framework of such a political confrontation.

US “intelligence” estimates were that 18,500 US casualties would take place in the first period after a US invasion, according to declassified material obtained by the National Security Archive. The presence of Soviet nuclear warheads and large numbers of Soviet military personnel, fighter jets, anti-aircraft gun emplacements, and so on, was another major factor leading Kennedy to repeatedly postpone the invasion plans and opt for a naval blockade (labeled a “quarantine” for legalistic purposes) surrounding Cuba, and the drama of a relatively slow showdown unfolding over days in the Atlantic while negotiations between Washington and Moscow intensified, negotiations that excluded the Cuban government…as if Cuba had nothing to do with what was happening.

As is always the case when war and combat is actually joined, the “law of unintended consequences” comes into dynamic play. Or, as the historic revolutionary leader of the working-class movement, Frederick Engels, put it, “Those who unleash controlled forces, also unleash uncontrolled forces.”

The Letters

On October 26, 1962 Fidel Castro – at the most intense, dangerous point of the entire crisis – wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, which stated:

“Given the analysis of the situation and the reports which have reached us, [I] consider an attack to be almost imminent–within the next 24 to 72 hours. There are two possible variants: the first and most probable one is an air attack against certain objectives with the limited aim of destroying them; the second, and though less probable, still possible, is a full invasion. This would require a large force and is the most repugnant form of aggression, which might restrain them.

“You can be sure that we will resist with determination, whatever the case. The Cuban people’s morale is extremely high and the people will confront aggression heroically.

“I would like to briefly express my own personal opinion. If the second variant takes place and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the dangers of their aggressive policy are so great that after such an invasion the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists could carry out a nuclear first strike against it.

“I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba–a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law–then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.”

Khrushchev responded, in a second round of letters with Castro that:

“In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the enemy’s territory. Naturally you understand where that would lead us. It would not be a simple strike, but the start of a thermonuclear world war.

“Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I find your proposal to be wrong, even though I understand your reasons.

“… As far as Cuba is concerned, it would be difficult to say even in general terms what this would have meant for them. In the first place, Cuba would have been burned in the fire of war….

“Now, as a result of the measures taken, we reached the goal sought when we agreed with you to send the missiles to Cuba. We have wrested from the United States the commitment not to invade Cuba and not to permit their Latin American allies to do so. We have we wrested all this from them without a nuclear strike.

“We consider that we must take advantage of all the possibilities to defend Cuba, strengthen its independence and sovereignty, defeat military aggression and prevent a nuclear world war in our time. And we have accomplished that.

“Of course, we made concessions, accepted a commitment, action according to the principle that a concession on one side is answered by a concession on the other side. The United States also made a concession. It made the commitment before all the world not to attack Cuba.

“That’s why when we compare aggression on the part of the United States and thermonuclear war with the commitment of a concession in exchange for concession, the upholding of the inviolability of the Republic of Cuba and the prevention of a world war, I think that the total outcome of this reckoning, of this comparison, is perfectly clear.”

Castro then responded:

“I realized when I wrote them that the words contained in my letter could be misinterpreted by you and that was what happened, perhaps because you didn’t read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines. However, I didn’t hesitate to do it…

“We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield. Do you believe that we wanted that war? But how could we prevent it if the invasion finally took place? The fact is that this event was possible, that imperialism was obstructing every solution and that its demands were, from our point of view, impossible for the USSR and Cuba to accept.

“And if war had broken out, what could we do with the insane people who unleashed the war? You yourself have said that under current conditions such a war would inevitably have escalated quickly into a nuclear war.
I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding, moreover, when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.

“And I did not suggest to you, Comrade Khrushchev, that the USSR should be the aggressor, because that would be more than incorrect, it would be immoral and contemptible on my part. But from the instant the imperialists attack Cuba and while there are Soviet armed forces stationed in Cuba to help in our defense in case of an attack from abroad, the imperialists would by this act become aggressors against Cuba and against the USSR, and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.

“Everyone has his own opinions and I maintain mine about the dangerousness of the aggressive circles in the Pentagon and their preference for a preventive strike. I did not suggest, Comrade Khrushchev, that in the midst of this crisis the Soviet Union should attack, which is what your letter seems to say; rather, that following an imperialist attack, the USSR should act without vacillation and should never make the mistake of allowing circumstances to develop in which the enemy makes the first nuclear strike against the USSR. And in this sense, Comrade Khrushchev, I maintain my point of view, because I understand it to be a true and just evaluation of a specific situation. You may be able to convince me that I am wrong, but you can’t tell me that I am wrong without convincing me.”

Fidel Castro’s exchange of letters with Khrushchev assumes that given the forces in play and in motion – 300,000 Cuban combatants with 40,000 Soviet military personnel, the bulk in mechanized combat brigades, on the ground in Cuba on one side, confronting a US invasion force projected to quickly reach hundreds of thousands, all coming head-to-head while massive US air strikes and countering Cuban-Soviet anti-aircraft fire are unleashed, with enormous naval forces, many armed with nuclear weapons, including torpedoes in combat action – that the US invasion, which he considered inevitable and imminent, would inexorably go nuclear. Following this undoubtedly correct assumption, Fidel Castro’s logic and formulations in his initial letters became necessarily more abstract and algebraic. He presents, in the rush and incredible heat and speed of events, a post-invasion scenario where Soviet forces could strike, in a limited “tactical” use (although those terms are not specifically used), the US forces before the US could strike the Soviet forces. The same technical, military logic of “pre-emption” would, of course, dominate the US side which had a clear superiority in both quantity and quality of nuclear weapons deliverance at that point, the full extent of which the Cuban leadership was not likely aware of the extent of.

The MAD doctrine was based on each side’s nuclear arsenal countermanding the others. The seemingly absurd stockpiling of nuclear warheads and delivery system locations had the “rational” kernel of logic that after a “first strike” or pre-emptive launch of warheads the “other side” would still have enough of an atomic arsenal left to deliver a crushing response. The idea, developed by “Dr. Strangelove” US theorists like Herman Kahn, and accepted by their Soviet equivalents, was to build up and protect a “second strike” capacity in order to obviate a “first strike.” Of course, Washington continued – and continues to this day – to develop a “decisive” first-strike capability, largely through anti-ballistic and “Star Wars” systems to intercept and eliminate the other sides “second strike” (or first, or any strike) giving the US a credible “first strike.”

The fact of a US invasion – that is, its actual occurrence – of Cuba would have set in motion a dynamic that would have rendered moot, useless, and even ridiculous the question of who would “fire” the “first” nuclear weapon, if that could even be determined after the event (if indeed the word after would have any content). Dozens and dozens of ships, planes, and launch sites on the ground, under the control of dozens and dozens of military officers subject to “orders” in what would have been  unimaginable chaos and breakdown inevitable in the first nuclear exchange in world history. Would anyone have even known who struck first? The key point – the only determinant fact – in whether nuclear holocaust would be unleashed to an unknown degree was whether the US would invade Cuba.

New Facts

What is now known about the Missile Crisis is that a situation existed where, at the height of the confrontation, from October 25-28, literally dozens and dozens of military officers well below the executive political “decision makers” in a theoretical chain of command, on both the Soviet and US side, had the capacity and even the authority to push the nuclear button and pull the nuclear trigger.

We certainly know this to be true in the first-hand accounts by Soviet and US military officers and personnel on the ground, on the oceans, and in the air that have become public and from “classified” government documents on both sides. (see (Noam Chomsky’s “Cuban Missile Crisis: How the US Played Russian Roulette with Nuclear War”) in the October 15 Guardian newspaper, which cites several harrowing moments of near disaster.)

The author Michael Dobbs in an October 18, 2012 New York Times op-ed piece (“The Price of a 50-Year Old Myth”) wrote, “While the risk of war in October 1962 was very high (Kennedy estimated it variously at between 1 in 5 and 1 in 2), it was not caused by a clash of wills. The real dangers arose from “the fog of war.” As the two superpowers geared up for a nuclear war, the chances of something going terribly wrong increased exponentially…By Saturday, Oct. 27, the two leaders were no longer in full control of their gigantic military machines, which were moving forward under their own momentum. Soviet troops on Cuba targeted Guantánamo with tactical nuclear weapons and shot down an American U-2 spy plane. Another U-2, on a “routine” air sampling mission to the North Pole, got lost over the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent MiG fighters into the air to try to shoot down the American intruder, and in response, Alaska Air Defense Command scrambled F-102 interceptors armed with tactical nuclear missiles. In the Caribbean, a frazzled Soviet submarine commander was dissuaded by his subordinates from using his nuclear torpedo against American destroyers that were trying to force him to the surface.”

In his Guardian piece cited above Noam Chomsky, referring to the October 26, 1962 letter of Fidel Castro, writes, “As this was happening and Washington was debating and Kennedy was poised to decide on a US invasion, Fidel Castro wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev which has been interpreted, over Castro’s sharp objection, as advocating a Soviet nuclear attack – a so-called ‘first strike’ against US territory if the US invasion were to actually occur. Khrushchev himself took the necessarily and purposely algebraic and highly cautious words of Castro as such a call, and used Castro’s wording as practically a cover to carry out the retreat and concessions to Kennedy that diffused the crisis and reverse the momentum towards purposeful or accidental nuclear exchanges.”

An Extraordinary Gathering

The special January 24-26, 1968 meeting of the PCC Central Committee meeting where Fidel Castro gave his extraordinary speech was in no way fortuitous. It took place at what was perhaps the nadir of the downward spiral of Cuban-Soviet relations set in motion by the October Crisis of 1962. It was held just 107 days after the death of Ernesto Che Guevara and the defeat of his guerrilla forces based in Bolivia.

This on-the-ground fact was a real blow to the Cuban revolutionaries and the perspective of building a continental revolutionary army to take on and overturn the military regimes backed by the ruling oligarchies. These regimes of the Latin American ruling classes were themselves allied with, dependent on, and conjoined with the dominant US power in the Hemisphere. This new objective reality necessarily raised many challenges in the development and direction of Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy.

Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership placed an important part of the responsibility for the defeat of Che’s guerrilla on the top leadership of the Bolivian Communist Party which supported the program and perspective of the Soviet leadership in Latin America and opposed the armed-struggle campaign under Che Guevara’s leadership in Bolivia (which was seen as the initial base for a multi-front continental revolutionary movement against the military dictatorships and oligarchies) reneging on previously given commitments. The Cuban revolutionary line in Latin America was opposed – with varying degrees of vehemence – by virtually all of the Latin American Communist Parties that looked to the Soviet Union for political direction and orientation. What the Cuban revolutionary leadership considered betrayal in Bolivia, disrupted and undermined the formation and development of urban resistance forces crucial to supplement the rural-based guerrilla struggle under Che’s command, leaving the guerrillas exposed, vulnerable, and politically isolated. (See Fidel Castro’s “A Necessary Introduction” in Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, 1994 for Fidel’s description of the factor of betrayal in the defeat of Che’s guerrilla forces.)

The Escalante Affair

Prior to Fidel Castro’s speech, the Central Committee gathering had heard an extensive presentation by Raul Castro, then Chairman of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the President of the Cuban Council of State since 2006. The report was a damning indictment of a secret faction inside the PCC led by Anibal Escalante. Escalante’s faction, which was composed of former leaders, like himself, and cadres of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP). Before the Revolution the PSP, which had a base in the industrial working class and trade unions, was connected to the dominant currents in the “world Communist movement” and Latin American Communist Parties that looked to the Soviet Union for political direction and program.  (In 1968 the Cuban publisher Instituto Del Libro, Ediciones Politicas, printed a 160-page book, “Information from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba on Microfaction Activities,” which includes Raul Castro’s report and other important documents. It is an exceedingly important document, which illuminates that historical and political period and gives great insight into the caliber and character of the Cuban revolutionary leadership.)

[Footnote 4: Some thirty-five members of the so-called “microfaction” were expelled from the PCC and received prison sentences from two to fifteen years. The most serious charges involved secret activity aimed at forging ties between the “microfaction” and government officials and Communist Party leaders in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and Czechoslovakia in their common opposition to the revolutionary line of the PCC, and the large majority of PCC members, in Latin America and on Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies in general. This went as far as to urge Soviet economic pressure on Cuba, for which they were charged with treason. Escalante’s grouping never argued for their political positions openly within the structures and procedures of the PCC, which was their right. In their secret functioning inside Cuba and intrigues with Soviet and Eastern European officials and diplomats, the portrayed Che Guevara as a “Trotskyite adventurer” and the Castro leadership as “petty bourgeois elements” that seized control of the Revolution and who held the working class in contempt. Moreover, the Cuban revolutionary leadership was “anti-Soviet”and did not support Soviet “hegemony.”]

The PSP initially opposed the July 26th Movement (M-26-J) led by Fidel Castro, but by early 1958 they had endorsed the anti-Batista struggle and M-26-J leadership. Joint political and military collaboration was carried out in the last period before the revolutionary triumph. Over the next few years the majority of PSP cadres were successfully integrated into what became the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 1965. In 1962 Escalante, who had been the top functionary of the Integrated Revolutionary Organization, an initial formation bringing together the currents supporting the Revolution, had come under fierce public criticism by Fidel Castro for “sectarianism” and “bureaucratism” in March 1962.

Soviet-Cuban tensions escalated in this mid-1960s period, although never to the point of a public break. Nevertheless, sharp, concrete political and theoretical differences were registered between the Soviet and Cuban leaderships in this period over the US escalation in Vietnam and serious political divergence in Latin America. In several speeches in 1966 and 1967 Fidel Castro publicly excoriated the Soviet government for its economic and political relations with Latin American repressive and reactionary regimes.

The betrayal and execution of Che in 1967 sharpened the existing tensions and was followed by the Escalante intrigue and covert plotting against the revolutionary government. In terms of the economic relations and exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during these clashes, there was limited but noticeable Soviet measures affecting the struggling Cuban economy which was being whipped by the US economic blockade, particularly in the Americas. In this period, the first decade of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba struggled with diplomatic isolation in the Western Hemisphere under US pressure, with only Canada and Mexico maintaining formal diplomatic ties.

In the decade following Che’s defeat in Bolivia, all other allied Latin American guerrilla movements into the early 1970s had been crushed, most notably Argentina and Uruguay. At the same time there was a revival of mass urban and rural working-class and popular struggles in a number of Latin American countries, including Bolivia, which pushed open some democratic and political space, including for revolutionaries. In Chile, in 1970, in a byproduct of mounting class and popular struggles, the Popular Unity electoral coalition by two mass workers parties, the Socialist Party and Communist Party, won a plurality of the vote and Salvador Allende, head of the Socialist Party became President. Diplomatic relations were soon reestablished between Chile and Cuba.

The September 11, 1973 US-backed bloody military coup against the Popular Unity government pulverized all democratic rights and political space for many year and was extended by the mid-1970s as military rule was consolidated in Argentina (1976) and in Uruguay after 1973.

Aftermath

The Cuban Missile Crisis was hugely traumatic in world public opinion. Its resolution led to increased propaganda for “peace” and “reconciliation” in both Moscow and Washington, with accompanying worldwide diplomatic maneuvering. This culminated in the actual signing by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (formally the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, which was strongly welcomed in world public opinion when it went into effect in October 1963, one year to the month from the political drama and trauma of the Missile Crisis. (The treaty did not ban “underground” nuclear tests which could also lead to radioactive releases into the atmosphere as well ground water.  The treaty put no limits on the production of nuclear warheads and their fitting onto missiles.) All of this took place as Washington steadily and sharply escalated its military intervention and aggression in Vietnam.

John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership in the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet state came to an ignominious end in October 1964 as he was pensioned off and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexi Kosygin. The new Lyndon Johnson White House abided by Kennedy’s verbal “pledge” and invasion plans were put in mothballs, although covert action, terrorism, and containment continued. Primary focus and attention shifted to Indochina where Johnson maintained continuity with Kennedy’s intervention and deepened it.

Formal and definite improvements in Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union began after 1968 (despite tensions over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and other questions), particularly in economic exchange, through the 1970s and 1980s until the soviet government collapsed in 1991, setting off a huge economic depression and crisis in Cuba. In this period fundamental contradictions and sharp policy differences emerged over Soviet policies in Africa, military tactics in Angola, and the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which Cuba opposed.

The immediate threat of US-Soviet nuclear exchange and war receded on October 28, 1962 with the announcement that Soviet ships had stopped advancing and that Soviet missiles would be withdrawn. But for Cuba the crisis and the pressure intensified.

Not even two weeks after the supposed resolution of the crisis the world’s “sigh of relief, 400 Cuban workers were killed when a Cuban exile counter-revolutionary sabotage team, dispatched from the US, blew up a Cuban industrial facility. Right up until his assassination Kennedy was approving terrorist attacks against Cuba. US intervention by proxy never stopped and became systematic. US armed and trained counter-revolutionaries were finally defeated in the Escambray mountains in central Cuba in a campaign from 1963-65.

After a pause and renewal in the late 1960s, Cuba’s revolutionary internationalist foreign policy – in the spirit of Che – reached glorious new internationalist achievements in southern Africa after the great acceleration of events ushered in after the overturn of the hollowed-out Salazarist dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and the final collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bassau, and the Cape Verde Islands. Cuban troops stopped the apartheid South African invasion at the gates of the capital Luanda in November 1975 aiming to topple the newly independent Angolan government. Cuba’s revolutionary action and solidarity over the next nearly two decades was decisive in the defending the independence of Angola, winning the independence of Namibia, and in the retreat and unraveling of the South African apartheid state. (See the amazing history of Cuba’s internationalist foreign policies in Africa and southern Africa in the two volumes of the great scholar Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom, University of North Carolina Press.)

Fidel’s Last Thoughts

On October 22, 2012 Fidel Castro addressed the Missile Crisis on its 50th Anniversary:

“A few days ago, very close to the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, news agencies pointed to three guilty parties: Kennedy, having recently become the leader of the empire, Khrushchev and Castro. Cuba did not have anything to do with nuclear weapons, nor with the unnecessary slaughter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki perpetrated by the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, thus establishing the tyranny of nuclear weapons. Cuba was defending its right to independence and social justice.

“When we accepted Soviet aid in weapons, oil, foodstuffs and other resources, it was to defend ourselves from yanqui plans to invade our homeland, subjected to a dirty and bloody war which that capitalist country imposed on us from the very first months, which left thousands of Cubans dead and maimed.

“When Khrushchev proposed the installation here of medium range missiles similar to those the United States had in Turkey – far closer to the USSR than Cuba to the United States – as a solidarity necessity, Cuba did not hesitate to agree to such a risk. Our conduct was ethically irreproachable. We will never apologize to anyone for what we did. The fact is that half a century has gone by, and here we still are with our heads held high.”

November 11, 2017.

Author’s Note: This is updated and re-edited from an October 22, 2012 essay on the Cuban Missile Crisis.

 

55 Years After: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis

The last two weeks of October 1962, 55 years ago, was the closest the world has come so far to a widespread nuclear exchange in what has become known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis.” 

The First Use of Nuclear Weapons

In August 1945, the United States government, having, at that moment, a monopoly on the “atom bomb,” unilaterally dropped nuclear explosives, successively, on the civilian inhabitants of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time of this clear war crime, Japanese imperialism’s conquests and vast expansion in China, the Pacific Rim, and Southeast Asia, that began in the 1930s, had shrunk sharply. The Japanese rulers were utterly alone and isolated politically; their German Nazi ally was defeated, smashed, and under occupation. Japanese imperialism was in headlong retreat under intense attack from, on the one hand, rival colonial powers and imperialists fighting to get their colonial territories back, and indigenous independence forces in the remaining lands they occupied on the other. The latter was a mass upsurge for national independence and included resistance to Japanese aggression in parts of Manchuria in China, as well as Korea, Vietnam, and the “Dutch East Indies,” now Indonesia.

At the time the decision to explode the nukes on Japanese cities was made, the Japanese navy was incapable of any operations and the Japanese merchant fleet was destroyed. The Japanese government had begun to send out “peace feelers,” fully aware of its hopeless situation. Washington’s utterly ruthless action – rationalized as necessary to prevent mass casualties for US soldiers in a ground invasion of Japan – finalized the defeat and prostration of the Japanese Empire in the Asian-Pacific “theater” of World War II…and sent an unmistakable shock and signal to the world for all time.

Cuba In the Eye of the Storm

The young leaders of the Cuban Revolution, now holding governmental power, were in the very eye of the storm during those last two October weeks of 1962. In the end the diffusing and resolution of the Missile Crisis – in the sense of reversing and ending the momentum toward imminent nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union – came when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave way to US President John Kennedy’s demands and agreed to halt further naval shipments of nuclear missiles to Cuba and withdraw those already in Cuban territory. Khrushchev further agreed to the removal of Soviet medium-range conventional bombers, very useful to the Cubans for defending their coastlines, and a near-complete withdrawal of Soviet combat brigades.

