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History Absolved Him, Now What?

Castro at 80

by SAUL LANDAU

Televised contemporary events marginalize the role of history. TV broadcasts death from Lebanon, Gaza and Israel, but paid scant attention to the 53rd anniversary of Cuba’s revolutionary beginning. On July 26, 1953, Fidel Castro led 150 plus men to capture the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. This act of nationalist voluntarism failed. The revolutionaries had hoped the heroic act would catalyze an island wide uprising. In January 1959, however, Fidel’s guerrilleros took control of the island.

As Cubans celebrated the 53rd anniversary of the Moncada attack, they again confronted Fidel Castro’s famous words. "History will absolve me," he concluded his defense. His accomplishments more than absolve him. But the age of revolutionary innocence that fostered the Cuban revolution has ended, as 9/11 dramatized.

Fidel remains a larger than life leader who never relied on TV spots or political "handlers" to preach his messages to Cubans and millions of others around the world. People listen because he has something to say. His agenda ­ justice, equality, ending poverty, facing the perils of environmental erosion ­ retains urgent cogency. Compare his presentation to the "lite ideas" offered by major power heads of state!

From the 1960s on, critics have ignored Fidel’s noble ideas and focused their barbs at Cuba’s rationing system and chronic shortages. The anti-Castroites systematically neglect to compare the island’s life with that of its neighbors, whose health, and living standards rank far worse. Unlike residents of other South American countries, post Batista era Cubans did not fear death squads or "disappearances."

Cuba does not have a free press or political parties. But they have led to problems that Cuba faces today ­ the absence of critical public dialogue. These deficiencies, however, do not detract from the accomplishments.

The revolution converted an informal US economic colony (until 1958) into a proud nation whose citizens danced on the stage of contemporary history. In the heady days of the 1960s and 70s, students returned from studying abroad to join those at home in building hospitals, schools, roads and day care centers. The revolution also gave Cubans rights only dreamed of by other third world people. Not just education and health care, the right to a job and pension, but the chance to change history.

In 1993, at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration after the demise of the apartheid system, the new South African President embraced Fidel Castro: "You made this possible," he whispered audibly, referring to the 1987-8 Cuban military defeating of the apartheid South African forces at the battles of Cuito Cuanavale.

In Africa, from the 1960s through the 1980s, Cuban troops played historical roles in safeguarding Algerian, Angolan and Ethiopian integrity. In solidarity, Cuba sent 1,500 soldiers to fight alongside Syrian troops in the 1973 Middle East War. Cuban doctors and technicians offered aid to Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. Cuban doctors are the first to volunteer to help earthquake and other disaster victims all over the world. Indeed, Pakistanis will remember the contribution Cubans made to their recent earthquake victims.

Cuban artists, intellectuals, writers, athletes and scientists have also engraved their works and feats in the annals of many countries throughout the world. Cuba has more doctors abroad than the entire World Health Organization. Its doctor-patient ratio is similar to that of Beverly Hills.

Other third world revolutions and independence movements in small nations did not achieve this level of success. After imperial powers looted their resources and brains for centuries, they "gave" them independence; in some cases, the colonized won it. The "beneficent" former rulers allowed them ten or twenty years to "shape up" into fully operating capitalist "democracies." The imperialists did not replace stolen resources or share technology; they offered no easy credit or beneficial terms of trade. The one option: "get IMF’d" as the late Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley called it.

Cuba’s good fortune, having a veritable insurance company ready to write a long-term development policy, meant the Soviet Union would provide for infrastructure and the know how necessary for development. For the hideous warts of the Soviet system, it worked. Cuban infant mortality and life expectancy reached first world levels. Cuba has a literacy rate equal or better than the United States.

The Cuban Revolution was a success. What is it now?

In 1990, the Soviet Union dissolved. Cuba lost its aid given and trade partner. Its leaders reluctantly compromised ­ dollarization and tourism — to survive in a US sponsored hostile climate. Facing severe hardships, tens of thousands of Cubans, placed their destinies in the fate of rafts or, later, in the hands of smugglers, and the uncertain seas that separate the island from Florida.

