The Guilty Pleasure of Fidel Castro

There’s been predictably little interesting discussion in the United States of Fidel Castro’s retirement as Cuba’s commandante en jefe, maximo etc. That’s because in the U.S. political mainstream, Cuba policy has for a generation been grotesquely disfigured by a collective kow-towing — yes, collective, it was that craven Mr. Clinton who signed into law the Draconian Helms-Burton act that made it infinitely more difficult for any U.S. president to actually lift the embargo, and the equally craven Mrs. Clinton appears to pandering to the same crowd — to the Cuban-American Ahmed Chalabi figures of Miami, still fantasizing about a day when they’ll regain their plantations and poor people of color will once again know their place. But let’s not for a moment forget the mirror-image of that view so common on the left, where Castro’s patent fear of his own people and reluctance to trust them to debate ideas and options (much less hold competitive elections that, in all probability, he’d have easily won) is strenuously rationalized on the basis of the CIA’s repeated efforts to kill him. (Sure, they repeatedly tried to kill Castro, and Washington might like to manipulate Cuba’s politics given half a chance, but those are not sound reasons to imprison economists or avoid discussing policy options even within the Communist Party.)

What fascinates me, however, is the guilty pleasure with which so many millions of people around the world revere Fidel Castro — revere him, but wouldn’t dream of emulating his approach to economics or governance. People, in other words, who would not be comfortable actually living in Castro’s Cuba, much as they like the idea of him sticking it the arrogant yanqui, his physical and political survival a sure sign that Washington’s awesome power has limits — and can therefore be challenged.

Nelson Mandela is a perfect example of the guilty pleasure phenomenon: A dyed-in-the-wool democrat with an exaggerated fondness for British institutions, Mandela is nonetheless a warm friend and admirer of the Cuban leader. The same would be true for almost all of the current generation of ANC leaders in South Africa, not only those who jump and prance while singing about machine guns, but also those with impeccable credentials in Washington and on Wall Street. When the guests were being welcomed at Nelson Mandela’s presidential inauguration in 1994, the announcement of Hillary Clinton’s presence, representing her husband’s administration, elicited polite applause. When Fidel Castro was announced, the assembled political class of the new order went into raptures of ecstasy. Sure, Fidel had earned their loyalty not only by being a firm supporter of the ANC when Washington wasn’t interested, but more importantly, by sending his own men to fight and die on African soil to defend Angolan independence from the machinations of the U.S. and the apartheid regime, and their Angolan proxies. But equally important was what Fidel represented to the global south — not a model of governance and economic management (after all, the very ANC leaders who cheered him to the heavens were embarked upon a diametrically different political and economic path to Castro’s — whose revolution, by the way, looked as if it was on its last legs in 1994, having lost the massive Soviet subsidy that had enabled a quality of life for poor people unrivaled in the developing world). No, what Fidel represented to South Africa’s new leaders was a symbol of independence, of casting off colonial and neo-colonial overlords and defending your sovereignty, against Quixotic odds, from an arrogant power.

Take a survey among today’s Latin American leaders on Fidel Castro, and he’ll get a huge popularity rating. For the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, he has, rather unfortunately, been a role model in every sense; for the more sober and pragmatic social democrats of the Lula-Bachelet-Kirschner variety, Fidel nonetheless represents an inspiration that opened the way for their generation to cut their own path and stand up to the U.S.-backed dictators that imprisoned and tortured their ilk. In Latin America, Castro personifies nothing as much as defiance of the Monroe Doctrine, by which the U.S. had defined the continent as its backyard, reserving the right to veto, by force, anything it didn’t like. Get a Mexican conservative politician drunk in a discreet setting, and you’ll probably discover a closet Castro fan.

Castro appeals not only to socialists, but to nationalists everywhere. And, of course, the Cuban leader himself was a radical nationalist, rather than a communist, when he seized power in 1959, and the U.S. response to his moves to nationalize the sugar industry were part of what drove him to make common cause with the Soviets.

At the same time, of course, it is not simply nationalism, but his revolution’s social achievements, that account for his popularity at home. Back in 2000, when the Miami Chalabis were desperately trying to prevent the traumatized Elian Gonzales from being reunited with his father, they insisted that any Cuban given the choice would flee to the United States, and that Elian’s father was being coerced. Nonsense, said the CIA — actually, more than 90% of the population would rather stay on the island. And the regime could count on the support of the majority of them should it come under external attack. (It was also a relatively safe bet that were multiparty elections to be held, Castro’s party would have won.)

And it’s not hard to see why. Visiting Cuba in 1994, I had been all geared up to write the sort of cynical ex-leftie P.J. O’Rourke-style political epitaph, but what I discovered — even at the height of the Special Period, when the sudden disappearance of the Soviet subsidy that had given Havana more than $800 a year for every Cuban had left them literally starving — was something far more nuanced and challenging. Typical of the experience was a young curator at an art museum, who I shall call simply Antonio. The twentysomething Afro-Cuban had a master’s degree in art history, and loved his work with a passion. But the rest of his life was hell: His breakfast consisted of a couple of glasses of water sweetened with sugar. That was all. He worked all day without lunch. And then, at night, in his darkened apartment (Havana was constantly in darkness due to power cuts), he’d consume his meal of the day — a plate of rice and beans. And then sleep, for there was nothing else to do.

That Antonio was frustrated and deepy depressed was beyond question. Did he want things to change in Cuba? Very much so, he wanted more openness, more discussion of ways out of the destitution that seemed to be staring Cuba in the face. But despite his despair, he remained intensely loyal to Castro and his revolution.

