- Bill Fletchera longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an editorial board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He was a founder of the Black Radical Congress.
- Peter Kornbluhdirector of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. He is the co-author with William LeoGrande of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.
- Louis Pérezprofessor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several books, including Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos and Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution.
We host a roundtable discussion on the life and legacy of Cuban revolutionary leader and former President Fidel Castro, who died Friday at the age of 90. He survived 11 U.S. presidents and more than 600 assassination attempts, many orchestrated by the CIA. Castro died 60 years to the day after he, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara and 80 others set sail from Mexico in 1956 to begin what became the Cuban revolution to oust the U.S.-backed Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista. The revolution would inspire revolutionary efforts across the globe and lead Castro to become one of the archenemies of the United States. Our guests are journalist and activist Bill Fletcher, a founder of the Black Radical Congress; Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project and co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana”; and Louis A. Pérez Jr., a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of several books, including “Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution.”
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour looking at the life and legacy of the Cuban revolutionary leader and former Cuban president, Fidel Castro. He died Friday at the age of 90. He survived 11 U.S. presidents and more than 600 assassination attempts, many orchestrated by the CIA. The Cuban government has declared nine days of national mourning. Castro had been in poor health since 2006 and formally ceded power to his younger brother, Raúl, in 2008. Fidel Castro died 60 years to the day after he, his brother Raúl, Che Guevara and 80 others set sail from Mexico in 1956 to begin what became the Cuban revolution to oust the U.S.-backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Batista fled Cuba in 1959, and the Castros have led Cuba ever since. The Cuban revolution would inspire revolutionary efforts across the globe and lead Castro to become one of the archenemies of the United States. This is Fidel Castro addressing his fellow Cubans in the 1980s.
PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] Revolution is having a sense of the moment. It’s changed everything that must be changed. It’s complete equality and freedom. It’s to treat and be treated like a human being. It’s emancipating ourselves for ourselves and by our own strength. It’s challenging the dominant forces inside and outside the country. It’s defending our values at any price.
AMY GOODMAN: Fidel Castro embraced communism. He called himself a Marxist-Leninist. Washington repeatedly tried to remove him from power with the ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and a decades-long economic embargo. Castro denounced the U.S. blockade of Cuba in the 1988 film The Uncompromising Revolution, directed by Saul Landau and Jack Willis.
PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] For the first 10 years the revolution had to survive the blockade and create possibilities of development. In these years, basic progress occurred, like eradicating illiteracy, building an educational system, getting schools to remote areas, providing teachers. In those days, we even “improvised” teachers, because there weren’t enough teachers, plans to train doctors. Of our 6,000 doctors, 3,000 in 1959 were lured to the United States. We have had to face U.S. hostility, the blockade, great challenges. I think our responses were appropriate.
AMY GOODMAN: Across the developing world, Fidel Castro is viewed as a hero who stood up to the United States and assisted Marxist guerrillas and revolutionary governments around the world. In the 1970s, he sent Cuban troops to Angola to support the government over the initial objections of Russia. Cuba helped defeat South African insurgents in Angola and win Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990, adding pressure on the apartheid regime. After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, he repeatedly thanked Fidel Castro. On Saturday, the leader of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola said Castro was like Mandela.
JULIÃO MATEUS PAULO: [translated] In the world, from time to time, there will be individuals like this who appear, be it in science or politics. These individuals are like our Mandela. And when they leave us, they leave us with a gap, emptiness and longing, because, for some, Fidel Castro was a dictator, but, for us, he was not. He was a revolutionary. Regardless of anything, he was also a charismatic figure. Even his Western enemies respected him. It’s difficult for people like that to exist in today’s world. These are rare people. They are geniuses.
AMY GOODMAN: Many Cubans who fled the regime consider Castro a tyrant who demanded absolute obedience from the Cuban people through censorship of the media and by imprisoning people he deemed antisocial, including dissidents, artists and members of the LGBT community. In July 2015, President Obama re-established formal diplomatic relations with Cuba. After Castro’s death was announced Friday, Obama released a statement saying, quote, “We know that this moment fills Cubans—in Cuba and in the United States—with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families, and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and the world around him,” unquote. Donald Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is Dead!” exclamation point.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement that described Castro as “larger than life” and a “remarkable leader,” quote, “a legendary revolutionary and orator” who “made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation,” unquote. He also noted that his father, Pierre Trudeau, was proud to call Fidel Castro a friend.
All of this comes as several major U.S. airlines are beginning commercial flights to Cuba this week for the first time in 55 years. The first flight is landing today. Today, as we broadcast, that flight is leaving from New York to Cuba.
