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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 2, January 24, 2009

Cuban Revolution in Retrospect

Monday 26 January 2009, by Sandipto Dasgupta

The following article, that appeared in The Indian Express (December 31, 2008), is being reproduced, with due acknowledgement, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Revolution which took place on January 1, 1959.

Half-a-century ago, to this day, the city of Santa Clara in Cuba fell to a guerrilla army led by Che Guevara. The next day, the Dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba, and triumphant guerrillas entered Havana to complete what would resonate around the world as the Cuban Revolution.

Much (and that is an understatement) has changed in those 50 years. The Berlin Wall fell, and so did the Soviet Union. Mao Tsetung’s China today practises one of the most aggressive forms of capitalism, while the “Communist” Party in West Bengal has thrown in its lot with big business. The existential threat to the “free world” no longer comes from the evil empire of communism but from fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Fidel Castro lies, decrepit, in a hospital bed, while Che Guevara has been captured, perhaps inescapably, within countless under-graduate T-shirts. What can one write then about an event, which for all its romance, seems like a distant footnote to history?

To be completely honest, I would rather praise the Cuban Revolution than bury it. But history does not afford us such luxury. The Revolution was marked, from the beginning, with the great symbolic value of its powerful vision of a few idealistic young men, with the help of poor villagers, defeating the mighty state and ending an unjust regime. It brought to Left-wing politics the romance of the possibility of radical change, and inspired a whole generation from Paris to Calcutta. And in that too lay the seeds of its failure. Lost was the significance of painstaking organisational work that must accompany any lasting change; that politics needs compromise, needs accommodation; that change does not always flow smoothly out of the barrel of the gun; that radicality still needs an agenda. Much of the energy lost its way in the passionate but often incoherent anger against a vague “system”. Today, inside the posters that adorn the dorm room walls (of which, for full disclosure, I must add that mine was one almost a decade ago) and the T-shirts in the cafeterias, the Revolution stands for little more than empty symbolism, like a ruin that has more aesthetic than political value for those who appreciate it.

And the more serious problem was the political path of Cuba itself. The significance of the guerrilla movement lay in its use as an alternative to Stalinism. However, as Stalinism slowly crushed any challenges to its doctrine—in Czechoslovakia or in Hungary—Cuba, caught as it was in the middle of the biggest Cold War, lost any independent vision of Marxism. A montage in the excellent documentary The Grin Without the Cat captures this best. It shows us Castro’s speeches in the days immediately following the Revolution, his hands compulsively adjusting the microphones in front of him, his charisma undeniable. And then we see a shot of him in Moscow, speaking to the Polit-Bureau. The fixed, all-steel Soviet microphones would not bend when he touched them. The expression on the face of a visibly flustered Fidel, mumbling some formulaic praise for the USSR, while trying in vain to move at least one of the micro-phones even a little bit says it all about the tragic fate of Third-World socialism post-Stalin.

YET history also does not afford us the luxury of writing off the Cuban Revolution as a mere footnote. It brought about a sea change in the politics of Latin America, perhaps the most class-ridden continent in the post-war period, the resonances of which are still felt in the constitutional reforms of Evo Morales’ Bolivia, or in the Zapatistas of Mexico. Most of all it signified a belief that it is possible to imagine a better world, and work towards it. One can justifiably take issues with the way they went about that work, but one cannot ignore the power of that belief. Today when the best and the brightest are measured in terms of how well we have understood (and perhaps manipulated) the world for our own personal gain, it will be irres-ponsible to bury the dozen or so extra-ordinary men who thought that the point was to change it.
Dreams, and romances, are often audacious and deeply flawed. But little or no great change in human history has taken place without such dreams. Older and wiser, I no longer have a poster of Che Guevara on my wall. But I still have a small post-card with Che’s photo, given to ne by a girl I once loved, stuck on my bookshelf. To borrow a line from the French film-maker Chris Marker, if to love is to love without illusions, I can say I still love the dream that was the Chuban Revolution.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

The author is a New York-based political scientist.

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