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Fidel Castro & the Cuban Revolution

Saturday, December 31, 2016

© 2016 Robert C. Laycock

Just Sayin'

A Blog by

Bob Laycock

Typewriter courtesy of Alan Seaver

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Was Fidel a Dictator?

I find the U.S. government's objection to Fidel Castro as a "dictator" curious at best and disingenuous at worst.

First, Fidel was not a dictator — although from our perspective and norms in the United States I can see that it appears he was. He served from the beginning until he fell ill, and his brother Raúl still does. As I've tried to show above, I think it's clear Fidel served at the will of the people. Cuba marches to a different drummer than the U.S. It's conception of democracy is different than ours. Cuba follows a system of elections and leadership selection that is consistent with its values and ethics, not ours. In Cuba's way of thinking, you are not truly free if you're poor, homeless, illiterate and sick. Sadly this describes the life of far too many Americans.

Cuba has a 1-party system which I know many Americans see as conclusive proof that it's not democratic. I can see how people would feel this way. But I would ask my readers if we truly have two parties here. We're all familiar with the description of Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum. In any event, this issue is a huge topic all its own and beyond the scope of this article. I'll simply let the Cubans address it themselves. Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, talks about this in an interview below.

But for the sake of argument here, let's say that Fidel was indeed a dictator. Why does the U.S. government object to this? The U.S. has a long tradition of supporting dictators — starting with Fulgencio Batista himself who ruled Cuba before the revolution. The United States had no objection to Batista despite the fact that he seized power in a coup in 1953 and prevented elections. The U.S. government formally recognized his government soon after. Could it have anything to do with all the sugar that U.S. corporations could control and profit from? Just a thought...

Fulgencio Batista

Batista ran a cruel police state that protected organized crime, gambling, prostitution and U.S. corporate profits while condemning millions to poverty, hunger and sickness. When Fidel spoke at the UN General Assembly in 1960 he described conditions in Cuba when Batista fled the revolution.

Three million out of a population of somewhat over six million did not have electric lights and did not enjoy the advantages and comforts of electricity. Three and a half million out of a total of slightly more than six million lived in huts, shacks and slums, without the slightest sanitary facilities. In the cities, rents took almost one-third of family incomes. Electricity rates and rents were among the highest in the world.

Some 37.5 percent of our population were illiterate; 70 per cent of the rural children had no teachers; 2 per cent of population suffered from tuberculosis — that is to say, 100,000 persons out of a little of more than six million. Ninety-five per cent of the children in rural areas suffered from parasites. Infant mortality was astronomical. Life expectancy was very low.

On the other hand, 85 per cent of the small farmers were paying rents for the use of land up to 30 per cent of their income, while 1.5 percent of the landowners controlled 46 per cent of the total area of the country. Of course, the proportion of hospital beds to the number of inhabitants of the country was ridiculously low compared with countries that only have halfway decent medical services.

Public utilities, electricity and telephone services all belonged to the U.S. monopolies. A major portion of the banking, importing, and oil refining; the majority of  sugar production; the best land; and the most important industries in all fields in Cuba belonged to U.S. companies.

The next video is unique, to say the least. Errol Flynn of Robinhood fame did a 1959 documentary entitled The Cuban Story: The Truth about Fidel Castro Revolution. I present the opening 10 minutes here. The film is almost comical with Flynn's campy narration, but it nonetheless contains interesting footage and information showing life in Cuba under Batista.

American actor Errol Flynn narrated a 1959 documentary, The Cuban Story: The Truth about Fidel Castro Revolution. This excerpt is the opening 10 minutes of the film.

Batista is just one of many dictators the United States has supported. To name a few others: the Shah of Iran (Iran), Augusto Pinochet (Chile), Manuel Noriega (Panama), Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines), Mobutu Sese Seko (Zaire), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), the Somoza family (Nicaragua), Jean-Claude Duvalier (Haiti), Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo), and Francisco Franco (Spain).

And there are more. So then... What exactly is the problem if Fidel were a dictator too?

The problem is the Cuban Revolution itself — what it represents and whose interests it serves. The Cuban government put an end to the impoverishment of the people. It enacted a land reform so the people would have a home and food. It set out to educate everyone through a nationwide literacy campaign. It provided medical care. It ended the plunder of Cuba's resources by U.S. capital. It showed the Cuban people that they have the power to control their destiny.

The United States found all of this intolerable and unforgivable. This is at the root of all the hatred, lies and attacks against Cuba for over a half century — and continuing to this day. The United States says it cares about freedom and liberty, but not in the way it sounds. It cares whether it has freedom and liberty to exploit labor and materials for profit. Of course the U.S. prefers if this can be accomplished in a U.S.-style democracy. It's easier, cheaper and it looks better. But if not, the U.S. has demonstrated that it's willing to utilize dictatorship instead — case in point, Fulgencio Batista.

