Democracy in the Americas, the Revolutionary Way

How Fidel Castro came to embrace revolutionary violence and understand the limitations of democratic movements– and what it means today.

Ernesto Semán
02/08/2017

A young Fidel Castro (left) in April of 1948 in Bogotá during the Bogotazo (Ecopopular)

The life of Fidel Castro spanned almost a century, but the decisive event that would seal his fate and that of the Americas occurred over the course of a few weeks in 1948, amidst popular riots in Bogotá and the vicious reaction against them during the Ninth Pan American Conference. Castro arrived in Colombia believing that mobilization and populist reforms in the country offered a space for the expansion of economic and political rights. They did not. And 1948 would be the last time Castro believed that they could. Embracing armed struggle against those who proclaimed the ideals of freedom and equality in order to attain those ideals was not an abrupt authoritarian turn but a logical conclusion that situated him within a regional tradition dating back to the Haitian Revolution between 1789 and 1804. In Latin America, mass movements adopted revolutionary violence not against democracy, but as the only way to put it into practice.

Castro's embrace of revolutionary violence is relevant again today. The U.S. presidential election in 2016 exposed not only the obstacles that democratic institutions offer for progressive social change; it also laid bare the way in which liberal procedures have allowed for the rise of American fascism. This is a reality that Black Americans have lived with for two centuries. And it’s a realization that may serve as a basis for a historical conversation between Black America and Latin American revolutionary movements past.

Part of the 1948 Bogotá story is well-known: Castro went to protest the presence of the United States at the Ninth Pan American Conference, a meeting that gave birth to the Organization of American States (OAS). Following the assassination of Colombian caudillo Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, he joined the violent popular riots that engulfed the city. But the background of his arrival brings to light a different perspective about this formative episode. Castro did not travel to Bogotá to make a revolution. He was part of a vast network of progressive and nationalist activists and leaders at the peak of a “democratic spring” that had swept the region after the Second World War. 

U.S. diplomats, on the other hand, had hoped that the OAS would be the hemispheric armor against postwar communism. They traveled to Bogotá with a set of resolutions promoting the political and military coordination of countries facing social unrest and internal conflict. It was a pivotal moment for the United States. The notion of the Western Hemisphere was finally becoming a reality, with Latin America joining the Cold War efforts of the U.S. and submitting to the unprecedented political and military power of the most prosperous nation on earth. As Spruille Braden, the conservative former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State who organized the arrangements for the 1948 Pan American Conference, wrote to a friend three weeks before the meeting: "I feel sure that the Bogotá Conference will make history—the kind of history we all want to see made." And history it made indeed.

The Spring

The Bogotá episode actually began in Buenos Aires three months before the April 1948 diplomatic meeting, when Argentine President Juan Perón decided to sponsor a region-wide rally to protest the presence of U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall at the conference. Many in Latin America were pushing for expanded political participation and a more just distribution of wealth for peasants and the region’s emerging working classes. Parties from both the political Left and Right consistently denounced the U.S. as an ally of local elites in blocking those demands. In this context, Perón sent personal envoys to different capitals around the region to reap the harvest that U.S. policies had sown.

Argentine senator Diego Luis Molinari marched to Havana. He arrived in late February 1948 with ideas about regional social reform and some money for carrying those ideas out. In Cuba, Molinari met with César Tronconi, a former socialist labor activist in the Argentine meatpacking industry. Tronconi was Argentina’s worker attaché in Cuba, one of the union members appointed to Argentine embassies to promote Peronism throughout the world. Tronconi offered Molinari a meeting with leaders from the Cuban University Students’ Federation (FEU). A young law student who had been tipped off about Molinari's visit asked to join the group. His name was Fidel Castro. He told the Argentines that he was impressed by Perón's anti-imperialist message.

