Buena Vista Socialist Club

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While
recovering from a recent operation, Dr Fidel Castro Ruz celebrated his
80th birthday on Sunday, 13 August. Some may admire the man’s tenacity
— noting in particular his ability to outwit countless assassination
attempts by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) — but there are many
in Washington and Miami who can’t wait until he inhales his last
breath.

In the early 1990s, journalist Andres Oppenheimer boldly predicted Castro’s imminent fall in a best selling biography Castro’s Final Hour;, while Georgie Anne Geyer, in her 1991 work Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro, described him as a ‘Third World Napoleon’, ‘truly the last communist’ and ‘a classic opportunistic son-of-a-bitch’.

With
the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Castro’s days seemed
numbered. In late 1993, the US State Department predicted that Cuba was
in ‘a prolonged, slow decline waiting for a catastrophe’. In August of
that year, the CIA stated that ‘tensions and uncertainties are so acute
that significant miscalculations by Castro, a deterioration of his
health, or plotting in the military could provoke regime-threatening
instability at virtually any time’ with ‘the risk of a bloodbath’ at
hand.

But
the 1990s progressed and Castro’s critics were proven wrong as the
great schism they eagerly anticipated did not take place.

Castro
has undoubtedly lived an interesting life. Born in 1926 into a wealthy
family, he excelled in many fields, eventually graduating in law from
the University of Havana. At university he joined the Orthodox Party
and became its leader in 1947. That same year Castro volunteered for an
armed expedition to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the
Dominican Republic.

In
1948, having travelled around various Latin American countries as a
student leader opposed to US interventionism, Castro was involved in a
mass uprising in Bogotá after Colombia’s leading Leftist presidential
candidate Jorge Gaitán was assassinated.

After the coup d’état that brought Fulgencio Batista to power in Cuba in March 1952, Castro began organising to overthrow the dictator.

Unlike
other leaders, Castro and his supporters were of the view that Cuba —
like many countries in the region — had always been swindled by the
United States. The island had simply swayed between dictators, liberal
politicians and the mafia, who kept Cuba safe for corporations such as
the US-owned United Fruit Company, while most of the population lived
in grinding poverty.

The
US’s 1902 Platt Amendment, which defined the terms of Cuban-US
relations until 1934, exemplified this. According to Philip Brenner,
director of the Interdisciplinary Council on Latin America at the
American University, not only did it grant ‘permission for future US
interventions’, it also ‘undermined the development of meaningful
domestic political institutions in Cuba that could broker compromises
among conflicting groups’.

‘A
ruling faction could readily summon US assistance to suppress its
opposition instead of trying to find a political accommodation’, says
Brenner.

The
Platt Amendment itself was unambiguous, stating that ‘the government of
Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to
intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence’. The Amendment
also ceded to Washington the Guantánamo Bay naval base.

The
events of 26 July, 1953 have become legendary. With a small rebel army
Castro attacked the Moncada barracks in the city of Santiago de Cuba
with the aim of sparking a general uprising. When the attack failed,
over 60 of Castro’s comrades were captured and executed or tortured to
death. Along with his younger brother Raúl, Castro narrowly escaped a
similar fate and was given a 15-year prison sentence.

Released
in 1955 due to huge public pressure, most mortals at this point would
have relished their luck and retired to write their memoirs. Instead,
Castro openly declared he would leave Cuba, raise an army and return to
overthrow Batista.

On
his return to Cuba from Mexico on 2 December 1956, his 82 men were
ambushed. Only 22 survived. But Castro regrouped his rebels and on 8
January, 1959 marched triumphantly into Havana alongside commanders Ché
Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. Defeating a US-backed thug in such a
fashion understandably bestowed many accolades on Castro.

There
is of course another side to the man that cannot be overlooked.
Supporters of the revolution have never done Cubans (or the ideas of
social justice) any favours by unquestioningly chanting Castro’s name
and not looking beyond the man’s enormous charisma — as real and
enchanting as it may be.

Although
many of Batista’s henchmen may have deserved their fate for the torture
and murder of thousands of Cubans pre-1959, the new regime displayed
poor treatment towards homosexuals in the 1960s and 70s, and to many
critical writers like Reinaldo Arenas.

