What was the political character of the 26th of July Movement during the struggle against Fulgencio Batista? What particular roles did Fidel and Raúl Castro play in its leadership?
AK: The movement changed quite significantly over the three years of its formal existence. It became more radical. If you compare it in the period from 1953 to 1955, when it was set up, to what emerged in late 1958, it changed a lot. But the aim was always to remove Batista, then — and this was its crucial distinction from other groups — to achieve the long-overdue process of nation-building, which most Cubans recognized had been promised in 1902, when Cuba got independence, but which had never arrived — mostly because of the close relationship with the United States.
There was a degree of consensus within the movement that the long-awaited overhaul of the system meant a radical overhaul via some form of socialism. The programs always emphasized the vast inequality of Cuba before 1958 and its dependence on the United States. Corruption was another issue that was quite dominant in politics, as well as general underdevelopment. These were to be dealt with by some form of socialism — although not all agreed with that. This was the distinction that eventually emerged within the movement.
It was a very mixed, amorphous movement, but by late 1958, it had greater consensus than at its start. It was much more radical than had originally been intended by many of the people who joined the movement. Fidel’s role was crucial. You cannot deny that he was crucial to this particular development — not least because he articulated the ideas and plans of the movement better than anybody.
He was also skilled at publicity from the beginning. He was politically astute, much more so than any other leader. He commanded loyalty. That was a crucial element for the remarkable fidelity of the original group throughout the decades that followed. He did so partly through his character, but also through the fact that he survived all the defeats and setbacks. That gave him a mythical status, even within the group.
He was crucial as a leader, and he also outlined the original program, which was the famous “History Will Absolve Me” defense speech. It then became a text somewhat different from the speech itself but that nonetheless made the same arguments.
The program outlined there was remarkably similar to the reforms that were actually passed in 1959 and 1960. There was a blueprint, and it was that text. Most of the early reforms followed that document quite closely. In that sense, Fidel was significant.
Raúl was less significant. He was simply one of the captains — not comandantes — when the Granma landing took place. But by late 1958, when he was given charge of the second front in another sierra in the east of Cuba, the Sierra del Cristal, he came into his own and became much more significant in that particular area. He staked his claim to be part of the revolutionary leadership.
The other person with great influence, along with Fidel, was Che Guevara. He was crucial in those three to five years, because he shared the ideology that Fidel and Raúl were beginning to develop quite clearly, but his sense of ideology and his political awareness were much stronger. Already he was moving toward more unusual and unorthodox versions of Marxism.
He also realized the importance of political education of the guerrillas. He led that effort and was therefore a significant element of the radicalization process. The difference between Raúl and Che, on the one hand, and Fidel, on the other, was that they were more enthusiastic, or at least pragmatic, about the need to collaborate with the Popular Socialist Party (PSP), as the Communist Party was then known. Fidel was less sure about it until the very end, when the PSP changed its approach.