Why? Antonio’s parents had been cane-cutters on a plantation before the revolution. Not only his grandparents, but his parents. Descendants of African slaves, they weren’t that much better off. But here, 55 years later, Antonio’s brother was an electrical engineer with a master’s degree and a good job, and his sister was a science lecturer at a university in Havana. Antonio’s parents were cane-cutters; their children were university educated intellectuals. And they hadn’t won a lottery — their social mobility had been enabled by Cuba’s social system, the education and health and other programs designed to lift up the impoverished majority had transformed their life possibilities within a generation. Antonio understood all too well what his life would have been had the revolution not triumphed in 1959. And he was sticking by it, no matter how bad things got.

With a few exceptions, most of the people I encountered represented a similar ambiguity. Many people were angry and frustrated by Castro’s stubborness — the former seminarian man had an almost theological attachment to a bankrupt economic model. But they weren’t about to turn their backs on the whole social system he’d created. And then there was the race question, which was never formally acknowledged either in pre-revolutionary Cuba, or in the color-blind communism of the Castro era. Close to two thirds of Cubans are people of color — African and mulatto. The old regime protected the interests of an almost exclusively white elite, and it was that same elite that ran the Chalabi operation in Miami. Castro’s own government, of course, was also overwhelmingly white, but its social policies and official ideology championed the interests (and also the story) of the majority.

The problem, of course, was the extent to which Fidel Castro had made his own personality indistinguishable and inseparable from the social system he’d created — a classic cult of the personality regime, built in no small part on the highly militarized approach to political organization that has been the legacy of Leninism. He hints at the problem in his statement announcing his decision to stand down: “Preparing the people for my psychological and political absence was my primary obligation after so many years of struggle.” His “psychological absence” is, of course, a recognition of the fact that many of his most loyal supporters and party cadres will feel, quite literally, orphaned by his departure from the scene. And it is this problem that he appears to be seeking to address, albeit very late in the game, by phasing his withdrawal from politics rather than dying in power and setting off a national trauma of the type that followed Stalin’s death. I can’t help but recall Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s horrific account of being in the crowd at his funeral: “Tens of thousands of people jammed against one another … in a white cloud…at that moment I felt I was treading on something soft. It was a human body. I picked my feet up under me and was carried along by the crowd. For a long time I was afraid to put my feet down again. I was saved by my height. Short people were smothered alive, falling and perishing.” More than 150 mourners were trampled to death, in an event that Yevtushenko saw as emblematic of a political culture that had stripped its citizens of all agency and subjectivity. Belatedly, perhaps, Castro appears to be seeking to avoid the same.

I suspect he has a lot of catching up to do. Back in 1994, a visitor came to the house where I was staying in Havana to make sure I was given the “correct” perspective — he was a little concerned that my host, his son-in-law, was an enfant terrible, with insufficient reverence for Fidel and an inclination to entertain problematic ideas. The old man, let’s call him Edgardo, was a marvelous interlocutor, who entertained me with hilarious and hair-raising stories from the 50s and 60s. I enjoyed the opportunity to ask a party cadre just what Cuba was going to do to dig itself out of the hole into which it appeared to have fallen. “You mark my words,” Edgardo said indignantly. “They can talk all they want about Fidel, but one day the imperialists will be forced to have a drink with him.” (For Edgardo, it was all about respect and acknowledgment.) Fair enough. But what was Cuba going to do to keep its economy going in the mean time? “You mark my words, they will sit down with Fidel…” Okay. But what are you guys thinking about how to proceed now that the Soviet subsidy has gone. Will you follow the Chinese route? “We will never buckle before the imperialists. Fidel will find a way…” And so it went on. Clearly, despite the economic crisis, the party cadres had not been engaged in any discussion over how Cuba was going to respond. It was all about Fidel, an omnipotent, ominscient Fidel, who would find a way.

My suspicion of the paucity of discussion even within the Party were confirmed a few days later when a man came to the door selling homemade wine. Everybody in Cuba in 1994 was selling something, hoping to raise a little cash to buy food on the black market. And like everybody in Cuba, he was all too keen to talk, and share his story. He’d been a nuclear engineer, working at the now-mothballed atomic energy plant at Cienfuegos. He’d been studying in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika initiatives, and had returned home to Cuba fired up to begin discussing how the Soviet reform and democratization process applied to Cuba. He had been an active party member, and simply assumed that his comrades back home would in the same state of ideological ferment that he’s witnessed in the Soviet Union. No such luck. That reform stuff, he was told, was for the frozen-over socialism of Moscow; “Here we don’t need this because we have sunshine socialism.” There was simply no discussion. The man from Cienfuegos had been bitterly disappointed. The problem in the Cuban party, he said, was that no serious debate or discussion was tolerated. Debate was seen as threatening. It offered an opportunity to “the enemy” to create divisions and undermine the revolution. Best leave the decision making to the leadership — to Fidel, more precisely. He’ll know what to do…

The nuclear engineer from Cienfuegos seemed, to me, to personify the tragedy of Castro’s legacy. However much the aging revolutionary has done for his people, he refused ever to trust them — to openly debate political questions, and to choose wisely in a genuinely competitive political system. Instead, it was Father knows best, on an epic scale. Whether he manages to belatedly repair the damage remains an open question.

