Havana in mourning: ‘We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not Communist’

The Guardian reports: Cuba woke to the news of Fidel Castro’s death with a mixture of shock, grief and uncertainty about the new era it might usher in.

With very few homes connected to the internet, most people found out by television or radio, though many were asleep when the announcement was made.

Castro died at 10:29pm on Friday, but it was not until more than an hour later that the Cuban public were informed in a midnight broadcast by the president, Raul Castro.

The news was not unexpected. In his final months, the elderly comandante had said goodbye in thinly veiled public statements. But for many – particularly those who had lived through the 1960s – it was still a shock.

In a southern suburb of the city, the Rodríguez family watched in a stunned silence that continued long after the broadcast had ended. “El Caballo is dead,” said Leo Rodríguez, finally, referring to Castro by his nickname of “The Horse”, as his voice cracked with emotion.

The airport worker is a devoted Fidelista who still drapes a revolutionary flag from his apartment window on national day. He met his wife Clarita at the Union of Young Communists. They credit the government for subsidised housing, free university education and free healthcare, which is of particular importance to their daughter who needs to see a doctor every two weeks for treatment of a chronic condition.

Given such benefits, they expect huge crowds to gather at the capital’s Plaza de la Revolución to show their respect. “The plaza will be overflowing,” Clarita predicted.

Their neighbour was also shocked. Like many in her generation, 36-year-old Mariana Valdés hates the restrictions imposed on free speech and Cuba and has long wished the “dictatorship” would collapse. But she was in tears when she heard the news. “Of course I’m crying,” she said. “We Cubans are Fidelista even if we are not Communist.” [Continue reading…]

Richard Gott writes: The return to power by coup d’etat in 1952 of the old dictator, Fulgencio Batista, seemed to rule out the traditional road to political power for the young lawyer, and an impatient Castro embraced the cause of insurrection, common in those years in the unstable countries that bordered the Caribbean. On 26 July 1953, he led a group of revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the dictator by seizing the second largest military base in the country, the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba.

The attack was a dismal failure, and many of the erstwhile rebels were captured and killed. Castro himself survived, to make a notable speech from the dock – “history will absolve me” – outlining his political programme. It became the classic text of the 26th of July Movement that he was later to organise, using the failed Moncada attack as a rallying cry to unite the anti-Batista opposition into a single political force.

Granted an amnesty two years later, Castro was exiled to Mexico. With his brother Raúl, he prepared a group of armed fighters to assist the civilian resistance movement. Soon he had met and enrolled in his band an Argentinian doctor, Che Guevara, whose name was to be irrevocably linked to the revolution. Castro’s tiny force sailed from Mexico to Cuba in December 1956 in the Granma, a small and leaky motor vessel. Landing in the east of the island after a rough crossing, the rebel band was attacked and almost annihilated by Batista’s forces. A few members of Castro’s troop survived to struggle up the impenetrable mountains of the Sierra Maestra. There they tended their wounds, regained their strength, made contact with the local peasants, and established links with the opposition in the city of Santiago.

Throughout 1957 and 1958, Castro’s guerrilla band grew in strength and daring. They had no blueprint. Their first aim had been to survive. Only later did revolutionary theorists develop the notion that the very existence of an armed struggle in rural areas might help to define the course of civilian politics, putting the dictatorship on to the defensive, and forcing squabbling opposition groups to unite behind the guerrilla banner. Yet that is what took place in Cuba. Civilian parties and opposition movements were forced to accept orders from the guerrillas in the hills, and even the conservative and unadventurous Communist party of Cuba eventually came to bow the knee to Castro in the summer of 1958. By December that year, Guevara had captured the central city of Santa Clara, and on New Year’s Eve, Batista fled the country. In January 1959, Castro, aged 30, arrived in triumph in Havana. The Cuban revolution had begun.

His early programme was one of radical reform, comparable to that espoused by populist governments in Latin America over the previous 30 years. The expropriation of large estates, the nationalisation of foreign enterprises and the establishment of schools and clinics throughout the island were the initial demands of his movement.

Like most Latin American leftwingers at that time, Castro was influenced by Marxism – whatever that might mean in the Latin American context, about which Marx himself had little to say. In practice it meant a warm feeling for the (far away) Russian revolution, and a strong dislike of (nearby) Yankee “imperialism”. Radicals were familiar with the historical tendency of the US to interfere in Latin America in general and Cuba in particular – economically all the time and militarily at all too frequent intervals. This leftist inclination did not usually involve much enthusiasm for the local Communist party which, in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America (except in Chile), had always been small and lacking influence. Castro himself was not a communist, though his brother had strong sympathies, as did Guevara. [Continue reading…]

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