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Fidel Castro – The Declarations of Havana

October 14, 2009

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The (semi) new series Revolutions from publisher verso is a collection of classic revolutionary texts repackaged with forewords from some of today’s most renowned radicals.  The first in the series that I have read is Fidel Castro – The Declarations of Havana. What initially drew me to the book was the introduction by Tariq Ali.  The considerations of the content were equally appealing though as I have continued to learn more about Latin American history and the role of Cuba within it.  The book itself is rather brief, 138 pages including notes.  The introduction by Ali is a scant 6 pages, which I have to admit was a bit disappointing.  While fulfilling the pledge to reevaluate the significance of the text today and place within a proper historical context, I felt that more could have gone into the intro.

That being said the text from Castro itself was something of a revelation for me.  Included are three speeches given by Castro: his defense given at his trial in 1953 and the two subsequent Declarations of Havana given after the victory and consolidation of the revolution.  The text is filled with notes that provide an essential historical background to the events taking place in Cuba, both leading up to and after the toppling of the Batista regime.  I found these indispensable in illuminating the speeches and they greatly helped in expanding my knowledge of the Cuban revolution, and indeed, of all of Latin American history.  The fact that this history is not presented in the public education system in the US is understandable.  Any social movement, set of ideas, or history not corresponding to the elite-political class interest, that is the US nationalistic myth and hence the imperial-capitalist structure it stands for, is brushed aside and becomes a mute silence at best and an incarnation of pure evil at worst.  Cuban history falls under the latter.  The revolution was bad.  The era of wealth and free-market trade between Cuba and the rest of the ‘free world’ came to an end.  It ushered in an era of dictatorship and repression of civil liberties.  It impoverished the Cuban people.  It provided a base for Communist forces to strike at the US.  It attempted to export its revolution in order to undermine the US in it’s own ‘backyard’.  These are all taught explicitly or implicitly in the US.  What is lacking here is any consideration of WHY such supposed changes took place in Cuba and WHY the revolution took the course that it did.  The answers to these questions, at least the beginnings of them, are inexorably tied up in the history of the US and the world at large.

The context for the Cuban revolution must be put in a broader historic context if we are to have any hope at coming to an understanding of it.  On the 24th February 1895, Cuba issued its Declaration of Independence (Grito de Baire).  A war of independence from Spain ensued and was eventually joined by the US in 1898 after the sinking of the USS Maine.  (It was in this same war incidentally that the US gained control of the Philippines from Spain.  It would remain a US territory until 1946.)  Cuba was free of Spanish rule by 1899, but it was in turn placed under US military occupation.  The occupation lasted four years and it was during this time that the incorporation of the Platt Amendment into the new Cuban constitution was forced upon Cuba by the US.  The Platt Amendment legally bound Cuba to the US and gave the US the right to intervene militarily when ever it saw fit to protect its perceived interests in Cuba.  The result was three subsequent military occupations by the US between 1906-1923.  Trading one colonial master for another, the Cubans had hardly gained their independence.

After successive military rulers, a brief revolution in 1933 lead by students and non-commissioned officers under Fulgencio Batista succeeded in toppling the government of Gerardo Machado.  It was short lived though as Batista seized power the next year and ruled first through a series of puppet presidents and then eventually as the sole ruler following a coup in 1952.  Throughout this time Cuba became ever more dependent on the US market to export its sugar, as established by agreements dictated to Cuba by the US earlier in the century.  Cuban labor was used to work the sugar plantations although the plantations, and hence the profits, were owned by US capital.  This arrangement continued and exasperated the process Cuban dependence on producing sugar for export as the sole motor of the economy.  Bound by the forced agreements and treaties dictated by the US, Cuba was forced into a neo-colonial status that put the needs of US capital far in front of the needs of the Cuban people.  In a land rich in resources and production capabilities Cuba was still a country where most of the population was poor, uneducated, and without hope of bettering their lives.  Enter Fidel.

Educated in law and a passionate advocate for his country and its people, Castro lead a failed attack on the Moncada barracks in Oriente province in 1952.  The attempt to ignite a rebellion ended in disaster for the rebels, as they were all either captured or killed; Castro was taken prisoner.  He was tried and sentenced to 15 year in 1953 and it was at this trial that Castro gave his famous defense speech to be found in this book.  The speech turned the table on the accusers and was a masterful condemnation of the Cuban authorities and all that they stood for.  He ended his defense with the now famous lines, “I know that imprisonment will be as hard for me as it has ever been for anyone, filled with cowardly threats and wicked torture.  But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of seventy of my comrades.  Condemn me.  It does not matter.  History will absolve me.”

