By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“It wasn’t a happy time, believe me!…their humanitarian paratroopers, human rights combined with the right of intervention as the sole means of assistance, the full-bellied Western fortress giving moral lessons to those starving the world over…the cult of national, racial, sexual, religious and cultural identities seeking to undo the rights of the universal …” – Alain Badiou, ‘Second Manifesto for Philosophy’
In one sense we didn’t lose Fidel in 2016 because his example and words are indelible, just as those of Che Guevara. As the Sandinista Commandante and poet Tomas Borge (later, a diplomat) said when his jailor brought news that his leader Carlos Fonseca had been killed: “No, he is one of the dead who never die”. This is true several times over of Fidel. He has been immortalized like some Old Testament Jewish prophet or Catholic saint. As Raul Castro said “Fidel, undefeated, has left us, but his spirit of struggle will permanently remain in the conscience…” (Dec 27, 2016)
Fidel was a major influence in forming our values, our political consciousness and our way of being in the world. He was the archetypal Rebel, the archetypal Revolutionary and the paradigmatic leader-statesman. Nothing sums up Fidel’s greatness as much as the fact that he was Che Guevara’s beloved leader. Jean-Paul Sartre described Che as “the most complete human being of his time” and Raul Castro called him “the paradigm of that highest level of the human species” (1991). It is that human being who in his utterly poignant farewell letter, described Fidel in the following words:
“…I am also proud of having followed you without hesitation, of having identified with your way of thinking and of seeing and appraising dangers and principles…I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be…If my final hour finds me under other skies, my last thought will be of this people and especially of you. I am grateful for your teaching and your example, to which I shall try to be faithful up to the final consequences of my acts.” (Ernesto Che Guevara, Farewell Letter to Fidel, 1965)
Photo via Facebook JVP
While Sri Lankan political society—the State and every political party from Right to Left (except the non-TNA Northern ‘ultras’) — commemorated Fidel, I was appalled but not entirely surprised by the silence of the Sri Lankan civil society intelligentsia. Almost without exception, the civil society progressive pundits, the intellectuals, social scientists, ideologues, cultural and artistic personalities, and NAM era ex-diplomats, including the soi disant radicals, leftists, feminists, civil society activists and the left-leaning, didn’t write or say a word in public in commemoration of Fidel, quite unlike their counterparts all over the world!
One of the facets of the prism through which I view things is what did Fidel say or do in a similar situation, or how does one apply what he said – the basic principle involved—to the problem at hand. This should come as no surprise because my own intellectual contribution to a universal theme and topic, that of violence, has been inextricably intertwined with the figure of Fidel.
In words I shall treasure, Richard Falk, globally respected thinker, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton (having taught there for forty years), author, co-author or editor of more than 40 books, and former UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestinian Territories, has warmly cited me and Marjorie Cohn, Emeritus professor of law and former President of the National Lawyers’ Guild, USA, in his essay written after the death of Fidel Castro in the Foreign Policy Journal as well as on his blog.
In a 2,000 plus word essay entitled “On the Death of Fidel Castro’ Falk writes as follows:
“In contrast to generally condescending appraisals in the West, I call attention to two extraordinary essays of appreciation written by cherished friends. One by Sri Lanka’s lead diplomat and cultural critic, Dayan Jayatilleka, published as an opinion piece in the Colombo Telegraph under the fitting title, “A Farewell to Fidel: The Last of Epic Heroes,” Nov. 26, 2016. Dayan not only celebrates Castro’s heroic revolutionary achievement in transforming Cuba from a gangster state identity in the Batista period to a vital outpost of Third World progressive ideals. He also underscores the admirable ethics of violence that guided Castro’s revolutionary practice in ways that showed disciplined respect for the innocence of civilian life. For greater detail see Jayatilleka’s fine appreciative study, Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro (London: Pluto Press, 2007). This conception of the ethics of political violence has been essentially absent from the manner in which the struggle between terrorist groups and sovereign states has been waged in various combat zones, especially since the 9/11 attacks. Jayatilleka’s assessments have been confirmed and extended in the recently published book by Nick Hewlett entitled Blood and Progress: Violence in the Pursuit of Emancipation (Edinburgh, Scotland: University of Edinburgh Press, 2016).”
In order to arrive at a Fidelista perspective, one has to apply Fidel—and in order to apply Fidel one has to understand the very crux of Fidel’s ideology and praxis. No one is more credentialed to do this than Ernesto Che Guevara and he writes in the farewell letter to Fidel that “…I carry to new battlefronts the faith that you taught me, the revolutionary spirit of my people, the feeling of fulfilling the most sacred of duties: to fight against imperialism wherever it may be…” (Guevara, Ibid)
Thus, for Guevara, “to fight against imperialism wherever it may be” lies at the heart of Fidelismo. How did Fidel translate this task into the very different post–Soviet period of contemporary history?
