Castro’s Cuba: made in America
Fidel Castro was a by-product of the Cold War, his regime more the creation of external pressures than of any internal ideology.
Away in the mountains of Italy last week, the one big item of news that crossed borders and language barriers was the resignation of the ailing Fidel Castro as the president of Cuba. The end of the world’s most famous communist dictator seems to give nostalgic commentators of every stripe a welcome opportunity to dust off the politics of the past and re-run the left v right battles of days when the world seemed to them a simpler place.
To anybody unfamiliar with the political history of the past half-century, it might have seemed bizarre that an internal handover of power – from the president to his brother – on a tiny Caribbean island should have caused such a global storm of comment. It clearly can have nothing to do with the real importance of Cuba in the world. Rather, it confirms that Castro’s elevated status has always been symbolic – as a symbol of communist evil for his enemies, especially within the USA, and as a symbol of liberationist hope for his admirers in the West and the developing world.
Even as a symbol, however, Castro had long since ceased to stand for anything much. He may only just have resigned, yet as a creature of the Cold War he effectively left the world stage in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union on which he depended. That his resignation could still cause such a global media furore revealed the depth of some lasting misconceptions.
Much of the recent discussion of Castro among both his Euro-groupies and his conservative critics has taken his claims to have led a 50-year socialist revolution at face value. Yet in reality he never set out to do any such thing, and he did not end up where many have assumed. Castro’s regime and reputation has been far more a product of the peculiar political pressures of the times than of any personal drive or ideology.
In particular, Castro was a by-product of US foreign policy. It has become fashionable these days for idiot anti-Americans to blame Washington for anything that they see going wrong in the world, from the Middle East to global warming. But one thing for which the USA was definitely responsible was the creation and perpetuation of Castro’s Cuba.
From 1899, when the US invasion of the island and expulsion of the Spanish colonialists marked the birth of American imperialism, Cuba was considered part of Uncle Sam’s backyard. By the 1950s, Cuba under the corrupt regime of General Batista was like a cross between a metal mine, sugar plantation, casino and whorehouse for American capitalism.
Fidel Castro’s 26th July Movement of young Cubans was a nationalist revolt against a foreign-backed dictatorship, of a sort seen in many other parts of the Third World. It was avowedly non-communist. Castro succeeded, not by mobilising the mass of Cubans, but because the conscript army of the decrepit dictatorship crumbled before his small guerrilla army. Batista fled Havana on 1 January 1959, the rebel forces rolled in, and Castro was soon installed in power.
If America’s propping up of Batista had helped to create the circumstances for the Cuban revolution, US opposition to Castro drove the new regime into the Soviet camp. Rebuffing Castro’s early charm offensive, US presidents Dwight D Eisenhower (until January 1961) and John F Kennedy set out to put the Cuban upstart in his place and show that Washington was not to be defied on its doorstep. As a result Castro built closer links with the Soviet Union. It was only after the Eisenhower administration took increasingly aggressive economic and diplomatic steps to punish Cuba that Castro moved to expropriate some $850million of US assets in the summer of 1960.
By now Washington was engaged in a campaign to overthrow Castro, and soon to assassinate him. Almost Eisenhower’s last act as president was to cut off all ties with Cuba. And almost Kennedy’s first significant foreign policy decision was to back the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961, when a CIA-supported armed force of Cuban exiles was routed by Castro’s army.
The inevitable result of this campaign was to drive Cuba ever-closer to the Soviets. In December 1961, almost three years after his nationalist movement had overthrown Batista, President Castro declared that he was now a Marxist-Leninist and that Cuba was adopting Communism. His ‘conversion’ was less a product of a blinding light on the road to Havana than of the grinding hostility he encountered from Washington. President Kennedy responded to Castro’s announcement in characteristic style, by imposing the economic embargo that has shaped relations between Cuba and the USA ever since.
Just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Castro’s communist statelet of Cuba assumed a symbolic importance for both sides in the Cold War, becoming a football between the two superpowers. This came to a head during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the dramatic armed stand-off between Washington and Moscow over the latter’s plan to install nuclear weapons on the island. (That loud diplomatic crisis was also more symbolic than is often assumed, quietly resolved through a behind-the-scenes deal whereby the Soviets ditched their Cuban missile plan and the Americans withdrew theirs from Turkey. Castro had little say either way.)
