July 26th: 55th Moncada Anniversary (1953-2008)
Revolutionary virtue and violence in Fidel’s politics

"The wellspring of our revolutionary ethics is inexhaustible"- Fidel Castro (19.07.08)

Let’s commence with what would seem a contradiction or a paradox. Fidel Castro recently welcomed the release in a daring operation by the armed forces of Colombia, of hostages kept by FARC, the oldest guerrilla movement in Latin America, which calls itself Marxist-Leninist. Quoting the official Cuban news source, an AFP report from Havana, dated July 4, reads as follows:

‘Civilians should never have been abducted, nor soldiers held as prisoners under jungle conditions,’ the veteran Communist leader said, describing the detention as ‘cruel’ and that ‘no revolutionary purpose could justify it.’

‘For basic humanitarian reasons, we welcome the news that Ingrid Betancourt, three US citizens and other hostages were freed,’ he said in a statement on the official Cubadebate website.’

On July 5th, Fidel engaged in a dual demarcation of his position, distancing himself from a call for the FARC to unilaterally disarm, and criticising externally driven militarisation of the situation:

"…I have honestly and strongly criticized the objectively cruel methods of kidnapping and retaining prisoners under the conditions of the jungle. But I am not suggesting that anyone laid down their arms, when everyone who did so in the last 50 years did not survive to see peace. If I dared suggest anything to the FARC guerrillas that would simply be that they declare, by any means possible to the International Red Cross, their willingness to release the hostages and prisoners they are still holding, without any precondition..."

Fidel’s double demarcation and dialectical stand can seem puzzling only to those who have not followed his trajectory, understood his philosophy and his contribution to revolutionary and radical political thought.

Moral Victory

Fifty five ago, a brilliant, passionate, Jesuit-educated young lawyer-politician led a group of rebels on an attack on the Moncada army garrison in the Oriente province in Cuba. The aim was to seize the weapons, distribute them, and trigger an uprising in the province, which would then become generalized throughout the country. The goal was to topple the military junta of Batista, which was supported by the United States.

The attack failed, the rebels were arrested, tortured, murdered. Thanks to luck, the integrity of a military officer, and the intervention of an Archbishop, a few survived. That should have been the end of the story, like that of so many rebellions in Latin America. Yet it was not. Brought to trial in what was presumed to be an open-and-shut case, the young rebel leader conducted his own defence and made an oration that ranks in the annals of the finest emancipation literature in human history.

Itemizing and denouncing the unjust structures of his society, drawing on the literature of human freedom and injustice (including the Bible), and unfailingly dignified and fair to his judges, he concluded with a phrase that has become part of the consciousness of modern humankind: "Condemn me if you must. History will absolve me!"

It is by his deportment in defeat and by turning a material defeat and disaster into a moral victory, that Fidel Castro entered History. Revolutionary Cuba was born six years later.

The Speech

Fidel Castro’s 1953 speech before his judges ("History will Absolve Me"), conducted in the prison infirmary, is replete with references to the moral-ethical dimension. He makes a moral indictment of the regime, posits a moral superiority on the part of his fighters and cause, and perhaps most significantly, makes explicit reference to morality in armed combat, contrasting the behaviour of his fighters with that of the Batista forces and going on to make a general statement of principles about ethical and humane behaviour in warfare.

"Everyone had instructions, first of all to be humane in the struggle. Never was a group of armed men more generous to the adversary. From the beginning we took numerous prisoners – nearly twenty – and here was one moment when three of our men – Ramiro Valdes, Jose Suarez, and Jesus Montane – managed to enter the barracks and hold nearly fifty soldiers prisoners for a short time. Those soldiers testified before the court, and without exception they all acknowledged that we treated them with absolute respect, that we didn’t subject them to one scoffing remark. In line with this, I want to give my heartfelt thanks to the prosecutor for one thing in the trial of my comrades: when he made his report he was fair enough to acknowledge as an incontrovertible fact that we maintained a high spirit of chivalry throughout the struggle."

Writing in Bohemia magazine in 1955, Castro quotes the words of the Prosecutor at his trial, with regard to the Moncada rebels’ conduct during their attack:

"…On the part of the revolutionaries, it is not difficult to say that they acted with honesty. They were sincere, courageous and patriotic in their confessions. They also behaved with generosity and honour. One example is right here in the Palace of Justice where they respected the lives of a group of armed forces members whom they could have killed…"

The acknowledgement by the prosecution, i.e. the enemy, of the comportment of insurrectionists and their humanitarian conduct in the heat of armed insurrection is both a historical rarity and proof of Castro’s achievement of moral-ethical hegemony even in military defeat.

The moral dimension of his speech resides not only in the explicit references to morality but in the argument of the right to overthrow a regime that had seized power in violation of the constitution, and in his indictment of a social system which heaps injustice and misery upon the mass of its citizenry – an indictment of what we might term structural or systemic immorality.

"Society is moved to compassion when it hears of the kidnapping or murder of one child, but it is criminally indifferent to the mass murder of so many thousands of children who die every year from lack of facilities, agonizing with pain…and when the head of the family works only four months a year, with what can he purchase clothing and medicine for his children? They will grow up with rickets with not a single good tooth in their mouths by the time they are thirty; they will have heard ten million speeches and will finally die of misery and deception."

