The achievements of the Cuban Revolution created the most profound socialist model anywhere in the world.
Fidel Castro Ruz was in my view the greatest popular leader of the 20th century; certainly the greatest to emerge since the Second World War. He inspired and led to victory a revolution of a profoundly radical character in a small country barely a stone’s throw from the greatest imperialist power in history, and turned that revolution into a beacon of social and economic justice for Latin America, indeed for the world. Against the expectations even of the great majority of his followers, he successfully steered what was initially a democratic and reformist process towards complete rupture with the hegemonic power and rapid transition to one of the most profound, if not the most profound, socialist model anywhere on the globe.
Relying initially on the participatory democratic consensus of a mass movement inspired by revolutionary momentum, Fidel and his comrades later accepted the need for institutionalisation of a popular democracy, expressed in the 1976 Constitution and further refined in the 1990s. Although unashamedly a one-party system, it incorporates more effective measures than in most similar systems to ensure popular participation and separation of party and state. When in the mid-1980s the Soviet Union embarked on the controversial course of glasnost and perestroika, Fidel was alone among communist leaders in warning that the manner in which these reforms were being implemented could lead to the complete collapse of the USSR. For this he was vilified by many as a Stalinist, but as those who knew him and knew Cuba pointed out, this was far from the truth: Fidel was simply reaffirming the need for clarity in maintaining independence and socialism, and simultaneously the originality of the Cuban process.
When Fidel’s foresight was vindicated with the fall of the Berlin wall and Soviet collapse, accompanied by the abrupt loss of 85 per cent of Cuba’s overseas trade and the tightening of the US blockade, virtually all observers assumed that Cuba would soon follow suit. That it did not, that it survived the extraordinary privations of the ‘Special Period’ of the 1990s, which would have brought down most governments in a matter of months, was a tribute not only to the revolutionary unity of the Cuban people, but also to the vision and determination of their leader. It was not only a matter of will-power (although that was essential): it was also the refusal, even in the most extreme economic crisis, to adopt the ‘austerity’ logic of cutbacks in social services and benefits. Workers kept their jobs (even if they were idle for lack of supplies), health care and education remained free, utility rates were frozen, rations were still distributed to all (when available): everyone could see that socialist principles were maintained even in the most adverse conditions.
Despite the grudging admiration of even the most hostile observers for this stoical resistance, many argued that both Fidel and socialist Cuba were ‘dinosaurs’ doomed to extinction in the New World Order. But here again they failed to appreciate both the profundity of the revolution and the breadth and originality of vision of its leadership, especially Fidel. His strategic understanding and intellectual awareness were revealed again at the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, where he surprised the world by proclaiming an ecological vision which was years ahead of the capitalist politicians who shared the stage with him.
This was merely the beginning of a development in Fidel’s thought which confirmed his true stature as global statesman. Increasingly he emerged as an eco-socialist, denouncing the ecocidal character of unbridled capitalism and the urgency of seeking sustainable planetary solutions. While steadfastly proclaiming his Marxist atheism, he also showed a growing openness to dialogue with the Catholic Church and with all religions; a trend which was confirmed by the greatest Latin American revolutionary of the new generation, Hugo Chávez; and while never for a moment wavering in his commitment to revolution and socialism, Fidel was also increasingly vocal about the need for peace on a global scale. It is no accident that the recent peace agreement between the Colombian Government and the FARC rebels was negotiated in Havana; the quest for peace in Colombia was for Fidel a long-standing concern.
The most striking tribute to Fidel’s stature is the unanimous respect for him and for Cuba shown by all of the new generation of Latin revolutionary and progressive leaders: Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, José Mujica of Uruguay, Lula and Dilma of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner of Argentina and others. Cuba was a founder-member of the ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance of the Peoples of Our America, the most ambitious attempt yet to forge Latin American unity on a basis of sovereignty, anti-imperialism and social justice; and the ALBA is in essence the contemporary expression of the uncompromising principles of liberation proclaimed in the First and Second Havana Declarations of 1960 and 1962.
