Celia Hart on Fidel’s Fall:

“The Man with the Long Stride”


This translation by W.T. Whitney, edited for Labor Standard,  is based on the Spanish text posted October 26, 2004, on the Madrid-based web site www.rebelion.org.

On October 20, 1868, the new army formed by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes took over the city of Bayamo. In the church the notes of our national anthem were intoned for the first time. The taste for homeland was spreading among the combatants and also among the beautiful Bayamese women, inspired by the revolution. A few days before, Perucho Figueredo, major general in the liberating army, had written those verses while riding his spirited horse. Those exalted lines have led entire generations of Cubans along a common path.

A most exquisite cunning and iron will took them by the hand there in that little chunk of the world, and our nationhood was shaped. You only have to see how the citizens of Bayamo burned their houses and belongings in order to hand over ashes—and nothing more—to the Spanish. Spain would never understand that blessed amalgam of blacks and whites that was true to the ideas of the French Revolution—which Spain was not—and above all else was ready to hold up banners of the Enlightenment.

That’s why it made good sense to establish October 20 as the day of Cuban culture. Culture has certainly been the island of Cuba’s most powerful weapon for preserving its revolution and now and then confronting history’s most powerful empires.

Along the way, what with the ferocious incoherence of the 20th century, the world was collapsing. While many were changing sides quickly or mouthing pathetic theories, Cuba stayed with a pair of romantic verses.

In the midst if the most incredible vicissitudes, it moved ahead along the only possible path that would protect the homeland; it called for love for the world and education for all. Blind patriotism [narrow nationalism] is a nation’s most violent enemy. Ask about that in Berlin during the 1930s. Or no, don’t go so far away. Find out about the most voracious enemy of the people in North American. It’s their narrow nationalism and the misbegotten education of the masses there. The valiant Michael Moore goes around trying to shake up the culture lodged in their hearts. I keep on thinking they are perhaps the most unhappy people in the world. I insist on brigades of solidarity for the people of North America.

The 20th of October is also the birthday of Abel Santamaria Cuadrado. My mother saddled me with an unsettling inheritance. From my Uncle Abel I inherited two questionable, wandering eyes. The one inheritance she took from him changed her life, infecting it with revolution. That young man in some way fashioned the secret modalities of my irreverent education.

Abel Santamaria was born in Encrucijada. Yes, in a little town in the center of Cuba. They say that the name expressed conflicts among area campesinos uncertain about taking sides. There was so much hunger and uncertainty that they didn’t know whom to follow. Those on the right seemed to be the most direct. One only had to begin by voting in some election for the best of the swindlers and bandits. They’d perhaps give you some shady work, a post in the rural guard. You’d do two or three evictions of campesinos, have some girl violated and beaten up. And later on, after only a little terror and murder, you got some place “to be able to maintain the family in honor.”

My uncle had been stubborn from boyhood. He took the road to the left and arrived in Havana in the midst of the 20th century, exuding Jose Martí through every pore, and enamored of Jesus Menendez Este, a Black communist who came from Encrucijada. He’d been murdered for defending the sugar workers. Some years later, Haydee, my mother, followed him and helped out in that other little corner of Cuba where, as always, the iris that is revolution was flourishing. Uncle Abel, encouraged by his teacher back home, had certainly read a lot of Martí, and even more, a pair of “far out” Europeans, who had changed the course of the world.

One, or two, books were enough for that young man—who I have to thank for my turned-out eyes—to understand that the time had come to stop the postwar world and turn it decisively to the left.

Abel Santamaria studied Lenin without renouncing Martí—or more exactly, on account of not having renounced him.

One evening, someone new came into that little apartment. He introduced himself. Abel sensed right away that this was a man of the world. Mama told me only that his cigar ashes dirtied up the place, and also that this huge man stalked around as if they would be deciding the future right then and there.

Fidel Castro, the one who strode about, organized in just a few months the most disciplined, tight, and combative group that the worldwide movement of the left would ever know. They were not a makeshift outfit, a pile of suicidal hysterics. They were a militant, rigorous group that cast off their youth like ballast into the sea and caught fire for all time with that revolutionary flame of America. My uncle—the uncle that I did not know and who was my idol (in spite of the inheritance of his eyes)—was there. He was bright enough to know before we did who Fidel Castro was. I knew him by knowing about this island, with its stories about big men and our intolerance of mediocrity. Fidel said that Uncle Abel was the soul of the movement. And surely he was. After the attack on Moncada, when some useless character betrayed the fighters at the hospital, it occurred to some lackey to tear out Abel’s eyes, my Uncle Abel. I assumed that my mother was speaking out in the name of those eyes. What foolishness! My mother knew about everything and in her sadness was already dreaming along with that man of the long stride. He might bring back the light from her brother’s gaze for a lifetime.

