Fidel Castro delivered arguably his most famous sentence,”La historia me absolverá” [history will absolve me], 60 years ago, in his speech to the court after the failed 1956 assault on the Moncada barracks. After the revolutionary triumph 3 years later, it offered a mythic origin story of a political career and a political movement, to the degree that the two have always been inseparable. Castro’s death, an occasion for obituary reflections, has logically compelled many to respond to his explicit invitation for historical judgment. Will history absolve him?
The judgment is usually decisive: In 14 y medio, Carlos Alberto Montaner titled his reflection, bluntly, “La historia no lo absolverá.” Even President Obama’s surprisingly measured statement on Castro’s death invoked it, if a bit more evasively than anti-Castro partisans did: “History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and the world around him.” Most who quote the line from the left do so with an implicit approval: given Castro’s longevity, the revolution’s material achievements, and from the vantage point of savage neoliberalism, history has rendered its judgment of absolution. He has been vindicated.
In the immediate context of the anti-Batista struggle, this judgment is probably indisputable. But in a larger sense, Castro’s longevity has always been the argument against vindication. One can consider the economic fact that in 2016, the island still figuratively “exports sugar to import candy,” as he memorably put it in the “History will Absolve Me” speech. Or as Greg Grandin writes in his intelligent obituary at The Nation, the ongoing privatization of the socialist economy makes one ask whether “all the repression was for naught, with all the old problems that plagued Cuba prior to the revolution having returned.” Even these are complex questions: Cuba’s failure to break its economic dependency doesn’t necessarily constitute a failure of the revolutionary government, since no other country in the Caribbean has fared any better, if they haven’t fared markedly worse.
That the phrase “history will absolve me” is a popular shorthand for this mythic figure is understandable: delivered at the end of his statement to the Batistiano court, it’s a rhetorical triumph for a comandante-en-jefe in the making, marked by the defiance, playfulness, historical expertise, to the point of pedantry, and the tendency for verbosity that distinguished him as a speaker.
The fact is, when men carry the same ideals in their hearts, nothing can isolate them – neither prison walls nor the sod of cemeteries. For a single memory, a single spirit, a single idea, a single conscience, a single dignity will sustain them all.
It’s a brave, moral condemnation of tyranny and a clinic on mocking bravado, as Fidel begs the judges to find him guilty. “Condemn me, it doesn’t matter,” he says before the famous four words–it doesn’t matter, he has already explained, firstly because the judges are irrelevant: I forgive you, you innocent flunkies of a despot, he tells them. Secondly, and most importantly, it doesn’t matter because he is guilty: yes, he did aim to overthrow an unjust tyranny, through means declared illegal by that same tyrant. In every legal sense, he is guilty as charged.
I come to the close of my defense plea but I will not end it as lawyers usually do, asking that the accused be freed. I cannot ask freedom for myself while my comrades are already suffering in the ignominious prison of the Isle of Pines. Send me there to join them and to share their fate. It is understandable that honest men should be dead or in prison in a Republic where the President is a criminal and a thief.
As he approaches the final lines, Castro captures a sense of history as an impersonal but malleable force. Whether Fidel was a Marxist yet or not, “history will absolve me” reflects a historical materialist view of history as a force made by men, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. And yet this materialist view of history redounds to the man himself. Because he lived and held power so much longer, Fidel has been better served by a voluntarist view of historical and revolutionary transformation than his old comrade Che Guevara. But it’s worth remembering the dangers of this fetish for decisive leadership–Guevara’s sad fate is one example of where it can lead, but the masculinist celebration of the determined will, the loudest voice, the visionary is another legacy.
In any case, as Grandin writes, it is Castro’s outsized personality, his longevity, and his own sense of the importance of the leader in history that raises the question of his absolution or condemnation. But if we take the materialist view seriously, “history” is grander than any mortal life, and any ruling it hands down will not be timely.
My ambivalence, I hope, isn’t a liberal perch on the fence. It’s not meant that way, anyhow. But I do like to admit what and when I don’t know. Even if it is apocryphal, Zhou Enlai’s reputed answer to a foreign journalist‘s inquiry on the legacy of the French Revolution seems apt. Will history absolve Fidel Castro? “It’s too early to tell.”