Conversations with Ignacio Ramonet, Third Edition (2006)
Below are a few selected excerpts from this 718 page book, published by the Cuban Council of State, of conversations between Cuba’s Commander-in-Chief, Fidel Castro, and Ignacio Ramonet, Editor of the French monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique. The conversations took place between 2003 and 2005. The book is dedicated to Alfredo Guevara and Ramonet’s sons, Tancrede and Axel. The book isn’t yet available in English. (July 2006)
These translations were prepared by CubaNews.
and edited by Walter Lippmann.
Chapter 10 (excerpts) and a few footnotes.
THE REVOLUTION’S FIRST STEPS AND FIRST PROBLEMS
A transition – Sectarianism – Public trials for torturers – The Revolution and the homosexuals – The Revolution and black people – The Revolution and women – The Revolution and machismo – The Revolution and the Catholic Church
In January, 1959 you did not change things overnight, but started a kind of transitional period instead, right?
We had already appointed a government. I had stated that I had no intentions to be President, a proof that I was not fighting for any personal interest. We looked for a candidate and chose a magistrate who had opposed Batista and had acquitted a number of revolutionaries.
Yes, it was Urrutia. He gained prestige. It was a pity that he was a little indecisive.
Didn’t you want to be President then?
No, I was not interested. What I wanted was the Revolution, the army, the struggle. Well, if elections had been held at a given time I could have applied as a candidate, but I was not into that. My interest was focused on the revolutionary laws and the implementation of the Moncada program.
So you led the whole war without any personal ambition to be President right afterward?
Absolutely, I can assure you that. Maybe there were other reasons in addition to my lack of interest, maybe there was a little bit of pride involved, something of that; but the truth is that I was not interested. Remember that I had been presumed dead long before then. I was fighting for a Revolution and had no interest in a high position. The satisfaction of fighting, success, victory, is a much bigger prize than any position, and I was fully conscious of my words when I said I didn’t want to be President. So we gave that task to Urrutia and really respected his attributions. Both he and the 26th of July Movement appointed the Cabinet, and some of that Movement’s leaders were middle class and rather right-wing, and some others were left-wing.
There are some around who have written their memoirs, and many of them stayed with the Revolution and have said wonderful things about how they thought, about their arguments with Che and Camilo.
Did Che mistrust some of those leaders?
Che was very mistrustful and wary of some people because he had seen what had happened with the strike in April, 1958 and believed some of the 26th of July Movement leaders had had a bourgeois education. Che was very much in favor of the agrarian reform and those people were talking about a quite moderate agrarian reform and about compensations and other things. We imposed the law on them. We had that kind of problems then.
Che was not really an accommodating person. There was also anti-communism, which was strong and had its own impact. In times of McCarthyism, there were poisonous campaigns here and prejudice was fostered in many ways. And some of our people of bourgeois origins were not only anti-communist but also sectarian.
Were they far left-wing?
No, they were communists from the PSP [Partido Socialista Popular, or People’s Socialist Party], because there had been a number of Stalin-like methods and doctrines, though not in the sense that there was any abuse, but there definitely was an urge to control more and more. In that Party there was this very capable man, Anibal Escalante, who all but took over the leadership position held by Blas Roca, its historical leader and a remarkable man of very humble extraction. He was from Manzanillo, had been a shoemaker, and fought very hard. The communists fought very hard.
Blas Roca had to travel abroad, and then Anibal Escalante took over as the top leader; I’m telling you, he was skilled, intelligent, and a good organizer, but when it came to controlling things, he was a Stalinist to the core. Control is the word we’ll use for everything. He came out with a policy: “let the petit bourgeois die and let’s take care of the communists”, for he wanted to put as few communists as possible at risk. And he was obsessed about screening. He had all the old habits of a stage in the history of communism when its members had been excluded, as in a ghetto, that’s the kind of mindset he had, and he screened everyone all the time. Those methods were applied to people who were otherwise very honest and self-sacrificing.
This Anibal Escalante created a very serious problem of sectarianism. Ah, but unity prevailed! There’s a reason: I think very few political leaders would turn a cold shoulder to those horrible things. Serious mistakes of sectarianism were made. But there was no vanity, only the Revolution, the need for unity and trust. I stood up for unity under very difficult circumstances, and I still do. Anibal was not a traitor.
