Politics November 21, 2017
A Cuban poster, 1965, commemorating the sixth anniversary of the revolution

Fight of fancy


Jonathan Brown’s well-researched book covers the ten years or so in which Fidel Castro “consolidated” the Cuban revolution after he took power at the beginning of 1959. In doing so it also describes (making copious use of declassified CIA documents) the failed attempts of the United States, and the CIA in particular, to prevent that consolidation. A mark of this failure was the fact that Castro’s hold on power in Cuba intensified throughout the decade. But the CIA had some success in curtailing what was to be the external front of the revolution’s consolidation: its export to other countries. Cuban-trained guerrillas were not able to prevail outside Cuba against American-trained military counter-insurgents, in what Brown describes as a “secret war” waged between Castro and the United States.

The author’s first chapters give an impressive blow-by-blow account of the speed and thoroughness with which Castro took personal control of Cuba after his military caravan rolled into Havana. Castro had posed as a democrat dedicated to the overthrow of a tyranny when he was fighting in the Sierra Maestra, and for that reason he was greeted with great enthusiasm by moderate Cubans. Brown describes the combination of political skill and ruthless violence with which he then dispelled their illusions, proceeding ruthlessly to quash all moderate opposition. “In quick succession in 1959 and 1960, the Cuban revolutionaries executed officers of the previous regime, brought communists into the government, instituted land reform, provoked the defection of moderate politicians, and expropriated American businesses.” Surprisingly, Brown does not go into the details of the executions, which began as early as January. There are varying views on the numbers but it seems that in the first six months of 1959, up to 300 followers of Fulgencio Batista were shot, having been sentenced to death in “popular trials”. The summary trials and rapid executions dismayed liberals in the United States and elsewhere. They are important in understanding the first adverse reactions to the Castro regime in Washington.

Brown describes the various, devious ways in which Castro was able to divide and rule Cuban moderates during 1959. At first he would give them jobs in the government, but then he would undermine them, finally replacing them with communists. Thus the economist Felipe Pazos was made President of the National Bank in January 1959. He had been an enthusiastic supporter of Castro and arranged the famous New York Times interview in the Sierra Maestra in early 1957, in which the reporter Herbert L. Matthews had presented Castro as a heroic democrat fighting a corrupt dictatorship. The appointment of this able technocrat pleased moderates. But Pazos’s work at the National Bank was from the outset undermined by Che Guevara, who finally replaced him as President just six months later.

Moderates such as Pazos usually found their way to exile in the United States, and Pazos himself ended up working for the Alliance for Progress in Washington. In the first six years of the revolution, some 260,000 middle-class Cubans, many of them initial supporters of the revolution, left the country.

Others whom Castro saw as potential rivals were less fortunate. They included the Cuban leader’s two most popular guerrilla lieutenants. One of them, Camilo Cienfuegos, disappeared in a small plane over the Straits of Florida at the end of October 1959. The plane was never found and the cause of death never proven. The other, Huber Matos, spent twenty years in prison. Ironically, Cienfuegos had been sent by Castro to arrest him just a few days before his death. Matos describes the incident in his autobiography, quoted by Brown. “Be careful Camilo”, he claims to have said. “Your popularity is a cause of worry for Fidel, and even more for Raúl.”

By the end of 1960, Castro had implemented vast social and economic reforms, intensifying his grip on Cuba. He had freed himself of popular rivals and replaced moderates with communists all over government. He had passed an extremely radical land reform, which disappointed many peasants because instead of distributing land to smallholders, it aimed to collectivize it. He had expropriated the bulk of American interests. He had completed a ruthless takeover of the universities. Brown tells us that by the end of 1960, “more than one hundred rectors and professors of the Universities of Havana, Santa Clara, and Santiago had fled to Miami”. Curiously Brown does not discuss Castro’s ambivalent attitude to writers. While regaling foreign ones such as Sartre and Graham Greene on their frequent visits to Cuba, the regime made life difficult for any independent-minded local writers. By 1965, two of the country’s finest novelists, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy, were living in exile. The notorious harassment of the poet Heberto Padilla began in 1967, and in 1971, he was forced to make a Stalinist-style public confession, after a month of brutal interrogation. Many other writers were persecuted simply because they were gay, a condition which, by the mid-1960s, led to their being imprisoned in brutal labour camps, one of whose most famous victims was to be the novelist Reinaldo Arenas.

There were probably no more ruthless instruments for the “consolidation” of the revolution than the infamous Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, neighbourhood watch groups who reported potential dissidents to the police. These groups, which still exist today, had already become ruthlessly efficient in 1961. So much so that just before the Bay of Pigs invasion of April that year, the authorities were able to round up a large number of “suspects”, lest they side with the invaders. Brown’s figure for these pre-invasion arrests is a staggering 100,000.

