Fidel was the last of the Titans, of the epic heroes. Whatever our travails, our generation and the ones before us were fortunate to live in the decades in which there were great leaders, visionaries who combined their ideal with action and changed the world they inherited. Our generation and one, perhaps two before that, lived consciously in the twentieth century which was inhabited by such heroes who fought colossal enemies against incredible odds; led and changed reality and became legend.
It was almost sixty years ago to the day that Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and Raul Castro, landed on the shores of Cuba in the leaky yacht Granma, to start the revolutionary guerrilla war that led to victory two and half years later.
Fidel’s greatest single contribution was his evolution and practice of a humane and humanitarian ethics of violence. Three hundred thousand Cuban volunteers rotated in and out of Angola over twelve years of war and there was not a single allegation of atrocities against them in the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, even by the United States.
Fidel, who had a Jesuit education and formation, practiced and developed Just War in both anti-state liberation struggle as well as when he led the Cuban state in fighting against domestic terrorism and imperialist oppression throughout the world.
In The Rebel, Albert Camus drew a distinction between a revolutionary, who was one who used unlimited violence to change the whole system and the rebel, who used limited and selective violence to oppose wrongs and injustice. Camus opted for the rebel over the revolutionary. Fidel was a rebel and a revolutionary. He opted for revolutionary war to overthrow a system and build a new one but his use of violence was selective and discriminatory in the best sense. Fidel also transcended another seemingly unbridgeable gap. He was a revolutionary as well as a statesman. He led a revolution and supported, defended and inspired others, but he also piloted the Cuban state through the most dreadful dangers and against the worst odds. Che Guevara refers to Fidel’s leadership which he said no one could have matched, during the “sad and luminous days” of the Cuban Missile Crisis where it lived under the shadow of a US military invasion and perhaps global nuclear war, but did so unflinchingly, unblinkingly.
Fidel was a patriot, steeped in the Cuban national spirit and heritage, while also being an internationalist on a grand scale. Mere months after the victory of the Cuban evolution he sent tanks to defend Algeria which had just achieved its liberation.
Nelson Mandela went on the record to credit Cuba with the decisive role of defeating the powerful (nuclear armed) South African military in the battle of Cuito Cuenevale in Angola in 1988, which shattered the myth of white South African military invincibility and opened the prison door for Mandela and a negotiated end to apartheid in South Africa. Fidel personally oversaw the Angolan campaign from across the Atlantic.
Angola also shed light on what I was the first to identify in the academic literature as Fidel’s greatest single contribution, namely his evolution and practice of a humane and humanitarian ethics of violence.
Fidel stood for national liberation and national and state sovereignty. Fidel Castro was an anti-imperialist who was never a fanatic. He always combined his anti-imperialism with a sense of the welfare of humanity and the planet as a whole, and he put forward proposals for global structural reform which could ensure the welfare of all. While a militant anti-imperialist he was not an advocate of war for the sake of war. He also never hired lobbyists. He was Cuba’s best lobbyist, simply by charm of personality and force of argumentation.
Fidel was the great synthesiser or was himself the great synthesis, fusing factors and attributes that were regarded as unbridgeable antinomies. Fidel taught us all, a way to be. The way of the fighter, the warrior, the hero. Fidel was, to borrow the title of Brazilian author Paul Coelho’s book, a great “Warrior of Light”. But his was not merely or primarily a martial heroism. His own greatest hero and inspiration was the Cuban patriot Jose Marti, and Fidel’s favourite phrase, almost a motto, was derived from Marti: the Battle of ideas. Fidel Castro was then a global guerrilla commander, the commander-in-chief, in the “battle of ideas”.
Naomi Klein summarized this perspective as follows: “The liberation fighter loyal to Fidel’s teachings can ultimately overcome and vanquish imperialism through weapons of ethics and morality.” In an interview with Klein, Jayatilleka explained that “Fidel proves that you can fight without losing your soul. Even if you lose militarily, you win morally and eventually politically. Fidel has universal value wherever people and movements are struggling. Fidel contributed to universal values.” Jayatilleka in his book on the Moral Dimension of the Political thought of Fidel Castro, clarifies that “According to Fidel’s logic, the liberation and revolutionary fighter must exercise “conscious restraint.” Fidel calls for an ethics that “springs from the wellsprings of modernity and universalism but stands for an alternative modernity.”
Nick Hewlett, D.Litt, has authored the volume “Blood and Progress: Violence in Pursuit of Emancipation” (Univ. of Edinburgh Press, 2016) which includes a Chapter on Fidel Castro which concludes: “Most importantly, for our purposes, Castro is deeply reflective on the ethics of violence in revolt and offers the most developed morality in relation to violence in pursuit of emancipation of any revolutionary leader. We might say that Castro and the practice of the Cuban revolution offer the spirit with which we should approach the question of violence in revolt, which promotes the importance of the life and wellbeing of all human beings, with the regretful acknowledgement that fighting and loss of life in pursuit of a substantially more just and less exploitative society is sometimes necessary. This is, at the very least, a highly inspiring way to approach the question.”
Hewlett writes of Jayatilleka’s study of Castro as follows, “In an insightful study, Dayan Jayatilleka (2007) examines Castro’s ethics of violence, suggesting that the Cuban leader resolved the disagreement between Sartre and Camus regarding violence and morality, namely where Sartre was critical of Camus for Camus’s disapproval of the violence of the oppressed. Castro’s main contribution to Marxism is the way in which he introduces an ethical and moral dimension. Jayatilleka suggests there are three possible approaches to violence: by those who contend that violence is always wrong, by those who defend it if it is in pursuit of a just end, and by those who argue that not only should the end be a worthy one but that the means of achieving this end must be subjected to ethical scrutiny. It is this last position which he argues is the correct one and the one which Castro embraces. Jayatilleka argues convincingly that neither Sorel nor Fanon nor Sartre: “‘went beyond the understanding of the effect of dehumanization of the violence of the oppressor on the oppressed and the effect of humanization on the oppressed of the exercise of counter-violence, to an understanding of the effect of dehumanization of violence on the oppressed (which the Gandhians and other pacifists understood), when used by them without limits. There is no dialectical understanding of the violence of the oppressed, encompassing its contradictory aspects, both liberating and dehumanizing. This, however, was a concern of Camus, though his attempt to resolve the contradiction was unsatisfactory.’”
There will be a huge sense of irreplaceable loss most palpably in Cuba and the whole of Latin America, but it will range wider, throughout the global South and even in the first world. No country will be untouched.