Instead
of creating a coalition of political parties or experimenting with a
new system, by 1976 Castro had adopted the Soviet model with one Party
reigning supreme and el Comandante firmly at the helm — with his ‘yes men’ pandering to his idiosyncrasies, including those taxingly long public speeches.

Despite
these and other criticisms, the island’s leadership has its supporters:
most Cubans. Were it not for them, Castro would have exited stage left,
long ago.

In
March 1959 the US National Security Council met to discuss ‘regime
change’ and by May the CIA began supervising bombings and incendiary
raids on the island’s infrastructure by Cuban exiles, among other
tactics. By the late 1970s, these operations, which have never ceased
completely, were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Cuban
civilians — acts of terrorism by any measure and documented by
scholars.

Cuba
has also been subjected to a trade embargo which began before Castro
approached Moscow for economic support and declared himself a Marxist.
Writing in The Age in May 2003, Caroline Overington commented
that ‘Castro does not deny that Cuba is poor, and that the people are
suffering, but he has always blamed the US embargo’. While ‘many
Americans also blame the embargo’, Overington stated that ‘the flaw in
this argument is that Cuba is free to trade with any other nation on
Earth’.

However,
in 1970, the US Department of Commerce noted that the ‘continued denial
of Cuban access to US trade and financial markets has effectively
restricted the potential for trade and investment by other Western
countries’, as the ‘US embargo has been and continues to be not only a
major, but crucial impediment to Cuba’s efforts at diversifying and
expanding its hard currency trade, the key to improved economic growth
and living standards’.

In
1996, the US Helms-Burton Act reinforced the economic blockade further
by forcing corporations to choose between Cuba and the US. According to
a Cuban report to the United Nations last year, the blockade currently
costs the island US$1782 million per year. Between 1959 and 2005
sanctions cost Cuba US$82 billion.

Cubans
have undoubtedly paid a high price for supporting the rebels. And yet
the support continues, from defeating the Bay of Pigs invasion by
US-backed Cuban exiles in 1961 to the tens of thousands of Cubans who
fought against South Africa’s forces in Angola in the 1970s and 1980s.
The latter were praised by Nelson Mandela for contributing to the fall
of apartheid in his country. Today, thousands of Cuban doctors and
teachers work in miserable slums throughout the world. On the island
itself, the Government’s achievements in social programs have always
been apparent.

A
1970 study by the Twentieth Century Fund of New York into the
achievements by the Alliance for Progress (established under US
President John Kennedy) concluded that Cuba came ‘closer to some of the
Alliance’s objectives than most Alliance members’ while in ‘education
and health, no country in Latin America has carried out such ambitious
and nationally comprehensive programs’.

Most
Cubans are still guaranteed access to basic foods, health and
education, and while prostitution has returned in recent years, the
severe crime and chronic drug problems found in neighbouring countries
are unknown in the island.

Despite
these achievements, Cuba is still a Third World country and Castro has
always had limited options for the island’s development because he has
taken a strong stand against Cuba becoming part of the US’s ‘backyard’.
Whether he adopted the position of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz, who pursued a mild agrarian reform in the early 1950s, Chile’s Salvador Allende or that of the Nicaraguan Sandinista
leaders (they held two internationally ratified elections and did not
engage in the nationalisation of private capital on Castro’s advice), a
scant review of the relations between the United States and its
southern neighbours should suffice to highlight Washington’s
all-or-nothing mentality.

The Bush Administration recently established the ‘Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
with a fund of US$80 million (to be increased by US$20 million a year)
so as to introduce the ‘values and practices of democracy and free
enterprise’ once Castro is deceased. Obviously, Washington and the old
posse from Miami are gambling that there are a few million more dissenters
on the island than the mere dozens they can muster under the pay roll
of James Cason, head, until recently, of the US Interests Section in Havana.

Once
Castro is gone, even the slightest disturbances could serve as a
pretext for direct US intervention. Cubans may have to decide quickly
whether they want to reposition the system or dismantle it completely,
returning the island to the state of being a virtual colony, like
Haiti.

Asked
earlier this year, at a joint conference with Bolivian President Evo
Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, what he thought of his fellow
leaders, the bearded rebel from Havana chuckled, stating he was ‘the
happiest man in the world!’

As
many Latin American countries forge strong economic ties with each
other for the first time, and turn their backs on Washington’s
dictates, Castro at 80 has much to be joyous about.

New Matilda

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