Following is an essay on Fidel and the Religion-Conversations with Frei Betto, People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1st ed. 1987, pages 276.
These are Fidel Castro's conversations with the Brazilian Dominican Friar, a practising Catholic who believes in socialism. Cuban culture minister Armando Hart has introduced this conversation. In 'Paths to a Meeting', Frei Betto has narrated the background of these conversations, which he planned in 1979 as a book to be called-'Faith in Socialism'.
The success of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua with faithful Christians participating in it, where Frei was invited as an advisor, encouraged him to work on this book. Lot many priests like Father Miguel D Escoto, the foreign minister, were part of the revolutionary government, whose ideal was Cuba.
He first met Fidel Castro at the house of Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramirez in July 1980. Fidel encouraged him to freely discuss Bible and Christian ideas with him without getting 'irritate' as Frei apprehended and told him that 'at no time the Cuban revolution has been inspired by anti-religious feelings'. Castro addressed Chilean clergy in 1971 during the Allende period, and in Jamaica, also he addressed a Protestant audience in 1977. In Nicaragua, there was unity between Christians and Marxists during the revolutionary struggle.
Frei visited Cuba 12 times from 1981 to 1985 and had 23 hours of recorded interviews from May 23 to May 26 in four days, an average of almost six hours a day of conversation. He wrote this note immediately after the conclusion of the interview on May 29 1985.
Book has two parts. The first part, titled 'Chronicle of a Visit' includes Castro talking to many people during the visit of Algerian President Chadli Bendje did and with some other guests, like a group of Brazilians, meeting Brazilian journalist Joelmir Beting. Fidel has the courtesy of even personally driving down Beting and Bretto to their hotel one night at the conclusion of their meeting.
The first part has seven chapters and is spread into 45 pages. It comes out from this part that Fidel is a good cook, and later in comparison with Che Guevara, in the second part of the book, he comments-'I am a better cook (Che). I am not going to say that I am a better revolutionary, but I am definitely a better cook than Che was.' (Page 268) Fidel informs that they have one lakh independent farmers in Cuba, holding private land, but other farmers joining cooperatives have many better-living conditions. Castro also emphasises manual labour and students going for it one month per year.
Part II is the major part of the book, spread over four chapters and 220 pages. Every chapter is an account of one night's interview, most of the interviews were conducted in the evening or rather a late evening, and some continued past midnight. On the first day, May 23, 1985, at the beginning of the interview, Frei informs that perhaps for the first-time head of a socialist state has been granted an exclusive interview on the topic of religion.
Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) of Nicaragua did issue a document on religion in 1980. In the first part of the interview, Castro speaks about his family, his childhood, his religious training in school etc. Castro says that his mother Lina and father Angel were faithful religious people, but more so his mother. He was born on a farm called Biran, but there was no church. Castro's father was a Spaniard from Galicia and had settled in Cuba, working there. Castro's parents were from poor backgrounds, though later his father bought enough land.
Castro refers to Cuba's first war of independence against Spain in 1895, which ended with the defeat of the Spanish colonial regime in 1898; Castro describes Cuba to be 'the Vietnam of the 19th century'. Castro's father died on October 21 1956, before the triumph of the Cuban revolution, and his mother died after the revolution on August 6 1963. Castro describes how Christmas was celebrated in his house in his childhood. Castro was born on August 13, 1926, and his armed struggle started at the age of 26 years on July 26, 1952, with an attack on Moncada, the struggle got the name the ‘26th July Movement’.
His father bought 800 hundred hectares of land, of which 400 hundred hectares were surrendered after the revolution as per the new law of land-owning limit. There was no church in Castro’s village, he was baptised in Santiago de Cuba at the age of 5 or six years. He was named Fidel-the faithful one, on his godfather's name. Castro's aunts and grandmother had strong beliefs. Castro was the third child of her mother's second marriage, out of seven in total. Children from the first marriage were also known to them.
Castro has four sisters and two more brothers. He was put in school in Santiago de Cuba, staying at the house of his godfather. Castro listened to the Three wise Men stories from his family—Caspar, Melchoir and Balthazar-mythical stories. He was not happy in-home, later was shifted to boarding school La Salle for four years, which gave Castro satisfaction. He had his religious training in school and enjoyed his Christmas vacation of two weeks at his home. He was a good athlete at school and good in his studies as well.
Castro makes an interesting observation about martyrdom here-'Conviction is what makes martyrs. I don't think that anybody becomes a martyr simply because he expects a reward or fears punishment. I don’t think anybody behaves heroically for such a reason.’ Castro had his high schooling in Colegio de Belen School in Havana, he graduated from high school in 1945 at 19 years. He first heard about communism in school as a ‘terrible thing’. He excelled in sports, and academics. His school certificate recorded—
“Fidel Castro Ruz (1942-45)- He distinguished himself in all subjects related to Letters. A top student and member of the congregation, he was an outstanding athlete, always courageously and proudly defending the school's colours. He won the admiration and affection of all. We are sure that, after his law studies, he will make a brilliant name for himself. Fidel has what it takes and will make something of his life."
After joining the University, Fidel acquired Marxist ideology; he was a firm follower of Jose Marti. Batista made a military coup in Cuba on March 10, 1952, and on July 26, 1952, Castro made an armed insurrection, which failed. The first part of the interview concluded at 3.00 am, starting from 9.00 pm, six hours before.
The second part of the interview started on May 24 1985 at 4.45 pm Frei refers to Christian participants in July 26 movement, such as Frank Paise and Jose Antonio Echeverria. Castro told how much they respected their faith and gave an example of how he chastised his comrades at the death of Echevveria, when from his will, his invocation to God was left out. In this chapter, the attack on Moncada is detailed; about 120 men attacked Moncada.