For his part, Kennedy made a semi-public conditional formulation that the US government would not invade Cuba (this was not legally binding or attached to any signed legal or written document). Kennedy also agreed, in a secret protocol, to withdraw US nuclear missiles from Turkey that bordered the Soviet Union.

The Cuban government, which had, at great political risk, acceded to the Soviet proposal to deploy Soviet nuclear missiles on the island, was not consulted, or even informed, by the Soviet government, at any stage of the unfolding crisis, of the unfolding US-Soviet negotiations. With Cuban representatives completely excluded, the five points Cuba wanted to see addressed and included in any overall agreement coming out of the crisis were ignored altogether under US insistence and Soviet acquiescence. The entire experience was both politically shocking and eye-opening for the Cuban revolutionaries. They came out of it acutely conscious of their vulnerability and angered over their exclusion.1

Washington Plans Direct Invasion

By April 20, 1961, the revolutionary Cuban armed forces, led by Fidel Castro, was victoriously mopping up on the coastal battlefields and detaining survivors from the routed counter-revolutionary Cuban exile “army.” An army was organized by the US government and its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron to the Cubans). This major operation to overthrow the “Castro” government and destroy the Cuban Revolution had been devised by the Dwight Eisenhower White House and carried out by the new Kennedy Administration in its third month after taking office.

At the time of their April 1961 victory at the Bay of Pigs over the counter-revolutionary exiles, Fidel Castro declared that the Cuban Revolution was a socialist revolution and that he was a “Marxist-Leninist.” Castro’s declaration corresponded to the social and economic deeds and policies being implemented by the revolutionary government (and to the profound internationalism of the Cuban leadership team). By 1962 the major domestic and foreign privately-owned major means of production in utilities, transportation, heavy and light industry, manufacturing, mining, and oil refining had been nationalized (mostly with fair compensation) by the workers and farmers government.2

Concurrent with this, the revolutionary government established a state monopoly of foreign trade and the first shoots of central economic planning began which would supersede the old neo-colonial capitalist market. With all its flaws and contradictions, pressures and counter-pressures, a qualitative class transformation of the Cuban state had been realized in a dynamic way. Certainly, bipartisan Washington and the entire bourgeois political spectrum in the US from left to right had no illusions in this regard. The hostility of the US Democratic and Republican parties to “Castro’s Revolution” was monolithic and poised for aggression at that time.

Playa Giron was as humiliating and unacceptable for Washington as it had built confidence and was invigorating for the Cuban revolutionaries. It was certainly no secret to anyone paying the slightest attention that not even a nanosecond passed between Washington’s debacle at the Bay of Pigs and the planning for a new invasion. But this time it would be directly by US forces without the proxy agency of the mercenary “troops” of the former ruling classes of Cuba, who were by then ensconced in southern Florida. Since October 1961 the Pentagon officers assigned to prepare for the US invasion of Cuba had been revising, updating, and “polishing” the concrete details. These “operational plans” were continually reviewed with President Kennedy.

Cuba faced an imminent, violent one-two punch: intensive aerial bombardment followed by large-scale invasion on multiple fronts. It was less than ten years since the last major US war in Korea, a former Japanese colony artificially divided in the aftermath of World War II. The impact of US bombing on the northern Korean state and its capital of Pyongyang, could not have been encouraging to the Cuban leadership. Virtually the entire city was flattened by US carpet bombings. According to the Australian journalist and eyewitness to the carnage Wilfred Burchett, “There were only two buildings left standing in Pyongyang.”

Pyongyang, Korea in 1953. US saturation bombing flattened 18 of North Korea’s 22 cities, an unequaled level of destruction in modern wars.

All in all Washington dropped some 635,000 tons of bombs (plus over 30,000 tons of napalm) on northern Korea. This compares to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacific Theater during World War II by all sides.

While the numbers of civilian deaths from the US bombing assaults in Korea are inexact, well over 1 million Koreans in the north died, some 12-15% of the total population by conservative estimates. If you add injuries and missing the figure reaches 3 million. (For a comprehensive, classic account of the origins and development of the Korean War see The Hidden History of the Korean War by legendary US journalist I.F. Stone first published by Monthly Review Press in 1952. It can also be downloaded at the Amazon Kindle Store.)

The 2017 Kennedy Assassination Files

At the end of October 2017, amid some hoopla, the Donald Trump White House allowed the release of nearly 2900 previously “classified” US government files and documents pertinent to the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy. Other files and documents were held back for now.

A number of these documents reference US violent plots against Cuba, including assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and other revolutionary leaders by the Kennedy Administration. These reconfirm what has long been known on the massive military force Washington was planning to employ to invade and occupy Cuba and crush the revolutionary government after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.

One document, a memo from August 8, 1962 – over two months before the discovery of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuban territory – states, “In order to seize control of key strategic areas in Cuba within 10-15 days with minimum casualties to both sides [an absurd throwaway line regarding what could only have been horrific slaughter and massive dead and wounded] about 261,000 US military personnel would participate in the operation.” The memo was addressed to a “Special Group” within the Kennedy White House that was coordinating intensifying US efforts to eliminate the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro. The October 30, 2017 USA Today writes:

While this and other documents had nothing to do with the actual assassination, it was included in the files because of the connection between Kennedy’s desire to remove Castro from power, his support of Cuban exiles to help him, and the affinity of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald for the Castro government.

The “operational plans” for the US invasion of Cuba were to involve the initial dispatching of 90,000 troops and was projected to reach the 261,000 figure. This for a country of six million people. (For comparison, the population of Vietnam was around 40 million during the years of the US war in the 1960s and early 1970s. US troop levels reached over 500,000. Massive US military operations, in the air and on the ground, killed millions of Vietnamese, perhaps 10% of the Vietnamese population).

There is no question that once “the dogs of war” were unleashed against Cuba, with the accompanying propaganda onslaught, Washington would wage a war of annihilation under the rote cover of “democratic” and even “humanitarian” verbiage. Cuban resistance would be fierce. Mounting US casualties would, in the initial period, feed war fever and US aggression. In short: Cuba faced unheard of death and destruction…and the clock was ticking.

Operation Mongoose

By this time President Kennedy’s “Operation Mongoose” was in effect. “Mongoose” was essentially a large-scale terrorist campaign and US intervention inside Cuba employing sabotage, bombings, murder, and so-called “psychological warfare.” Kennedy’s cynical purpose was to undertake and carry out any means deemed necessary to disrupt and demoralize Cuban society through constant, incessant violent attacks and economic sabotage to the point where the social and political conditions would be created for a full-scale US invasion.

But Kennedy and his civilian and military “advisors” continued to underestimate both the caliber of the revolutionary leadership and the capacities of the Cuban working people and youth they were terrorizing, as well as the Revolution’s determination and competence to organize their defenses.

Above all, the US rulers were not used to facing such a politically savvy enemy. The young Cuban revolutionary government, with the indefatigable Fidel Castro as its main spokesperson, was adept and quick on its feet in effectively exposing to world public opinion Washington’s anti-Cuba campaign through a vigorous, public, and factually accurate counter-offensive based on telling the truth about what the Revolution was actually doing and what the US government was actually doing.

The logic behind “Operation Mongoose” was bluntly laid out in an internal memorandum of April 6, 1960 by L.D. Mallory, a US State Department senior official:

The majority of Cubans support Castro … the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship. … every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba.

Mallory proposed “a line of action that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of the government.”

On July 26, 1961 – the national holiday declared by the revolutionary government commemorating the July 26, 1953 attack led by Fidel Castro and Abel Santamaria on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba – the CIA attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara during the celebrations. The CIA plan was, if the murders were “successful,” to stage a provocation against the US base at Guantanamo and make it appear to be Cuban revenge for the murder of their top leaders. This would then be the pretext for a full-scale US invasion. Here on full display is the cynical mendacity operating at the top of the US government in the drive to bring back the power of the landowners, rich playboys, segregationists, gangsters, and pimps – the full flower of “democracy” to the benighted Cuban masses suffering under literacy drives, free medical care, desegregated public facilities, and the crushing of the US Mafia.

Raul Castro and Che Guevara

During the next month of August 1961, the CIA organized one of its most pernicious campaigns against the revolutionary government. Its agents spread lies through a built-up rumor bill that there was a Cuban government policy to take all children away from their parents by force and raise them in “state institutions.” Some 15,000 Cuban families, overwhelmingly from middle- and upper classes full of prejudice and hostility to the Revolution, panicked and sent their children mostly to the US in response to a Big Lie, under the CIA’s infamous “Operation Peter Pan.”

CIA-hatched “Operation Peter Pan.”

The Revolution Advances Its Social Program

So, while all this criminal activity was going on, the Cuban Revolution advanced its program of social justice and human liberation for the oppressed and exploited majority as the most effective counter-force to the Yanqui aggression. On February 26, 1962 Cuba’s now fully legal and rejuvenated labor unions provided the people power for the campaign of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Health to carry out a nationwide drive for vaccination against polio. By the end of the year the disease was completely wiped out on the island. It took the United Nation’s World Health Organization, then far more subject to pressure from Washington than now, 43 years to finally recognize that Cuba was the first nation in the Americas to accomplish this.

Things like this, and the full array of revolutionary advances taking place in the face of Washington’s mounting terrorist campaign, convinced General Maxwell Taylor, who oversaw Operation Mongoose with Attorney General Robert Kennedy at the White House, that the terrorist operation “mak[ing] maximum use of indigenous resources,” could not and would not do the job of overthrowing the revolutionary government. “Final success,” Taylor explained in a March 1962 report to President Kennedy, “will require decisive US military intervention.” US spies inside Cuba, at most, could help “prepare and justify this intervention and thereafter facilitate and support it.” With the Bay of Pigs debacle still fresh in his mind, and without some of the blinders of more gung-ho invasion advocates, Kennedy hesitated to give a green light to the invasion plans he himself had ordered up. It remained yellow-lighted, however, and Kennedy directed that Mongoose terrorism continue and step up.

The terrorist anti-Cuba campaign was not limited to Cuban territory. On April 28, 1962 the New York offices of the Cuban Press Agency Prensa Latina was attacked in New York, injuring three staff members.

More seriously, from May 8-18, 1962 a “practice run” for the US invasion of Cuba took place. The full-scale “military exercise” was code named “Operation Whip Lash” and sent an unmistakable signal of intimidation from the US military colossus to the six million people of Cuba.

All this mounting imperialist intervention had only one possible ending point – short of a Cuban surrender, which would never come. Events were coming to a head in Washington, Moscow, and Havana. Events that ineluctably posed and placed the nuclear question in the equation.

While the Cuban government and overwhelming popular majority were mobilized, armed to the teeth, and prepared to fight to the death, they wanted to live in peace and to enjoy the fruits of building a new society after a hard-fought revolutionary triumph. The Cuban leadership fully understood that a US invasion would kill many hundreds of thousands and destroy the Cuban infrastructure and economy. How to stop the coming US invasion was the burning question for the revolutionary government.

Khrushchev Rolls the Dice

Meanwhile in the Soviet Union, the Soviet leadership was facing a decidedly negative nuclear relationship of forces vis-à-vis Washington. This position of inequality (in the framework of the aptly acronymed Mutually Assured Destruction – aka MAD – nuclear doctrine) was perceived in Moscow as an impediment to carrying out political negotiations and maneuvering with Washington and the NATO powers, and defending Soviet interests in the “geopolitical” Cold War arena.

By April 1962 fifteen US Jupiter nuclear missiles had been installed and were “operational” in Turkey on the border of the Soviet Union. “Operational” meant ready to launch at any moment. Each missile was armed with a 1.45 megaton warhead, with ninety-seven times the firepower of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The official estimate of the “fatality projection” for each missile was one million Soviet civilians.

The Jupiter deployment in Turkey added to the overwhelming US superiority in quantity and quality in the “nuclear arms race” between Washington and Moscow. According to Anatoly Gribkov of the Red Army General Staff (cited in the television program DEFCON-2 shown on the US Military Channel), “The United States had about 5000 [nuclear] warheads, the Soviet Union 300. And of those [300] only two or three dozen that could hit the United States.” Khrushchev decided to alleviate this “imbalance” by placing missiles on the Cuban island if he succeeded in selling the idea to the Cuban leadership.3

Sometime in the spring (April-May) of 1962 the Khrushchev government of the Soviet Union proposed to the Cuban government that Cuba receive nuclear-tipped missiles on Cuban territory.  In no other country (including none of its “Warsaw Pact” allies, who were all politically subordinate to the Soviet government) had the Soviet government located nuclear missiles outside of Soviet territory.

Washington, by contrast, had openly placed nuclear missiles in numerous western European countries as well as Turkey and secretly in Okinawa, Japan, aimed at China. (The United Kingdom and France, both US allies, also had nuclear arsenals by that time. China detonated its first nuclear bomb in an October 1964 “test.”) Additionally, US “strategic” nuclear armed aircraft were in the air ready for attack orders 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. US nuclear submarines were in similar mode, and even more difficult to detect.

While Soviet capabilities undoubtedly lagged behind the US, it was not so much so as to preclude inevitable reciprocal attack in response to any US “first strike.” Soviet missiles in Cuba would theoretically be a further deterrent to any US “first strike” threat. Placing the missiles in Cuba was clearly seen by the Soviet government as a bargaining piece to advance Soviet strategic interests in the nuclear chessboard that animated US-Soviet “diplomatic” maneuvers and intrigue and political objectives on both sides.

Khrushchev evidently presumed that, faced with a fait accompli, Washington would redress the imbalance to the benefit of the Soviet Union. The Soviet missiles, upon being fully operational, would be able to strike major population centers and whole geographic regions of the US, roughly equivalent to the potential death-dealing capacity Washington had through its missiles in Europe surrounding and targeted on the Soviet Union. Of course, the big “if” in all of this reasoning was getting to the accompli. Given US technical proficiency this was a fantasy.

Cuba Accepts the Soviet Proposal

At the end of May 1962 the first direct presentation of the Soviet proposal was delivered to Fidel Castro and Raul Castro in Cuba by a Soviet delegation led by an alternate member of the Soviet Presidium (an executive decision-making body). The Soviet officials revealed to the Cuban leaders that their “intelligence” told them conclusively that a US invasion was being seriously prepared, to be implemented at any time over the next months. Of course, the Soviets were not telling the Cubans anything they did not already know in general, but there were new specific facts and details. The now-concrete proposal that measures to fortify Cuban defenses would include the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island naturally led to intense consultations within the top Cuban leadership. The chief government ministers involved were Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Osvaldo Dorticos, Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, and Blas Roca. The day after the proposal was received the Cuban leadership told the Soviet delegation that the nuclear deployment was acceptable in principle.

In extensive discussions with European journalist Ignacio Ramonet (which became the book My Life: A Spoken Autobiography by Fidel Castro, published in 2006 by Scribner) Fidel Castro referred to the discussions within the Cuban central leadership. He said that besides Khrushchev and the Soviet leadership’s “sincere desire to prevent an attack against Cuba…they were hoping to improve the balance of strategic forces…I added that it would be inconsistent of us to expect the maximum support from the USSR and the rest of the Socialist camp should we be attacked by the United States and yet refuse to face the political risks and the possible damage to our reputation when they needed us. That ethical and revolutionary point of view was accepted unanimously.”

In a speech many years earlier in 1992 Fidel Castro had said:

We really didn’t like the missiles. If it had been a matter only of our own defense, we would not have accepted the deployment of the missiles. But not because we were afraid of the dangers that might follow the deployment of the missiles here; rather, it was because this would damage the image of the revolution, and we were very zealous in protecting the image of the revolution in the rest of Latin America. The presence of the missiles would in fact turn us into a Soviet military base, and that entailed a high political cost for the image of our country, an image we so highly valued.4

Legality, Secrecy, and Lies: Losing the Moral High Ground

Having agreed in principle, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara, repeatedly argued with the Soviet leadership that the deployment should be open and public. The fact was that there was nothing in the Soviet-Cuban agreement to deploy the missiles that contravened any existing international law. In any case, the Cuban leaders were certain that it would be virtually impossible for the shipment, site construction, and land deployment to remain concealed from the highly sophisticated US surveillance technology. Furthermore, that, on the face of it, given the US missiles in Turkey and Italy surrounding the Soviet Union, and with practically open US plans to invade Cuba, open and transparent was the way to go politically and morally. All of this was rejected out of hand by the Khrushchev leadership. The Cuban leaders chose not to push the point and deferred.

In the book with Ramonet, Fidel Castro speaks of the “strange, Byzantine discussion” over whether Soviet arms shipments to Cuba were offensive or defensive.

Khrushchev, in fact, insisted they were defensive, not on any technical grounds, but rather because of the defensive purposes for which they’d been installed in Cuba… [We felt there was] no need to go into those explanations. What Cuba and the USSR were doing was perfectly legal and in strict conformity with international law.

Castro continued:

We didn’t like the course the public debate was taking. I sent Che…to explain my view of the situation to Khrushchev, including the need to immediately publish the military agreement [on deploying the nuclear missiles in Cuba] the USSR and Cuba had signed. But I couldn’t manage to persuade him…For us, for the Cuban leaders, the USSR was a powerful, experienced government. We had no other arguments to use to persuade them that their strategy for managing the situation should be changed, so we had no alternative but to trust them.

For the Cuban revolutionaries, the economic, military, and political ties forged with the Soviet Union had been a decisive, irreplaceable factor in their survival from the period after the January 1959 triumph of the Revolution through the April 1961 Playa Giron defeat of the US-organized mercenary invasion. Nevertheless, the unfolding of the Missile Crisis, and its ultimate resolution, left the Cuban leadership feeling vulnerable, bypassed, and insulted by the perceived highhanded behavior of the Soviet government led by Nikita Khrushchev.

Fidel Castro’s Secret Speech

In a major speech over two days to a closed meeting of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) on January 25-26, 1968 Fidel Castro reviewed the entire Missile Crisis.5  Combining great emotion with sharp, cool logic Castro detailed how the “Missile Crisis” unfolded and how Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union emerged out of the crisis different from what they had been before.

Castro stated that Cuba’s revolutionary leadership looked to the Soviet Union for, “…measures that would guarantee the country’s safety. In that period, we had tremendous faith in the Soviet Union. I think perhaps too much.” Furthermore, “I am sincerely convinced that the Soviet Party bears great responsibility in what happened and acted in a totally disloyal manner in its relations with us.” Referring to the continuing terrorist attacks against Cuba that never stopped after Soviet missiles, planes, and combat troops were removed from Cuba at the “end” of the October Crisis, Castro stated:

Together with the pirate attacks and the U-2 flights, incidents began to flare up at the Guantanamo base. [The US military base on Guantanamo Bay was ceded to the US government in the notorious neo-colonial Platt Amendment of 1901 passed by the US Congress and has been maintained to this day against the demands for its return to Cuban sovereignty.] The same Guantanamo base which, we are certain, would have been dismantled had there been a modicum of serenity and firmness during the October crisis. Had they had the presence of mind to have posed and demand correctly from a principled standpoint, had they said that they would withdraw the missiles if satisfactory guarantees were given to Cuba, had they let Cuba negotiate, the crisis might even have turned into a political victory…All the rest are euphemisms of different kinds: Cuba was saved, Cuba lives. But Cuba had been alive and Cuba had been living, and Cuba did not want to live at the expense of humiliation or surrender; for that you do not have to be a revolutionary. Revolutionaries are not just concerned with living, but how one lives, living most of all with dignity, living with a cause, living for a cause…Cuba did not agree with the way the issue was handled; it stated the need to approach the problem from different, more drastic, more revolutionary and even more legal positions; and it totally disagreed with the way in which the situation was terminated.

“[Around July] we saw that the United States was creating an atmosphere of hysteria and aggression,” Castro bluntly spoke, “and it was a campaign that was being carried out with all impunity. In the light of this we thought the correct thing to do was to adopt a different position, not to get into that policy of lies: ‘we are sending Cuba defensive weapons.’ And in response to the imperialist’s position, the second weakness (or the first weakness) was not to stand up and respond that Cuba had every right to own whatever weapons it saw fit…but rather to adopt a policy of concessions, claiming that the weapons were defensive. In other words, to lie, to resort to lies which in effect meant to wave a basic right and principle.”

Decades later, in the Ramonet book, Castro returned to this crucial political approach, which is much more powerful than the usual technical cast of events when things had reached the stage of the actual nuclear standoff:

There was nothing illegal about our agreement with the Soviets, given that the Americans had missiles in Turkey and in Italy, too, and no one ever threatened to bomb or invade those countries. The problem wasn’t the legality of the agreement – everything was absolutely legal – but rather Khrushchev’s mistaken political handling of the situation, when even though both Cuba and the USSR had the legitimate right, he started spinning theories about offensive and non-offensive weapons. In a political battle, you can’t afford to lose the high moral ground by employing ruses and lies and half-truths.

