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New Years Day 1959 and the new America

1 January 2009

A couple of assassination attempts can really age a guy

“There is no disputing the revolution’s durability. It survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, the missile crisis and the Soviet Union’s collapse. Castro outlasted 10 US presidents and dodged countless CIA assassination attempts,” write Rory Carroll and Andres Schipani in this morning’s Guardian (U.K.).

While Fidel (and now Raul) Castro will probably go down historically as caudillos who stayed around too long, like Porfirio Diaz (whose only mistake, Alvaro Obregon once observed, was “he got old.” ), there is no denying that what happened in Cuba on New Years Day, 1959 changed much more in Latin America than the government of one island, which until that day had been a de facto U.S. colonial possession, best known for cigars, gambling and Ricky Ricardo.

The Mexican Revolution, which pre-dates the Cuban Revolution by fifty years could also arguably be called “anti-imperialist” though the concept of neo-colonialism really wasn’t much in people’s minds before World War II.  Mexico’s more fluid revolutionary movement allowed it to accommodate an ideological spectrum within the leadership,  and flexibility in economic and social policy. The Cubans do have better health care than in Mexico (indeed, probably better than just about anywhere in the world), and illiteray is unknown, and achieved the goal of providing heath and educational services to all inhabitants in record time, but then again, Cuba is not a huge country, and there is a single language.  Mexico is sprawling (where just providing reliable roads was one of the  great achievements of the last century) and multi-cultural with over fifty spoken languages.

And the Mexicans had the advantage of staging their revolution before economic theories became quasi-religions.  In the United States, we forget that Socialists were a legitimate and respectable political group in the early 19th century, and Socialists ran for office (and were elected) with regularity.  Anti-Mexican immigrant groups in the United States regularly claim that the Mexican Constition is based on the Soviet one, which would be a neat trick, the Mexican Constitution being written in the winter of 1916-17, and the Soviets not getting around to writing one until 1919.   And even though “Socialism” came to be the accepted term in Mexican revolutionary circles, it was a strange sort of socialism, that never denied the existence of Adam Smith, or Benito Mussolini.

From the 1930s onward, economic theories became state religions.  Casto’s unforgivable error was not so much tossing out the neo-imperalists who controlled the island (the U.S. and the Europeans might grumble, and they might subvert the Mexican government, but they were not going to regain direct ownership of the resources and production), but becoming the true believer of a heretical sect of the wrong “religion.” Not just a Marxist, but a “Communist”, specifically a Stalinist.

It’s impossible to say, but had the Cuban Revolution NOT baptised itself as a Communist Revolution, it might have been begrudingly accepted by the United States.  Hard to say.  Guatemala’s rather mild Jacobo Arbenez was overthown in a very bloody C.I.A. sponsored military coup in 1954 for expressing “socialist ideas about banana farming, and by the 1950s, any ideological heresy in the Americas was intolerant to the United States.

It probably was necessary for Cuba to change the foreign devil they knew (the United States) for the one they really didn’t (the Soviet Union).  It was — and still is — an unfortunate fact of life that trade and international cooperation is largely determined by ideology and “no heretics need apply” signs are hung around the world on the doors of nation’s business offices.  For what it’s worth, I think the Cubans just exchanged one set of imperialists for another.

Which may have been the only viable option in the Cold War.  It’s unfortunate that the result was a “counter-reformation” in U.S. relations towards the Hemisphere, with the C.I.A. and the State Department playing Grand Inquisitor to Latin leaders, and not shy about showing the instruments of torture (and often using them).  While the Cubans are said to have inspired liberation movements throughout the hemisphere, they also hardened the reaction, making genuine and startling reforms wait until the end of the Cold War.

The credit, or blame, for whatever the Cuban Revolution is, or will be, largely is due to Fidel Castro.  He long overshot Porfiro Diaz’s 36 year record for control of a Latin American nation, and even Franciso Franco’s 39 years in power.    True, he doesn’t hold office any more, and there have been major changes in Cuban politics and economics in the last few years, but I expect the Cuban Party will become an “Institutional Revolutionary Party” only after Fidel dies.

The First of January, 1959 is well-worth remembering, not just for what it meant to Cuba, but what it meant to the Hemisphere, and what lessons it has taught us.  The new generation of “revolutionary” leaders — the “Axis of Evo” (Morales of Bolivia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Rafael Correa in Ecuador) — have combined the Mexican Revolutionary flexibility with the Cuban emphasis on radical and immediate material progress, the anti-yanqui rhetoric and hemispheric internationalist outlook into something we still haven’t been able to define.  If it’s taken a hundred years to come to terms with the Mexican Revolution (or Revolutions) and fifty to accept the Cuban, it’s no wonder we’re still not sure what it means.  Get back with me about 2060.

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