Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro; drawing by David Levine

Theodore Draper’s position among writers on the Cuban revolution is unique. These writers are usually either old Cuba hands or students of Marxist theory. Draper has a sound knowledge of Cuban political and economic developments in the pre-Castro and Castro eras and is at the same time familiar with all the intricacies of Marxist doctrine and communist theory and practice. This enables him to destroy the myths created by others in their vain attempts to interpret the Cuban phenomenon. In a previous book, Castroism, Myth and Realities, he destroyed both the rightist legend that the Cuban revolution was the product of a plot engineered by the agents of international communism, and the leftist one that it was a revolt of the peasantry and agrarian proletariat against the big landowners. In his new book, Castroism, Theory and Practice, besides giving his own convincingly argued interpretation of Castro, he disproves a further myth, namely that Castro is a naive idealist who unfortunately allowed the revolution to be taken out of his hands by the skilled political technicians of the Cuban communist party.

Mr. Draper demonstrates that the power of the Cuban communists, or Partido Socialista Popular (P.S.P.) as they officially called themselves, and their role in Castro’s revolution, have been consistently overestimated by outside observers. Throughout the early phases of the two-year guerrilla war which began with Castro’s landing in Oriente Province in December 1956, the communists were openly critical of the Castroites’ “erroneous tactics.” According to Draper, the alliance between the two groups was only realized “sometime in 1958.” Here I would go even further and venture the opinion that “alliance” is too strong a word for the halfhearted collaboration and contacts which Communists and Castroites established in the last phase of the civil war. The only formal agreement that they ever reached during the war appears to have been a minor one concerning the inclusion of the communists in the trade union united opposition front; and even this, according to Draper, apparently “amounted to little more than a gesture.” If there had been any other, more ambitious pact or agreement, however secret, it would surely have been revealed at a later stage, when Castro was wooing the Russians, and it would have been in both his and the communists’ interests to make its existence known.

After Castro’s advent to power, the communists frequently failed to anticipate the regime’s policies, and had to improvise a belated adjustment. Thus in February 1959, communist leaders declared that “It would be an error to impose agricultural cooperatives right now,” but less than three months later, Castro made “cooperatives” the cornerstone of his agrarian reform. Again in August, 1960, the Communist Party leaders came out against large scale nationalization of private enterprises, and stated that there would be “few more” nationalizations of U.S. properties. Two months later the regime announced sweeping nationalization measures against both U.S. and Cuban properties, virtually wiping out the entire Cuban bourgeoisie. “Communist theory,” Draper writes, “was never quite able to catch up with events.” Compare with this the prescience of Castro’s henchman, Che Guevara, a wild extremist who may at one time have had links with a Trotskyist student group in Argentina, and whose book Guerrilla Warfare is openly contemptuous of the theories and practice of the Latin American communist parties. (No substantial evidence has ever been produced to support the rightist claim that Guevara is an “agent of international communism.”) For several years, there were few if any important decisions that Guevara was not able to predict months before they were officially announced. The obvious inference from this is that he belonged to an innermost policy-planning and decision-making group from which the communists of the PSP were excluded.

The communists’ position improved only in 1961, when the regime decided to set up a new United Party as its political base, and entrusted them with the task of organizing the party machine. Those who considered Castro a country bumpkin voluntarily tying himself up and delivering himself to the communists in a sack now appear to have been vindicated. But as early as March 1962 Castro turned against the communists, expelled their chief organizer, Anibal Escalante, from the country, and took the machine which they had obligingly built up into his own hands. This proved to be the end of the old-guard communists of the PSP as a political force; they had been crushed in Castro’s more or less loving embrace. By 1965, in Draper’s words, the old communist leadership had been “dismembered, dishonored and discarded”. They had “suffered the fate of all those who helped Fidel Castro to power, who tried to use him, or who believed in his professions of faith.” The latest events in Cuba—the apparent eclipse of Guevara and a slight up-grading of the old-guard communist leader Blas Roca—do not invalidate Draper’s assessment. By now it has become abundantly clear that only one man counts in Cuba, and that Blas Roca, and even Che Guevara, are merely figures moved to and fro on the chessboard in Castro’s lonely contest with fate.


