The foco

I don’t know much about how to effect change in a large organisation but I know people who have done it (or tried to do it). Hello, agile digital change agents! When I read this book review I thought of you.

It’s in the London Review of Books by Piero Gleijeses, of Cuba’s Revolutionary World by Jonathan Brow. The review starts:

‘We were absolutely convinced that we had discovered an infallible method to free the people,’ a close aide of Che Guevara’s once told me as we talked about Cuba’s support for armed struggle in Latin America in the 1960s. When Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, levels of poverty and exploitation in Latin America seemed to meet what Marxists called ‘the objective conditions’ for revolution. As a senior US intelligence officer pointed out, the victorious Cubans viewed Latin America ‘as a tinderbox to which one merely had to apply a spark … to set off the revolutionary explosion’. This spark would be the foco, a small guerrilla vanguard whose purpose was to launch armed struggle in the countryside, just as it had in Cuba, creating the necessary ‘subjective conditions’ - an awareness among the people that they could and should fight. Castro wanted the armed struggle to start immediately.

Castro’s analysis of how Batista had been removed - and therefore of what it would take to achieve revolutions elsewhere - overlooked several key factors in the Cuban situation, three of them decisive. First, when he and a dozen guerrillas reached the Sierra Maestra, in December 1956, there was already a peasant base ready to support them. Furthermore, a strong urban underground was able to provide Castro with weapons, supplies and fighters. Finally, his assurances that he was not a communist gained him the support of conservative Cubans who opposed Batista, and mitigated the hostility of the United States. But the victorious Cubans ignored these facts; they were mesmerised by the foco. ‘We have demonstrated,’ Guevara wrote, ‘that a small group of men who are determined, supported by the people, and not afraid of death … can overcome a regular army.’ This, he believed, was the lesson of the Cuban revolution.

It seems, from what I’ve heard, like a good parallel with trying to make large organisations drastically change their direction and/or ways of working. You can’t rely solely on a few good, enthusiastic people, the foco. You also need existing internal support and readiness, access to plenty of resources, and the ability to appease potential allies who might otherwise find you too scary.

It seems so obvious a parallel that I assume I’m not the first to notice it.

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9 Dec 2017 at Twitter

  • 8:07am: Broadgate is such a dystopian “curated urban experience” that I assume the birdsong I heard in Finsbury Avenue Square was recorded.

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