José Ramón Cabañas
The statue of Fidel Castro in Moscow.
In order to understand Fidel Castro’s contribution to Political Science and, in particular, to the sphere of International Relations, especially in regard to Cuba’s ties with the United States, one must start from the precedent of the work and practice of José Martí, the Cuban National Hero, and the latter’s influence on the former’s thought and action.
The successful visit of President Miguel Díaz Canel and his delegation to Russia, during which a statue of Commander-in-Chief Fidel Castro was inaugurated in Moscow, has just concluded. The Russian Foundation that bears his name has organized a colloquium this week to honor his legacy. These words serve as an accompaniment to that effort.
A study of the legacy of both the political and social transformations that took place in Cuba in different periods reveals that they appropriated a profound knowledge of the most advanced philosophical thought of their respective historical moments and adapted it to Cuban conditions, without extrapolations, building a system of their own principles and concepts that defined the country’s role as an international actor and, on that basis, its relations with its environment.
In particular, Martí and Fidel studied U.S. history extensively through different authors and mastered the reasoning on facts and situations at the level of the best academics of that country.
In Martí, this condition allowed him to imagine a system of inter-American relations different from that proposed by the United States at the end of the 19th century and even served as a basis for him to represent sister nations such as Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in the Monetary Conference of 1891. As if that were not enough, he organized a war of national liberation to ensure that Cuba’s independence would prevent that country, already with imperialist projection, from pouncing on Latin America.
Fidel’s vision, on the other hand, allowed him to have a privileged relationship with political leaders of the Western Hemisphere, to confront the neocolonial system, to defeat Apartheid in Africa and to become President of the Non-Aligned Movement, or to warn about climate change when no one was talking about such a danger, among other international projections.
As important as these achievements are, in Fidel’s case, was his personal leadership of Cuba’s bilateral relationship with the United States for almost 50 years. In this scenario, Fidel designed strategies and implemented projects that are unique in the practice of international diplomacy and that constitute a legacy for new generations of Cubans and for third parties. None of these components has a secret character and all of them can be known from the study of his main speeches and texts.
This text serves to present just some of these contributions, without observing a chronological order or relative importance.
A few days after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, the Secretary of State (later Ministry of Foreign Affairs) sent a diplomatic note to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, requesting the withdrawal of the U.S. military missions in Havana, representative of the different arms. Shortly afterward, another text was sent, listing the names of a group of members of the regime of former dictator Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar, responsible for common crimes and crimes against the civilian population, who had emigrated to the United States, and requesting their arrest and subsequent extradition.
These are just two examples that indicate that, from very early on, Fidel and his government team set forth the rules of sovereign equality and reciprocity in the relations between the two countries. Dozens of diplomatic communications exchanged in those foundational years are proof of a new type of relationship that the Cuban Revolution demanded from its neighbor to the North. This exercise was unique in the hemisphere and remained so for a long time.
A close reading of these documents shows that, despite differences of political opinion on a long list of issues, the Cuban side took its positions with reasoned and respectful language. It also demanded such treatment in response.
This same perspective was at the heart of Fidel’s first visit to Washington after January 1, 1959, in April of that year. As Richard Nixon himself said, the Cuban prime minister did not go to request anything, as most Latin American executives arriving in the capital of the federation used to do.
Fidel Castro went to explain why the Cuban Revolution had taken place and what his plan of government was. He spoke with various U.S. sectors, but especially with the people, with the wider public, in the street, on improvised platforms, or at more formal events. He devoted ample space to the press.
And this is undoubtedly another of the characteristics of the new Cuban foreign policy towards the United States: direct or indirect interaction with that society, beyond its representatives, executives or elected leaders.
Fidel always trusted (and acted accordingly) that to the extent that the American people knew the purpose of the Revolution, then there would be more possibilities of one day having a relationship, at least a good neighborly one, between the two countries.
For some reason the National Press Club in Washington still treasures the videos of that visit, among what it considers to be the 100 most important moments of the 20th century for the organization.
Fidel did not hesitate to organize the so-called Operation Truth, when the U.S. media tried to discredit the trials that took place in Cuba against Batista’s criminals. Dozens of journalists were immediately invited to visit the island and to hear directly from its leaders their arguments, talk to the people and to them also made self-criticisms.