In the clash, 1,000 soldiers countered the attack, and only 2 or 3 comrades were killed in the initial clash. But Batista army brutally murdered 70 rebels after arresting them. Castro could also have been killed, but a black lieutenant did not allow his men to shoot them. In fact, he even praised Castro's men by saying-you are brave boys, brave-, later, the lieutenant was blamed for not killing and discharged from the army. Later after the revolution, he was made Captain and in charge of the President's security. His name was Padro Sarria. He died in 1972 from cancer.
Castro spent 22 months in prison in the Isle of Pines, now named the Isle of Youth, 19 months, he was kept in solitary confinement. Father Sardinas from church joined the Sierra Maestra guerrilla struggle in 1956. After the revolution, one judge Urrutia was made provisional President of Cuba, but he clashed with the revolutionaries. Castro was named Prime Minister, he resigned, and in public debate, Urrutia had to face embarrassment, and he resigned. Later a prestigious comrade was named President, and then many radical laws were passed. Castro tells-'Values and morals are man's spiritual values.
Castro refers to how priests and churches were tried to be used by the CIA against the revolution, and three priests participated in the invasion of Cuba in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. They could have been executed but were treated leniently. The Communist Party of Cuba came into existence in 1965 from Integrated Revolutionary Organisations.
Eighty-two men waged war in 1956-57, a first major battle in January 1957 by 22 comrades, won the first battle. When they won the war on January 1 1, 959, Castro had just 3,000 men who defeated Batista's 80,000-strong army. People's Socialist Party (PSP) was more homogenous. Socialism was proclaimed at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. Castro described relations with the church as 'A period of coexistence and mutual respect between the party and the churches.' (Page 171).
The conversation concluded at 10 pm, more than six hours after it started.
The third conversation started on May 25 at 8 pm Castro exposed 'gentleman' Pinochet, allegedly a 'devout' man, who is responsible for thousands of deaths, murders, tortures or missing people in Chile. Castro tells the proud role of one lakh teachers and thousands of doctors working in other countries as missionaries. Castro also praises nuns who are taking care of old people's homes in Cuba with much austerity, like model communists.
They talk about Father Ernesto Cardenal, a Sandinista poet and writer, a much-respected personality of Nicaragua. Castro emphasises the need to improve works of revolution and defines them as a work of art. They discuss the positive role of Liberation Theology in Latin American countries like Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador and others in promoting revolutionary ideas, which were described as subversive by US rulers. Church described as the oldest institution, 2000 years old, Buddhism and Hinduism may be older, but they are not institutions.
The discussion concluded at 11 pm, the first time in just three hours.
The fourth and last part of the interview took place on Sunday, May 26, 1985, at 7 pm Castro gifted a copy of his school certificate as a memento to Frei. They discuss the proposed visit of the Pope, which Castro is ready to welcome. Frei asks a question on religion as the 'Opiate’ of the people. Castro explains the phenomenon in detail and opines that it is possible for Christians to be Marxists, but they have to be honest in ending the exploitation of man by man and struggle for equal distribution of social wealth.
Here Castro also refers to the first social revolution of the modern period-French revolution, with a three-word slogan-Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, but exposes the myth of the slogan in practice in the capitalist system. Castro opines that the achievement of the spirit of this slogan is possible only in a Socialist society. Castro also exposes the myth of ancient Greek and Roman democracy by detailing the unknown facts about the number of slaves, more than the Greek/Roman own population and only high classes participating in debates; reference to Nero also came while Rome was burning, and he was playing the lyre! Slavery was abolished in Cuba and Brazil in 1886.
Then they talk about 'hatred', and Castro explained that either Marx or Lenin, Marti or he, never hated persons. They hated only the system; it reminds Bhagat Singh's famous court statement mentioning this very concept. Castro underlines the fact that he hates fascism and Nazism. They also note the fact that during imperialism's most cruel period, in the First World War first, 20 million people and in a second world war, more than 50 million people lost their lives and underlines the fact that the Imperialist system was to be blamed for this, which needs to be smashed as a system.
Frei also questions love and the 'export' of revolution. Castro explains that revolution can never be exported. Only ideas that travel the world over, not the physical forces can go and make a revolution. Revolution is made by internal forces and mechanisms only. They talk about Che Guevara as well, the kind of fond relationship Che and Castro had with each other. Castro brings out the exceptional qualities of Che, his leadership quality, intellectual characteristics, and courage; he was so daring that he had to be held back by Castro.
Che had great moral integrity, was a man of profound ideas, an untiring worker, and was rigorous and methodical in fulfilling his duties. 'He was one of the greatest figures of his generation in Latin America, and nobody could tell how much he would have accomplished if he'd survived'. The same comment may be true for Bhagat Singh in the context of India. Che went to Congo, Zaire, Tanzania and then Bolivia. They talk about other revolutionary heroes like Camilo, who died young at 27 in 1959.
The book concludes with the fact - 82 men's expedition arrived in Cuba on December 2, 1956. After the first hard setbacks, 14-15-16 men regrouped-Fidel and Raul Castro, Che and Camilo among them and made a historic revolution in Cuba on January 1 1959, the most wonderful event, even more, interesting than October 1917 and 1949 Russian and Chinese revolutions!.
Though focused on the issue of religion, the book actually narrates the story of Castro's life as well as the story of the Cuban revolution. This is a very good book to follow.
Chaman Lal is a retired Professor from JNU and Honorary Advisor to Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. The views are personal.