The missile transport was the largest sea-borne operation in Soviet history. By the time of the detection of the missiles, and Khrushchev’s decision to remove them under US pressure, there were already 134 nuclear warheads in place and on the ground in Cuba. All three of the SS-4 missile regiments were operational even as Soviet ships stopped moving towards Cuba.

The January 25-26, 1968 speech went into scathing detail on how shocking, given the Soviet insistence on secrecy, the lack of discretion on the Soviet side was in the actual deployment of the missiles, crossing into outright recklessness.

“Uncontrolled Forces”

At the height of the crisis, the central Cuban leadership was certain that a full-scale invasion of the island was imminent. As the latest batch of 2017 declassified Kennedy assassination-related documents reconfirm, preparations – “contingency plans” – for such an invasion had been in place for many months prior to the secret installation of the Soviet missiles. This was the only conceivable basis for Khrushchev to make the missile proposal to the Cuban leaders and expect their agreement. In fact, a US invasion of Cuba was on the hair-trigger of being ordered at several concrete conjunctures in the course of the crisis.

The decision to actually carry out a direct, large-scale US military assault was being furiously debated within the Kennedy Administration and the narrow circle of bipartisan Congressional leadership that was privy to the deliberations at the top. As President and Commander-in-Chief, Kennedy had to choose whether to give the order to invade – again, everything was already in place for the execution of an invasion – the island where many nuclear warheads were already in place, targeting US territory and where Cuban armed resistance to the invading troops was certain to be massive, highly motivated, well-led, and creative.  For the immense majority of the Cuban population, having just experienced a profound social revolution, drawing millions into revolutionary struggle and consciousness, Cuba would be fighting from their own territory against a foreign invasion force and massive bombing assaults. Thousands of Cuban civilians would have been instantly killed in these air strikes.

The political consequences of this carnage – against a sovereign people with the gall to make a Revolution, throw out a venal dictator, institute land reform, literacy campaigns, rent reduction, abolishing Jim Crow-segregation, etc. etc. – would certainly have been devastating for Washington even if nuclear warheads were never launched on either side, a dubious prospect at best. Washington would lose the “moral high ground,” so crucial in concrete questions of world politics. Cuba would regain what had been eroded by the secretive, clumsy adventurism of Khrushchev’s “initiative” and its incompetent implementation.

The question of the nuclear weapons that were already on the island and the more that were en route would likely have been rendered secondary and the question of Cuba’s right to self-determination would have again risen to the fore. Kennedy was politically savvy enough to realize all of this and finally rebuffed the advocates of launching an invasion.

Uppermost in Kennedy’s considerations were the physical presence of thousands of Soviet combat troops and military personnel (there were some 40,000 Soviet mechanized combat divisions in Cuba, although the Kennedy Administration seems to have counted less than half the actual number). This fact posed the question that Soviet casualties would be inevitable, further sharply posing the question of questions…would the US invasion inexorably lead to nuclear exchanges? Who actually would – in a hair-trigger political atmosphere – fire first becomes almost a moot, secondary question in the framework of such a political confrontation.

US “intelligence” estimates were that 18,500 US casualties would take place in the first period after a US invasion, according to declassified material obtained by the National Security Archive. The presence of Soviet nuclear warheads and large numbers of Soviet military personnel, fighter jets, anti-aircraft gun emplacements, and so on, was another major factor leading Kennedy to repeatedly postpone the invasion plans and opt for a naval blockade (labeled a “quarantine” for legalistic purposes) surrounding Cuba, and the drama of a relatively slow showdown unfolding over days in the Atlantic while negotiations between Washington and Moscow intensified, negotiations that excluded the Cuban government…as if Cuba had nothing to do with what was happening.

As is always the case when war and combat is actually joined, the “law of unintended consequences” comes into dynamic play. Or, as the historic revolutionary leader of the working-class movement, Frederick Engels, put it, “Those who unleash controlled forces, also unleash uncontrolled forces.”

The Letters

On October 26, 1962 Fidel Castro – at the most intense, dangerous point of the entire crisis – wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, which stated:

Given the analysis of the situation and the reports which have reached us, [I] consider an attack to be almost imminent–within the next 24 to 72 hours. There are two possible variants: the first and most probable one is an air attack against certain objectives with the limited aim of destroying them; the second, and though less probable, still possible, is a full invasion. This would require a large force and is the most repugnant form of aggression, which might restrain them.

You can be sure that we will resist with determination, whatever the case. The Cuban people’s morale is extremely high and the people will confront aggression heroically.

I would like to briefly express my own personal opinion. If the second variant takes place and the imperialists invade Cuba with the aim of occupying it, the dangers of their aggressive policy are so great that after such an invasion the Soviet Union must never allow circumstances in which the imperialists could carry out a nuclear first strike against it.

I tell you this because I believe that the imperialists’ aggressiveness makes them extremely dangerous, and that if they manage to carry out an invasion of Cuba–a brutal act in violation of universal and moral law–then that would be the moment to eliminate this danger forever, in an act of the most legitimate self-defense. However harsh and terrible the solution, there would be no other.

Khrushchev responded, in a second round of letters with Castro that:

In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the enemy’s territory. Naturally you understand where that would lead us. It would not be a simple strike, but the start of a thermonuclear world war.

Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I find your proposal to be wrong, even though I understand your reasons.

… As far as Cuba is concerned, it would be difficult to say even in general terms what this would have meant for them. In the first place, Cuba would have been burned in the fire of war….

Now, as a result of the measures taken, we reached the goal sought when we agreed with you to send the missiles to Cuba. We have wrested from the United States the commitment not to invade Cuba and not to permit their Latin American allies to do so. We have we wrested all this from them without a nuclear strike.

We consider that we must take advantage of all the possibilities to defend Cuba, strengthen its independence and sovereignty, defeat military aggression and prevent a nuclear world war in our time. And we have accomplished that.

Of course, we made concessions, accepted a commitment, action according to the principle that a concession on one side is answered by a concession on the other side. The United States also made a concession. It made the commitment before all the world not to attack Cuba.

That’s why when we compare aggression on the part of the United States and thermonuclear war with the commitment of a concession in exchange for concession, the upholding of the inviolability of the Republic of Cuba and the prevention of a world war, I think that the total outcome of this reckoning, of this comparison, is perfectly clear.

Castro then responded:

I realized when I wrote them that the words contained in my letter could be misinterpreted by you and that was what happened, perhaps because you didn’t read them carefully, perhaps because of the translation, perhaps because I meant to say so much in too few lines. However, I didn’t hesitate to do it…

We knew, and do not presume that we ignored it, that we would have been annihilated, as you insinuate in your letter, in the event of nuclear war. However, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to withdraw the missiles, that didn’t prompt us to ask you to yield. Do you believe that we wanted that war? But how could we prevent it if the invasion finally took place? The fact is that this event was possible, that imperialism was obstructing every solution and that its demands were, from our point of view, impossible for the USSR and Cuba to accept.

And if war had broken out, what could we do with the insane people who unleashed the war? You yourself have said that under current conditions such a war would inevitably have escalated quickly into a nuclear war. I understand that once aggression is unleashed, one shouldn’t concede to the aggressor the privilege of deciding, moreover, when to use nuclear weapons. The destructive power of this weaponry is so great and the speed of its delivery so great that the aggressor would have a considerable initial advantage.

And I did not suggest to you, Comrade Khrushchev, that the USSR should be the aggressor, because that would be more than incorrect, it would be immoral and contemptible on my part. But from the instant the imperialists attack Cuba and while there are Soviet armed forces stationed in Cuba to help in our defense in case of an attack from abroad, the imperialists would by this act become aggressors against Cuba and against the USSR, and we would respond with a strike that would annihilate them.

Everyone has his own opinions and I maintain mine about the dangerousness of the aggressive circles in the Pentagon and their preference for a preventive strike. I did not suggest, Comrade Khrushchev, that in the midst of this crisis the Soviet Union should attack, which is what your letter seems to say; rather, that following an imperialist attack, the USSR should act without vacillation and should never make the mistake of allowing circumstances to develop in which the enemy makes the first nuclear strike against the USSR. And in this sense, Comrade Khrushchev, I maintain my point of view, because I understand it to be a true and just evaluation of a specific situation. You may be able to convince me that I am wrong, but you can’t tell me that I am wrong without convincing me.

Fidel Castro’s exchange of letters with Khrushchev assumes that given the forces in play and in motion – 300,000 Cuban combatants with 40,000 Soviet military personnel, the bulk in mechanized combat brigades, on the ground in Cuba on one side, confronting a US invasion force projected to quickly reach hundreds of thousands, all coming head-to-head while massive US air strikes and countering Cuban-Soviet anti-aircraft fire are unleashed, with enormous naval forces, many armed with nuclear weapons, including torpedoes in combat action – that the US invasion, which he considered inevitable and imminent, would inexorably go nuclear. Following this undoubtedly correct assumption, Fidel Castro’s logic and formulations in his initial letters became necessarily more abstract and algebraic. He presents, in the rush and incredible heat and speed of events, a post-invasion scenario where Soviet forces could strike, in a limited “tactical” use (although those terms are not specifically used), the US forces before the US could strike the Soviet forces. The same technical, military logic of “pre-emption” would, of course, dominate the US side which had a clear superiority in both quantity and quality of nuclear weapons deliverance at that point, the full extent of which the Cuban leadership was not likely aware of the extent of.

The M.A.D. doctrine was based on each side’s nuclear arsenal countermanding the others. The seemingly absurd stockpiling of nuclear warheads and delivery system locations had the “rational” kernel of logic that after a “first strike” or pre-emptive launch of warheads the “other side” would still have enough of an atomic arsenal left to deliver a crushing response. The idea, developed by “Dr. Strangelove” US theorists like Herman Kahn, and accepted by their Soviet equivalents, was to build up and protect a “second strike” capacity in order to obviate a “first strike.” Of course, Washington continued – and continues to this day – to develop a “decisive” first-strike capability, largely through anti-ballistic and “Star Wars” systems to intercept and eliminate the other sides “second strike” (or first, or any strike) giving the US a credible “first strike.”

The fact of a US invasion – that is, its actual occurrence – of Cuba would have set in motion a dynamic that would have rendered moot, useless, and even ridiculous the question of who would “fire” the “first” nuclear weapon, if that could even be determined after the event (if indeed the word after would have any content). Dozens and dozens of ships, planes, and launch sites on the ground, under the control of dozens and dozens of military officers subject to “orders” in what would have been  unimaginable chaos and breakdown inevitable in the first nuclear exchange in world history. Would anyone have even known who struck first? The key point – the only determinant fact – in whether nuclear holocaust would be unleashed to an unknown degree was whether the US would invade Cuba.

New Facts

What is now known about the Missile Crisis is that a situation existed where, at the height of the confrontation, from October 25-28, literally dozens and dozens of military officers well below the executive political “decision makers” in a theoretical chain of command, on both the Soviet and US side, had the capacity and even the authority to push the nuclear button and pull the nuclear trigger.

We certainly know this to be true in the first-hand accounts by Soviet and US military officers and personnel on the ground, on the oceans, and in the air that have become public and from “classified” government documents on both sides.6

The author Michael Dobbs in an October 18, 2012 New York Times op-ed piece (“The Price of a 50-Year Old Myth”) wrote:

While the risk of war in October 1962 was very high (Kennedy estimated it variously at between 1 in 5 and 1 in 2), it was not caused by a clash of wills. The real dangers arose from “the fog of war.” As the two superpowers geared up for a nuclear war, the chances of something going terribly wrong increased exponentially…By Saturday, October 27, the two leaders were no longer in full control of their gigantic military machines, which were moving forward under their own momentum. Soviet troops on Cuba targeted Guantánamo with tactical nuclear weapons and shot down an American U-2 spy plane. Another U-2, on a “routine” air sampling mission to the North Pole, got lost over the Soviet Union. The Soviets sent MiG fighters into the air to try to shoot down the American intruder, and in response, Alaska Air Defense Command scrambled F-102 interceptors armed with tactical nuclear missiles. In the Caribbean, a frazzled Soviet submarine commander was dissuaded by his subordinates from using his nuclear torpedo against American destroyers that were trying to force him to the surface.

In his Guardian piece cited above Noam Chomsky, referring to the October 26, 1962 letter of Fidel Castro, writes:

As this was happening and Washington was debating and Kennedy was poised to decide on a US invasion, Fidel Castro wrote a letter to Nikita Khrushchev which has been interpreted, over Castro’s sharp objection, as advocating a Soviet nuclear attack – a so-called ‘first strike’ against US territory if the US invasion were to actually occur. Khrushchev himself took the necessarily and purposely algebraic and highly cautious words of Castro as such a call, and used Castro’s wording as practically a cover to carry out the retreat and concessions to Kennedy that diffused the crisis and reverse the momentum towards purposeful or accidental nuclear exchanges.

An Extraordinary Gathering

The special January 24-26, 1968 meeting of the PCC Central Committee meeting where Fidel Castro gave his extraordinary speech was in no way fortuitous. It took place at what was perhaps the nadir of the downward spiral of Cuban-Soviet relations set in motion by the October Crisis of 1962. It was held just 107 days after the death of Ernesto Che Guevara and the defeat of his guerrilla forces based in Bolivia.

This on-the-ground fact was a real blow to the Cuban revolutionaries and the perspective of building a continental revolutionary army to take on and overturn the military regimes backed by the ruling oligarchies. These regimes of the Latin American ruling classes were themselves allied with, dependent on, and conjoined with the dominant US power in the Hemisphere. This new objective reality necessarily raised many challenges in the development and direction of Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy.

Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership placed an important part of the responsibility for the defeat of Che’s guerrilla on the top leadership of the Bolivian Communist Party which supported the program and perspective of the Soviet leadership in Latin America and opposed the armed-struggle campaign under Che Guevara’s leadership in Bolivia (which was seen as the initial base for a multi-front continental revolutionary movement against the military dictatorships and oligarchies) reneging on previously given commitments. The Cuban revolutionary line in Latin America was opposed – with varying degrees of vehemence – by virtually all of the Latin American Communist Parties that looked to the Soviet Union for political direction and orientation. What the Cuban revolutionary leadership considered betrayal in Bolivia, disrupted and undermined the formation and development of urban resistance forces crucial to supplement the rural-based guerrilla struggle under Che’s command, leaving the guerrillas exposed, vulnerable, and politically isolated.7

The Escalante Affair

Prior to Fidel Castro’s speech, the Central Committee gathering had heard an extensive presentation by Raul Castro, then Chairman of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the President of the Cuban Council of State since 2006. The report was a damning indictment of a secret faction inside the PCC led by Anibal Escalante. Escalante’s faction, which was composed of former leaders, like himself, and cadres of the Popular Socialist Party (PSP).((In 1968 the Cuban publisher Instituto Del Libro, Ediciones Politicas, printed a 160-page book, “Information from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba on Microfaction Activities,”which includes Raul Castro’s report and other important documents. It is an exceedingly important document, which illuminates that historical and political period and gives great insight into the caliber and character of the Cuban revolutionary leadership.)) Before the Revolution the PSP, which had a base in the industrial working class and trade unions, was connected to the dominant currents in the “world Communist movement” and Latin American Communist Parties that looked to the Soviet Union for political direction and program.8

The PSP initially opposed the July 26th Movement (M-26-J) led by Fidel Castro, but by early 1958 they had endorsed the anti-Batista struggle and M-26-J leadership. Joint political and military collaboration was carried out in the last period before the revolutionary triumph. Over the next few years the majority of PSP cadres were successfully integrated into what became the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 1965. In 1962 Escalante, who had been the top functionary of the Integrated Revolutionary Organization, an initial formation bringing together the currents supporting the Revolution, had come under fierce public criticism by Fidel Castro for “sectarianism” and “bureaucratism” in March 1962.

Soviet-Cuban tensions escalated in this mid-1960s period, although never to the point of a public break. Nevertheless, sharp, concrete political and theoretical differences were registered between the Soviet and Cuban leaderships in this period over the US escalation in Vietnam and serious political divergence in Latin America. In several speeches in 1966 and 1967 Fidel Castro publicly excoriated the Soviet government for its economic and political relations with Latin American repressive and reactionary regimes.

The betrayal and execution of Che in 1967 sharpened the existing tensions and was followed by the Escalante intrigue and covert plotting against the revolutionary government. In terms of the economic relations and exchange between Cuba and the Soviet Union during these clashes, there was limited but noticeable Soviet measures affecting the struggling Cuban economy which was being whipped by the US economic blockade, particularly in the Americas. In this period, the first decade of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba struggled with diplomatic isolation in the Western Hemisphere under US pressure, with only Canada and Mexico maintaining formal diplomatic ties.

In the decade following Che’s defeat in Bolivia, all other allied Latin American guerrilla movements into the early 1970s had been crushed, most notably Argentina and Uruguay. At the same time there was a revival of mass urban and rural working-class and popular struggles in a number of Latin American countries, including Bolivia, which pushed open some democratic and political space, including for revolutionaries. In Chile, in 1970, in a byproduct of mounting class and popular struggles, the Popular Unity electoral coalition by two mass workers parties, the Socialist Party and Communist Party, won a plurality of the vote and Salvador Allende, head of the Socialist Party became President. Diplomatic relations were soon reestablished between Chile and Cuba.

The September 11, 1973 US-backed bloody military coup against the Popular Unity government pulverized all democratic rights and political space for many years and was extended by the mid-1970s as military rule was consolidated in Argentina (1976) and in Uruguay after 1973.

Aftermath

The Cuban Missile Crisis was hugely traumatic in world public opinion. Its resolution led to increased propaganda for “peace” and “reconciliation” in both Moscow and Washington, with accompanying worldwide diplomatic maneuvering. This culminated in the actual signing by the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (formally the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water, which was strongly welcomed in world public opinion when it went into effect in October 1963, one year to the month from the political drama and trauma of the Missile Crisis. (The treaty did not ban “underground” nuclear tests which could also lead to radioactive releases into the atmosphere as well ground water.  The treaty put no limits on the production of nuclear warheads and their fitting onto missiles.) All of this took place as Washington steadily and sharply escalated its military intervention and aggression in Vietnam.

John Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963 and Nikita Khrushchev’s leadership in the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet state came to an ignominious end in October 1964 as he was pensioned off and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and Alexi Kosygin. The new Lyndon Johnson White House abided by Kennedy’s verbal “pledge” and invasion plans were put in mothballs, although covert action, terrorism, and containment continued. Primary focus and attention shifted to Indochina where Johnson maintained continuity with Kennedy’s intervention and deepened it.

Formal and definite improvements in Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union began after 1968 (despite tensions over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and other questions), particularly in economic exchange, through the 1970s and 1980s until the soviet government collapsed in 1991, setting off a huge economic depression and crisis in Cuba. In this period fundamental contradictions and sharp policy differences emerged over Soviet policies in Africa, military tactics in Angola, and the soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which Cuba opposed.

The immediate threat of US-Soviet nuclear exchange and war receded on October 28, 1962 with the announcement that Soviet ships had stopped advancing and that Soviet missiles would be withdrawn. But for Cuba the crisis and the pressure intensified.

Not even two weeks after the supposed resolution of the crisis the world’s “sigh of relief, 400 Cuban workers were killed when a Cuban exile counter-revolutionary sabotage team, dispatched from the US, blew up a Cuban industrial facility. Right up until his assassination Kennedy was approving terrorist attacks against Cuba. US intervention by proxy never stopped and became systematic. US armed and trained counter-revolutionaries were finally defeated in the Escambray mountains in central Cuba in a campaign from 1963-65.

After a pause and renewal in the late 1960s, Cuba’s revolutionary internationalist foreign policy – in the spirit of Che – reached glorious new internationalist achievements in southern Africa after the great acceleration of events ushered in after the overturn of the hollowed-out Salazarist dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and the final collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bassau, and the Cape Verde Islands. Cuban troops stopped the apartheid South African invasion at the gates of the capital Luanda in November 1975 aiming to topple the newly independent Angolan government. Cuba’s revolutionary action and solidarity over the next nearly two decades was decisive in defending the independence of Angola, winning the independence of Namibia, and in the retreat and unraveling of the South African apartheid state.9

Fidel’s Last Thoughts

On October 22, 2012 Fidel Castro addressed the Missile Crisis on its 50th Anniversary:

A few days ago, very close to the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, news agencies pointed to three guilty parties: Kennedy, having recently become the leader of the empire, Khrushchev and Castro. Cuba did not have anything to do with nuclear weapons, nor with the unnecessary slaughter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki perpetrated by the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, thus establishing the tyranny of nuclear weapons. Cuba was defending its right to independence and social justice.

When we accepted Soviet aid in weapons, oil, foodstuffs and other resources, it was to defend ourselves from yanqui plans to invade our homeland, subjected to a dirty and bloody war which that capitalist country imposed on us from the very first months, which left thousands of Cubans dead and maimed.

