". . . there has been a qualitative change in America, which is that one day we can rise up in arms, destroy an oppressing army, establish a new Popular Army, confront the invincible monster, wait for the monster's attack and defeat that, too, and this is something new in America . . . "
----Che Guevara, Punta del Este, 1961
Fidel Castro has informed the Cuban Communist Party that his health will not permit him to resume political office and has stepped down as the head of state after over more than 50 years of miraculous accomplishment.
In 1953 he and a handful of youths attacked the Moncada barracks in Santiago armed with little more than conviction, daring, and a few bird guns, delivering a blow against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and 50 years of colonization masquerading as Cuban independence. A handful of his forces died in the attempt, but dozens were killed by the army after a week of torture. Some had their eyes torn out, always a risk for those whose political vision is 20-20.
Castro, taken prisoner, astonished the court with his defense, which he based on the ancient right to overthrow tyranny. While the judges listened with rapt attention, he informed them he had no intention of doing their bidding: "This island will sink in the ocean before we will consent to be anybody's slaves." Turning the tables on his accusers, he put the Batista regime itself on trial, declaring with absolute conviction that "history will absolve me." He denounced Batista and his officers as butchers and set forth a program of revolution that insisted on food and work for everyone.
He refused to deny the myriad injustices caused by subservience to Washington, or to regard them as sad inevitabilities. On the contrary, he pronounced them "inconceivable." "What is inconceivable is that there should be men going to bed hungry while an inch of land remains unsown; what is inconceivable is that there should be children who die without medical care; that thirty percent of our campesinos cannot sign their names and ninety-nine percent don't know the history of Cuba; that most families in our countryside should be living in worse conditions than the Indians Columbus found when he discovered the most beautiful land human eyes had ever seen . . . From such wretchedness it is only possible to free oneself by death; and in that the state does help them: to die. Ninety percent of rural children are devoured by parasites that enter from the soil through the toenails of their unshod feet.
"More than half of the best cultivated production lands are in foreign hands. In Oriente, the largest province, the lands of the United Fruit Company and the West Indian Company extend from the north coast to the south coast . . .
"Cuba continues to be a factory producing raw materials. Sugar is exported to import candies; leather exported to import shoes; iron exported to import plows . . .
Three years later Havana announced that Castro and Che Guevara had been killed in battle at a place called Alegria de Pio in Cuba's Oriente province. The Batista regime insisted that the armed expedition from Mexico had been crushed by bombs and machine-gun fire.
In truth, the initial battle had been a disaster. Fidel and his men spent a sleepless week crammed together on the tiny boat Granma, vomiting from seasickness. After landing in the wrong place, they took just a few steps on Cuban soil before being blasted by machine gun fire and burned alive by incendiary bombs. The survivors, seeking direction from the night sky, got their stars confused, then lost their backpacks and guns to the swamps. They had nothing to eat but sugarcane and exhausted their supply of condensed milk by carrying the cans holes down. They gave away their whereabouts leaving garbage along their path and accidentally mixed their drinking water with sea water. Lost and separated, they searched for each other at random until a handful of them finally found each other by pure chance along the mountain slopes.
These dozen survivors of every conceivable mishap had a total of seven rifles and some damp ammunition with which to overthrow the U.S.-backed dictatorship. As they proceeded with their revolution from the brush, Earl Smith, U.S. ambassador to Cuba, received the keys to the city of Santiago while Cuban women chanting the Cuban national anthem and shouting "Liberty!" were clubbed down by police. Smith deplored the beatings, but recognized that the grave menace of Communist aggression had to be put down. His advisers explained that Castro had been an oddball since childhood because he had once fallen off a moving motorcycle.
Castro did not wait for the military conflict to conclude before making badly needed political changes. With the war in full swing, Castro introduced agrarian reform in the Sierra Maestra in 1958. Campesinos got their first doctor's visit, their first teacher, their first dignity. Batista, with ten thousand troops and backed by the greatest military power in history, was proving helpless against a tiny guerrilla army backed by overwhelming popular support.
Long before Muslim clerics were ridiculed for their long beards, Castro and his men suffered the same fate. By the end of 1958 "the bearded ones," as the Cuban guerrillas were known, descended from the mountains and snatched Cuba out of the imperialist orbit right under Uncle Sam's nose. Amidst a chaos of routed Batista troops, strafing and bombing planes, cheering crowds, and hairy guerrillas, Batista fled to the Dominican Republic on New Year's Day, 1959. An appalled Ambassador Smith, pleading for the life of General Cantillo, complained that Castro and his men reminded him of character actors from a John Dillinger movie.