Fidel, along with his brother Raul, was released a year later in a general amnesty and left the country.  He returned in 1956 upon the boat Granma with 82 men in an attempt to form a revolutionary guerilla movement.  They were taken by surprise on their landing and a large number of the would-be rebels were killed.  The 15 survivors, including Raul and Che Guevara, regrouped in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra.  From this modest beginning Castro would build and lead a guerrilla movement that eventually mobilized the majority of Cuban society and toppled the dictatorship of Batista, culminating in the rebel victory on the 1st of January 1959.

The revolution and its popular backing sent shock waves throughout the Americas.  It was clear that the events would have wide ranging implications, but it was difficult to tell which direction they would take at first.  Far from being a Communist, socialist, or even anti-US, Castro had always taken a position of freeing the Cuban people from foreign control and establishing true national sovereignty.  Castro and other leaders sought an independent role for Cuba based on the interests of the Cuban people alone and independent of any super power.  It was the hostile actions by the US imperium that in turn forced reaction from the revolution and helped shape its course. The first agrarian reform launched in 1960 in order to redress the gross imbalances in land holdings lead to economic sanctions from the US.  This pattern was to repeat itself over the course of the next few years.  As hostility from the US increased, so inversely did the radicalization of revolutionary process.  It was only years later that Castro stated that he was a socialist and that the revolution was following a socialist path.

It was in this context that the first Declaration of Havana was issued in September 1960.  In this brief address made in public to a crowd of a million people in Revolution Square in Havana, Castro declared the complete and total independence of Cuba from the US.  The elite establishment in the US reacted in an angry and hast manner, imposing an export embargo on Cuba.  The Cuban leadership reacted in turn and was pushed in the radical direction of nationalizing US-owned industries on the island without compensation.  On October 13, 1961, the US severed diplomatic relations with Cuba.  It subsequently began arming Cuban exiles in Florida and launched an invasion near the Bay of Pigs.  The invasion failed and president Kennedy then imposed a total economic blockade.  This resulted in Cuba developing ever-closer relations with the USSR and the issuing of the second Declaration of Havana.  Issued in 1962, it called upon all the peoples of Latin America to throw off the chains of imperial repression and to rise up in revolt against the US for liberation of the entire continent.  All subsequent developments in the Cuban revolution and US- Cuban relations must be placed against this backdrop.

However, the Cuban revolution refuses to be categorized in any notions of black or white.  Authoritarian excesses in the name of preserving the character and nature of the revolution must not be glossed over or excused.  They need to be acknowledged, examined, and understood if we are to learn from the revolution, both from its successes and its failures.  The social and educational accomplishments of the Cuban revolution cannot be denied and there are still many important lessons to be learned for the present.  One only has to look at Latin America today to see the relevance to the emerging trends in the region.  Once the center of the neo-liberal ‘structural adjustments’ experiment, Latin America has erupted into rebellion against a socio-economic model that has resulted only in broken promises and greater impoverishment of the masses.  The focal point of the new revolutionary wave is centered on the Bolivarian experiment in Venezuela, but also extends to a considerable extent to Bolivia, Ecuador, and perhaps to a lesser extent in most of the other countries of the region.

This social upheaval in a land rich in revolutionary history and even richer in reactionary oppression has made Latin American the center of a new global struggle aimed at reinventing society in a more participatory and independent manner.  Central to these movements for a new society are the experiences of the Cuban process.  Today, perhaps more so than at any time in the past, does the Cuban experience deserve our attention.  Once again a subjugated and forgotten people are standing up for themselves against imperialism and the economic order it brings.  Once again the US is attempting to reestablish its dominance in a region that has for too long been referred to as the ‘backyard’.  The reactivation of the 4th fleet under Bush II and the planned stationing of US troops at seven bases in Colombia under Obama are signs of the increasing tensions in the region.   The relevance of Castro’s writings and the Cuban experience are all too clear in the struggle between a formerly colonized people attempting to stand on their own feet and an imperium trying to reattach the yoke of dependence.

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