SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 117 - April 2008

End of an era

My Life: Fidel Castro

With Ignacio Ramonet

Published by Allen Lane, 2007


Reviewed by

Tony Saunois

THE PUBLICATION of My Life: Fidel Castro was timely as Castro resigned as president only a few months later. Based on over 100 hours of interviews with Ignacio Ramonet, editor of Le Monde Diplomatique and founder of Attac, Castro’s answers are illuminating about the Cuban revolution and world events since 1959. They also reveal much about his political outlook and method.

Castro justifiably cites the impressive gains conquered in medicine, health and education that have been won as a result of the revolution. "The life expectancy of Cuban citizens is now almost 18 years longer than in 1959, when the revolution came to power"; "Cuba has an infant mortality rate under six per 1,000 live births in their first year of life, behind Canada by a slight margin. It will take us half the time it took Sweden and Japan to raise life expectancy from 70 to 80 years of age – today we are at 77.5". At the time of the revolution, life expectancy was 60!

Free education is open to all who are unemployed and over 90,000 students currently study medicine, nursing or other health-related subjects. This despite an economic embargo imposed by US imperialism since 1960 and severe economic decline following the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1992 and loss of economic subsidies. These and other impressive achievements give a small glimpse of what would be possible with a democratically planned, socialist economy.

Apart from mobilising 30,000 doctors to work in over 40 countries, one of the most impressive achievements was sending tens of thousands of ‘internationalist volunteers’ from 1975 to Angola and Namibia. Over 15 years, more than "300,000 internationalist combatants fulfilled their mission in Angola", helping to inflict a military defeat on the South African apartheid army. Cuban forces were crucial in freeing Namibia from South African rule. Cuba was, as Castro argues, "the only non-African country that fought and spilled its blood for Africa and against the odious apartheid regime".

From the beginning, the Cuban revolution aroused the wrath of US imperialism which has sought to overthrow it on numerous occasions. Following Castro’s resignation, US imperialism and its representatives long for the demise of the regime and collapse of the planned economy. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1962 is the most well-known attack, and followed Castro decreeing the ‘revolution’s socialist characteristic’. Castro lists other attacks by US-backed exiles, US security services and other counter-revolutionaries: in 1971, under Richard Nixon, swine fever was introduced into Cuba; in 1981, type II dengue virus was unleashed, resulting in 158 deaths, 101 of them children. There have been more than 600 plans to assassinate Castro.

The social gains of the revolution and brutal hostility by US imperialism illustrate why thousands of workers and young people internationally have tremendous sympathy for Cuba. It has been perceived as the only regime prepared to resist the onslaught of neo-liberal capitalism during the 1990s.

Castro exposes the role played by Felipe González, (former leader of the Spanish Socialist Party, PSOE) in persuading Mikhail Gorbachev to support capitalist restoration, which was carried through due to the general situation which developed. González and others, like Manuel Fraga (a former minister in Franco’s fascist regime, now president of Galicia), attempted to persuade Castro to adopt the same road in the 1990s: Fraga "took me to a very elegant restaurant one night – and he tried to give me formulas too. ‘The formula for Cuba is the formula in Nicaragua’, he said – that’s verbatim".

Castro rejected this because it "has led Nicaragua into a bottomless abyss of corruption, theft, negligence… All those men whose advice was to follow the tenets of neo-liberalism to the death – privatisation, strict compliance to the IMF rules – have driven many countries and their inhabitants into the abyss".

Looking at the crisis unfolding over recent years, he concludes: "It’s no longer just a crisis in Southeast Asia, as it was in 1997, it’s a worldwide crisis, plus the war in Iraq, plus the consequences of huge debt, plus the growing waste and consequent cost of energy… plus the deficit on the part of the main economic and military power on the planet". As a result: "The world is being driven into a dead-end street".

Yet what is the social class that is capable of fighting this system and building a genuine democratic socialist alternative? Castro reveals his weakness in answering this question. Throughout the book there is no reference to the working class and its central role in the socialist revolution. Even when referring to the great general strike of ten million workers in France in 1968, Castro only mentions in passing that Charles De Gaulle was compelled to go to Germany to get the support of troops stationed there, in case forces were needed to put down any attempt at popular rebellion.

Referring to the Cuban revolution, Castro explains: "But for us, guerrilla warfare was the detonator of another process whose objective was the revolutionary takeover of power. And with a culminating point: a revolutionary general strike and general uprising of the populace". In other words, a guerrilla struggle was then supported by the mass of the population where the working class played an auxiliary rather than the leading role. As we have explained in other articles, because of a series of historical and subjective factors, the guerrilla struggle successfully unfolded in Cuba. Only as the guerrilla army entered the cities did the urban masses come onto the streets.

In this book there is some discrepancy between how Castro and the July 23 Movement viewed the revolution as it began. Castro gives the impression that he had a clearly formulated ‘socialist’ objective from the beginning. In reality, the leaders of the movement had the objective of overthrowing Batista and establishing a ‘modern democratic Cuba’. As a consequence of the embargo of US imperialism and mass pressure, the leaders were rapidly pushed in a more radical direction.

This process helped shape the nature of the new state. Although the working class supported the revolution it did not consciously lead it. As capitalism was snuffed out following a series of tit-for-tat reprisals between the Cuban government and US imperialism – a big step forward – it did not result in the establishment of a genuine workers’ and peasants’ democracy, like in Russia in 1917, but a bureaucratic regime which managed a planned economy.

The real character of the state is perhaps inadvertently revealed by Ramonet in his introduction: "Where he [Castro] is there is but one voice: his. He makes all the decisions, big and small. Although he consults the political authorities in charge of the party and the government very respectfully, very ‘professionally’ during the decision making process, it is Fidel who finally decides".