By late 1959, the U.S. State Department and the CIA were already determined that Castro had to be overthrown. State Department liberals complained that "our business interests in Cuba have been seriously affected." Not to mention that, as the State Department put it, "The United States cannot hope to encourage and support sound economic policies in other Latin American countries and promote necessary private investments in Latin America if it is or appears to be simultaneously cooperating with the Castro program." It mattered not at all that public opinion studies supplied to the Kennedy Administration showed that most Cubans were optimistic about the future and supported Castro. And at this point there was no Soviet influence on the island. Nevertheless, by October 1959, planes based in Florida were strafing and bombing Cuban territory. In March 1960, declaring its desire for a Cuban government "more devoted to the true interests of the Cuban people and more acceptable to the U.S.," as though the contradictory objectives were somehow compatible, the Eisenhower Administration approved a plan to overthrow Castro.
Castro refused to be intimidated. Arriving in New York City for the 15th General Assembly Meeting of the UN in 1960, he rejected "unacceptable cash demands" at Manhattan's Shelburne Hotel and stormed off to Harlem, where he was greeted by huge crowds blocking traffic at 125th and Seventh Avenue. Khrushchev, Nasser, and Nehru accorded him state visits at the Hotel Theresa, surrounded by scores of photographers and reporters. With the CIA's Health Alteration Committee (!) planning his execution, Castro conferred with Malcolm X, appeared on the balcony with his army chief Juan Almeida Bosque, and stole the spotlight at the UN, basking in the cordiality extended by Tito and Nkrumah and relishing guest-of-honor status granted by Uruguay. In his speech to the world he dismissed then Senator John Kennedy as an "illiterate and ignorant millionaire" and reiterated his call for Third World support against U.S. aggression.
In the presidential election campaign that year Kennedy proved to be even more hawkish on Cuba than his opponent vice-president Richard Nixon. Though the Eisenhower Administration was strafing and bombing Cuban territory and training a Cuban invasion force in Guatemala, Kennedy complained in television debates that not enough was being done about the "militant Communist satellite" fomenting "Communist infiltration and subversion throughout the Americas." Kennedy spoke in terms of combatting disease, declaring that it was vital to inoculate the hemisphere against the Cuban virus indiscriminately spreading food, shelter, and medical care among the poor.
These priorities posed a terrifying specter to capitalist elites, and JFK's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara conceded in retrospect that the Kennedy Administration was hysterical in its reaction to events on the island. Under Castro, Cuba had nationalized $1 billion in U.S. corporate property, implemented the most extensive land reform in Latin American history, established cooperative farms, built thousands of homes for the poor, cut rents in half, given work to all, eliminated illiteracy, vastly increased medical and popular health programs, abolished racial discrimination, and thrown open the nurseries, resorts and hotels of the rich to the entire population. For such crimes against property, Kennedy condemned Castro as "a source of maximum danger."
The Kennedy Administration's gravity in insisting that tiny Cuba posed a threat to a hemisphere dominated by a nuclear-armed superpower eighty times its size was comical. A Mexican diplomat complained that, "If we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, forty million Mexicans will die laughing."
Worried that the Cuban disease would spread to the rest of Latin America, the Kennedy Administration escalated sabotage, terror, and aggression against the island. Invoking Hitler's rhetoric on Czechoslovakia, JFK called Cuba a "dagger" pointed at the United States and sent a proxy army to invade at the Bay of Pigs, while plotting Castro's assassination. When the invasion failed, he broke off all diplomatic, commercial, and financial ties with Cuba. Castro joined a long list of imperial demons for having abolished corporate control of the Cuban economy, thus terminating the Mafia-run playland that had enriched U.S. investors while Cuba starved.
But the U.S. had no legal leg to stand on. Article 15 of the Charter of the Organization of American States reads: "No state or group of states has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state." The U.N. Charter states: "All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat of use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state . . ."
It had been just four days after President Kennedy promised "there will not be under any conditions an intervention in Cuba by U.S. armed forces," that the first men to hit the beaches at the Bay of Pigs were (North) Americans. Their boats ran aground on the razor-sharp choral reefs and rocky terrain, and they landed under fire. But instead of the deserted resort the CIA had told them to expect, the beach was ablaze with lights that instantly shut off once the bullets started flying. At daybreak Castro's air force strafed the invaders, sinking a ten-day ammunition reserve and most of the communications equipment. Four American B-26s illegally disguised as Cuban planes were also shot down.
Cut off from the Cuban interior by a huge swamp, pounded by the well-trained and highly-motivated Cuban army, and expecting support from an anti-Castro insurrection that was nowhere to be seen, the CIA mercenaries quickly jerked their hands in the air and were herded into beach resort dressing rooms for interrogation. At the UN, the U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson declared Cuba had been attacked by its legitimate army. Miami datelined rumors alleged that Castro and Che Guevara had committed suicide.