When the government of the United States definitively chose the path of military confrontation with Cuba, of aggressions of all kinds and of trying to isolate the island diplomatically, Fidel led a firm defense, which never reached the point of hatred towards the United States, nor disrespect for its national symbols or its historical figures.
Faced with the exercise of official isolationism, he responded with the accelerated development of political and ideological relations with a diversity of forces both within the United States and the rest of the world. Many students or workers who visited Havana in their youth went on to become presidents, ministers or university rectors in their respective countries.
When the United States forced the limitation of Cuba’s rights within the framework of the Organization of American States, the Tricontinental Conferences were being held in Havana and the Organization of Solidarity with the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America was being founded. In other words, the greater the attempts to isolate us, the more Cuba’s foreign relations grew.
Of special significance for various reasons were the so-called first and second Havana Declarations, which took place on September 2, 1960 and February 4, 1962, respectively, both in direct response to the increased belligerence of the United States against the island. What was so special about these events?
In the first place, we are talking about massive rallies, with the presence of more than one million Cubans each time, when the population of the island was around 5 to 6 million inhabitants. In other words, these were unprecedented communication exercises (yes, in both senses) in which the leader of the Cuban Revolution not only explained his arguments but also sought popular support, which he obtained with cheers and frequent responses.
These were milestones in the history of social communication, long before today’s digital platforms existed.
These events indicate a clear and early understanding in Fidel about the support of the people and their participation in foreign policy. The importance of each and every Cuban making the criteria for responding to the United States their own and feeling part of the political message.
The other great contribution of both events is that during their development, principles and ideas were expressed that constituted an essential part of Cuba’s official position with respect to the United States in the following years, ranging from the demand for the cessation of aggressions to the return of the territory illegally occupied at the Guantanamo Naval Base. It was not a matter of priorities approved among bureaucrats; it was the construction of a Cuban position in the international arena based practically on the holding of a referendum.
The second of these exercises took place after the successful completion of the Campaign against Illiteracy in Cuba, which served to really incorporate into the political life of the country the 60% of citizens who had no schooling in 1959. In this way, Fidel conceived the educated people with values as the best ambassador of the Revolution and, at the same time, sculpted an indestructible relationship between the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
In his memorable speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September 1960, Fidel drew a parallel between the problems faced by the Cuban people at that time and those existing in the underdeveloped world of the time, when he explained before the plenary the text of the First Havana Declaration.
It was his way of saying that, if the national imbalances in each country were resolved, this could have an impact at the global level and perhaps open new paths for Humanity. Fidel referred to: “the right of peasants to land; the right of the worker to the fruit of his labor; the right of children to education; the right of the sick to medical and hospital care; the right of young people to work; the right of students to free, experimental and scientific education; the right of blacks and Indians to the ‘full dignity of man’; the right of women to civil, social and political equality; the right of the elderly to a secure old age; the right of intellectuals, artists and scientists to fight, with their works, for a better world; the right of States to nationalize imperialist monopolies, thus rescuing national wealth and resources; the right of countries to free trade with all the peoples of the world; the right of nations to their full sovereignty, the right of peoples to convert their military fortresses into schools, and to arm their workers.”
His appreciation for truth and transparency even led him to discuss intensely with the Soviet leaders of the time and the need to make public the purposes of the installation in Cuba of nuclear rockets for defensive purposes towards the end of 1962. In this year in which several activities have been developed to analyze the events once again, it could be said that those tensions could have been avoided if the Cuban and Soviet intentions had been made public from the beginning.
In spite of the harsh confrontation generated by the United States, Fidel did not entrench himself in isolation from Washington. He knew of events and transmitted messages from a variety of sources and through a diversity of channels. And this would be an action that would accompany him all his life: he never formed a criterion regarding a fact with a single piece of information, known through a single channel, whether Cuban or foreign.
After guaranteeing diverse knowledge, he reviewed the causality of what happened again and again, he put the beginning in the end, and vice versa. He always contrasted the fact itself with the historical evolution and projected it into the future, again and again.
As the worst years of the U.S. military confrontation with Cuba passed and the island expanded its international links, doors opened into U.S. society that Fidel Castro masterfully navigated.
