Fidel Castro: The Cowardice of Autocracy

By Arch Ritter

Note: This commentary is more political than economic in character. It is an attempt to get some ideas “off my chest”.

Fidel Castro’s attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago in 1953 and his subsequent crossing of the Florida Straits in the Granma to attack the Batista regime with a small armed force certainly appear courageous – though some observers question the personal courage of Castro during these events. But once in power, he quickly moved to suppress all opposition and alternate visions of Cuba’s future in order to minimize or eliminate any risk of rejection, criticism, or challenge to his power and his view of the world. Such a “stacking of the deck” in his own favor and the denial of freedom of expression and assembly to all who disagreed with him does look cowardly.

The Courage Phase: Fidel Castro (far Right) and followers arrested after the attack on the Moncada Barracks,  8/1/53

But what is cowardice and what is courage? In searching the literature via Google and Google Scholar, little analysis turned up for me, with the exception of an old essay by Joe K. Adams entitled “The Neglected Psychology of Cowardice” [Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1965, 5; 57-69]. Adams begins his analysis with a lament that little had been written prior to 1965 on this topic. The Adams essay is the only reasonable and relevant analysis that I was able to locate, though there may be – and I hope that there would be – a substantial literature that I have not found.

Adams defines courage and cowardice in terms of the consequences that a person expects will follow from a particular course of action. The consequences may be physical, moral or intellectual and Adams (p. 58) defines them as follows:

  1. “Physical courage-cowardice: the relative willingness to risk or undergo anticipated physical pain or injury;
  2. Moral courage-cowardice: the relative willingness to risk or undergo undesired social consequences such as disapproval, contempt, loss of status or power, ostracism…
  3. Intellectual courage-cowardice: the relative willingness to risk or undergo a serious disturbance of one’s cognitive structure.”

On the courage side, one willingly confronts anticipated injury or risk while on the cowardice side, one minimizes expected injury and risk.  How does one minimize risks of personal pain, injury, disapproval, loss of status or power, or “disturbance of cognitive structure”? In Adams words (p. 59)

“….. by rendering harmless those who might bring about (these negative consequences …. ) by destroying them, censoring them, controlling them, or changing them. Destruction, censorship, control or change must itself be brought about with a minimum of risk i.e. in such a way that one’s opponents are unable to fight back. In addition to the possession of a complex and mystifying ideology, methods which are especially useful are secrecy, intrigue, deception, labeling, anonymity, entrapment, monopoly and getting others to do whatever open or fair fighting is necessary.”

This indeed sounds a lot like the Regime of Fidel Castro. However, Adams was not discussing Cuba or Eastern Europe. His case studies focused on the Catholic Church, the Inquisition, John Calvin’s Geneva, and political and academic ideologues (especially psychologists) circa the 1960s.

Why then did Fidel Castro shift from early courage pre-1959 to later cowardice when he found it desirable to deny people’s basic political and civil rights as these are interpreted by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,  and the International Labour Organization Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work? I am not in a position to give a good answer to this question, being neither a psychologist nor a connoisseur of Fidel Castro’s biography. However, perhaps Lord Acton’s maxim is relevant: “Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely.”  Once tasting the fruits of power, Fidel became launched on a spiral, requiring more and more control of people’s lives, more and more adulation and influence. No amount of publicity and adulation ever seemed to be enough towards the end of his reign. The marches along the Malecon with him at the head became frequent and the political rallies occurred every weekend – non-stop mass mobilization to demonstrate loyalty and support for the Commandante.

Where does one see physical, moral and intellectual courage in Cuba at this time? Clearly it is with the dissidents, the Damas en Blanco, the independent journalists and economists, the Bloggers, and the labor or human rights activists who stand up to the autocratic regime – though with still small voice – at great personal risk.

Will President Raul Castro break from the political system established set by his older brother and demonstrate authentic intellectual courage?  If Raul really wanted to establish an independent legacy and an honorable place in the history books, he would return to authentic representative democracy will full practice of political pluralism and independent expression and assembly. Unfortunately such a courageous move though desirable is also improbable.

NOTE: For additional articles on various aspects of Fidel Castro’s presidency, see:

Cuba’s Achievements under the Presidency of Fidel Castro: The Top Ten

Fidel’s Phenomenal Economic Fiascoes: the Top Ten

Fidel’s No-Good Very Bad Day

The “FIDEL” Models Never Worked; Soviet and Venezuelan Subsidization Did

Fidel Castro, circa 2010 or 2011

This entry was posted in Blog, Featured and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Fidel Castro: The Cowardice of Autocracy

