8 December, 2019

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Lessons From Fidel For 2017 & After

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

In a recent missive, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has offered some ‘Lessons from Fidel for the Lankan Left.’

Let us first unravel the term ‘left’. The ‘left’ comprehends ‘oppression’ and identifies the ‘privileged’. The ‘left’ also understands the nature of ‘power’. Demolishing power dynamics is the task of the ‘left.’

In these confused times, terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ are best defined in context. Who uses them? For what purpose? Where are they being used?

The playwright and sharp-witted history scholar Allen Bennett explains what contextualising does. “Putting something in context is a step towards saying it can be understood and that it can be explained. And if it can be explained then it can be explained away.”

The wave of idolizing, idealizing, derision and damning of Fidel Castro after his death, confirms what Frederic Nietzsche asserted with brevity. ‘There are no facts, only interpretations.’

Castro led a revolution that ousted a brutal Dictator. The American Mob owned Havana’s vice industry and American corporates owned the island’s Sugar industry. Castro with his revolution ousted Batista the overseer of plantations and pimp of the Cuban brothels.

Fidel commemoration in Sri Lanka | Photo via JVP Facebook

Fidel commemoration in Sri Lanka | Photo via JVP Facebook

In 1959, hardly three months in power, the new Prime Minister of Cuba, Fidel Castro addressed a group of students and faculty members of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

Castro told his audience that he was neither a theorist nor a historian or chronicler of revolutions. His knowledge on the subject of revolution was the sum total of his engagement with a revolution that took place in the island of Cuba in close proximity to the United States. He told his avid listeners – the left of center elite intellectuals gathered at Princeton that the Cuban revolution had debunked several myths propagated by the Latin American Right: that a revolution was impossible if the people were hungry, and that a revolution could never defeat a professional army equipped with modern weapons.

At Princeton, Castro remembered Batista the cruel overseer of plantations and degenerate pimp of Havana brothels. He saw himself as the product more in line with the American Revolution of 1776 than either the French Revolution of 1789 or the Russian revolution of 1917. The two later upheavals had been driven by “force” and “terror” wielded by minorities. The groups that took power in France and Russia “used force and terror to form a new terror.”

Hannah Ardent too had been in the audience. It was Arendt’s first year at Princeton, after she became Princeton’s first woman to be awarded a professorship. In her 1964 essay ‘Revolutions – Spurious and Genuine’ she wrote that the Cuban Revolution, “even though we don’t yet know the outcome” was most certainly a revolution.

In ‘Critique of Political Economy, Marx tells us “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness”.

That said we must agree that Cuba has spectacularly managed to maintain universal repute as an ‘alternative model of development with a ‘society that builds the welfare of its citizens on the twin pillars of health, and education, driven by the principle of equality’.

Rafael Rojas one of Cuba’s renowned scholars of Latin American History has described Castro’s encounter at Princeton in his 2016 book Fighting over Fidel – The New York Intellectuals and the Cuban Revolution.

Professor Rojas says that Fidel in his remarks in 1959 ‘situated his ideology well within the scope of a democratic American humanism shared by the United States and Latin America. The two regions, despite their cultural specificities, did not constitute “different people,” he assured his audience.

He had also assured his American audience that elections would soon be held in Cuba and political parties would also be allowed. However it was first necessary ‘to implement a social transformation in order to eradicate unemployment and illiteracy and to construct schools and hospitals.

The United States, Castro suggested, could assist in social development of Cuba by implementing friendly policies and by rejecting any fear of communism. An authentic social revolution on the island would make democracy a “real” process and ward off the communist danger. “I advise you not to worry about Communism in Cuba. When our goals are won, Communism will be dead.”

I am still reading the book that is focused more on left wing intellectuals affected, dejected and influenced by the Cuban revolution. I do not know at what point Fidel decided to turn from emancipator to Marxist Leninist dictator. Our Utopias are often shaped by events beyond our control. Early in the revolution Fidel was taken hostage by the hemispheric hegemony of the United States. In the bleak years of the cold war, he made his choice. After Gorbachev it was too late. The obstinacy of an old man was the lot of the Cuban people.

The struggle to understand Fidel Castro has not ended but his relevance has reached the end.

In fairness to Fidel Castro it has to be said that his authoritarian governance was not for personal aggrandizement. It was not to enrich himself, his family or his cronies. It was his simplicity that sustained a messianic charisma among his people. Towards the end, he may not have commanded the same admiration. It seems that his state apparatus retrained the same loyalty.

This writer shares the birthday 13th August with Fidel Castro. There is a compelling reason for this commentary. I spent my 20th birthday on 13th August 1962, watching from a window of a youth hostel in West Berlin, the communist regime erecting the wall overnight dividing Berlin the city of Rosa Luxembourg who told us the essence of socialist democracy. “Without general elections, without freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, without the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor.”

I watched parliamentarian Sunil Handunneththi – Chairman of COPE with an undoubtedly razor sharp mind romanticizing Fidel Castro’s achievements in health care and education for the people of Cuba on a TV program. [Derana 360º]. That triggered alarm bells.

The JVP – the alternative to the establishment needs to discover scientific socialism. Marxism is a science. Fidel Castro is a brand. The two should not be confused.

I am completely in agreement with Dr. Dayan Jayatileka on Castro brothers and Rajapaksa brothers. Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are the closest we have to Fidel and Raul Castro. I would even go further. Our duo are infinitely better than their Caribbean counterparts.

Fidel combined Latin machismo, Catholic dogma and Communist rhetoric with Raul as enforcer of regime discipline. Mahinda combined Sinhala machismo, Buddhist scripture and progressive rhetoric. Gota was master enforcer of regime discipline.

Fidel in the sixties, faced the same dilemma faced a decade later by our comrades Colvin and Doric with plantations. Castro opted to collectivize the sugar plantations. What is Fidel Castro’s legacy? Sugar was the sole source of economic sustenance of Cuba when he took over. At the time of his death Sugar remains the only source of economic sustenance of the land he liberated from his dictator predecessor.

The Afro Cubans remain time warped and trapped as their ancestors were in the ‘Sugar’ conundrum ‘wounded and shattered like the cane of the fields and like cane are ground and crushed to extract the juice of their labour’ with one difference. They have accesses to a doctor and all can read and write. Cuba still relies on Sugar and hopes to promote tourism.

Brother Raul will now make Havana a desirable city for tourists. He should invite Gota in as an expert. Give the devil his due. In 2013, Master Card listed Gota’s Colombo as the world’s 4th fastest growing tourist destination. As Alan Bennett would remind us, the job of the historian is to anticipate our perspective at some point after the event !

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Latest comments

  • 9
    3

    If anyone wants to read about or experience a loonie left, he is here! The author De Alwis has lost his marbles big time I am afraid! Only one thing that Castro did was to successfully standing up to the USA while keeping Cuba in a time capsule of 1950s. He deprived his citizens social and technological advancements while him enjoying high life! Of course He can be compared to the Rajapaksas in many respects! This author has masked many unsavory and gruesome acts of both within the word enforcement!

    • 4
      1

      The left is always left out in Sri Lanka.

      They are not fit for the purpose of Sri Lanka – a bunch of mad men and women.

      Look at the left today: Wimal, Gaman,Dinesh, Prof Tisse, Dew etc. They are true reflection of the failed left, unable engineer the right path.

      Within a decade they will be groaning Gembas.

      God bless them.

  • 6
    1

    “I am completely in agreement with Dr. Dayan Jayatileka on Castro brothers and Rajapaksa brothers. Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa are the closest we have to Fidel and Raul Castro. I would even go further. Our duo are infinitely better than their Caribbean counterparts”, says Sarath de Alwis.

    And he could well be right, although he hasn’t been specific with regard to “better”. At what????

    We know that Castro had a horrendous record as an abuser of Human Rights and was the classic dictator who didn’t believe in the Peoples’ right to vote. He curbed the freedom of any speech that disagreed with his views, jailed intellectuals and homosexuals and has been guilty of torture, jailing political opponents, forbidding the freedom of movement and a string of other abuses that could easily discovered through a simple Google ‘search’.

    As for the Brothers Rajapakse, as far as we are aware, they are streets ahead of Castro when it came to squandering the country’s coffers on grandiose projects that not only (they hoped) would perpetuate their names in the history of the country, but also guaranteed billions in their clandestine bank accounts.

    It is unlikely that the Rajapakse’s abuse of Human Rights could overshadow Castro’s, but that could well be due to their relatively short reign.

    In the end , however, Castro’s ‘legacy’ and place in the annals of his country’s history, far overshadow the ‘legacy(?)’ of the Brothers Rajapakse.

    • 2
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      Buster,
      You say: “He curbed the freedom of any speech that disagreed with his views, jailed intellectuals and homosexuals and has been guilty of torture, jailing political opponents, forbidding the freedom of movement and a string of other abuses that could easily discovered through a simple Google ‘search’. “
      We should be aware of the fact that practically everything we know about Castro or any other world figure comes through the filter of the Western media, the very same media that reported WMD’s in Iraq and horrible Russian crimes in Afghanistan.
      As to Google, just try “Winston Churchill” and you could get the impression that he was the hero of WW2. Dig a bit further, and it turns out that he caused the 1942 famine in Bengal, which killed literally millions of Indians.
      The very people who accuse Castro of brutality (which may well be true)
      practiced apartheid against their own black citizens well into the 60’s, do not forget.
      Whether a person is a hero or a villain depends on who is doing the asessment. NOBODY is perfectly black or white.

