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by Mitchell Abidor
I KNOW, have long known all the errors, misdeeds, and even crimes of Fidel Castro: his refusal during the struggle that overthrew Batista to give the urban fighters sufficient credit and place in the victorious revolutionary state; the acceptance of the sway of the Soviet Union and the support of the invasion of Czechoslovakia; the odious anti-gay campaign; the internecine warfare within his inner circle; the disastrous sugar harvest of 1969; the fall into the monoculture he’d condemned before assuming power; the general mess he made of the economy; the maintenance of his dictatorship for decades that depicted any enemy as an agent of the CIA.
And yet, knowing all this, and so much more, I’ve never felt towards Fidel (I’ve never even considered calling him “Castro,” which sounds disrespectful) the same animus I do towards Lenin, who laid the groundwork for all the failed socialist states; or Trotsky, who would have been as brutal as Stalin had he been given the chance. I’ve long tried to figure out why this should be so, and now that he’s died, after living as a relic of bygone times, making pronouncements but no longer controlling Cuba, I think I’ve worked it out -- and it’s unlikely I’m alone among those of the generation that came of age during the revolutionary tide of the 1960s to feel this same ambivalence, this refusal to jettison a hero of our youth.
Alongside his misdeeds, it is impossible to forget how he inspired tens of millions of people in North America, South America, Central America, Europe, and Asia. How the bravery and steadfastness of Cuba in the face of an enemy ninety miles away that had sworn to destroy their gains was largely a result of the inspiration of the lider maximo. When the crowds chanted , “Fidel, seguro, a los yanquis dale duro” (Fidel, for sure, hit the Yankees hard!), they meant it.
THE END of illiteracy, universal health care -- these are not minor accomplishments in a Third World country that was for so long under the control of governments beholden to the beast to the north. And who can sneer at the internationalism of the Cubans, their assistance on the ground with troops in Angola and Ethiopia, or their support for liberation struggles around the world, the home they provided victims of dictatorship in Argentina, in Uruguay, throughout the continent, throughout the world. Their sending of doctors to other countries, of teachers , , ,
That the Cuban example of how to make revolution was, in fact, not reproducible, was what we would all learn, what the left in South America would learn, after thousands of deaths in futile armed struggles. But even Fidel had come to realize that, as he supported wholeheartedly the Popular Unity government in Chile of Salvador Allende and inspired the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chavez.
Perhaps even more important than all of this is the fact that, though it’s all fallen completely apart now, for almost fifty years Fidel and the Cubans managed something no other socialist revolution did: They sustained revolutionary enthusiasm. The death of all revolutions, all of them, without exception, is caused by popular exhaustion. At some point, people simply want to get on with their lives, and all that’s left to feign interest in revolution is a self-selected cadre, that then expropriates the revolution and leaves the people behind.
Cubans -– those who remained in Cuba, at any rate -– managed never to fall into the sloth that the Bolshevik Revolution descended into within two or three years of October 1917. That the Cuban Revolution is all but dead now changes nothing. Cuba defied the odds and constructed a twisted, impoverished socialism, one that will soon vanish, but which lasted longer than anyone would have imagined, that provided Cubans with real advantages, and which was a true beacon to so many.
In his famous defense speech after the failed attack on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953, Fidel ended by saying: “History will absolve me.” Perhaps not, but his name will live alongside those of Bolivar, San Martin, O’Higgins and Artigas. He succeeded and he failed, his failures tied intimately to his successes. But his example was one of persistence in the struggle, of refusing to be intimidated by those bigger than him. This moral victory will be one history will retain.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.