In April of this year, Castro gave what would be his farewell speech. Addressing the closing of a Communist Party Congress in Havana, he defended his record, saying, quote, “Soon I’ll be like all the others. The time will come for all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without truce to obtain them,” unquote.
When we come back, we host a roundtable discussion on Fidel Castro’s life and legacy. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Cuban musician Silvio Rodríguez. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend today looking at the life and legacy of the Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who died on Friday at the age of 90. We’re joined by three guests.
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist, editorial board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com, founder of the Black Radical Congress, his recent piece headlined “Black America and the Passing of Fidel Castro.”
Peter Kornbluh is also with us, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. He’s the co-author with William LeoGrande of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.
And joining us via Democracy Now! video stream, Lou Pérez Jr., professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, author of several books, including Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos and Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Peter Kornbluh, let’s begin with you. Your reaction to the death of Fidel Castro?
PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the world has lost one of the most famous leading and dynamic and dramatic revolutionaries who ever lived. He’s going to have a very controversial legacy, but it is indisputable that he took a small Caribbean island and transformed it into a major actor on the world stage, far beyond its geographic size. He stood up to the United States. He became the David versus Goliath, withstood all of the efforts to kill him, overthrow him. And that is what he will go down in history for, in many ways.
Cuba is in a very difficult situation today, with an extraordinary transition in terms of the Cuban leadership and in terms of the leadership in the United States. It’s not clear where the relationship between Washington and Havana is going to go under Donald Trump. And in that respect, the death of Fidel now is—comes at an extremely delicate moment. But, you know, the world is going to, I think, remember Fidel as somebody who really stood for independence and sovereignty and brought a great pride and nationalism to the Cuban people.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Bill Fletcher, your immediate response when you heard that Fidel Castro had died? I mean, he was no longer the actual president; he had handed over power in 2006 to his younger brother, Raúl, who’s actually 85, and then formally ceded that power in 2008, so it’s been about a decade.
BILL FLETCHER JR.: Much as—Amy, as Peter just said, we lost a very audacious leader, an outspoken champion of national liberation, national independence. And while there are, you know, in the mainstream media many, many criticisms that are being made of Fidel Castro—and there are certainly legitimate criticisms—what the U.S. media misses is why is it that most of the world mourns his passing. It’s not just the mourning of a historic figure, but a figure who actually shook up the planet.
AMY GOODMAN: In what way?
BILL FLETCHER JR.: He did things that were really—it’s just interesting, Amy. He took a—he took a country that had been turned into a whorehouse and gambling casino for the United States, and gave that country dignity. He turned a country that was poor—remains poor—into a major location for the production of medical personnel, who have gone around the world and made themselves available to countries that could never afford that kind of assistance. He—as Peter mentioned, he combated the apartheid regime in South Africa, but, in addition, provided all sorts of assistance to forces that were fighting Portuguese colonialism and white minority rule. He helped to construct the idea of Latin American independence, working very closely with the late President Chávez of Venezuela. And this is one of the reasons that he has a special place for much of black America, that he stood up to the United States. The United States did everything that they could possibly do to destroy him, to bring him down and to bring down his government, and it did not work.
AMY GOODMAN: Lou Pérez, talk about your interest in Fidel Castro and your response to this latest development, the death of Fidel Castro.
LOUIS PÉREZ JR.: Good morning. I think it’s important to contextualize Fidel Castro. What resonates in the world, at least as much as Fidel Castro, is the Cuban revolution. And the Cuban revolution itself is a historical process that comes out of 100 years of struggle. The Cuban revolution represents the culmination of Cuban history. And behind Fidel Castro, or perhaps even ahead of Fidel Castro, are a people, a people who have been struggling for self-determination and national sovereignty for the better part of a century. So Fidel Castro happens to be the person who has the capacity to summon and bring to fruition, in culmination, a long historical process. It happens that this process culminates in the early ’60s at the same time that the decolonization of Africa and Southeast Asia and the Middle East is undergoing. And all of a sudden Cuba becomes emblematic of a global phenomenon and that there is—that probably no country in the world bore the imprint of American domination more than Cuba did in the 20th century, and so that—that Fidel Castro, with 6 million other Cubans, assumed the political position of challenging the American presence, of minimizing American influence, of expelling American capital, of breaking diplomatic relations and then withstanding, as your guests have indicated, 60 years of one failed invasion, years of covert operations, multiple assassinations and a highly punitive embargo, speaks to the resolve not only of Fidel Castro, but the resolve of the Cuban people.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Pérez, the dominant discussion in the U.S. corporate media is that he was a dictator, that he was a killer, that he killed many and imprisoned dissidents. Your response to that description?
