In 1993, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Italian journalist and liberal politician Jas Gawronski interviewed Fidel Castro in Havana. In the course of the conversation Fidel Castro defends the legitimacy of socialism in China and Vietnam, explains why he has some sympathy for the United States, and offers a first-hand account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, shedding light on some of the tensions within the socialist world.
It was difficult to find a canonical version of this exchange. According to a translation provided by the University of Texas, the Argentinian newspaper Clarín omitted the discussion of the Cuban missile crisis.  Elsewhere, the New York Times censored the discussion of Vietnamese and Chinese socialism.  The closest thing to a complete account appears to be the original Italian publication in La Stampa,  but France’s Le Monde  and Germany’s Die Woche  have extra excerpts where Fidel Castro speaks positively of his meeting with the President of China. This all suggests that a complete transcript made the rounds but never got published. This version was reconstructed by piecing together overlapping excerpts, a ultimately rewarding process that I hope to write about sometime.
Thanks to Steven Manicastri for finding the Italian edition, and Nia Frome for her superb editing.
— Roderic Day
Gawronski: Comandante, Cuba continues to speak about “revolution” and “socialism” as if there had been no changes in the rest of the world. Do these two words have the same meaning they had, in your opinion, when you began your journey 35 years ago?
Castro: No, they cannot have the same meaning. For two reasons: First of all because the ambitious program we started out with has largely been realized, but also because the international situation has changed significantly. We, however, remain committed to our ideals and to our social and political objectives.
Gawronski: But hasn’t the fact that communism collapsed in the countries where it was in power led you to think that perhaps something needs to change in Cuba as well?
Castro: I would say that communism self-destructed, that it committed suicide in the Soviet Union, and that we have no reason to commit suicide. It was a big surprise, both to us and to you Westerners.
All the values that were the foundations of that great country were destroyed. A country that rendered great service to mankind, because I think the tasks Lenin and the October Revolution shouldered are extraordinary events in human history. The USSR’s role in the fight against fascism was decisive, and so was its role in the process of liberating the former colonies.
What I mean to say is that if the world has changed, it is because of the USSR’s decisive contribution. I maintain that the USSR should not have been destroyed but perfected, that its socialism should have been perfected rather than destroyed. What was the result? That today we are left with a unipolar world under the hegemony of the United States and much of that world is suffering the consequences.
Gawronski: But how could all this happen? Do you think Gorbachev is responsible?
Castro: No. Gorbachev talked about socialism and making it more socialist, about perfecting socialism, not destroying it.
And so one has to wonder what were the factors that brought about the destruction of socialism, and why what Hitler failed to achieve with hundreds of divisions and tens of thousands of planes and tanks happened without war, without armored divisions, without planes or tanks. What Hitler failed to do, Soviet leaders themselves did.
Some day history will reveal what role Western intelligence agencies played in all of this.
Gawronski: But at the present time, what are the consequences of all this for Cuba?
Castro: The disappearance of the socialist camp hurt us badly. In the face of the U.S. blockade we benefited from trade with socialist countries, which served as a pillar for the development of our economy. Now the blockade remains, the pillar has fallen, and we are being put to one of the harshest tests ever known in the modern epoch.
Nevertheless, we have not wavered in our decision to stay the course. All of this proves that it was slander to say that Cuba was a satellite of the Soviet Union. We have demonstrated that we were not a satellite but a star shining with its own light. Because even after the demise of the Soviet Union, we have continued to fight. We have continued on our revolutionary path, we have not been discouraged, we have not given up, and we are facing this harsh test with full confidence in the future.
Moreover, although it is true that the Soviet Union self-destructed, neither China nor Vietnam has self-destructed. We speak so much about the socialism that disappeared in the Soviet Union, why don’t we speak about Chinese socialism?
Gawronski: So China is a role model for you?
Castro: It’s an experiment that must be studied. The Chinese themselves say that no one should automatically imitate what others are doing. They acknowledge the mistake they made in applying the Soviet experience mechanically in the early years. But if you want to talk about socialism, you must not forget what socialism has done in China. Once it was a country of hunger, poverty, disasters — today there is none of that. Today China feeds, clothes, cares for, and educates 1.2 billion people.
Recently, Chinese President Jiang Zemin paid a visit to Havana. He is an intelligent, educated, and understanding person — he made an excellent impression on me.
Gawronski: But China, even if it’s remained socialist politically, is trying to move away from socialism economically. On the other hand, Cuba still seems to be solidly socialist. Isn’t it difficult to be the only socialist country when everything around you is changing?
