Uniting Theory and Practice: What US activists can learn from Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro passed away on Nov. 25, 2016. Fidel was the face of the Cuban Revolution, which was born on Jan. 1, 1959. He was a political giant in his own right, but his leadership was always rooted in the interests of the oppressed in every corner of the globe. However, a majority of Americans know little about Fidel Castro's significance other than the US media and government’s depictions of him as a tyrant and dictator. What this means is that even fewer activists in the US have the opportunity to learn from Fidel’s truly revolutionary life.
There are activists in the US who have rejected Washington's perspective and greatly respect Fidel Castro. Some revere his leadership in the Cuban Revolution and credit him with many of the gains the Cuban people have made since 1959. Others sympathize with Fidel Castro's leading role in providing military, logistical, and medical support to a number of liberation struggles worldwide. Indeed, Fidel's leadership has been a critical component to the success of the Cuban Revolution. What is often minimized, however, is Fidel's theoretical genius and how it can be applied to the struggle against imperialism in the US mainland.
Fidel's Marxist ideas, and their application
Fidel Castro was a revolutionary who identified strongly with the tenets of Marxism. In a fiery speech on Dec. 2, 1961, just months after Cuba defeated the US-sponsored "Bay of Pigs" invasion, Fidel declared that he would be a "Marxist-Leninist to the end of my life."[i] Fidel's practical leadership was informed by the idea that the working class and oppressed must rule society. But it could not be just any form of rule. Fidel believed that the peasants and workers of Cuba had to seize the means of production from private ownership. Only this could prevent the rise of a class of exploiters willing to throw the Cuban people back into a state of poverty and indignity.
Fidel's Marxist ideas deeply influenced the Cuban revolutionary process from the very beginning. Fidel told author Igancio Ramonet that he was a convinced Marxist-Leninist by 1952.[ii] Fidel found Marxism as a law student at the University of Havana. Cuba at the time was ruled by the brutal neo-colonial dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Nearly all of Cuba's wealth had been siphoned to the US via the plunder of multinational corporations such as the United Fruit Company.[iii] The majority of Cubans were impoverished, illiterate, and without access to healthcare.[iv]Fidel Castro, inspired by the ideas of Marx and Jose Marti, organized the first guerrilla strike against the Batista dictatorship on July 26, 1953 at the Moncada Barracks.
The commitment to armed struggle on the part of the original Cuban revolutionaries was greatly influenced by the Marxist idea that only armed struggle could bring about genuine liberation. At first the struggle was difficult. Fidel and the Cuban revolutionaries were detained for their attacks on the Moncada Barracks, only to be pardoned by the Batista dictatorship in 1955 due to popular pressure. Fidel’s comrades went into exile in Mexico to train, and sailed back to Cuba in 1956 for the Sierra Maestra. Once in Cuba, Fidel encountered a number of difficulties. Of the 82 that made the journey, only 12 would survive the dictatorship’s attacks.[v] Cuba possessed a deeply impoverished countryside that left peasants untrustworthy and backward. To overcome these difficulties, Fidel and the Cuban guerillas applied Marxist thought to the situation of the countryside, providing healthcare free of cost and politically educating peasant workers on how their individual oppression related to the broad crisis facing the Cuban nation.
Connecting the general to the particular is a core tenant of Marxism called dialectical materialism. Dialectical materialism is explained in depth by other 20th century Marxists such as Mao Tse-Tung.[vi] Fidel's applied dialectical materialism and Marxist philosophy to the Cuban Revolution after it seized power in 1959. The new provisional government immediately expropriated the private holdings of landowners and US corporations. A campaign of land reform and nationalization gave the revolutionary Cuban government the ability to subsidize universal healthcare, housing, and education efforts throughout the country.[vii] In this way, the Cuban Revolution immediately resolved the particular contradictions in the country by generalizing fundamental human rights.
Fidel Castro served as head of state for the majority of Cuba's post-revolutionary process. During this time, Fidel led what V.I. Lenin called a "dictatorship of the proletariat" or the dictatorship of the oppressed. Lenin stated that the transition from capitalism to socialism was marked by the need to both administer the needs of the masses and defend the revolution from attack. In 1959, the old dictatorship of the US-backed oligarchy was replaced by a state where unions, mass organizations, and popular institutions became the primary channels from which peasants and workers exerted genuine power.[viii] Batista’s police and military institutions were dissolved in place of armed popular militias called Committees to Defend the Revolution and the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Both continue to protect the Cuban people from counter-revolutionary activity.