The Communist International and its slogans led the communists to defend unpopular issues of the Soviet Union’s policies, like the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the occupation of a part of Poland and the war against Finland. We already talked about that. The USSR applied a policy that set up the bases for all kinds of abuse and crime… They almost destroyed the Party. Mistakes were made in Cuba due to those slogans, or rather than mistakes they led to political lines for which the Party, with its doctrine and its militants who fought and still fight for the workers’ interests, had to pay a high price. But the time came when by virtue of those pacts the Soviet communists seemed to be linked with the Nazi regime… A high price was paid for all those things which were used as an excuse for anti-communism, but as I said they were the most trustable and dedicated people.
Besides, some governments today, like those of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and others, are introducing progressive measures. What do you think about what Lula is doing in Brazil, for instance?
I obviously sympathize very much with the things he’s doing. He doesn’t count on the majority in the Parliament and has been forced to lean on other forces, even conservative ones, to put forward some reforms. The media have given widespread coverage to a scandal of corruption in the Parliament, but have been unable to implicate Lula, who is a popular leader. I’ve known him for many years, we have followed his itinerary, and we have talked many times. He’s a man of convictions, an intelligent, patriotic and progressive person of humble extraction who never forgets his origins nor his people, who always supported him. And I think that’s how everyone sees Lula. Because it’s not about organizing a revolution but winning a battle: eliminating hunger. He can do it. It’s about eliminating illiteracy. He can do that too. And I think we must support him.
Commander, do you think the age of revolutions and armed struggle is over in Latin America?
Look, nobody can say for sure that revolutionary changes will take place in Latin America today. But nobody can say for sure either that such changes will happen in one or several countries. It seems to me that if you make an objective analysis of the economic and social situation in some countries, you can rest assured that there’s an explosive situation. See, the infant mortality rate in the region is 65 per every thousand births, while ours is less than 6.5; that is, ten times more children die in Latin America than in Cuba, as an average. Malnutrition reaches 49% of the Latin American population; illiteracy is still rampant; tens of millions are unemployed, and there’s also the problem of the abandoned children: 30 million of them. As the President of UNICEF told me one day, if Latin America had the medical care and health levels Cuba has, the lives of 700.000 children would be spared every year… The overall situation is terrible.
If an urgent solution to those problems is not found –and neither the FTAA nor neoliberal globalization are a solution– there could be more than one revolution in some Latin American country when the U.S. least expects it. And they won’t be able to accuse anyone of promoting those revolutions.
Do you regret, for instance, having approved the entrance of the Warsaw Pact’s tanks in Prague in August, 1968 that so much surprised those who admired the Cuban Revolution?
Look, I can tell you that in our opinion –and history has proved us right– Czechoslovakia was moving toward a situation of counterrevolution, toward capitalism and the arms of imperialism. And we were against all the liberal economic reforms taking place there and in other socialist countries. Those reforms tended to increasingly strengthen market relations within the socialist society: profits, benefits, lucrative deals, material motivation, all the things that encouraged individualism and selfishness. So we understood the unpleasant need of sending troops to Czechoslovakia and never condemned the socialist countries where that decision was made.
Now, at the same time we were saying that those socialist countries had to be consistent and commit themselves to adopt the same attitude if a socialist country was threatened elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, we thought the first thing they said in Czechoslovakia was undisputable: to improve socialism. The protests about ruling methods, bureaucratic policies, and divorcing the masses were unquestionably correct. But from just slogans they moved to a truly reactionary policy. And in bitterness and pain we had to approve that military intervention.
You never knew President Kennedy personally.
No. And I think Kennedy was a very enthusiastic, clever and charismatic man who tried to do positive things. After Franklin Roosevelt, his was perhaps one of the most brilliant personalities in the U.S. He made mistakes, as when he gave green light to the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, though it was not his operation, but Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s. He couldn’t prevent it on time. He also put up with the CIA’s activity; during his administration they designed the first plans to kill me and other international leaders. There’s no iron-clad evidence of his personal involvement, but it’s really hard to believe that someone from the CIA took the decision on his/her own of undertaking such actions without a prior acceptance by the President. Maybe he was tolerant or allowed some ambiguous words of his to be freely interpreted by the CIA.
