Fidel Castro Ruz emerged as an important leader of the Cuban Revolution on July 26, 1953, when he led 126 youth in an armed attack of the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. The purpose of the attack was to attain arms for the launching of a guerrilla struggle in the nearby mountains. If the assailants had succeeded in taking the barracks, they would have proclaimed revolutionary laws, including agrarian reform, profit sharing for workers and employees, confiscation of properties fraudulently acquired, and reestablishment of the Constitution of 1940.
In deciding to organize the Moncada attack, Fidel draw upon a sensitive understanding of Cuban political culture. It had been twenty years since the collapse of the revolutionary government of 100 days. From 1933 to 1953, revolutionary hopes and the soul of the nation remained alive, as a result of an intellectual class whose works proclaimed an ethical attitude in the face of government corruption. However, by 1953, there had emerged a profound frustration and a belief that an ethical attitude in response to the corrupt political establishment was not enough. The people yearned for a move beyond attitude to action. Their yearnings were fulfilled by the Moncada attack, which they perceived as a heroic action, inasmuch as 70 of the young assailants were killed. The Moncada attack galvanized the people, and it placed Fidel at the head of a new stage in the Cuban Revolution.
As the revolution unfolded, Fidel demonstrated an understanding of the importance of unity in the struggle and a capacity to forge unification. Four historic moments stand out in this regard. The first was the uniting of the popular sectors and anti-Batista political forces in a unified political struggle to bring down the dictator. Since 1953, Fidel had called all of the people to the struggle, whether they be agricultural workers, industrial workers, professionals, businesspersons, or unemployed; and he brought them on board with a politically intelligent platform that responded to the grievances of the various sectors of the people. When the revolution took power on January 1, 1959, Fidel included bourgeois and pro-imperialist members of the Cuban bourgeoisie in the initial revolutionary government, with the intention of keeping the anti-Batista coalition intact until the revolutionary leadership was ready for the inevitable break with the reformist and conservative opposition to Batista.
The rupture of the anti-Batista coalition came on May 17, 1959, with the signing of the Agrarian Reform Law. Constituting a decisive break with the neocolonial order, the Agrarian Reform Law defined the Cuban Revolution as a radical revolutionary project, determined to affect a social transformation within the nation as well as a necessary restructuring of global structures that had defined Cuba’s role as a supplier of cheap raw materials and a purchaser of surplus manufacturing goods. With this historic rupture, the unification of the revolutionary forces became indispensable. Fidel maintained the support of the various popular sectors through decisive action by the revolutionary government, including agrarian reform, protection of employment, confiscation of property of persons associated with the Batista regime, intervention in foreign-owned utility companies that imposed exorbitant prices, and reduction in housing rents, all steps taken in 1959; and the nationalization of companies, both national and foreign-owned, in 1960. At the same time, Fidel began to work on the unification of the revolutionary organizations, including the 26 of July Movement, created and led by Fidel; the March 13 Revolutionary Directory, a student organization; and the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), the old communist party. These efforts culminated in the formation of a new Communist Party of Cuba in 1965, a political structure designed to formulate the necessary direction of the revolution, making recommendations to assemblies of popular power.
The third historic moment in which Fidel proclaimed and sought to form a necessary political unity came in the period 1979 to 1983, when Cuba served as president of the Non-Aligned Movement. Fidel called for the unity of the governments, movements, and peoples of the Third World, for the purpose of cooperation in the construction of a New International Economic Order, a project approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1974. At the 1983 Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in New Delhi, with the global powers turning to the imposition of the neoliberal project on the governments of the Third World, the wisdom of Fidel did not prevail. But the voice of Fidel remained as an important prophetic proclamation, never forgotten by the neocolonized and excluded peoples of the earth.
Fidel again played an important unifying role, calling upon the unity of the Latin American anti-imperialist movements, during the post-1994 renewal of the Latin America popular movements. With Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the head of the progressive Workers’ Party in Brazil, Fidel had initiated in 1990 the birth of the Sao Paulo Forum, an organization of Latin American social movements and political parties of the Left. And in 2004, with Hugo Chávez, he formed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), which was the first decisive step in a process of Latin American unity, culminating in the formation of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in 2010. CELAC consists of the governments of the 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the revolutionary government of Cuba has played a central role in its initial stages of development.
