Saturday, November 27, 2010

History IS Absolving Him

"If Mr. Kennedy does not like socialism, well we do not like imperialism! We do not like capitalism! We have as much right to protest over the existence of an imperialist-capitalist regime 90 miles from our coast as he feels he has to protect over the existence of a socialist regime 90 miles from his coast. Now then, we would not think of protesting over that, because that is the business of the people of the United States. It would be absurd for us to try to tell the people of the United States what system of government they must have, for in that case we would be considering that the United States is not a sovereign nation and that we have rights over the domestic life of the United States."

"Rights do not come from size. Right does not come from one country being bigger than another. That does not matter. we have only limited territory, a small nation, but our right is as respectable as that of any country, regardless of its size. It does not occur to us to tell the people of the United States what system of government they must have. Therefore it is absurd for Mr. Kennedy to take it into his head to tell us what kind of government he wants us to have here. That is absurd. It occurs to Mr. Kennedy to do that only because he does not have a clear concept of international law or sovereignty. Who had those notions before Kennedy? Hitler and Mussolini!"

--Fidel Castro, May 2, 1961

A few days ago was the anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. My blogfriend Casey put up a very nostalgic post featuring the cover art to the Kennedy-era comedy album "The First Family." Casey reminds us that everyone who is old enough remembers that moment in time in November of 1963. It turns out this time of year is also the anniversary of Fidel Castro's 1956 voyage from Mexico to Cuba on the boat Granma that initiated the guerrilla struggle that lead him to victory. And it's also the the anniversary of Fidel declaring the Cuban revolution to be socialist in character in 1961.

It's funny to me, living through as many decades as I have, what happens to the icons of the past over time. Of course Mr. Castro is still alive; Mr. Kennedy was not that lucky. And while every good American is supposed to have a special reverence for the beloved JFK along with a mocking hatred of the dictator Castro, the longer I live the more these two switch places in my own personal hall of heroism.

I know how much hope JFK held for my parents: young, supposedly progressive, handsome, a Catholic like my mom and unlike the long line of presidents before him, brave, and the (pyrrhic) defeater of the evil Nixon. And in the end he brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, laid the basis for the Vietnam War, and foisted the CIA on various of the world's peoples. In addition to the trifling complaint of running the White House with a less than decorous reputation a la Bill Clinton decades later.

Castro became to me a stereotype: I confess to having readily dismissed him as a Stalinist dictator. The long speeches, well, I never bothered to read them. And Cuba in the 1970s was not a good place to be gay: with the Mariel boatlift at the end of that decade the tales of arbitrary imprisonment and state-sanctioned bigotry were horrifying. And yet it is Fidel who made the remarkable confession to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that the mistreatment of gays by the revolution was "a great injustice" and that "if anyone is responsible, it's me. I'm not going to place the blame on others."

I've begun to go back over some of those long, long speeches. And you know what? I would rather read Fidel telling truths few others managed to so concisely present than JFK talking about asking what you can do for your country. Fidel is brilliant, witty, and to the point. His analysis of imperialism is spot on and righteous. And in this day and age of the U.S. continuing to act like a bully on the world stage, it's more relevant than ever.

In 1953 Fidel made a historic speech before a court in Cuba before being sentenced to prison for subversion (he was released early). It's known as the "History Will Absolve Me" speech, and at great length he blasts the Batista dictatorship for injustice and corruption, and lays out a vision of social change based on Cuba's history of revolution. He closed with these famous words:

"I know that imprisonment will be harder for me than it has ever been for anyone, filled with cowardly threats and hideous cruelty. But I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me."

It remains to be seen how Cuba's revolution will survive the next fifty years. But it's hard to imagine Fidel's legacy not surviving. In a time when so many noble words from the past turned out so hollow, I find so many of Fidel Castro's words remain principled, and inspiring. History is indeed absolving him.

(The top photo is a postcard of Fidel Castro looking incredibly sexy in 1963. The middle photo is Fidel meeting with Malcolm X in Harlem in Sept. 1960. Bottom photograph is Fidel Castro appearing on Nicaraguan TV; photographed by me in Managua, 1986)


  1. That's really great, I was thinking about that this morning in regards to the movie Before Night falls. Unfortunately, they seem to have a newer problem of adopting the worst of U.S. capitalist tactics:

  2. A truly just socialist economy is not possible on a small island. It's miraculous they've survived with their planned economy more or less intact for the 20 years since the Soviet Union went away.

  3. www4report:

    Ha ha! He calls Fidel the "Bearded One" Ha ha! Actually, austerity measures are not the worst of U.S. capitalist tactics. Not even close.

    NB: Cuba lives under a blockade. The only model that works is the make-shift one the Cubans have been forced to employ.