Fidel Castro has announced that he will step down as president after almost 50 years as the president of Cuba. He has outlasted two generations of U.S. presidents, dedicated to his overthrow. In 1959 – the year of the revolution – Castro said: “Our revolution is neither capitalist nor communist! … Capitalism sacrifices the human being, communism with its totalitarian conceptions sacrifices human rights. We agree neither with the one or the other … Our revolution is not red but olive green. It bears the colour of the rebel army from the Sierra Maestra.” No wonder generation after generation of young people, fighting for social change, have identified with both Castro and the revolution he personified.
When you study the history of Cuba, you can understand why the young Castro described his revolution as “neither capitalist nor communist.” Before the 1959 revolution – which overthrew the corrupt U.S. backed Fulgencio Batista – hidden from most histories is the magnificent uprising of 1933. In the context of the catastrophic Great Depression, a massive movement engulfed the country. Richard Gott cites one eyewitness account. “Within less than a month the number of mills under labour control was estimated at thirty-six. Soviets were reported to have been organized at Mabay, Jaronú, Senado, Santa Lucía, and other centrales. At various points mill managers were held prisoners by the workers. Labour guards were formed, armed with clubs, sticks and a few revolvers … Workers fraternized with the soldiers and police.”
Batista emerged into history as the central figure who helped to restore capitalism by leading the counter-revolution. Tragically, the communist organization at the time – the Partido Unión Revolucionaria – eventually did a deal with Batista. Their international organization – the Communist International – could say that “The people who are working for the overthrow of Batista … are no longer acting in the interests of the Cuban people.” This alliance with Batista would last a decade, from 1937 to 1947. Castro’s movement in the 1950s was, then, a movement against a regime which the Communist Party had helped legitimize. The Communist Party was completely discredited, and Castro’s revolution was “not red but olive-green.”
Bitter opposition from the United States has defined Castro’s rule. This has nothing to do with a supposedly “democratic” U.S. against an “authoritarian” Castro. On taking power, to make even small improvements in the lives of Cuba’s poor, Castro had to challenge both landlords and capitalists. The U.S. has never forgiven him.
Cuba like much of Latin America, had an economy disfigured by centuries of imperialism. A handful of very rich landlords controlled the vast majority of land, while thousands of peasants were completely landless. Castro took three steps. First, he restricted most landholdings to 1,000 acres. Second, he divided up 40 per cent of the countryside into small holdings for the poor and landless peasants – giving them on average plots of 67 acres. Third, he stated that in future, land in Cuba would be owned only by Cubans. This infuriated the Americans, because the majority of foreign landowners were from the U.S.
So when 300,000 tons of desperately needed crude oil arrived from Russia (in exchange for Cuban sugar), under pressure from the U.S. government, Shell, Standard Oil and Texaco refused to allow the use of their refineries. Castro expropriated the refineries. The U.S. then attacked the sugar industry – the lifeblood of the country, taking away Cuba’s sugar quota. “They will take away our quota pound by pound, and we will take away their sugar mills one by one.” The sugar mills were nationalized, along with all major American properties on the island. So the U.S. “struck back … with the most powerful economic weapon in its armoury: an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba.” That embargo has continued to this day, and has made life in Cuba extremely difficult.
But Castro’s Cuba has nonetheless survived – in fact it has more than survived. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Cuban troops fought side by side with liberation fighters in Africa, helping win national liberation struggles against European imperialism. Critically, in 1987 and 1988, Angolan troops supported by Cubans, fought repeated battles in Angola against an invading army from apartheid South Africa. The inability of the South African military to defeat the Angolans and Cubans was a critical factor in the subsequent collapse of the apartheid regime.
But the brutal U.S. embargo had the disastrous impact of driving Cuba into the camp of the Stalinist Soviet Union. An economy dependent on the export of sugar to the United States became an economy dependent on the export of sugar to the Soviet Union and its allies. And working too closely with the Soviet Union sometimes meant taking the wrong sides in international disputes. In the 1970s, Cuba provided military support to the repressive Russian-backed regime of Ethiopia against the people of Eritrea who were fighting for their independence, an action that left a legacy of bitterness in Eritrea.
Most analyses of Cuba accept that its society is now “post-capitalist” in some sense. This is misleading. No country as poor and isolated as Cuba can, on its own, make a transition to socialism. It remains caught in the web of the world economy, forced to “market” itself as a tourist designation with all the social ills which come with carving out such a “niche” in the capitalist economy. Cuba under Castro needs not to be romanticized as a new socialist society, but understood as a country that has mobilized and stood up to imperialism over half a century.
In 1953, while on trial with 100 others for their assault on the Moncada Barracks, the then 26 year old Fidel Castro entered the stage of history. “The guilty continue at liberty and with weapons in their hands – weapons which continually threaten the lives of all citizens. … I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” As Castro prepares to step down as president of Cuba, more than half a century later, there is no question that history has absolved him. The revolution he led remains a beacon for millions in the Global South.
© 2008 Paul Kellogg
 Cited in Peter Binns and Mike Gonzalez, “Cuba, Castro and Socialism,” International Socialism 2:8, Spring 1980, p. 6
 See Luis E. Aguilar, Cuba 1933: Prologue to Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972)
 Cited in Richard Gott, Cuba: A new history (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 136
 Cited in Gott, pp. 143-4
 Gott, pp. 170-1
 Gott, pp. 183-4
 Gott, p. 185
 “Cuba & The Liberation of Southern Africa,” Pan-African newswire, November 8, 2005
 D. Fogel, Africa in Struggle, (San Francisco: ISM press, 1982), pp. 281-336
 See Antonio Carmona Báez, State resistance to globalisation in Cuba (London: Pluto Press, 2004), pp. 1-85
 Fidel Castro, “History Will Absolve Me,” Castro Internet Archive