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86 Responses to The Guilty Pleasure of Fidel Castro

  1. Have you seen the comment thread at Brad DeLong’s blog about this (he’s a liberal prof. of econ at UC Berkeley)?

    Delong’s first reaction:

    His summary of and answers to the furious comments:–th.html

  2. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Tony – Mandela, and all South Africans, have more reason to thank Castro than guilty pleasure. Cuba played a major, even pivotal, role in securing democracy for South Africa and Namibia. You may recall that in the mid-to-late 1980s, the Reagan administration made it official that they preferred apartheid to democracy, if democracy meant having Cubans in the neighbourhood. One of their conditions for ‘allowing’ Namibian independence from apartheid rule was that the Cubans leave Angola, which eventually happened, but it didn’t work out quite like the Americans and their apartheid allies wanted. Both America and South Africa, with Israeli help, were backing Jonas Savimbi’s genocidal Unita movement in Angola – funding them, training them, arming them. They wanted a Unita government in Luanda before they were prepared to countenance democracy in Namibia. In 1988 South Africa hoped its offensive would lead to the installation of a Savimbi government in Luanda, but they did not count on the ferocity of the Cuban resistance in what was described as Africa’s largest land battle since world war 2. Claims concerning the battle differ widely, but now that the smoke has cleared two things are clear. First, the Cubans (and their FAPLA Angolan allies) lost huge numbers of men, tanks and aircraft in resisting the SADF advance. Second, South Africa failed in its objective of seizing Cuito Cuanavale as a prelude to advancing to Luanda. The aftermath was that the South Africans retreated, the Cubans could leave Angola, South Africa allowed Namibia to have its independence, and this in turn contributed to the momentum that led to the release of Mandela and the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994. In addition, the Cubans played a significant role in hosting, training and providing military support to the ANC. And aside from South Africa and Namibia, without the Cubans there might well have been an apartheid-backed Savimbi government in Angola, which would have been far worse for that country than anything the MPLA could dish out.

  3. JATL says:

    One of the most balanced critiques of Castro I’ve read. Great job.

  4. Tony says:

    Thanks Gavin — I actually did note that the ANC had good reason to be loyal to Cuba because of its support for the movement, and more importantly, the fact that it sent its own men to fight and die to defend Angola. But what I’m getting at in this piece is the aspects of the regime most Castro fans prefer to ignore. I think the personality cult stuff in particular is deeply damaging part of his legacy, both in Cuba and in places where people have tried to most closely emulate Castro — you only have to look at the clowning of Chavez to see an extreme caricature, a kind of left-wing funhouse mirror to Mobutu’s ‘le etat, c’est moi’…

  5. D. Mathews says:

    How would you contrast that with the Chinese case. There was a cult of the personality around Chairman Mao as well.

  6. Reality Man says:

    This was a great read. Castro has a decent case of being the least-bad of the major communist leaders to live under, along with Tito. With that said, it is sad that a country with so much potential has so much farther to go in ensuring its people can actually eat, express themselves and live up to their potential and Castro has played a huge part of those problems through his paranoia and use of political violence.

    On a side note, I’ve been surprised in talking with Latin American elites, even ones who hate Castro to death, have a secret love of Che because he beat the US and they hate Castro in part because they blame him for Che’s death.

  7. Max Ozinsky says:

    Interesting article Tony. I think you have to situate Fidel and the Cuban revolution in its own context – post Second World War national liberation movements which were driven to the left by the imperialists. It seems that the Cubans were not prepared to take any chances with the US and have been able to successfully defend their gains, whilst negatively affecting internal democracy. If they had opened up would the revolution survived, even given its overwhelming popular support? Readers might be interested in
    where the GS of the SACP gives a mainstream evaluation of Fidel and his inspirational role.

  8. MFB says:

    Well, yeah.

    Incidentally, I have an uneasy fear that had the generals not lost, big time, in southern Angola, they might have been able to tip the balance into full-on state security repression in the late 1980s. The prestige they lost at Cuito Cuanavale wasn’t just a gloss on the apple; it weakened their ability to resist De Klerk’s efforts to gut their power in the apartheid state.

    In other words, it’s possible that Castro, without necessarily meaning to, made the end of apartheid possible, not just the independence of Namibia. Which would cheer him up a lot in his retirement.

  9. Tony says:

    Max — your point is one worth emphasizing, i.e. that the closed, military style of organization reflects the real threat of invasion and destabilization. But two points in response: At some point, that becomes self-defeating, i.e. allowing the revolution to poison itself into stasis. And second, the lack of opening up wasn’t simply within the society as a whole, but even within the party — not talking just about big secrets of national security, but about basic questions of economic policy. The real point of my piece was to draw attention to the fact that Cuba has had a massive personality cult problem — and you can see Chavez going the same way. (Let’s not even think about what happened to Fatah after Arafat died, because he’d fostered a lot of the rotten elements for years!)

    That’s the saddest part of Castro’s legacy — I think he’s moving to address that by stepping back now, rather than dying in office, but it may be too late to change the political culture

  10. Peter says:

    Wow. The ambiguity that you describe, in experiencing Cuba, was very similar to what I felt when I went there in 2000, and yet is so rarely discussed.

    As a lefty, I wanted to embrace everything about Cuba, and find evidence to show that the poorest people were better off than the poorest in Honduras or Brazil. And what I found was this unexpected mash of ideologies, social provision, oppression, suffering, and joy. Education and hunger. Defiance at the US, yet widespread desire for the material opportunities of the U.S.
    Artistic expression pouring out of abandoned buildings – but government owned printing presses.

    Thanks for discussing the ambiguities.

  11. Chris Brown says:

    Very good analysis which squares with my observations and conversations during a number of visits in recent years.

