Fidel and Religion

(In Memoriam: Fidel Castro, 13 August 1926 – 25 November 2016)

Thirty years ago while in Sao Paulo, I interviewed Frei Betto, a Dominican who in his journalistic capacity had just published a series of interviews with Fidel Castro. Frei Betto had been imprisoned under the Brazilian military dictatorship—the one instigated by the US under that paragon of liberalism, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and coordinated by the US ambassador and then under official cover as military attaché, the regime’s veteran coup manager, Vernon Walters. ((Between 31 March and 1 April 1964, the Brazilian military overthrew the elected president Joao Goulart, at the insistence and with the support of the US regime. Ambassador Lincoln Gordon was the point man, while the details were managed by Vernon Walters—who had long standing relationships to the plotting generals from WWII when he was a liaison officer to the Brazilian Expeditionary Force. The military governed from 1964 until 1986. Although the regime received less attention than the Argentinian dictatorship, the Brazilian generals conducted the same kind of state terror against opponents, documented e.g. in the report Brasil: Nunca Mais, 1985 under the auspices of then Cardinal Archbishop of Sao Paulo, Dom Evaristo Arns. Arns left-liberalism and support of liberation theology led the Vatican to divide the Sao Paulo archdiocese into smaller units so as to reduce his influence on the Church in Brazil’s largest city.)) In 1986 the military had been persuaded to relinquish formal power to a civilian constitutional government.

This was the era before pope emeritus Benedict XVI—Cardinal inquisitor Joseph Ratzinger—had finished purging the Roman Catholic Church of that plague known as “liberation theology”. While Ratzinger, a child of National Socialism who started his career under the arch-fascist papacy of Pius XII, was trying overtly and covertly to convince Latin Americans that their rich fascist co-religionists were belonged as much to the “deserving poor” as those they oppressed and assassinated with death squads, liberals in Europe and North America were trying to reconcile themselves to the movements of Catholics allied to communists in their struggle for justice. ((Attempts to trivialise Ratzinger’s membership in the Hitler Youth overlook the fact that to make a career in the Roman Catholic Church meant—as in all big corporations—being amenable to the politics of one’s superiors. Not only was the papacy explicitly pro-Nazi but also the entire German hierarchy, especially Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber who ordained Ratzinger, were open supporters of the Nazi regime. Had Ratzinger been seriously anti-Nazi his church career would have ended very early. On the contrary, Ratzinger enjoyed promotion. For a detailed discussion of the German hierarchy’s support of National Socialism see Karlheinz Deschner, Die Politik der Päpste im 20. Jahrhundert, 1991—unfortunately not available in English.))

Frei Betto’s book was provocative because he sought to show that the “devil” in the Western Hemisphere himself was not the atheist persecutor of the Church and religion he was portrayed to be. Of course, Betto’s book could not convince the carcinogenic anti-Castro exiles north of the Florida Straits but for those who bothered to read it, the visit of anti-communist pope John Paul II to Havana in 1998 could not have been a surprise. That pope’s visit preceded my own to Havana by only a few weeks.

Last week Fidel Castro died. In Miami the faithful cheered his impending damnation. In the civilised world, people took leave of a man who must be counted as the single greatest leader and head of state of the second half of the twentieth century—if not the greatest of that entire violent era. It is unnecessary to speculate what may become of his soul upon the interment of his mortal remains. Cuba under Fidel Castro was transformed from an offshore gambling and prostitution paradise for the United States to a beacon of hope for all poor countries in the hemisphere and throughout the world, surpassing even the Soviet Union in its accomplishments—especially because it survived the collapse of the October Revolution in 1989, disappointing the most dogmatic of capitalists and imperialists.