The Cuban Revolution will celebrate 57 years on January 1st. Over this period, the application of Fidel’s ideas has produced profound changes in Cuba and the world at large. Cuba’s transition to socialism has eradicated malnutrition, illiteracy, and homelessness in the island country. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the US, and one of the best universal healthcare systems in the world.[ix] It was the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, and create a lung cancer vaccine free of cost. Cuba possesses the best education system in Latin America from primary to college level, also free of cost.[x]
These gains are a reflection of Fidel's theoretical contribution to the revolution. The relationship between the two can be clearly seen in a UN General Assembly speech in 1979 when Fidel stated:
There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to talk of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk barefoot, so that others can travel in luxurious cars? Why should some live for 35 years, so that others can live for 70 years? Why should some be miserably poor, so that others can be hugely rich? I speak on behalf of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak on the behalf of the sick who have no medicine, of those whose rights to life and human dignity have been denied.[xi]
Cuba has applied Fidel's revolutionary ideas to the international struggle as well. A key aspect of Marxist philosophy is that socialism ultimately cannot survive in one country. V.I. Lenin saw self-determination and genuine independence from colonialism as a necessary stage in the development of socialism on a global scale.[xii] The Cuban Revolution has stayed true to Lenin by being a consistent friend to the oppressed all over the world. Cuba sent some 400,000 soldiers, doctors, and technicians to Angola in their fight for independence from apartheid South Africa between the years of 1975-1988.[xiii] This assistance was critical in the eventual defeat of apartheid in South Africa in 1991.
Cuba is best known for its medical internationalism. Cuba has around 37,000 doctors around the world practicing free healthcare in Haiti, Venezuela, and Syria.[xiv] It was Fidel and the Cuban Revolution that reached out to President Bush in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Fidel's offer to send medical and technical assistance to help repair the lower 9th Ward was categorically rejected by the US government. Washington has been hostile to Fidel and the Cuban Revolution since 1960, when the US imposed an illegal embargo that has stolen billions of dollars of revenue from the island.
What can Fidel teach the activists of the US?
Despite an embargo, a nonstop anti-Castro propaganda campaign led by the US, and over 600 attempted CIA assassinations, Fidel lived a long time. The Cuban Revolution lives on. Activists in the US have much to learn from Fidel’s Cuba in a period of great upheaval and crisis in the US mainland. A movement has emerged in the US in protest of the near daily murders of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement. A recent study by Harvard and Princeton economists has found that 95 percent of jobs added since 2005 have been temporary or part time.[xv] Nearly half the country is poor, yet the US government spends trillions of dollars abroad waging ceaseless war.[xvi]
These issues are interconnected and point to a deep systemic crisis of the US political and economic system as a whole. US activists must make these connections in order to build an effective movement to end them. Fidel united theory and practice by utilizing Marxism as a theoretical guide. His primary goal was always the placement of power in the hands of the oppressed. By studying how Fidel and the Cuban Revolution united Marxist theory with concrete action, activists can chart a similar course toward liberation inside the US empire.
[ii] Cuba's Fidel Castro made revolutionary mark on history. (2016). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-cuba-castro-obituary-idUSKBN13L05O
[iii] Before the Revolution Socialites and Celebrities flocked to Cuba (July 31, 2007). Retrieved December 27th, 2016 from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/before-the-revolution-159682020/.
[iv] Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492-1969, Vintage Books, New York, 1984
[v] Sierra, J. A. (n.d.). The Landing of the Granma. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.historyofcuba.com/history/granma.htm
[vi] Knight, Nick, Mao Zedong on Dialectical Materialism, M.E. Sharpe Inc, New York, 1990.
[vii] Alvarez, José. 1990. A Chronology of Three Decades of Centralized Economic Planning in Cuba." Communist Economies 2: 101–125.
[viii] CubaSí: All in this together: Cuba’s Participatory Democracy. (2015, December). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.cuba-solidarity.org.uk/cubasi/article/187/all-in-this-together-cubarsquos-participatory-democracy
[ix] Devarajan, S., & Reinikka, R. (2003). World development report 2004: making services work for poor people. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
[x] Cuba rates the highest EFA Development Index in Latin America and the Caribbean | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/santiago/press-room/newsletters/e-newsletter-education-for-all-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/no16-may-2014/nota-habana-03/
[xi] Coltman, Leycester (2003). The Real Fidel Castro. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
[xiii] Cuito Cuanavale 25 years on: celebrating revolutionary internationalism in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. (2013). Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.invent-the-future.org/2013/06/cuito-cuanavale-25-years-on/
[xiv] Knowledge @Wharton (2015, February 12). How Cuba's Health Care Sector Aims to Grow. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-cubas-health-care-sector-aims-to-gain-a-greater-foothold/
[xv] Investing. (2016, December 21). Nearly 95% of all new jobs during Obama era were part-time, or contract. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.investing.com/news/economy-news/nearly-95-of-all-job-growth-during-obama-era-part-time,-contract-work-449057
[xvi] Associated Press. (2011, December 15). Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income. Retrieved December 27, 2016, from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/census-data-half-of-us-poor-or-low-income/