    Patria o muerto

  12. Adam Wozniak says:

    Tony, you write: … the closed, military style of organization reflects the real threat of invasion and destabilization. But two points in response: At some point, that becomes self-defeating, i.e. allowing the revolution to poison itself into stasis…

    I think that as much as military organisation was initially reinforced by the physical threats, ultimately stasis and isolation is the only sustainable environment for a community serious about social justice. Such society will have to be non-competitive, because it is by definition focused on building of an egalitarian community. If any contact with a competitive environment is allowed, this community will be torn apart and destroyed (vide all experience of contact between competitive, chierarchal, expansionist cultures and egalitarian, static tribal ones)
    I read an acusation yesterday that there are beaches in Cuba ‘for tourists only’ where natives are not allowed. This was given as a proof of discrimination. All I could think of was ‘what a simple way of reaping the benefits of economic contact while avoiding cultural contamination’
    As for ways of dealing with the economic crisis, I think a lot may have changed since your visit in 1994. I have yet to see the ‘Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil’ but from what I read, they pretty much have dealt with the problem.
    As for the personality cult problem, you yourself admit that Castro seems to have recognised it and takes steps to avoid or mitigate the cultural shock triggered by his death. I think your fears that he took those steps too late are premature. His ‘founding father/saint’ status will become mythologised and will remain a strong focal point for the community. A useful thing to have. The cadres’ inability to act without his guidance may actually be beneficial. They will hopefully be unable to undertake any ‘brilliant’ reforms, focus only on preserving their position and the sainted memory of “Fidel” thus allowing further fosilisation of the egalitarian social system and leaving the community uninterfeared and free to carve out a sustainable egsistence.

  13. Pingback: Fidel’s contradictions | Antony Loewenstein

  14. eduardo montez says:

    Tony, you say that the people of Cuba support the Castro regime because its social system has allowed so many of them to raise up above their previous lives. However, if Castro had chosen to instead take a social democratic path like that of, for instance, West Germany, then Cuba could have had both social improvement and economic prosperity, and democracy to boot. Alas, that wouldn’t have satisfied Castro’s unlimited thirst for power and adoration, so he choose Communism instead.

  15. bruno says:

    So happy to see a recognition that “Third World” Marxism is, first and foremost, a form of nationalist anti-colonialism. As a Latin Americanist I have long thought so. Ho Chi Minh’s writings confirm that he felt the same way. In China last year I came to much the same conclusion about Mao (and Deng). That says nothing whatever, good or bad, about either nationalism or communism, but should be understood.

  16. Tony says:

    Eduardo, you’re being a little naive. Everywhere in the world, from Latin America to Iran and southeast Asia, in the era in which Castro took and consolidated power, governments that opted for a German-style social democracy were crushed by U.S.-backed coups or even direct invasions. Washington did not tolerate social democracy in places like Cuba, so it’s not hard to see why Castro’s nationalist impulse led him into the communist camp.

    Bruno — agree. In fact, if you read Ho Chi Minh’s biography, it’s when he’s working as a waiter in Paris and reads Lenin’s “theses on the colonial question” that he’s suddenly inspired; he’s never heard anyone articulate his own people’s condition in this way, and it’s this that brings his own nationalist impulse in line with the Comintern…

  17. Y. Ben-David says:

    What are you talking about Tony? You said:
    Everywhere in the world, from Latin America to Iran and southeast Asia, in the era in which Castro took and consolidated power, governments that opted for a German-style social democracy were crushed by U.S.-backed coups or even direct invasions. Washington did not tolerate social democracy in places like Cuba, so it’s not hard to see why Castro’s nationalist impulse led him into the communist camp.

    Didn’t the US directly install that type of “social democratic” regime in Japan? What about the Marshall Plan that supported those type of regime in liberated Western Europe? Didn’t, under the “right-wing, anti-Communist” Reagen administration, almost all the military regimes in Latin America get replaced by democratic, civilian regimes?
    While Castro’s intervention in Angola may have hastened the fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, the welfare of the black population there was of least concern to him because at the same time he was supporting repressive Soviet-style Communism in Europe. And note how the people chucked out Communism in all those countries when given the chance, in addition to installing governments that were PRO-American.

    Its funny how so many ‘progressives’ are willing to overlook the crimes of so many regimes so long as the leader uses a red flag and spews out socialist slogans. Here in Israel, where the ruling Leftist clique still clings to this type of mentality, the radio news show that discussed Castro’s resignation said “Cuban LEADER Fidel Castro resigned today. Castro came to powe when he ousted DICTATOR Battista. Note how Castro is not a “dictator”, just “Battista”. Just goes to show you.

  18. Y. Ben-David says:

    I need to clarify what I stated above…yes, I am aware of American intervention that led to the overthrow of the Mossadegh regime in Iran and of Allende in Chile. But to attribute that “American opposition to social democracy” as you did makes no sense. The Americans generally didn’t care what sort of social/economic system a country had during the Cold War period, what they did fear, either rightly or wrongly, was Soviet penetration and influence. For example, Mexico, under its PRI party governments startgin in the 1930’s instituted many policies of this type, including nationalization of the American oil companies. I am sure the Americans didn’t like it, but they didn’t do anything about it. Mexico also went so far as to maintain diplomatic relations with Castro’s Cuba.
    In Chile the situation was complicated by the fact that the Allende gov’t was attempting to enact radical changes in the economy and society in spite of the fact that Allende only got something like 35% of the vote when he was elected President. Thus, there were major fissures in Chilean society that contributed to the coup, not simply American meddling.
    The coup against Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in IIRC 1954 does seem to fit your conspiracy theory (I don’t know if they used Soviet penetration as an excuse), but still other countries did go to “social democratic” systems, so I still maitain your statment is essentially incorrect.

