Fidel: How the Steel was Tempered

Sonya Surabhi Gupta

On 25 November, Friday night, this year, Fidel left us. World over people have been remembering him, and recognizing the exemplary life of one of the tallest figures of contemporary times. That he is looked upon with respect, affection and warmth, is something that has been amply clear in the tributes being offered to him in and outside Cuba. As the indisputable leader of the Cuban Revolution, he not only marked the political history of Cuba, but that of entire Latin America, and certainly Africa too, inspiring generations of people around the world with his example.

Lucid and militant as ever, referring to the 638 attempts to assassinate him and his having survived them all, he had written in one of his last “Reflections” titled “The Birthday,” that he had “almost laughed about the Machiavellian plans of the presidents of the United States.” World wide commemorations on August 13 earlier in the year had marked his completing 90 years, and apart from focusing on the incomparable facets of his life and personality, and his qualities as a leader and statesman, the commemorations around his birthday stimulated a rich discussion among the progressive forces about his ideological trajectory and his theoretical and practical legacy. Undoubtedly, had it not been for the enormous creativity of his political thought that went beyond dogmas and established truths, and his political leadership, the Revolution would not have triumphed in 1959, and had it not been for his unbreakable will that could convert adverse circumstances into victory, and his penetrating vision into the future that foresaw challenges and opportunities, the Revolution would not have survived the tremendous threats it has faced all through from imperialist forces and yet become the most radical social and cultural transformation in the history of Latin America. Today, the forces that sought to eliminate him physically are proclaiming the end of an era, without realizing, or refusing to admit, that Fidel may be physical gone, but the Cuban revolution and its institutions have been consolidated over the years, and the popular will of the Cuban people will guarantee the task initiated in the attack on the Moncada barracks on that fateful 26 July of 1953!

As Cubans filled the Plaza de la Revolución with chants of “Yo soy Fidel”, I am Fidel, on Tuesday, 29 November, to bid farewell to the leader, hundreds of heads of states, high officials of various governments, and delegations of political leaders of varied ideological hues joined them in paying their homage to this extraordinary human being. The Cuban revolution is synonymous with Fidel, but what is important to note is that while the Revolution grew with him, he grew with the revolution.

In this sense, it is important to revisit the formative years of Fidel as a student, and understand how Fidel became Fidel.

Fidel’s student days at the University

Fidel’s student life and those formative years when young Fidel became politically active are remarkable. After his initial schooling at his birth place, Biran, Fidel graduated in Arts and Letters from the Jesuit-run Colegio de Belén in Havana, in June 1945. In September 1945, he enrolled in Law and Social Sciences and Diplomatic Law at the University of Havana.

In his memoirs, Fidel recalls, that in 1945, the year he joined university, McCarthyism and anti-communism were reigning and out of a 15,000 students, there were not more than fifty active, and known anti-imperialists. There were very few students from working class background, and the subject of radically changing the society was not exactly the favourite of the majority. Fidel, however, became involved in the political struggles deep in the heart of the student body of the university and he held several positions in the University Students’ Federation.

It is precisely during those University days that Fidel also developed his anti-imperialist Latin Americanism which would later be the hallmark of the Cuban Revolution too. In 1947, he founded the September 30 Committee, a Committee for Solidarity with the Independence of Puerto Rico. The Panamanian cause for the recuperation of the Panama Canal and the Argentine claim to the Malvinas were also causes he took up during the course of his university activism and took his responsibilities with great seriousness. As part of his political activism during those years, he also organised and participated in many protests and denunciations against the country’s political and social situation. On several occasions, he was beaten or imprisoned by the forces of repression. It was in those University days that he came into contact with Marxist thought. In the five years that he spent there, one can particularly mark out some events that marked his political development definitively.