In the early years of his rule, US adminsitrations sought to overthrow the communist symbol of Castro to demonstrate their authority. In later and more uncertain times, Washington ironically came to rely on the continued existence of Castro’s Cuba as a symbol of what they were fighting against (exactly what they were fighting for no longer always being clear). Thus President Ronald Reagan seized upon the presence of Cuban construction workers on the island of Grenada in 1983 to launch an invasion designed to re-establish US dominance over Latin America. By then if Castro had not existed, the USA may well have felt the need to invent him.
One way or another, then, the creation, evolution and continued existence of Castro’s Cuba was a product of the Cold War and US foreign policy. Its ability to survive rested perhaps most of all on the inability of the USA to crush the tiny irritant in its side. It thus revealed the limits to American power, even in its backyard in the heyday of the American Century. In turn, Castro proved adept at exploiting any sign of American division and weakness, as when he publicly associated himself with the Black Panthers during the civil rights and race relations crisis of the 1960s.
With the ending of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant an end to the Soviet aid that had kept the Cuban economy functioning. Castro has since been reduced to desperate measures and economic reforms to keep his regime afloat, surviving as a toothless shadow of his old fiery self.
So much for the myth of Castro the uncompromising communist revolutionary. What about his revolution? Since his conversion to communism, Castro has espoused the Stalinist doctrine of socialism in one country – the idea that it is possible to go beyond the achievements of international capitalism within the borders of a single state. However, for those of us from the left who never believed in Stalinism, even when the one country in question was the huge Soviet Union, the notion of Socialism in One Small Caribbean Island was always absurd.
Isolated, impoverished and under pressure from the US embargo, there would have been inevitable limits on what Castro could achieve in terms of economic and social development. But in the event he achieved considerably less than that. His nationalistion of foreign-owned industries was the sort of defensive economic measure common in the developing world in the post-colonial era. The imposition of state monopolies did not signify the transfer of control to the Cuban people. His refusal to share real political power outside of his clique – a measure he justified, along with the repression of opponents, as a necessary response to America’s undeclared war on Cuba – ensured that the Cuban masses were denied anything approaching ‘people power’.
Yet most Cubans who recalled the grim pre-revolutionary era of US influence on the island stood by Castro against the Yanqui Imperialists. Their resilience in the face of such adversity has long deserved our solidarity and respect. For some of us that solidarity with ordinary Cubans did not ever mean supporting Castro or his politics. But others on the Western left never seemed quite able to make that distinction.
Many British, American and European radicals have long since given up on winning an argument with those whom they look down upon as the ignorant, greedy masses in their own countries. They have preferred to search the Third World for romantic hero figures in whom they can invest their dreams and fantasies. For these groupies from the 1960s onwards, adoring a Castro or an Arafat became a displacement activity to compensate for their lack of revolutionary progress at home. When I was growing up in the Sixties and Seventies, the cartoon revolutionary was a hairy figure who hijacked a plane and demanded of the pilot ‘Take me to Cuba!’ That was also the emotional slogan of those on the left who sought to hijack Cuba’s struggles for their own satisfaction. Many of these sad cases became slavish prosletysers of Castro’s heroic self-image.
Since the end of the Cold War and his slide into impotence, it has become safe for celebrity lefties to lionise Castro once again, since he is no longer a threat to anybody. He has become a sort of Celebrity Communist himself, mixing with Hollywood directors and other high-profile figures. In the past few years, as Cuba has begun to open up and change has become inevitable, it has even become fashionable in some Western circles to suggest that ‘one must visit Cuba before Fidel goes’ – as if the passing of such an isolated and distorted society, trapped in time with its 1950s American cars, will be something to mourn.
It is a sign of the degraded state of the Western left that what they once hailed as a socialist paradise has now been recast as a sort of nostalgic ‘paradise lost’ theme park in the Carribean. The Cuban people might be justfied in thinking they can do without such solidarity in the future.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.
Chris Bickerton wondered what will follow Fidel. Robert Latona said Fidel Castro remains a fixed point of reverence for the Spanish left. Josie Appleton argued that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is not the revolutionary his Western admirers imagine him to be, and that Latin America is afflicted by the same loss of meaning in political life as we in the West are. Or read more at spiked issue Latin America.