The war on terror, at least in terms of the way it’s been framed, leaves no room for heroes. On one side are the imperial powers, fighting to preserve their self-proclaimed “modern” order. On the opposite side of the spectrum are “bloodthirsty” jihadists, anti-modern and against “our essential values.” In this false and violent dichotomy, liberation fighters wanting to maintain their integrity cannot afford to be positioned on this lose-lose spectrum.
“So why not start with somebody who actually did it right?” asks Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan diplomat and academic who became involved in radical politics from a young age, in an interview with teleSUR. “Fidel proves that this can be done. You can fight without losing your soul. Even if you lose militarily, you win morally and eventually politically.”
Jayatilleka began studying Fidel Castro’s alternative philosophy of resistance in the 1980s. The lessons he discovered were such that he published his Ph.D thesis on the same topic in 2007, when support for the war in Iraq was largely winding down.
“Fidel has universal value wherever people and movements are struggling,” said Jayatilleka. “Not merely a Latin American phenomenon, still less a merely Cuban phenomenon, still less a 20th century phenomenon. Fidel has contributed to universal values.”
How to Win and Not Sell Your Soul
The gist of what Jayatilleka terms Fidel’s “Third Zone” is to apply non-negotiable humanistic values on the battlefield and eventually in office. A couple of fundamental don’ts: no torturing of prisoners and a conscious rejection of targeting non-combatants. In short, as Fidel once told a Cuban soldier, “the life of an unarmed man must be sacred for you.”
This does not mean that violence is renounced altogether. Far from it. But according to Fidel’s logic, the liberation and revolutionary fighter must exercise “conscious restraint,” writes Jayatilleka in “Fidel’s Ethics of Violence” while simultaneously drawing on a moral philosophy that “does not rest on culturally specific and circumscribed notions (such as those that inform many jihadist groups) or claims of self-evident (actually, self-referential) systemic superiority,” as is the case of western imperialist states. Instead, Fidel calls for an ethics that “springs from the wellsprings of modernity and universalism but stands for an alternative modernity.”
Only by cultivating an ethical superiority, says Jayatilleka, can liberation fighters overcome their material disadvantage. Even with an hegemonic mainstream media against them, they will eventually win over hearts—or even, in the case of Vietnam, the “children of (the) bourgeoisie” that sent U.S. soldiers overseas.
Should they compromise their values, liberation fighters, movement’s and states play into the hands of Empire, which swiftly demonizes its enemies as soon as they target civilians—however hypocritical the logic.
Why Imperialism Can Never Occupy the Higher Moral Ground
“Imperialism which does not target civilians would not be imperialism,” says Jayatilleka. “A system that imposes exploitation, extraction of natural resources, of oil, and the destinies of people in all parts of the world” cannot possibly be one of peace. Because imperial powers operate based on what lies within their self-interest, they are blind to such alternatives as Fidel’s Third Zone. Cuba was, after all, listed as a state sponsor of terrorism until last year.
But just because they have a monopoly over terms like “terrorism,” however, doesn’t mean the definition of the term is absolute. States like the U.S. and Israel are “very selective” with their use of the term, says Jayatilleka. Those that oppose terrorism are not friends if they insist on asserting their autonomy—such as Libya—while “even fascism is not fascism if it is not threatening the U.S. or is somehow manipulable against Russia or China.”
Fidel at 90
Liberation fighters must be selective, too, in how they treat imperialist countries.
“They’re very fluid and should never be regarded monolithically as enemies,” says Jayatilleka.
European social democrats, he points out, shift their platforms on foreign wars depending on the leader, the timing and whether they hold power or not. But at the same time they might have domestic policies in line with Fidel’s doctrine yet preach the opposite abroad.
Listening and Not Listening to Fidel
As much as anti-imperialists may want to challenge their opponent on every front, they shouldn’t do so blindly, says Jayatilleka. If they resist all systems of accountability, they are a step behind the “make-believe mechanisms of accountability” within, for example, the U.S. military. If they refuse to interact with the mainstream media, frowning at Fidel’s interview with Playboy—what Jayatilleka calls a “full-spectrum engagement with Western culture,” —they also miss an opportunity to reach people who do not share the politics of their country or movement.
“Imperialism always, always coordinates,” says Jayatilleka, “not only at the military level—at the political level, at the level of policy, at the level of education, cultural exchanges. At every possible level.”
The biggest mistake of the international left, he adds, is its failure to focus on the building of truly long-term continental and South-South connections. This would entail organizing among leftist groups and movements even when they’re not in government. Fidel did this with the Tricontinental Conference with Asia and Africa in 1966 and the Latin American Solidarity Organization in 1967, which focused on building relationships and solidarity among leftist organizations and government delegations.
That was Fidel’s strength, says Jayatilleka: he seamlessly transferred his rigorous ethics in his country into his foreign policy. In times of war, he boasted a flawless record of fighting in Vietnam and Angola, and in times of peace he upheld an ethical standing that makes it no wonder that the Colombia peace talks with the FARC are based in Havana.
Latin America has been the most obvious inheritor of Fidel’s doctrine of violence, but Jayatilleka says that its leftist leaders should listen even more closely. Other states, and particularly those facing terrorist groups, should also borrow from his view that both poles share a “behavioural, moral and ethical symmetry.”
The liberation fighter loyal to Fidel’s teachings can ultimately overcome and vanquish imperialism through “an asymmetric war that is total, fought with weapons of ethics and morality”—nothing more and nothing less. “It’s not only a way of fighting, but a larger way of being.”