18 May, 2022


Fidel And The Rock Of Resistance

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” ~ Camus (The Myth of Sisyphus)

According to an ancient Chinese musical treatise (written in the second century BCE), when any of the five notes in the Chinese pentatonic scale turns disharmonious, disorder results in human affairs. If all five notes are out of harmony, danger results, and the imminent destruction of the kingdom ensues.fidel

Mao would have deemed such a situation of great disorder excellent. But disorder, though necessary to overcome ossification of conditions, is not always the ally of progress. This is particularly so when religion plays an oversized role in creating disorder.

“If Richard Coeur-de-Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of getting mixed up in the Crusades, we should have been spared five hundred years of misery and stupidity,[i]” Fredrick Engels famously lamented. The Crusades depleted Europe of its men, resources and energies and retarded its progress. Given the more advanced conditions prevailing in the Islamic lands of that time, Christian Europe would have fared better if it sent not armies of warriors but armies of scholars and traders to the Middle East.

An even worse disorder resulted from the Thirty Years’ War, a brutal conflict which pitted Christian against Christian and devastated most of Germany and parts of Central Europe. It involved all European powers and is believed to have caused the death of 4 to 11 million people, either directly or indirectly (through famine and disease). An estimated 20% of the population of German states perished. The only positive consequence of this inane conflict was the diminishing of religious influence in European politics and society.

In parts of North Africa and the Middle East, a somewhat analogous process is underway currently. Religion in general and the Sunni-Shia divide within Islam in particular constitute a decisive factor in the wars currently devastating the region, from Yemen to Syria. If the trajectory of the Thirty Years’ War is anything to go by, the violence and the devastation will not stop until the zeal of zealots is burnt out. And that would take a while. Hopefully, the region will someday emerge from the wars, a little less inclined to kill and die in the name of a creed.

The times are characterised by growing disorder, the kind which retards progress, which forces humans to abandon their gains and retreat into the past, chasing lost paradises. Socialism has failed, Capitalism cannot deliver, and the resulting vacuum is being filled by tribal and religious ‘solutions’. When the incoming president of the waning empire expresses a terrifying willingness to risk a confrontation with the rising empire to prove a point, when in a new reality show which permits murder and rape is about to premiere in Russia, once the locus of the socialist dream, when Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, a living monument to the march towards civilisation is being torn apart by a power-hungry despot and a religiously-insane ‘Caliph’, when climate change is fast reaching the point of no return, it is hard to be hopeful[ii].

Countries need heroes, though only for a time. But the world would always need resistance, this side of an earthly paradise, and never more so when zealots drunk on divine words promise to usher in earthly paradises, founded on the corpses and watered by the blood of ‘unbelievers’. This world needs the unheroic-heroism of a Sisyphus, who neither kills nor dies, but endures, never letting go of the rock, like the White Helmets in Aleppo to the ordinary men and women, braving military beatings and sub-zero temperatures to protest the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock. They may not change the world, but they save lives and improve human condition.

Had Fulgencio Batista not pulled his second coup, Fidel Castro could have been such an ordinary, unheroic-hero.

Imperfect Choices

In 1952, Cubans had been preparing for a normal election to select their next president and their next congress. What they got was a military coup. Fulgencio Batista had come to power the first time in 1933, via the Revolt of the Sergeants. His first rule had been relatively benign. He had retired, lived for years in the US, returned to contest the presidency in 1952 and pulled the coup when faced with defeat. Election was cancelled, constitution suspended and Cuba’s transformation from a flawed democracy into an autocracy, a fief of American business and American mafia, commenced.

At the time of Batista’s second coup, Fidel, a young lawyer, was on the threshold of a career as an electoral politician, contesting a congressional seat from the Orthodox Party. Had Batista not pulled his coup, had Cuba remained a land where people could change their rulers through the ballot box, there would have been no Moncada, no Granma landing, no Fidel-Che-Raul-Camilo revolution.