      • 5
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        Old Codger,

        Ok let’s accept your claim that the western media portrayed Castro as a villain. How do then explain the fact many risked their lives to escape? Keeping his citizens devoid of outside connections was a way of controlling don’t you think? How did Rhual enforced castro’s ideology? Was it through passive appealing? These loony left fellows DJ included are hypocrites and add no values to anybody. What such people are good at is to find ways to justify to themselves about their inner contradictions and absurdities!

        • 2
          1

          Burning Issue,
          ” How do then explain the fact many risked their lives to escape?”
          Yes , Castro’s daughter included.
          However, you could say that many more Sri Lankans than Cubans ran away from their country in the recent past. Probably for the same mixed reasons.
          “These loony left fellows DJ included are hypocrites “
          You are right there. Probably you are aware that the currently super-patriotic DJ was a Minister in the NE PC .

      • 4
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        old codger: You are right about “practically everything we know about Castro or any other world figure comes through the filter of the Western media”.

        However, that doesn’t negate the facts about Castro that are reported by Cubans who suffered under his regime, many of who actually lived to escape his horrors and report his excesses.

        And what about his not allowing elections, disallowing freedom of movement, clamping down on his citizen’s freedom of expression and many other abuses? All of these (according to your pathetically flimsy view) are lies perpetuated by the “Western Media???!!!

        Churchill is not the subject under discussion, nor are the other ‘examples’ you mention.

        And only a moron will deny that “NOBODY is perfect”, so no need to state the obvious!

        • 2
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          Buster,
          The point I am trying to make is that Castro was not as evil as the West claims(for obvious selfish reasons) or as holy as Dayan Jayatillaka says.
          “All of these (according to your pathetically flimsy view) are lies perpetuated by the “Western Media???!!!”
          Well, given what this Western media said about Saddam, Gaddafi, (and what it DOESN’T say about Saudi Arabia and Israel) I would expect you to have learnt from experience. I too used to read “Reader’s Digest” long ago to learn about things like democracy in Vietnam, but have grown up since.
          I brought Churchill in as an example of somebody who is a hero in one country (Britain) but a mass murderer in another (India).

  • 1
    1

    Sarath de Alwis remains perhaps the most lucid and literate critic of the Rajapaksas, and certainly one of our most lucid and literate commentators on politics. I must however demur with regard to Fidel’s ideology and ideological evolution. On his first post revolution visit to the US he certainly emphasized that part of his ideology which derived from or overlapped with the Jeffersonian heritage. However, as amply demonstrated by his copious post-Moncada prison correspondence with his comrades in the years 1953-1955, compiled and reproduced in the volume “The Fertile Prison” (ed. Mario Mencia), Fidel was already a literate Marxist-Leninist who was debating historical materialism in sophisticated terms. Raul was already a member of the Communist movement. Che who signed on in Mexico in 1955 was explicitly a Marxist. The only difference between Fidel and Che was that the former quite consciously refrained from fully declaring his ideology and program during the revolution, but did so in April 1961. Fidel himself has repeatedly said that he was already a convinced and committed Marxist in the early-mid 1950s. I must also add that if one dispenses with the ironic-sardonic aspect of Sarath de Alwis’ comment and takes it as face value, I would certainly NOT agree that “our duo are infinitely better than their Caribbean counterparts”. That is culturally, civilizationally, historically, ideologically and intellectually an impossibility.

  • 5
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    Mr Sarath de Alwis,

    This is where I have to disagree with you.

    What a load of hogwash!

    Left or Right, humans who rise to the top and trample societies under their jackboots to entrench themselves and their families for decades, understand, not some cockamamie pie in the sky ideology, but human-nature.

    That’s why all learned “men of letters” end up as foot-servants to brutes. In spite of the use of “ideological dogma” for shame-washing, people instinctively understand “force” and fall in line for self-preservation.

    Look around, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Kim Il Jong, Hitler, Mussolini, Sadam, Gaddfi, Mahinda, Ranil ? :) ……………. Were they driven by a benevolent “ideology” or self-interest?

    “Fidel combined Latin machismo, Catholic dogma and Communist rhetoric with Raul as enforcer of regime discipline. Mahinda combined Sinhala machismo, Buddhist scripture and progressive rhetoric. Gota was master enforcer of regime discipline.”

