One evening in Havana about three years ago I had dinner with Carlos Franqui, probably the leading Cuban journalist, to whom I was complaining rather vehemently about the low quality of the Cuban press. It was, I asserted, dull, sycophantic, and seemingly much more concerned with disseminating the official government viewpoint than with informing the Cuban public about the realities of their own society and the events and trends at work in the outside world. Never, I said, is there published the faintest criticism, constructive or otherwise, of government programs, and rarely is there printed any other viewpoint than the official line on any subject. Cuba aspires to become a “revolutionary democracy,” with full and direct participation of the masses, I said, but how can there be any true democracy in a society whose press does not even furnish the people the essential information needed to reach decisions on matters of vital concern to themselves? In fact, the Cuban press is so mediocre that even Fidel can’t stand it; I had personally witnessed how every morning, at breakfast, he read the AP and UPI wire service reports first (and carefully) before skimming idly through Granma.
Franqui, a gaunt, taciturn man, heard me out knowingly. A veteran of both the 26th of July underground and the guerrilla campaign in the Sierra Maestra, he had been for many years one of Fidel Castro’s closest advisers. He had founded the clandestine newspaper Revolución, the organ of Castro’s movement, in part as an antidote to the controlled press of Batista. Upon Castro’s triumph, he had moved Revolución to Havana and transformed it into a lively, uninhibited daily paper noted for its wide news coverage and editorial diversity. But in 1961, for complex ideological reasons, Franqui fell out with Fidel and was ousted from the editorship of his newspaper, which soon after lapsed into the state of journalistic mediocrity of which I had been complaining. Though he was never again to hold a position of responsibility in the government, Franqui had remained loyal to Castro, or, as the Cubans say, “with” the Revolution.
Now, having grown impatient, Carlos Franqui interrupted me. He suddenly leaned forward, waving a fork, and said:
In Cuba there is only one newspaper. It appears irregularly, from time to time. It is Fidel, when he speaks to the people.
The accuracy of Carlos Franqui’s observation needs no more verification than the fact that nearly every one of Castro’s speeches (which run from two to four hours in duration) is printed verbatim in the Cuban press the following day and transmitted continuously on Cuban radio and television. In every sense of the phrase, Castro makes the news—almost all of it—in Cuba.
On July 26, 1970, in commemoration of the seventeenth anniversary of Fidel Castro’s attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. the event which launched the Cuban revolution, there appeared the latest edition of “Cuba’s only newspaper.” The banner headline read, “WE HAVE FAILED!” In one of the frankest and most moving confessions of incompetence by a modern political leader, Castro, before a crowd of half a million in Havana’s Revolutionary Square, revealed to the Cuban people a devastating portrait of Cuba’s economy in disarray. Then, characteristically, he placed the bulk of the blame squarely on his own shoulders. It is this extraordinary speech which is reprinted here in full, except for Fidel’s opening greetings to visiting dignitaries and some final remarks on the Cuban memorial to Che Guevara.
A reading of recent back issues of “Cuba’s only newspaper” shows that 1970 had been a year of increasingly foreboding headlines and bad news, mainly centered around the intensive national effort to produce a zafra (sugar harvest) of ten million tons—almost three million tons more than Cuba had ever produced before, and more than double the yield of last year’s disappointing harvest. To understand this unhappy narrative fully, a little background is required.
In the first years following Castro’s accession to power—roughly 1959 to 1963—the new Cuban leaders, most of them ex-guerrilleros with no experience in administration or planning, strove naïvely to transform Cuba economically from neocolonial dependency, based mainly on the monoculture of sugar and American tourism, by means of a great leap forward: intensive industrialization accompanied by deemphasis of agriculture.
By 1964, after a series of failures, Castro had come to realize that it was nearly impossible for an under-developed country like Cuba to industrialize and simultaneously carry out enormous new programs in the areas of health, education, and social welfare (the programs which he describes in detail in the speech that follows). There were simply not enough resources available for both, and social welfare, to Cuba’s enduring credit, came first. Moreover, for a number of reasons (lack of raw materials, lack of dollar-value currency or credit, lack of foreign markets for manufactured goods) industrialization was for the time being impractical. At that point, Castro and his colleagues decided that Cuba’s economic salvation lay, in the long run, in her natural ability to produce food (for which there are always abundant markets).