In History Will Absolve Me, the speech he gave in his own defence at the Moncada trial, Fidel narrated the events which propelled him to launch an armed attack on a military garrison. “Once upon a time there was a Republic. It had its Constitution, its laws, its freedoms, a President, a Congress and Courts of Law. Everyone could assemble, associate, speak and write with complete freedom. The people were not satisfied with the government officials at that time, but they had the power to elect new officials and only a few days remained before they would do so…. Poor country! One morning the citizens woke up dismayed; under the cover of night, while the people slept, the ghosts of the past had conspired and had seized the citizenry by its hands, its feet, and its neck…a man named Fulgencio Batista had just perpetrated the appalling crime that no one had expected.”

Life in the shadow of any empire is hard. Empires begin by preying on their neighbours. This is true from democratic Athens and autocratic Persia in Antiquity to democratic United States in the previous century and autocratic China today. In 2016, and after eight years of Obama Presidency, it is hard to remember how often democratically-elected governments suffered bloody military overthrow in Latin America, because the new empire preferred uniformed despots to be in charge of its backyard, leaders who were free from the demands of democracy and didn’t have to concern themselves about popular opinion.

So the Empire, while practicing democracy at home, turned its backyard into a bastion against democracy, unhappy lands which demanded heroes. The overthrow of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 was a turning point in the transformation of Ernesto Guevara into Che. By the time the Cuban Revolution succeeded, the choice in Latin America was not between democracy and its opposite, but between various types of non-democratic dispensations. The fate of Salvadore Allende’s Chile proved beyond any doubt that even in the 1970’s democracy had no chance of survival in Latin America, when an American backed coup forced the country’s democratically elected – and elderly – president to defend his mandate with a gun in his hand, in a presidential palace surrounded by tanks and attacked by planes.

Commenting on Fidel’s death, President Barak Obama said that “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and the world around him.” Any judgement by posterity will be imbalanced if it takes no account of the time and place in which Fidel made and defended his revolution – 90 miles away from a United States which was at the height of its military power and interventionist will, a country still invincible and yet to experience the humiliation of Vietnam. That geography and that history played a critical role in deciding Fidel’s choices and Cuba’s trajectory. Had Fidel been in Nelson Mandela’s geographic position and in his time, what choices would he have made? Had the roles been reversed, what would Mandela have done? Both questions would remain unanswered and unanswerable.

What is knowable is what happened. In his Moncada speech, Fidel had mentioned several goals animating his political involvement. “The problem of the land, the problem of industrialization, the problem of housing, the problem of unemployment, the problem of education and the problem of the people’s health: these are the six problems we would take immediate steps to solve, along with restoration of civil liberties and political democracy.” Restoring civil liberties and political democracy remained broken promises, but in some areas such as education and health, Fidel’s success was spectacular, not only in that region or for that time. Those singular achievements draw praise even now, even in places where there’s little sympathy for the Cuban Revolution or little liking for Fidel.

Soviet money helped in enabling Cuba to attain record levels of literacy and a world-class health system, but the critical factor was political will, Fidel’s will. In general, leaders, including democratic ones, are likely to misuse or steal generous handouts by international patrons. Even loans which have to be paid back are squandered. Fidel ensured that some of the Soviet money was used to ensure for his people a living standard higher than anything they’ve experienced in the past, and for a time better than what obtained in many Latin American lands.

Fidel’s nemesis was a United States which wanted an ossified Cuba, ossified the way it was under the second Batista regime. His response in part mirrored this challenge; he attempted to ossify Cuba, the way it was when the Soviet Union was intact and really existing socialism was believed to be a realistic possibility. But change cannot be stopped, and this was perhaps what Fidel meant when he said, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore”[iii].

