In one of the videos of Fidel Castro that have been circulating since the revolutionary leader’s death, a reporter is accompanying Fidel on the plane trip to New York, where he is due to speak to the United Nations. “Are you wearing a bulletproof vest?” the reporter asks. It is not an unreasonable question. Fidel is heading right into the enemy’s den, and this enemy has already made many attempts to murder him.
Fidel answers the question by pulling back his military shirt to reveal the bare skin of his chest. “I will land in New York like this. I have moral armour,” he jokes.
But it is not entirely a joke.
When Fidel launched the revolutionary political struggle in Cuba, he often stressed its honourable moral character, and contrasted it with the immoral conduct of his enemies. In that respect he stood firmly in the tradition of José Martí. Placed on trial in 1953 for the July 26 attack on the Moncada Barracks, he condemned the depravity of the dictatorship. He quoted an incident when a murderous military sergeant recognised the mother of one of his victims on a bus.
“When this monster realized who she was he began to brag about his grisly deeds, and – in a loud voice so that the woman dressed in mourning could hear him – he said: ‘Yes, I have gouged many eyes out and I expect to continue gouging them out.’ The unprecedented moral degradation our nation is suffering is expressed beyond the power of words in that mother’s sobs of grief before the cowardly insolence of the very man who murdered her son.” (History will absolve me, Fidel Castro’s speech from the dock in 1953)
In contrast, the moral integrity of the rebels was unassailable, and a key element in Fidel’s own defence. “If there had been an iota of truth in even one of the many statements the Dictator made against our fighters in his speech of July 27th [the day after the attack on Moncada], it would have been enough to undermine the moral impact of my case. Why, then, was I not brought to trial? Why were medical certificates forged? Why did they violate all procedural laws and ignore so scandalously the rulings of the Court?”
And it was sufficient to enable Fidel to conclude that speech by hurling down the challenge to the regime: “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 seventy of my comrades. Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Fidel continued to insist on the highest moral conduct by the Rebel Army throughout the revolutionary war. He established a principle of respect for the peasants in whose midst they moved, and on whose generosity and courage they depended. Individual Rebel Army soldiers who violated these codes were court-martialled and given exemplary punishments, including a few who were executed for crimes such as rape and looting the property of peasants. Though medical supplies were scarce, the Rebel Army gave captured prisoners of war from the army of the dictatorship the same medical care they gave their own soldiers, and released them – while their own soldiers captured by the Batista army were subjected to horrible tortures and reprisals. There was sometimes a price to pay for this policy in military terms – some of the released prisoners gave information useful to the Batista army – but in following this policy, the Rebel Army established its moral superiority, and won first the trust, and then the hearts and minds of the population. Through that process, a tight bond was built between the working class of the cities and the peasantry, which has remained the foundation for proletarian power in Cuba right down to the present.
That unshakable alliance, and the deep confidence of the toilers in the revolutionary integrity of the leadership team that Fidel built, is what enabled the revolution to defeat the US-sponsored invasion at the Bay of Pigs within days.
It is what enabled them to face down the threats of nuclear annihilation and direct invasion by US troops a few years later. To survive more than fifty years of punishing economic embargo. Fidel’s ‘moral armour,’ in the form of confidence in the armed people, protects the whole revolution.
The same proletarian morality founded on solidarity, the same willingness to lay down one’s life in the higher cause of liberation, guided Cuba’s unequaled solidarity with liberation struggles in Africa, including the mobilisation to
defend Angola from the invasions by apartheid South Africa, on which the defences of Cuba itself were staked.*
And if that seems like ancient history to younger readers, or stories from a heroic phase of the revolution now long past, consider a more recent event: the Ebola crisis that hit Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea during 2014-15. Many countries sent some limited aid to the three afflicted countries – money, health equipment, hospital tents, hospital ships off the coast. But not one country other than Cuba sent what was most needed – medical personnel themselves – in significant numbers. Why? Because in the Ebola crisis, due to the extremely infectious nature of the disease, many of the first victims were doctors and nurses. How many medical professionals could be found in the entire world who were prepared to put their own lives at risk in this way, to tie their fate to that of the people they were aiding? Very few – but in Cuba, thousands volunteered and hundreds served. It was a dramatic confirmation of the character of the Cuban revolution.
There is much that can and will be said about Fidel Castro in the days and weeks to come. He was an outstanding leader of the working class in the 20th century, and he leaves a rich historical legacy on many political questions. I single out the moral issue because it is an often-overlooked element of Fidel’s proletarian leadership. (Other revolutionary leaders of similar stature certainly recognised it, however, in particular Malcolm X in the United States,
Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, all of whom paid careful attention to the question of revolutionary morality. Mandela’s speech in Cuba after his release from prison is a case in point.)
There is a growing sense throughout the world, on both sides of the class divide, that big class battles lie ahead, in the not-too-distant future. We can already see a glimpse of this future at Standing Rock in North Dakota, in the incredible video footage of the militarised police unleashing water cannon, rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades against the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters – who stand their ground in the below-freezing temperatures.
The crisis of capitalism is not just an economic crisis that spills over into a political crisis. It is also, at a deeper level, a moral crisis, a crisis of knowing right from wrong. Moral factors will have a powerful influence on the outcome of these future battles. Moral questions will be among those through which a proletarian leadership comes to define itself. It is an indispensable element in developing the courage under fire which the Cuban leadership demonstrated when they found themselves face to face with the imperialist colossus. This is one of the most important things fighting workers can learn from the exemplary proletarian leader that Fidel Castro was.
On the other hand, the most powerful ruling class in the world will go into these battles with a lying, bigoted, racist, cowardly, woman-molesting bag of sleaze as their military commander-in-chief, who is moreover surrounding himself with a crowd of similar human filth in his cabinet, and who is attempting to ride a mobilisation of the most reactionary dregs of capitalist society. This is not a sign of strength on their part. On the contrary, it is one of the most telling indications of the weakened state in which the US ruling class finds itself.
For in order to win the coming battles, the ruling class will have to do more than unleash their vast weaponry, their militarised police forces, and limitless brutality against the working class. They will also need to convince the big majority that their cause is just. The blustering billionaire is clearly not up to that task.
Ultimately that was Batista’s fatal weakness too. Fidel was not mistaken in relying on his moral armour. For all the technical superiority of his enemies weapons, in six decades they were never able to pierce it.
* In 1989 a high-ranking leader of the Cuban Armed Forces, Arnaldo Ochoa, was found to have violated that moral code, and engaged in smuggling diamonds and ivory during his time in Angola. Later Ochoa had also become entangled with South American drug traffickers, taking payoffs in exchange for allowing the use of Cuban waters for drug drops and pickups – an action that could have been used as a pretext for US military action against Cuba. He was tried in a trial that was broadcast, found guilty and executed. It was a wrenching decision for many Cubans, because Ochoa had played an important role in the revolutionary war and had been highly respected up to that point. But the proletarian integrity of the revolution could not be compromised.