But what, then, is the Cuban regime, if it is not dominated by the Communist Party? It is a communist regime because, as Draper points out, it has chosen to become an adopted member of the communist family, and the rest of the family has accepted it. Yet Castroism is a most unusual kind of communism, since it is not primarily based on ideology and organization, like the rest of the communist movement, but on the charismatic attraction of a leader. Fidel Castro, according to Draper, “belongs to a leadership type, not unprecedented in this century, which establishes a direct, personal, almost mystical relationship with the masses that frees him from dependence on classes. It also frees him from what Lenin thought was indispensable for a Communist revolution—a party.” To me, this seems a far more convincing interpretation of the Cuban regime than that of the Marxists ard pseudo-Marxists who believe that political decisions are not made by individuals, but by the collective will of social groups, and that Fidel Castro has in some mysterious way become the embodied spirit of the working peasantry or of the agrarian or industrial proletariat.

An important chapter in Draper’s book is devoted to the Cuban economy, a depressing subject which he manages to present in a fascinating and instructive manner. In the formative years of the Castro regime, from 1959 to 1963, economic policy was determined by the doctrine that monoculture, i.e., dependence on the sugar crop, was the root of the evils besetting the Cuban economy. Consequently sugar production was sharply reduced in favor of other crops, and a vast program of industrialization designed to free Cuba from its dependence on American industrial goods was launched with the assistance of the Soviet bloc. In 1961, when Cuba was already running into serious economic difficulties, Che Guevara was still confident that, by 1965, it would have attained first place in the Americas in per capita production of steel, cement, and electrical energy, and first place in Latin America in tractors, rayon, shoes, and textiles, etc. But by 1963 the economic situation had become so catastrophic that the government was obliged to scrap its plans for agricultural diversification and large-scale industrialization. Today the principle that Cuba should concentrate on the production of that commodity for which its soil and climatic conditions are particularly suited, namely sugar, is accepted by the Cuban planners, and more land is planted with sugar than before the revolution. In the meantime, however, Cuba has become heavily indebted to the countries of the Soviet bloc, it has lost ground to new competitors in the world sugar market, and its per capita income, which before the revolution had been one of the highest in Latin America, has suffered a precipitous decline. In view of the decrease in agricultural production, and the great scarcity and inferior quality of manufactured goods, one may safely assert that today the bulk of the Cuban population is considerably worse off economically than before the revolution.

Some people explain the survival of the Castro regime, and the fact that it still has enthusiastic supporters, by its allegedly remarkable achievements in the social sphere, particularly in education and health. It is little known that before Castro assumed power Cuba already had one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America. Castro did indeed devote an entire year to a gigantic drive to stamp out illiteracy, and he has opened up many new schools. Yet there is every indication that owing to the flight of teachers and to the extracurricular activities for which the youth are constantly mobilized, the quality of Cuban schooling has seriously declined, especially on the secondary and university levels. Castro has also socialized medicine. At the same time, many doctors have been driven out of the country, and their replacements are inadequately trained. Nationalization has unfortunately completely wrecked Cuba’s budding pharmaceutical industry; the Soviet bloc countries have proved unable to provide adequate substitutes for those products once manufactured domestically or imported from the United States, and in consequence there is chronic shortage not only of medicine, but even of soap and toothpaste. Health is thus one of the darker spots on the regime’s record.

It is naive to assume that the strength of a dictatorial regime of the Cuban type is dependent on success in the fields of health and education. The purpose of dictatorship is precisely to facilitate government without the support of the majority. Economic difficulties, especially if they lead to spontaneous rioting as happened in Cuba in 1962, may be a source of considerable annoyance to a dictatorial regime. They may give ulcers to the managers, and cause frequent changes in the economic ministries, but they do not constitute a substantial threat to the regime so long as the faith and discipline of its hard core of supporters remain unshaken. In the case of Cuba, this hard core consists of several hundred thousand enthusiasts, most of whom are young people not primarily motivated by economic considerations. When I last visited Cuba two years ago I found refugee talk of a “new class” tied to the regime by vast material privileges to be greatly exaggerated. The bulk of Castro’s supporters come from strata of the population whose living standard was higher before the revolution, and way we all privileges in the distribution of refuse which they might enjoy do not service to explain their fanatical devotion to the cause. These people are obviously not kept in the Castroite fold by material advantages, but by the exhilarating feeling of being in the vanguard of a great movement, of whose ultimate victory in all of Latin America they are confident—and by admiration for the man who has successfully defied the mighty United States, and has made their little country more important and more talked about than ever before in its history.