  1. El tema que se trata en este artículo es muy interesante y actual.
    Casi todos los autócratas son, en el fondo, psicópatas arrogantes y, cobardes enfermizos. Cuando caen, hay que irlos a buscar escondidos en huecos o cloacas, como los casos de Saddam Husein y Muammar Gaddafi. También Nicolae Ceaușescu, huyendo despavorido con su mujer, para no ser capturado.
    Pero el caso de F. Castro es aún más representativo de la más abyecta cobardía. Hay numerosas biografías y libros, con opiniones de Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, Ernesto Guevara, el Teniente Sarría, Hubert Matos, que señalan la no participación de Castro en el asalto al Moncada, que se fue de allí rápidamente para las montañas de La Gran Piedra; su terrible temor a los bombardeos de la aviación de Batista; su llegada a La Habana 8 días después del arribo del Ché y Camilo – a quienes llamaba constantemente para saber si todo estaba bajo control -; su llegaba a Playa Girón cuando todo había terminado o su desplazamiento en Cuba con cientos de hombres protegiéndolo en todas partes. Así mismo se enumera sus 50 años escondido en Punto Cero, sin que la población supiera dónde vivía su presidente.
    Pero hay dos cosas que reflejan aún más su pavorosa cobardía: su miedo esquizofrénico a los opositores – de ahí su extrema represión – y su extremo terror a dejar el poder, a pesar de reconocer, que lo que hizo no sirve para nada: es el terror a ser juzgado y condenado a muerte, por toda los asesinatos, millones de presos, millones de exiliados y miles de muertos en el mar, huyendo de su “paraíso”.
    Todo esto demuestra que es un cobarde absoluto.

  2. Jim McCrorie says:

    The claim that Castro and company resorted to cowardice in establishing a dictatorship following the 1953 revolution is questionable. (See Arch Ritter, “Fidel Castro: The Cowardice of Autocracy” , THE CUBAN ECONOMY, November 4, 2011) Consider the following.

    (1) Castro and his followers became involved in and led a revolutionary movement.

    (2) Whether in prison or exile or in the field, the revolutionaries who persisted did so for a number of reasons, all of which required personal courage.

    (3) Successful revolutions are never structurally democratic. They are authoritarian, disciplined, tightly organized. Discussion and debate within them is always present. Consider the volumes of essays that Lenin and Mao wrote before and during the Russian and Chinese revolutions – essays focusing on “What is to be Done”? However, the freedoms Canadian enjoy and take for granted and the parliamentary institutional arrangements that govern federal, provincial and municipal politics are absent in revolutionary movements.

    (4) Castro and company overthrew a right-wing dictatorship over an economy that was based on natural resources and finance (i.e. gambling). That economy was controlled by American capital.

    (5) When Castro and company took power, the Americans and capital believed the economy would remain the same. Only the process of government would change.

    (6) In this they proved mistaken. To the shock and unease of the Cuban Communist Party, not to mention the US State Department and corporate America, Castro and company decided to transform the economy in what they considered to be the interest of those men and women who labour,. who, in the words of Adam Smith, produce wealth.

    (7) A digression. I suspect Castro was acquainted with the Communist Manifesto at the time. But I doubt if he was, at that time, a serious student of Marx’s and Engels’works or the revolutionary writings of Lenin and Mao. He was probably like the Christian who has read the Sermon on the Mount but has no command of the rest of the New and Old Testaments.

    (8) Castro and company were wise enough to know that this decision would be strenuously opposed by small capital within Cuba, foreign capital within the country, and an imperialist USA. In this they were correct. Readers of this blog will be acquainted with the lengths to which this combined opposition would go.

    (9) They also correctly concluded that a dictatorship of some kind would be required to accomplish their mission.

    (10) For over 50 years, the Cuban Government and leadership have defeated invasion, survived embargoes and CIA “dirty tricks”, confronted capital and the US Government with resolute defiance. These accomplishments do not arise out of cowardice.

    (11) As I am suggesting, the reasons for dictatorship lie elsewhere.

    (12) Upon taking power, Castro and company probably discovered that foreign (i.e. American) capital had a far greater stranglehold over the Cuban economy – such as it was – than they previously imagined.

    (13) They had not risked life and limb to merely overthrow a corrupt regime – one with which American capital was quite comfortable. They desired to raise the vast majority of men and women out of the unspeakable poverty in which they were UNNECESSARYLY mired. In addition, they wished to raise the standard of living – in health, housing and education.

    (14) They appreciated that Cuba was not a nation with strong, embedded traditions and institutions associated with modern, liberal democracies. The country was not endowed with a plethora of strong, militant trade unions or populist, advocacy groups.

    (15) They concluded that the miserable conditions of life suffered by most Cubans was a direct consequence of the political economy of the day. The men and women who owned and controlled that economy had an objective interest in maintaining that ownership and control. Real change in the economy – change in the interests of the many –would come at a price. The few were not prepared to pay it. I refer, for example, to the United Fruit Company and the mobsters.

    (16) Castro and company reasonably concluded that their revolutionary party would have to take charge and establish some kind of authoritarian (i.e.non-democratic) rule to achieve their larger, political goals. Even the Government of the USSR was surprised and skeptical when Castro’s plans began to take shape and unfold.

    (17) To conclude that Castro and company were brave or cowards is beside the point. Neither claim EXPLAINS what happened.

    (18) More to the point, the Government’s Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and Revolution, adopted by the Communist Party Congress in February, 2012, acknowledge that the present organization of the state economy is not producing the wealth that the human and natural resources of the island are capable of achieving.

    (19) How, then, to change the way men and women relate to each other in the production of goods and services?

    (20) Put another way, how does one encourage human imagination and entrepreneurship that has innovative, but not exploitative consequences? How does one provide incentives to labour without creating unnecessary and vast differences in wealth? How does one encourage civic responsibility and democratic practices in public life and the affairs of state? Clearly, a historical struggle is unfolding in Cuba. THE CUBAN ECONOMY has become an important watchdog over history in the making.

Leave a Reply to Jim McCrorie Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *