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Fidel Castro & the Cuban Revolution

Saturday, December 31, 2016

This time of year is filled with tradition: Christmas cookies, mistletoe, Times Square and champaign. As 2016 winds down there's also the annual magazine, newspaper and TV memorials listing the notable figures who have passed away. The list this year includes Carrie Fisher, Phyllis Schlafly, Gene Wilder, David Bowie, Antonin Scalia, Arnold Palmer, Muhammad Ali, John Glenn, Patty Duke, Zsa Zsa Gabor — and Fidel Castro Ruz.

I believe Fidel Castro was one of history's greatest men. He was certainly a controversial man, as well. I'm sure some of my readers, friends and family disagree with my opinion of him — probably most. Perhaps a few are even shocked. But I will explain.

Fidel was human and flawed, and I don't defend everything he did. But he brought Cuba out of the cruelest poverty and gave the country and its people dignity. He showed a way forward to all the world. He didn't do this alone. He had help. He was a powerful and revered leader, but there was also Ernesto Che Guevara, Raúl Castro Ruz, and the millions of Cuban men, women and youth who have devoted their lives to building a new society and a new humanity.

This extended blog post is an attempt to tell a bit of Cuba's story from its perspective — at least as I understand it. If you are among the many who think badly of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, I hope you'll hang in with me through this report. Read it and watch the videos. It's long, but there's lots to tell and far too little of this has been presented here in the U.S.

I should also note that tomorrow marks the 58th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. It was New Years Day 1959 when the working class took power and drove U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar out of the country.

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Usually the annual commemoration of those who passed is met with a mixture of sadness and nostalgia, remembering a beloved actor or musician or writer. Street celebrations aren't typical, but such was the case this year with news of Fidel Castro's death. Thousands poured into the streets of Miami shouting, singing and dancing in joy.

© 2016 Robert C. Laycock

Just Sayin'

A Blog by

Bob Laycock

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To understand the feelings of these Cubans in Miami it's necessary to know their roots. The initial exiles from Cuba were the privileged layers of the population in 1959: executives, big merchants, owners of sugar mills, and professionals of various kinds. These were not the working class and peasants of Cuba. Most were the people living off the backs of the working class and peasants. Naturally they would not view of a revolution of the people with much sympathy.

Subsequent immigration from Cuba has grown more complex and diverse including workers who basically support the revolution but have family here or want other opportunities. People everywhere move all kinds of places for many reasons. There are also some who just plain wore out under the strain of daily life after decades of embargo and hostility from the United States. The U.S. has done all it can to try make life in Cuba as difficult as possible.

As evidence of Cuba's supposed repression, the U.S. often points to the rafts, flotillas and other extremes some Cubans have taken to reach the United States. What they conveniently omit is an explanation of how U.S. laws and policies have driven people to such actions — which, in turn, provide the U.S. with a great propaganda spectacle.

Cubans seeking to live in the U.S. have been afforded special privileges which immigrants from no other country receive. In 1966 Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) allowing Cubans expedited consideration for permanent residence after one year — simply because they're from Cuba. In 1995 the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy allowed Cubans almost automatic ability to stay as long as they made it to U.S. soil ("dry foot"). The clincher has been a cap by the U.S. limiting legal immigration from Cuba to just 20,000 per year. This tight limit has driven people to extreme measures since by just getting here, they're in!

When looking at celebrations in Miami it's important to understand the history and context behind them. As I will show, Miami's Cubans don't represent the majority of Cubans in Cuba .

Along with those in Miami, Fidel's death is likewise celebrated in the halls of the U.S. government. This has been the dream of presidents since John F. Kennedy, and indeed a few have tried to hasten his demise through plots ranging from the outrageous to the ridiculous. One aimed at making Fidel's beard fall out so the Cuban people would lose confidence and ridicule him. I guess they equated Castro with Samson.

I think most Americans regarded Fidel as a dictator who oppressed the Cuban people. This is hardly surprising since the U.S. government and media have spent decades portraying him this way, referring to Cuba as an "imprisoned island" and such. A lot of people have strong opinions against the Castro brothers and socialism in Cuba. It always interests me, however, that most people I encounter with these strong views have never actually read Fidel Castro or Che Guevara. The most they've heard Fidel or Che speak is a few sound bites on TV or, at best, a short interview. They know little of Cuba in its own words, its side of the story. They only know Cuba as portrayed by a hostile U.S. government and media.

They might be surprised to learn that South Africans have a very different view of Cuba and a very different reaction to Fidel's death. Indeed, South Africa owes its emancipation from apartheid to the Cuban Revolution. This is an important story which I cover below.

Contrary to what most Americans might assume, the Cuban people are not rejoicing at Fidel's death. Nor are they jubilant at the prospect of the United States finally sweeping in to "free" them.

Why Hasn't the U.S. Invaded Cuba?