Before the USSR’s dissolution, however, Cuba had already begun to lose its revolutionary purity. Heroic guerrilla warriors often turned into poor heads of ministries and worse politicians. They did not build democratic transition into their model, by transferring their power in a compact of trust to the very generations they educated. Instead, the leaders who enjoyed certain material privileges began to lose close contact with the people. Paternalism, inherited from centuries of Spanish culture, also began to erode the spontaneous rapport and enthusiasm of the early years.

In 1968, while filming Fidel, a PBS documentary, Fidel told me that "socialist democracy should assure everyone’s constant participation in political activity." This insight is incompatible with fatherly control ­ even for people’s "own good." Paternal attitudes sapped initiative from Cuban society. By "giving" people what they needed without demanding mature responsibility and by maintaining control of virtually all projects, the Communist Party and government helped depoliticize the very people they had educated.

The 1959 revolutionaries swore to fulfill the goals of the 1860s and 1890s independence leaders who began the struggle for nationhood. Fidel expanded their vision into one of communist consciousness: full political participation for each citizen. In 2006, much of the population does not respond to calls for communist consciousness, or participate in meaningful politics.

Instead, visitors to the island hear: "No es facil" (It’s not easy), a preface to a laundry list of complaints. In fact, government salaries don’t allow most Cubans to live at levels to which they’ve grown accustomed. The black market, therefore, remains vital.

Cubans consume ­ not as much as they want — but don’t produce goods that bring in foreign exchange. Both producers and those in the service sector, however, don’t suffer from the kinds of job stress Americans experience.

"Hard work at boring jobs, that’s capitalism," a Cuban friend told me. "Socialism doesn’t erase people’s energy in meaningless tasks that don’t benefit him or society."

Cuban socialism’s human face, people continue to risk their lives to leave the island for an uncertain existence. Young Cubans, on and off the island demonstrate high levels of culture, except when political themes arise; their eyes glaze.

After I returned from Vietnam in March, a Cuban friend asked about that country.

Prospering," I said.

"Imagine, the Americans bombed them into the Stone Age and they’re prospering. Not a bomb has fallen on Havana and yet we live like we’re in the Stone Age."

This habitual whine should be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Cuba’s investment in human capital did initially stimulate political consciousness. Cubans defended their revolution against a relentless US dirty war, because they understood their cause ­and their enemies. An anti-imperial and a class struggle!

Through the 1970s, Cubans remembered the murderous practices and invidious capitalism of the pre-revolutionary era. Today, 75 percent of the population doesn’t remember Batista’s cruelty or US neo-colonialism. Lacking vivid memory and without having political input, they have grown tired of Party jargon and slogans that bear little relationship to their reality.

This disturbs me because Bush’s July Cuba plan calls for the resumption of US control in the post-Castro era; privatizing its economy and reshaping its politics structure to make it compatible with current Administration views of democracy. The United States would even show Cubans how to manage their schools and farm efficiently. As of July 2005, Bush had already appointed a transition coordinator ­ without even bothering to invade Cuba, as he ordered for Afghanistan and Iraq.

The "Made in Washington" blueprint shows the mind-altering glue inherent in imperial memory. In Washington, the policy crowd sticks to old economic claims on Cuba. The July plan should remind Cubans that they will lose free education, health and housing and start paying heavy prices for these services. Cubans should imagine life under real-estate hungry Miami exiles. How hard and meaningless their work lives would become when their labor went to enrich a true parasite class!

Bush’s re-colonization of Cuba plan offends Cubans. But that ugly road is possible if cynicism deepens on the island. Will Fidel have the will to wage yet another campaign, a movement for socialist democracy? A good start premise would be the recognition that educated Cuban citizens merit trust and thus power to make choices as well as participate in the policies that guide their nation. It would put renewed meaning into "patria o muerte!"

SAUL LANDAU’s 1968 film, FIDEL, is available on DVD. His latest book, A Bush and Botox World, with a forward by Gore Vidal will be published this fall by CounterPunch/AK Press.