How the steel was tempered

In July 1947, at the age of twenty one, Fidel participated in the Expedition of Cayo Confites to fight against the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Since his first year in the University Students’ Federation, he had been the President of the Committee for Dominican Democracy. The Expedition was organized by revolutionaries from various Latin America countries -Cubans, Costa Ricans, Dominicans, Venezuelans – to fight against the dictatorship of Trujillo who was running a highly racist and totalitarian state that was massacring people in the most inhuman of ways. The expedition failed due to incorrect methods of selecting the members and lack of discretion. It is from here that Fidel learnt vital lessons in organising such an expedition, and started harbouring the idea that one could fight against a conventional modern army by using the methods of guerrilla struggle, an idea that he would execute later in the assault on the Moncada Barracks six years later in 1953, and in the Sierra Maestra along with his comrades, leading to the Revolution in 1959. Cayo Confites can be considered as Fidel’s first step in internationalism and in how failures can be converted into successes.

Another decisive experience was that of the “Bogotazo.” The anti-imperialist causes that he defended took Fidel to his first Latin American tour of Venezuela, Panama and then Colombia with the objective of organising a Latin American Students’ Anti-imperialist Congress in Bogota in April 1948. This Congress was meant to counter the 9th Summit of the Organization of the American States, which was taking place in Bogota that year under the tutelage of the United States. “Colombia lived a great effervescence, there was a very strong popular movement, led by the Liberal Party of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan,” recalled Fidel later. Colombian students put him in contact with Gaitan and Fidel and his comrade Rafael del Pino Siero — who would become a prominent figure of the Cuban Revolution, met Gaitan who promised to speak at the Valedictory Session of the Students’ Congress. Fidel, like many others, was quite sure that Gaitan would be the next President of Colombia, popular as he was among the masses. One of Gaitan’s speech, entitled “Prayer For Peace,” had left young Fidel with a particularly moving memory. It was given in the end of a silent march for peace, organized two months earlier, when 100,000 people protested against the crimes of the armed conflict.

However, Fidel and his comrade were arrested because they “imprudently” distributed leaflets protesting against various causes like Panama canal and Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, or demanding the independence of Puerto Rico, and the return of the Malvinas Islands to Argentina, among others. On April 9, 1948, they were released and were hoping to meet with Gaitan again, when they heard the news that popular Colombian presidential candidate of the Liberal Party Jorge Eliécer Gaitán had been assassinated in the street outside of his office in Bogotá. The public ire and the students protests filled the streets of Bogota in an upsurge that is remembered in Latin American history as the “Bogotazo.” Fidel himself joined the protest along with students, workers and the revolted people, and was to later recall how those events gave him insights into mass struggles.

As Fidel has recalled in his memoirs (Fidel Castro: My Life: A Spoken Autobiography), apart from this political education through experience, he learned some essential things from revolutionary thinkers. From José Marti, he mentions, he learnt above all, ethics. For Fidel one of Marti’s phrase was particularly something he would never be able to forget: “All the glory in the world fits into a grain of corn.” Fidel says: “It seemed extraordinarily beautiful to me, in the face of all the vanity and ambition that one saw everywhere and against which we revolutionaries must be on constant guard. I seized upon that ethics. Ethics, as a mode of behaviour, is essential, a fabulous treasure.” The other thinker was, of course, Karl Marx. Says Fidel: “From Marx I received the concept of what human society is…Without Marx, you can’t formulate any argument that leads to a reasonable interpretation of historical events.”

Fidel graduated with a Law degree in 1950. From his law offices he dedicated himself basically to defending the poor and the humble sectors of society. By March 10, 1952, the day of Batista’s coup d’ètat, Fidel had already been a convinced Marxist Leninist. He organized and trained a large contingent of more than a thousand young workers, public employees and students who basically came out of the rank and file of the Orthodox Party. On July 26, 1953, together with 160 of them, he commanded the attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, an action that was conceived as the detonator for the armed struggle against the Batista regime.

Fidel was by now convinced that a revolutionary takeover of power was necessary. The attack on the Moncada garrison was a military fiasco but it manifested the determination of the revolutionaries. Fidel was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He defended himself in court and formulated the programmatic defence speech that would be known as “History Will Absolve Me.” The tone of the speech is marked by a profound moral indignation and sadness, but also by pride. In reality, it isn’t a defence speech but a speech of indictment. He knows that he and his surviving comrades will be sentenced, but nothing else is to be expected in a country in which the unrighteous hold the power. The last words of the speech are: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.” How true were those words of Fidel!


Sonya Surabhi Gupta is Director, Centre for European and Latin American Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

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