This line, which was supposedly spoken by Ernesto Che Guevara before his departure for Africa to fight with the anti-colonial revolutionaries there, is a fitting slogan to bid adieu to one of the greatest revolutionaries and Marxists of our times. This line would roughly translate as "Until [we achieve] victory forever! Comrade Fidel". Yesterday, Fidel Castro, President of Cuba, announced his decision to step down from the top post bringing to an end an entire era which he straddled like a colossus.
Clichés often belittle a person's contribution but it would not be incorrect to state that Fidel Castro is among those few world historical individuals whose contribution to human history will resonate long after the writer and the readers of these words have turned to dust.
Even when it happened, the Cuban revolution was a near impossibility. Situated just 90 miles from the mightiest superpower of the world – the United States of America – very few people expected Cuba's socialist experiment to survive under the hostile gaze of its dominant northern neighbour. Over the years, in a manner strangely reminiscent of the treatment meted out to its eastern neighbour – Haiti, Cuba has been sought to be economically strangled by one of the most stringent economic and political embargoes by the USA. Not only that, the US Government has tried to destabilise the Cuban Government every which way including sponsoring "invasions" by disgruntled Cuban expatriates living in Florida. The CIA's attempts to kill Fidel have taken on legendary proportions with 638 assassination attempts (you read that right!) having being documented over the past five decades.
One of the reasons Cuba managed to survive the economic blockade and the hostile attacks was the support given to it by the erstwhile Socialist State system led by the USSR. Close to 90 per cent of Cuba's foreign trade was with the Socialist states and almost all its fuel supplies came from there. But, ironically, even though the mighty superpower that was the USSR collapsed under the weight of its own mistakes and shortcomings, Cuba – which seemed to be dependent on the USSR for its survival – survived the collapse of the Socialist State system and continues to be the sole example of a mature socialist system of our times. This column had previously discussed the manner in which Cuba had managed to survive the collapse of the Socialist States in the last century ("The Anti-Growth Manifesto", 31 October 2007). There is one more, significantly more important, reason for Cuba's ability to not only survive economic blockade and political terror from the USA but to survive as a thriving socialist system.
Previously, this column spoke about how Cuban doctors have spread out all over the world, including in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, providing relief and medical aid to poor people free of cost. The fact that these Cuban doctors, considered among the most capable of their profession in the world, have not "sought asylum" in America or European countries and become rich doctors, but continued to work in poor countries indicates that simple idealism is a reality in Cuban society. For someone living in a country where every second teenager "dreams" of migrating to the developed West, it is surely surprising that an overwhelming majority of Cubans do not leave their country even when they have a choice. But Cuban idealism does not end here.
Last year, Cuban doctors working in field clinics in rural Bolivia performed a free operation on a retired soldier of the Bolivian army who had lost his eyesight to cataract. A simple event, but for the fact that this soldier was the one who had shot Ernesto Che Guevara dead in 1967! Where does such generosity of spirit come from?
One of the founding principles of the Cuban communist party has been sacrifice. Cuban communist party members are expected to sacrifice and set an example to other citizens. Unfortunately, this word has been such a favourite of spin-doctors that it is normal for the readers' eye to glaze over with cynicism at seeing it here. In Cuba this translates into real practical steps. In all matters of benefits, communist party members are last in the queue while in matters of contributing labour and life, communist party members are first in the list. So if there are a certain number of heart surgeries which can be performed in a particular month in a given district, communist party members will be last in the queue for that and non-party members will be operated upon first. Similarly when food was rationed in the 1990s, communist party members would get food only after the non-members have gotten their share.
Not only this, Communist party members in Cuba are held to a higher level of personal morality and probity. I remember reading about a gang of four drug smugglers who were caught in the mid-1990s and found guilty of the charge. Three of them, who were not communist party members, were sentenced to life-imprisonment, while the one who was a communist party member was sentenced to death. This principle has led to a natural barrier to all sorts of opportunists and careerists joining the communist party for their benefit, as happened in all other socialist states.
But the Cuban Communist Party did not confine this simple, yet pathbreaking, principle to their party but worked to broadcast it widely in Cuban society in general.
In the early 1960s, when Cuba was grappling with the challenge of increasing its industrial and agricultural productivity it was counselled by its Soviet advisors that one way of getting people to work harder and produce more was by providing material incentives. So, for example, the best workers would be given salary bonuses or the best farmers given better shares of their produce. Che Guevara, with the support of the Cuban communist party, opposed this method, arguing that to promise material rewards for good work was to sow the seeds of a anti-communist ideology inside society and its individuals. It would encourage people to look at their self-interest and foster competition between workers and farmers, rather than encouraging people to foreground the common good and fostering collaboration and cooperation.
In a somewhat bitter argument, Che and the Cuban party stood their ground over Soviet and East German advice. Che argued that good workers should be honoured publically rather than given material goods for working well. If people start working well in anticipation of material goods then it would lay the material foundation for the entry of bourgeois ideas of self-interest driven individualism. He argued that this would be the mortal enemy of socialist reconstruction of society. The demise of the Socialist State system of the twentieth century into a cesspool of renegade capitalism and the continued existence of Cuba as a standard bearer of Socialism probably is the greatest living proof of the correctness of this principle.
Today, when Fidel Castro – the leader of the Cuban revolution and Che's close associate – retires from the leadership of Cuba, it is a good occasion to salute these principles of the Cuban revolution which show the way ahead for socialists all over the world. The flame which was lit by the slave army of Haiti in 1804 has been kept alive by their compañeros in Cuba. Emancipation of the human being remains a practical possibility, a living reality.