  19. Y. Ben-David says:

    Sorry, one more point, or rather, question to add.
    IF you recall, the “Prague Spring” of 1968 in which the Czechs, under Alexander Dubcek, tried to implement a form of European social democracy, called “Communism with a human face”
    was crushed by Soviet tanks. What was Castro’s position on this use of force? I don’t have any of his press releases in front of me, but I can guess.

  20. bernard g says:

    Y Ben-David,
    Tony specifically said “in the era in which Castro took and consolidated power” ie the late 1950s and early 1960s. So your counter-examples from the 1930s, late 1940s and the Reagan era are not particularly relevant, even if they are to be taken as correct representations of what happened. But I guess somebody who tninks that Israel is ruled by a leftist clique is capable of any kind of misunderstanding…

  21. L Damms says:

    Y. Ben-David, during the Cold War there may have been several cases of the US tolerating and even supporting “Third World” regimes that restricted foreign investment and controlled market access, but in general if any only if these regimes
    were willing to be US military clients in geo-strategically pivotal locations. Most examples were to be found in East Asia, South Korea and Taiwan, e.g. Pakistan would be a parallel situation in South Asia.

    But there are as many or more cases of regimes that were economically nationalist and geo-politically non-aligned that the US directly overthrew or indirectly undermined. In some instances this was because these regimes, usually by means of expropriation, attempted to interrupt the predictable flow of cheap resources from their domain to the developed core of the US-Western Europe-Japan. I’d say that Iran (oil) and Chile (copper) fit this model. In other instances this was because there were particularly
    strong ties between a) specific capitalist actors whose interests were threatened and b) the bureaucracy in charge of foreign policy for the region in question. I’d say that Guatemala (the United Fruit Company) and Cuba (the sugar industry) fit this model.

    In the latter two groups, the respective regimes did not lean toward the Communist bloc, seek military help or economic assistance from the Soviet Union, etc. until it became clear that the US would not abide by their variety of economic nationalism. On some occasions there may have been indigenous communist movements that had relations with the Comintern (the Indonesian CP under the Sukarno regime, e.g.), but the governments themselves were non-aligned.

    Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that that US ruling groups had to live with social democracy in the developed core (the New Deal-Great Society in the US included) and mixed economies in the “Third World” primarily BECAUSE OF Cold War competition.

    Anyway, based on cobbling together the interpretations of figures such as Chomsky, Kolko, and Wallerstein (none of whom are apologists for authoritarian state socialism in its various guises), this is my take on things.

  22. L Damms says:


    I too commend you for a very thoughtful and insightful piece. My own ideological orientation is in flux these days and so I have great trouble weighing the claim that a certain level of party illiberalism is necessary to preserve the revolutionary gains you so movingly capture. (Not that this is what you are arguing, by the way.) But I entirely share your irritation with idol worship… it is especially obnoxious when practiced by sympathizers outside of Cuba, because then it seems to have more to do with vacuous post-modern celebrity worship/revolutionary chic
    than an emotional identification with the personal embodiment of the revolution’s accomplishments. (Sorry for the abstruse phrasing!)

  23. Y. Ben-David says:

    To Bernard G-
    I am sorry I wasn’t clear about a “Leftist ruling clique” in Israel. Although Israelis know what I mean, it is not obvious at all to people outside the country. The dominant political parties from the time of the founding of the state until today were Labor and MAPAM which today is the main component of MERETZ. Although today they hold only about 20% of the seats in the Knesset, their ideology set the tone for the country and the Establishment down to the present day, and it is they who defined what Zionism and what politically-correct discourse is allowed.
    Both these parties espoused socialism and to some extent, Marxism. At party meetings they would sing “The Internationale”. MAPAM was pro-Soviet in the 1940’s and 1950’s and strongly opposed Ben-Gurion’s pro-American policy. To this day, the Labor Party is a member of the “Socialist International” (IIRC Ehud Barak was a vice-chairman a few years ago).
    The thing that confused everything was Israel’s close relations with the United States, particularly after 1967 and then the collapse of the socialist economic structure in the country (i.e. the kibbutzim and the trade union movement that also owned a lot of companies that they succeeded in driving into the ground). Socialism has fallen out of favor even with Leftists, in fact today, the Labor Party is the party of the wealthy and gets little working class support which until recently went to the Likud which had been considered a “right-wing” party.
    However, many of the manifestions of Left-wing views in international circles are strong among the Israeli Left….i.e. internationalism, anti-Americanism (e.g. read Yossi Sarid columns in Ha’aretz), anti-nationalism, anti-religion, etc. The Establishment in Israel, which, as I said, sprung from the Left, has such a stranglehold on the media and the government, regardless of which party is in power, that the political Right more or less accepts their definitions of what is politically correct and does not offer a real alternative vision of what Zionism is, or ought to mean.

    A good example of what I mean occurred recently when Olmert claimed he would demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish State”. Several MERETZ people attacked this as “politically incorrect” and said Israel is NOT a “Jewish state”, it is a state that happens to have a Jewish majority and should do things like change the national anthem, get rid of Jewish symbols of the state and the such.

  24. Joe Noory says:

    Having lived in the DDR, I find your assertion a grossly overeaching stretch. Casto was a disctator. He impoverished more people than he helped, and the mainstream media in the US haven’t been so much critical of him, but have been a soft touch. For example, they are craning themselves not to use the word “dictator” in the same way that the Guardian does. The one thing the American press didn’t do, is become evasive about moentioning the fact that in the “elections” his regime ran, that there more than one person on the ballot, or that the iconographic hero of the young bufoons of our age, Che, actually enjoyed shooting prisoners himself.