1998 was the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto. ((Das Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, Friedrich Engels and Karl Mark, first published 21 February 1848.)) It was to participate in a commemoration of this pamphlet that I had travelled to Havana. I was invited to give a paper at a conference held for that occasion. The most memorable paper I heard then was delivered in Spanish by a scholar from the country’s equivalent of the Institute for Marxism-Leninism. ((The Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus as it was called in the GDR was a kind of Communist Party think tank common in the socialist states allied with the Soviet Union. It performed functions similar those of think tanks like the Brookings Institution in the US.)) The paper was long—perhaps because of the tradition Fidel Castro had set for lengthy oratory—but said very little about Marx or Marxism. Instead it was about José Marti, the patron saint of Cuban nationalism. ((José Julián Marti y Pérez (1853 – 1895), poet and writer was born in Havana, he died in battle in Oriente, fighting for Cuban independence from Spain. He is not only Cuba’s national hero but considered to have been one of the most important intellectuals of modern Latin America. The text for the well-known song Guantanamera is extracted from one of his poems in the volume Versos sencillos. In 1892 he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party with Cuban tobacco workers in Florida and began to organise the independence struggle. Of course, he did not live to see the defeat of Spain or the establishment of the US protectorate that would continue until real Cuban independence was achieved on 1 January 1959.)) The remarkable central point of this paper was not the defence of the Cuban Revolution, which it discussed in detail, but the explanation of that revolution’s success—namely, the depth of conviction, the religious faith as it were, that the Cuban Revolution embodied: the absolute loyalty to Cuba as a nation.

US attempts to appropriate José Marti for its anti-Castro propaganda failed and have continued to fail because the Cuban Revolution was and remains first and foremost a nationalist revolution.

Ironically it is the United States, as the most determined opponent of Castro and the state he helped to create, which refuses to grasp this fact. The US regime has been exceptionally successful in turning its slave-holding republic into a country in which the majority of the population believes it is based upon Enlightenment ideals and “the greatest nation on Earth”. This phenomenal marketing achievement has convinced even the most liberal of its citizens that, in fact, no other country on Earth has a right to exist as a nation, especially an independent one.

Cuban independence was won by the 26th of July Movement not because of some communist conspiracy. ((The 26th of July Movement (Span. Movimiento 26 de Julio) derived its name from the failed attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago, Cuba on 26 July 1953, as a reaction to the cancellation of elections by Cuban dictator Batista. The attack was led by Fidel Castro. It became the core of modern Cuban independence struggle which prevailed in 1959.)) It was not achieved by a deceptive man wearing fatigues and a long beard, smoking cigars who “outed” himself as a “commie” once the US puppet Batista had fled the country. The revolution succeeded because it finished a struggle that had begun in Oriente, Cuba’s eastern province, where the opposition to slavery and hence to the slaveholders of the North American republic was strongest. It was won because of the refusal of Cuba’s majority to submit to US Jim Crow practices introduced to make the island more amenable to whites in the North—and with the collaboration of the latifundistas in the western half of the island, where Havana is located. ((Gerald Horne, Race to Revolution, The US and Cuba During Slavery and Jim Crow, 2014)) Like most of the middle class in Cuba, Castro grew up under the influence of the Catholic Church—the principal operator of schools in the country prior to the revolution. ((Castro was educated by the La Salle (Brothers of the Christian Schools) and the Jesuits in Santiago and Havana.)) Unlike secular revolutions in Europe and much of Latin America, Cuba’s revolution was not violently anti-clerical (although given the Church’s millennial support of organised state violence that would not have been surprising).

The question for Cuba and for Castro, as he told Betto, was whether the Church was on the side of the revolution or not. He only had to look to what the Church had done to Spain, especially under Franco, to arrive at a clear attitude. Franco had restored the Church’s virtual monopoly of the educational system. There was no question of permitting the Church to obstruct the new state’s ambitions for mass literacy and public health. Of course, throughout history the Church—with few exceptions—only provided education (for a price) to indoctrinate the middle class and to protect its own vast capital holdings. Castro could not lead the reorganisation of the society and especially the economy while privileging the Church to the detriment of the population as a whole. Rome, especially under the pontiffs of the first half of the 20th century (until the Second Vatican Council softened it a bit), was an uncompromising foe of democracy and social justice. ((Karlheinz Deschner, God and the Fascists, 2013)) Unfortunately largely superficial scholarship and cynical polemic have successfully obscured the consistency with which the papacy and the hierarchy have collaborated with any regime willing to protect its property and privilege. This has been done by simply ignoring the material wealth and organisational power of the Church and concentrating on theological or dogmatic issues, like abortion or celibacy, and trying to show how mass attendance continuously declines (at least in much of Europe and North America).

Hence Betto’s book Fidel and Religion had no significant impact on the Castro image abroad, which the author had hoped to improve. ((Frei Betto, Fidel Castro, with introduction by Harvey Cox, Fidel and Religion: Castro Talks on Revolution and Religion with Frei Betto, New York: 1987, reissued in 2002 with an introduction by Armando Hart.)) Yet if one wants to understand Castro and the Cuban Revolution, the book is essential reading—even thirty years later.