This admiration is not confined to Cubans. It also inspires the young nationalists—mostly university and high school students from middle-class and upper-class families—who have taken to arms as guerrillas or urban terrorists in a number of Latin American countries. The Castroite campaign of violence in these countries has had its ups and downs. After suffering a number of serious reverses, it now again appears to be gathering momentum. But although it may cause considerable damage to the countries involved, its chances of ultimate success are small. Castro’s own campaign was waged against a highly unpopular dictator and against an army of low morale and inadequate leadership. His program at the time was so moderate that he received support from the Cuban middle class, and even from sectors of the industrial and agrarian oligarchy. In Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru, the countries where Castroism is now making its main effort, the young firebrands are in a very different position. They are isolated by the extremism of their program, and are faced by regimes which have some popular support, and by armies with fair standards of efficiency and leadership. Nevertheless the possibility cannot be discarded that Castroism might come to power in some Latin American country, if not through guerrilla warfare then through infiltration of a democratic party or an army coup of nationalist officers. Such a regime, however, would only be able to stay in power and follow the Cuban pattern of development if it received the same Soviet military and economic backing that Castro has enjoyed.

The real problem of Castroism is thus reduced to the problem of Soviet interference in Latin America. In order to realize this one need only visualize what would have happened if, in the crucial year 1960, a more cautious man than Nikita Khrushchev had been in power in Moscow. In that case, Castro would not have received the military and economic aid which he needed in order to defy the United States. He would either have been swept away or have been obliged to come to terms with Washington; and if today his regime still survived, it would at most constitute a minor nuisance, like that of Dr. Duvalier in Haiti. Castro’s strength, then, is not his own, but that of the Soviet Union, which he has contrived to enlist in his cause. One of his most remarkable achievements is that in spite of his complete military and economic dependence on the Soviet Union, he has managed to avoid being reduced to the subsequent status of a satellite. He has shown consummate political skill in using the Sino-Soviet conflict to browbeat and blackmail the Russians, and to prevent them from pressing home their demands on him. These matters, as well as the problem of Castroite influence in other Latin American countries, would merit treatment in a volume of their own. They are barely touched on in Draper’s book: he has deliberately concentrated on Cuban internal developments and political doctrine.

Without Soviet support, no Latin American country, however violent and extremist its regime, can possibly constitute a threat to the United States. The effective way to deal with Castroism in Latin America would thus be to make it very clear to the Soviet Government that the United States will not tolerate any attempt to establish a Soviet sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. That this procedure is feasible was clearly demonstrated by the missile crisis of October, 1962. As soon as the Russians realized that they had seriously underestimated American determination to resist, they backed down. They were able to do this because there are no vital Soviet interests at stake in Latin America.

One of the first results of the missile crisis was the decline of both Soviet and Cuban prestige in Latin America. The United States, however, failed to pursue its advantage by insisting on complete Soviet withdrawal from Cuba. This, to my mind, was a very serious omission. It has enabled Castroism to recover from its defeat and even to increase its efforts to spread the revolution to the other countries in the area. Furthermore, the lesson of the missiles crisis—that the real threat to the security of the United States does not stem from a tiny country like Cuba, but from the Soviet Union itself, and can be countered by a direct confrontation with that great power—does not seem to have been appreciated in Washington. Instead, the United States is now resorting to a policy of military intervention against the mere possibility of a communist takeover in Latin American countries. In Santo Domingo, this possibility would appear to have been remote, since the communists were not only numerically weak but also divided into three rival factions. But even if these had managed to unite in order to seize power, how could they have maintained their position without a great deal of Soviet economic and military aid? And after the Russians’ experience in the missile crisis it would hardly have been necessary to implement another blockade in order to persuade them to keep their hands off Santo Domingo.

Direct intervention by United States forces is technically possible on a small Caribbean island like Santo Domingo, but only at great cost to American popularity all over Latin America. (Not to mention the disastrous consequences for the population of the island itself, where the democratic left has been gravely weakened.) It would be even more dangerous to attempt intervention in a larger, mainland country where it might well lead to permanent guerrilla warfare and to the creation of a Latin American Vietnam. Realizing this, Washington is now attempting to persuade Latin American governments to set up an inter-American armed force to ‘deal with the threat of Castroism, thus relieving the United States of the onus of unilateral intervention. But this course is no less dangerous. If any Latin American country were actually invaded by its neighbors in order to remove a leftist government, such intervention would inevitably unite the entire population behind that government in precisely the type of “national liberation war” which the Castroites have been working so hard to ignite. Moreover, only the most rigidly conservative Latin American governments would welcome the idea of armed intervention in their neighbors’ internal affairs.

The more the United States insists on an inter-American armed force, the more closely its policy will depend on the collaboration of the most reactionary elements in Latin America, people who regard even the most moderate social reform as rank Communism. This would greatly increase the strength and volume of anti-American resentment in Latin America. It would create ideal conditions for renewed Soviet interference in the area and for a further spread of the Castroite ideology, which is so ably described and analyzed in Theodore Draper’s book.

This Issue

September 30, 1965