Castro: I think China is a socialist country, and Vietnam is a socialist country as well. And they insist that they’ve introduced all the necessary reforms, precisely to stimulate development and to continue advancing towards the objectives of socialism. There are no chemically pure regimes or systems.
In Cuba, for example, we have many forms of private property. We have tens of thousands of landowners who own, in some cases, up to 45 hectares; in Europe they would be considered latifundistas. Practically all Cubans own their own homes and, what’s more, we are more than open to foreign investment. But none of this detracts from Cuba’s socialist character.
What’s certain is that we will never make the mistake of destroying the country to make something new. We will not make the mistake of plunging our country into chaos, into anarchy, to solve the problems we have, because that would be the only way to never solve them.
Gawronski: Here, Comandante, to round out this topic. It could be said that in Cuba socialism has always been identified with you personally. Have you ever thought what will happen to socialism when you are no longer in power?
Castro: I don’t think you can identify socialism with my person — I didn’t invent it!
It’s true that, when I was a college student studying capitalist political economy, I became a utopian socialist. I could not fathom the contradictions, absurdities and injustices of capitalism. But it’s impossible to associate a system with one man. Of course, men can play a specific role at certain points in history, but it never crossed my mind that socialism could be associated with me. That would be too great an honor, an honor I don’t want to steal from the great theorists of socialism!
I believe that our people have great merit in defending their ideas, in defending their independence and their revolution against the tremendously difficult conditions imposed on them by the American blockade. Such tests of dignity are seldom seen in history.
Man alone can do nothing, only the people can.
Gawronski: Let’s turn to the source of all of your troubles, the United States. Just now, before I turned on the recorder for this interview, I heard you speak with a kind of admiration, or at least sympathy, for that country. Is that an accurate impression?
Castro: I have never failed to recognize the merits of the American people. It should not be forgotten that the United States was a colony that fought hard for its independence and won it. They proclaimed the Declaration of Independence and wrote the first modern constitution.
Of course, all this was within the framework of a relative concept of democracy and freedom. Even though the Declaration of Independence stated that all men are created free and equal, and that they are endowed by their creator with certain rights, and that among these is liberty, slavery persisted in the United States for nearly 100 years after that. Which goes to show that statements of principle do not always in practice correspond with the facts.
When I defended myself in the Moncada Trial, when I defended the right to insurrection against tyranny, I used some of the concepts of the American Declaration of Independence, which I had read as a student — it’s very beautiful.
I’ve always felt sympathy and admiration for Lincoln; from a very young age I appreciated Roosevelt’s role as a statesman in times of crisis and great difficulty, his role in the fight against fascism. I admired the fact that, despite being a person with physical limitations, he was able to do everything that he did. Or take Kennedy. He’s the one who declared the embargo against Cuba, and was president when many assassination attempts were planned against me, but I don’t harbor a grudge against him. I’m willing to admit that he was a bright, intelligent man with real personal merit.
What I mean to say is that I have never let myself be carried away by hatred and resentment. And I do not speak only for myself here: the Cuban people have always treated the American citizenry with respect. We do not sow fanaticism, instead we develop among ourselves the habit of thinking, of reasoning. We don’t say “believe,” we say “think, analyze, meditate.” We have never blamed the American people for the blockade and aggression against Cuba, because we understand them to be quite manipulated by mass media. We see the American people as victims of manipulation, so we don’t hold them responsible for the aggressive policy of the United States against Cuba. There are many places in Latin America where Americans are treated badly, due to people’s frustrations. The Cuban psychology is that of a liberated people, and thus has no need for fanaticism, chauvinism, or hatred towards other peoples.
Gawronski: How many assassination attempts have you survived in your life?
Castro: If there were an Olympic event in this field, I would certainly have taken home the gold!
The Senate in Washington has acknowledged the existence of many of these plans. In the United States they were organizing not only assassination plots, directed by the CIA, but they also developed a whole psychological war. They were prepared to help any enemy of the revolution, and they always pointed those enemies toward carrying out attacks to eliminate me physically. I’ve survived hundreds of assassination attempts, some of them organized directly by the CIA, others inspired by them, coordinated by them, paid for by them. I’ve had the privilege of living like that for the past 30 years, and I’m still alive. On some occasions they were very close to eliminating me. However, I don’t give it much thought, and sometimes I almost find it amusing.