Castro defends the idea of a one-party state: "How could our country have stood firm if it had been split up into ten pieces?" He then confuses this question by attacking the corruption and manipulation of the media in the capitalist west as being not real democracy. Yet this is an entirely different question to the right of workers, youth and intellectuals to form their own political parties and contest elections in a workers’ and peasants’ democracy.

A genuine workers’ state would ensure the election of all officials subject to recall, that state and party officials received no more than the average wage of a skilled worker, and full freedom of expression. Such a regime, especially after nearly 50 years in power, should have nothing to fear from workers, youth and intellectuals establishing their own political parties and organisations which support the planned economy if they chose to do so.

This does not mean that Cuba has taken on the same grotesque features of Joseph Stalin’s Russia, with mass purge trials, an unchecked cult of the personality, etc. There are still no portraits or streets named after Castro. There is no evidence of torture being used by the state. However, this does not mean that a bureaucracy, corruption and privileges do not exist.

The problems facing Castro in the 1990s were of isolation, top-down rule and the consequences of the lack of workers’ control. Measures such as a partial opening up of the economy and partial dollarisation were taken to try and buy time. These brought their own problems, especially the partial dollarisation which vastly increased differentials between those with access to US dollars and those without.

Cuba’s isolation is partly linked to the defeat of the revolutionary movements which swept Latin America in the 1970 and 1980s. Castro draws no lasting conclusions regarding the reasons for these defeats, in particular, why the Sandinistas in Nicaragua lost out to the counter-revolution. Castro does not comment on the failure to overthrow capitalism – under pressure from the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow and the role of Cuba, which embargoed MIG fighter planes destined for Managua.

Of the defeat of Salvador Allende in 1973, while correctly denouncing US imperialism, no conclusion is drawn about the mistakes of the leaders of the socialist and communist parties. Yet these and other defeats were crucial in leaving Cuba isolated. In a sense, Castro repeated some of the errors in the advice he gave Hugo Chávez at the time of the thwarted coup in Venezuela in 2002. He urged Chávez to "get in touch with some officer with some real authority among the ranks of the coup members, assure them of his willingness to leave the country but not resign". Allende, he argues, did not have the "support of a single soldier". But it is estimated that Allende was backed by up to 30% of the military at the time of the coup. The tragedy was that he failed to arm and mobilise the working class. Castro’s advice to Chávez was an alternative to "trying to meet with the people in order to trigger national resistance, which had virtually no possibility of success under those circumstances"! Yet ‘national resistance’ erupted spontaneously and Chávez was returned to power by the masses. This is another example of not seeing the working class as the leading force of a revolution but an auxiliary to guerrilla organisations or sections of the military.

While coming into collision with the Stalinist bureaucracy, which Castro criticises on occasions sharply, he has no alternative to it. Ultimately, he acquiesced to the Stalinists or fell silent when faced with attacks against workers and youth in other capitalist countries. Undoubtedly motivated by diplomatic and trading interests, the Cuban regime was silent as hundreds of students were massacred by the Mexican government in 1968. Castro says nothing of these events in his book.

In the same year, while initially supporting some of the demands for greater democracy in the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, he concluded: "But from fair slogans there had been a move towards an openly reactionary policy. And we – bitterly, sadly – had to approve that military intervention". The dominant consciousness of the masses at that time was to look for the ‘democratisation of socialism’, not capitalist restoration.

By raising the spectre of capitalist restoration at that time he is confusing processes which emerged during the 1990s, not the 1960s, and echoes the justification for the intervention given by the Russian Stalinists at the time. Castro is clearly against capitalist restoration in Cuba.

Castro identifies some of the problems which faced the former Soviet Union – waste, corruption, mismanagement and the failure to apply modern technique, computers, etc. Yet he fails to offer any clear solution for the removal of the Stalinist bureaucracy and establishing genuine workers’ democracy. Without this, none of the problems could be resolved. Yet many of these features exist in Cuba as well.

In letters published in English for the first time, Castro reveals the erratic attitude that his regime could also adopt, especially in the chapter dealing with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Castro urged the USSR to launch a ‘first strike’ nuclear attack in the event of direct offensive action against Cuba by the USA. Khrushchev and the Soviet bureaucracy did not accept this proposal.

Significantly, Castro is openly critical of Stalin: "The more intellectual of the two was, without a doubt, Trotsky". This is not to say that Castro was influenced by Leon Trotsky’s writings. He dismisses any suggestion that Che Guevara had begun to read Trotsky’s works or was in any way affected by his ideas. In doing so, he brushes aside the evidence to the contrary featured by Celia Hart, Jon Lee Anderson and Paco Ignacio Taibo.

A striking feature of this book is Castro’s attitude to world leaders and pro-capitalist leaders of the former workers’ parties. For Marxists, opposing the system they defend is not a personal question. Yet Castro goes out of his way to heap praise on some of them. Former US president, Jimmy Carter, is described as a "man of integrity". De Gaulle is credited with saving France, "its traditions, its national pride, the French defiance". Fraga is "an intelligent, shrewd Galician". Lula, in Brazil, is praised as "a tenacious and fraternal fighter for the rights of labour and the left, and a friend of our people", despite the fact that the majority of Lula’s ‘reforms’ have been neo-liberal attacks on the working class.

For the future of Cuba, Castro is adamant that the revolution will be maintained with no threat of capitalist restoration. However, despite the strong legacy that remains and support for the gains of the revolution, the threat of restoration is growing. Since the publication of this book, Castro has resigned. Raúl, his brother, and other powerful sections of the Cuban bureaucracy, are intent on moving towards opening up the market. The publication of this book has given an illuminating insight into Castro, his role and methods. Above all, it is necessary to learn from the experiences he recounts about how to build genuine workers’ democracy and socialism.


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