A particularly sickening example of U.S. hostility towards Cuba has been its reaction to the literacy campaign. After the Revolution, students and young people spread out across the island in a campaign to teach everyone everywhere to read. Opponents of the revolution couldn't stomach the idea of a literate educated peasantry and working class and tried to prevent it. In March 1960 President Dwight Eisenhower approved a campaign that attacked and murdered literacy teachers and students. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency helped coordinate this operation which killed 23 teachers and students, and wounded 37. The first killed was Conrado Benitez Garcia , an 18-year-old Black man. He's remembered to this day as a hero of the revolution.

LGBT Rights in Cuba

As a gay person, there's something of an elephant in the room when I defend of Cuba. Some of my LGBT friends have wondered how I can support the Cuban Revolution given its treatment of gays.

Gays have had it quite bad in Cuba in the past. As I said in the opening of this article, I don't defend everything Fidel has done. Fidel personally, and Che also, have been openly hostile to the gay community. Things have improved greatly, but prejudice still remains.

This needs to be discussed frankly because it's important, but I think perspective and proportion are required. Some LGBT people I know reject Fidel and the Cuban Revolution out of hand over the gay issue. Yet these same people have no trouble supporting the U.S. overall, or the church if they're Catholic. They obviously disapprove of certain anti-gay politicians, laws, or policies — but they don't summarily reject these institutions across-the-board. I would simply challenge these individuals not to confine their assessment of Cuba to this single issue alone.

In the early days of the revolution gays were anathema. Che would call gays "faggots" (in Spanish) and Fidel made this statement,

We would never come to believe that a homosexual could embody the conditions and requirements of conduct that would enable us to consider him a true revolutionary, a true communist militant. A deviation of that nature clashes with the concept we have of what a militant communist should be.

Gays were rounded up and placed in prison work camps called Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP). According to PinkNews,

Those who experienced the labour camps report being beaten, threatened with execution, stuffed with dirt in their mouths, buried in the ground up to their neck, and tied up naked outside in barbed wire without food or water until fainting.

According to an official state newspaper report in 1966, the labour camps were the idea of Fidel Castro himself, after seeing similar examples on a visit to the Soviet Union, and were enacted by current Cuban President, Raúl Castro.

In a documentary aired on HBO, one trans woman says she has to wear sunglasses for her whole life after her eyes were bleached with acid thrown in her face while incarcerated.

There is no way to dismiss or excuse this treatment, but it needs to be understood in the context of time, culture and politics.

Time. First, from the standpoint of time. The Cuban Revolution took place in 1959 which was not exactly a friendly time in most of the world for LGBT people. Life in the U.S. certainly wasn't warm and welcoming. Stonewall didn't happen here until 1969, 10 years after the Cuban Revolution. Nor did gays advance much legally in the 10 years following Stonewall — yet in 1979 Cuba decriminalized gay relationships between consenting adults. Seven years later, in 1986, sodomy laws in the U.S. were upheld by the Supreme Court (Bowers v. Hardwick). The penalty in some cases was life imprisonment.  It wasn't until 2003 — 24 years after Cuba — that same-sex relationships were decisively legalized in all 50 states (Lawrence v. Texas).

Legality in Cuba didn't mean acceptance, however. Prejudice and discrimination continued. Like everywhere, LGBT people in Cuba have had to fight, and continue to. Things are improving now in Cuba as they are here. Cuba lags the United States on same-sex marriage, yet Cuba provides free sex change operations while transgendered people here are being banned from bathrooms by hostile lawmakers. Cuba has banned discrimination in employment since 2014 while in the U.S. efforts to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) have failed year after year. Now the proposed First Amendment Defense Act threatens to legalize wholesale discrimination against gays.

Culture. Next there's culture. Cuba is part of Latin-America which has something of a reputation for its "machismo" tradition. I'm not an expert or even judging here, except to note that gays seem to have an extra hurdle to jump in cultures that emphasize heightened masculinity. Accounts I hear indicate this has been part of the challenge for gays in Cuba.

Politics. And finally politics. Cuba was very much influenced politically in the early years by Stalinism through its association and alliance with the Soviet Union. A detailed explanation and review of Stalinism is way beyond my scope here but some discussion is essential to understanding homophobia and gay oppression in Cuba.