Thus, Cuba’s economic course turned 180 degrees. Sugar—which Cuba grows more easily than any other country in the world—became again the important currency crop for the short run, while an extensively diversified program of other agricultural products, including citrus fruits, cattle (meat and dairy products), winter vegetables, coffee, and tobacco, was planned for maturation within several years.
Castro’s intention to harvest ten million tons of sugar in 1970 seems to have taken much of the world by surprise. In fact, however, it was announced as early as 1963. In 1965, Fidel set forth a five-year plan of sugar harvests which would proceed toward that goal in orderly increments, beginning with 6.5 million tons in 1966.
In the speech that follows, Castro refers to a tendency in himself to excessive optimism and enthusiasm, and to “underestimation of the difficulties” involved in achieving monumental goals such as that of the 1970 zafra. Perhaps it is too facile for an outsider to remark that Fidel ought to have seen the handwriting on the wall; nevertheless it was evident long before July, 1970. By July, 1969, the results from the first four harvests of the five-year plan were in. No one harvest had come close to fulfilling its quota. The total production for that four-year period was off by one-third, a total of ten million tons. And the 1969 zafra, originally set for nine million tons, had come in at a disastrous 4.5 million.
In a late-night conversation with Castro in the spring of 1969, I had questioned Cuba’s ability to reach ten million tons in 1970. Fidel, characteristically, reassured me not with words but with statistics, an exhaustive supply of which he carries around in his head. Bubbling with unbounded optimism, he ticked off to me all the various techniques being put into effect in the 1970 zafra and what each one of these would mean in terms of increased tonnage. So much for new plantings, so much for irrigation, so much for fertilizer, etc. Adding all these up, and then adding the subtotal to the 1969 yield, he arrived at a figure just over eleven million tons. “You see,” he exclaimed triumphantly, “I could be off by a million tons—and we’ll still have ten million tons in 1970!”
As Cubans well know, Fidel’s enthusiasm is contagious. At the same time, few in Cuba have enough information to be in a position to contradict him; and if they do, there are few, if any, systematic and effective ways for dissenting views to be circulated.
So the gigantic zafra de los 10 millones was launched with much fanfare. Once again, Cuba was going to accomplish the impossible. The first reports (given, of course, by Fidel himself in a series of speeches last fall) were encouraging.
By late winter of this year, however, the first disquieting news was heard. In a speech given in February on the progress of the harvest, Castro announced that it was falling behind schedule at an accelerating pace, mainly because of trouble with new machinery in the sugar mills, the failure of some machinery to arrive in time from the Soviet Union, and organizational difficulties in Oriente Province, the largest and most sugar-fertile of Cuba’s six provinces. Still, Fidel assured the Cubans and the watching world, these problems were being overcome: there were large surpluses in Havana and Matanzas provinces, other contingencies had been allowed for, and the ten million would be achieved on schedule.
But things did not get better. On May 19, speaking before an enormous throng in front of the old US embassy in Havana to celebrate the recent return to Cuba of eleven Cuban fishermen who had been captured and interned on a Bahama key by members of an anti-Castro Cuban exile group, Fidel, an hour into his speech, suddenly, and impulsively, dropped the bomb:
But, if you want me to tell you clearly what the situation is, I can tell you that we won’t reach the ten million to mark. I’m not going to beat around the bush. That, in short, is the situation.
The following evening, with the sense of trauma still fresh throughout the island, Castro went on television for four hours to present a detailed analysis of what had gone wrong. But the most notable quality of that remarkable speech, which is every bit as important as the one published here, was not the facts and statistics, which few Cubans and probably none of us are equipped to evaluate anyway, but the sense of candor and humility with which they were presented.
