The death of Fidel Castro was long expected and when it finally came on Friday night, there was very little surprise across the world. He was 90, and in August, he had himself predicted that he would not live beyond 90. He had been sick for about ten years, compelling him to hand over power as Cuba’s leader in 2006. It is instructive that Castro’s death, like his life, was attended by divided opinions. No other man has been more controversial in Latin America and indeed in the whole of the Americas in the last 50 years.
He was hated and loved in almost equal measure, praised by those who admired him, and denounced by those who objected to his politics and style. This much was illustrated as the news of his death spread: while Cubans in Havana and across the country mourned the death of the El Commandante, the father of modern Cuba, and perhaps the last of the iconic revolutionary figures of the 20th Century, 145 kilometres away to the North, in Miami, Florida, many Cubans in diaspora celebrated the death of the man they consider a tyrant who drove them away from their homeland.
Fidel Castro, having survived countless assassination attempts over the years, was fully aware more than anyone else, of the emotional reactions to the choices he made by all categories of persons including ideologues, capitalists, family members and plebeians alike. His response to this was the iconic declaration: “Condemn me. It is of no importance. History will absolve me.” This was in 1953, after the Moncada Barracks event, but that statement more or less defined his life-long attitude to power, leadership and situations. As Cuba’s strong man, he ran his country from 1959 to 2006, like a messiah, giving the people one of the best human development indexes in the world: a developed medical system, free healthcare, free education, advancements in science, research and agriculture, the transformation of Cuba into a centre of culture, and a strong presence in global politics.
But it was Fidel’s politics that turned him into both the symbolic and controversial figure that he became. When he drove out the Fulgencio Batista government in 1959, he was regarded as the messianic revolutionary, along with his band of freedom fighters, who had come to save the people in what became known as the 26th of July Movement. Batista’s military dictatorship imposed enormous misery upon the people and encouraged the transformation of Havana into the playground of the rich, the Mafia, the criminal and the corrupt. Fidel, as he was simply known, promised his people “Fatherland or Death” – (“patria o muerte”), constitutional rule, free and fair elections, and a brighter future. He soon embarked on a series of brutal executions, victimization of his political opponents and mass repression, justified on the basis of the need to consolidate the revolution. His transition from freedom fighter to an autocrat, and the gradual shift from a people’s revolution to a one-man revolution, is one of the striking contradictions of his legacy.
Perhaps the most defining marker of this legacy is Cuba’s relationship with the United States under his watch. By 1960, the would-be socialist democrat had declared that he is a Marxist-Leninist and with his embrace of the Soviet Union, he brought the Cold War, one of the most significant events of the 20th Century to the doorstep of the United States. This marked the beginning of more than 50 years of strained relationship with the United States, beginning with Cuba’s introduction of a nationalized planned economy which resulted in the state take-over of foreign businesses and investments which were mostly American, the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the nuclear missile standoff of October 1962, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war as the Soviets attempted to set up a nuclear base in Cuba, a few miles away from the United States.
Fidel Castro’s face-off with the United States earned his country economic and military blockades, which proved punitive for his people, the flight of many Cubans to the United States, sustained, vitriolic American propaganda against Fidel and Cuba, as well as assassination attempts. By 1961, America broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba. Fidel proved to be a fiercely single-minded, iron-willed, unbending political figure. He resisted both capitalist restoration and American imperialism. He emerged in the long run as a symbol of defiance and a source of inspiration for many of his compatriots and others who drew patriotic zeal and fire from his resistance, nationalism and patriotism.
Cuba was the centerpiece of his revolutionary and ideological exertions. He wanted the best for his country and his people, and in pursuing a pro-worker, pro-people agenda, he stood firmly against the intimidation of the capitalist mega-power to the North. He turned towards the Soviet Union as trading partner and source of subsidies. He lowered racial barriers, preached equality and sovereignty and railed endlessly against capitalism in characteristically fiery and long speeches. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, the subsidies ended, and the people’s economic hardship increased but Fidel Castro remained stubbornly committed to his agenda and vision. He survived the end of Soviet subsidy with the help of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela.
He was a very strong, impressive personality, a master of rhetoric, and a notable man of style, with his trademark fatigue, classic Cuban cigar and scraggy beard. He was the oldest and the most enduring of the communists. His example inspired radical politics in Venezuela, Chile, Grenada, Bolivia, Ecuador and other parts of Latin America. He defined the left in Latin America. He changed the Latin American game.
His impact on the larger international order was no less significant. Many Fidelistas emerged in other parts of the world, including Africa, particularly in Congo, South Africa, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique where he supported revolutionary change morally and materially. The Nigerian Left also owes much inspiration to the politics of Fidel Castro and the ideas of his friend and ally, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Cuban doctors served as volunteers in Angola and Namibia, while over 36, 000 troops and another 300, 000 troops took part in the anti-apartheid, liberation struggles in both countries respectively. Cuban troops were also involved in Algeria, Guinea Bissau, Equitorial Guinea, Sierra Leone and Libya. Africa owes Fidel a debt of gratitude. Comrade Fidel became the hero of many across the world who wanted to stand up for their countries and become like him, champions of the interests of the downtrodden and apostles of the values of equality and sovereignty. He was one of the strongest political, if not moral, voices in the 20th century. He may have been guilty of human rights abuses at home, for debatable reasons of pragmatism, but he was a champion of social justice on the global stage.
The durability of Castro’s politics and influence was further consolidated by the longevity of his life. Many young Cubans may remember him as the old man, and probably be less excited by his politics, which they may not understand, but he is bound to remain the most influential figure in Cuban history for a very long time to come. The United States must be relieved that its arch-enemy is finally gone. Fidel Castro stood up to 11 American Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama and did a lot to promote anti-American sentiments in the global sphere. Even when Jimmy Carter (he removed travel restrictions in 1977 and visited in 2002 and 2011) and Barrack Obama (the first sitting American President to visit Cuba in 90 years) sought to extend a hand of friendship, he was unimpressed.
America’s hope that his death will mark the end of his legacy may be too much of an expectation, but definitely Cuba after Fidel Castro will no longer be the same, but the change will be gradual. Castro’s brother and successor, Raul is 85 years old: some day, a Castro will no longer be in charge of Cuba, and the end of that dynasty may well mark the beginning of another transformation. But before that happens, Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz should stop gloating: their responses to Fidel’s death are too cheap, vilely opportunistic and indecent!
As it is, many Cubans are no longer afraid that America poses a threat to their country’s sovereignty: the psychological weapon with which Fidel controlled the population for decades. Cuba without Fidel draws closer attention to the gains of the Cuban revolution, as to whether or not it has fulfilled its promises. Raul Castro has made the Cuban economy more open and allowed more opportunities for self-expression, there are plans to restore diplomatic relations with the United States, commercial flights to and fro the United States are now possible, future movements may also be in the form of extension of the scope of human freedom.
Fidel never wished that there would ever be a counter-revolutionary capitalist restoration in Cuba, as happened in Russia and Nicaragua, hence he had declared in April, that “the ideas of Cuban communism will endure.” He is no longer in a position to determine that, but like Jose Marti (1853-1895), before him, Fidel Castro (1926-2016) will forever occupy an important chapter in the history of his fatherland and the world. When his remains are submitted to the furnace of the pyre on December 4, if the dead could speak, Comrade Fidel could well be heard proclaiming afresh: “La historia me absolvera!”. Certainly, it has. He got away with his principled opposition to imperialism and provided leadership when the world needed it most.
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