Was it a group with communist ideas that attacked the Moncada Garrison in 1953? Was Uncle Abel a communist? What did those two men say to each other after they read that old Karl Marx book on political economy that lies in peace in the museum at 25th and 0 Street?

Those boys led my people along the true road. The road may be rough, but it’s the only true one.

They say that philosophical truth comes undone after a tough exam. My mother never had much time. Only once did she make herself into a fighter over my uncle’s eyes. A little small town girl with six years of schooling confronted a bloodthirsty thug with these words: “Abel has not died, because to die for the country is to live.” Those are the verses we sing in the national anthem — those lines that Perucho Figueredo wrote out one October 20 on his sweaty horse. My mother in her grief responded by appealing to what those verses really meant. This woman grabbed onto who her brother was. She joined the best Cubans, bet on Fidel, and got back her smile from knowing Che—that rogue who had promised to drink mate with her when they left to make the revolution in Argentina. That other brother, the spiritual one, convinced her that it would not be good for Cuba if America and the world were ripped apart.

In those few years Haydee transferred her love to America, and from her house [the Casa de las Americas, which she headed] she conspired with culture itself as liberty’s best friend in bringing unity to the people. With her house a going concern, with Cuba moving ahead and two children on her lap, hers was not a quiet life of lamentation that she had not gone to Bolivia with Che. My mother had no need to read weighty documents to know that internationalism is the cutting edge of the revolution. It was enough for her to love her brother, the man with the big steps, and an Argentine, full of irony, to whose wisdom was entrusted their socialist ideas. Che’s major contribution was more than that perfect military advance to the west, more than the heroic battle of Santa Clara. It was the audacity and relevance with which he derived fresh ideas for socialism from canned rhetoric. With good reason “Man and Socialism in Cuba” will be as much remembered as “The Critique of the Gotha Program” and “State and Revolution.” And his “Message to the Tricontinental” is an authentic update of the “Communist Manifesto.” We still have to speak more about this.

The handwriting of the man with the long strides is splashed all over critiques on political economy. Perhaps some day he could even tell us where they found Marxist literature to read. But there can be no doubt that a legion of Marxists was there quietly in the Moncada with Fidel and my uncle—even though those young guys were not aware of them. Yes, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary project relied upon a vanguard party to bring us along into a socialist revolution. Not even once was thought given to the possibility of Soviet support. Surely, those men had a whole legion on their side—a legion of the assassinated. They killed our Mella, and Leon Trotsky. They slowly snuffed out Antonio Gramsci in prison, and, as for Lenin, in a certain way, they killed him too. And they even murdered our Luxemburg. Che was killed quite a bit later. A great group of the most knowledgeable Marxists in history gave their lives to the revolution. We have more martyrs than Christianity. Frederick Engels said something like that. They are all gathered together in a magisterial orchestra, directed by Jose Martí. That music inspired Cuba’s youth. So there is no room for doubt that this was a generation bent on truth. And truth is one thing only. They would want to find even more and would do it through poetry and new ways.

Those ceaseless enemies forgot to kill Fidel. He gives them all something to live for, but still he is spared. Oh sure, they’ve tried, but it’s impossible. They’ve messed up hundreds of times.

And on this October 20, Cuba and Fidel return and are appealing for culture, to nurture the revolution. They celebrate Perucho’s verses, among other things, and the birthday of an uncle. There, in the center of the island is the festival, where Abel was born and where the remains of that Argentine lie, who didn’t take my mother to Bolivia. But Che is not there underground. He is in the thousands and thousands of young art instructors who were celebrating the Comandante that October night with their applause.

Che and Abel, together with their best compañero, were celebrating the graduation of more than three thousand young people receiving bachelor’s degrees in the humanities and in art instruction. In less than five years the country now has more than 20,000 students of art and culture registered in 15 schools. Curiously, these plans are put into the category of what’s called the “battle of ideas.” (Think about this phrase.) And they are flourishing here, a long way from the disaster of “European socialism.” And those who say the revolution is stagnant ought to think about the Protest of Baragua, where we decided to keep on fighting until imperialism is done with. That’s the cause that Fidel and his people have dedicated themselves to.

So good! This battle of ideas means that we now have teachers of art to fill the schools, the houses of culture, and the neighborhoods. I ask myself if this man of the long steps and Abel ever could have imagined this in that chat when my mother was so upset because of the ashes on the floor. That’s OK; there are no more ashes now. Fidel won a medal from the World Health Organization for giving up tobacco, and the Comandante keeps on striding around. We count on enlightened young people, and our young people feel they are part of the revolution, in fact, a new revolution. Ever since the battle of ideas began, these young people have become the best antidote possible for whatever ideological adventures are mounted against the revolution. Let them multiply and move rapidly towards a realization that theirs is a fresh and truly revolutionary party.