Most analysts agree that, from the economic point of view, the 1970 sugar harvest was far from being a failure. Though it fell far short of the vaunted ten million ton goal, the production of 8.5 million, 500,000 tons more than was ever achieved before, was itself a monumental achievement. Moreover, it has provided enough surplus sugar for sale to the West to put Cuba in a most advantageous position to purchase dollar-value goods which she sorely needs for domestic consumption and increased agricultural mechanization.
Indeed, had Castro himself not insisted from the outset of the harvest that the ten million tons was a “moral promise” to the world, upon which was staked the “honor and dignity of the Cuban Revolution,” it is unlikely that its falling short by only 15 percent would have caused much comment. However, Fidel’s adamant assertions, repeated in nearly every speech and press interview from July through February, that “even one pound less” than ten million tons would constitute a total defeat, set up the Cuban people for a profound psychological shock and gratuitously furnished Fidel’s enemies abroad an occasion for ridicule.
In Cuba, the 26th of July is a day of celebration. The date not only marks the historical beginning of the revolution, but coincides with the time of traditional fiesta and carnival in the eastern part of the island which, stripped of its religious trappings, has in recent years been extended by fiat of the revolutionary government throughout the country. The 26th of July “act” is one of the three or four major “obligatory” speeches which Castro has given every year since coming to power. Traditionally, it is a major foreign policy speech, a speech which makes news, in which new shifts or departures are often announced to the world for the first time or some new challenge is hurled at the North American Goliath. As this combination of occasion and theme would suggest, the 26th of July speeches usually find Fidel Castro in his most brilliant rhetorical form.
This year, however, there was little occasion for celebration. Castro came to the speaker’s stand laden with statistics, instead of rhetorical flourishes. And for the Cuban people, weary from the harvest effort and just beginning to adjust to the shock of the failure of the ten million, another, far more catastrophic blow was in store. Reading from what he called a “secret economic report,” Castro revealed the real cost of the zafra: like a hungry tornado, it had sucked away manpower, resources, and administrative attention from nearly every sector of the Cuban economy, leaving disaster in its wake. Among the hardest hit were the programs of agricultural diversification—the very programs on which Cuba had been counting to gradually reduce the dependence on mass manual labor, the most brutalizing aspect of the cultivation of sugar.
Why did things go wrong? Fidel lists three main reasons: poor planning; organizational inefficiency; and the general “ignorance” of the leaders of the revolution. The first two factors have plagued the revolution since its very beginning and show little sign of improvement. It is hard for an under-developed country to train managers and develop efficiency when it has no such tradition. More interesting, though, is the third cause, with its implicit self-accusatory note:
We are going to begin, in the first place, by pointing out the responsibility which all of us, and I in particular, have for these problems. I am in no way trying to pin the blame on anyone not in the revolutionary leadership and myself. Unfortunately, this self-criticism cannot be accompanied by other logical solutions. It would be better to tell the people to look for somebody else. [Shouts of: NO!] It would be better, but it would be hypocritical on our [my] part.
For many Cubans, it is this quality of “revolutionary honesty” which they most revere in Fidel, and perhaps the principal reason why he continues to enjoy their support, even in moments of deep adversity such as this one.
Though Castro’s analysis of the problems is exhaustive, his ideas about their solutions seem ambiguous in this speech, except for the obvious one: we must hitch up our pants, get to work, and try to do better. Yet, in a series of asides, he offers some intriguing hints about a new and long overdue pre-occupation with the need to develop strong workers’ institutions and other ways for the proletariat to participate directly in decision-making, at least on the lowest levels of production. Workers’ councils in factories might be an important and useful step toward democratic socialism, one that has not yet been tried in Cuba. With the advantage of hindsight, one may say that, for example, if all the sugar mill workers in Cuba had been given a practical voice in determining the 1970 sugar quota for each mill, the total would probably not have come anywhere near ten million tons.
In a similar vein, Fidel stresses that the Party must cease its disruptive interference in administrative matters and confine itself to advice and orientation.
