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20 Years of Castro’s Revolution

It was necessary to be hard, inflexible, severe, to sin by excess,…several months of terror were necessary in order to finish with a terror which had lasted for centuries. In Cuba many Robespierres were needed.

Biographies of Napoleon were Castro’s favorite prison reading. He worshipped the French general.

One must take in account that Alexander received from his father, Philip, the powerful throne of Macedonia. Hannibal received his mighty army from the hands of his father Hamilcar Barca. Caesar owed much to his patriarchal inheritance, while Napoleon on the other hand owed everything to himself, to his own strengths and his own genius.

Castro seems to have become obsessed by the necessity for an authoritarian chief, He writes:

Ideology, discipline and leadership are indispensable conditions for revolutionary movements: all three qualities are essential but leadership is basic. I don’t know whether it was Napoleon who said that one bad general in battle is worth more than 20 good generals away from it.

In view of such enthusiasms, it is not difficult to see how Castro’s concept of a future revolutionary party would be far from democratic. “The propaganda apparatus,” he writes from prison on August 14, 1954, “must be powerful enough to destroy any tendency to create schisms, small groups or attempts against the Movement.” From this it is no great step to his decisive move in 1960 when he broke with his bourgeois allies, scuttled his own Twenty-sixth of July organization, and integrated the discredited “old Communists” into a new revolutionary party.

Franqui’s book shows how the perceptions of the young revolutionaries changed—how, for example, their awareness of the miserable condition of the guajiros, or rural farmers, of the Sierra Maestra stiffened their radicalism. They saw prematurely aged men and women, children with huge bellies afflicted by parasites and rickets; and they made it a central part of their political program to improve the conditions of the peasants by creating roads, hospitals, and schools, and giving the farmers legal title to land they occupied as squatters.

By 1957, the growing signs of Fidel’s “caudillismo” and the lack of a clear and organized political program within the Twenty-sixth of July Movement had begun to worry such revolutionary leaders as René Ramos Latour (“Daniel”) as well as Franqui, For Latour, who was killed in the fighting against Batista in July of 1958, the movement was merely “a group of men clustered around a caudillo more or less well intentioned, but a caudillo nonetheless, lacking a defined doctrine and program.” Franqui’s criticism of Castro was more precise. He saw that Castro’s overwhelming preoccupation was with the structure and military command of his rebel force; by 1958 Fidel showed little interest in the political organization of the movement. During the final political discussion in the Sierra Maestra, according to Franqui, “his personality dominated everything wherever he happened to be, he was uninterested and forgot those he couldn’t see or who were far from him…. He acted almost always by inspiration or reaction, conditioned by his moods.”

Castro became defensive when faced with criticism and frequently simply took over discussion. In his diary for October 1958, Franqui wrote:

I don’t believe that my function as member of the Executive Committee should consist in applauding the much repeated successes of Fidel…. [Instead of consultation] we have the prodigious conversation of Fidel in which his decisions are taken for granted, in which an accord is almost never reached through amicable discussion with the entire group. A situation for which we are all responsible by action and omission.

Well before the triumph of the revolution caudillismo had been substituted for democratic decision-making within the movement. The more lucid revolutionaries understood this but limited themselves to talking about it and writing about it in their private diaries. From the beginning, Castro’s charisma was the glue that held together the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, while Castro himself avoided taking any clear position in the intense ideological debates of those around him. One group, led by Che Guevara and Raúl Castro, was sympathetic to the communists. A second faction including Frank País, Oltuski, Ramos Latour, Faustino Peréz, and Franqui envisioned a revolutionary line wholly free of Moscow. According to Franqui, Che Guevara and Fidel already were studying Stalin’s book The Fundamentals of Leninism when they were imprisoned in Mexico in the early 1950s. Che defended the book and Franqui attacked it. Fidel’s only comment characteristically referred to himself: “A revolution in order not to be divided and vanquished needs a single leader. One bad leader is worth 20 good leaders.”

The correspondence between Che Guevara and René Ramos Latour sheds much light on these years. Guevara was infuriated in early 1958 when Felipe Pazos and Léster Rodríguez, acting in the name of the Twenty-sixth of July Movement, signed the Miami Pact with exiled political leaders of the old Havana parties. Guevara saw the pact as a plot by what he regarded as the right wing of the movement and he accused Latour of leading it.

Ideologically I belong to those who believe that the solution for the problems of the world lies behind the so-called Iron Curtain, and I consider the Twenty-sixth of July Movement as an expression of the desire of the bourgeoisie to liberate itself from the economic chains of Imperialism. I have always considered Fidel an authentic leader of the left bourgeoisie, even though he personally possesses traits of extraordinary brilliance which places him way above his class.