In Molinari's room at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, the Argentines suggested that Cuban students create a Centro de Estudiantes Latinoamericanos (Center of Latin American Students), an organization whose actions would be inaugurated in Bogotá. The Cubans and Argentines discussed the basics of an agenda for postwar democratic politics: an end to military dictatorships, the achievement of social equality and improved labor legislation, the modernization of regional infrastructure, and the establishment of fair terms for economic trade with the United States. By the end of the meeting, Molinari had pledged diplomatic support so the Cubans could leave the country, in addition to contacts, and enough money to support them on their way to Bogotá.

With Peronist funds, Castro left Cuba for his first stint at non-violent transnational activism. His actions expanded the reach of Perón’s initiative beyond the narrow scope of Argentine nationalism. En route to Bogotá, he met with leftist students in Panama who were protesting the U.S. control of the Panama Canal. In Caracas, he sat with Rómulo Betancourt, the former president of Venezuela who had proclaimed the “50/50” tax reform that secured substantial revenues from the oil industry for the Venezuelan state. Though Betancourt despised Perón, he backed the idea of the protests at the Bogotá conference. Once in Colombia, Castro met with Gaitán, the caudillo and frontrunner for that country’s coming presidential elections who had just broken ranks with the oligarchic bosses of the Liberal Party. Gaitán so too offered his full support for the demonstrators and even scheduled a second meeting to talk more with the young Castro.

 

The U.S. obsession with anti-Americanism and the perpetual menace of its southern neighbor is not a recent invention, nor does it belong exclusively to U.S. Republicans. In Bogotá, the U.S. followed the movements of protest organizers closely. A cable from the U.S. embassy in Havana considered these heated actions to be “in line with current Argentine international policy…clearly anti-American and anti-Pan-American.” U.S. officials characterized the new Centro de Estudiantes Latinoamericanos organization as “an effort similar and parallel to the Perón Latin-American labor project."

Castro was only 21 years old at the time, but he had already traveled from presidential palaces to clandestine student shelters and union halls. On April 4, 1948, he wrote to his father in Cuba, ecstatic about how “the Argentines had provided the largest possible support to our movement.” From his room at the Claridge Hotel in Bogotá, Castro concluded with a hopeful note: “After this, I might go to Argentina and spend three months there, with a fellowship from the Argentine government.”

That would not come to pass. On April 9, half-an-hour before his scheduled second meeting with Castro, Gaitán was killed by a hired assassin, putting an end to the progressive alternative that he had led in Colombia. His killing sparked the massive riot that would become known as the Bogotazo. This was followed by ferocious repression and the descent into a period known as La Violencia.

A train car on fire in Bogotá during the Bogotazo revolt after the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (Wikimedia Commons)

Perón read the repression, and the United States’ support for it, as part of a new regional dynamic and subsequently joined the paranoid crusade against the social unrest that his activists had promoted. In Panama, students were violently repressed during a rally against U.S. military bases, and a few months later, a new president won office there through fraudulent elections. In Venezuela, the stardom of President Rómulo Gallegos, the novelist who had Betancourt’s support, collapsed due to military pressure by forces led by General Marcos Pérez Jimenez. Gallegos had only been in office for nine months.

Castro called off his visit to Argentina indefinitely and assessed the lessons. The young Fidel had been hopeful about the ability of democratic movements to push for social reform and the support of populist leaders; he was now aware of the limitations of the former and wary of the betrayals of the latter. It took him only five years to organize the attack on the Moncada Barracks and start the Cuban Revolution. By April 1948, Castro had already grasped the lessons that Ernesto "Che" Guevara would learn in Guatemala in 1954, when he witnessed the CIA-sponsored coup against the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz. And he did so not in the face of Fulgencio Batista's brutal dictatorship in Cuba but rather in democratic Latin America.

Black America

Haiti was the first independent Black republic in in the world and the first to abolish slavery. A powerful lesson from the revolutionary period that ran from 1789-1804 was that to abolish slavery, slaves had to use armed violence in the name of freedom and equality against a revolutionary regime that proclaimed these very same ideals. The formerly enslaved, under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, sang the Marseillaise on their way to kill revolutionary soldiers from France who had sung the same anthem—although with a narrower interpretation of its lyrics.

