Fidel Castro, who stepped down as president of Cuba last week, is one of the most important and influential Latin American political leaders of the last century.
For almost 50 years he defied the might of the US as the Cuban regime survived an economic blockade aimed at bringing it down.
For millions of Latin Americans, Cuba became a symbol of resistance to imperialism in the continent.
But Cuba is also a symbol of something else – it is one of the few states allied to Russia during the Cold War that survived the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s.
This was emphasised by the reaction to Castro’s resignation. Much of the media debate has revolved around whether Cuba will continue on its present political and economic path, or whether Fidel’s departure will mark a change of direction.
Over the past five decades Castro’s Cuba has certainly inspired admiration and loyalty from many of those who call themselves socialists. But its actual relationship to socialism is questionable.
Castro himself did not start out as any kind of socialist. He came from Cuba’s populist nationalist tradition and was a member of the Ortodoxo party. Its younger members became increasingly radicalised in the 1940s and 1950s against the gangster dictatorship of General Fulgencio Batista, who was supported by the US.
Some took up arms. In 1953 Fidel led a hopeless and unsuccessful attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago, Cuba’s second city. His 26 July Movement was, like all other anti-Batista organisations, brutally repressed. Fidel made a stirring speech in his own defence, but was imprisoned then exiled to Mexico.
The exiles plotted and later trained. Now joined by an itinerant Argentinian doctor called Ernesto “Che” Guevara, they launched an unlikely invasion of Cuba by a few dozen men in 1956.
This guerrilla force took to the mountains, while the majority of the 26 July Movement fought the dictatorship in the cities through sabotage, assassinations and agitation.
With savage repression in the cities, the movement’s emphasis increasingly switched to the guerrillas. Castro and Guevara in particular consciously argued for the guerrilla strategy. They soon came to be the dominant force within the radical opposition to Batista.
By the end of 1958, Batista found himself facing swelling popular discontent. His US paymasters panicked and abandoned him. As Castro’s forces came down from the mountains and circled the cities, they found that the army refused to fight and melted away.
On 1 January 1959 Batista fled the country. Castro’s troops entered the capital Havana in triumph. But his victory was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time than any vindication of the guerrilla strategy – as subsequent disastrous attempts to replicate the “Cuban model” of revolution elsewhere were to prove.
At the time Castro emphasised that he was not a communist – he described the revolution as olive green (the colour of guerilla fatigues), not red. It was US imperialism that drove Fidel into the arms of Russia and created the thorn which was to remain in the US government’s side for so long.
There certainly was mass popular support in Cuba for the rebel army and for the state structure which it created from above. Yet the 26 July Movement was cautious, condemning land seizures and exercising tight control of trade unions.
It was government for the people, rather than government by the people. Political power remained in the hands of the 26 July Movement, with its tight discipline and hierarchical structures – a way of organising that reflected its roots as a clandestine military force.
While ordinary Cubans did not play much of a role in the 1959 revolution, the first years of Castro’s rule certainly brought significant gains – in healthcare, in literacy, in education and in cutting unemployment.
These reforms were too much for much of Cuba’s rich, who scuttled off to Miami in Florida, confident that the US would topple Castro and that they would soon return.
The US government initially recognised the new Cuban regime, but swiftly changed its mind. While the US was not sorry to see Batista go, it was determined that no government on its doorstep should damage the interests of its capitalists. It decided to turn the screw on Castro.
US companies refused to refine oil for Cuba. They were taken over by the state, followed by many Cuban companies.
An invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 funded by the CIA was crushed and popular support for the Castro government hardened. Economic boycotts by US firms at the behest of the US government became a full scale embargo – which has remained ever since.
Castro followed the logical path for any leader in the Cold War world. Threatened by one superpower, he turned to the other – Stalinist Russia. This was the point at which Castro declared himself a Communist and his revolution a socialist one.
Russia gleefully accepted Castro’s advances, seeing a chance for a foothold in the Americas. But its “commitment” to Cuba was strictly in its own self-interest only.
When the interests of Cuba and Russia clashed, Cuba was unceremoniously ignored. Many in the Cuban leadership felt they had been ditched in the deal between the US and Russian governments that ended the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
There was serious debate among Castro’s fellow leaders in the early years about the direction and structure of the Cuban economy.
By the late 1960s this had ended. Cuba had had to replace economic dependence on the US with dependence on Russia and its satellites.
Plans for economic diversification were shelved, in favour of reliance on traditional export products – above all sugar. Cuba became a fully paid up satellite of Russia, even fighting proxy wars for it (sometimes very successfully) in Africa.
All the paraphernalia of a Communist one-party state came with the package, including exclusive facilities and relatively high living standards for Communist Party leaders.
Nevertheless many ordinary Cubans still defended and identified with Castro’s regime, remembering the dictatorship and acknowledging the real gains of the early 1960s.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 threw Cuba into an economic and political crisis. Cubans were forced to endure a harsh period of austerity as the economy was readjusted and opened up to competition from world markets.
Certain industries boomed, notably tourism, which brought influxes of foreign currency to some Cubans but not others. Social inequality rose and living standards fell for many. Today Cuba’s economy is far from being a socialist paradise, with a thriving black market and widespread prostitution associated with the tourism industry.
Cuba and socialism
Socialists today should defend Cuba against US imperialism, but we should not have illusions in the allegedly socialist character of the country.
Regimes such as Cuba’s can make all sorts of progressive reforms “from above” – but they cannot single handedly opt out of the world capitalist system, nor can they substitute for socialism “from below”, where the mass of ordinary people rise up and take their destinies into their own hands.
Despite all the crises and contradictions, Castro’s regime has survived. The undoubted authoritarianism of the Cuban system has certainly helped in this regard, but this fact alone doesn’t explain the regime’s durability.
Part of the reason is that Castro could draw on a genuine nationalist feeling of pride. Cubans are proud to have held out against all that the mighty US has thrown at them.
Yet the various forms of dissent in the country – still largely individual or small scale – indicate the difficulties ahead for a hierarchical regime used to giving orders and having them carried out.
Castro’s Cuba is a paradox. Once an attempt to break from colonial dependence, it was defeated by the impossibility of a small island breaking with the rules of the world market.
Once a revolution with mass popular backing, if not mass popular participation, it became a stagnant hierarchy with authoritarian control.
Cuba’s current ruling clique are the same people who oversaw the economic transition of the 1990s. Some are thought to favour closer ties with China, while others look to Europe.
Another strategy pursued by the regime involves trade links with other Latin American economies, such as Brazil or Argentina.
Yet Cuba still remains a symbol of sovereignty and independence for Latin Americans. The question is how long the heirs of Fidel can hold it that way.
For more on Fidel Castro, read Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution by Mike Gonzalez. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop – phone 020 7637 1848, » www.bookmarks.uk.com.