In this spirit I joined the struggle: honorably, without hope of going much beyond the liberation of the country, willing to leave when even the future conditions of the struggle would turn the Movement toward the right (toward that which all of you represent). What I never expected is the radical change Fidel made in his statements with the Manifesto of Miami.

Latour’s reply suggests the unresolved nature of the ideological controversy among Fidel’s followers. Until the spring of 1959 Castro made no clearly stated choice between these two political tendencies. The democratic alternative to the pro-Soviet position of Che still seemed a real possibility, and the majority of the movement would have supported Latour’s position in his reply to Guevara:

Since I’ve known you I was aware of your ideological formation and I never felt impelled to refer to it. This isn’t the moment to discuss “where is the salvation of the world.” I only mean to elaborate our position which, clearly, is entirely different from yours.

I don’t believe that there is a single representative of the “right” in the National Committee of the Movement…. Our fundamental difference is that we are concerned to put in the hands of the tyrannized peoples of “our America” governments responding to their desires for liberty and progress, which means maintaining united their rights as free nations and gaining respect for them by the great world powers.

We believe in a strong America in charge of her own destiny, an America which proudly can confront the United States, Russia, China or whatever world power tries to curtail her economic and political independence.

On the other hand, those who share your ideological formation believe that the solution to our problems is to liberate ourselves from the noxious “Yankee domination” for the no less noxious “Soviet domination.”

Any chance this pro-democratic view had was badly undermined by US hostility to Fidel. But the documents in Franqui’s Diary make it clear that Fidel’s strategy was single-minded and dictatorial. He sought to create a disciplined army under his exclusive control, while manipulating different political tendencies in and outside the movement in order to strengthen his own leadership. After the victory against Batista the political organization of the Twentysixth of July Movement was a hindrance to Fidel’s future plans—its liquidation now was a matter of time. The legitimacy of the revolutionary movement increasingly depended on the charisma of its leader and Fidel exercised his domination over it without any intermediaries. The army was the spine of the revolution, and the civil power was forced to subordinate itself to the military. The inevitable consequences of these developments were predicted by Franqui as early as 1957:

The new institutions must be created before the triumph or they will be swept away afterwards. If the triumph is obtained by a minority of the vanguardia—heroic with popular support, but without popular participation as has occurred until now—a single leader of the military sort will seize power with the innumerable consequences of all power which depends on an omnipotent and popular will.

No revolution can be born in an encampment of a caudillo‘s army—even a sympathetic caudillo. Free republics never have been born out of great generals’ struggles for independence. True revolutions are not conceived by a rebellious military.

Franqui’s Diary, ending in January 1959, is still the best guide we have to understanding what happened in the following decade. In the early 1960s the movement’s newspaper, Revolucíon, frequently engaged in polemics with the communist newspaper Hoy (Today), edited by Carlos Rafael Rodríguez, one of the early Moscow-line communist supporters of Fidel. But Revolucíon soon lost its position as an independent voice. In spite of Franqui’s efforts, the newspaper degenerated into an official mouthpiece for the movement’s leaders.

The movement’s Magazine Cultural, which also started out with an independent editorial policy, succumbed after two years under heavy attack by hard-line groups. In the trade unions the influence of the Twenty-sixth of July people proved equally ephemeral. Even though the movement candidates received a majority of votes during the union elections in the fall of 1959, Fidel personally intervened in the Cuban Labor Confederation, imposing his own list of communist leaders on the central committee. Those who had been formerly protected by the autonomy of the movement lost their jobs or were imprisoned.

As Fidel wanted, the army became the pillar of the new Cuba. A vanguard group drawn largely from the army and from Guevara’s faction in the Sierra Maestra as well as from the old Cuban Communist Party emerged as the new clique around the authoritarian leader, and Fidel Castro began to govern Cuba without any constitutional protections for its people.

II

Cuba: Order and Revolution, by Jorge I. Domínguez, is a balanced, extensively researched assessment of the social and political changes in Cuba during the last twenty years by one of the most informed experts on that country now living in exile. Domínguez, who came to the United States at fifteen, tries to approach his subject with the objectivity of a careful social scientist. He acknowledges the accomplishments of the revolution in eliminating illiteracy, fostering greater social equality, and providing public education and free medical care. He can be severely critical of the regime’s political repression. This ambitious and, I believe, essentially fair book of over 600 pages makes an excellent complement to Franqui’s Diary, though somewhat surprisingly Domínguez never mentions Franqui’s book in the thousands of documents he cites, which suggests that his work may be less scientific than he claims.

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