To understand Fidel Castro it is essential to understand the distinctive Cuban and Latin American revolutionary tradition. While Marxism, Socialism and Communism in their various European manifestations inevitably have an influence, there is a deep-rooted indigenous and creole tradition of resistance and revolution with its own characteristics. Fidel constantly referred to José Martí, the poet and hero of Cuban liberation from Spanish rule, and this was no mere rhetorical device. It was Martí who had coined the phrase Nuestra América – ‘Our America’ as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon world of the North – and warned against US imperialism – ‘I know the monster, for I have lived in its lair’.
The son of a landowner in Cuba’s easternmost province and the product of a Jesuit education, Fidel came of age in the febrile student politics of Havana University in the 1940s. Graduating as a lawyer, he swiftly demonstrated a social conscience doing pro bono work for poor clients. He joined the radical democratic Ortodoxo party and ran as a candidate for the Senate in the 1952 elections which were aborted by Batista’s coup; he would subsequently insist that he only took up arms when all other options were exhausted.
In the Cuba of the early 1950s profound disillusion with corrupt democratic politics was combined with hatred of dictatorship and of US mafia domination of economic, social, cultural and political life. It was in these circumstances that Fidel Castro emerged as the first leader to take armed action against the dictatorship, with the Moncada assault of 26 July 1953 which would give its name to the revolutionary movement.
The extraordinary events of the next six years – Fidel’s imprisonment, his defence speech, ‘History Will Absolve Me’, which was circulated in clandestinity and which amounted to the programme of the revolution, his amnesty, exile in Mexico, return to Cuba on the motor yacht Granma and the epic guerrilla struggle culminating in total victory in January 1959 – would turn this young lawyer into the unquestioned leader of the revolution.
In the 18 months following this triumph it swiftly became clear that the only political force with real power in Cuba was the 26th July Movement. The pre-Batista political parties disintegrated and mounted no effective opposition; another group, the Directorio Revolucionario, came to accept Fidel’s leadership; and the only other party of any significance, the old Communist Party (known officially as the Partido Socialista Popular or PSP) also allied with the 26th July Movement.
The PSP had a history of staunch defence of workers’ rights but inconsistency in the revolutionary struggle, and initially condemned Fidel and his guerrilla insurgents as ‘adventurers’. After victory Fidel accepted their support but rejected their sectarianism, and by 1962 it was clear that the guiding spirit of the revolution was that of Fidel and the 26th July Movement, inspired by Martí and the South American liberator Simón Bolívar, and not by the rigid and alien Soviet model – however necessary alliance with Moscow was in geopolitical terms.
With Fidel’s leadership Cuba showed Latin America that revolution was possible even in Washington’s ‘backyard’. In the Havana Declarations the island was described as the First Free Territory of the Americas, and as stated by Cuban historian Díaz Castañón, this demonstrated the unity of the concepts Homeland-Nation-Revolution; ‘the people as a whole is the protagonist of the subversive process’; subversive, that is, of the pre-existing dependent capitalist order, and Fidel’s genius was to give leadership, direction and unity to this process. Revolutionary socialism was not imposed on Cuba as the preconceived ideology of a tightly-knit party, it emerged in the course of the anti-imperialist struggle; Fidel, who contrary to a widespread impression worked to a great extent by consensus, became the undisputed champion of Cuban socialism and its global mission.
 D L Raby Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today, London, 2006, Pluto.
 See Fidel Castro Ruz, La Paz en Colombia, La Habana, 2008, Editora Política.
 The First and Second Declarations of Havana, New York, 2007, Pathfinder.
 Fulgencio Batista was a junior army officer, black and of humble origin, who had come to prominence in the abortive 1933 revolution and had subsequently forged a career as a reformist politician. In March 1952 he seized power by force and imposed a brutal dictatorship.
 Strictly speaking, the assault on the two barracks of Moncada and Bayamo in Oriente Province.
 Fidel Castro, La Historia Me Absolverá, La Habana, 1993, Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado.
 Primer Territorio Libre de América.
 María del Pilar Díaz Castañón, Ideología y Revolución: Cuba, 1959-1962, La Habana, 2001, Editora de Ciencias Sociales, pp 124-6.
About the Author
David Raby is Professor Emeritus, History, University of Toronto; Senior Fellow, Latin American Studies, University of Liverpool; author, Democracy and Revolution: Latin America and Socialism Today, London, 2006, Pluto; Green Party City Councillor, Norwich, UK, 2015-Present