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The Declarations of Havana
By Fidel Castro, with an introduction by Tariq Ali, Verso 2008
138 pages, paperback £7.99


As Cuba celebrates the 50th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the US-backed dictator Batista in 1959, it is fitting that three of the most famous documents relating to the struggle against Batista and the early days of the revolution are published together in a single volume in Verso’s new Revolutions series. By reading the three documents back-to-back, one is able to trace the development of the Cuban revolution from its nationalist-democratic beginnings to its socialist conclusion.

On the 26th of July 1953, a 26 year-old lawyer named Fidel Castro – along with his younger brother Raul - led an armed attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, hoping to spark an uprising that would remove the hated Batista from power. The attempt failed, and Castro was captured a few days later. He was tried a couple of months later, and the first document in the volume – “History Will Absolve Me” – is the text of the speech that Castro delivered at the trial in his own defence.

In his speech, Castro – who had been held in solitary confinement for 76 days - details the torture and murder committed against the members of the armed uprising who were captured by Batista’s troops, and outlines the revolutionary programme of his movement on land, industrialization, housing, unemployment, education and health. Castro’s legal defence was that Batista’s regime had no legal right to try him because it had itself violated the 1940 constitution by seizing power by force of arms, and it is striking that Castro’s eloquent speech is couched in terms that imply that at that stage the revolution was not socialist, but bourgeois-democratic and nationalist in nature. Although Castro mentions the “great financial interests” standing behind Batista and inveighs against the associated “cold calculations of profits”, in defending the attempted uprising he mentions the American Revolution of 1775 and the French Revolution of 1789, revolutions in which the nascent bourgeoisie broke the bonds of feudalism. And although he mentions the “socialist currents” in the 1940 constitution, the political philosophers he quotes are not Marx, Engels or Lenin, but Montesquieu, Locke and Rousseau.

It is a remarkable and powerful speech, displaying outstanding courage and the great oratorical powers that would in due course make Castro famous. In addition to the thinkers mentioned above, Castro quotes Balzac, Dante, Milton, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Paine, Calvin, Knox and many others, and the speech ends with the ringing words of defiance that have earned it its title: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me”.

Castro was sentenced to 15 years, but – along with Raul – was released as part of an amnesty in 1955. In October of the following year, Castro – along with Che Guevara and 80 other rebels – set sail in the yacht Granma intent on another attempt at removing Batista. What followed was one of the most remarkable and heroic episodes of the struggle against tyranny in the 20th century. On landing, the rebels were surprised by an ambush, and the fifteen survivors – including Fidel, Raul and Che – fled in three separate groups into the impenetrable forests of the Sierra Maestra. Despite having only nine weapons between the fifteen of them, just over two years later, with the support of the vast majority of Cuba’s urban workers and students, Castro’s army routed Batista’s forces, causing the dictator to hastily flee the country, and a revolutionary government was established which despite enormous odds has survived to this day as an inspiration and source of practical assistance to people struggling against oppression the world over.

The second document in the volume – known as “The First Declaration of Havana” – is the text of the speech given by Castro – now leader of a revolutionary government – before one million Cubans in Havana’s Revolution Square on September 2nd 1960. It is a remarkable proclamation of defiance, and a glance at even one paragraph of the speech shows why Castro was quickly demonised by the United States:

“The National General Assembly of the People of Cuba proclaims before America the right of peasants to the land; the right of the workers to the fruits of their labour; the right of children to receive education; the right of the sick to receive medical and hospital care; the right of the young to work; the right of students to receive free instruction, practical and scientific; the right of Negroes and Indians to ‘a full measure of human dignity’; the right of women to civic, social and political equality; the right of the aged to a secure old age; the right of intellectuals, artists and scientists to fight through their work for a better world; the right of states to nationalize imperialist monopolies as a means of recovering national wealth and resources; the right of countries to engage freely in trade with all other countries of the world; the right of nations to full sovereignty; the right of the people to convert their fortresses into schools and to arm their workers, peasants, students, intellectuals, Negroes, Indians, women, the young and the old, all the oppressed and exploited, that they may better defend with their own hands their rights and their future”.

The talk of “nationalizing imperialist monopolies”, together with attacks on the US for its persecution of communists and communist sympathisers, exhibits how the revolution was heading leftwards from its nationalist-democratic starting point. The leftward trajectory of the Cuban Revolution is even more pronounced in “The Second Declaration of Havana”, a speech delivered by Castro on February 4th 1962, in the year following the Revolution’s defeat of the US-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Although the speech begins with a quote from José Marti, the great 19th century defender of Cuban independence, the speech quickly becomes explicitly Marxist, with capitalism and imperialism identified as the enemies to be fought down by socialism. At one point, Castro quotes Marx’s claim that “capital comes into the world dripping from head to foot from every pore with blood and mire”, and the speech develops the idea – associated most with Guevara – that active and armed opposition to imperialism should wherever possible replace the more conservative and gradualist approach to the spread of socialism favoured by the Soviet leadership.

Nearly 50 years afterwards, one of the main assertions of the speech remains as relevant and as potent as it did then: “What Cuba can give to the people, and has already given, is its example. And what does the Cuban revolution teach? That revolution is possible, that the people can make it, that in the contemporary world there are no forces capable of halting the liberation movement of the peoples”.

As the world capitalist system crumbles before our very eyes, Castro’s message, and Cuba’s example, are more crucial than ever.

1 Com:

Fook Yu | May 24, 2009

Most working people do not understand the pretenses of capitalism and were it is today. The capitalists have gone global and working people must now go global. We have the opportunity to spread the message better than ever before, but all of this work cannot be done behind a keyboard. I am looking for other people to work with myself on getting into homes and businesses and public forums were people can learn in person what this new global market means for them and to give them a choice on how to fight it. We need to show the rich elite that we can organize, and assemble.

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