Beware counterfeit anti-imperialism

Jeremy Cronin on the lessons for post-apartheid South Africa from Fidel Castro and the Cuban people


Guard against counterfeit anti-imperialism: A tribute to Fidel Castro, a heroic revolutionary, an exemplary humanist 

In 1945 a bloody first half of the 20th century drew to a close. With end of the 2nd World War, at a global scale, a relative stale-mate was now established between the Western imperialist powers under the dominance of the United States and an emergent socialist bloc of countries. The first half of the 20th century had seen two catastrophic world wars, with much of the bloodshed in Europe.

Now the epicentre of the struggle for human justice, democracy and national self-determination shifted to the geo-political South. Europe had been liberated from fascism, racism and occupation, but throughout the geo-political South their close cousins were alive - various toxic versions of colonialism, neo-colonialism, settler colonialism, semi-colonialism, apartheid colonialism. Everywhere these oppressive realities were accompanied by rabid racism.

In was in this context that in the late 1940s and into the 1950s a new generation of popular, dynamic and fearless revolutionary leaders emerged. Some were to die relatively young, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba, martyrs in struggle. Others survived into the late 20th century. Some of these had however lost their revolutionary vigour. But there were outstanding exceptions, those who survived, with their authority, humanism and reputation intact and enhanced – among them Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. 

Both were born into relatively privileged families but in the midst of deep rural poverty and under the scourge of oppressive regimes. In the case of Cuba, the island was a neo-colony of the United States with supine and corrupt comprador local leaders. Havana had been turned into a brothel, a casino playground of the Mafia, while the majority of Cubans were pressed into back-breaking work in US-owned sugar and tobacco plantations.

As a law student in Havana, Fidel moved increasingly in radical left circles. In July 1953 he first came to national prominence when he and a small group of fellow radicals launched an armed attack on the Moncada military barracks. The attack was defeated. Some were killed and others, including Fidel, were captured. But the event served to galvanize a rising tide of opposition to the corrupt Batista regime. In particular it was the young Fidel’s rousing speech from the dock – “History will absolve me”.

A year later Fidel was released on amnesty and went into exile. With his brother Raul he teamed up with other Latin American radicals, including the Argentinean Che Guevara. They formed the July 26 movement and planned an armed liberation struggle back in Cuba. In November 1956, in a rickety boat, the Granma, 81 armed revolutionaries set sail from the coast of Mexico bound for Cuba. The trip was planned to take five days. Through their underground contacts back in Cuba they had organised for diversionary attacks to occur away from the selected landing destination. These duly occurred but the boat was in such poor condition that the trip took seven days, by which time their own plans had been uncovered and they were ambushed on landing.

Once the survivors had regrouped in the Sierra Maestra it was found that only 19 of the 81 had survived, these included Fidel and Che. They were to become the core of a liberation struggle in the Sierra Maestra. With support from left wing parties and trade unions in the towns and cities, working with the rural poor and winning over deserting government soldiers, in a remarkably short time the revolutionary movement swept through the island, arriving in Havana on January 1, 1959. The dictator Batista fled to the US with suitcases stuffed with millions of stolen dollars.

In February Fidel was sworn in as Prime Minister and a series of radical reforms were quickly enacted. A cap on land-holding was placed at 402 hectares. Foreign ownership of Cuban land was prohibited. 200,000 peasants received title deeds. A mass literacy campaign was launched with college and university students suspending their studies for a year and selflessly going out into the deep rural areas. Health-care was nationalised.

Of course the reaction from Cuba’s US neighbour just 90 kilometres away was soon in coming. Oil exports were cut back. When Cuba imported oil from the Soviet Union, the Shell, Esso and Standard Oil refineries refused to refine the product. Fidel’s response was decisive – he nationalised the refineries. The US then cut Cuba’s sugar export quota. Again the response was patriotic and decisive – the US-owned sugar mills were nationalised along with US banks.

