Cuba: a one-time insider’s “heresy”
Joaquín Villalobos was a top commander of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front during the civil war in El Salvador. He is now a consultant on security and conflict resolution. The following are excerpts from a two-part essay in the July and August issues of Nexos, a Mexican journal.
Amid the current pandemic, sectors of the Marxist left predict the end of what they call neoliberalism: globalization with capitalism. Only two countries in the world have Marxist-style state-owned economies: North Korea and Cuba. Capitalism now dominates liberal democracies, Communist dictatorships, nationalist autocracies and banana-republic dictatorships. North Korea is a Communist monarchy; it stands outside universal revolutionary mythology. Hence the Cuban regime is the last moral, political and ideological reference point for the Marxist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist model. The death of the Cuban utopia will mark not only the end of a regime, but the collapse of a Church. Around the world, millions of believers in the political Marxist religion will be left spiritually abandoned.
…I do not want to enter here into a deep philosophical discussion, but to establish that the Marxist and Christian starting point for much of the Latin American left is contaminated from the outset by dogmas, rites, beliefs and saints’ days calendars that require a messiah and a holy land. This was where Fidel Castro and Cuba existed in the leftwing imagination, among intellectuals, academics and Marxist or disguised Marxist political leaders around the world, including the United States. It was the fight of the Cuban David against the imperialist American Goliath. For some intellectuals, rejecting Goliath was more important than David’s plan for the future. Those who venerated and honored Fidel Castro included people of faith and non-believers. But, as [the British philosopher John] Gray makes clear: “Modern political religions…cannot do without demonology.” For the Latin American left, the four leading demons have been: The rich, capitalism, Yankee imperialism and dissidents.
The mythic-religious figure of Fidel Castro takes off and gathers strength with the drawn-out victimization of the Cuban revolution and the Latin American left in the context of the Cold War. American interventions, military dictatorships, coups d’état, torture, murders, disappearances, continuous massacres and persecution effectively granted the left the role of Good in the struggle against Evil. Castro was so conscious of the power he gained from being the victim that, on one occasion, speaking of Che Guevara, he told me that that the it was the latter’s resemblance to Jesus Christ that helped make him a universal revolutionary icon. In effect, the righteous image of Che and his sacrifice moved many of us young people to rise up against the dictatorships. Guevara lent strength to leftwing religious mythology by associating violence, suffering and martyrdom with redemption and revolutionary transformation. To question this mythology became a heresy, obvious absurdities notwithstanding.
The Cuban guerrilla force did not need to be militarily very developed. The rebels entered Havana with only a few hundred men. Che was a bad strategist. His plan in Bolivia was ridiculous, which is why it was defeated. There is photographic and eyewitness evidence that he was captured alive, that he surrendered without “fighting until the last drop of blood,” as Castro demanded. Guevara himself said to his captors: “Don’t shoot. I am Che Guevara; I am worth more alive than dead.” In addition, his lust for executions in the sierra and in the Revolution belie his image as a good man. In 1964, in a speech at the United Nations, he said: “We have executed people, we do execute people and we will keep on executing.” In his message to the Tricontinental in 1967, he said: “Hatred as an element of the struggle; a relentless hatred of the enemy, impelling us over and beyond the natural limitations that man is heir to and transforming him into an effective, violent, selective and cold killing machine.” This cruel side of Guevara was downplayed, and the truth is that many of us were unaware of this part of the story. Nevertheless, the evidence that showed him as inept, cowardly and bloodthirsty did nothing to prevent his sanctification as a heroic revolutionary icon, a representative of the Good.
… Faith is blind, they say, and this sums up what happened in the construction of leftwing thought concerning Fidel. Nobody saw the disaster; those who did stayed quiet. And those of us who at a given moment began to openly question it were called CIA agents, neo-liberals, sell-outs and traitors – in other words, heretics, the unfaithful, apostates. To dare to say that the Cuban Revolution is a failure, or, worse yet, that Ernesto Che Guevara surrendered when threatened by death, is sacrilege. I say this with the authority that comes from having commanded revolutionaries who, alone against entire battallions, chose to die heroically rather than surrender.