Gawronski: Since you took power, you have had to deal with eight U.S. presidents. Now there is Clinton, the first one to be younger than you. Things seem to be changing. Do you think there will be a change in relations between the United States and Cuba? Is there any chance things will improve? Are there any initiatives underway?
Castro: Look, U.S. presidents are slaves to many things, among them electoral campaigns. During election campaigns, candidates say things and make commitments, and Clinton, unfortunately, said some things against Cuba. He even buddied up to people like Congressman Robert Torricelli, who introduced a law towards the end of the Bush administration that made the boycott of Cuba tougher and harsher. But there are other factors that influence presidents.
All American presidents in their first term spend their time thinking about their second one as their primary objective. During the first term, they’re very cautious, wary about taking new initiatives. For all these reasons, at the moment there are no negotiations going on to improve relations, except for secondary matters like the question of immigration. What I can say — and it’s simply my opinion — is that Clinton is not a warmongering president, but a man of peace, a man who wants to do things for the American people.
It is difficult for me to talk about Clinton, because if I say something good about him, his friends worry. And Cuba’s enemies, at a time when Clinton’s popularity suffered a decline, said the only one defending Clinton was Castro. They said it with the worst of intentions, with the intention of damaging him.
But I’m not going to defend Clinton, he is neither my friend nor my foe. I am only trying to make an analysis that will allow me to make an objective assessment of his personality. And I’ve realized that he is very susceptible to pressure from the right, the most conservative elements. Sometimes he’ll adopt a position and then change it as a result of pressure. What’s happening with him is the same thing that happened with Kennedy at the beginning of his presidency. But I think he’s still in the process of acquiring experience.
Life is a good teacher. Kennedy learned a great deal from the Playa Girón failure, a plan he inherited from Eisenhower and Nixon. He realized that it was a mistake to underestimate Cuba and its revolution and carry out that mercenary attack on Cuba. And there are things Clinton has inherited from Bush, for example Somalia. But there too a starving and disorganized people were able to oppose an invasion, and I think Clinton has learned a lesson from that experience. He did not react arrogantly with new acts of aggression, with new attacks. He reacted in a courageous manner and with a cool mind. Other presidents would have reacted with arrogance and embarked on another Vietnam.
Gawronski: You have spoken about Playa Girón — about the Bay of Pigs, the episode that preceded the missile crisis of October 1962. Is it true that you asked Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S.?
Castro: It was an extremely tense situation — we expected a U.S. invasion at any moment. After making all the necessary defensive preparations, I decided to write a letter to Khrushchev, a message of encouragement. I was afraid that he might waver and my intention was to try to convince him to be firm, to resist, not to let himself be demoralized. I personally delivered the message to the Soviet ambassador on October 26th. He barely spoke Spanish and there was no interpreter, so I repeated every word, every sentence, and every assessment several times. He wrote everything down, but I don’t know what he actually communicated to Khrushchev.
Gawronski: Did Khrushchev reject your suggestions?
Castro: He had no time to respond, because the crisis suddenly reached its most critical point. An American U-2 spy plane was shot down from a Soviet missile base in the eastern part of Cuba. It was an incident that was never satisfactorily explained. The facts are that a few days later, Khrushchev wrote to me and complained that I had suggested a nuclear attack in the middle of the crisis. That was completely false — that was not what the message that I handed over to the Soviet ambassador said. However, it shows what he took to be the meaning of that message. Then I sent him another letter in which I stated, on my honor, that the accusations made against me were unjust, and I explained the concept of my first message, which was this: if the United States attacks, if war breaks out, don’t let the USSR be the victim of a first strike…
Gawronski: …a nuclear strike?
Castro: Yes. I was convinced that my position was absolutely fair: if the enemy sought war, we needed to retain the possibility of launching the first strike.
Gawronski: But Comandante, why should the United States have found it necessary to employ nuclear weapons against Cuba?
Castro: The fact of the matter is that there were tactical and strategic nuclear weapons based in Cuba. If you have dozens of missiles, if you have several megatons of nuclear warheads, you tell me: what army possessing such weapons would allow itself to be destroyed without using them?
It was a very delicate situation. I said to myself: I don’t want nuclear war, but I was convinced that any invasion would trigger precisely that kind of war. The Soviets’ position was — and Khrushchev repeated this to me on several occasions — that any war between the United States and the Soviet Union would become a nuclear war. That was Soviet military doctrine. We knew very well that if war broke out we would disappear from the face of the Earth, but that did not mean we were willing to give in, you understand.