Worse Times

The ancient Chinese musical treatise identifies five calamities which can result from disharmony: disorganisation, when the Prince is arrogant, deviation, when officials are corrupt, anxiety when people are unhappy, complaint when public services are too onerous, danger when resources are lacking. The Cuba Fidel inherited suffered from many of these calamities, and he changed things for better. The dividing line between utopia and dystopia is a very thin one, and often its crossing can be seen only after the fact, when it is too late, politically and psychologically to turn back. Cuban revolution disappointed many of its followers, but it never degenerated into a North Korea. For that Fidel deserves credit. He personified the revolution, but wouldn’t allow the development of a personality cult.

Che didn’t want to rule. By going away from Cuba to die in Bolivia, he managed to prevent his aura and his image to be diminished by the inexorable march of history. Fidel stayed back and ruled. When he died, at the age of 90, there was sadness, but nothing like the grief that would have exploded had he too died young, a hero felled by the empire. But then had Fidel died young, the revolution would have died with him, replaced not by a democratic Cuba, but the Cuban version of Pinochet’s Chile.

In 2010, Fidel had asked Jeffery Goldberg, the editor of Atlantic, to visit Cuba to discuss the Iranian nuclear crisis, and to warn all parties of the need to act with caution to prevent a confrontation. Goldberg asked Fidel about the rather different stance he took during the Cuban Missile Crisis. “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth at all,”[iv] was reportedly Fidel’s reply. His final forays into international affairs were aimed at making peace. He urged caution on the trigger-happy North Korean leader and helped end the longest violent conflict in Latin America. Fidel and Hugo Chavez were the initial facilitators of the Columbian peace process, playing a behind-the-scenes role in getting the two sides to talk to each other.

If Fidel began his long political career in a time of global hope, he ended it in a time of global despair. In his final speech to the Cuban Communist Party in April 2016, Fidel Castro warned that humanity, like dinosaurs, can be wiped off the face of earth, either through a nuclear confrontation or through climate change. If in his youth, Fidel was a Promethean hero, in his old age he was more like Sisyphus. He acknowledged the crushing truths (at least some of the time) but still bore his rock. That attitude and spirit fit these times, the times in which he died, the times we must live in.

[i] Letter to Franz Mehring – July 14th, 1893

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/dec/15/russian-reality-tv-show-allow-rape-murder-game2-winter


[iv][iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/11/fidel-castro-obituary/508805/


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Latest comments

  • 4

    At last Thisaranee has written something without the word ‘Rajapaksha’.


    • 2

      Isn’t it about time that people like you stopped using CT to inflict your idiocies on us?

      • 1

        Surely you are not calling for press censorship Emil?

      • 0

        Emil van der Poorten

        Mr. Pooten, you look really upset.

    • 2

      A Thisaranee Article without Rajapakse is like a hotel without dhal curry.

      Soma, thanks for that comment. Now I can use my time for something useful rather than this article.

  • 11

    I thought Tisaranee usually did her research. Disappointing that here she has spouted on, idolizing a despot of the very worst of the nature she usually claims to despise.

    While his modish Western admirers liked to call him ‘Fidel’, the despotic President Castro’s frightened subjects dared not speak his name. They feared they would be overheard by ever-present secret police spies who made East Germany’s Stasi look like amateurs.

    Why are left-wing dictators always treated with more reverential respect when they die than right-wing ones, even on the Right? The deaths of dictators like Franco, Pinochet, Somoza are rightly noted with their history of human rights abuses front and centre, but the same treatment is not meted out to left-wing dictators who were just as monstrously cruel to people who opposed their regimes.

    The death of Fidel Castro is a perfect case in point. BBC News described him as ‘one of the world’s longest-serving and most iconic leaders’ only mentioning in the fourth paragraph that ‘Critics saw him as a dictator’. Critics?! What other objective noun is there for a man who held no free nor fair elections for half a century, imprisoned his political opponents after trials presided over by crony judges, completely controlled all the national media and installed his brother as his successor?