Fidel Castro was a disastrous chief of state. In Marxist terms, he was incapable of developing Cuba’s productive forces. Rather, he destroyed them. Castro birthed a parasitic economy, living first off the Soviet Union and then Venezuela. The fact is that the Cuban economy worked better under the Batista dictatorship than under Castro’s. Data from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization show that the worldwide average for sugar cane production per hectare is 63 metric tons; in Cuba it is 22. An article in Granma on Feb. 7, 2007, “Añoranza por la reina”, [Longing for the Queen of Fruits] reported that since 1991 the production of pineapples had fallen 30-fold.
Information abounds that the blind don’t want to see. For years, intellectuals and functionaries of international organizations accepted the Cuban socialist system’s progress in health and education, but few noted that this lacked economic support beyond the Soviet subsidy. This allowed distribution without production. Cubans paid for this unsustainable false equality with the loss of freedom, and with hunger when the subsidy ended. They have endured six decades of a dictatorship that justifies its failure by the existence of the imperialist demon. The regime bases its power on the control of Cubans through fear, the need to survive and skepticism that change is possible,
I was never able to see the reality in which ordinary Cubans live. The many times that I visited Havana, I was driven in a Mercedes Benz to a guesthouse for distinguished visitors (casa de protocolo) in the Miramar district. But I was very familiar with the “the system,” its foreign policy, its leaders and, above all, its strategy in Latin America toward armed and unarmed leftwing organizations. I met dozens of times with Fidel Castro in the government palace, on his yacht, in his home at Cayo Piedra, in the penthouse where Celia Sánchez lived, in his Soviet limousine. Once, we spent time at target practice. Castro was enormously skilled in manipulating people based on a protocol, a ritual and a speaking style that he relied on to strengthen in others the idea that he was infallible on matters of leftwing faith. On several occasions his support played a critical role in Salvadoran communists’ approval of my own plans. If Fidel supported something, everyone went along.
Castro impoverished Cubans to a remarkable extent, but with great political skill he moved strategically to hold onto power under extreme conditions, taking out real or potential adversaries by any means necessary, designing a police control system in which everybody surveilled everybody, and carrying out long-range plans such as those of the slave doctors. He possessed a perverse brilliance, with a religious, culturally conservative vision that, as a result, was politically hypocritical. Principles had to be defended to the death, unless he decided otherwise. He was humbly arrogant. He constantly talked in the first person about his military feats. I heard many times his narrative of ambushes in the sierra and how he directed from Havana the battle of Cuito Carnavale in Angola. He enjoyed power and knew that his words were greeted as holy writ.
…In November, 1971, Castro traveled to Chile, staying there for 23 days. He held rallies throughout the country. At that time, there was a conflict on the left: a doctrine of armed struggle versus a strategy of elections and reformism. Castro’s stay sabotaged [President Salvador] Allende’s electoral reformist agenda. Castro wanted a war and a revolution in Chile. To that end, he armed and trained thousands of Chileans. This set off panic in the military, the coup d’´etat of 1973 and the death of Allende who – unlike Guevara – did not surrender even though he was offered a safe exit.
…For decades, being on the left has implied not criticizing the Cuban regime, accepting that it acts out of solidarity, and being grateful to it. The truth is that there is nothing to thank it for. To the contrary: it has used national leftwing movements as tools and has sacrificed them for its own interests. The irrefutable evidence includes the death of Allende and the destruction of Venezuela. Nothing helps the right more than having a stupid competitor. One of my goals in this essay is to provoke the left into ending its faith that there is a heaven, into stopping its defense of what doesn’t work, and into telling the Marxist religion to go to hell with all its saints, and come back to earth.