However, despite the fact that it’s clear to me that Kennedy made mistakes –including some ethical ones– I think he was capable of rectifying and brave enough to make changes in U.S. policies. One of his mistakes was the Vietnam War. Thanks to his enthusiasm and obsessive sympathy for the “green berets” and his tendency to overestimate the power of the United States, he took the first steps to engage his country in the Vietnam War.
He made mistakes, I repeat, but he was an intelligent man, at times brilliant and brave, and I think –I have said this before– that if Kennedy had survived perhaps the relations between Cuba and the United States would have improved, since Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis had an impact on him. I don’t think he underestimate the Cuban people; maybe he even admired our people’s steadiness and courage.
Right on the day he was killed I was talking with a French journalist, Jean Daniel [director of Le Nouvel Observateur] who brought me a message from him saying he wanted to talk with me. So a communication was in the offing which could have perhaps helped improve our relations.
His death hurt me. He was an adversary, true, but I was very sorry that he died. It was as if I lacked something. I was hurt as well by the way they killed him, the attack, the political crime… I felt outrage, repudiation, pain, in this case for an adversary who seemed to deserve a different kind of fate.
His murder worried me too because he had enough authority in this country to impose an improvement of their relations with Cuba, as clearly demonstrated by the conversation I had with this French journalist, Jean Daniel, who was with me in the very moment when I heard the news about Kennedy’s death. pp.593-594
Do you think that under the Bush administration the United States could become an authoritarian regime?
Hardly two thirds of a century ago mankind knew the tragic experience of Nazism. Hitler had an inseparable ally –you know that– in the fear he could instill in his adversaries. By then the owner of an impressive military force, he started a war that set the world on fire. The lack of vision on the part of statesmen from the strongest European powers at the time, as well as their cowardice, gave rise to a big tragedy.
I don’t think a fascist-like regime could rise in the United States. Serious mistakes and injustices have been committed –and still exist– within its political system, but the American people count on certain institutions, traditions and educational, cultural and political values that it would be near to impossible. The risk exists at international level. The authorities and prerogatives granted to a U.S. president are such and the military, economic and technological power network of that state is so huge that, in fact, and for reasons totally beyond the American people’s control, the world is currently threatened.
One of the things the Revolution was criticized about in its first years is that it was said to display an aggressive, repressive attitude towards homosexuals, that there were camps where the homosexuals were locked away and repressed. What can you say about that?
In two words, you’re talking about a supposed persecution of homosexuals.
I have to tell you about the origins of that and where that criticism came from. I do assure you that homosexuals were neither persecuted nor sent to internment camps. But there are so many testimonies of that…
Let me tell you about the problems we had. In those first years we were forced to mobilize almost the whole nation because of the risks we were facing, which included that of an attack by the United States: the dirty war, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Missile Crisis… Many people were sent to prison then. And we established the Mandatory Military Service. We had three problems at that time: we needed people of a certain school level to serve in the Armed Forces, people capable of handling sophisticated technology, because you could not do it if you had only reached second, third or sixth grade; you needed at least seventh, eighth or ninth grade, and a higher level later on. We had some graduates, but also had to take some men out of the universities before graduation. You can’t deal with a surface-to-air rocket battery if you don’t have a University degree.
A degree in Sciences, I assume.
You know that very well. There were hundreds of thousands of men who had an impact on many branches, not only on the preparation programs, but economic branches as well. Yet some were unskilled, and the country needed them as a result of the brain-drain we enforced in production centers. That’s a problem we had then.
Second, there were some religious groups which, out of principles or doctrines, refused to honor the flag or accept using weapons of any kind, something some people eventually used as an excuse to criticize or be hostile.
Third, there was the issue of the homosexuals. At the time, the mere idea of having women in Military Service was unthinkable… Well, I found out there was a strong rejection of homosexuals, and at the triumph of the Revolution, the stage we are speaking of, the machista element was very much present, together with widespread opposition to having homosexuals in military units.
Because of those three factors, homosexuals were not drafted at first, but then all that became a sort of irritation factor, an argument some people used to lash out at homosexuals even more.
Taking those three categories into account we founded the so-called Military Units to Support Production (UMAP) where we sent people from the said three categories: those whose educational level was insufficient; those who refused to serve out of religious convictions; or homosexual males who were physically fit. Those were the facts; that’s what happened.