When the Bolsheviks overthrew Czarist rule in Russia in 1917 one of their early acts was to abolish all laws against homosexuality and homosexual relationships. It remained that way for years until Joseph Stalin took power in a counter-revolution against the Bolsheviks and their Marxist program. Among the many horrible things Stalin did was to re-criminalize homosexuality.

The reasons for this counter-revolution are complex and were rooted in the specific regional and world situations at that time. The Soviet Union was then the first and only socialist revolution in existence. Being the only game in town this enabled Stalinism to masquerade as "socialism" and "Marxism" while in reality it's a perversion of them. This continued for decades, and was still the case when the Soviet Union was in Cuba. This Stalinist influence on Cuba was, shall I say, not altogether positive — yet for a period Cuba's alliance with the Soviet Union was critical to its survival and defense.

These next two videos look at the treatment and conditions that LGBT people endured in Cuba.

This report by the AFP News Agency looks at  the past treatment of gays and the skepticism of some that a recent apology by Fidel is sincere.

This report by Wochit News is clearly hostile to the Cuban Revolution, describing Fidel's "long overdue death," but it presents a bit of the history of Cuba's treatment of gays.

Eventually Fidel and the Cuban leadership came to see that the Soviet model was causing problems on many levels and began to move away from it. This began years before the Soviet Union collapsed.

Gays slowly benefited from this change. Fidel later came to understand the error in his prior attitude towards gays and the government's treatment of LGBT people. He publicly acknowledged it and apologized.

His conversion on this question may well have been a family affair as his married heterosexual neice, Mariela Castro Espin, has become a vocal champion of the LGBT community. As Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela has been in a unique position to press her father and uncle on the issue. She also now sits in the National Assembly of People's Power where her voice and influence is even stronger.

These next videos look at the work of Mariela Castro and the progress being made today in Cuba on LGBT rights.

This report by Chinese Central Television (CCTV America) reports on changing attitudes in Cuba on homosexuality and the work being done by Mariela Castro.

This is a short filmed produced by the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) in Cuba, a government-funded organization that promotes LGBT rights. Mariela Castro is Director of CENESEX.

Daily Xtra Online interviewed Mariela Castro.

In closing...

...the past treatment of LGBT people in Cuba is disturbing. I don't defend it but am pleased at least that things are now improving. Prejudice remains as was evident in the videos, but it is now being fought by the leadership the same as they continue the fight against racism and discrimination against women.

The Cuban Revolution didn't settle all questions and create an instant perfect society. The revolution is a process as people fight to improve society and transform themselves in the process. Prejudices going back centuries can't be extinguished in just a generation, or indeed several generations. Clearly we haven't done it here. But Cuba has an advantage over our capitalist society. Profit has been eliminated — and with it a built-in motive to divide working people against each other by race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other basis.

What's Next for the Cuban Revolution?

This is a decision that should be left to the Cuban people alone without any interference from the outside — least of all the United States.

Cubans across the country are pledging to continue the revolution, expand it and go forward. This will take commitment and resolution because this could be a dangerous period for the country and its people. The U.S. has treated Cuba with unrelenting hostility. Cubans had the gaul and audacity to stand up for themselves and create the society they want in their own sovereign country. The U.S. has never reconciled itself and could try to exploit what it perceives as an "opportunity" to exert its will on the Cuban people.

What's Next for the Cuban Revolution? It's too early to tell what policies and actions President-Elect Trump will pursue, but his statements and tweets suggest that hostilities will continue. "If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” he tweeted, referring to recent easing of pressure by President Obama.

Of course Trump means the same as all presidents have since 1959: "If Cuba is unwilling to make [the deal the United States wants] for the Cuban people... I will terminate the deal."

Want More Information?

Cuba is an important country. It's also complex and widely misunderstood here in the U.S. I find most people with strong opinions against Cuba have never read the speeches and writings by Fidel, Che or other Cuban leaders. They've never heard them talk beyond brief soundbites. They've never read any books or articles sympathetic to the revolution. All they've usually read or seen is criticism from the U.S. government, newspapers, magazines, radio and TV.

Even if some of this information has merit, one can't form a reasoned opinion from hearing just one side of a debate. It probably never occurs to some that there even is another side. That's a big reason I've written this post, been so thorough, included citations and tried to make it accessible with videos.

Pathfinder Press is a publishing house that concentrates on working class history and politics, both here and internationally. It publishes an extensive list of titles on Cuba, most written by Cubans in their own words including the speeches and writings of Fidel and Che. If you've never seen or read some of this first-hand information, I strongly encourage you to do so.

Time Magazine is among the many publications assessing Fidel Castro's legacy, the revolution
and Cuba's future.

View other Blog Entries.

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