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Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet

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On Monday 28 September, Commandante Jorge Risquet died in Havana aged 85. Risquet participated in the revolutionary war and was a protagonist in Cuba’s military missions in Africa. He led Cuba’s intervention in the French Congo in 1965 and to Angola between 1975 and 1979 where Cuban troops fought alongside Angolans to defeat the invading army of apartheid South Africa. In 1988 he headed Cuba’s team of negotiators following South Africa’s surrender. In response to South African machinations at the negotiating table Risquet stated: ‘South Africa must face the fact that it will not obtain at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield.’ In the words of Piero Gleijeses, an authority on revolutionary Cuba’s role in Africa, with the exception of Fidel and Raul Castro, and Che Guevara, ‘no Cuban has played a more prominent role in African affairs than Jorge Risquet Valdés, a man of intelligence, wit, and unswerving commitment to the Cuban Revolution.’[1]

Jorge Risquet portrait

Jorge Risquet. Photo by Helen Yaffe.

Interviewing Risquet

Ten years ago, I met with the veteran socialist and commandante to interview him for my doctoral thesis. My discussion with Risquet did not, however, focus on Cuba’s revolutionary armed forces or his role in Africa. I was in Cuba working with archives and conducting interviews to investigate the economic ideas of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in the Cuban Revolution.[2] Risquet’s name had been added to my interview ‘wish list’ after consulting declassified documents from the British embassy in Havana dated 1967 and 1968 detailing the ‘top personalities in Cuba’. Listed as the new Minister of Labour, Risquet was described as: ‘A bearded, youngish man, who appears to be steadily rising in favour.’[3] I met Risquet in his office where he sat in the middle of a large, tidy desk. His distinctive black bushy beard had thinned and turned white. For several hours Risquet patiently answered my questions, showed me old newspaper clippings and journal articles and told me the stories behind the black and white photos hanging on the wall. He gave me a signed a copy of his book, El Segundo Frente del Che en el Congo (Che’s Second Front in the Congo) (2000).

The making of a revolutionary

Risquet was born in 1930. Gleijeses described him as ‘the descendant of an African slave, her white master, a Chinese indentured servant, and a Spanish immigrant.’[4] His early childhood were years of economic depression, revolutionary upheaval, democratic opening and then violent reaction as Batista took control of Cuba with US support in 1934. Risquet’s parents were cigar makers who belonged to a politically progressive worker collective with cheeconomicscommunist sympathies. ‘My parents were semi-literate’, he told me. ‘My father had completed 4th grade and my mother knew how to read but not write.’[5] In 1943, aged 13, Risquet joined the Revolution Cuban Youth (Juventud Revolucionaria Cubana), youth wing of the Partido Socialista Popular (PSP), later renamed Socialist Youth. Within two years he was elected onto the executive committee. In 1953, ‘Risquet was the first Cuban to meet Angola’s first president Agostinho Neto in 1953, in Bucharest, Romania, at the Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students’.[6] The following year, as a representative of Cuba and Latin America on the organising committee of the World Federation of Democratic Youth, aged 24 years, he travelled to Guatemala where he met Ernesto Guevara (not yet ‘Che’) who had befriended the exiled Cuban revolutionary, Ñico Lopez. Che was two years his senior.

Following Batista’s coup, Risquet joined the urban underground resistance in Havana. It was a perilous existence. After being captured, tortured and incarcerated, he made it to the Sierra Cristal in Oriente Province, where Raul Castro had opened up the Second Front. There he directed political education for the troops. On 1 January 1959, he entered Santiago de Cuba with Raul and Fidel Castro’s Rebel Army columns.

Risquet at 15 photo

Risquet at 15.

Political and military roles in the Revolution

Risquet became head of the Culture Department of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) in Oriente province, in charge of political instruction. He carried out numerous political roles between 1959 and 61 as well as serving as head of army operations. He recalled: ‘During those first years my work involved guiding the political tasks of the revolution. I went on to occupy more military roles too.’ Risquet joined the political leadership in Oriente province of the Integrated Revolutionary Organizations [ORI] formed by merging the three insurrectionary organisations which had participated in Batista’s overthrow.’ As a veteran of the PSP, Risquet’s role was particularly important in opposing the sectarianism (mainly from PSP stalwarts) which threatened unity between those groups. The ORI became the United Party of the Socialist Revolution [PURS] in 1962 and Risquet was deputy leader in Oriente. When PURS became the Cuban Communist Party in 1965 Risquet was named among its 100-strong Central Committee. Between 1973 and 1990, he served on the Cuban Communist Party’s Secretariat and its Politburo from 1980 to 1991. He was also a long-standing member of Cuba’s National Assembly of Peoples’ Power.