So they were not internment camps?
Those units were set up all throughout the country for purposes of work, mainly to assist agriculture. That is, the homosexuals were not the only ones affected, though many of them certainly were, not all of them, just those who were called to do mandatory service in the ranks, since it was an obligation and everyone was participating.
That’s why we had that situation, and it’s true they were not internment units, nor were they punishment units; on the contrary, it was about morale, to give them a chance to work and help the country in those difficult circumstances. Besides, there were many who for religious reasons had the chance to help their homeland in another way by serving not in combat units but in work units.
Of course, as time passed by those units were eliminated. I can’t tell you now how many years they lasted, maybe six or seven years, but I can tell you for sure that there was prejudice against homosexuals.
Do you think that prejudice stemmed from machismo?
It was a cultural thing, just as it happened with women. I can tell you that the Revolution never promoted that, quite the opposite; we had to work very hard to do away with racial prejudice here. Concerning women, there was strong prejudice, as strong as in the case of homosexuals. I’m not going to come up with excuses now, for I assume my share of the responsibility. I truly had other concepts regarding that issue. I had my own opinions, and I was rather opposed and would always be opposed to any kind of abuse or discrimination, because there was a great deal of prejudice in that society. Whole families suffered for it. The homosexuals were certainly discriminated against, more so in other countries, but it happened here too, and fortunately our people, who are far more cultured and learned now, have gradually left that prejudice behind.
I must also tell you that there were –and there are– extremely outstanding personalities in the fields of culture and literature, famous names this country takes pride in, who were and still are homosexual, however they have always enjoyed a great deal of consideration and respect in Cuba. So there’s no need to look at it as if it were a general feeling. There was less prejudice against homosexuals in the most cultured and educated sectors, but that prejudice was very strong in sectors of low educational level –the illiteracy rate was around 30% those years– and among the nearly-illiterate, and even among many professionals. That was a real fact in our society.
Do you think that prejudice against homosexuals has been effectively fought?
Discrimination against homosexuals has been largely overcome. Today the people have acquired a general, rounded culture. I’m not going to say there is no machismo, but now it’s not anywhere near the way it was back then, when that culture was so strong. With the passage of years and the growth of consciousness about all of this, we have gradually overcome problems and such prejudices have declined. But believe me, it was not easy. pp.222-225
4. In 1921, when the civil war ended, the Soviet Union was in ruins and its population in the grip of starvation. Lenin then decided to give up war communism and launched the New Economic Policy (NEP), a partial return to capitalism and a mixed economy, and gave priority to agriculture. The outcome was a positive one. Lenin died in 1924 and in 1928 Stalin suddenly abandoned the NEP and moved on to an entirely socialist economy, giving priority to industry in order to “construct socialism in only one country”.
5. An important theoretical discussion took place in 1963-1964 about the Cuban Revolution’s economic organization where the advocates of Economic Calculation (EC) and those of the Funding Budgetary System (FBS) opposed each other. The former, headed by Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, Alberto Mora, Marcelo Fernandez Font and the French Marxist economist Charles Bettelheim supported and defended a political project of mercantile socialism based on enterprises managed in a decentralized manner and financially independent which would compete with their respective goods and exchange money for them in the market. Material incentives would prevail in each enterprise. Planning, according to EC supporters, operates through values and markets. Such was the main road chosen and promoted by the Soviets in those years.
The latter were headed by Che Guevara and included, among others, Luis Alvarez Rom and Belgian economist Ernest Mandel, leader of the Fourth International, all of whom questioned the socialism-market matrimony. They stood for a political project where planning and market are opposing terms. Che thought that planning was much more than a mere technical asset to manage the economy. It was a way to extend the scope of human rationality while gradually decreasing the quotas of fetishism upon which faith on “economic law independence” found support.
Those who like Che preferred the Budgetary System favored the bank-based unification of all production units with a single, centralized budget, all seen as part of a great socialist enterprise (made up of each individual production unit). No purchasing-and-selling activity based upon money and marketing would take place between any two factories of a same consolidated enterprise, only exchange through a bank account registration. The goods would go from one production unit to another without ever being merchandise. Che and his followers pushed for and fostered voluntary work and moral incentive as the privileged –albeit not the only– tools to raise the workers’ socialist conscience. pp.648-649