    But that kind of thing never stopped a European from banging their spoon on their highchair to convince people that America is actually AmeriKKKa.

    I think your observation otherwise has entirely to do with what you’d LIKE to see the American press say.

    If you want to know what Castro’s position on the use of force, bear in mind that he ran huge prison camps where he detained political opponents, clerics, and homosexuals. Now there’s a real leftist here, rationalized brutality and all.

  25. Henry says:

    YB-D: Nearly every point you make is incorrect. A few comments:

    1. TK’s describing a post-WWII policy, starting with Truman, amplified by Eisenhower, of not tolerating governments that (1) asserted control over national resources and (2) refused to join Dulles’ anti-communist crusade. So the example of Mexico doesn’t really fit. While the U.S. joined European nations in trying to prevent Mexico from nationalizing its oil reserves in 1938 during the Cardenas regime by seizing Mexican assets abroad, the advent of WWII made that policy impractical. In addition, the PRI was over its early policy of working with the Mexican Communist Party by the late 1940s. And describing Mexico under the PRI as a social democracy is a bit of a stretch–I think it is more accurate to describe it as a variation on Bismarkian style capitalism, with the state providing lots of social programs to various sectors to tamp down discontent, but so heavily involved in the organizations (unions, peasants’ organizations) it established to represent those sectors as to corrupt them beyond recognition.

    2. Guatemala certainly fits this definition. It pays to have a senior partner from the law firm that represents you become Secretary of State. Don’t call that a conspiracy–all of the actors were in plain view and unapologetic about their acts and motives. And, yes, they did use Soviet penetration [Czech arms, to be precise] as a pretext.

    3. You appear to concede that the overthrow of Mossadegh fits this definition as well. Any disagreement there?

    4. Allende came into office weak, which emboldened his opponents in the military, but was building strength, which spurred them into action. The Nixon Administration didn’t have to create the elements for a coup, as we did in Guatemala, but it certainly helped ensure that they proceeded in that direction.

    5. You’re simply wrong about Reagan. Our declared policy in the area, courtesy of Jeanne Kilpatrick, was that authoritarianism (Chile, Argentina, Brazil) was fine, totalitarianism (any Marxist state, meaning Cuba and what they imagined Chile would have been if Allende had not been removed) was intolerable. While reforms came, they occurred because of military defeat (Argentina) or vigorous organizing from below (Brazil), but NOT because U.S. policy pushed in that direction. Apologies to all for gross oversimplifications.

    6. I’ve left out other examples of direct intervention, such as the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, because (1) they don’t fit a two part definition and (2) they require more space than I have the right to take. And I’m leaving out Europe and Japan in the Truman era because that is a horse of a different color.

    While I think that the fear of intervention, which became ossified into an embargo, was overstated, that’s easy for someone in the Colossus of the North to say. TK has done a good job explaining how that fear, combined with the cult of personality and absolutist dogma (“With the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing” or words to that effect), choked off so many possibilities in Cuba.

  26. Max Ozinsky says:

    A silly question – is there such a thing as social-democracy in the third world? Yes I know that there are social democratic parties, and parties which are members of the Socialist International (the ANC included), but have any third world countries been able to build anything akin to social democracy in Sweden, Germany, etc?

    My own take is that social-democracy is very much a movement of the Western European labour movement, some of which took power in the 1930s, and most of which came to dominate their societies in the post-second world war period. Most of these parties were bolstered by the US, through the Marshall Plan, in order to destroy the mass Communist Parties in Europe – eg in France, Italy, Greece, etc. In West Germany the CP was simply made illegal.

    Also the idea of a social democratic alternative seems to imply that this would have been more “open” or “democratic” than Cuban. Was Malaysia or Indonesia or Brazil in the 60s and 70s more “democratic”? Definetly not for those on the left.

    Just some confused questions from the third world.

  27. Henry says:

    Max–perhaps in Kerala. For a brief period. But let’s let someone who actually knows something add a comment.

  28. PeonInChief says:

    I always wonder that people don’t know easy things. First, any number of people have noted that Castro intended to retire in 2003–that the Cuban government had begun planning for Castro’s retirement prior to 2001. A number of observers described his trip to Syria and Iran as the beginning of his “farewell tour.” Unfortunately 9/11 intervened and it was decided (probably as a matter of necessity) that Castro would remain as President.

    Others have commented quite competently on the silliness of the social democratic option (are you suggesting death or exile here?) and I’ve not much to add.

    As to the economic errors, surely there were many, but they took what they had to work with (people) and did a great job with them.

  29. Patrick Cummins says:

    British documents from 1959 (cables, etc.) that may be accessed through this link:

    inform us of the position that the US adopted virtually ab initio with respect to Castro and the overthrow of the Batista regime. They show that Allen Dulles wanted to create a situation where Castro had no choice but to turn to Soviets for support. The idea was to create the needed pretext for an intervention, much as in Guatemala a few years earlier. Dulles’ plan left the British purplexed.

    (Twenty years or so later, the same thing occurred when the US pressed France not to sell military aircraft to Nicaragua, forcing the Sandinistas to turn to the Soviets.)

  30. Pingback: Fidel Castro « Petunias

  31. janinsanfran says:

    Great article. I visited Cuba in 1988, just as the Party was beginning a “rectification” that was supposed to deal the stasis, political and economic. I was not impressed. The intellectual atmosphere was stifling with regard to questioning social, sexual and political verities. For example we were constantly assured that “there is no racism in Cuba” yet visited a women’s prison where inmates were about 85 percent Black.