When Khrushchev proposed the installation here of medium range missiles similar to those the United States had in Turkey – far closer to the USSR than Cuba to the United States – as a solidarity necessity, Cuba did not hesitate to agree to such a risk. Our conduct was ethically irreproachable. We will never apologize to anyone for what we did. The fact is that half a century has gone by, and here we still are with our heads held high.

  1. In a public statement on October 28, presenting the five points, Fidel Castro said, “With relation to the pronouncement made by the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, in a letter sent to the premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, to the effect that the United States would agree, after the establishment of adequate arrangements through the United Nations, to eliminate the measures of blockade in existence and give guarantees against any invasion of Cuba, and in relation to the decision announced by Premier Khrushchev of withdrawing the installation of arms of strategic defense from Cuba territory, the revolutionary government of Cuba declares that the guarantees of which President Kennedy speaks–that there will be no aggression against Cuba–will not exist unless, in addition to the elimination of the naval blockade he promises, the following measures among others are to be adopted: 1) Cessation of the economic blockade and all the measures of commercial and economic pressure which the United States exercises in all parts of the world against our country; 2) Cessation of all subversive activities, launching and landing of arms and explosives by air and sea, the organization of mercenary invasions, infiltration of spies and saboteurs, all of which actions are carried out from the territory of the United States and some other accomplice countries; 3) Cessation of the pirate attacks which are being carried out from bases existing in the United States and Puerto Rico; 4) Cessation of all the violations of our air and naval space by North American war planes and ships; and 5) Withdrawal of naval base of Guantanamo and the return of the Cuban territory by the United States.”.
  2. The private owners of nationalized foreign enterprises in Cuba, with their governments, negotiated satisfactory compensation with the revolutionary Cuban government, in accordance with international law. The US government, at the time, was already planning and organizing for the overthrow of the “Castro” government and was therefore in contemptuous rejection of any negotiations for compensation to US owners of Cuban assets being nationalized. This was a large swath of the Cuban economy, which was dominated by US capital.
  3. In the 1960 Presidential election, the liberal Democrat John Kennedy shamelessly promoted as an important campaign issue a supposed “missile gap” – in the Soviet Union’s favor – between Washington and Moscow, a conscious fabrication. Kennedy also postured to the right of his Republican opponent, Eisenhower’s Vice-President Richard Nixon, on “getting tough with Castro.” On this, Nixon had the disadvantage, as Kennedy was no doubt aware, of being unable to publicly tout the Eisenhower White House’s already advanced plans for the mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which Kennedy carried out three months after his Inauguration.
  4. Cited in October 1962 The ‘Missile’ Crisis As Seen From Cuba by Tomas Diez Acosta, Pathfinder Press.
  5. The entire speech, previously unpublished in any public medium, was printed in 2002 with an official Cuban Council of State English translation, in the book Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis by James Blight and Philip Brenner published by Bowman and Littlefield Publishers.
  6. See Noam Chomsky’s “Cuban Missile Crisis: How the US Played Russian Roulette with Nuclear War” in the October 15 Guardian newspaper, which cites several harrowing moments of near disaster.
  7. See Fidel Castro’s “A Necessary Introduction” in Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, 1994 for Fidel’s description of the factor of betrayal in the defeat of Che’s guerrilla forces.
  8. Some thirty-five members of the so-called “microfaction” were expelled from the PCC and received prison sentences from two to fifteen years. The most serious charges involved secret activity aimed at forging ties between the “microfaction” and government officials and Communist Party leaders in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and Czechoslovakia in their common opposition to the revolutionary line of the PCC, and the large majority of PCC members, in Latin America and on Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies in general. This went as far as to urge Soviet economic pressure on Cuba, for which they were charged with treason. Escalante’s grouping never argued for their political positions openly within the structures and procedures of the PCC, which was their right. In their secret functioning inside Cuba and intrigues with Soviet and Eastern European officials and diplomats, the portrayed Che Guevara as a “Trotskyite adventurer” and the Castro leadership as “petty bourgeois elements” that seized control of the Revolution and who held the working class in contempt. Moreover, the Cuban revolutionary leadership was “anti-Soviet”and did not support Soviet “hegemony.”
  9. See the amazing history of Cuba’s internationalist foreign policies in Africa and southern Africa in the two volumes of the great scholar Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom, University of North Carolina Press.

Our Che: 50 Years After His Execution

Che died defending no other interest, no other cause than the cause of the exploited and the oppressed of this continent. Che died defending no other cause than the cause of the poor and the humble of this earth.

— Fidel Castro, October 18, 1967

Che Lives!

On October 9, 1967, the highest levels of the United States government transmitted orders to CIA-operative Felix Rodriguez who passed them on to Washington’s flunkies in the Bolivian military regime. The orders were to murder Ernesto Che Guevara – a wounded combatant captured in battle. They proceeded to display Che’s mutilated corpse to gawking journalists and selected spectator-voyeurs before burying his remains in what they planned on forever being a secret, unmarked grave.

Above all, the Washington decision-makers understood there could be no trial, even a phony formality in their own rigged courts, for Ernesto Che Guevara. As Fidel Castro stated in his extraordinarily powerful and moving tribute to Che given before one million Cubans on October 18, 1967, the imperialist “thugs, oligarchs, and mercenaries” shamelessly conceded why they murdered the wounded and disarmed Che. “…They explain why they did it. They assert that Che’s trial would have been quite an earth shaker, that it would have been impossible to place this revolutionary in the dock.”

By murdering Che in cold blood and then clandestinely dumping his body, the hope and expectation was that Che’s physical extermination and hidden bones would be “the end of the story,” that is, the end of Che’s historic political impact and significance. As they clinked champagne glasses – and this is literally true – in the offices of the National Security Agency of the Lyndon Johnson White House upon receiving confirmation of Che’s death, Washington’s central political officers truly thought that Che would be quickly forgotten or at most faintly remembered as a minor historical footnote. How different reality turned out!

50 years later it is quite clear that – beyond the image – the life and example of Ernesto Che Guevara continues to resonate strongly in world politics. Che’s revolutionary legacy, his ideas and example, continue to inspire new generations of youth and working people, particularly throughout the Americas, but in truth across the entire globe. Young people and working people today who understand that a better world – a socialist world – is possible, and who are ready to fight for it. For decades now, embodying contemporary history, Ernesto Che Guevara has personified uncompromising anti-imperialist struggle for freedom, justice, and equality…by any means necessary, as his contemporary and fellow revolutionist Malcolm X put it.

Fidel and Che

The November 26, 2016 passing, at the age of 90, of the great Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, leads us to revisit the historic military and political collaboration between Fidel and Che, the two revolutionary Marxist fighters and close friends who worked together with an outstanding team of Cuban revolutionary fighters, men and women, as they planned a military and political campaign against the venal and brutal Fulgencio Batista dictatorship – backed by the United States government until essentially the bitter end.

[Footnote 1: Washington, in the last years of the second Dwight Eisenhower White House, did endeavor to make contacts with anti-Batista forces, including the July 26 Movement. This, of course, was conditioned by the growing political ferment and crisis in Cuba as the Batista regime grew more hated and isolated, and as the armed struggle – politically led by Fidel Castro – was advancing. See Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution by Thomas Patterson, Oxford University Press, 1994]

When Fidel Castro died, there was, in the United States, a veritable downpouring of calumny across the established, corporate media, echoed in much of the so-called “democratic West.”  We can certainly expect more of this mendacity as the 50th Anniversary of Che’s death approaches.

[Footnote 2: Shortly after Fidel’s passing, I witnessed a United Nations tribute to him which filled the General Assembly arena. Ambassador after Ambassador – including most eloquently and with serious content, from nations such as Bolivia, Namibia, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam who directly experienced Cuban internationalism – spoke with respect to the Cuban revolutionary and head of state. Not a single diplomat from the United States, the “Eurozone,” or Japan took the rostrum in a ceremony that lasted several hours. It was also noticeable how the fine words of some repressive capitalist governments in the so-called “emerging” or “developing” countries who did take the rostrum contrasted with how quickly you would land in the slammer or worse in those states if you held and promoted Fidel’s socialist ideas…and tried to practice them in defense of the oppressed and exploited masses at home.]

During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 actually filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated in the April, 1961 at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after drawn out negotiations.

The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel Miami protests in 2017 were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated “dictator.” Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for “the undefeated” Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.

The Spector of Che in the 21st Century

The specter of Che Guevara continues to haunt the imperialist world. This 50th Anniversary of his cowardly assassination is bound to see another wave in the perpetual concerted campaign to throw mud and slander, disinformation and half-truths, on the memory and example of Che. A new wave over time from the big-business media and publishing houses, with t op-ed pieces, new books and films adding to already lamentable list. There will be endless anti-communist and anti-socialist trolling online. All these efforts are inevitable and every fighter for revolutionary socialist change, and every person who takes seriously concrete historical truth, will be compelled defend the person, ideas, and legacy of our Che.

Of course, it is precisely because Che’s legacy is so powerful that bourgeois governments and their corporate media, especially in the United States, must counter this with renewed regurgitations of myths and false assertions. The method involved is repetition of what in current parlance is called “fake news.”

The continuity of Che’s revolutionary socialist legacy is naturally intertwined with the Cuban Revolution – of which he was a both a product and central creator. The Cuban Revolution, having survived the economic unraveling of the early 1990s, first described by Fidel Castro as the “Special Period,” has emerged from that crisis stronger, more attractive, and weightier in world politics today. Leading Cuba through the cataclysmic crisis of the Special Period was Fidel Castro’s last historic revolutionary political triumph in defense of the Cuban Revolution, Cuban sovereignty, and the Cuban workers state.

[Footnote 3: Prior to the Special Period, some 85% of Cuba’s commercial and economic exchange within the total Cuban economy was with the Soviet Union and Soviet-allied Eastern European governments and states. From 1989-1991 these governments all became defunct. The consequence was, virtually overnight, a devastating 35% contraction of Cuba’s economy. Washington, smelling blood in anticipation of the final smashing of the Cuban Revolution, naturally stepped up its economic and political war. Bipartisan legislation, most blatantly the Helms-Burton law, was enacted, which, among its other anti-Cuba components, aimed to impose US economic, commercial, and financial sanctions and penalties on any sovereign nations that carried out trade and economic exchanges with Cuba. The clear goal was the imposition of an extraterritorial economic blockade. “Regime change” through asphyxiation. Helms-Burton was signed into law by President William Clinton, and remains in place today. It will have to be formally repealed by the US Congress to end all US anti-Cuba sanctions.]

50 years after Che’s execution, the capitalist world order of 2017 is crisis-ridden, stuck in a seemingly permanent economic stagnation marked by lingering weakness and volatility, even as the social impact of decades of so-called “neo-liberal globalization” – that is austerity and assaults on the rights and living standards of the working class continue to accumulate: deepening of social inequality; sharpening class and social polarization; recurrent crises in bourgeois politics and capitalist parliamentary democracies.

The burning question of revolutionary leadership is no less central in the second decade of the 21st Century than in the 1960s. Or as it was in the 1930s, when the successive defeats of popular revolutionary struggles and working-class upsurge were consecutive starting with the triumph of Adolph Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933 and consequent pulverization of the worker’s movement, the trade unions, and all democratic rights in Germany through to the crushing of the Spanish Revolution by 1938. That latter defeat accelerated the events directly leading to, laying the basis for, the devastation of World War II in Europe. An unintended consequence of that worldwide imperialist slaughter was the acceleration of colonial independence movements and struggles for national liberation, including what became socialist revolutions in China and Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution was part of that international dynamic.

Cuba today maintains the revolutionary Marxist outlook of Che and Fidel in its foreign policy.   When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959 it revived a genuine proletarian internationalism that had been battered by gross abuses, betrayals, and defeats since the death of V.I. Lenin and the early foreign policy of the Soviet Union.

Socialist Cuba in 2017 is a state power with a foreign policy that actively promotes international solidarity, an internationalism based on the interests and struggles of the working people of the world. This is true in both political ideas and actual deeds.

The Unintended Consequences of World War II

The strategic perspective of Fidel and Che after the revolutionary triumph was to organize and coordinate a revolutionary leadership, throughout the Americas and worldwide, out of the mass upsurges and anti-imperialist struggles for colonial independence and national liberation that exploded on every continent where colonial domination began to erode during and in the aftermath of the earth-shattering events of World War II. This is the post-World War II world that the Cuban Revolution and its workers and farmers government of young revolutionists was born into on January 1, 1959.

The pre-World War II world order, dominated by the already decadent and fraying British and French colonial empires, was now being further battered by the blows of a resurgent, aggressive German-Nazi imperialism. British and French “democratic” colonialism and imperialism found themselves at war with fascist Germany despite striving throughout the 1930s to appease it. An unintended consequence of the massive multi-front, multi-national slaughterhouse and holocaust of World War II in Europe was accelerating the conditions for the eventual collapse of the colonial empires.

In Asia and the Pacific Rim, the British, French, and other Western European colonial powers along, with the United States, already an emerging Pacific military and economic power (and minor colonial power in the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and the US Hawaiian territory) faced an aggressive Japanese imperialism that had had already invaded and occupied Chinese Manchuria in 1931, escalated its military aggression there in 1936-37, and bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941.

Independence movements grew rapidly everywhere in formerly colonial lands, often with a mass revolutionary dynamic. This was true in all the arenas where the titanic militaries of existing and competing imperialist powers and the more minor colonial players clashed in Asia, Africa, the Middle East in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond. A huge historic transformation was the political outcome.

Indian independence was gained in 1948. The Chinese Revolution triumphed in 1949. French imperialism tried to reconquer Vietnam and Indochina before being routed at Dienbienphu in 1954. The French imperialists, employing truly epochal brutality, managed to hold on in Algeria until 1962. Eventually, the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch governments, with much stress and strain, were forced to retreat and concede formal national political sovereignty across much of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Rim. The world political situation that the triumphant Cuban Revolution entered into and impacted on in 1959 was one where that pre-war order was coming apart and there was concurrently the consolidation of the framework and intensification of the so called “Cold War” epoch.

Splits in the “World Communist Movement”

Additionally, within the “world Communist movement,” great political schisms began to develop in this new post-war period, which saw the triumph of the Chinese Revolution and the consolidation of a government led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949; revolutionary independence struggles in Vietnam and Korea in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat and the French attempts to recover its doomed colonial power and “glory” in Indochina.

Political divisions intensified after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. At the 1954 Geneva Accords “Agreement” Soviet and Chinese diplomats pressured the Ho Chi Minh government, which had just routed the French at Dienbienphu, to make major concessions to the United States. In 1956 there was a stunning international impact from a speech by top Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev denouncing (and by doing so acknowledging and revealing appalling criminal abuse on a massive scale under Stalin (a speech which the US government made sure did not stay “secret” for long). The 1956 Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary was great political grist for anti-communist Cold War propaganda (propaganda is most effective when  it is a least partly factual true) and, along with the Stalin “revelations” utterly roiled the Communist Parties worldwide. By 1958 there was some motion for a Cold War “thaw” between Washington and Moscow which seemed directed, at least in part, at the post-revolution Chinese government, “Red China” in US government and corporate media parlance. By 1959, when the Cuban revolution triumphed and Washington began to direct counter-revolutionary efforts against the island, the “Sino-Soviet split,” with increasingly intense polemics and inflammatory exchanges, was exploding into public view. This was the political world the Cuban Revolution entered into and consolidated power in.

“Create two, three…many Vietnams”: Che and Vietnam

From the late 1950s into the early 1960s, US attempts to prop up the illegal and increasingly hated and isolated Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the artificially divided “South Vietnam,” were faltering. By the mid-1960s, JFK’s Washington had brutally dispatched a murdered Diem and embarked on a course and policy of militarily defeating the Vietnamese liberation movement through a massive expansion of US firepower and troop levels reaching 500,000 by 1968.

The “Sino-Soviet split” had deleterious effects for Vietnam, a cause extremely close to the Cuban revolutionaries, and Che Guevara in particular. Che left Cuba and embarked on his revolutionary internationalist mission. He wrote the historic “Message to the Tricontinental.”

This was equally: a cool, objective survey of the world political situation in 1966-67 which placed the Vietnamese Revolution and US aggression at the center of world politics; and a fiery revolutionary manifesto calling for stepped-up international solidarity with Vietnam. “It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression,“ Che wrote, “but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.”

The “Message to the Tricontinental,” was published by the Organization of Solidarity with the People’s of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Ospaal) in April 1967, while Che was fighting in Bolivia. It included a direct, stinging rebuke to the Soviet and Chinese governments:

US imperialism is guilty of aggression — its crimes are enormous and cover the whole world. We already know all that, gentlemen! But this guilt also applies to those who, when the time came for a definition, hesitated to make Vietnam an inviolable part of the socialist world; running, of course, the risks of a war on a global scale-but also forcing a decision upon imperialism. And the guilt also applies to those who maintain a war of abuse and snares — started quite some time ago by the representatives of the two greatest powers of the socialist camp.

In the document, Che also noted the impact of the Vietnam War on US soldiers and on the US politics:

Over there, the soldiers of imperialism encounter the discomforts of those who, accustomed to the standard of living that the United States boasts, have to confront a hostile land; the insecurity of those who cannot move without feeling that they are stepping on enemy territory; death for those who go outside of fortified compounds; the permanent hostility of the entire population. All this is provoking repercussions inside the United States. It is leading to the appearance of a factor that was attenuated by imperialism at full strength: the class struggle inside its own territory.

How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!

Caricatures

Che has been endlessly caricatured. And not only by the conscious enemies of his revolutionary ideas and practice. That is to be expected. Perhaps more pernicious are the caricatures of those claiming, sincerely or not, admiration or sympathy with Che’s ideas and example.

A predominant caricature presents Che as a quixotic utopian and romantic adventurer, perhaps with a death wish. Someone to be admired, even exalted, as a mythic hero but not someone to be learned from. Someone certainly not realistic in his “naïve” faith in the capacities of oppressed humanity. Such “admiration” of the Che icon in place of the actual, human Ernesto Guevara in truth buries Che’s ideas and strips them of contemporary relevance and applicability. By reducing Che to an icon, his revolutionary Marxist world outlook, his fraternal, collaborative, and democratic methods of work, his serious attention to scientific knowledge, objective facts, and honest study as the basis of practice and action are also buried. The Che of mythology is presented as a starry-eyed utopian idealist. The actual Che was a voracious reader and highly cultured man of science, a revolutionist of action deeply grounded in theoretical study and practical experience.

On October 15, 1967, six days after his murder, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba passed a resolution creating a commission of leading members “to orient and direct all the activities aimed at perpetuating the memory of Major Ernesto Guevara.” That pledge has been and continues to be fulfilled in revolutionary Cuba. Fortunately, Che’s writings have been preserved in Cuba, Latin America, in the United States, in fact everywhere in the world. No matter how much mud the liberal and conservative imperialists, the agents of the Latin American oligarchies, and the big-business media throw mountains of mud at Che’s memory on the 50th Anniversary of his murder, Che revolutionary message will continue to reach and inspire millions as a guide to action.

In today’s volatile, class polarization of world and national politics – ushered in with the 2007-08 cascading Wall Street-sparked crisis of the world capitalist crisis and international depression and downturn, which continues to unfold in 2017, we need more than ever the clarity of ideas and political perspective of Che.

Our Che is not merely a revered figure from the distant past. Our Che is a guide for the generation of today in the Americas and world-wide who are looking for serious and effective ways to fight this crisis-ridden world economic and social order, with its obscene inequality and haughty class privilege, its brutal wars generally tied to the subjugation of oppressed nationalities, the oppression of women, and environmental degradation. Most importantly, our Che is a beacon, illuminating what we are for, not merely what we are against.

It is also necessary to rescue Che from an imagery that appears more benign than the reactionary anti-Che boilerplate. This is the Che of the capitalist marketplace, where his image is a commodity to buy and sell, an abstract symbol, a handsome face to be adorned as a fashion statement maybe connoting some vague notion of “rebellion” or “idealism.” The capitalist market seeking profit works to reduce Che to a harmless icon stripped of his actual ideas. We get the myth of Che to divert us from his ideas, which have been preserved in his writings and speeches. Che T-Shirts and refrigerator magnets are fine, but what is really important is to read Che. What is really significant, what really honors his memory and example, is to study Che. And in his own words, before someone else’s rendition and “analysis.” You will be treating yourself because Che was a beautiful, profound, and clear writer and thinker. (At the end of this essay is an essential bibliography.)

To understand the extraordinary human being that Che became, you must start with how “ordinary,” in a sense, he was and place him in his times and experiences. Che’s ideas were developed by and combined with his experiences in the struggles of the oppressed and exploited majority. Grasping this is the only way to understand and truly embrace Ernesto Che Guevara.

Che in History

The Cuban Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959 when the July 26th Movement, of which Che had become a central political and military leader, led the workers and peasants of Cuba to governmental and state power over the US-backed Batista dictatorship. The Cuban socialist revolution has proven to be been particularly powerful, enduring, principled, and resonant. Nearly sixty years later, that power remains and has effectively defended itself from an unrelenting economic and political war organized in Washington.

