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Yester-Years: The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and The Cuban Revolution

Featured image courtesy the BBC

In the 1950s, Cuban revolutionaries launched their July 26 Movement (Movement) to get rid of foreign domination and economic injustice. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista launched a coup d’etat, which made the Cuban people lose their democratic rights. They had become indignant and resented the dictatorial regime. For the United States, the Batista dictatorship provided full protection for their business interest in Cuba. So naturally the US regime provided strong political and military backing to the Batista regime.

Fidel Castro took power on New Year’s Day 1959, and promised to share his nation’s wealth with its poorest citizens, who had suffered under the corrupt quarter-century dictatorship of Batista. At the start, the Movement gained vast political support from the Cuban people, as it represented a national democratic movement that underpinned the genuine aspirations of the Cuban people including the restoration of the constitution of 1940.

The new Cuban government took initiatives to implement agrarian reforms, which was essential and necessary for economic development, the US demanded compensation for the land that would be nationalised. The US resisted Cuba’s willingness to pay the land values declared in the last tax returns, asked for more, and threatened to cut the sugar quotas the US purchased The Soviet Union promised to buy whatever sugar that the US did not buy and pay by supplying crude oil at a preferential price. Yet, the Americans owned Cuba’s refineries, and refused to process Soviet crude oil.

In retaliation, Cuba nationalized U.S.-owned oil refineries. In 1962, Cuba declared itself a socialist state. Despite the setbacks at the early stages of the revolution, education, health care and employment made clear improvements. Cuba was committed to internationalism with their strong support for Latin American, Vietnamese and several African revolutionary movements.

However, with the forging of links between Cuba and the Soviet Union, the influence of the Popular Socialist Party (Partido Socialista Popular – PSP) grew strong. PSP was a Communist Party in Cuba, before the 1959 revolution. Even closer to the final stages of Batista’s defeat, the PSP declared that the struggle the ‘Movement’ had launched was adventurist. They even went to the extent of betraying several leaders of the student movement that supported the Movement. Despite the conflicts between the Movement and the PSP leadership led by Anibal Escalante, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union reinstated the status quo of the PSP and placed PSP leaders in charge.

I recollect, when the leaders of the Movement, particularly led by Che, attempted diversification of the Cuban economy, the leaders of the PSP and the USSR favoured the sugar based one crop dependent economy. Even under Cuba’s leader of independence, Jose Marti, reliance on sugar was considered as “committing suicide”. One of the main reasons for Cuba’s dismal economic state was its increasing dependency on sugar for its export earnings – not helped one iota by the crippling immoral US economic embargo.

Fidel’s plans failed, and food rationing began in 1961. From my point of view, Fidel Castro could not be distinguished from the pro-Soviet policy positions adopted by the previous PSP leaders. Cuba’s foreign policy was Soviet foreign policy. And so was the foreign policies of the Communist parties all over the world, including that of Sri Lanka. Due to the worsening economic situation in Cuba, tens of thousands workers and peasants, including a significant number of Afro-Cubans fled the country for an uncertain future in the U.S. This was different from the situation in the early 1960s’ where those who fled were from the upper echelons of the society.

In the pre-1970 period, in Sri Lanka, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (the JVP) was known as “The Movement”. The JVP unambiguously has its ideological roots to Marxism/Leninism, Maoism and the Cuban revolution. We in the Movement, noted that like Cuba, we were a plantation economy, we were under American imperialism, had a comprador bourgeoisie, a complacent left and a large, neglected and exploited peasantry. What united Communists and other activists of the left was the spectre of the American empire in the form of its aggressive foreign policy and its rapacious search for raw materials and markets. Young progressive leftists all over the world took note of the Cuban revolution.

Immediately after the insurrection of April 5, 1971 the Government had made an appeal to the rest of the world to give it arms, and these were provided by capitalist, socialist and non-aligned governments, as politically diverse as Singapore, India, the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Pakistan. Once the insurrection was crushed the government had around 15,000 of the JVP’s cadres in detention. Some had been seized while fighting the armed forces; some had been picked up under the emergency regulations, while others had given themselves up; believing the government’s promise of amnesty. All were imprisoned in overcrowded dank conditions. Some were shot dead, allegedly while attempting to escape.

Despite the human rights abuses committed by the then regime, Cuba expressed solidarity with the coalition regime, though it did not provide material support, except allowing Mr Anura Bandaranayke to stay in Cuba with Fidel Castro until the dust settled down in Sri Lanka. From my point of view, this attitude of Cuba would have been due to the influence of the Soviet Communist Party and the Ceylon Communist Party (Moscow wing). In 1978, Cuba sent troops against the Eritrean Liberation Front, and argued it was for protecting Ethiopian territorial integrity from Eritrean separatists. Cuba praised the tyranny of Mengistu Mariam in Ethiopia as a genuine progressive force. Cuba was willing to change its tune at the whim of the Soviets.

After 1977, in line with the aim of developing more fraternal relationships with progressive forces abroad, the JVP developed ties and offered solidarity with the Vietnamese, Cuban, Palestinian, FRETLIN and other progressive liberation movements. Most left-wing parties and progressive people across the globe supported these struggles politically. In the late 1970s we still had issues with the Cuban Communist Party. According to my memory, it would have been 1979, when the JVP was invited to send a delegation to the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) Festival held in Havana.

Comrade Rohana Wijeweera was to lead the JVP delegation. As he was visiting Havana, we wished him to have a meeting with Fidel, as the leader of the Cuban Communist Party. This was conveyed to the Cuban Communist Party through the Cuban Embassy in Colombo. However, the Cubans refused the repeated requests of the JVP. Rohana decided to boycott the Festival altogether. This was conveyed to the embassy, and ultimately, the meeting was sanctioned by the Cubans, if my memory is correct. Subsequently, we came to know that the Communist Party of Sri Lanka had exerted undue influence for preventing this meeting from taking place.

Despite the many human rights abuses committed by the parties during the conflicts in Sri Lanka, during the April 1971 insurrection, during the 1988-89 insurrection and the war between 1983-2009 of the Tamil militants, Cuba has consistently supported the Sri Lanka government. Cuba strongly opposed holding an international investigation into any crimes committed during the war. There have been other international situations, where Cubans have sided with repressive regimes.

The argument put by countries like Cuba and their supporters is that the revolutionary spread of socialism is uneven around the globe. Thus, over a period of time compromises are required in dealing with the imperialist world. As one apologist convolutedly put it in the seventies, it was a fact that:

socialist states will therefore have to survive for considerable periods in co–existence with an imperialist world itself riven by shifting internal contradictions; and that therefore socialist governments will be faced with a relatively autonomous arena of socialist struggle at the diplomatic level.[1]

This was the sort of political detente which the JVP rejected when Rohana and his other comrades formed the JVP. They wanted to form an indigenous radical socialist party independent of the dictates of the Soviet Union, China or Cuba. Even though the party respected the gains and influence of these socialist blocs in the world theatre, they had seen the reactionary influence of their paid acolytes on the politics of the island.

If you enjoyed this article, you might find “A farewell to Fidel” and “JVP and the emerging crisis in Sri Lankan universities” enlightening reads. 


[1] Brewster, B. (1971). Communication on Ceylon and China. In New Left Review, December issue.