What Died in Cuba with Fidel Castro’s Death?
From Santiago, Chile.
Fidel Castro has died. Alongside him, the last poster of the great 20th century revolutions has come down from the wall of history. I am not saying that I share the conservatives’ oneiric eagerness concerning the end of revolutions. They will keep on coming as long as — and here I am remembering Brecht — human hopes still exist when faced with blind alleys. I am also not ruling out violence as a way, because violence is exercised everyday, both physically and symbolically: a couple of times by the market, a few times by the State, and others by an infinite variety of daily latent dominations. That microphysics of power that seduces us.
But I do think that Fidel Castro symbolized a voluntarist and Jacobin revolutionary type of change, whose achievements have never been able to compensate for their immense human costs. He belonged to a century in which “heroes” captivated hearts by riding and being armed to the teeth — Pancho Villa, Trotsky, Mao, Giap, Guevara – and did not belong to this epoch in which icons — Mandela, Ghandi, Luther King, Malala, Mujica — seem more interested in modest and gradual but lasting changes. As if they were opting for those interstitial strategies that Olin Wright has been striving to signal as paths for the future. As if, being aware of it or not, they are wheeling out Gramsci’s adage: class, before being dominant, needs to be leading.
Although his panegyrists strive to show him as a thinker of contemporary Marxism, in reality he was never one. Marxism, a Western intellectual product, was too emancipatory and libertarian for his own aims. He was, however, a consummate and effective ideologue who used Marxism as a pretext. But among his foundations there was never anything more than some of the techniques taken from its most authoritarian version: Leninism. From here, he stole the idea of the single party, the so-called democratic centralism and other dressings that facilitated a particularly profitable link with the Soviet bloc for more than two decades. From other sources he took their most important assets: from populist caudillismo, the manipulation of masses; from his Jesuit teachers, the art of enchanting interlocutors; from his university years, gangster-type methods to deal with enemies.
His legacy is practical. After half a century as the head of the Cuban State, Fidel Castro will be recognized as the architect of a project with a strong vocation for justice. The social programs he sponsored produced social mobility of unheard proportions in the country. And the consequent creation of a “human capital” that still today guarantees both the island’s economic takeoff and the success of its emigrants. In economic terms, his half-century rule was a disaster underpinned by external subsidies, which Cuban society dramatically paid when the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1990. He managed the economy as a rosary of expensive whims that began with that dehydrating Zafra of 10 million tons of sugar in 1970, but to his voluntarism one success is due: Cuba’s entry to a select club on state-of-the-art technology in the area of biotechnology and pharmaceutics.
Fidel Castro is indispensable when explaining global geopolitics during the second half of the 20th century. The revolution that he led forced the United States to see Latin America as something more than its backyard, and to reformulate its hemispheric relations framework. This certainly led to monstrosities such as the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 or the Cóndor Plan, but it also led to the Alliance for Progress and to some of the more advanced reformist projects, such as the symptomatically denominated Revolution in Liberty of the Chilean Christian Democrats. The emergence of all kind of alternative projects — from military nationalism to the so-called “socialisms of the 21st century” — are inexplicable without resorting in some way to Fidel Castro’s presence in continental politics. There is no need to explain his impact on Africa. But as it always happens in life, there are no univocal results, and it should be recognized that many international successes were achieved at the cost of large resources and human lives, sometimes destined for military epics that, in the name of world revolution, ended up giving power to corrupt and bloodthirsty dictators.
Believing that with Fidel Castro’s death Castroism ends — as I hear and read in the hemorrhage of opinions that are being poured in the shadow of the Comandante’s sarcophagus- is very wrong.
Castroism as a political project — a totalitarian system that controls all aspects of life and calls for the enthusiastic adherence of its subjects — has long ceased to exist, it was even being extinguished when Fidel Castro was at the command of the state. What his faded brother Raúl is doing is administrating the bourgeois conversion of the post revolutionary elite, and in particular of the high-ranked military commanders and inner-circle technocrats. It had been a while that Fidel Castro was a capricious and irascible old man who explained how to cook black beans, who barked against Obama, who suggested the moringa plant as the planetary environmental salvation, who talked about the past adventures of Neanderthals, among the many other ramblings peculiar to his senile loquacity. From his convalescent refuge, he never relinquished addressing a world that only he imagined as a listener, because the populist caudillos, the authentic, they never go into retirement.
On the other hand, if one speaks of Castroism as a political tradition, then not much is leaving with Fidel. Castroism did not originate the radical and authoritarian nationalist tradition of Cuban history, but it did consecrate it. It existed before — in larvae form or explicit — and it will continue to exist. This is the great challenge of Cuban society.
When in 1974, Chou En Lai was asked his opinion on the French Revolution, he said that it was too recent fact to give an opinion on. I think there are more reasons to do so about Fidel Castro. Nothing can exonerate him from his terrible responsibilities vis-à-vis Cuba’s lack of freedom and democracy, the division within society, and the massive expropriation of rights to those who emigrated, the irresponsible way he played with American hostility, and the economic disaster to which he led the Island to. All Cubans sacrificed something for his megalomania, and at least a couple of generations customized their own existence to the heat of his slogans, paying prices too high for a lifetime. But no judgment can omit a simple fact: he captivated the imagination of entire generations who benefited by a revolution that ended a long time ago, but that still survives as a political brand.
Raúl Castro, with a faltering voice because of the emotional moment and his chronic lack of charisma, announced Fidel’s great funerals. I imagine that his remains will be placed in the Plaza of the Revolucion, and that Cubans will march before them. Some of them voluntarily and others “mobilized” by all the paraphernalia of organizations that frame Cuban society, increasingly with more deficiencies.
The great Cuban writer Lichi Diego said that a defect of the Cubans was the reluctance to let the past pass. It is not a question of forgetting it, because to have it in mind is to avoid tripping on the same stone every day. But if you dodge it, that’s the best way to remember. May the Cuban society succeed in doing so and move towards a republican and democratic future that will not be able to ignore the historical burden of an intense and contradictory process that has marked national history in an inevitable way for those who inhabit this century that is already getting old.