(Footnote 4: Today, while Washington under President Barack Obama, retreated significantly with the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, US economic and travel sanctions and extraterritorial penalties continue, as does US occupation of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and subversive “regime change” programs. As this is being written President Donald Trump is stepping up political attacks on Cuba at the United Nation as the UN General Assembly prepares on November 1, 2017 to again overwhelmingly condemn the US “economic, commercial, and financial embargo.” Prior to the vote Trump announced measures to expel more than a dozen Cuban diplomats from the US, end visa processing for Cubans visiting or invited to the US, and further restrict US travel to the island.)

Che was one of the 82 men—most of whom perished within days, any number of whom could have become another “Che”— with outstanding human, revolutionary and patriotic qualities, organized under the command of Fidel Castro, who jammed aboard the Granma yacht, converted into a troop carrier, which landed on the Cuban coast. They were almost wiped out following a betrayal and logistical failures and regrouped. What unfolded over the next two years was a brilliantly fought rural guerrilla war that was complemented by a vast urban revolutionary underground, and in less than three years the July 26 Movement swept into governmental power, unleashing the mass action of millions of Cuba’s oppressed and exploited majority. (See Tad Szulc’s Fidel: A Critical Portrait for biographical sketches of the outstanding individuals who made up the Granma expedition.)

The Crucible of Guatemala

Ernesto Guevara was a not atypical middle-class Argentine boy, suffering from acute asthma but athletic nonetheless. He was a serious student who also liked to have a good time, sensitive to injustice but whose early social and political viewpoint did not go much beyond a definite humanitarian imperative. It was in Guatemala that the revolutionary transformation of Ernesto Guevara began.

Ernesto Guevara arrived in Guatemala in 1953 as the government of Jacobo Arbenz had taken office, elected by the votes of workers and peasants hoping for an alleviation of their miserable conditions of life and work. In the early 1950s, Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America and Latin America, was ruled by an ultra-wealthy oligarchy of semi-feudal landlords and a comprador bourgeoisie wholly linked and subordinate to foreign, mostly US, capital. Imperialist domination forged a Guatemalan economy geared toward the production of food for export to US and European markets. Food produced on giant plantations by super-exploited labor, kept in line by state and private armed violence.

The dominant company in the Guatemalan economic landscape was the US-based United Fruit Company (since rebranded as Chiquita Brands International). The lawyer for United Fruit was John Foster Dulles who became Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

Under the Arbenz government political space opened up for the super-exploited majority. Arbenz promoted and began to implement very mild reforms, including agrarian reforms that affected United Fruit’s vast holdings. Washington reacted with fury and proceeded step-by-step to organize an eventually successful CIA-directed military coup which overthrew Arbenz and installed the ferociously murderous right-wing military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. Subsequent military regimes armed and backed by Washington have murdered some 100,000 Guatemalan working people.

The young Ernesto Guevara went to Guatemala, like many South American patriots and developing anti-imperialists, attracted to the democratic and progressive promise of the Arbenz regime. The future Che had already received his medical degrees and the title of Doctor. Idealistic and full of passion for and determination to serve the oppressed and destitute, Dr. Guevara went to work, under programs sponsored by the Arbenz government, in the vast barrios of unspeakable impoverishment that made up the social reality of US-dominated and directed “democracy” in Guatemala. Dr. Guevara noticed from the outset that the symptoms and diseases he would treat and correct were always being reproduced out of the social relations and conditions that swirled around his modest clinic, oblivious to the skills and techniques employed inside. An important conclusion was thereby reached by the 25-year-old future revolutionary who wanted to be a revolutionary doctor. To be a revolutionary doctor, he decided, there would first have to be a revolution.

Guatemala became the crucible that forged the future Che. The extensive FBI and CIA files on Ernesto Guevara began during his time in Guatemala. (see Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary, edited by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith. Ocean Press 1997)

Che watched, with increasing frustration and exasperation, as the coup-forces prepared for their strike while the Arbenz government proved unable or unwilling to prepare counter-measures, especially by spotlighting and campaigning against the US subversion and physically preparing, training, and arming workers and peasants to defend the Constitutional government. (19 years later Fidel Castro did everything in his power to prevent a similar historic defeat and slaughter of working people in Chile, when, in 1973, the US-backed coup overthrew the elected and Constitutional government of Salvador Allende, as workers and peasants ready to defend their gains arms in hand waited in vain to be mobilized, organized, and armed.)

Ernesto Guevara escaped from Guatemala to Mexico, one step ahead of right-wing death squads which had him targeted. He landed in Mexico City, a destitute refugee at one point selling pencils and photographs on the streets, radicalized and transformed in the Guatemalan crucible.

CIA-organized military coup in Guatemala

Mexico City

Meanwhile, on July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro, Abel Santamaria, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, and dozens of other revolutionary Cuban youth stormed the Moncada Barracks of the US-backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which had taken power the previous year, overturning the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Defeated in the assault, the young rebels emerged politically victorious as a number of factors converged, resulting in the establishment of the July 26th Movement led by Fidel Castro. These included; the orgy of torture and murder unleashed by Batista’s police and army on the surrendered rebels, revulsing Cuban public opinion; the power of Fidel Castro’s defense speech, “History Will Absolve Me,” at his subsequent trial, detailing the rebel program and widely circulated throughout the island; and the rapid spread of a massive campaign for political amnesty for the imprisoned rebel leaders which forced their release in 1955. Under surveillance from Batista’s death squads Fidel Castro and other July 26th Movement leaders left Cuba, regrouped in Mexico City, organizing and gathering forces, beginning training and preparations for an invasion and a revolutionary armed struggle against the US-backed tyranny.

Che’s escape from Guatemala and Fidel’s forced exile found them both in Mexico City, where colonies of Latin American freedom fighters were to be found and who worked and played in overlapping social and political circles. Soon Ernesto had befriended a number of July 26th Movement cadre, including Raul Castro. Ernesto became Che, the affectionate moniker affixed to him by his Cuban pals soon to become his comrades.

Fidel recalled:

I first met Che one day in July or August 1955. And in one night…he became one of the future Granma expeditionaries, although at that time the expedition possessed neither ship, nor arms, nor troops. That was how, together with Raul, Che became one of the first two on the Granma list…

In those first days [Che] was our troop doctor, and so the bonds of friendship and warm feelings for him were ever increasing. He was filled with a profound hatred and contempt for imperialism, not only because his political education was already considerably developed, but also because, shortly before, he had had the opportunity of witnessing the criminal imperialist intervention in Guatemala through the mercenaries who aborted the revolution in that country.

A person like Che did not require elaborate arguments. It was sufficient for him to know Cuba was in a situation and that there were people determined to struggle against that situation, arms in hand. It was sufficient for him to know that those people were inspired by genuinely revolutionary and patriotic ideals. That was more than enough.

Che quickly went from troop doctor to unmatched military leader—fearless and audacious— with the most important assignments. It was Che who devised and implemented the defeat of Batista’s numerically far-superior (in numbers and equipment, if not motivation) forces in the decisive Battle of Santa Clara in late-1958. This broke the back of Batista’s army which rapidly disintegrated. After Santa Clara Washington and the Cuban oligarchy were unable to do anything to prevent the triumphant march into Havana by Fidel’s converging guerrilla armies as the Cuban masses exploded in a festival of revolutionary joy and struggle.

The Che who became a central leader of the Cuban Revolution that seized power on January 1, 1959, was a voracious reader of the entire range of democratic and revolutionary thought from Goethe, Voltaire, and the European Enlightenment to Darwin, Einstein, and Freud, as well as Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, and the deep tradition of Latin American revolutionary nationalism. He had already become a convinced Marxist from a thorough study of the works of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and V. I. Lenin. Additionally, Che’s mind had assimilated the essential thoughts and precepts of modern science and mathematics.

Illiterate and semiliterate peasants and others recruited to his guerrilla army in Cuba, and later in the Congo and Bolivia recalled in amazement and love how Che would always incorporate into the fighter’s daily routines time for the study of language, mathematics, science, and history, in addition to literacy classes. It was Che who organized the “Rebel Radio” which broadcast from combat zones during the Cuban revolutionary war.

Che the Executioner?

One of the first tasks of the triumphant revolutionaries was to establish justice for the thousands of Cuban families whose sons and daughters, mothers, fathers, and neighbors had been tortured and slaughtered on the streets and in the dungeons of the Batista regime. The martyred dead numbered at least 20,000 in a country then of 6 million (the equivalent of over 650,000 dead in a country the size of the US at the time). A messy people’s justice had already begun with the end of the military-police regime as spontaneous retributions took place against known torturers and murderers whose cover and protection had vanished and who were unable to reach safety – and escape justice – in the United States.

Che was assigned the task of establishing a just and fair but also transparent and certain justice and to bring the process under revolutionary control, ensuring due process, defense lawyers, and fair proceedings. This was done in an exemplary way. Popular, public tribunals were organized. Volumes of public testimony were given, with horrific testimony of the vile tortures and bestial murder recorded and made public. Some 200 of the worst torturers and murderers of the US-backed Batista tyranny were shot by firing squads. No one has ever offered a shred of evidence that anyone innocent was executed. Whatever one’s opinion of the death sentences that were implemented, backed by the great majority of the population, no one can say, or has ever shown, that the guilt of those executed was not established beyond the shadow of a doubt. Batista’s cops and thugs were, after all, known to all. In their glory days, prior to the revolutionary victory, those brought to justice strutted their power and brutality over what they thought would be forever helpless victims; they never dreamed they would face their victims and their victim’s families in a legal proceeding.

This process of bringing to justice the worst criminals of the hated Batista regime led to an orgy of hypocrisy and phony moral outrage in the big-business press and among Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States. The highly orchestrated propaganda campaign was a major pretext in a concerted campaign to turn public opinion, which had been very sympathetic to Fidel Castro and the rebel cause, against the Cuban Revolution as radical social reforms began to be implemented which affected US business interests and the US economic and financial domination of the island ushered in by the US rout of Spain in the 1898 Spanish American War.

Che’s efficient and thorough carrying out of his assignment overseeing the trial and sentences, including the executions, has led to grotesque caricatures of Che as a “ruthless executioner” and “mass murderer” by conservative and liberal haters and slanderers of the Cuban Revolution, including ten years ago in the Hollywood box- office flop The Lost City, produced and directed by prominent actor and Cuban-American hostile opponent of the Cuban Revolution, Andy Garcia.

Washington and the big-business media’s crocodile tears for Batista’s torturers and murderers stands in sharp contrast to their approval or silence towards the mountains of corpses piled up by US-backed military regimes and death squads in Latin America and the Caribbean before and especially after the Cuban Revolution from Trujillo, Duvalier, and Somoza to Pinochet and the Argentine generals.

Che and the Transition to Socialism

For several years after the revolutionary triumph Che carried out essential tasks for the revolutionary government, including an appointment to head up the national bank in 1959. This was an absolutely daunting task which placed Che at the nerve center of the Cuban economy during its qualitative, revolutionary transformation. The Cuban revolutionaries were determined to mobilize the Cuban people, galvanized by the triumph of the Revolution, to advance concrete economic and financial policies that would develop and industrialize the Cuban economy within the emerging new social relations of the Cuban Revolution. This included forge new planning mechanisms and incentives for increasing labor productivity in agriculture and industry and for the entire Cuban economic and financial system.

By 1961 in the newly nationalized industries, from which most expert management personnel from previous private owners had left, and where in the case of US-owned factories and plants, the spare parts and skills to maintain and upgrade machinery were being embargoes and were sorely lacking. What Che had faith in was the revolutionary potential of the workers and peasants, and to mobilize the tremendous enthusiasm unleashed among the large majority of the Cuban people and youth to tackle these problems, learning the industrial and management skills needed to industrialize Cuba.

Cuba was moving toward a new social contract – crystalized in the forging in real time of a new state, in the wake of the actual collapse of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive police-military apparatus, its prisons, its courts, and its entire “criminal justice system. This new state that emerged under this historical crucible was fundamentally stamped by the working class which was becoming the dominant social and political force in the government and the state, including in the new armed forces that were in direct continuity with the guerilla army. The same dynamic applied to the new revolutionary police forces, and the new judicial and legal systems. Working people and young people, as well as many students, intellectuals, and revolutionary-minded individuals from the middle and even the affluent classes, united in the heat of the revolutionary moment when, as Lenin said, decades happen in weeks. Ordinary people stepped in to manage and get running factories and farms producing as world politics (and Cold War politics) swirled around the Cuban Revolution.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” — Lenin

Revolutionary Cuba’s leaders were not able to control the pace and tempo of the economic measures, for the simple reason that the entire framework for the unfolding struggle was the hostility and policies of the US government.

Step by step the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations moved to asphyxiate the workers and farmers government that was consolidating power with mass support. Concurrently – and dialectically intertwined –the Cuban revolutionaries moved to overturn the dominance of the capitalist market and bourgeois social relations and establish the new pre-eminence of conscious and progressive economic planning. The amazing, egalitarian social measures that marked, and have made so attractive, the Cuban Revolution: the eradication of illiteracy within two years; the massive expansion of free, quality medical care; the establishment of an excellent public school system embracing every single Cuban child without exception; the radical uprooting and legal extirpation of the system of racist discrimination, the Cuban version of Jim Crow; the eradication of the “free market” in the sale of women’s bodies for vile sexual gratification (and the annihilation of the whole machinery of the US-based Mafia where the oppression of women was essential to the business) as part of a radical program of women’s emancipation, including the right to abortion. These achievements that are marveled at or grudgingly acknowledged even by opponents of socialism could only have been possible with the economic measures that transformed the class character of the Cuban state: radical land reform; nationalization of banking and capitalist industry; state monopoly of foreign trade; central planning based on human needs over “market” (that is private capital) prerogatives; the breaking up of imperialist and Cuban-owned sugar and other plantations replaced by peasant co-operatives and land redistribution; the retention and consolidation of private, family farms protected and aided by the workers state; and radical rent reductions followed by a massive expansion in home ownership, on the basis of human need over private profit.

[Footnote 5: The private owners of nationalized foreign enterprises in Cuba, with their governments negotiated satisfactory compensation with the revolutionary government, in accordance with international law. The US government, at the time, was already planning and organizing for its overthrow, and was therefore in contemptuous rejection of any negotiations for compensation to US owners of Cuban assets being nationalized.]

Che’s economic writings are particularly brilliant and thought-provoking, with stress on the consciousness and transformation of the human being as the foundation of socialist economics, combined with the most modern application of science and technology, statistical rigorousness, and scrupulous accounting methods. ( see Fidel Castro October 8, 1987 speech “Che’s Ideas Are Absolutely Relevant Today” reprinted in the valuable Che Gevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism by Carlos Tablada, Pathfinder Press, 1998. Also see Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution by Helen Yaffe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

In these years Che became particularly beloved among Cubans – from fellow revolutionists to rank-and-file working people because of his selflessness, his integrity, his modesty, and his abhorrence of privilege, routinism, and bureaucracy. Che was the example, which became legendary, of being the hardest worker in whatever task he was undertaking.

To the same degree that Che was respected and loved by Cuba’s workers and peasants, he was hated by the landlords and capitalists and Mafioso whose world of privilege, obscene inequality, and vile criminality and brutality was smashed to bits forever by the Cuban revolutionaries. Che was also hated and feared by the supervisors of the decrepit Cuban ruling class, who resided in Washington and on Wall Street.

Che’s Internationalism

Among his many tasks in Cuba’s revolutionary leadership Che became the embodiment of Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy – one of the most enduring features of world politics since the revolutionary triumph on New Year’s Day 1959 to this day.

In forums friendly and hostile – from the Organization of American States meeting at Punta del Este, Uruguay in 1964 to the United Nations that same year, Che spread the word and policies of the Cuban Revolution in language diplomatic and revolutionary.

Fidel Castro recalled often that Che made him promise, while they were still fighting in the Sierra Maestra, that the future revolutionary government would create no obstacle when the day came that Che wished to participate in and organize revolutionary struggles elsewhere in Latin America.

While Che was traveling the globe as a most effective protagonist of Cuba’s foreign policy, while he was playing a leading part in the broad establishment of diplomatic relations and trade with a wide range of nations, he was also laying the basis for the organization of a revolutionary continental army to engage in a continent-wide battle against the Latin American oligarchies and the domination of US imperialism which was their first and last prop.

For much of 1965, prior to returning to the battlefield of Latin America, and with the political and logistical support of the Cuban government, Che attempted to work with followers of murdered Congolese President Patrice Lumumba to establish a revolutionary front to fight the neo-colonial regime. These reactionary forces were backed by South African mercenaries, the Belgian colonialists, and Washington. The effort failed. Che’s brutally honest and objective account and concrete analysis of the failed struggle contains many lessons, and is also a profound example of the Marxist method. (see The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo by Ernesto Che Guevara, Grove/Atlantic, 2001)

After the Congo failure, Che returned to Cuba and immediately, again with the full backing and collaboration of the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, immersed himself into preparations for a secret return to Latin America with a selected team of fighters.

Che’s strategic perspective was to build a guerrilla base in Bolivia to begin an armed struggle against the US-armed and sustained military regime there, which could link up with other vanguard forces continent-wide as part of rising mass struggles against the imperialist-backed oligarchies and military dictatorships throughout the Americas.

Che’s book Guerrilla Warfare (Vintage Books, 1969) is a profound and historical document on the art and politics of military struggle. That is, the strategy and tactics of revolutionary armed struggle against entrenched military dictatorships which are defending the oligarchies and oppressing the workers, peasants, and masses. This in a context where all avenues and space for independent legal, constitutional, and democratic struggle have been closed and snuffed out.

In it he writes, “Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.”

Che’s heroic effort, based in Bolivia, was betrayed and defeated prior to significant mass upsurges and deepening class struggles that did unfold in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (see Fidel Castro’s “A Necessary Introduction” in Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, 1994 for Fidel’s description of the factor of betrayal in the defeat of Che’s guerrilla forces.)

Che and the Next Waves of Struggle in Latin America

There is a continuity of struggle that links Che’s heroic Bolivian campaign to the battles against Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s and the eventual opening of political space, democratic and worker’s rights, that are again under pressure today; the revolutionary upsurges in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s; and the decade of mounting and deepening popular struggles against the “Washington Consensus” of economic and financial policies of austerity, privatization, and attacks on workers living that led to major shifts in Latin American politics to the left at the opening of the 21st Century.

The worldwide impact of the 2007-2009 economic and financial crisis had a somewhat delayed but finally devastating impact across the Americas. Major economies like Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina, dependent on exports of raw material commodities such as oil, copper, soy and other agricultural products to markets in the advanced capitalist countries were thrown into economic turmoil by the so-called “Great Recession” and the financial shocks that began in the United States and spread to the EU. This necessarily led to political volatility and turmoil. Tremendous pressures have been put on left-wing political parties and tendencies that gained governmental power (and carried out various progressive policies in the interests of working people in the period of high commodity prices) as the still-fully capitalist economies they oversee became immersed in economic downturn. This gave some traction to more conservative, neoliberal forces that managed to replace the Worker’s Party government in Brazil in 2016 with a parliamentary coup and a similar result earlier in Argentina after presidential elections in 2015. Venezuela has had the most devastating economic downturn where the crash of the price of oil has combined with economic sabotage and escalating violence and provocation by US-backed forces determined to overturn the Nicolas Maduro government, although they are badly divided over tactics, methods, and political postures.

As this is written on October 9, 2017 it is certain that, in the coming years, the framework for the class struggle and unfolding political battles for power – outside and inside of capitalist parliamentary institutions which are weakening, rife with corruption, and seemingly unable to address let alone resolve accumulated and intensifying social and political crises.

The conditions of struggle in Latin America and the Caribbean are far different – and far more favorable – for workers and peasants today than at the time of Che’s heroic struggle. Those who murdered Che fifty years ago will be forever buried with contempt. Che’s banner has been continually picked up and carried forward by millions as the coming historic class battles in the Americas and every corner of the globe for solidarity, national and social liberation continue to unfold. Our Che will be present as an inspiration, political guide, and example, with Fidel, of revolutionary leadership.

Essential Writings and Speeches of Ernesto Che Guevara

Episodes of the Cuban Revolutionary War, Pathfinder Press
Guerrilla Warfare, Ocean Press
The African Dream, Grove Press
Bolivian Diary, Pathfinder Press
Che Guevara Speaks, Pathfinder Press
Che Guevara Talks to Young People, Pathfinder Press
Che Guevara Reader, Ocean Press
“Socialism and Man in Cuba,” Pathfinder Press
“Create Two, Three, Many Vietnams (Message to the Tricontinental) in Che Guevara Reader, Ocean Press

 

Our Che: 50 Years After His Execution

(Author’s note: This is an updated, re-edited essay, based on a 2007 written for a Celebration of Ernesto Che Guevara’s life held in October 2007 in New York City in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of his execution, attended by 300 people.)