The unifying internationalist vision of Fidel sees the necessity of the unity of anti-imperialist forces, unity in defense of the sovereignty of the neocolonized nations, including cooperation between reformist and revolutionary tendencies, united on a foundation of common goals and with respect for differences. Here it is useful to distinguish between reform from above and reform from below. Reform from above is conceived by the powerful, and it either (1) supports concessions to the popular sectors in order to pacify them, deliberately deceiving the people into thinking that it seeks fundamental change; or (2) fails to envision the fundamental structural changes that are necessary to carry out its vision of reform. In contrast, reform from below seeks long-term structural transformations, but it seeks changes that are limited in the short term, as a necessary political strategy in the existing conditions. The difference between revolution and reform from below is not great, taking into account that a triumphant revolution cannot transform conditions overnight and must move step-by-step. Cooperation between revolution and reform from below in many cases is possible and necessary. In accordance with this understanding, Fidel discerned the political advisability of cooperation between anti-imperialist and anti-neocolonial political tendencies of Latin America and the Third World. He was in his final years an important voice calling for the necessary unity of Latin America and the Third World, without rejecting the possibility of North-South cooperation, made necessary by global economic, political, and ecological conditions.
The understanding of Fidel emerged in the context of political action. Seeking to accomplish political goals in defense of the popular sectors and of national sovereignty, he formulated understandings of the political, economic, cultural, and ideological context in which such goals had to be attained. He formulated his theory of a political party, for example, in the context of seeking to form a political party that would guide the nation. Likewise, he formulated his understanding of neocolonial dynamics in the context of seeking to lead a nation in the defense of its sovereignty, in a world-system that is organized to deny the sovereignty of the nations. Fidel’s understanding, therefore, profoundly illustrates the relation between theory and practice.
Fidel understood the need to form a vanguard political party. As early as 1961, Fidel was speaking of the importance of replacing the direction of the revolution by one person, necessary up to that time, with a collective leadership of a vanguard political party. This process began in the 1960s with the formation of the Cuban Communist Party. It evolved for the next four decades, during which time the Party grew in the capacities of its members, but it was constrained by the unavoidable charismatic presence of Fidel. The process advanced considerably from 2009 to 2016, as a consequence of Fidel’s retirement, for reasons of health. Today, the revolutionary project is direct by Raúl Castro, who also possesses charismatic authority. But Raúl has encouraged the increasing leadership of the Party in the revolutionary process, such that the structures of a revolutionary project directed by a vanguard political party are today prepared.
Prior to my first arrival in Cuba in 1993, I could not avoid the influence of the political culture and the academic assumptions of the United States, in spite of my persistent commitment to seeking understanding through encounter with the Third World. Accordingly, I had believed that underlying social forces shape revolutionary processes. However, as I encountered revolutionary Cuba and studied the speeches of Fidel, I arrived to understand that his capacity to understand is so exceptional that it defies explanation. And I came to appreciate that many Cubans had discerned this, and thus their own revolutionary commitment was expressed as a commitment to the leadership of Fidel, and today, to the teachings of Fidel.
Stimulated by the example of Fidel and Cuba, as I studied revolutions in other nations, I could not avoid seeing the importance of charismatic leadership in revolutionary processes. The paradigmatic examples are Fidel, Ho and Mao. In their nations today, vanguard political parties lead their nations and educate the people, forging a scientifically based consensus among the people, thus avoiding the politically motivated conflicts that make representative democracies dysfunctional. Other charismatic leaders have emerged in Latin America today: Chávez in Venezuela, Evo in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Although these revolutionary processes are in the early stages in their development, they have played a leading role in transforming the political reality of Latin America and in cooperating with Cuba, China and Vietnam in taking important steps toward the construction of a more just, democratic, and sustainable world-system.
We intellectuals of the North must celebrate the charismatic leaders of the Third World. We ought to study their works and learn from their teachings, with the goal of elevating the historical, global, and revolutionary consciousness of our peoples. From such a dynamic of popular education, charismatic leaders will emerge to forge policies that break with the legacy of imperialism, thus establishing the foundation for a more just and democratic world.
Further reflections on these themes can be found in various posts in the categories Cuban History, Cuba Today, and Charismatic Leaders. These themes also are discussed in my forthcoming book, The Evolution and Significance of the Cuban Revolution: The light in the darkness.