In short, it can be said that, with the patience of a goldsmith, Fidel built, directly or indirectly, a network of relations within the United States that allowed him a direct exchange with various sectors of that society.
Like few others, he understood the complexity of the U.S. political system, as well as the federal, state and local levels of policy-making. He formed a vision of the pressing problems of the American South, which are very different from those of the Midwest, or other areas.
His direct personal links with Malcom X, Mohamed Ali, Danny Glover, Angela Davis, or the Reverend Lucius Walker, guaranteed him a particular interpretation of the Afro-descendant community, while explaining to them Cuba’s internationalist involvement in Africa that began in 1960 in Algeria, went through the political changes in South West Africa between 1975 and 1990 and continues to this day.
Fidel had a personal message for each visitor in Havana, or for each counterpart on trips to New York and Washington. He received from each and everyone data and reasoning that he filed with interest. And all this knowledge was poured into his dealings with the U.S. Congress. Fidel is possibly the foreign leader who had the most contact with U.S. representatives and senators, Cuba being the country most visited by them for several years, particularly after 1990.
As part of the American people, he prioritized his relations with the youth, based on the firm belief that dialogue with young people guarantees future peace and stability. Two examples suffice in this regard: his repeated presentations to students arriving in Havana as part of the Semester at Sea program, with whom he established a dialogue among equals, without time pressure and with extensive arguments.
The other case is the beginning of the admission of U.S. students in the so-called Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba since 2000, a project in which hundreds of young people from low-income communities have enrolled for free, with the only commitment to return to their places of origin, to offer their service to those parts of the U.S. geography. They are students and graduates who not only bring with them the best of Cuban medical school learning and practice, but also the experience of living with the Cuban people for many years. Thousands of other U.S. university students have sought their own experience in Cuba, with or without institutional support, for more than 60 years.
It should be noted in his legacy, as a leader of international stature that he understood and acted accordingly at times when a crisis arose, whether bilateral or multilateral. Suffice it to point out two examples.
On September 11, 2001, when the world was still trying to understand the scope of what had happened to the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon building in Washington, Fidel communicated to the US authorities the willingness of Cuban airports to receive Cuban planes that were still in flight and needed alternative landing sites. At that time, what mattered was the safety of human lives and not considerations of a technical or logistical nature, about the capacity of Cuban facilities to provide such a service or risks for the country.
When at the end of August 2005 the terrible Hurricane Katrina hit the southern city of New Orleans, in the state of Louisiana, Fidel organized the Henry Reeve contingent, named after a high-ranking US officer who fought in the war of independence against Spain, which was ready to leave and assist the victims of that tragedy that produced more than 1800 fatalities and multimillionaire damages.
None of these offers received an adequate response from the U.S. authorities.
In terms of the official bilateral relationship with the United States, Fidel publicly stated time and again a long-term strategic vision defined principles and priorities, which he respected at all times and were precisely those that made it possible to reach the resumption of diplomatic relations, as of July 2015. Those strategic objectives were never subjected to the urgencies of a conjuncture, nor to a short-term interest. Above all, he came to the conviction and explained to the world that Cuba would never negotiate under pressure on any issue, which today constitutes a constitutional principle of the Republic.
In that sense, he focused on priorities and sought alternatives to reduce tension on points of the bilateral agenda. Although Cuba has maintained and will maintain its claim to the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base, a series of measures have been taken over the years to reduce the risk of an undesired confrontation around the facility, while at the same time turning it into an enclave of little military value in the event of direct aggression against Cuba.
It has been duly documented that it was Fidel Castro, and not the ten U.S. presidents he faced, who sent the most messages to the other side to achieve a bilateral relationship of mutual respect.
The very year of his passing, in offering his reflections on the significance of President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba he marked, as part of his legacy, the two extremes between which the Island’s relationship with its powerful neighbor takes place:
“Let no one be under the illusion that the people of this noble and self-sacrificing country will give up the glory and the rights, and the spiritual wealth they have gained through the development of education, science and culture” and added “We do not need the empire to give us anything as a gift. Our efforts will be legal and peaceful, because it is our commitment to peace and fraternity of all human beings living on this planet”.
José Ramón Cabañas is the former Cuban Ambassador to the United States.
Translation by Resumen Latinoamericano – US