In the economic sphere

It was in his capacity as a political leader in Oriente Province in 1961 that Che Guevara, then Minister of Industries, asked Risquet to support his plans for the sugar industry, which was under Che’s jurisdiction. ‘At Che’s request, I concentrated on the sugar harvest, an activity which involves thousands of people’. Having joined Cuban macheteros (cane cutters) for voluntary labour, Che was determined to wipe out what he called ‘slave labour’ in the fields. He immediately set up the Commission for the Mechanisation of the Sugar Harvest. In the meantime, however, emphasis was placed on increasing and improving the harvest. Sugar exports were to create the capital necessary for investments in diversifying the economy and establishing socialist state provision. Risquet helped to create a movement of emulation in the sugar harvest. He recalled:

‘We created the Millionaires Movement in which a machetero had to cut a million arrobas, each arroba has 11.5 kilogrammes. In the first year we had 11 brigades with 48 men in each, then it became a national movement… the sugar cane workers are poor, but we called them millionaires. Organised into brigades, their work became collective for the first time … this task of organising emulation was very arduous. But Che praised this movement a lot.’

Che also enrolled Risquet’s support in introducing the first rudimentary machines into the sugar cane harvest. This required abating the fears of the cane cutters who had historically resisted attempts to introduce machinery for fear of losing employment.

Returning to military action in the Congo

On 26th July 1965, during the Moncada Day celebrations in Las Villas, Fidel revealed to Risquet that Che had left Cuba at the head of a secret military mission in the former Belgian Congo (DRC). Meanwhile, as a consequence of previous discussions with Che, the president of the neighbouring French Congo, Alphonse Massamba-Débat, had requested military assistance from Cuba to defend that country’s recent independence. The following month, Risquet sailed to the French Congo with 260 Cuban soldiers on a legal mission of military assistance. The Cubans began training fighters from the MPLA, Angola independence fighters, initiating the political and military cooperation which would culminate in Cuba sending tens of thousands of troops to fight the South African occupation of Angola and ultimately end the occupation of Namibia.

Risquet old meeting photo

Risquet at a meeting with Fidel Castro.

Back to the economy

One day after returning from the Congo to Cuba in January 1967, Risquet was named Minister of Labour. ‘I was not expecting that’, he told me, having little knowledge about the laws, policies and institutions linked to the post. However, the task was principally a political one, involving coordination with workers and trade unions. ‘The Minister of Labour is responsible for distributing salaries and it was my task to apply the salary scale that Che had devised’; an integral part of his Budgetary Finance System of economic management.[7] A principal objective was to reduce the 25,000 different salary grades in pre-revolutionary Cuba into eight basic categories. ‘As Minister, I spent several years applying that salary scale and doing so was hard work.’ Workers received an overpayment for exceeding the ‘norm’, but the bonus was split between the worker and the state. ‘I remember in one meeting with the Dockers’ Union the workers told me that they felt a lot of respect for Che, but that they did not understand the scale.’ According to Risquet the new arrangement was never implemented among dockworkers. In Risquet’s view this became a brake on productivity, because workers stopped trying to exceed the norm. However, he concluded that the new system ‘did work in organising the salaries’.

I concluded by asking Risquet what was Che’s most important contribution to the Cuban Revolution. He said:

‘Che was one of the most admired and outstanding men of the Cuban Revolution, an example of solidarity, originality, simplicity, naturalness. He had a profound hatred for imperialism…a great willingness to volunteer [and] was a master of revolutionary war. He had great faith in human beings, in ideas and examples. Cuban soldiers who passed through Africa had his name on their lips… He was very stoic and self-critical, with absolute sincerity.’

In many ways, the same could be said for Risquet; a revolutionary socialist and anti-imperialist who dedicated his life to fight for the poor and oppressed in Cuba and in Africa. His legacy lives on as part of a proud chapter of Cuban internationalism.

Notes.

[1] Piero Gleijeses, (2006), Risquet, Jorge. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History.

[2] My research was adapted for publication as Che Guevara: the economics of revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[3] British Embassy in Havana, Top Personalities in Cuba, Havana, 20 September 1967, National Archives document FCO 7/529 211465.

[4] Gleijeses, (2006).

[5] This and all following Risquet quotes are taken from my interview in Havana, 8 February 2005.

[6] ‘Angolan Embassy in Cuba Shocked By Jorge Risquet Death’, 30 September 2015. http://allafrica.com/stories/201509301475.html

[7] For a detailed discussion about the Budgetary Finance System see Helen Yaffe, Che Guevara: the economics of revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Helen Yaffe is an Economic History Fellow at the London School of Economics and the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Between 2011 and 2014, she was a Research Associate at Leicester University on a project investigating the history of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain. Her recent commentaries for BBC and Sky News on US President Obama and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s visits to Cuba can be seen at: http://palgrave.typepad.com/yaffe/

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