In every country there's a layer of people who don't like their government, or its leaders, or its policies. Such a layer exists in Cuba too. No one denies this, but the U.S. government and media make it appear this layer represents mainstream opinion in Cuba. As this portrayal is repeated decade after decade it takes on a certain "common sense" in the minds of most Americans. Of course Cuban socialism is a failure! Of course the Castro brothers are iron-fisted despots. Of course the people are oppressed and beaten down. Of course they desperately want for U.S.-style freedom. These facts seem self-evident and logical.

What gives the lie to this "common sense" perception is the fact that the Cuban Revolution still survives to this day. The Revolution has survived 57 years through 11 U.S. Presidents, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis, a 54-year embargo, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the 2008 worldwide economic crisis. How is this possible?

How has Cuba — which could be called a puny, poor, Third World island — stymied the mightiest military force on Earth for over half a century? Think about it. For a while the Soviet Union stood behind Cuba but that ended 25 years ago in 1991. For the past quarter century Cuba has stood largely alone and presumably vulnerable. Why hasn’t the U.S. invaded Cuba and freed its people?

The United States is hardly bashful when it comes to invading other countries. To name just a few: Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Bolivia, Cambodia, Grenada, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Liberia, Niger, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Zaire.

Cubans Overwhelmingly Support the Revolution

The U.S. has invaded all these countries and more — so why not Cuba? The answer is quite simple.

Like the Bay of Pigs in 1961, it would go very badly! Contrary to its propaganda, the U.S. government recognizes that the Cuban Revolution is supported overwhelmingly by its people. It knows that an invasion of Cuba would have to be fought house by house through the cities and countryside. The U.S. knows it can't just capture Havana, arrest or kill the Castros, and expect the masses to come pouring into the streets in celebration. And I assure you, no dictatorship is powerful enough to keep people fighting to the last man or woman long after the dictator himself has been killed or neutralized.

It is simply not true that Cubans hate Fidel, Raúl and socialism. If they did, the United States military could have swept in and settled things long ago. What's to stop them? Soviet missiles are long gone. Cuba doesn't have the kind of military weaponry possessed by the United States and other industrialized capitalist countries.

However, Cuba does possess another strength that scares the U.S. ruling class to its core. It possesses the strength of example. It stands as living proof of what working people can accomplish when they take power into their owns hands and run society for the benefit of all. This is an example that working people everywhere can emulate — and must, ultimately, if humanity is to survive.

I can hear it now. "Emulate?! Socialism is a failure! Look at the shortages. Look at the crumbling buildings. Look at the ancient cars. We're supposed to emulate that?!

Is Cuban Socialism a Failure?

After imposing a half-century embargo, I find it laughably arrogant for the United States to wag its finger at Cuba and declare socialism a failure. Not only has the U.S. maintained this embargo for 54 years, it's strong armed other countries to go along. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act, for instance, applies restrictions and penalties to other countries if they trade with Cuba. Ships that dock in Cuba cannot dock in the U.S. for six months. Ships can’t just cool their heels for half a year, so they have to decide: dock in Cuba or dock in the United States, but not both.

Cuba may be an island, but no country is an island onto itself. All countries need to import and export. Imagine what things would look like today in the United States if we had been prevented from trading since 1962!

It is true that Cuba lacks the vast consumer goods we enjoy here. But Cuban socialism has not failed — not by any stretch. Just the opposite when you consider what Cuba has been up against! Despite decades of hostility and interference, these are just a few of the things that “failed” socialism in Cuba has accomplished:

All this isn't to say that life in Cuba is free of challenge and hardship. Shortages, for instance, can make day-to-day life quite difficult and frustrating. But accomplishments like the ones above are remarkable for a small island nation working under the grinding burden of blockade and embargo. Imagine the possibilities if a society like Cuba could function on a level playing field with the rest of the world! They seem almost limitless.


A bedrock principle of Cuba's socialist revolution is Internationalism. Cuba has endured relentless pressure since the revolution and could have turned inward, licking its wounds and focusing solely on its own needs. The leadership of the revolution — Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and others — knew this would sign Cuba's death warrant. The way to survive is to reach out in solidarity with the world and help others survive. Cuba has done this, sometimes at great cost and peril. But not doing so would have placed the country and revolution at even greater peril. In the words of Fidel, "Those not willing to fight for the freedom of others will never be ready to fight for their own."

Cuba has worked to empower poor and Third World countries politically, militarily and socially. They've provided volunteer troops, military training, political guidance and strategy, teachers, doctors, medical education and more. Cuba has assisted countries seeking to achieve or defend their independence. It's helped countries coping with disease, earthquakes and hurricanes. Assistance was even offered to the United States after Hurricane Katherina. And, Cuba works to assist oppressed minorities and the poor in the wealthy industrialized countries.

Perhaps no better example of Internationalism exists than the role Cuba played in defeating Apartheid in South Africa.

