Kevin Davey, review of Fidel Castro: A Biography by Volker Skierka (Polity, £25), Cuba: a Revolution in Motion by Isaac Saney (Zed, £13.95) and The Cuban Revolution: Past, Present and Future Perspectives by Geraldine Lievesley (Palgrave, £17.99), Tribune April 30 2004
For the last 45 years Fidel Castro has been the Jekyll and Hyde of Caribbean politics. In a weak-minded style inherited from admirers of Soviet Union in the 1930s, supporters of the Cuban revolution have cheered the Commandante’s military and social achievements, while turning a blind eye to his repression of dissent.
Fidelistas praise his brief independence of the Soviet Union, his provision of military aid to democratic Africa, his enduring ability to mobilize the majority of the population, and his regionally inspiring health and education programmes, all delivered from the jaws of an American embargo. They downplay his deference to Moscow after the revolution’s failure to deliver unrealistic targets for sugar harvests, and the consolidation of his own dictatorial power as “the undisputed caudillo of the revolution” – the description of a friend - at the head of a repressive one-party state, phone-tapping, arresting and exiling opponents, airbrushing photographs and crashing the economy in traditional style.
Fidelistas are won over by the first side of his political character, and excuse the rest. In their eyes, American hostility to Havana gives Castro unrestricted license to stifle dissent.
They are wrong. Castro is an old-style Stalinist who uses European anti-Americanism and anxieties about globalisation to distract attention from his contempt for democracy. They are also short sighted. Without reform, the regime will suffer the same fate as its former Soviet sponsor.
In the mid-1990s, after Moscow’s subsidies and markets for sugar disappeared, Cuba underwent a deep economic crisis. Fidel’s initial response was to grandstand, saying “those who do not submit to imperialism . . . they call inflexible. Long live inflexibility.” Soon after he opened Cuba’s borders to tourism and foreign investment, allowing the U.S. dollar to circulate and permitting a limited amount of private enterprise. These reforms have been plagued by reversals and uncertainty, and have exacerbated inequalities on the island. The wage paid by the state is now too little to keep Cubans from poverty and a fledgling movement of dissent has gone from strength to strength.
By 2002, 11,000 Cuban advocates of peaceful reform had signed up to the Varela project, which calls for a referendum on the introduction of freedom of speech and assembly, the release of political prisoners, market reforms and free elections.
Last year Fidel responded by imprisoning 75 of his leading critics– including 40 coordinators of the Varela Project and more than 20 journalists – for sentences varying in length from 6 to 28 years. The EU protested, mildly. Castro’s arrogance and contempt for democratic values were clearly visible in his unmeasured response. “A gang, a mafia, has joined the Yankee imperialists,” he raged, later describing the EU as "the superpower's Trojan Horse".
Castro and his followers find it offensive and incomprehensible that friends of the Cuban people, as well as their foes, want to see more democracy and human rights on the island. The EU trades with Cuba and routinely votes against the embargo at the UN. It is a friend. But Fidelistas are outraged by friends who oppose the embargo but still want political reform in Cuba. Authoritarian to the core, they see the two as incompatible.
It’s probably true that some members of the opposition have taken financial assistance from the US, and that dissident circles have also been penetrated and compromised by the Cuban security services. But Cuban dissent is a brave voice for sanity and democracy that should be welcomed and encouraged by the left. Fourteen thousand people have signed up to the Varela project since last year’s arrests. There is an unprecedented momentum for reform.
Without any sense of shame, the regime’s admirers in Europe continue to issue supportive tracts full of convoluted arguments about social achievements being more important than human rights, and wild claims that the island’s carefully regulated system of popular power – a form of populist browbeating with next to no devolved power and resources - is the most advanced form of democracy on the planet.
Fortunately Volker Skierka’s useful biography is not cast from this mould, and does not flinch from describing Fidel’s weaknesses and failures. Skierka condenses the work of his predecessors, and adds newly accessible material from the archives of the east German state, once Cuba’s closest ally after Moscow. These reports are not particularly illuminating, but some interesting episodes are recorded. In 1964 the GDR’s bewildered bureacrat in Havana noted Fidel’s “personal decision making on all important matters” and “violent reaction to suggested corrections of certain of his ideas and practices.” In 1966 the embassy dismissed out of hand a demand from Fidel that the ‘socialist family’ deploy huge armies in Vietnam, pointing out that the consequence would be global war. But in the late 1980s Erich Hoenecker and Castro stood shoulder to shoulder against Gorbachev, a doomed alliance of inflexibles. Distant from the turbulence, and with an iron grip on a resigned population, only Fidel endured. Skierka concludes that Cubans are happy to have been delivered from colonial dependence by Castro but “discontent continues to result from lack of political and material freedoms, uncertain prospects at work and in private life, uncertain political conditions, and consumer temptations that cannot be satisfied within the system.”
By contrast, Saney’s account is an unconvincing round of fellow-travelling applause. He claims that Castro has created “a unique model of development” which has won grudging praise from the World Bank. Cuba has been misunderstood by the West, he insists. It has a “unique democracy” which cannot be described as totalitarian. He then makes the ludicrous claim that the system of poder popular – people’s power – the Committees to Defend the Revolution, and the trade unions are not managed by the Communist Party. He justifies the recent arrests with an account of how dissent is sponsored by the US and condemns the Varela project as unconstitutional. Why a Fidelista should raise this objection without a blush, when the guerilla leader of the Sierra Maestra has torn up so many constitutions himself, is hard to understand.
In the best of these three studies, Geraldine Lievesley argues that regime has survived 45 years because it is legitimate in the eyes of the Cuban people and because it has developed a strong sense of cubanidad, or nationhood, which is periodically revitalized by genuine mobilizations and engagements with the people and by campaigns of rectification. She accepts the official view that candidates in assembly elections are not manipulated by the party, but she does concede it is “a politically skewed relationship with the party having the potential to assume a paternalistic role.” She also acknowledges that central government – over which Castro himself personally presides - retains control over every major aspect of state policy, leaving the elected assemblies powerless, approving rather than initiating decisions. She regrets “the official equation of criticism of government policy with counter-revolutionary intent” and calls for the deepening of poder popular, so that it engages with, rather than suppresses, the views of women, afrocubans, gay men and the churches, making the legitimacy of the state more authentic.
It may be too late for that. The reality is that Cuba is a bankrupt country, with 12 billion dollars of foreign debt, excluding the even larger contested sums owed to Russia. Economic stagnation, increased repression, and deteriorating relations with the European countries who are its major source of trade and tourism are the order of the day. The enlarged European union – whose new members have no fond memories of Stalinism – is not like likely to indulge Cuba. Nor should they. The Cuban opposition should be given the same international support as political dissidents in the east received when Europe was divided. A Cuban Spring is taking shape and gathering momentum. Fidel should agree to the referendums and step down. History will not absolve him a second time.