Brown describes how, in 1959­–60, there was a steady build-up of relations with the Soviet Union. In July 1959, the KGB agent Leonid Leonov escorted Che Guevara on a visit to Moscow, where Guevara met Khrushchev. In January 1960, Anastas Mikoyan arrived in Havana with a Soviet trade fair; later in the year during a United Nations meeting in New York, Khrushchev famously visited Castro in his hotel in Harlem. As Brown says, the photo of their embrace appeared in newspapers around the world. By the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba had, thanks to the Soviets, obtained arms from Czechoslovakia which proved invaluable in fending off the invaders. By October 1962, the month of the Cuban missile crisis, Cuba was of course firmly part of the Soviet bloc. Castro was indignant at Khrushchev’s climbdown, preferring to risk nuclear war than give in to the Americans. But by 1963 he was reconciled enough with the Russians to visit the Soviet Union and stay for five weeks.

The evolving shape of the revolution understandably generated counter-revolutionaries. For several years they doggedly tried to upset the Castro regime, undeterred by the Bay of Pigs disaster. Brown divides these between urban counter-revolutionaries who operated from Miami, the so-called gusanos (worms), and rural insurgents, known as bandidos, who rose in rebellion because they resented land collectivization and the fact that communists were implementing it. Gusano leaders such as Manuel Artime and Eloy Gutiérrez Menoyo, dreamt – with the support of the CIA – of repeating the feat of Castro himself, of landing somewhere in Cuba as Castro did in 1956, and taking to the hills to thence overthrow the regime. They continuously overestimated Cuban discontent, and underestimated the regime’s military readiness. Every time they attacked Cuba, Castro scored invaluable propaganda points. The gusanos were the enemy Castro needed to unite the people and to in­tensify repressive measures. For its part, the United States, in its support of them, was the perfect foreign foe, and its growing economic boycotts an explanation of any economic setback.

The bandidos were a separate case. Brown describes in great detail their impressive exploits and eventual defeat. He suggests that there were no fewer than 300 separate rebel bands operating in the countryside between 1959 and 1965. By 1961, he adds, Castro had trained as many as 300,000 militia members to counter them, in sallies that he sometimes commanded himself. The bandidos, too, served Castro’s purposes as proof of the existence of a dangerous enemy within.

Parallel to the internal front, Castro set about “consolidating” his revolution by exporting it. But why take the risk and incur the expense of doing so? For several reasons. Like Simón Bolívar in the wars of independence, and like Lenin in Russia (but not Stalin, when he opted for “socialism in one country” in 1924), the Castroites, and particularly Che Guevara, felt that the revolution would be safer if it were in good company. Also, the takeover of Cuba had been relatively easy and they thought they could comfortably repeat it elsewhere. After all, they had shown that a small band of guerrillas ensconced in the mountains could, in a relatively short period of time, defeat a standing army when the incumbent government had little support. Another factor suggested by Brown is their sheer missionary zeal. The Castroites saw themselves as liberators, saviours, redeemers. This was especially true of Guevara, for whom the revolution was both a moral obligation and a path to personal fulfilment. Challenged from childhood by asthma, he had always sought to prove himself through mammoth physical feats, and there were no feats of greater moral worth than those performed for the revolution. Brown describes an amazing scene in 1967 in which Guevara and his followers are in the depths of the Bolivian jungle, from where they had hoped to overthrow the Bolivian government. They are on the brink of total defeat, and most likely will be dead within days. They have practically nothing left to eat. But an undeterred Guevara harangues them. They have had, he tells them, the opportunity to become revolutionaries. That amounts to nothing less than “the highest step in the human ladder”.

Guevara, who was killed by the Bolivian army on October 9, 1967, had of course hoped for a better outcome. In 1961, he had published Guerrilla Warfare, a book that was to become a manual for Cuban-trained guerrillas operating all over the region. It contained the instructions with which they would create, all over Latin America, “two, three . . . many Vietnams”. Guevara argued that it was not necessary to wait for conditions to become ripe for revolution: the very existence of a guerrilla vanguard would create them. This theory ran contrary to what the region’s Moscow-dependent communist parties believed. For them, Guevara was an incorrigible “voluntarist”.

The Cuban-trained guerrillas did put up quite a struggle in some countries in the 1960s. In Venezuela, for instance, which for Castro was a priority because of its oil, it took some seven years fully to defeat them. But ultimately they failed all over. One reason was the surprise factor. After the Cuban revolution, armies all over Latin America had begun preparing themselves for an assault. Castro and Guevara thought they could unite the whole region under the aegis of revolution, but instead, the Cuban revolution united the forces of counterinsurgency. Wherever Cuban-trained guerrillas set up shop, they confronted armies that had been waiting for them, armies that had become efficient, in sharp contrast to Batista’s ramshackle outfit in Cuba. Moreover, the peasants did not rise up in support of the guerrillas as they had in Cuba. This was partly because the guerrillas were seen as foreigners, or as urbanites with little understanding of rural life. Also because they were Marxist-Leninists. Castro and Guevara, blinded by their enthusiasm, did not seem to understand that Marxist-Leninism was not as popular as the democratic or nationalist ideals they expressed on entering Havana. They tended to read the rest of Latin America as ineptly as the United States had read Cuba before the Bay of Pigs.