South Africa

In the mid-1970s South Africa was afraid that neighboring Angola would establish independence after Portuguese colonialism collapsed. To try and prevent this, South African troops invaded Angola in October 1975. Troops from Zaire did the same. All this had U.S. support. At the urgent request of Angola's provincial government, Cuba mobilized 650 volunteers overnight who rushed to Angola's defense and repelled the invaders.

South Africa tried again in 1987 with another invasion. This time South Africa was totally crushed by over 50,000 Cuban volunteers in March 1988 at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. This was the beginning of the end for South Africa's racist system. The ruling National Party was compelled to enter talks with the African National Congress (ANC) that resulted in the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990. Elections establishing majority rule were held in April 1994.

Altogether, over 375,000 Cuban volunteers fought in Angola during the 70s and 80s, 2000 of whom died. Cuba's fight in Angola not only helped break apartheid, it led as well to Namibia winning its independence.

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A Special Report

Section Headers

‣ Why Hasn't the U.S. Invaded Cuba?
‣ Cubans Overwhelmingly Support the Revolution
‣ Is Cuban Socialism a Failure?

South Africa
Cuban Medical Missions

Cuban-Americans in Miami celebrate the death of Fidel Castro.

Democracy Now! presented this overview of Cuba's role supporting African independence movements including the fight in Angola against South Africa and apartheid.

This excerpt from the 2001 documentary, Fidel: The Untold Story, looks at Cuba's role in Africa and the close bond of friendship and solidarity between Cuba and South Africa.

In another broadcast, Democracy Now! looked further at Cuba's role in overturning apartheid.

This is how the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) reported the death of Fidel Castro and reflected on his life.

In an interview with SABC after Fidel's death, former South African President Thabo Mbkei describes in great depth how Cuba assisted Black resistance in South Africa militarily and with practical guidance for confronting political challenges.

In another SABC interview, current South African President Jacob Zuma remembers Fidel Castro.

Cuban Medical Missions

Cuba dispatches doctors across the globe providing vital medical services, usually in areas that have too few doctors or none at all. Cuba began this tradition shortly after the 1959 revolution when it aided Chile following a 9.5 earthquake — despite the fact that half of Cuba's 6000 doctors had just fled due to the revolution. Cuba has continued these missions ever since.

In 2015 Cuba's international medical program was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The nomination reported that since the revolution over 325,000 Cuban medical volunteers have provided assistance to 158 countries — far exceeding services provided by any of the wealthy industrialized nations or even the World Health Organization (WHO). As of January 2015, almost 52,000 Cuban medical personnel were then working in 67 countries.

One example is Cuba's role is fighting Ebola in Liberia. As reported by the World Health Organization, Cuba sent 53 specially-trained medical personnel to Liberia in 2014 to fight the outbreak. It was the largest team from any single country.

This report by Chinese Central Television (CCTV America) looks at the doctors and nurses under consideration to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their work combatting Ebola in West Africa. They were nominated by Norway.

Another example is Cuba's work in Haiti. Cuban has been providing direct medical aid in Haiti since 1998 and has also trained at least 1000 Haitian doctors for free. They've played a critical role in fighting cholera, comprising the largest foreign contingent doing so. When Haiti was hit with a 7.0 earthquake in January 2010, there were already 350 Cuban doctors on the ground who responded immediately. Then again this past Fall when Haiti was struck by Hurricane Matthew, Cuba immediately sent 38 doctors to join the 600 doctors already there at the time.

In addition to the hands-on care and assistance that Cuba provides directly, it works tirelessly to develop the medical capacities of other countries so they can help themselves. The World Health Organization has published a report stating that "Cuba has become a global leader in the South-South transfer of technology, helping low-income countries develop their own domestic biotech capabilities, providing technical training, and facilitating access to low-cost lifesaving drugs to combat diseases such as meningitis B and hepatitis B.”

In a very different mode, Cuba has joined forces with Qatar, a Gulf state in the Middle East, to open " The Cuban Hospital" in Dukhan. This unique hospital combines the very best state-of-the-art technology with the ethics and philosophy of Cuban medicine. It demonstrates what is truly possible when resources are available and prioritized towards meeting human needs. It's a one-of-a-kind facility.

This video is clearly a promotional piece created with very high production values. It's very polished. This is Qatar, after all. Nonetheless it presents a compelling picture of the potential of Cuban medicine when not constrained by embargo and other challenges.

At home, Cuba is recognized as the first country in the world to eliminate polio in the 1960s and more recently it’s become the first country to prevent transmission of HIV between infected mothers and their babies. And it's working on a lung cancer breakthrough.

This report by CCTV America reports on Cuba's accomplishment in preventing HIV transmission to a mother's fetus.

‣ Cuba Provides Free Medical Education
‣ Cuba & the U.S. Black Community

‣ Was Fidel a Dictator?
‣ Fulgencio Batista
‣ LGBT Rights in Cuba

In Closing...
What's Next for the Cuban Revolution?
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