Fidel Castro as Military Leader

Fidel Castro as commander distinguished himself from many other leaders of rebellions and revolutions, as well as leaders of States and conventional armed forces, not only by his unorthodox military brilliance but by permanent adherence to high moral and ethical standards in the exercise of violence. This did not make him any less of a military commander or any less successful a military commander. Indeed it was at the very core of his success, survival and greatness. Brain Latell, who handled the CIA’s Cuba Desk for long years, rates the Cuban armed forces under Castro as even more impressive than the Israeli Defence Forces, because the Israelis never fought and won battles against a foe as sophisticated as the South African conventional forces at a distance across an ocean and on another continent, as did the Cubans.

Fidel Castro always strove to maintain a moral asymmetry between himself and his foes. The moral asymmetry of the Fidelista revolutionaries and the Batista regime is striking. The extreme brutality of the Batista forces is amply documented. In the aftermath of the defeat of the Moncada uprising, 61 captured militants were tortured, mutilated with genitals and other body parts ripped out, and murdered. These included Abel Santamaria, Castro’s deputy, whose eye was plucked out and shown to his sister Haydee, also a captured revolutionary militant. Secret photographs of the corpses were published in the respected magazine Bohemia, generating a wave of revulsion at the repression. During the civil war the government forces engaged in what one independent writer calls "State terror and corruption, bestial torture and murder of political opponents as well as non-participants …"

A serious competitor to Fidel Castro’s guerrilla project arose from among militant university students, calling itself the Revolutionary Directorate (DR). Its strategy was that of assassination and urban terrorism, redolent of the Russian Narodniks and their successors the Socialist Revolutionaries (S-Rs),. Castro’s response avoided three options which are the most widely practised in such contexts. He avoided a coercive or imitative competition, or endorsement of such tactics.

Code of Conduct

Castro implicitly sets out a code of conduct in revolutionary warfare, indeed warfare in general:

"Let me mention two important facts that facilitate an objective judgement of our attitude. First: we could have taken over the ranking officers in their homes. This possibility was rejected for the very humane reason that we wished to avoid scenes of tragedy and struggle in the presence of their families."

"... Neither a real soldier nor a true man can degrade his code of honour with lies and crime.

In wartime armies that murder prisoners have always earned the contempt and abomination of the entire world. Such cowardice has no justification, even in a case where national territory is invaded by foreign troops. In the words of a South American liberator: ‘not even the strictest military obedience may turn a soldier’s sword into that of an executioner’. The honourable soldier does not kill the helpless prisoner after the fight, but rather, respects him. He does not finish off a wounded man, but rather, helps him. He stands in the way of crime and, if he cannot prevent it he acts as that Spanish captain who, upon hearing the shots of the firing squad that murdered Cuban students, indignantly broke his sword in two and refused to continue serving in that army.

The soldiers who murdered their prisoners were not worthy of the soldiers who died…. when Cuba is freed, we should respect, shelter, and aid the wives and children of those courageous soldiers who perished fighting against us."

Here, when he speaks of the decisions and choices including those of location of operations made by his rebel force, it is apparent that Castro’s code is imbued with a spirit of chivalric honour.

Code of Honour

Fidel Castro brings in categories, such as ‘fair’ and ‘honourable’, rejected by Realism as ‘romantic’ and condemned by Marxism as ‘idealistic’, into his most serious and intimate political reflections. In his conversations with fellow senior revolutionary Tomas Borge, Fidel Castro looks back at his famous speech ‘History Will Absolve Me’, delivered at his trial after the Moncada attack, and explains his choices as well as his understanding of the historical process in heterodox terms, quite foreign to ‘the materialist conception of history’:

"…When I said ‘History will absolve me’… that was an expression of confidence in the ideas I was defending as the fairest ones, and of the cause I was defending as the most honourable one. I meant that the future would recognise this because, in the future, those ideas would be made realities; in the future, people would know everything about what happened: what we did and what our adversaries did, what goals we sought and what goals our adversaries sought, and who was right – we or the judges who were trying us, who had acted dishonestly in discharging a public trust who had abandoned their oath of loyalty to the Constitution and were serving a tyrannical regime. I was challenging them, absolutely convinced that the ideas we were defending would triumph in our homeland someday – a conviction I still have, that humanity’s legitimate causes will always advance and triumph…"

That this is no artifice for the benefit of a sympathetic foreign audience is best evidenced by its presence as a theme in his speeches to domestic audiences. In 1978 on the 25th anniversary of the Moncada uprising, an event of cardinal significance in the revolutionary calendar as it were, Castro made the same point to his Cuban audience as he was to make in Riverside church New York, almost a quarter of a century later:

"Our strength is not in lies or demagoguery but in sincerity, truth and consciousness. In addition the weapons are in the hands of the people and they use them to defend the revolution without torture, crime, death squads, missing persons, illegalities, or arbitrary acts such as occur every day in the countries in which imperialism keeps unjust oppressive, reactionary regimes in power. Even our most bitter enemies have begun to acknowledge this now – the fruits of our having planted seeds of principle and revolutionary ethics at the time of Moncada, seeds that flourished during the war of liberation and the subsequent development of the revolution. Rising above the mountains of imperialist slander, our historical reality stands firm and invincible."

The concluding sentence of the short speech he made to the rebels who were about to attack the Moncada barracks under his leadership (remarks which Haydee Santamaria refers to in her reminiscences) is utterly telling and is indicative of Castro’s criteria for the use of lethal violence: "Those who are determined should go forward. The watchword is not to kill except as the last resort."

Had organised armed formations and entities in Sri Lanka, be they radical/revolutionary, ‘national liberationist’ or State, followed his example, the country would have not been living through a tragedy.

Had the world followed his example, human history would have evolved very differently.


[Dayan Jayatilleka is the author of Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor and Pluto Press, London, 2007]

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