    Nonetheless, vast numbers of Cubans were fiercely loyal to and happy with what Fidel had wrought. I might not like it, but they did. So in my country, the USA, I’ve always felt obliged to insist the the colossus to the north should let them alone.

    I think what happens after Castro will be a major test of whether Tony’s view of superpower decline in the previous posting proves correct. I hope so.

  32. Pingback: The Discovered Country » A Potpourri for February 21st, 2008 through February 23rd, 2008

  33. Marco from Italy says:

    “…Castro’s own government, of course, was also overwhelmingly white, …”

    Not only white, most of them were bourgeoises, coming from rich families. Cuban revolution was at the very beginning a bourgeois revolution.

    Good article
    Thanks Tony.

  34. Denisse says:

    “638 Ways to Kill Castro” is a Channel 4 documentary film, broadcast in the United Kingdom on November 2006, which tells the story of some of the numerous attempts to kill Fidel Castro.

    The CIA has been publicly embarrassed by revelations of attempts to kill Fidel Castro by a number of fanciful means, such as poisoning his cigar.

    Castro most have protection from the stars, i guess.

  35. Galicia Women reports says:

    Fidel Castro’s father, Angel Castro, was a wealthy landowner originally from Galicia, Spain; his mother, Lina Ruz, was a maid to Angel’s first wife, and was from Galicia, too. Lina was thirty years younger than Angel but she turned rapidly into the family chief, dealing with the business, the grounds, the house.

    Fidel’s biographers impute to Lina the attraction of Castro for the strong women, even if they don’t think like him.

  36. John XXX says:

    Castro got out slightly from the Special Period hole (the years following the fall of the Soviet Union) by developing the tourism and by sending his people to make money in other lands.
    Thousands of young people left Cuba during the Special Period and thousands of them found good jobs and are now sending money to their families in Cuba.

    Later on, Venezuela appears in scene. Cuba exports people to Venezuela -teachers, men of medicine, of sport- and Venezuela sells oil to Cuba with reasonable prices.

    Is not Castro a lucky guy?
    Indeed, Fidel Castro is a very lucky guy or he certainly has kind of divine help. That’s what make me think Casto will succeed in his final move.

  37. Mark aus Frankfurt am Main says:

    “Thousands of young people left Cuba”

    One of them being my beautiful hot wife. Thanks Castro

  38. Piero G. says:

    Great analysis Tony.

    Debate over the significance of Cuito Cuanavale has been intense, partly because the relevant South African documents remain classified.

    I agree with you, the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point. The Cuban army drove the racists out of Angola, and set the stage for South Africa’s exit from Namibia.

    Did you know that Fidel Castro personally commanded the battle from his office, in Havana?
    On November 1987, Fidel Castro decided to send more troops and weapons to Angola — his best planes with his best pilots, his most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons and his most modern tanks.

    Castro’s goal was not merely to defend Cuito, it was to force the SADF out of Angola once and for all.

    He later described this strategy to South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo: Cuba would halt the South African onslaught and then attack from another direction, “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right — strikes”.

    Viva Africa Libre!
    Viva Cuba Libre!

  39. Piero G. says:

    Despite Washington’s best efforts to stop it, Cuba changed the course of Southern African history. Even Crocker acknowledged Cuba’s role when he cabled Shultz, on August 1988:
    “Reading the Cubans is yet another art form. They are prepared for both war and peace. We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table. This occurs against the backdrop of Castro’s grandiose bluster and his army’s unprecedented projection of power on the ground.”

  40. Marcus Mihm says:

    Fidel Castro also led his troops during Playa Giron (1961) and went personally to the battle field. Look at this picture, inside a tank during Playa Giron. Not every president does that.

  41. Sean Jacobs says:

    First class assessment. Agree with the first post though: Cuba for the majority of South Africans is hardly a guilty pleasure. The Cubans defeated apartheid’s army in 1975, something the racial dictatorship manage to conceal from whites for much of the remainder of its rule (some people still think it never happened). There’s an interesting film about that relationship (including Cuba’s role in Guinea-Bissau’s freedom) playing now at BAM in Brooklyn now by the Johannesburg-based Egyptian filmmaker Jihan Al-Tahri “Cuba and African Odyssey.” Nxt screening Wednesday night.
    Another good source is Piero Gleijesus’s book “Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976” (he is a professor of history at John Hopkins University. )

    And finally, there’s a film I’m dying to see that details the story of a coloured guy from Salt River Cape Town who stowed away off a cargo ship in Havana in 1958. A year later he became involved in the Cuban Revolution.

    As the film’s website (Idol Pictures) describe, his life took a dramatic turn later:

    “In 1975 and again in 1987 Angola asked for Cuban help to repulse South African invasion. Ronald was amongst the first to volunteer for duty in Angola. His knowledge of Afrikaans provided invaluable assistance to Cuban military intelligence. South Africa’s retreat at Cuito Cuanavale marked the defeat of the ‘securocrats’, leading to the fall of PW Botha, independence for Namibia, the rise of FW de Klerk and the collapse of apartheid. Ronald served as a Cuban representative in the Joint Military Monitoring Commission that oversaw South Africa and Cuba’s military disengagement from southern Angola. Finally able to return home ten years later in 1998, Ronald was reunited with his South African family.”

    — Sean

  42. Y. Ben_David says:

    I want to repeat a question I asked above for all of those of you who think Castro sent his army to Angola to bring “freedom” for the oppressed of Africa…..WHAT WAS CASTRO’S POSITION REGARDING FREEDOM FOR THE PEOPLE OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA DURING THE PRAGUE SPRING OF 1968?
    I am waiting for an answer.