Margot Pepper whose book on Cuba was shortlisted for the 2006 American Book Award, quotes Fidel’s last speech at the Sao Paulo forum which he and Lula jointly founded after the USSR fell. (One of my most prized possessions is the photograph of President Lula browsing my book on Fidel, with me—at the time, Chairman of the ILO–standing nearby.) Writing that “It is a policy Fidel warned against in the last speech I heard him pronounce live at this Forum”, she reproduces his words as follows:
“Nobody can claim that objective or subjective conditions are favorable at this time for building socialism. I believe that at the present time there are other priorities… The most important battle in Latin America today is, in my opinion, to defeat neoliberalism, because if we don’t—we will disappear as independent states and will become more of a colony than the “Third World” countries ever were.”
Lenin once wrote that Marx had been mummified; gutted and stuffed so that his thinking could be reduced that that which was compatible with the liberal bourgeoisie. It is important to rescue Fidel Castro from such a fate.
Some wish to reduce Fidel’s revolutionary project to a revolt against a Batista type regime and reduce him to a bourgeois liberal forced into bearing arms by circumstances, while any serious student would recall that the defining period of high Fidelism-Guevarism, from the Declarations of Havana to the Tricontinental and OLAS Conferences, raised the banner of anti-capitalist (i.e. socialist) armed revolution against electoral pseudo-democracies which were puppets of the US, and in which capitalist reform (JFK’s ‘Alliance for Progress’) was part of the counterrevolutionary project. Venezuela was the prime example, and the guerrilla struggle occasioned Regis Debray’s essay “Fidelism: the Long March in Latin America”. Fidelista movements such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Montoneros and the ERP in Argentina, and the ELN and M19 in Colombia were formed and/or revolted against elected regimes, while the Salvadoran FMLN revolutionaries waged war also throughout the elected government of Jose Napoleon Duarte in the early 1980s.
Of course as the Leninist moment passed in Latin America, Fidel changed his strategy, just as Lenin himself changed his strategy after 1920. He changed still further with the dramatic transformation of the world balance of forces after the fall of the USSR which he had predicted. Edward Said refers to a “late style” on the par of important thinkers. Said’s idea is a reworking of the term that appears in the criticism of the artist, that of a “late period”. Said also observed that the late style had a “furrowed’ character. What does Fidel’s late style say that is relevant to Sri Lanka today?
For Fidel the most important battle in the new period of history, the post-Soviet, unipolar period, is “to defeat neoliberalism”, so to forestall the threat that “we will disappear as independent states” and “will become more of a colony than the “Third World” countries ever were.” Fidel’s biographer Ignacio Ramonet, former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique confirms that “Right up until the eve of his death, at 90 years of age, Fidel continued to actively …denounce neoliberal globalization…” (‘The Fidel I Knew’, Granma, Dec 28th 2016)
For Fidel the most serious challenge and danger facing us was to disappear as independent states, becoming more of a colony than third world states had been. We may call this ‘late re-colonization’ or ‘late neo-colonialism’– the latest stage of imperialism, “late imperialism”. For a Fidelista, the most contemporary important task and form of the fight against imperialism is to remain or regain our status as “independent states”. So much for those who think that an independent state is either not worth fighting for, because “states” are bad (unless they are socialist) and/or independence of states is infeasible under globalization (short of a shift to socialism).
Any student of Fidel’s column Reflections which was his main mode of public communication following his retirement in 2006, would know that in his assessment of current world history, the main international factors that he counted upon as positives were the growing strength of China and the resurgence of Russia. The year before he died, writing in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Great Patriotic War waged by the Soviet Union against Hitler fascism, Fidel said in a column in Granma:
“…Today we are seeing the solid alliance between the people of the Russian Federation and the State with the fastest growing economy in the world: The People’s Republic of China; both countries, with their close cooperation, modern science and powerful armies and brave soldiers constitute a powerful shield of world peace and security, so that the life of our species may be preserved.” (Fidel Castro, Our Right to be Marxist Leninists, May 8th 2015)
If not socialism in the current historical period, what then is the alternative to neoliberal globalization? Samir Amin, one of the world’s greatest Marxian political economists and thinkers, identifies “the best model we have today to respond to imperialism”:
“The role of China is very big, because it is, perhaps, the only country in the world today, which has a sovereign project. That means that it is trying to establish a pattern of modern industry, in which of course, private capital has a wide place, but it is under the strict control of the state. Simultaneously it gives a view of the present to the culture. The other pattern of Chinese economy culture is based on family producers. China is walking on two legs: following the traditions and participating globalization. They accept foreign investments, but keep independence of their financial system. The Chinese bank system is exclusively state-controlled. The Yuan is convertible only to a certain extent, but under the control of the bank of China. That is the best model that we have today to respond to the challenge of globalist imperialism.”
So much for those Lankan leftists who detest Putin, the Chinese model and Syria’s fight for independence. Thus we may legitimately conclude that the fight against imperialism in the concrete form of the fight for the defense of independent states/state independence, leveraging the strength of China and Russia, was Fidel’s world-historical perspective in his last decade. This must be concretely translated into practice in 2017, Sri Lanka’s Year of Struggle.