These teachings are encrypted in Latin America’s DNA: Anti-Americanism and a pledge to social progress are vital features of the region's landscape. But what is unique to Latin America is a successful, full deployment of the absolute idealism of democracy in the creation of modern nations. This idealism encompasses the elimination of those interests, namely private property rights, whose mere existence prevents freedom from being universally exercised. The shortcomings of the Cuban Revolution—from its legacies of state repression to its legacies of racial inequality to the corroded regimes in the region sheltered under Cuba's wing today—all confirm that expanding democracy is a task that should start with the revolution, not end with it.

The flaws of other revolutions that coexist with propertied interests—from Mexico and Bolivia to the tragic failure of those who attempted to forge peaceful paths to revolution in Guatemala and Chile—reinforced the influence of the Cuban Revolution. In Latin America, it is not irrational to think that armed struggle will achieve democracy. What is foolish, based on the lessons of history, is to believe that those whose interests are affected by the expansion of democratic practices will relinquish their positions in the name of the general interest or because they will somehow be better off if the rest of society improves. This is a set of beliefs that are dominant, though weakened, in U.S. political culture.

In 1963, historian CLR James famously wrote an appendix for his book The Black Jacobins, which he titled "From Toussaint L'Ouverture to Fidel Castro." He did not compare the two leaders but highlighted a quest for national identity that had occurred against the common backdrop of sugar plantations and slavery. The most realistic and pregnant question of all, James said, was how Cuba would project itself to the rest of the world. After all, it was free Haiti that had nursed Simón Bolivar and helped him to go back to the field to help free the Five States of Saint-Domingue. What would Cuba do? Export what Castro learned in Bogotá: in Latin America, revolutionary violence produces not a radical form of democracy but the only possible form of democracy.

The lesson of violence immediately reflected upon the United States, where, for many, the foundational revolution had erected the enforcement of property rights and its corollary, slavery, as the only way to keep the nation united, expanding, and prosperous. As James punctuated the steps that led from Toussaint to Castro and onward to the future, U.S. conservatives filled in the blanks. With Black riots engulfing U.S. cities in 1967, Spruille Braden, the former U.S. diplomat to Cuba and Argentina who prophesied that the Conference in Bogotá would make history, saw how Latin American violence reached Black American hands. He said to a friend that, since the Revolution, "Communists in Cuba were directing their radio with propaganda to the negroes in Southern United States and that Castro was sending over agents to infiltrate our factories in Tampa and in the South."

He raved. But in the paranoid delirium of the proprietors expressed in his comments, he unveiled truths truer than facts. There were no agents infiltrating factories in Tampa, though Black radicals were indeed looking at Cuba. As Dan Georgakas recently wrote, a Detroit-based group of Black radicals who later led the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, traveled to Cuba in 1964 to speak with Che Guevara. The Detroit radicals found armed defense to be more appealing than non-violence. While they respected Martin Luther King, Jr. as a leader, they did not want to emulate him. With the Cuban experience at hand, reading The Black Jacobins provided them "an example of how seemingly impossible rebellions could be successful."

Castro was exporting the lesson that societies founded upon slavery, from Saint-Domingue to Havana, had learned over centuries about the limits of institutional procedures, mass politics, and peaceful social reform. Blacks in the United States, the Detroit radicals believed, could hear their own voice in the Latin American undertones of the island's tale. That violence is an indispensable resource of popular politics is a legacy that reverberates still today—if not as a practice, at least as a warning about the obstacles that democratic institutions present to social change and as an indictment against the fascist embryo that those institutions help to engender. In ways that Braden could not have anticipated when he wished it, 1948 Bogotá was making history. And still is.


Ernesto Semán teaches history at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies.

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