LOUIS PÉREZ JR.: I don’t know how to respond to that. There is, I think—this is an authoritarian system. This is a system that is not reluctant to use repressive means to maintain power. This is a system that has spawned a fairly extensive intelligence system, surveillance systems. And in many ways, I think Cuba offers us a cautionary tale. For 30, 40, 50 years, Cuba has been under siege from the United States. And once that idea of national security enters into the calculus of governance, you are aware that civil liberties and the freedoms of the press and freedom of political exchange shrink—and we’re experiencing this here since 9/11—so that Cuba becomes a national security state, with justification if one believes that the duty of a government is to protect the integrity of national sovereignty. And so, for 50 years, Cuba, 90 miles away from the world’s most powerful country, struggles to maintain its integrity, its national sovereignty, and in the course of these years increasingly becomes a national security state. Ironically, the United States contributes to the very conditions that it professes to abhor.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kornbluh, you had a chance to meet Fidel Castro. I’d also like you to give us a thumbnail sketch, a biography, if you will, of Fidel Castro—where he was born, what were the influences on his life, and how it was, 60 years to the day before he died on Friday, he made that trip, leaving Mexico with Che Guevara and his brother Raúl to begin the Cuban revolution.
PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I did have the extraordinary opportunity to spend some real time, quality time, with Fidel Castro, if you will. We organized two major conferences, one on the 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion and one on the 40th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, brought all the surviving Kennedy administration officials to Havana, retired CIA officials, and in the case of the Bay of Pigs invasion, we even brought former members of the CIA-led brigade that had invaded Cuba to sit at a conference room table and discuss this rather extraordinary history with Fidel. And over the course of time, we had four private lunches and two state dinners, and I was able to kind of sit in front of him and listen to the history that he embodied and that he was a part of and that he changed, with the power of his personality and the force of his leadership. And we have lost a historical figure, and with him goes tremendous amount of history that only he knew and only he could share. And so, the movies and the books to come, I think, are going to be extremely important for us to evaluate and think more about the history that he helped to make and dominated, in many ways, over the last 50, 60 years.
You know, he was born to a Spanish immigrant who became a major land owner in the provinces of Cuba. He grew up a relatively privileged life. He became a lawyer. And he began to oppose the Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, leading a kind of overthrow attempt on July 26, 1953, at the Moncada Barracks. That’s why his movement was called the July 26 Movement. That effort failed miserably, and he was thrown in jail. He miraculously was actually released under an amnesty and exiled to Mexico, where, as we know, he organized the Cuban revolution.
He received a lot of credit for sparking the revolution, but as Lou Pérez would be the first to say, there was tremendous opposition to Batista in the urban sectors, organized independently of Fidel Castro. But his landing in Cuba on December 2nd, 1956, in a small boat, the Granma, with 88 guerrillas to go into the mountains, started kind of the process going forward in a big way. You know, it was an improbable revolution. The landing—the landing party led by Fidel was attacked almost immediately, and he lost the vast majority of his men. Only 12 members of the landing group, the guerrillas that he was bringing to Cuba, survived—among them, him and Raúl and—his brother, and Che Guevara and just a handful of others. And—but he, for the force of his personality, managed to broaden the appeal, hook up with the urban revolutionaries and opposition and bring about this extraordinary revolution.
He survived assassination attempts. He might have actually been killed at the Bay of Pigs; he was—members of the brigade had him in their rifle sights. He survived there. He survived the missile crisis, in which the Kennedy administration was almost ready to obliterate Cuba to take out those Soviet missiles. And along the way, he, you know, turned his country upside down. There’s going to be a lot of debates, and is debate right now, over the legacy of his repression, of his economic decisions. Even he, later in life, acknowledged that the model that he had set forward wasn’t successful in the end for Cubans over the long term.
But he will be remembered for his emphasis on healthcare, education and certainly his uncompromising commitment to independence and sovereignty. And the legacy of his discussions with the United States shows this extraordinary commitment. At one point, the Carter administration sent a secret negotiating team down to talk to him, and they basically said, you know, “We’ll lift the embargo, if you get out of Africa.” And he said, in response, “You know, I don’t accept that the United States gets to operate by one set of rules, and Cuba, smaller country, is being told to operate by a second set of rules. The revolution meant independence for our governance and our foreign policy, and that is what we are going to pursue.” And he pursued that until the very end.