    The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation documented more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions of government opponents and activists during the year. Despite that, the Guardian announced that ‘The revolutionary icon, one of the world’s best-known and most controversial leaders, survived countless US assassination attempts and premature obituaries, but in the end proved mortal.’ In its 11th paragraph it mentioned ‘concerns over human rights under the Castro regime,’ but only insofar as they were mentioned by Francois Hollande rather than the paper itself. Any reader would have been forgiven for thinking that Castro was ‘controversial’ not for his vicious dictatorship and use of torture but simply because the CIA didn’t like his Marxism-Leninism.

    The Telegraph, disgracefully for a conservative newspaper, also headlined their obituary ‘Revolutionary hero’ and stated ‘At home, he swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among Cuban exiles in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.’ That implies that the Cubans living in Cuba itself loved him for his healthcare and educational reforms rather than secretly hating him for keeping their island living in the 1960s.

    When I visited Cuba last year, I saw how everywhere outside Havana was stuck in an earlier technological generation, with donkeys and carts carrying people to work rather than buses, and oxen being used agriculturally instead of tractors. Doctors earned more moonlighting as tourist guides in their much-vaunted health system.

    Amnesty International – which the Guardian would take note of when describing a fascist dictatorship – stated in its 2015/16 Report on Cuba that despite all the efforts by President Obama to normalise relations with the Castro regimes, ‘Government critics continued to experience harassment, “acts of repudiation” (demonstrations led by government supporters with participation of state security officials), and politically motivated criminal prosecutions. Reports continued of government critics, including journalists and human rights activists, being routinely subjected to arbitrary arrests and short-term detention for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly and movement.’

    Fidel Castro was a foul tyrant and his brother Raul is no better. Free Western media outlets ought to have said so right at the top of their news reports, instead of admitting it towards the end like some uncomfortable detail. Tisaranee has gone even further, by ignoring it altogether.

    • 10

      Dear Bagehot,
      I think you would do well to acknowledge that most of your contribution is lifted from an article by Andrew Roberts in the Spectator.
      I know you can do better.

    • 2

      Shame on you Bagehot, for your blatant plagiarism.

    • 2

      A rather poor effort at “intellectualizing” the defence of the Pinochets, Somozas et al of US “outreach.”
      Better grammar does not, in and of itself, make for a pretense at objectivity or truth, unfortunately.

    • 3

      Whato HotBag! Bad news I’m afraid. Andrew Roberts, Political commentator at the Spectator has stolen your review and used it himself. I’d sue if I were you.


  • 9

    Sadly Tisaranee is getting too involved in personalities.
    The Che who is celebrated is a romantic figure. His selflessness and internal spirit are exemplary and unmatched. But what Cuba needed much more than charismatic heroes of his calibre.
    Cuba needed leadership to ensure survival as a state and as a people against a neighboring monster. Castro played that role well, not as an individual but as a captain of a strong team of dedicated activists. The Cuban people love not just him but what he symbolized.

    What the Cuba state achieved for its people under communist leadership will put the richest of states to shame in every respect– ranging from racial equality and harmony to public health, education, natural disaster management and social welfare, despite attempts to choke it by a global conspiracy led by the US from its day of liberation to even after establishment of diplomatic ties recently.

    Castro was very great as a person, but that is not what matters.
    What should be celebrated most is Cuba, the anti-imperialist phenomenon.

  • 4

    Thank god we have a Tissaranee. An illuminating piece. Actors and causes determine history. Castro came to power at a time when the US Mob owned Havana. Sam Giancana the Chicago mobster owned the largest Casino in Havana and shared a mistress with John Kennedy. Yes. Sisyphus. Sugar was its mainstay in 1956. So it is in 2016.

    • 4

      Castro came to power when the US pulled the funding away from Batista, and Castro’s bungling band of merry rebels was able to fill the void Batista’s fleeing left with ridiculous show trials and puncturing the genitals of their opponents!

      Answer me one simple question: If Castro’s Cuba was so great, then why did so many hundreds of thousands risk everything to flee the country in boats made of garbage?