But the Cubans – Che in particular – did inspire many young Latin Americans. They, too, wanted to reach “the highest step on the human ladder”, and they were willing to risk their lives in the attempt. They would go to Cuba to be trained in armed struggle and in Marxist-Leninism. They would learn from Che that with socialism there would no longer be such vile things as profit and competition, that material incentives would be replaced by moral ones, that a New Man would arise from the ashes of capitalism to forge a society based on solidarity. To fight for all this, they were subjected to gruelling training programmes, which often included joining the militias in their fight against the bandidos. Many dropped out. But many went eagerly back to their countries, often to an early grave.

Brown gives us a detailed account of the armed struggle that ensued in the Caribbean and in South America. There are chapters on Panama, Peru, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Venezuela. In most countries the guerrillas were either defeated by the American-trained military, or there was a preemptive military coup. By the mid-1970s, South America was dominated not by communists, but by military dictatorships. The exception was Venezuela, which was able to resist the guerrilla onslaught without sacrifice to its young democracy. That makes Brown’s chapter on Venezuela particularly interesting.

Castro had an eye on Venezuela from the very beginning. The country had recently been in the process of ridding itself of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, a corrupt dictator similar to Batista. After the Cuban revolution, Rómulo Betancourt, a social democrat, had just been elected President but had not yet taken office. Castro visited him on January 23, 1959, just fifteen days after his entry into Havana, and he proposed to the euphoric Caracas crowds nothing less than the “union” of the Cuban and Venezuelan peoples. But relations with Betancourt soon soured. Castro asked for a $300 million dollar loan, which Betancourt refused. Before long Castro was supporting the Venezuelan guerrillas, and they were not fully defeated until 1966. Ironically, what Castro failed to do in the 1960s he finally achieved when Hugo Chávez became President of Venezuela in 1999. Since then Cuba and Venezuela have become increasingly inter-dependent. Venezuela has given Cuba cheap oil in return for Cuban doctors and security advisers. Many believe that Nicolás Maduro would not survive today without the help of thousands of savvy Cuban agents.

In the period covered by Brown, Cuba and Latin America became a significant theatre of the Cold War. The missile crisis of 1962 was proof enough of that. But Brown is right, I think, to play down the extent of United States and Soviet influence. The Americans frequently got things terribly wrong. The military coups in Brazil in 1964 and Peru in 1968 would have taken place with or without them. The Soviets did ultimately prop up the Cuban economy, but Brown shows what little influence they often had over the Cubans in these early years. They fiercely opposed the export of revolution and Guevara’s “many Vietnams”. Nor did they believe in his abolition of material incentives, or his Leninist dream of rapid industrialization, preferring Cuba to concentrate on products such as sugar, where it had competitive advantages. But Castro and Che pressed on with their schemes regardless.

Jonathan Brown has written a valuable, information-packed book that is refreshingly free of ideological baggage. He is interested in just telling us what happened. That may irritate readers with passionate views on this period, but it is much to the author’s credit as a scholar. Notwithstanding that, the book is a stunning reminder of how deeply divided Latin America was in the 1960s, when so many young revolutionaries voluntarily risked their lives, and where military regimes took over brutally to repress them. The same, too, could be said of the 1970s, and today’s ideological struggles seem tame in comparison. As for Castro’s “consolidation” of the revolution, its ruthless efficiency is demonstrated by the fact that the new regime has flawlessly survived his death of a year ago.

But how much longer can it survive? Raúl Castro, who effectively took over from Fidel in 2006, is due to retire on February 24, 2018, although he will probably remain a power behind the scenes, as his brother did. After the restoration of relations with the United States in 2015, it looked as though Raúl was in a lib­eralizing mood, but succession nerves have recently led to clampdowns. There should be a return to some form of liberalization if the succession goes well, however. With Venezuela in as much of a mess as Cuba, the days of cheap Venezuelan oil are over, so Cuba has to attract more tourism and private sector investment. That is why the talk is of a Chinese or Vietnamese model: a degree of capitalism, but under a one-party dictatorship. The fifty-seven-year-old Communist Party stalwart Miguel Díaz-Canel is spoken of as a likely successor to Raúl, but there are other contenders, including Raúl’s daughter Mariela. Needless to say, the long-suffering Cuban public will not be informed of the deliberations, the main purpose of which will be to ensure the bureaucrats and military do not lose their privileges.