But Fidel Castro understood that the US would not be content simply to destabilise the Cuban revolution through economic and financial means, especially as they were not working. The Cuban army was doubled in size. More importantly in September 1960 a People’s Militia, the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), was established. These were street and block committees, provided with basic military training but also responsible for community work, like home-based care visits. They were genuine organs of localised popular power, and indeed popular democracy. The enemies of Cuba argue that there is “no democracy” in Cuba. But what is more democratic – local popular power, or the oligopoly-driven two-party dominated US presidential elections?

By 1970 one-third of Cuba’s population was involved voluntarily in CDRs. And this was to be the popular bedrock, the decisive factor in the very survival of the Cuban revolution, enabling Fidel to outlast ten US presidents and 637 assassination attempts.

In April 1961 the US launched the Bay of Pigs invasion, using Cuban exile proxies trained and armed by the CIA. With a US fleet steaming off the coastline, and aircraft bombing Cuban infrastructure, a mass beach-landing was undertaken. It was routed in a matter of days, with Fidel himself leading at the front. He later said: “what the imperialists cannot forgive us is that we made a socialist revolution under their noses”. 

On the basis of these advances and the defence of the revolution in the face of a blockade (that still continues) Cuba has made amazing and universally acclaimed social advances – in literacy, in health-care (with infant mortality rates way below the US), and in technology (Cuba is a world-leader in bio-technology, for instance).


Fidel was always a proud patriot, but, like the revolution he led, he was also imbued with a deep sense of internationalism. As he once put it, the imperialists “don’t understand…that our country is not just Cuba; our country is also humanity.”

These were not just words. Over the decades Cuba has selflessly deployed hundreds of thousands of doctors, engineers, soldiers to the Middle East, Latin America, and indeed Africa. What is especially remarkable about these deployments is that the Cubans have never asked for one cent in compensation. They have never sought for mining concessions in foreign countries, or for a slice of the business action in countries that they have literally saved from devastation. In many of these countries thousands of Cubans lost their lives.

As Southern Africans we should honour this and know this better than most.

Soon after Angolan independence, the CIA working out of Mobutu’s Zaire and the apartheid regime with its bases in Namibia/SWA planned a joint pincer movement to capture Luanda and defeat the MPLA government. In 1975 Savimbi’s UNITA backed by apartheid SA, and Roberto Holden’s FNLA backed by the CIA were on the outskirts of Luanda. It was the dramatic arrival of 18,000 Cuban troops airlifted and shipped in at the eleventh hour that saved the day.

In 1987 an even more decisive battle occurred in southern Angola at Cuito Cuanavale. In the dry season of that year Angolan government forces had advanced on Savimbi’s Jamba headquarters, but they had overstretched their supply lines and the apartheid regime had been waiting for this moment to launch a lightning motorised attack with the aim of definitively defeating the Angolan forces. This plan nearly succeeded, it was only frustrated by the technical capacity of the Cuban forces to rapidly build advanced airfields. The Cuban-piloted Soviet MIG jet fighters outmatched the apartheid Mirage fighters and suddenly the balance of conventional armed capacity had shifted in southern African. The apartheid invasion forces no longer had air superiority and they were forced to beat a hasty retreat back over the Namibian border.

In 1988 the New York Accords forced the apartheid forces to leave Namibia and in 1990 Namibian independence occurred. Our own negotiated transition commenced in the same year. As Fidel once said: “The history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale.”

The Special Period: 1990 – 2000 

But these advances in southern Africa were to coincide with a dramatic global development, the collapse of the Soviet bloc of countries. Suddenly Cuba, after three decades under a US-imposed blockade found itself deprived of its one life-line. It couldn’t import oil. Its own sugar exports collapsed. By 1992 the economy had declined by 40%.

The response of Fidel and the Cuban people was typical. It was not to surrender themselves into the hands of the IMF. It was not to abandon ship. This island of 11 million people, faced with isolation, embarked on an heroic program of sovereign self-sufficiency. They moved away from the old neo-colonial dependence on mono-cropping (sugar and tobacco). They moved away from large energy-intensive state and cooperative farms, to smaller farms. They even replaced tractors with oxen and found that the latter were better for soil conservation. Deprived of access to extensive industrial fertilizers they adopted widespread vermiculture. Important advances were made in localised solar energy resources.