The Cuban Revolution has often been misrepresented as a creature of the Soviet Union. This was disproven in 1989. ((Mr Trump’s nostalgic tirades notwithstanding, the so-called “Cuban missile crisis” for which Castro is still commonly blamed was, in fact, a conflict with the Soviet Union over US nuclear warheads stationed in Turkey. President Kennedy posed as a victorious cold warrior when, in fact, he had been forced to withdraw those missiles in return for Soviet removal of missiles from Cuba. In the US strategic nuclear doctrine was “first strike” against the Soviet Union with the capacity to launch a second attack. However, a “defensive” strategy was always presented to the US population for common consumption, hence the continued failure of popular debate to address the facts of US – Cuba relations or US war policy as a whole—throughout the political spectrum. Popular foreign policy is based on the fallacy that the US elite wanted parity during the so-called Cold War. In fact, the US regime has never deviated from the objective of global superiority, as can be established by actually reading US policy documents since 1945.)) However, the accusation itself was insincere. The US regime has never had any morbid addiction to democracy or human rights—being as it is an essentially absolutist construct. The anti-communism introduced as the main ideology after 1945 was in reality an alibi for crushing independence in nations that emerged from the collapse of European empires so that “free markets” would be assured for US corporations. That is what the policymakers decided when they confidentially admitted that US consumption of some 60% of the world’s resources could only be guaranteed by military and economic coercion. ((This is one of the poignant insights often credited to George Kennan.))

To their dubious credit, the infinitely insular average US citizen is not naturally keener on war, especially in countries he or she cannot even locate on the map, than other people in the world. The US population having the benefits of a completely purloined continent really do not have the “space” problems that inconvenienced the elites of Europe. For example, the fact that the US has the largest prison system in the world goes largely unnoticed by its un-incarcerated inhabitants. Even the privilege of running a special prison on Cuban soil escapes their attention or concern. Yet the boilerplate of US propaganda—even beyond the tumour in Miami—is that Cuba is “one big prison”. Even were this to be the case, it would be impossible for Cuba to compete with the US in the per capita prison population. In Cuba “driving while black” is not a capital offense met with summary execution, like in the US.

It has therefore been necessary to attack Cuba with the unmatched religious fervour of which only the descendants of Cotton Mather and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab are capable. ((Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was a Puritan clergyman and central figure in the theocracy of Massachusetts Bay. Al-Wahhab (1702 – 1792) was the sectarian Sunni preacher whose teachings form the ideological basis of the Saudi despotism in Arabia.))

Fidel Castro was by his own admission a religious man. He believed in the Cuban Revolution. He believed in Cuban independence. Most of all he believed in peace and humanism. He never stopped writing, speaking and acting in accordance with these values. Castro’s Cuba sent more physicians and technicians throughout the world than soldiers. Castro never ordered the bombing of pharmaceutical factories or television stations. Liberal US Americans like to remember Franklin Roosevelt and the social programmes attributed to his four elected terms of office. FDR tolerated the racist Jim Crow regime in the US. And still his opponents were so afraid that the “liberalism” he had come to represent in the popular imagination that they tried to assassinate him. ((Even the DuPont family was implicated in the plot, exposed by Smedley Butler; however, no prosecutions followed. See here Gerald Colby Zilg’s DuPont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain, 1984.)) Ultimately they succeeded in changing the law of the land so that no matter how popular a president might be he could not serve more than eight years in office. Now while the US elite is fighting over how to subvert their own anti-democratic presidential election process—because it appears to have delivered an undesired result—there is no end to the whining about what is to become of the regime’s apparatus, whether under Mr Trump or—dare anyone imagine, Ms Clinton? Every four years people in the US complain about the consistency or continuity of their own dubious form of imperialist oligarchy.

I was born in the year Fidel Castro became head of the Cuban state. That too was a mere coincidence. However, I cannot think of any other person in my lifetime who has consistently managed anything so successfully for over half a century with the sincerity, dedication and human decency of Fidel Castro. Call that something to believe in…

Dr T.P. Wilkinson writes, teaches History and English, directs theatre and coaches cricket between the cradles of Heine and Saramago. He is author of Unbecoming American: A War Memoir and also Church Clothes, Land, Mission and the End of Apartheid in South Africa. Read other articles by T.P..