    Ha ha ha …. You are trying to fit the real-world into a romanticised vision in your head. A classic mistake of “writers!”

    When there is so much better talent in the land, no one who had any love for the country would try to impose Namal as the country’s ruler. You don’t need ideology, “education,” wordy-hoopla, …… to figure out if the Rajapakses “loved” the country or themselves; simple common-sense would do.

    “Brother Raul will now make Havana a desirable city for tourists. He should invite Gota in as an expert. Give the devil his due. In 2013, Master Card listed Gota’s Colombo as the world’s 4th fastest growing tourist destination.”

    Another “trying to fit reality into a vision in the head.” Tourists didn’t come to SL for the “beauty of Colombo.” Just go to Galle and the South and see.

    Countries that are “free” and you and I want to live in – not countries with some romanticised distant utopian vision – have one common characteristic – high turnover of leaders; not entrenched families for generations.

    Australia has elections every 3 years and voting is compulsory.

    America has entrenched “ruling-families” and the results are plain to see.

    Truth be told, the best “democracies” going right now are Canada, Australia and New Zealand, for one reason that none of you learned gents will ever see, or your “learning” will allow you to acknowledge because it’s so simple. The heads of their governments are not the Prime Ministers but the Queen and that keeps the feet of their leaders firmly on the ground.

    • 3
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      Mr Sarath de Alwis,

      To add to what I wrote and about human-nature – how impressions/perceptions/visuals play a major part in all this.

      If Fidel was 5 feet tall, not many people will be writing what they are writing about him today!

      Crazy, but true!!!

      The world is what it is.

      • 3
        0

        nimal fernando

        “If Fidel was 5 feet tall, not many people will be writing what they are writing about him today!”

        Are you of the opinion that if the warmonger Dayan is clean shaven not many will spent their precious time ridiculing him?

        • 0
          0

          Native,

          “spent their precious time ridiculing him?”

          Unlike for Fidel, no one has written long tomes in praise of Dayan. Don’t tell me you are about to start!

          Strangely enough, ridiculing is very different from praising.

          Most times, ridiculing is based on truth. For most people who engage in praising it’s a form of self-deception.

          It’s like falling in love. You pick some gal and put her on a pedestal and give her qualities she never had – or even want to have! But there’s a nice feel to it, until it lasts.

          Self-deception is a major component of “happiness.”

          Give the people what they want and make them happy.

          Happiness is the key.

          • 1
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            nimal fernando

            “Happiness is the key.”

            Happiness is just a thing called Cuban Cigar.

  • 1
    0

    Dr.D.J.
    “History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” Marx and Engels – ‘Holy Family’.
    Fidel described 1917 as a process of force and terror wielded by a minority.
    Jefferson was a slave owner.
    “That is culturally, civilizationally, historically, ideologically and intellectually an impossibility.” My apologies.

  • 0
    0

    Mr.Nimal Fernando
    “The heads of their governments are not the Prime Ministers but the Queen and that keeps the feet of their leaders firmly on the ground.” Indeed. Dear Betty keeps them on ground.
    In Canada, Australia and New Zealand! Red Indians, Aborigines and Maoris celebrate democracy.

    • 2
      0

      Mr Sarath de Alwis,

      “In Canada, Australia and New Zealand! Red Indians, Aborigines and Maoris celebrate democracy.”

      I thought you would bring this up.

      True, I didn’t mean democracy for the “natives.” The “democracies” in those countries were not “established” for the indigenous population but for the White immigrants. And with time some privileges enjoyed by the Whites have “expanded” to the “natives.” Whites treated their own kind very well. Isn’t that a good start? Is there a lesson for us here?

      The countries that are judged “bad democracies” are deemed such not because of how they treat “fringe-dwellers,” but how they treat their own kind.

      The complaints against all SL “Sinhalese” governments down the decades by the “Sinhalese” are not because how they treated the minorities! But how the “Sinhalese” governments treated the “Sinhalese.”

  • 1
    0

    Sarath you say, “Give the devil his due. In 2013, Master Card listed Gota’s Colombo as the world’s 4th fastest growing tourist destination.”

    I’m skeptical that the tourists were so enamored with “Gota’s(?) Colombo” that they flocked to visit. They were probably attracted by the fact that the war was over and that they would not experience terrorist actions. In any event, it is doubtful that they hung around in Colombo and much more likely that they came to enjoy the other attractions we have to offer – sans threats to their lives.

    And as far as giving the devil his due, let’s not forget that although the cosmetic improvement of Colombo could be applauded, his shortsighted planning has resulted in the filling of catchment areas in and around Colombo, that now causes minor floods with every shower. And that should NOT be applauded, but rather, condemned!

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