By 2006 Cuba was the world’s only nation which met the UNDP’s definition of sustainable development, sustainably putting back into nature what it was taking out.

Typically, Fidel understood the wider human and international implications in this new direction forced upon the island. Cuba’s energy and sustainability challenges, he said, were a forerunner of a global challenge. As he never tired of arguing in the last decades, if the entire world’s population was to consume at the level of the average North American, then we would need seven planet earths. The path of profit-driven, capitalist growth underpinned by imperialist aggression is simply unsustainable. It is, in fact, a crime against nature, and, since we are part of nature, it is a crime against humanity.

Lessons for post-apartheid South Africa 

Bound inextricably together by the ties of a common struggle, by the blood of Cuban doctors and MK soldiers in Angola spilt by the apartheid regime, bound by the mutual admiration and respect that our two great leaders Fidel and Madiba felt for each other – it is nonetheless important to recognise that Cuba and South Africa are different countries. As the Cubans have never tired of reminding us, Cuba of 1959 and South Africa of 1994 represented different realities and in different global contexts. The Cubans never tried to export their revolution to South Africa as a singular model to be replicated here.

Nevertheless, there are many important lessons we can learn from the steadfast example of Fidel and the courageous Cuban people, not least at a time when it is obvious that our own national democratic revolution is going through a complicated period.

Here, briefly, are three issues that deserve consideration within our own reality.

One, the Cuban revolution, living and surviving literally under the nose of the most powerful imperialist state, always understood the critical importance of popular protagonism, of popular power, and of revolutionary morality. These were qualities once well understood within our own liberation struggle, not least during the 1980s when rudimentary organs of popular power emerged in townships and rural villages as the semi-insurrectionary struggles against apartheid grew. Post-1994 we have tended to demobilise popular forces (except during electoral campaigns) and preferred to conduct ourselves as a delivery state. The Cuban revolution would not have survived for one year if the same mistake had been made there.

Two, leadership is critical and Fidel (like Madiba and Chris Hani) exemplified this admirably. Fidel was always in the frontline of struggle, in the Sierra Maestra, at the Bay of Pigs, in the economic struggle for survival. In the late 1960s Cuba’s sugar harvest was threatened. Fidel personally led the campaign to ensure targets were met. When, in 1969, the target was not met, Fidel offered his resignation. He took personal responsibility and did not displace it onto a collective. This was not to be the first or last time that he offered to resign. 


We must guard against counterfeit anti-imperialism. 

The Cuban revolution was, it had to be, anti-imperialist. Here in South Africa within our movement we sometimes find a degenerate, counterfeit “anti-imperialism”, reactionary attitudes and behaviours masquerading as “anti-imperialist”, “anti-monopoly” capital. During the terrible AIDs-denialism period, led by some within our movement, we were told that AIDS was “just an imperialist plot”. Nowadays, the struggle against corporate capture of key parts of the state are said to be part of an “imperialist agenda”. When the Cubans air-lifted 18,000 troops into Angola, it was a powerful and selfless act of internationalist solidarity. Can we say the same for when we allow a private wedding-party from India to be airlifted into Waterkloof air-base? Siphoning hundreds of millions of rands out of South Africa to Dubai is not a blow against “white” monopoly capital.

Let us defend our national sovereignty. Let us be inspired by the outstanding example of comrade Fidel and the Cuban revolution. Let us assert fearlessly our right to our own path of sovereign national development against imperialist agendas, against monopoly capital, against corporate capture and corruption by parasitic forces. We owe this to our people. We owe this to the sacrifice that the Cuban people have made to our own country and region.


This is an expanded version of the tribute delivered in the South African National Assembly by the SACP’s First Deputy General Secretary, Cde Jeremy Cronin on 1 December 2016. It appeared in the Party’s online journal Umsebenzi Online.