Humiliated by the failed invasion but determined to isolate Castro, President Kennedy unveiled the Alliance For Progress, embracing the rhetoric of sweeping change while proscribing socialism or revolution. Billions in U.S. aid were dangled before hungry Latin America, on the precondition that recipients forswore allegiance to Castro's heresies. At the Punta del Este conference in 1961 Latin America adopted the charter of JFK's Alliance For Progress, calling for democracy, a more equal distribution of wealth, a rapidly rising standard of living for the masses, and an end to "those conditions which benefit the few at the expense of the needs and dignity of the many." Business Week, cautioning JFK not to get carried away, let the cat out of the bag: "A U.S. policy of sponsoring revolutionary change in the underdeveloped countries could well undermine the position of U.S. private investment . . . to a considerable degree, the revolution of rising expectations is a revolt against capitalism."
Abolishing capitalism being unthinkable, Washington escalated its attacks on Cuba and prepared a second invasion of the island. Hoping to deter its enemy while giving Washington a taste of its own nuclear medicine, Cuba and the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles on the island in the fall of 1962. JFK responded with a game of nuclear chicken, imposing a unilateral blockade on Cuba in violation of the U.N. Charter, rather than negotiate a quiet solution, which he regarded as the sissy's way out. In resolving the crisis, which only by the narrowest of margins avoided nuclear war, the U.S. refused to renounce its ongoing terrorist campaign, which included chemical and biological attacks against Cuba and countless attempts on Castro's life (Fidel claims over 600). Cuba went into permanent military mobilization and embraced the Soviet Union, while Washington established a complete trade and credit embargo, the prescribed remedy for states that infringe on the sacred rights of private investors.
As Castro steps down nearly half a century later, Cuba stands proudly independent and fiercely loyal to its revolution, having survived and flourished in the face of perhaps the greatest sustained imperial assault in history (over 3500 Cubans have died in U.S. terrorist attacks and roughly 2000 have sustained permanent injuries). As dissident writer Israel Shamir reports from a recent visit he made to the island, houses and roads are repaired, drugs and prostitution are not visible, cars are newer, and there is none of the despair and predatory violence so characteristic of U.S. cities. Shops are short on supplies but the Cuban people appear well fed and well dressed, and they sing, dance, and smoke cigars wherever they like. Unburdened with mortgages, they work, but not too hard, and have plenty of time for leisure activities. Painters, artists, and musicians are doing well and producing original work. The countryside is clean and green.
Contrary to imperial propaganda, Cubans do travel abroad, though they typically encounter difficulties getting visas to enter the U.S. Many Cubans travel to other countries in Latin America to fight illiteracy or give medical help - and then return home. Cuban doctors have traveled widely in the Third World to restore sight to the sightless - for free. Hundreds of thousands of blind people have been cured thanks to their efforts. Others have gone abroad to provide hurricane or earthquake relief, and Castro is a hero in Africa thanks to the Cuban soldiers who defeated South African apartheid in Angola.
Cuban churches are under restoration after considerable neglect, although attendance is low. Santeria, a native cult that originated in Africa, is spreading widely. The Cuban government leaves both the Catholic Church and Santeria alone.
Education is excellent, and Cuba enjoys the distinction of having more teachers per capita than any country in the world.
In gratitude for these astounding achievements, one can only say, "congratulations Fidel, very well done!"
Fidel Castro (with Ignacio Ramonet), "My Life," (Scribner, 2006)
Arthur Schlesinger, "A Thousand Days - John F. Kennedy in the White House," (Houghton-Mifflin, 1965)
Noam Chomsky, "Year 501 - The Conquest Continues," (South End, 1993)
Alexander Cockburn, "Corruptions of Empire," (Verso, 1988)
Howard Zinn, "Postwar America - 1945-1971," (Bobbs-Merrill, 1973)
Todd Gitlin, "The Sixties," (Bantam, 1987)
Seymour Hersh, "The Dark Side of Camelot," (Little, Brown, 1997)
Israel Shamir, "Keep Shining Cuba," www.israelshamir.net
William Blum, "Killing Hope - U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since WWII," (Common Courage, 1995)
Maurice Halperin, "The Rise and Decline of Fidel Castro," (University of California, 1972)
Warren Hinckle and Warren W. Turner, "The Fish is Red," (Harper and Row, 1981)
Eduardo Galeano, "Memory of Fire - Century of the Wind," (Pantheon, 1988)
Cedric Belfrage and James Aronson, "Something to Guard: The Stormy Life of the National Guardian, 1948-1967," (Columbia, 1978)
Lawrence S. Wittner, "Cold War America - From Hiroshima to Watergate," (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978)
Michael McClintock, "Instruments of Statecraft," (Pantheon, 1992)
Ernesto Che Guevara, "Punta del Este - Proyecto alternativo de desarrollo para America Latina," (Ocean Press, 2006)
------Michael K. Smith is the author of "Portraits of Empire" and "The Madness of King George" (illustrations by Matt Wuerker), both from Common Courage Press. He can be reached at email@example.com