  43. Max Ozinsky says:


    Ronald died late last year in Cape Town. The movie has been shown a number of times on SABC TV. The best part of the movie for me was the old veterans of the Cuban armed struggle giving him advice on how to deal with his wife not wanting to leave Cuba and him wanting to go home. Very interesting was that whilst he was with the Cubans in Angola his brother was in the SA Navy in ships off Angola!!

    Y. Ben David: the answer to your question is that the direct result of the battle at Cuito Cunavale was an independent liberated Namibia, negotiations for South Africa’s freedom and the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Angola. Thats good enough for us.

    Great cartoon by Zapiro putting the issue of human rights in another context at|MonthId=2|DayId=22



  44. Tony says:

    Max, don’t get too distracted by Y Ben-David, he and a chap named “Fred” lurk here to issue Likudnik correctives. I guess they were assigned here, who the hell knows why…

  45. Tony says:

    P.S. Max, don’t you think Fidel in that picture looks a lot like a certain old friend of ours from that little CAHAC office in Salt River at the end of Lower Main Road, who went on to better things…?

  46. Y. Ben-David says:

    So Tony, you refuse to answer my question. Odd, you who are an editor of a major magazine, view people who disagree with you as some sort of malicious cranks. I thought guys like you were supposed to believe in “freedom of speech”. And your use of the term “Likudnik” in the sense that you and other so-called “progressives” shows you don’t know anything about Israeli politics.

  47. Y. Ben-David says:

    Let’s get to the bottom line about Castro….he cares about helping the downtrodden of the world about as much as Josef Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev did. If anything beneficial came out of his intervention in Angola like the ultimate fall of the Apartheid regime in South Africa, this is pure coincidence.
    After the US withdrawal from South Vietnam in the 1970’s, the USSR decided that US power was in decline and they could move to expland their power around the world. As a result, they went into the two ex-Portuguese colonies in southern Africa, Angola and Mozambique, in addition to Ethiopia and then, in 1979, they invaded Afghanistan (in each case, their got bogged down in civil wars which they could not win, and they squandered billions of dollars which they could ill afford, and in the end, this contributed to the fall of the Communist regime in the USSR).
    Since the USSR didn’t want to send its own troops to Angola, he got Castro to do it, and he had to go along because he was dependent on Soviet handouts which kept his regime afloat at the time. That is why he got involved, not for any “idealistic” reasons. Okay, Castro’s MPLA allies won. What is Angola like today? Pretty much like Cuba….a small rich oligarchy amid a large, impoverished population. Angola is a typical oil-rich African country where a few well-connected people rip off the millions of dollars of oil income. The New York Times last year had an article pointing out that the average person is WORSE OFF in oil exporting countries than if there was no oil because it distorts the economy and causes inflation.
    So this is Castro’s legacy for Angola, and this is his legacy for Cuba. I wonder how many Cubans view chanting anti-American slogans and saying “Socialism or Death” as substitutes for an empty stomach. Most of those in the West who admire Castro for “sticking it the Yanqui’s eyes” have full stomachs and don’t have to participate in a black market on the side of their “official” job which doesn’t pay enough to live on, in order to survive, as is the case in Castro’s “socialist paradise”.

  48. Alan says:

    Great piece, Tony. You are able to undertake analysis through anecdote in a most charming and effective way.
    Funny that Max should raise the issue of whether social democracy is possible in the third world, being a senior official in the ANC which in my view is very much a social democratic movement (fuelled by anti-colonial nationalism) of a peculiar type: a type driven by a multi-class alliance, not a workers party. Just read the resolutions of the last ANC conference at
    Even more pertntinent, read this extract from the ANC’s new Strategy and Tactics document adopted at the same conference.
    “The ANC therefore seeks to build democracy with social content. Informed by our own concrete conditions and experiences, this will, in some respects, reflect elements of the best traditions of social democracy, which include: a system which places the needs of the poor and social issues such as health care, education and a social safety net at the top of the national agenda; intense role of the state in economic life; pursuit of full employment; quest for equality; strong partnership with the trade union movement; and promotion of international solidarity. ”
    Perhaps narrowing Social Democracy down to a Swedish/German model makes it more difficult for developing countries to fulfil all the requirements. It might also depend on what you mean by the third world. Surely New Zealand and Uruguay were pioneer social democratic states, for example.

  49. Max Ozinsky says:


    Thanks for the comment.

    I was partially raising the issue of social-democracy in the context of the debate on the quote you use at the last ANC conference. Note it says the “best elements of social democracy”, implying that there are other (worst?) elements.

    Also this is an aim, whether it is achievable is another matter, and that is really what my question about the 3rd world is about. In SA we have about 30% umemployment – is it possible to address this using the tools of traditional social democracy? The Strategy and Tactics also talks about creating a developmental state in the sense of direct intervention in the economy to create conditions of economic growth. How this differs from Keynesian social democracy is not made clear? Although the ANC has elements of social democracy in its policies, it is a mass-based national liberation movement, not a social democratic party, in its form and conception about itself.

    I am not sure whether New Zealand is really part of the 3rd world? The issue of social democracy was raised in the Cuban context above as if there was a more open liberal alternative to the restrictions on democracy that were experienced in Cuba. I don’t think that Uruguay, which was a one party state for many years fits this analogy?


  50. Marya - but not Carey says:

    I am waiting for an answer.”

    I have a good one:
    Angola asked Cuba for help. CZECHOSLOVAKIA did not.

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