The event was coming to an end. The artificial light showed off Che and Fidel, who seemed to be really affected, with genuine pride in his eyes.

Tears of happiness from a multitude of expectant children dressed up in colorful uniforms looked like sweating on the television cameras. They held their diplomas up like flags and were looking forward to the lovely party they’d have with the Comandante.

Fidel was concluding. “Long live the nation! Long live the Revolution! Long live socialism!” And as Che said on returning to Cuba with his detachment, for reinforcements, here amongst ourselves: “Forward to victory! Always!” (Hasta a la victoria, siempre)

The man with the long stride stepped out. It brought to mind those long steps taken on Abel and Haydee’s tiny floor where he began his revolution, also Abel whose birthday it was, and Che, with whose words he bade farewell. Off in the distance he saw the happiest children in the world, laughing, and he was burning with a desire to embrace them.

25,000 citizens of Villa Clara, agitated as they were, saluted him. One step and then another and this time his left foot went out into empty space. He had not realized that there was a drop there, distracted as he was by emotion. For an instant, the earth’s rotation stopped. We were paralyzed, our hearts in distress, all of us Cubans, plus a battalion of friends throughout the world. Fidel stumbled and using his guerrilla skills, he protected his front. There was nothing to feel, even the flies stayed their flights, and for just an instant the lights of that night went out, in our pupils. Two seconds, three, just ten. How about ten centuries! And at last, seated in a chair with his usual smile, Fidel, in spite of intense pain, tried to revive the joy snuffed out that night, so full of premonitions.

“I beg your pardon for having fallen.” He joked about publicity that would come, said he was anxious to see how the foreign press would cover his accident. “The bad timing is what upsets me most, and the suffering I may have caused them with this.” He asked that they keep on with the fiesta, but the crying young people wouldn’t hold back, the way little children do. They asked that during his trip to the capital Fidel himself call them and say how he was doing. They wouldn’t accept whatever an intermediary would say. He reassured them as best he could and begged them to continue with the party; “I wouldn’t be very happy if you suspended the activities.”

Fidel is not allowed to sneeze. He reassures us so much about his health, that we take away his right to get sick or have an accident.

But this man of the long steps is always on campaign, and if he stumbles, it’s only his way of looking for a new victory.

During his trip to Havana—his knee fractured in eight places and his arm hurting—he kept on working. The other Comandante, over there in Venezuela, called him, as devastated as we were.

The surgery on the knee lasted a bit more than three hours. The patient was conscious and taking in every move of the surgeons as they skillfully reconstructed the knee of the man of the long strides.

The next day he wrote a detailed report of what had happened to him and dedicated it to the people. Once more, Fidel knows and feels who his best ally is.

I ask myself what would happen if the candidates for presidency of the United States, for example, fell down in the middle of an electoral campaign. How silly I am! It can’t happen, since those two puppets of capital have nothing under them, as a base. They send their young people off to a stinking, embarrassing war. Instead of developing instructors of art and educated young people, they prohibit study of Darwin’s law of natural selection and they would persuade them that the Amazon region does not really belong to green Brazil. Instead of inculcating in them humanistic sentiments that send tens of thousands of our compatriots to the most destitute places, beyond our borders, they encourage young people to abuse Arabs and take degrading photos. Those photos are much more degrading for the young blondies themselves than for the prisoners.

I don’t believe that any of those presidents would stumble because of emotion while saluting their people. In fact, there was a September 11 filled with sadness and uncertainties when no President was on hand to support the people of New York. This type of president doesn’t trip because they don’t know what it is to walk, or look ahead, or create.

They don’t teach these things at Yale.

October is now finished. We feel better, yet are uneasy, knowing that we will not soon be back to seeing him with his wonderful long stride.

Those are the steps that took him across Uncle Abel’s little apartment, the same that with six hungry men and a million stars in the soul entered into the mountains of my country and built one of the most unusual armies of this last stage of our history. These were the steps that, according to Che, gave strength to the world during the Caribbean crisis, which involved the most brilliant statesmen.

Next year we celebrate the release 50 years ago of Fidel, and his long strides, from jail. We have gone on more than half a century at his side, and it happens that even now more and more young people want to take that route to the left for which he is our guide. The blood and ideas of so many men have prepared that road, and sown the seeds.

Fidel’s responsibility is this: he of the long stride accompanies us in a revolution that does not end.