*****

Che died defending no other interest, no other cause than the cause of the exploited and the oppressed of this continent. Che died defending no other cause than the cause of the poor and the humble of this earth.

— Fidel Castro, October 18, 1967

Che Lives!

On October 9, 1967, the highest levels of the United States government transmitted orders to CIA-operative Felix Rodriguez who passed them on to Washington’s flunkies in the Bolivian military regime. The orders were to murder Ernesto Che Guevara – a wounded combatant captured in battle. They proceeded to display Che’s mutilated corpse to gawking journalists and selected spectator-voyeurs before burying his remains in what they planned on forever being a secret, unmarked grave.

Above all, the Washington decision-makers understood there could be no trial, even a phony formality in their own rigged courts, for Ernesto Che Guevara. As Fidel Castro stated in his extraordinarily powerful and moving tribute to Che given before one million Cubans on October 18, 1967, the imperialist “thugs, oligarchs, and mercenaries” shamelessly conceded why they murdered the wounded and disarmed Che. “…They explain why they did it. They assert that Che’s trial would have been quite an earth shaker, that it would have been impossible to place this revolutionary in the dock.”

By murdering Che in cold blood and then clandestinely dumping his body, the hope and expectation was that Che’s physical extermination and hidden bones would be “the end of the story,” that is, the end of Che’s historic political impact and significance. As they clinked champagne glasses – and this is literally true – in the offices of the National Security Agency of the Lyndon Johnson White House upon receiving confirmation of Che’s death, Washington’s central political officers truly thought that Che would be quickly forgotten or at most faintly remembered as a minor historical footnote. How different reality turned out!

50 years later it is quite clear that – beyond the image – the life and example of Ernesto Che Guevara continues to resonate strongly in world politics. Che’s revolutionary legacy, his ideas and example, continue to inspire new generations of youth and working people, particularly throughout the Americas, but in truth across the entire globe. Young people and working people today who understand that a better world – a socialist world – is possible, and who are ready to fight for it. For decades now, embodying contemporary history, Ernesto Che Guevara has personified uncompromising anti-imperialist struggle for freedom, justice, and equality…by any means necessary, as his contemporary and fellow revolutionist Malcolm X put it.

Fidel and Che

The November 26, 2016 passing, at the age of 90, of the great Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, leads us to revisit the historic military and political collaboration between Fidel and Che, the two revolutionary Marxist fighters and close friends who worked together with an outstanding team of Cuban revolutionary fighters, men and women, as they planned a military and political campaign against the venal and brutal Fulgencio Batista dictatorship – backed by the United States government until essentially the bitter end.1

When Fidel Castro died, there was, in the United States, a veritable down-pouring of calumny across the established, corporate media, echoed in much of the so-called “democratic West.”  We can certainly expect more of this mendacity as the 50th Anniversary of Che’s death approaches.2

During the Fidel hate-fest produced by the US media oligopolies after his death, there were small demonstrations, in the hundreds at most, of “die-hard” longtime opponents of the Cuban Revolution – a clear minority today even among Cuban-Americans. The antecedents of these now fast-fading counter-revolutionary forces in 1962 actually filled the Orange Bowl football stadium in Miami to welcome the return to the United States of the captured mercenary invaders who were defeated in April, 1961 at the so-called Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron in Cuba). That occurred after the Cuban revolutionary government exchanged them, well fed and in one piece – that is, never tortured – in exchange for medicines, after drawn out negotiations.

The relatively tiny and politically insignificant anti-Fidel Miami protests in 2017 were endlessly repeated in incessant, loop coverage by the cable oligopolies, in a crude manipulation aimed at creating the impression that Fidel was a hated “dictator.” Meanwhile, in Cuba, millions upon millions of Cubans, across every generation, lined the cities and countryside throughout the nation to pay respect and love for “the undefeated” Fidel to his final resting place in Santiago de Cuba.

The ashes of Fidel Castro driven through the streets of Holguin, Cuba

The Spector of Che in the 21st Century

The specter of Che Guevara continues to haunt the imperialist world. This 50th Anniversary of his cowardly assassination is bound to see another wave in the perpetual concerted campaign to throw mud and slander, disinformation and half-truths, on the memory and example of Che. A new wave over time from the big-business media and publishing houses, with op-ed pieces, new books and films adding to an already lamentable list. There will be endless anti-communist and anti-socialist trolling online. All these efforts are inevitable and every fighter for revolutionary socialist change, and every person who takes seriously concrete historical truth, will be compelled to defend the person, ideas, and legacy of our Che.

Of course, it is precisely because Che’s legacy is so powerful that bourgeois governments and their corporate media, especially in the United States, must counter this with renewed regurgitations of myths and false assertions. The method involved is repetition of what in current parlance is called “fake news.”

The continuity of Che’s revolutionary socialist legacy is naturally intertwined with the Cuban Revolution – of which he was both a product and central creator. The Cuban Revolution, having survived the economic unraveling of the early 1990s, first described by Fidel Castro as the “Special Period,” has emerged from that crisis stronger, more attractive, and weightier in world politics today. Leading Cuba through the cataclysmic crisis of the Special Period was Fidel Castro’s last historic revolutionary political triumph in defense of the Cuban Revolution, Cuban sovereignty, and the Cuban workers state.3

Fifty years after Che’s execution, the capitalist world order of 2017 is crisis-ridden, stuck in a seemingly permanent economic stagnation marked by lingering weakness and volatility, even as the social impact of decades of so-called “neo-liberal globalization” — that is austerity and assaults on the rights and living standards of the working class — continue to accumulate: deepening of social inequality; sharpening class and social polarization; recurrent crises in bourgeois politics and capitalist parliamentary democracies.

The burning question of revolutionary leadership is no less central in the second decade of the 21st Century than in the 1960s. Or as it was in the 1930s, when the successive defeats of popular revolutionary struggles and working-class upsurge were consecutive starting with the triumph of Adolph Hitler’s Nazis in Germany in 1933 and consequent pulverization of the worker’s movement, the trade unions, and all democratic rights in Germany through to the crushing of the Spanish Revolution by 1938. That latter defeat accelerated the events directly leading to, laying the basis for, the devastation of World War II in Europe. An unintended consequence of that worldwide imperialist slaughter was the acceleration of colonial independence movements and struggles for national liberation, including what became socialist revolutions in China and Vietnam. The Cuban Revolution was part of that international dynamic.

Cuba today maintains the revolutionary Marxist outlook of Che and Fidel in its foreign policy. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in 1959 it revived a genuine proletarian internationalism that had been battered by gross abuses, betrayals, and defeats since the death of V.I. Lenin and the early foreign policy of the Soviet Union.

Socialist Cuba in 2017 is a state power with a foreign policy that actively promotes international solidarity, an internationalism based on the interests and struggles of the working people of the world. This is true in both political ideas and actual deeds.

The Unintended Consequences of World War II

The strategic perspective of Fidel and Che after the revolutionary triumph was to organize and coordinate a revolutionary leadership, throughout the Americas and worldwide, out of the mass upsurges and anti-imperialist struggles for colonial independence and national liberation that exploded on every continent where colonial domination began to erode during, and in, the aftermath of the earth-shattering events of World War II. This is the post-World War II world that the Cuban Revolution and its workers and farmers government of young revolutionists was born into on January 1, 1959.

The pre-World War II world order, dominated by the already decadent and fraying British and French colonial empires, was now being further battered by the blows of a resurgent, aggressive German-Nazi imperialism. British and French “democratic” colonialism and imperialism found themselves at war with fascist Germany despite striving throughout the 1930s to appease it. An unintended consequence of the massive multi-front, multi-national slaughterhouse and holocaust of World War II in Europe was accelerating the conditions for the eventual collapse of the colonial empires.

In Asia and the Pacific Rim, the British, French, and other Western European colonial powers along, with the United States, already an emerging Pacific military and economic power (and minor colonial power in the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, and the US Hawaiian territory) faced an aggressive Japanese imperialism that had already invaded and occupied Chinese Manchuria in 1931, escalated its military aggression there in 1936-37, and bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941.

Independence movements grew rapidly everywhere in formerly colonial lands, often with a mass revolutionary dynamic. This was true in all the arenas where the titanic militaries of existing and competing imperialist powers and the more minor colonial players clashed in Asia, Africa, the Middle East in the 1930s, 1940s and beyond. A huge historic transformation was the political outcome.

Indian independence was gained in 1948. The Chinese Revolution triumphed in 1949. French imperialism tried to reconquer Vietnam and Indochina before being routed at Dienbienphu in 1954. The French imperialists, employing truly epochal brutality, managed to hold on in Algeria until 1962. Eventually, the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch governments, with much stress and strain, were forced to retreat and concede formal national political sovereignty across much of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific Rim. The world political situation that the triumphant Cuban Revolution entered into and impacted on in 1959 was one where that pre-war order was coming apart and there was concurrently the consolidation of the framework and intensification of the so called “Cold War” epoch.

Splits in the “World Communist Movement”

Additionally, within the “world Communist movement,” great political schisms began to develop in this new post-war period, which saw the triumph of the Chinese Revolution and the consolidation of a government led by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949; revolutionary independence struggles in Vietnam and Korea in the aftermath of the Japanese defeat and the French attempts to recover its doomed colonial power and “glory” in Indochina.

Political divisions intensified after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. At the 1954 Geneva Accords “Agreement” Soviet and Chinese diplomats pressured the Ho Chi Minh government, which had just routed the French at Dienbienphu, to make major concessions to the United States. In 1956 there was a stunning international impact from a speech by top Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev denouncing (and by doing so acknowledging and revealing appalling criminal abuse on a massive scale under Stalin (a speech which the US government made sure did not stay “secret” for long). The 1956 Soviet-Warsaw Pact invasion of Hungary was great political grist for anti-communist Cold War propaganda (propaganda is most effective when it is a least partly factual true) and, along with the Stalin “revelations” utterly roiled the Communist Parties worldwide. By 1958 there was some motion for a Cold War “thaw” between Washington and Moscow which seemed directed, at least in part, at the post-revolution Chinese government, “Red China” in US government and corporate media parlance. By 1959, when the Cuban revolution triumphed and Washington began to direct counter-revolutionary efforts against the island, the “Sino-Soviet split,” with increasingly intense polemics and inflammatory exchanges, was exploding into public view. This was the political world the Cuban Revolution entered into and consolidated power in.

“Create two, three…many Vietnams”: Che and Vietnam

From the late 1950s into the early 1960s, US attempts to prop up the illegal and increasingly hated and isolated Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the artificially divided “South Vietnam,” were faltering. By the mid-1960s, JFK’s Washington had brutally dispatched a murdered Diem and embarked on a course and policy of militarily defeating the Vietnamese liberation movement through a massive expansion of US firepower and troop levels reaching 500,000 by 1968.

The “Sino-Soviet split” had deleterious effects for Vietnam, a cause extremely close to the Cuban revolutionaries, and Che Guevara in particular. Che left Cuba and embarked on his revolutionary internationalist mission. He wrote the historic “Message to the Tricontinental.”

This was equally: a cool, objective survey of the world political situation in 1966-67 which placed the Vietnamese Revolution and US aggression at the center of world politics; and a fiery revolutionary manifesto calling for stepped-up international solidarity with Vietnam. “It is not a matter of wishing success to the victim of aggression,“ Che wrote, “but of sharing his fate; one must accompany him to his death or to victory.”

The “Message to the Tricontinental,” was published by the Organization of Solidarity with the People’s of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Ospaal) in April 1967, while Che was fighting in Bolivia. It included a direct, stinging rebuke to the Soviet and Chinese governments:

US imperialism is guilty of aggression — its crimes are enormous and cover the whole world. We already know all that, gentlemen! But this guilt also applies to those who, when the time came for a definition, hesitated to make Vietnam an inviolable part of the socialist world; running, of course, the risks of a war on a global scale-but also forcing a decision upon imperialism. And the guilt also applies to those who maintain a war of abuse and snares — started quite some time ago by the representatives of the two greatest powers of the socialist camp.

In the document, Che also noted the impact of the Vietnam War on US soldiers and on the US politics:

Over there, the soldiers of imperialism encounter the discomforts of those who, accustomed to the standard of living that the United States boasts, have to confront a hostile land; the insecurity of those who cannot move without feeling that they are stepping on enemy territory; death for those who go outside of fortified compounds; the permanent hostility of the entire population. All this is provoking repercussions inside the United States. It is leading to the appearance of a factor that was attenuated by imperialism at full strength: the class struggle inside its own territory.

How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!

Caricatures

Che has been endlessly caricatured. And not only by the conscious enemies of his revolutionary ideas and practice. That is to be expected. Perhaps more pernicious are the caricatures of those claiming, sincerely or not, admiration or sympathy with Che’s ideas and example.

A predominant caricature presents Che as a quixotic utopian and romantic adventurer, perhaps with a death wish. Someone to be admired, even exalted, as a mythic hero but not someone to be learned from. Someone certainly not realistic in his “naïve” faith in the capacities of oppressed humanity. Such “admiration” of the Che icon in place of the actual, human Ernesto Guevara in truth buries Che’s ideas and strips them of contemporary relevance and applicability. By reducing Che to an icon, his revolutionary Marxist world outlook, his fraternal, collaborative, and democratic methods of work, his serious attention to scientific knowledge, objective facts, and honest study as the basis of practice and action are also buried. The Che of mythology is presented as a starry-eyed utopian idealist. The actual Che was a voracious reader and highly cultured man of science, a revolutionist of action deeply grounded in theoretical study and practical experience.

On October 15, 1967, six days after his murder, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba passed a resolution creating a commission of leading members “to orient and direct all the activities aimed at perpetuating the memory of Major Ernesto Guevara.” That pledge has been, and continues to be, fulfilled in revolutionary Cuba. Fortunately, Che’s writings have been preserved in Cuba, Latin America, in the United States, in fact, everywhere in the world. No matter how much mud the liberal and conservative imperialists, the agents of the Latin American oligarchies, and the big-business media throw mountains of mud at Che’s memory on the 50th Anniversary of his murder, Che’s revolutionary message will continue to reach and inspire millions as a guide to action.

In today’s volatile, class polarization of world and national politics – ushered in with the 2007-08 cascading Wall Street-sparked crisis of the world capitalist crisis and international depression and downturn, which continues to unfold in 2017, we need more than ever the clarity of ideas and political perspective of Che.

Our Che is not merely a revered figure from the distant past. Our Che is a guide for the generation of today in the Americas and world-wide who are looking for serious and effective ways to fight this crisis-ridden world economic and social order, with its obscene inequality and haughty class privilege, its brutal wars generally tied to the subjugation of oppressed nationalities, the oppression of women, and environmental degradation. Most importantly, our Che is a beacon, illuminating what we are for, not merely what we are against.

It is also necessary to rescue Che from an imagery that appears more benign than the reactionary anti-Che boilerplate. This is the Che of the capitalist marketplace, where his image is a commodity to buy and sell, an abstract symbol, a handsome face to be adorned as a fashion statement maybe connoting some vague notion of “rebellion” or “idealism.” The capitalist market seeking profit works to reduce Che to a harmless icon stripped of his actual ideas. We get the myth of Che to divert us from his ideas, which have been preserved in his writings and speeches. Che T-Shirts and refrigerator magnets are fine, but what is really important is to read Che. What is really significant, what really honors his memory and example, is to study Che. And in his own words, before someone else’s rendition and “analysis.” You will be treating yourself because Che was a beautiful, profound, and clear writer and thinker. (At the end of this essay is an essential bibliography.)

To understand the extraordinary human being that Che became, you must start with how “ordinary,” in a sense, he was and place him in his times and experiences. Che’s ideas were developed by, and combined with, his experiences in the struggles of the oppressed and exploited majority. Grasping this is the only way to understand and truly embrace Ernesto Che Guevara.

Che in History

The Cuban Revolution triumphed on January 1, 1959 when the July 26th Movement, of which Che had become a central political and military leader, led the workers and peasants of Cuba to governmental and state power over the US-backed Batista dictatorship. The Cuban socialist revolution has proven to have been particularly powerful, enduring, principled, and resonant. Nearly sixty years later, that power remains and has effectively defended itself from an unrelenting economic and political war organized in Washington.4

Che was one of the 82 men—most of whom perished within days, any number of whom could have become another “Che”— with outstanding human, revolutionary and patriotic qualities, organized under the command of Fidel Castro, who jammed aboard the Granma yacht, converted into a troop carrier, which landed on the Cuban coast. They were almost wiped out following a betrayal and logistical failures and regrouped. What unfolded over the next two years was a brilliantly fought rural guerrilla war that was complemented by a vast urban revolutionary underground, and in less than three years the July 26 Movement swept into governmental power, unleashing the mass action of millions of Cuba’s oppressed and exploited majority. (See Tad Szulc’s Fidel: A Critical Portrait for biographical sketches of the outstanding individuals who made up the Granma expedition.)

The Crucible of Guatemala

Ernesto Guevara was not atypical as a middle-class Argentine boy, suffering from acute asthma but athletic nonetheless. He was a serious student who also liked to have a good time, sensitive to injustice but whose early social and political viewpoint did not go much beyond a definite humanitarian imperative. It was in Guatemala that the revolutionary transformation of Ernesto Guevara began.

Ernesto Guevara arrived in Guatemala in 1953 as the government of Jacobo Arbenz had taken office, elected by the votes of workers and peasants hoping for an alleviation of their miserable conditions of life and work. In the early 1950s, Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America and Latin America, was ruled by an ultra-wealthy oligarchy of semi-feudal landlords and a comprador bourgeoisie wholly linked and subordinate to foreign, mostly US, capital. Imperialist domination forged a Guatemalan economy geared toward the production of food for export to US and European markets. Food produced on giant plantations by super-exploited labor, kept in line by state and private armed violence.

The dominant company in the Guatemalan economic landscape was the US-based United Fruit Company (since rebranded as Chiquita Brands International). The lawyer for United Fruit was John Foster Dulles who became Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953.

Under the Arbenz government political space opened up for the super-exploited majority. Arbenz promoted and began to implement very mild reforms, including agrarian reforms that affected United Fruit’s vast holdings. Washington reacted with fury and proceeded step-by-step to organize an eventually successful CIA-directed military coup which overthrew Arbenz and installed the ferociously murderous right-wing military dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. Subsequent military regimes armed and backed by Washington have murdered some 100,000 Guatemalan working people.

The young Ernesto Guevara went to Guatemala, like many South American patriots and developing anti-imperialists, attracted to the democratic and progressive promise of the Arbenz regime. The future Che had already received his medical degrees and the title of Doctor. Idealistic and full of passion for and determination to serve the oppressed and destitute, Dr. Guevara went to work, under programs sponsored by the Arbenz government, in the vast barrios of unspeakable impoverishment that made up the social reality of US-dominated and directed “democracy” in Guatemala. Dr. Guevara noticed from the outset that the symptoms and diseases he would treat and correct were always being reproduced out of the social relations and conditions that swirled around his modest clinic, oblivious to the skills and techniques employed inside. An important conclusion was thereby reached by the 25-year-old future revolutionary who wanted to be a revolutionary doctor. To be a revolutionary doctor, he decided, there would first have to be a revolution.

Guatemala became the crucible that forged the future Che. The extensive FBI and CIA files on Ernesto Guevara began during his time in Guatemala. (See Che Guevara and the FBI: The US Political Police Dossier on the Latin American Revolutionary, edited by Michael Ratner and Michael Steven Smith. Ocean Press 1997.)

Che watched, with increasing frustration and exasperation, as the coup-forces prepared for their strike while the Arbenz government proved unable or unwilling to prepare counter-measures, especially by spotlighting and campaigning against the US subversion and physically preparing, training, and arming workers and peasants to defend the Constitutional government. (19 years later Fidel Castro did everything in his power to prevent a similar historic defeat and slaughter of working people in Chile, when, in 1973, the US-backed coup overthrew the elected and Constitutional government of Salvador Allende, as workers and peasants ready to defend their gains arms in hand waited in vain to be mobilized, organized, and armed.)

Ernesto Guevara escaped from Guatemala to Mexico, one step ahead of right-wing death squads which had him targeted. He landed in Mexico City, a destitute refugee at one point selling pencils and photographs on the streets, radicalized and transformed in the Guatemalan crucible.

CIA-organized military coup in Guatemala

Mexico City

Meanwhile, on July 26, 1953 Fidel Castro, Abel Santamaria, Raul Castro, Juan Almeida, and dozens of other revolutionary Cuban youth stormed the Moncada Barracks of the US-backed military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, which had taken power the previous year, overturning the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Defeated in the assault, the young rebels emerged politically victorious as a number of factors converged, resulting in the establishment of the July 26th Movement led by Fidel Castro. These included; the orgy of torture and murder unleashed by Batista’s police and army on the surrendered rebels, revulsing Cuban public opinion; the power of Fidel Castro’s defense speech, “History Will Absolve Me,” at his subsequent trial, detailing the rebel program and widely circulated throughout the island; and the rapid spread of a massive campaign for political amnesty for the imprisoned rebel leaders which forced their release in 1955. Under surveillance from Batista’s death squads Fidel Castro and other July 26th Movement leaders left Cuba, regrouped in Mexico City, organizing and gathering forces, beginning training and preparations for an invasion and a revolutionary armed struggle against the US-backed tyranny.