      • 3

        Interesting point Hagebot. Where did you get this from, Readers Digest?

    • 0

      sarath de alwis

      “Sam Giancana the Chicago mobster owned the largest Casino in Havana and shared a mistress with John Kennedy. Yes. Sisyphus.”

      Wasn’t she Judith Exner?

  • 5

    If one person can hold on to power more than 50 years with one party system, doesn’t
    matter wether that country is the best country in the world or not, it is not a country
    that I want to live in. Millions of Cubans have fled Cuba, most of them dangerously
    risking thire lives seeking freedom and better living standards. I don’t believe Cuba
    would continue to follow Fidel’s model of governance much longer. Democracy
    is the only way out regardless of it’s shortcomings.

  • 4

    This is not the first, or last, and certainly not the definitive work on Fidel. This is a TG take, and time well spent reading.

    Fidel and the revolution he led will be studied and examined for years to come. Long after his people, and their country, have moved on.

    I visited Cuba many times, and travelled its length. A delightful, unspoilt country, whose people remain sanguine in the face of their lot. I have never felt safer anywhere in the world, even on the occasions when my wife and I walked back to our hotel at 3am in the morning after a delightful evening at the local casa de la musica. (Cubans do love their music!) British nurses who have been in Cuban hospitals tell me that the staff are well trained and capable but they lack up-to-date equipment, The young are certainly well educated, and well motivated. But for what? Opportunities are few and far between, and TG is right when she says many earn more servicing tourists than they do doing what they trained for.

    I didn’t know what to think when on a visit to the ‘Supermercado of the Americas’ they proudly showed off a selection of bog-standard stationery that had just arrived from China. Even worse was the measured piece of toilet paper that was handed out to those using the toilets a stone-throw from the memorial to Che. The commuting of working people in glorified cattle trucks was another indicator that all was rosy in that sun kissed land.

    But in Fidel’s time, Cuba has avoided all the ills that have been visited on South America. When change comes, as it surely will, one can only hope that the country emerges free of those pitfalls, for this is a land full of opportunity from which much good can be expected.

  • 2

    “for this is a land full of opportunity from which much good can be expected.” True.

    Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is a land full of opportunity from which no good can be expected.

    Many did flee Cuba for better pastures in the US. Many did flee Sri Lanka for even poorer pastures in India, due to the terror unleashed by the Sinhala majority.

    Viva Cuba.

    Sri Lanka is the absolute opposite to all the good that Cuba stood for.

  • 0

    Fidel did some good. Fidel did some bad.

    He was no saint. No man is. After all he was human. Very human.

    The fault is not with Fidel, but with most who write about him.

    For few acts of defiance – wont call them heroism – mostly by others, one “visible”/prominent figure becomes the centre of focus. Thereafter the half-myth is propelled by how dominant the character is, in relation to the mediocre-rest.

    Mao, Stalin, Sadam, Gaddafi, Mahinda, …………… The Donald?

    The greatest sacrifices are not made by the central figures. But end up getting all the accolades. The world is what it is.

    Few acts of defiance/”bravery” cannot define a man in his normal day to day life. In the end all return to the “human-condition.”

    Can the “acts” be separated from the man and be looked-at in isolation?

    It’s futile to deify a man for a few “acts” – disregarding the villainy naturally inherent in his “humanness.”

    A savior’s a nuisance to live with at home
    Stars often fall, heroes go unsung
    And martyrs most certainly die too young

    And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
    He’s getting ready for the show
    He’s going to the carnival tonight

  • 0

    UNP Thisaranee is writing about fidel Castro.

    Writers are always writing their view and not the truth.

    What would be the fate of Fidel Castro, at the peak of the Cold war, without the help of USSR and KGB ?

    Writers ride only the wave. They don’t write the absolute truth.

  • 1

    There is an article in the foreign press that “the Cuban government is cracking down on dissidents”. Whichever way we look at it, life for the average Cuban has been hardship from the time of the Revolution.

