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Fidel Castro’s declarations of resistance

Review by Alex Miller

The Declarations of Havana,
by Fidel Castro, with an introduction by Tariq Ali,
Verso, 2008, 138 pages

May 22, 2009 -- As Cuba celebrates the 50th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, it is fitting that three of the most famous documents relating to the struggle against Batista and the early days of the revolution are published together in a single volume. The Declarations of Havana is part of Verso’s new “revolutions” series.

By reading the three documents back-to-back, one is able to trace the development of the Cuban Revolution from its nationalist-democratic beginnings to its socialist conclusion.

On July 26, 1953, a 26-year-old lawyer named Fidel Castro — along with his younger brother Raul — led an armed attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, hoping to spark an uprising that would remove the hated Batista from power.

The attempt failed, and Fidel was captured a few days later. He was tried a couple of months later. The first document in the volume — History Will Absolve Me — is the text of the speech Fidel delivered at the trial in his own defence.

In his speech, Fidel — who had been held in solitary confinement for 76 days — details the torture and murder committed against the members of the armed uprising who were captured by Batista’s troops. He also outlines the revolutionary program of his movement on land, industrialisation, housing, unemployment, education and health.

Fidel’s legal defence was that Batista’s regime had no legal right to try him because it had itself violated the 1940 constitution by seizing power by force of arms. It is striking that Fidel’s eloquent speech is couched in terms that imply the revolution was not socialist, but bourgeois-democratic and nationalist in nature at that stage.

Fidel mentions the “great financial interests” standing behind Batista and rails against the associated “cold calculations of profits”. In defending the attempted uprising, however, he mentions the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, revolutions in which the rising bourgeoisie broke the bonds of feudalism.

And although he mentions the “socialist currents” in the 1940 constitution, the political philosophers he quotes are not Marx, Engels or Lenin, but Montesquieu, Locke and Rousseau.

It is a remarkable and powerful speech, displaying outstanding courage and the great oratorical powers that would later make Fidel famous. In addition to the thinkers mentioned above, he quotes Balzac, Dante, Milton, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Paine, Calvin, Knox and many others.

The speech ends with the ringing words of defiance that have earned it its title: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”

Fidel was sentenced to 15 years, but — along with Raul — was released as part of an amnesty in 1955. In October of the following year, Fidel — along with Che Guevara and 80 other rebels — set sail in the yacht Granma in another attempt at removing Batista.

What followed was one of the most remarkable and heroic episodes of the struggle against tyranny in the 20th century. On landing, the rebels were surprised by an ambush. The 15 survivors — including Fidel, Raul and Che — fled in three separate groups into the impenetrable forests of the Sierra Maestra.

Despite starting with only nine weapons between them, just over two years later, with the support of the vast majority of Cuba’s rural and urban workers and students, the Rebel Army routed Batista’s forces. The dictator hastily fled the country.

A revolutionary government was established. Despite enormous odds it has survived to this day as an inspiration and source of practical assistance to people struggling against oppression the world over.

The second document in the volume — known as The First Declaration of Havana — is the text of the speech given by Fidel — now leader of a revolutionary government — before 1 million Cubans in Havana’s Revolution Square on September 2, 1960.

It is a remarkable proclamation of defiance. A glance at even one paragraph of the speech shows why Fidel was quickly demonised by the United States:

“The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba proclaims before America the right of peasants to the land; the right of the workers to the fruits of their labour; the right of children to receive education; the right of the sick to receive medical and hospital care; the right of the young to work; the right of students to receive free instruction, practical and scientific; the right of Negroes and Indians to ‘a full measure of human dignity’; the right of women to civic, social and political equality; the right of the aged to a secure old age; the right of intellectuals, artists and scientists to fight through their work for a better world; the right of states to nationalise imperialist monopolies as a means of recovering national wealth and resources; the right of countries to engage freely in trade with all other countries of the world; the right of nations to full sovereignty; the right of the people to convert their fortresses into schools and to arm their workers, peasants, students, intellectuals, Negroes, Indians, women, the young and the old, all the oppressed and exploited, that they may better defend with their own hands their rights and their future.”

The talk of “nationalising imperialist monopolies”, together with attacks on the US for its persecution of communists and communist sympathisers, shows how the revolution was heading leftwards from its nationalist-democratic starting point.

The leftward trajectory of the Cuban Revolution is even more pronounced in The Second Declaration of Havana, a speech delivered by Castro on February 4, 1962, in the year following the revolution’s defeat of the US-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

Although the speech begins with a quote from Jose Marti, the great 19th century defender of Cuban independence, the speech quickly becomes explicitly Marxist. Capitalism and imperialism are identified as the enemies to be defeated by socialism.

At one point, Fidel quotes Marx’s claim that “capital comes into the world dripping from head to foot from every pore with blood and mire”. The speech develops the idea — associated most with Che — that active and armed opposition to imperialism should, wherever possible, replace the more conservative and gradualist approach to the spread of socialism favoured by the Soviet leadership.

Nearly 50 years afterwards, one of the main assertions of the speech remains as relevant and as potent as it did then: “What Cuba can give to the people, and has already given, is its example. And what does the Cuban revolution teach? That revolution is possible, that the people can make it, that in the contemporary world there are no forces capable of halting the liberation movement of the peoples.”

As the world capitalist system crumbles before our very eyes, Fidel’s message, and Cuba’s example, are more crucial than ever.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #796, May 27, 2009.]

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