Che’s escape from Guatemala and Fidel’s forced exile found them both in Mexico City, where colonies of Latin American freedom fighters were to be found and who worked and played in overlapping social and political circles. Soon Ernesto had befriended a number of July 26th Movement cadre, including Raul Castro. Ernesto became Che, the affectionate moniker affixed to him by his Cuban pals soon to become his comrades.

Fidel recalled:

I first met Che one day in July or August 1955. And in one night…he became one of the future Granma expeditionaries, although at that time the expedition possessed neither ship, nor arms, nor troops. That was how, together with Raul, Che became one of the first two on the Granma list…

In those first days [Che] was our troop doctor, and so the bonds of friendship and warm feelings for him were ever increasing. He was filled with a profound hatred and contempt for imperialism, not only because his political education was already considerably developed, but also because, shortly before, he had had the opportunity of witnessing the criminal imperialist intervention in Guatemala through the mercenaries who aborted the revolution in that country.

A person like Che did not require elaborate arguments. It was sufficient for him to know Cuba was in a situation and that there were people determined to struggle against that situation, arms in hand. It was sufficient for him to know that those people were inspired by genuinely revolutionary and patriotic ideals. That was more than enough.

Che quickly went from troop doctor to unmatched military leader—fearless and audacious— with the most important assignments. It was Che who devised and implemented the defeat of Batista’s numerically far-superior (in numbers and equipment, if not motivation) forces in the decisive Battle of Santa Clara in late-1958. This broke the back of Batista’s army which rapidly disintegrated. After Santa Clara Washington and the Cuban oligarchy were unable to do anything to prevent the triumphant march into Havana by Fidel’s converging guerrilla armies as the Cuban masses exploded in a festival of revolutionary joy and struggle.

Che in Command during the Decisive Battle of Santa Clara

The Che who became a central leader of the Cuban Revolution that seized power on January 1, 1959, was a voracious reader of the entire range of democratic and revolutionary thought from Goethe, Voltaire, and the European Enlightenment to Darwin, Einstein, and Freud, as well as Simon Bolivar, Jose Marti, and the deep tradition of Latin American revolutionary nationalism. He had already become a convinced Marxist from a thorough study of the works of Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and V. I. Lenin. Additionally, Che’s mind had assimilated the essential thoughts and precepts of modern science and mathematics.

Illiterate and semi-literate peasants and others recruited to his guerrilla army in Cuba, and later in the Congo and Bolivia recalled in amazement and love how Che would always incorporate into the fighter’s daily routines time for the study of language, mathematics, science, and history, in addition to literacy classes. It was Che who organized the “Rebel Radio” which broadcast from combat zones during the Cuban revolutionary war.

Che the Executioner?

One of the first tasks of the triumphant revolutionaries was to establish justice for the thousands of Cuban families whose sons and daughters, mothers, fathers, and neighbors had been tortured and slaughtered on the streets and in the dungeons of the Batista regime. The martyred dead numbered at least 20,000 in a country then of 6 million (the equivalent of over 650,000 dead in a country the size of the US at the time). A messy people’s justice had already begun with the end of the military-police regime as spontaneous retributions took place against known torturers and murderers whose cover and protection had vanished and who were unable to reach safety – and escape justice – in the United States.

Che was assigned the task of establishing a just and fair but also transparent and certain justice and to bring the process under revolutionary control, ensuring due process, defense lawyers, and fair proceedings. This was done in an exemplary way. Popular, public tribunals were organized. Volumes of public testimony were given, with horrific testimony of the vile tortures and bestial murder recorded and made public. Some 200 of the worst torturers and murderers of the US-backed Batista tyranny were shot by firing squads. No one has ever offered a shred of evidence that anyone innocent was executed. Whatever one’s opinion of the death sentences that were implemented, backed by the great majority of the population, no one can say, or has ever shown, that the guilt of those executed was not established beyond the shadow of a doubt. Batista’s cops and thugs were, after all, known to all. In their glory days, prior to the revolutionary victory, those brought to justice strutted their power and brutality over what they thought would be forever helpless victims; they never dreamed they would face their victims and their victim’s families in a legal proceeding.

This process of bringing to justice the worst criminals of the hated Batista regime led to an orgy of hypocrisy and phony moral outrage in the big-business press and among Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States. The highly orchestrated propaganda campaign was a major pretext in a concerted campaign to turn public opinion, which had been very sympathetic to Fidel Castro and the rebel cause, against the Cuban Revolution as radical social reforms began to be implemented which affected US business interests and the US economic and financial domination of the island ushered in by the US rout of Spain in the 1898 Spanish American War.

Che’s efficient and thorough carrying out of his assignment overseeing the trial and sentences, including the executions, has led to grotesque caricatures of Che as a “ruthless executioner” and “mass murderer” by conservative and liberal haters and slanderers of the Cuban Revolution, including ten years ago in the Hollywood box- office flop The Lost City, produced and directed by prominent actor and Cuban-American hostile opponent of the Cuban Revolution, Andy Garcia.

Washington and the big-business media’s crocodile tears for Batista’s torturers and murderers stands in sharp contrast to their approval or silence towards the mountains of corpses piled up by US-backed military regimes and death squads in Latin America and the Caribbean before and especially after the Cuban Revolution from Trujillo, Duvalier, and Somoza to Pinochet and the Argentine generals.

Che and the Transition to Socialism

For several years after the revolutionary triumph Che carried out essential tasks for the revolutionary government, including an appointment to head up the national bank in 1959. This was an absolutely daunting task which placed Che at the nerve center of the Cuban economy during its qualitative, revolutionary transformation. The Cuban revolutionaries were determined to mobilize the Cuban people, galvanized by the triumph of the Revolution, to advance concrete economic and financial policies that would develop and industrialize the Cuban economy within the emerging new social relations of the Cuban Revolution. This included forging new planning mechanisms and incentives for increasing labor productivity in agriculture and industry and for the entire Cuban economic and financial system.

By 1961 in the newly nationalized industries, from which most expert management personnel from previous private owners had left, and where in the case of US-owned factories and plants, the spare parts and skills to maintain and upgrade machinery were being embargoed and were sorely lacking. What Che had faith in was the revolutionary potential of the workers and peasants, and to mobilize the tremendous enthusiasm unleashed among the large majority of the Cuban people and youth to tackle these problems, learning the industrial and management skills needed to industrialize Cuba.

Cuba was moving toward a new social contract – crystalized in the forging in real time of a new state, in the wake of the actual collapse of the old neo-colonial state and its repressive police-military apparatus, its prisons, its courts, and its entire “criminal justice system. This new state that emerged under this historical crucible was fundamentally stamped by the working class which was becoming the dominant social and political force in the government and the state, including in the new armed forces that were in direct continuity with the guerilla army. The same dynamic applied to the new revolutionary police forces, and the new judicial and legal systems. Working people and young people, as well as many students, intellectuals, and revolutionary-minded individuals from the middle and even the affluent classes, united in the heat of the revolutionary moment when, as Lenin said, decades happen in weeks. Ordinary people stepped in to manage and get running factories and farms producing as world politics (and Cold War politics) swirled around the Cuban Revolution.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin

Revolutionary Cuba’s leaders were not able to control the pace and tempo of the economic measures, for the simple reason that the entire framework for the unfolding struggle was the hostility and policies of the US government.

Step by step the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations moved to asphyxiate the workers’ and farmers’ government that was consolidating power with mass support. Concurrently – and dialectically intertwined –the Cuban revolutionaries moved to overturn the dominance of the capitalist market and bourgeois social relations and establish the new pre-eminence of conscious and progressive economic planning. The amazing, egalitarian social measures that marked, and have made so attractive, the Cuban Revolution: the eradication of illiteracy within two years; the massive expansion of free, quality medical care; the establishment of an excellent public school system embracing every single Cuban child without exception; the radical uprooting and legal extirpation of the system of racist discrimination, the Cuban version of Jim Crow; the eradication of the “free market” in the sale of women’s bodies for vile sexual gratification (and the annihilation of the whole machinery of the US-based Mafia where the oppression of women was essential to the business) as part of a radical program of women’s emancipation, including the right to abortion.

These achievements that are marveled at or grudgingly acknowledged even by opponents of socialism could only have been possible with the economic measures that transformed the class character of the Cuban state: radical land reform; nationalization of banking and capitalist industry; state monopoly of foreign trade; central planning based on human needs over “market” (that is private capital) prerogatives; the breaking up of imperialist and Cuban-owned sugar and other plantations replaced by peasant co-operatives and land redistribution; the retention and consolidation of private, family farms protected and aided by the workers state; and radical rent reductions followed by a massive expansion in home ownership, on the basis of human need over private profit.5

Che’s economic writings are particularly brilliant and thought-provoking, with stress on the consciousness and transformation of the human being as the foundation of socialist economics, combined with the most modern application of science and technology, statistical rigorousness, and scrupulous accounting methods. (See Fidel Castro’s October 8, 1987 speech “Che’s Ideas Are Absolutely Relevant Today” reprinted in the valuable Che Guevara: Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism by Carlos Tablada, Pathfinder Press, 1998. Also see Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution by Helen Yaffe, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.)

In these years Che became particularly beloved among Cubans – from fellow revolutionists to rank-and-file working people because of his selflessness, his integrity, his modesty, and his abhorrence of privilege, routinism, and bureaucracy. Che was the example, which became legendary, of being the hardest worker in whatever task he was undertaking.

To the same degree that Che was respected and loved by Cuba’s workers and peasants, he was hated by the landlords and capitalists and Mafioso whose world of privilege, obscene inequality, and vile criminality and brutality was smashed to bits forever by the Cuban revolutionaries. Che was also hated and feared by the supervisors of the decrepit Cuban ruling class, who resided in Washington and on Wall Street.

Che’s Internationalism

Among his many tasks in Cuba’s revolutionary leadership Che became the embodiment of Cuba’s revolutionary foreign policy – one of the most enduring features of world politics since the revolutionary triumph on New Year’s Day 1959 to this day.

In forums friendly and hostile – from the Organization of American States meeting at Punta del Este, Uruguay in 1964 to the United Nations that same year, Che spread the word and policies of the Cuban Revolution in language diplomatic and revolutionary.

Che addresses the UN General Assembly

Fidel Castro recalled often that Che made him promise, while they were still fighting in the Sierra Maestra, that the future revolutionary government would create no obstacle when the day came that Che wished to participate in and organize revolutionary struggles elsewhere in Latin America.

While Che was traveling the globe as a most effective protagonist of Cuba’s foreign policy, while he was playing a leading part in the broad establishment of diplomatic relations and trade with a wide range of nations, he was also laying the basis for the organization of a revolutionary continental army to engage in a continent-wide battle against the Latin American oligarchies and the domination of US imperialism which was their first and last prop.

For much of 1965, prior to returning to the battlefield of Latin America, and with the political and logistical support of the Cuban government, Che attempted to work with followers of murdered Congolese President Patrice Lumumba to establish a revolutionary front to fight the neo-colonial regime. These reactionary forces were backed by South African mercenaries, the Belgian colonialists, and Washington. The effort failed. Che’s brutally honest and objective account and concrete analysis of the failed struggle contains many lessons, and is also a profound example of the Marxist method. (See The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo by Ernesto Che Guevara, Grove/Atlantic, 2001.)

Patrice Lumumba just before his murder by CIA-backed mercenaries

After the Congo failure, Che returned to Cuba and immediately, again with the full backing and collaboration of the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro, immersed himself into preparations for a secret return to Latin America with a selected team of fighters.

Che’s strategic perspective was to build a guerrilla base in Bolivia to begin an armed struggle against the US-armed and sustained military regime there, which could link up with other vanguard forces continent-wide as part of rising mass struggles against the imperialist-backed oligarchies and military dictatorships throughout the Americas.

Che’s book Guerrilla Warfare (Vintage Books, 1969) is a profound and historical document on the art and politics of military struggle. That is, the strategy and tactics of revolutionary armed struggle against entrenched military dictatorships which are defending the oligarchies and oppressing the workers, peasants, and masses. This in a context where all avenues and space for independent legal, constitutional, and democratic struggle have been closed and snuffed out.

In it he writes:

Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.

Che’s heroic effort, based in Bolivia, was betrayed and defeated prior to significant mass upsurges and deepening class struggles that did unfold in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (See Fidel Castro’s “A Necessary Introduction” in Bolivian Diary by Ernesto Che Guevara, Pathfinder Press, 1994 for Fidel’s description of the factor of betrayal in the defeat of Che’s guerrilla forces.)

Che and the Next Waves of Struggle in Latin America

There is a continuity of struggle that links Che’s heroic Bolivian campaign to the battles against Latin American military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s and the eventual opening of political space, democratic and worker’s rights, that are again under pressure today; the revolutionary upsurges in Central America in the 1970s and 1980s; and the decade of mounting and deepening popular struggles against the “Washington Consensus” of economic and financial policies of austerity, privatization, and attacks on workers living that led to major shifts in Latin American politics to the left at the opening of the 21st Century.

The worldwide impact of the 2007-2009 economic and financial crisis had a somewhat delayed but finally devastating impact across the Americas. Major economies like Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and Argentina, dependent on exports of raw material commodities such as oil, copper, soy and other agricultural products to markets in the advanced capitalist countries were thrown into economic turmoil by the so-called “Great Recession” and the financial shocks that began in the United States and spread to the EU. This necessarily led to political volatility and turmoil. Tremendous pressures have been put on left-wing political parties and tendencies that gained governmental power (and carried out various progressive policies in the interests of working people in the period of high commodity prices) as the still-fully capitalist economies they oversee became immersed in economic downturn. This gave some traction to more conservative, neoliberal forces that managed to replace the Worker’s Party government in Brazil in 2016 with a parliamentary coup and a similar result earlier in Argentina after presidential elections in 2015. Venezuela has had the most devastating economic downturn where the crash of the price of oil has combined with economic sabotage and escalating violence and provocation by US-backed forces determined to overturn the Nicolas Maduro government, although they are badly divided over tactics, methods, and political postures.

As this is written on October 9, 2017 it is certain that, in the coming years, the framework for the class struggle and unfolding political battles for power – outside and inside of capitalist parliamentary institutions which are weakening, rife with corruption, and seemingly unable to address let alone resolve accumulated and intensifying social and political crises.

The conditions of struggle in Latin America and the Caribbean are far different – and far more favorable – for workers and peasants today than at the time of Che’s heroic struggle. Those who murdered Che fifty years ago will be forever buried with contempt. Che’s banner has been continually picked up and carried forward by millions as the coming historic class battles in the Americas and every corner of the globe for solidarity, national and social liberation continue to unfold. Our Che will be present as an inspiration, political guide, and example, with Fidel, of revolutionary leadership.

CHE LIVES!!

  1. Washington, in the last years of the second Dwight Eisenhower White House, did endeavor to make contacts with anti-Batista forces, including the July 26 Movement. This, of course, was conditioned by the growing political ferment and crisis in Cuba as the Batista regime grew more hated and isolated, and as the armed struggle – politically led by Fidel Castro – was advancing. See Contesting Castro: The United States and the Triumph of the Cuban Revolution by Thomas Patterson, Oxford University Press, 1994.
  2. Shortly after Fidel’s passing, I witnessed a United Nations tribute to him which filled the General Assembly arena. Ambassador after Ambassador – including most eloquently and with serious content, from nations such as Bolivia, Namibia, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam who directly experienced Cuban internationalism – spoke with respect to the Cuban revolutionary and head of state. Not a single diplomat from the United States, the “Eurozone,” or Japan took the rostrum in a ceremony that lasted several hours. It was also noticeable how the fine words of some repressive capitalist governments in the so-called “emerging” or “developing” countries who did take the rostrum contrasted with how quickly you would land in the slammer or worse in those states if you held and promoted Fidel’s socialist ideas…and tried to practice them in defense of the oppressed and exploited masses at home.
  3. Prior to the Special Period, some 85% of Cuba’s commercial and economic exchange within the total Cuban economy was with the Soviet Union and Soviet-allied Eastern European governments and states. From 1989-1991 these governments all became defunct. The consequence was, virtually overnight, a devastating 35% contraction of Cuba’s economy. Washington, smelling blood in anticipation of the final smashing of the Cuban Revolution, naturally stepped up its economic and political war. Bipartisan legislation, most blatantly the Helms-Burton law, was enacted, which, among its other anti-Cuba components, aimed to impose US economic, commercial, and financial sanctions and penalties on any sovereign nations that carried out trade and economic exchanges with Cuba. The clear goal was the imposition of an extraterritorial economic blockade. “Regime change” through asphyxiation. Helms-Burton was signed into law by President William Clinton, and remains in place today. It will have to be formally repealed by the US Congress to end all US anti-Cuba sanctions.
  4. Today, while Washington under President Barack Obama, retreated significantly with the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, US economic and travel sanctions and extraterritorial penalties continue, as does US occupation of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and subversive “regime change” programs. As this is being written President Donald Trump is stepping up political attacks on Cuba at the United Nation as the UN General Assembly prepares on November 1, 2017 to again overwhelmingly condemn the US “economic, commercial, and financial embargo.” Prior to the vote Trump announced measures to expel more than a dozen Cuban diplomats from the US, end visa processing for Cubans visiting or invited to the US, and further restrict US travel to the island.
  5. The private owners of nationalized foreign enterprises in Cuba, with their governments negotiated satisfactory compensation with the revolutionary government, in accordance with international law. The US government, at the time, was already planning and organizing for its overthrow, and was therefore in contemptuous rejection of any negotiations for compensation to US owners of Cuban assets being nationalized.

The Case of Cuba: “Human Rights” as a Club

This document was submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Commission, Office of the Commissioner, based in Geneva, Switzerland in the name of Cuba solidarity organizations in the New York-New Jersey area of the United States. These are the political views and analysis of the author.

*****

The first members of a team of 165 Cuban doctors and health workers unload boxes of medicines and medical material from a plane upon their arrival at Freetown’s airport to help the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone, on October 2, 2014.  Florian Plaucheur—AFP/Getty Image

The purpose of this submission is not to draw up a list contrasting the false propaganda narrative on Cuba over human rights and democratic freedom, with the actual facts and reality of Cuba’s legal and criminal justice systems; its prisons; its media; the rights of free speech, assembly, and the organization of labor; Cuba’s actual electoral system and voting procedures; and the truth regarding mass political participation in decision-making on the island.  The facts on these realities would no doubt come as a surprise to those only exposed to the propaganda and half-truths of the US government and “Western” big-business commercial media.

With this submission I am rather more interested in the political framework that “human rights” becomes a cover and a false club for Washington’s anti-Cuba policies.

While it is certainly necessary to formulate principles and guidelines on human rights, as codified in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Cuba has signed, half-truths, demagogy, and grotesque hypocrisy and double standards should never stand unanswered. Assertions, no matter how often repeated, are not necessarily facts. Half-truths can be the most dangerous type of lie.

Today political opponents of socialist Cuba grudgingly concede massive Cuban advances in the fields of medical care and universal education, which in any case are hard to ignore. It is also hard to ignore the amazing history of Cuban medical and disaster-relief internationalism benefiting many millions worldwide. This was highlighted most recently by Cuba’s decisive role in containing the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in 2014.

Nevertheless, Cuba’s political system, human rights practice, and democratic space is continually subjected to malevolent attacks by conservative and liberal US political leaders and corporate media. There is, as well, other generally unreasonable criticism, wrenched out of the context – the overwhelming fact and reality for the Cuban people – of Washington’s never-ending pressure, alongside great economic and military coercion, against the Caribbean island. The US economic and political war against Cuba is presented by these forces — in a classic Big Lie – as an “excuse” for “repression.” This puts the truth on its head.

Who is Isolated and Who is Not?

The Donald Trump White House has stepped up anti-Cuba rhetoric and threats. On September 19, 2017 President Trump gave a bellicose, threatening speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In addition to harsh attacks on North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela, Trump singled out Cuba, reading traditional US government boilerplate from his teleprompter. It was delivered to a notably muted response from the assembled delegations.

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration announced it is rewriting travel regulations aimed at cutting back on individual travel by US citizens and legal residents to Cuba. This is to be done by threatening stricter enforcement of existing US travel sanctions eased in the last two years of the second term of the Barack Obama Administration. Nevertheless, the Trump Administration has chosen not to abrogate the establishment of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana that was implemented in 2015. This registers the political weakness and isolation of US anti-Cuba policy over the past decade, registered not only in UN votes, but also in diplomatic gatherings and summits across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Trump’s UN demagogy had the political aim winning allies, especially in Latin America, for a campaign to isolate Venezuela and Cuba, and create the political conditions to implement “regime change” in both countries. It is more likely that Trump, his Administration, and the US government as a whole, will be found politically isolated. It remains to be seen how many of the Hemispheric governments the Trump White House is courting will be comfortable aligning themselves with Washington against Venezuela and Cuba. Crucially for US policymakers, there is also the overwhelming popular consciousness against US anti-Cuba policies, across the Americas and internationally. It should be clear to Trump and Washington as well that there will also be great and mounting opposition and resistance to these policies from inside the United States.