I didn’t want what happened with Hitler to happen, when Stalin played the ostrich: when they told him that there were millions of German soldiers concentrated on the Soviet frontier, he replied that it was a provocation by the British and the West to draw him into war, and one day at sunrise the Soviet Union was attacked by millions of men, its planes were destroyed on the ground, and millions of its soldiers died in the first few months. 
Gawronski: If I may, let’s take a step back. How did the Soviets actually arrive at the decision to base missiles in Cuba?
Castro: They made the suggestion.
I will preface this by saying that we had great faith in them, in the country that defeated Hitler, and we believed they knew what they were doing. Of course we also had our ideas and presented them, advised the Soviets, but we left the decisions in their hands.
Shortly after the Bay of Pigs, the Soviets told us that, according to their information, Cuba was in great danger. They asked us “What do you think can be done to prevent U.S. aggression?” We replied, “If the United States knew that an aggression against Cuba was equivalent to a war against the Soviet Union, it would certainly be a brake on their intervention.” At this point they said — and to this end they sent a high-level delegation — that it could not be limited to a statement, but that it had to be demonstrated with facts. “Which ones?” I asked. And that’s when they first proposed missiles. I told them I had to speak with my comrades first.
The leadership met and decided in favor of installing the missiles, for two reasons: first, the missiles would strengthen the USSR’s strategic position and that would also mean protection for us. Second, we also had to be prepared to bear part of the risk if we wanted the Soviet Union to protect our interests. I have always despised those who wait for others to do something for them, but aren’t willing to do anything for others. So we entered into a military alliance and we were of the opinion that it should be made public, because we were convinced that we were doing something legal, which we had full right to do, and there was no reason to hide it.
The tactic followed by Khrushchev in this was wrong. So much so that the scandal came out: it’s difficult to transport and install so much war material without anyone noticing. And in the end, the only ones who continued to keep the secret were those of us who were part of it, while the whole world was already beginning to talk about the missiles in Cuba. Finally, the crisis erupts.
And here Khrushchev makes a second mistake and gets drawn into a discussion about the character of those weapons. In the United States they began to talk about offensive weapons and Khrushchev, starting from the theory that the weapons were neither offensive nor defensive, that this depended entirely on the intentions of those who used them, stated that these were defensive weapons. However, Kennedy, when he asked if they were offensive weapons, wanted to know if they were strategic, nuclear weapons. Khrushchev emphatically denied it. Not only Khrushchev, but also Gromyko, in a meeting with Kennedy a few days before the crisis.
I believe that before the scandal arose we should have, in the most natural way in the world, publicized the agreement we had reached with the USSR, since we were not doing anything illegal. It was an absolutely legitimate case of self-defense. But Khrushchev deceived Kennedy and this let the American president gain moral stature and present himself to the world as the man who had been deceived by Khrushchev, who secretly installed the missiles in Cuba.
Gawronski: There is one more point I’d like to clarify with you. After the most acute phase of the crisis, your relations with Khrushchev deteriorated greatly. Can you explain why?
Castro: It was at the time of the missile withdrawal. We were not against this solution, but we wanted guarantees for Cuba. Instead, Khrushchev made the decision without consulting us. And it was a mistake. It would have been enough for him to say, “We are willing to withdraw the missiles subject to satisfactory guarantees for Cuba.” When I sent Khrushchev a message to that effect, the situation had already changed, he basically had already agreed with Kennedy.
And so Khrushchev withdraws the missiles and leaves us with the economic blockade, the Guantanamo naval base, the continuous armed attacks, pirate attacks on our coasts; I say that, in those moments when the world shuddered at the danger of a nuclear war, the United States could not have refused those minimum conditions that we would have set if we’d been consulted. The crisis would have been resolved definitively and decently, and we would have had no conflict with the Soviets.
Gawronski: Comandante, to conclude, I would like to satisfy a personal curiosity. Why do you always wear your guerrilla uniform? It has been a long time since the heroic days of the Sierra Maestra.
Castro: It’s what I wear, I’ve worn it all my life. It’s comfortable, it’s simple, it’s cheap, and it doesn’t go out of style. I also have another suit, a more formal one with a tie. But excuse me, allow me to ask you a question. When you interviewed the Pope, did you ask him why he always wears that white outfit?
This account of events, portraying Stalin as hubristic and inept, is heavily indebted to the denunciations in Khrushchev’s infamous “Secret Speech” from 1956. For a modern and well-cited challenge to this narrative see Chapter 1 of Domenico Losurdo’s “Stalin: The History and Critique of a Black Legend” (2008). ↩