By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Jan 1st marks the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution; 60 years of the revolutionary Cuba that we have known. The Cuban revolution was a pure revolution, the purest revolution we have seen. By pure I do not mean a revolution that was marked by purges and internal bloodletting in the name of a fanatical, fundamentalist revolutionary purity. By ‘pure’ I mean that the Cuban revolution was the most ethical revolution in the world.
It was a revolution that triumphed through a revolutionary guerrilla war and urban armed actions, but consciously and conspicuously avoided the targeting of civilians and even hitting targets at times and places where there would be civilian casualties.
It was a revolution that was conspicuous in its treatment of captives; of captive soldiers, who were almost always released by the Rebel Army. This went hand in hand with the execution of known torturers, murderers, and rapists. The Revolution, during its guerrilla war was both tough and scrupulous in its dispensation of justice.
It was a revolution that unlike all other revolutions “did not devour its own children” as Fidel remarked, in an allusion to the myth of Saturn which had devoured its own children. Even in its most radical phase in the 1960s, the Cuban revolution’s process of radicalization did not entail the ‘terror’ that had marked all revolutions since the French Revolution itself. The Cuban Revolution was Jacobin, even Bolshevik, without the Great Terror.
There were 600 attempts, mostly foreign inspired, to assassinate Fidel Castro. In any other country a mere fraction of that number of murder plots would have resulted in a savage crackdown, paranoia and self-isolation, but not so in the case of Cuba. Quite obviously none of the plots succeeded, but neither did Cuba become a sealed-off society.
For almost 60 years, since the Revolution was one year old, Cuba has been the victim of an economic embargo or blockade at the hands of the world’s sole superpower. And yet, Cuba has free healthcare and education, advanced medical research that has produced anti-cancer drugs, doctors who work in the poorest areas of the world, literacy programs that are in use even in New Zealand, vibrant art, admirable training in ballet and music and dance of all kinds, and soldiers who have volunteered to fight for just causes in many countries. Few countries have suffered the sustained economic adversity that Cuba has and almost none have been as self- sacrificial in the cause of people’s welfare, justice and liberation the world over, as has Cuba.
Though Cuba has fought wars and battles in many countries, and had four hundred thousand troops fighting on the African continent of which over three hundred thousand served in Angola for 12 years, never has Cuba been accused of war crimes or crimes against humanity, even by its enemies, rivals and detractors. This is because the humanistic ethics that the Cuban Revolution observed from the earliest days of the revolutionary war on its own soil was applied by its Revolutionary Armed Forces whenever it fought overseas as well.
Apart from its generosity and self-sacrifice, what is perhaps most admirable about Cuba is the excellence of its diplomacy. Since 1992, Cuba has moved a resolution against the economic embargo, in the UN General Assembly. As the Cuban Ambassador to Moscow confirmed, the late Prof Miguel Alfonso Martinez, with whom I was privileged to have had the warmest friendship, was one of the architects of the Cuban Resolution at the UN in 1992, which has always won with a huge majority that increases each year. In 2018, 189 countries voted in favor of the Cuban resolution with only two states, the USA and Israel, voting against!
The secret of Cuba’s diplomacy is a combination of an assertive foreign policy and a global diplomatic presence and participation; committed, indefatigable, knowledgeable and skillful, even masterly, diplomats; the cultivation of solidarity among the intelligentsia and the young throughout the world including in the United States; openness to the Western media and dynamic participation in and through that media; and finally, an easily defensible record of achievement and practice and the adoption of a stand on the basis of reasoned argument and values that are not culturally circumscribed and narcissistically self-referential but universally recognizable as progressive, humane and humanistic.
Cuba is a larger island than Sri Lanka but with a smaller population. It exists 90 miles from the mightiest military and economic power ever seen in world history; a power which has been ceaselessly hostile – barring a short exception in the closing stages of the previous Presidency—to revolutionary Cuba. Cuba survives because its adversary knows that any military action will be resisted by every adult Cuban and will cost more casualties than are tolerable by public opinion. It is also known that Cuba enjoys such prestige and attracts such sentiments internationally that there would be rebellion in parts of Latin America, and that throughout the world, most people, including many in the adversary’s society itself, would oppose such aggression, as would a majority of the world’s countries.
Perhaps the definitive evaluation summing up the quintessence of Cuba and why the whole world should stand up and applaud it should be left to Nelson Mandela:
“We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious, imperialist-orchestrated campaign,” Mandela told a rally at which he was Castro’s honored guest. “We, too, want to control our own destiny”… “The most important lesson that you have for us is that no matter what the odds, no matter what difficulties you have had to struggle under, there can be no surrender,” he added. “It is a case of freedom or death.” During his visit, Mandela…said the Cuban army’s resistance of invading South African forces in Angola during the 1970s and ’80s had strengthened the anti-apartheid cause and led indirectly to his freedom. “We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid regime these last 40 years,” he declared. “No honorable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.” (Richard Boudreaux, LA Times)
Michael Moore made a movie of the firemen who fought the flames on 9/11 and survived but could not afford the healthcare in the USA to treat the serious ailments they had contracted. They went over to Cuba and were treated free of charge and returned home, testifying on camera in Moore’s movie.
90 miles from the hostile superpower, and with a 60 year economic embargo, Cuba has built an alternative society; a society that is vibrant, expressive, generous and solidaristic. Cuba has shown that there is another way of being in the world – patriotic and internationalist, organically popular and noble.
When he arrived in triumph in Havana travelling across Cuba from the mountains 60 years ago, Fidel Castro addressed a huge crowd on January 2nd, and while he spoke, three white doves appeared in the sky, circled Fidel, and perched on his shoulder and the lectern. Then, as Prof Emeritus at the University of New Mexico, Nelson Valdes recounts, thirty years later, with socialism collapsing the Eastern Europe and about to do so in the USSR, while Fidel addressed another huge crowd in the same place and defiantly declared that Cuba would remain socialist and its revolutionary leaders would remain Communist (the brand new Cuban Constitutional draft embeds Communism as the “aspirational ideal”) a white dove landed again where Fidel was speaking! As Prof Valdes observes, on both occasions, the deeply religious (an Afro-Catholic syncretism) Cuban people were sure that they knew what the symbolism was. Whether intended or not, the Cuban ethos is (to my mind), the product of the fusion of revolutionary communism and a Christian formation. I would even go further and say that Cuba is the best example of a society which embodies truly Christian ethics and values; it is the living example of what an authentically Christian society would be like.
*The writer is author of Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, Pluto Press London 2007, distributed by the University of Chicago Press Books.