On November 1, the UN General Assembly will again, in an annual exercise since 1992, register the stunning isolation of US anti-Cuba policies when it again votes overwhelmingly in favor of the “Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial, and Financial Embargo by the United States of America Against Cuba.” For years the annual UN vote has been a major political embarrassment for various US Administrations and Congresses, with lopsided, near-unanimous support for the Cuban government-sponsored Resolution at the General Assembly vote.

Results of 2016 UN General Assembly vote against US “economic, commercial, and financial embargo against Cuba

Many mistakenly thought the US economic, commercial, and financial embargo – which has a central “extraterritorial” component that has inspired unanimous opposition around the world – had ended or been significantly ameliorated with the restoration of diplomatic relations. That was not the case and enforcement of the US embargo and sanctions has never stopped or been reversed legally.

US intervention against Cuba has from the outset been accompanied by an economic, commercial, and financial embargo aimed at nothing less than the asphyxiation of Cuba to prevent the carrying out of the Revolution’s bold, revolutionary measures, genuinely transformative, to advance policies of: eradicating illiteracy; guaranteeing access to health care and free education for all Cubans; the eradication of legal race discrimination and the huge advances in the position of Cubans of African origin; a commitment to and again huge advances in the position of women in every field, overcoming the depredations of the Batista era; an independent foreign policy based on international solidarity and revolutionary struggle, and much more in that spirit. That is, the spirit of a genuine revolution that was of the oppressed, by the exploited, and for the poor.

It is absurd to the point of obscene to downplay decades of US intervention, attempts at economic isolation and blockade, and aggression against Cuba in discussing the question of “democracy” in Cuba. The historical record of US aggression is no secret anywhere in the world, including in the United States. This actual record frankly makes Cuba’s real achievements in human rights, including in the political space, rights, liberties, and mass participation for all Cuban citizens in decision making, and how that has expanded, nothing less than astonishing. Cuba is certainly not a capitalist parliamentary democracy, where formal “democratic” institutions and mechanisms are under increasing pressures and encroachments under conditions of economic crisis, social polarizations, and the domination of big money and private media oligopolies. Cuba’s political system unfolded and has developed institutionally under the conditions of the extreme pressure of the US blockade.

Some 3500 Cuban civilians have died from violent counter-revolutionary action and terrorism of every kind since the 1959 triumph of the Cuban Revolution. It is a fact that all of this was largely organized from US territory (in violation of US law) and politically supported, financially sustained, and armed with the direct or indirect support of the United States government and its “national security” and “intelligence” agencies. There have been many billions of dollars in damage and sabotage against the Cuban economy from US attempts to seal the island in an economic blockade. Every year the US governments spends tens of millions of dollars openly — and who knows how much covertly — in projects kept “secret” by US legislation (although they are regularly exposed by the Cuban government and then collapse).

It is clear that the only possible road to the further opening of political space for the pro-capitalist political forces and tendencies who look to the United States government for inspiration and support, would be for bipartisan Washington to establish normal relations with Cuba. The establishment of formal diplomatic relations is a necessary precondition, which President Donald Trump has chosen not to abrogate, for this. Normal relations can only mean: 1) the ending of all economic, commercial, financial and travel sanctions by the US against the Cuban state; 2) the immediate withdrawal and return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba; and 3) the end of all “regime change” programs directed at Cuba by US government agencies.

“Repression”

We can dismiss with derision any sincere desire on the part of successive US White Houses and Congresses for more democratic space in Cuba for two overriding reasons.

First: One must distinguish fine words from actual practice. US intervention in the Caribbean and Latin America since the Spanish-American War of 1898 has involved a shameless (and shameful) history of organizing, installing, supporting, and sustaining numerous bloody military regimes and dictatorships in the interests of US capital and Latin American oligarchies and opposing progressive and revolutionary democratic struggles. This is an almost endless list: from Somoza’s Nicaragua to Duvalier’s Haiti to Batista’s Cuba, and on and on. The military dictatorships in Brazil (the 1964 coup there was strongly motivated by the Goulart regime’s maintenance of diplomatic relations with revolutionary Cuba), Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina in the 1960s and 1970s.

Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and its development – under US military pressure and the CIA-organized mercenary invasion of 1961 – into a socialist revolution and a workers’ state, these brutal US policies and alliances with Latin American oligarchies have been presented with an anti-communist mask. Cuba, by contrast, has an exemplary history of supporting democratic and revolutionary struggles against these dictatorships and providing asylum to fighters against them. This first reason begs the question of double-standards and hypocrisy.

Second: it is, of course, the very aggressive, interventionist, and violent policies – crowned by an economic war aimed at asphyxiation – that makes it necessary for Cuba to be vigilant, and defend itself by any means necessary. These politically and morally justified measures are then labeled “repression” and used to rationalize, speciously, the US economic and political war.

Perhaps a lesson from US history would be useful here. There are defenders of the Southern slaveocracy, the “Confederacy,” and even some who claim the mantle of civil liberties, that criticize President Abraham Lincoln for restrictions and censorship of pro-slavery and pro-Confederate newspapers and suspending habeas corpus protections for suspected pro-Confederate agents and sympathizers. At the very time these forces were engaged in a war to defend the maintenance and expansion of slavery in the United States.

As the Civil War unfolded by 1863-64 it was becoming a revolutionary war – especially with the infusion of some 200,000 African-American troops in the US Army and Navy – to abolish slavery. You can be sure that the Confederate Agents and their apologists had their political space and access to legal media completely evaporated by the government and people of the United States as the war radicalized. We should also recall that it was during the period of Radical Reconstruction under President Ulysses Grant and the Radical Republican domination of the US Congress, that the greatest advances in the rights of Black former slaves (as well as masses of poor white farmers) and democratic rights for the vast majority were enforced by the occupation of the United States Army and the repression of the social and political power of the former ruling slave-owning planter class.

The end of that “repression” after 1876 and the withdrawal of US Army from the ex-Confederate states brought back unfettered white supremacy, the rise of white terrorist outfits like the KKK, and a body blow to democratic rights, political space, workers’ rights, and liberty that extended for many decades. It was a curse on the United States which only began to be lifted by the heroic mass struggles of Black working people and their allies in the 1950s and 1960s to overturn the Jim Crown system in the South and across the entire US – at least legally.

200,000 Black Union troops were a decisive factor in the revolutionary abolition of slavery in the course of the US Civil War

As long as the United States government is engaged in an open policy of subversion and the funding of clients promoting a policy of overturning the sovereign and socialist Cuban government (which could only mean returning Cuba to the status of a dependent US semi-colony) then it would be extremely naïve to expect the Cuban government and people to not be vigilant and defend themselves.

US Federal and Congressional bodies are currently investigating alleged “collusion” between the Presidential campaign of Donald Trump in 2016 with the government of Russia, with furious charges and countercharges flying back and forth between Trump and his opponents. This has occupied much political and media space in the United States whatever its intrinsic worth. The United States, like any other country, has clear laws on its books that criminalize certain “foreign” intervention, and financial manipulations, particularly covertly, in US elections. This has not prevented multiple US government agencies from covert action in the political life, including electoral processes, in many other countries over many decades and to this day.

It is also against Cuban law, based on decades of gross US government interference against Cuban sovereignty, for Cuban citizens to take payments and political direction from foreign powers. Insofar as one particular giant foreign power, the United States government, has had an open policy of “regime change” in Cuba, backed by deeds and covert projects up to and including, over many decades, violence and terrorism, it is naïve, if not utterly ridiculous, to expect the Cuban authorities, backed overwhelmingly by the Cuban people, to not take action – even if it is labeled “repression” by the financial and political conductors in Washington, DC – against these forces, who, it should be emphasized, represent a tiny minority of Cuban society and political opinion.

Even if this US-directed and financed “dissident” activity is seemingly peaceful, and is generally tolerated, as is the case in Cuba today, it is also true that in periods of heightened tensions and stepped up US pressures and anti-Cuba campaigns, such forces inside can – as has happened many times since the Cuban Revolution – become points of support or pretexts for direct US aggression or terrorism organized from inside the United States, often from forces with historic ties to US intelligence agencies. This is not some wild-eyed conspiracy theory. This is thoroughly documented in even the partially released US documents and all serious scholarly research into the archives and accounts of the period.

There was a time in the 1960s where the CIA ran its largest base ever in the Miami, Florida area and was full-time 24/7 planning, organizing, training, recruiting, and dispatching into Cuba exiled Cuban counter-revolutionaries into armed units and large forces for violent armed action in Cuba: assassinations, economic sabotage, setting off bombs in public places, and so on.  In this same period and since, and this again is heavily documented, it is known that US intelligence agencies under President John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ran so-called misinformation and disinformation programs – that is, programs set up to brazenly, if imaginatively, lie – that fed deliberatively false stories to commercial and other news or academic publications regarding Cuba, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and whatever else they could fling against Cuba.

This was part and parcel of the policy of the US government to destroy the Cuban Revolution by any means possible. Such vile programs included spreading the rumor that Fidel Castro had ordered Camilo Cienfuegos executed or that Fidel had fallen out with, imprisoned and even executed Che Guevara, at the very time Che was engaged in revolutionary combat in the Congo and then preparing a Bolivia-based continental revolutionary war in 1965-66, with the full backing of the revolutionary government led by Fidel Castro, and had necessarily dropped out of public space.

Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro, Ernesto Che Guevara

It is, of course, inevitable that under conditions of siege, when extreme revolutionary and military discipline is imperative, political polarization is also inevitable. A siege mentality can develop if it is not checked. It is a delicate test for any revolutionary leadership. Abuses can happen and have certainly happened in the course of the Cuban Revolution. What is remarkable is how few of these there have been, compared to other great social revolutions. What is also true is how abuses and errors have always led to debate, confrontation, and correction in many forms. This was also difficult given Cuba’s vulnerability to US attacks and its necessary alliances and economic ties with the Soviet Union and allied Eastern European governments, even as it maintained its national and political independence.

One most striking examples of this is how Cuban society and law overcame widespread prejudice and some appalling practice in the first decade of the Cuban Revolution toward LGBT rights to the reality today where Cuba is on the front line of nations in the Western Hemisphere where those rights are most protected publicly and privately.

Coming Out of the “Special Period”

Cuba is emerging from an extended period of economic crisis and contraction following the overnight collapse of its economic relations with defunct Soviet-bloc governments in the early 1990s, the so-called “Special Period.” Its slow, steady recovery was further interrupted by a series of devastating hurricanes a few years back. We can today add the damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017.

In recent years new economic policies being led and implemented by the Raul Castro-led government are starting to kick in. These policies aim at increasing labor productivity and efficiency; technologically modernizing and refitting industrial plant and infrastructure; boosting food production by offering land and other state support and subsidies to private family farmers and farming cooperatives; reducing state and government bureaucracy; and encouraging private wholesale and retail operations, especially in services. Further progress is contingent on attracting capital for investment. Much of this is coming from China, other Latin American countries, and Canada. A major port at Mariel Harbor opened in 2014, largely developed in partnership with Brazilian capital.

Personal Observations

I have traveled to Cuba on many occasions over more than 30 years and have certain firm, reconfirmed, and consolidated observations: Cubans, far from the bogus stereotype of a cowed, oppressed people, are quite contentious and argumentative in their views on how to move their society forward. They have no illusions or rose-colored glasses in looking at their grinding economic problems and challenges in labor productivity, technological backwardness, housing shortages, and so on. Cubans are very engaged in finding solutions. Cuban society is highly organized and mobilizes for campaigns from mass vaccinations to hurricane relief. There are many grass-roots platforms and mass organizations, particularly trade union organizations, by which ordinary Cubans debate and impact on the formulation and implementation of policies, such as the new economic policies and changes now being implemented. Nearly all Cubans expressed the hope, after the visit of President Barack Obama in 2015, that the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will lead to greater industrial and agricultural development for their country. Donald Trump seems to be aiming to reverse the very little, barely incremental changes carried out under Barack Obama after the important advance of re-establishing diplomatic relations.

For this observer, having visited Cuba many times from the worst depths of the economic cataclysm of the early 1990s to the present time, it is also apparent that the Special Period era is steadily receding into the past and being overcome at an accelerated pace. Along the famed Malecon ocean side drive and walkway, buildings continue to be rebuilt and repainted, and stylish new buildings have gone up. Old Havana, already a United Nations Heritage site, is renewing its status as an architectural gem. Cubans are mobilizing to repair the damage from Hurricane Irma in Havana and northern coastal areas.

There is an expansion and greater visibility for privately owned restaurants, called paladores, which are emerging from a quasi-underground existence. They are more visible today with nice signs and lighting on the outside and more comfort and menu choices inside. Cuba’s tourism industry remains, along with medical services, and nickel, a major source of foreign exchange.

Cuba is considered poor by “middle-class” US standards. But it is a strange “poverty.” You see nothing like the destitution of desperate, “crime-riddled,” drug-ravaged, “gang”-infested communities (hello West Baltimore!) that are widespread in every Latin American and Caribbean country, as well as in the US. Street crime in Cuba is almost unheard of and it’s not because of a heavy police presence on the streets. In fact, police seem few and far between. Addiction to hard drugs, and the thriving, profit-making, if nominally illegal, drug businesses that drive it, are also virtually non-existent in Cuba. (Before the Revolution, of course, Cuba was a center of the drug and organized crime rackets; Havana was the home base of top U.S. Mafia families. The Revolution wiped that out. (See The Godfather Part II.) While the most regular complaint I consistently hear from average Cubans is around housing availability, especially for new, young families, as well as bottlenecks and shortages for home repairs, there is also virtually no homelessness. Most Cubans own their homes or pay a pittance in rent.

Every Cuban child is in school getting a first-rate education totally free of charge, with an extensive network of technical, vocational, university, and graduate schools, all free. Cuba not only has long conquered illiteracy, but “exports” thousands of teachers to Latin American and African countries, where they organize literacy programs.

The Cuban health-care system is a marvel of organization and compassion, with clinics in every neighborhood, all free of charge, from checkup and vaccinations through heart surgery and even transgender and transsexual procedures and surgeries.

There is in Cuba today undoubtedly a more relaxed political atmosphere and context in which debates and discussions take place among the Cuban people over the new economic and other polices and changes that are being implemented. These policies are debated out in continuous mass forums in workplaces and neighborhoods as well as in the trade unions and grass-roots mass organizations of women, private and co-operative farmers, students, artists and intellectuals, and within the Cuban Communist Party. This is the actual dynamic that frames and guides policy making decisions and legislation. And the fruits are already apparent in legal and other positive changes on questions ranging from expanded travel rights to ending all legal discrimination and vastly opening up social and cultural space for LGBT Cuban citizens. Any objective observer visiting the island – without malice or prejudice in their brain and heart – cannot but note the desire and ability of average Cuban working people to engage in no-holds-barred discussions on all the questions and challenges facing Cuba today, and debating the policies to overcome them.

Cuba is often criticized for its “one-party political system.” But what would any so-called “multiparty system” look like? It could only be imposed on Cuba by a hostile US government. These artificial parties would be largely funded in the United States by deep-pocketed opponents of Cuban socialism. Such outfits, completely outside of the struggles and political life of the Cuban people, with negligible popular support inside Cuba, have often been declared by so-called “dissidents.” Perhaps these “parties” can even be lavishly funded – on the money-driven model of the US, with mudslinging obfuscating TV ads thrown in. This will supposedly be more “democratic” than the elections that have been actually occurring in Cuba for decades that take place by secret ballot, with more than one candidate required by law, from nominations in large community meetings in every community and town. Any changes in the electoral or other mechanisms or procedures in the Cuban political system can only be the expression of the Cuban people’s right to self-determination.

The relative political weakening of Washington’s anti-Cuba policy, combined with the mounting changes in the political dynamics among Cuban-Americans, has paved the way for significant shifts in the political orientation and policies of the Cuban government.

For a number of years the Raul Castro-led government has been confidently engaging politically with the “Cuban Diaspora,” including in its South Florida heart. At the same time Cuba is less inclined to carry out legal prosecutions and punitive measures against those who collaborate and consort with US government agencies and their subversive schemes in obvious violations of Cuban law. The overhaul in Cuban travel regulations is one example. The release of all “dissidents,” some 75 in all, convicted and imprisoned following increased threats to Cuba in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, is another. Today, Amnesty International and the Cuban Catholic Church, who have both, to varying degrees, advocated in favor of these US-connected “dissidents” in the past, have declared that there are no more, as they term it, “political prisoners” in Cuba.

Cuba Holds the Moral High Ground

United Nations-linked organizations such as the World Health Organizations and many other genuine humanitarian and human rights organizations, with no particular political axe to grind, regularly commend Cuba for its outstanding international work of solidarity and humanitarian, and disaster-aid services over dozens of years. Cuba can be said to have carried out a decisive intervention is containing and reversing on the ground the Ebola viral outbreak in West Africa in 2014. On the political-military front, the revolutionary Cuban government, then led by Fidel Castro, was at the center of the retreat and rout of apartheid South Africa on the battlefields of Angola. This is now internationally recognized as decisive in the preservation of Angolan independence, the winning of Namibian Independence, and the unraveling and defeat of the apartheid state in South Africa, as repeatedly and eloquently cited by Nelson Mandela.

We are supposed to believe that this society, with this outstanding record and legacy of internationalism and the genuine promotion of human rights – in the face of decades of unremitting political hostility, economic war, military threats, and terrorism directed from Washington, is somehow also a vicious violator of its own people’s rights, freedom, and liberty.

In any case, the United States government is in no position to try and capture the moral high ground on human rights in Cuba or elsewhere. The United States government would do well to clean up its own grotesquely unequal, class-biased, and racist so-called criminal justice system, where it is nearly impossible to indict, let alone convict, killer cops. The United States government should hold off on righteous lectures to Cuba, spreading lies about conditions in Cuban prisons, for example, while its prison system is a brutal system of dungeons, where authorities tolerate (and even organize) prison gangs, tolerate mass rape (and the commercial culture makes jokes about it), and guard brutality, mixes juveniles with adults, subjecting both to the torture of “solitary confinement,” and so on.

The question facing the UN Human Rights Commission regarding Cuba is whether the Donald Trump Administration is going to seriously attempt to abrogate the establishment of diplomatic relations and attempt to return to a policy of more open aggression. If that turns out to be the case, it is as certain as day turning into night that the Cuban government and people, in their large majority, will defend Cuban sovereignty and the Cuban Revolution by any means necessary. And they will do so with the solidarity and political support of the overwhelming majority of humankind. This will include mass opposition and resistance from inside the United States.

Trump at the UN

President Donald Trump gave a bellicose, threatening speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) September 19, 2017. In addition to harsh attacks on North Korea and Iran, Trump singled out Venezuela and Cuba, reading a host of cliched lies and traditional US government boilerplate from his teleprompter, delivered to a notably muted response from the assembled delegations.

Trump’s address was a shameless display of demagogy that had the political aim of winning allies, especially in Latin America, for a campaign to isolate Venezuela and Cuba, and create the political conditions to implement “regime change” against both sovereign countries.

It is more likely that Trump, his Administration, and the US government as a whole, will be found politically isolated. The evening prior to his UNGA speech, Trump gave remarks before a dinner with some Latin American heads of state and diplomats. There he tested out his rhetoric, shameless hyperbole and half-truths, and threats against Venezuela. It remains to be seen how many of the conservative and neoliberal governments that Trump is courting in Latin America will be comfortable aligning themselves with the Trump Administration against Venezuela and Cuba.

Also, crucially for US policymakers, there is the overwhelming popular consciousness across the Americas and internationally against these US policies. It should also be clear to Trump and Washington that inside the United States there will also be great opposition and resistance to these policies.

On November 1, the UN General Assembly will again register the stunning isolation of US anti-Cuba policies when it votes overwhelmingly in favor of the “Necessity of Ending the Economic, Commercial, and Financial Embargo by the United States of America Against Cuba.” Trump will certainly instruct US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley to vote “No” this year, reversing the 2016 decision of the Barack Obama Administration to “abstain.” For years the annual UN vote has been a major political embarrassment for various bipartisan US Administrations and Congresses, with lopsided, near-unanimous support for the Cuban government-sponsored Resolution at the General Assembly vote.

Trump’s lies and threats from the podium of the United Nations must be answered in the United States, across the Americas, and around the world by protests that are being organized on or around the time of the November 1 vote.

Join worldwide demonstrations in cities around the world to finally bring down the US blockade against Cuba!