    • 0


      Whichever way we look at it, life for the average Cuban has been hardship from the time of the Revolution.

      I think, the Life was easy for average cuban when you compare those lives with the life FIdel Castro. I think It is Dayan Jayathilake who wrote that Fidel Castro’s life was tried 640 times for assasination. They even blew up Planes in that area in the expectation of Castro there.

  • 2

    Ms. Gunasekara’s understanding of Sri Lankan politics may be sound, but on Castro she has succumbed to the left wing, liberal, progressive nonsense.

    Fidel Castro was a brutal dictator. His government was as bad as Hitler’s Germany. He was as bad as Stalin. He was as bad as Mahinda Rajapakse.

    Listen not to the Western liberal media for lies are all they have.

    • 3

      “Listen not to the Western liberal media for lies are all they have.”— Rizwan

      Would you recommend the Western neoliberal media then?

      • 0

        Humberto Fontova is the man the listen to on Cuba. His books are the authoritative books to read. There are videos of him on youtube where he discusses Cuba’s situation then and now.

  • 1

    Humberto Fontova, Cuban-American author, blogger, political commentator, and conservative polemicist. In his view “Che was actually a bloodthirsty executioner, a military bumbler, a coward, and a hypocrite.”

    If that is how HF views the world, good luck to you Rizwan.

    Many listen to only what they like to hear.

    • 0

      Humberto’s stuff is supported by hard concrete evidence. If you have a problem with the evidence then attack that, not me.

      It makes no difference to me personally whether Castro was a brutal dictator or not, but I do care about truth, and the truth is sometimes not what we want to hear.

      The Syrian conflict is a case in point. Listen to independent journalists Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley (see youtube) and the narrative presented by the Western liberal media is completely changed and proven (through hard questions and evidence) to be wrong.

      • 0

        “but I do care about truth, and the truth is sometimes not what we want to hear.”

        The truth is something that changes depending on who is looking for it, rather like quantum particles.
        Winston Churchill is a national hero to the Brits but a racist who is detested by Indians for causing famines.
        Gandhi had some rather odd sexual preferences.
        George Washington fought for for freedom from Britain but did not free his own slaves.
        Castro, Che, et al had good and bad sides. Let history judge.

    • 1

      I did not attack anyone, not even your dear Humberto who recklessly attacks Cuba and its leaders.

      This is still a free country, so believe what you like to believe.
      I only wish good luck to you if you really think that Humberto’s stuff like “Che was actually a bloodthirsty executioner, a military bumbler, a coward, and a hypocrite” is supported by hard concrete evidence.

      People also believed that Saddam H had WMD, based on “hard concrete evidence”.

  • 0


    “Socialism has failed, Capitalism cannot deliver…” I have much respect for your learned analysis. But here I beg to disagree. Capitalism or the Free market system is not entirely without flaws or neither is it a panacea for all the world’s ills. But it has proved in the past century and more it is the nearest to the best we can get with basic freedoms intact. Winston Churchill and Francis Fukuyama are right in their opinions expressed. The Scandinavian countries, Switzerland – and, even neighbouring Singapore – are examples the system can function nearly well allowing for minor flaws. The failure, in most cases, has been the personal greed of those in charge.


  • 0

    Ego and arrogance consumes men (women) who reach political heights starting as political liberators. Fidel was a classic example. After taking over he had no compunction in sending to jail, often followed by cruel torture, his own comrades in arms fighting with him to oust Batista. Some of them are still languishing in jail.

    His worst crime is collaborating with Khruschev to unleash nuclear bombs on the free and liberal society of a third of a billion Americans. To satisfy his personal anger, he was prepared to risk the entire destruction of the USA – that has helped people in every country of the world, including our own. He turned that lovely island into a vast prison camp. Why? Only because of a minor slight by Eisenhower. You will see his own people talk this same language in the months and years to come.

    Leslie Mostley

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