The problem about all of this, unfortunately, is Castro himself. While he wishes, honestly no doubt, to keep Party and administration functions separate, he is himself both Party First Secretary and chief administrator, and inevitably he sets the style for those beneath him who seek zealously to carry out his instructions. Likewise, though he perceives intellectually the need to develop workable institutions through which the masses may make important decisions for themselves, he is temperamentally distrustful of organizations and tends to work around, rather than through, the ones already available, which are thereby kept in a state of relative impotence.
Castro’s (and Cuba’s) predicament is that his own style—one can even say his life style—is at odds with the only hope for Cuban socialism, the growth of effective popular institutions for decision-making and administration. Fidel is at once the dynamo that runs the Cuban revolution, the rudder that steers it, and the sea anchor that holds it back. Since the current in which he is sailing flows in only one direction, and since the Revolution without Fidel is unthinkable if not impossible, there seems nothing left for him to do but to adapt himself to the realities he revealed to the public on July 26. It will be interesting to see what he does.
Fidel’s orations have really no analogue in Anglo-Saxon culture. First of all, it must be stressed that they are meant to be listened to rather than read; in that respect they belong to an oral literature not easily rendered effectively in print. Even though Castro’s style of discourse has gradually changed from the dramatic and heightened rhetoric of his early years in power to a much more pragmatic and businesslike tone—a process corresponding to the transformation of the revolution itself—so that some of his speeches now sound less like the impassioned exhortations of a charismatic leader than like the annual report of a corporation executive, they are still very much, both in style and substance, a part of an ancient but still living oral tradition in Cuba and else-where in Latin America, one virtually unknown in our own country. He has simply adapted this tradition, with its modern roots in José Marti and Eduardo Chibás, and added to it something original: a colloquial mode, employed mainly as a change of pace, and his own brand of Marxist rhetoric.
Secondly, Fidel’s speeches are nearly always extemporaneous, a series of improvisations on a series of themes. In eleven years of power, he has delivered well over three hundred speeches, averaging three hours each, and of these perhaps not more than two or three were actually written out in advance. Normally, he may have before him a piece of paper with four or five phrases on it to remind him of the basic themes he wishes to cover, but he rarely refers to it, and he often departs onto other subjects as the spirit, or the audience, moves him. Blessed (or cursed) with the combination of a gargantuan eidetic memory and extraordinary expository abilities, he is capable of orating for several hours without stopping and delivering a speech which is both thematically well organized and interesting as literary prose. He is probably the greatest orator of his time.
Lastly, one cannot fully appreciate a Castro speech without knowing something about its mise en scène. Except for occasional special television reports to the nation, delivered from a studio, most of his speeches are made before large audiences which form both part of the scene and, in effect, an element of the speech itself. Like all great orators, Castro needs an audience to be at his best; the larger the audience, the better he is. This is not, as some may immediately assume, a question of mere vanity, but rather an important, almost chemical interreaction between Fidel and a crowd. It is practically impossible for a North American, reading this 26th of July speech, delivered to a crowd of more than 500,000 Cubans, to have a sense of the excitement, the level of noise, the physical, almost sensual experience of being in a packed audience of that magnitude, or of the interrelationship of speaker and listeners.
Having begun with a comment on the Cuban press, I might close with an observation about the US press. The New York Times, which, it is said, employs one George Volsky as a “stringer” in Miami to monitor the Cuban radio and interpret the complexities of Cuba and of Castro’s speeches to the American intelligentsia, does us all a disservice. Its reporting on Cuba is usually stunted and often tendentious, seldom devoting space to the accomplishments of the regime; while its editorial writers take a peculiarly vindictive and ignorant view of Cuban events and of Castro himself. Indeed there is no American newspaper which gives a fair idea of Fidel’s speeches or of the complexities of Cuba’s Revolution.
Cuba clearly needs many things: more democratic forms, more mass participation in decision-making, less hostility from this country, more and better newspapers. We could use some better newspapers ourselves. Against that day, here, free of static and distortion, is “Cuba’s only newspaper,” speaking directly in his clear and unique voice.