“El viejo es muerto!” They cry in the streets of Miami and Havana, some with joy, some with sadness, but all must wonder what the future holds for the island of Cuba now that one of the most iconic and controversial figures of the 20th century is no more.
Fidel Castro always said that history would absolve him and that may well be true, but it does to a large degree depend on whose version of history you choose to digest, a third world or a first world version. For the Americans, Castro will always be a dictator, a communist and an enemy of the US. But then he did kick them out of their very ‘informal’ economic colony in 1959 along with the brutal dictator Batista – a big buddy of the US and their Mafia cohorts who treated the island of Cuba as their Caribbean playground. Thus the older generation remember the 1960s as good years when you did not live in fear of death squads and becoming one of ‘los desparecidos’ – the disappeared.
The spiteful attempt by the US to recapture Cuba in the notorious Bay of Pigs incident was soundly rebuffed by Castro. And there is nothing the boys in the Pentagon and the CIA like less than being sent packing with their tails between their legs. Thus Kennedy’s ‘we shall unleash the terrors of the earth’ threat to Cuba has the ring of the typical bully who has had his eye blackened by the small boy in the playground. The installation of nuclear missiles on Cuba by her Russian ally was no more than a sabre rattling gesture to forestall another invasion attempt. But whilst it is fine for America to deploy nuclear weapons all around the world close to the borders of ‘perceived’ threats, it is totally unacceptable that another country place any within striking distance of the US. Many cite Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis as an example of superbly cool and calm diplomacy whereas in fact the situation could have been resolved far sooner and without bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war.
The subsequent American trade embargo on Cuba was a petulant act, typical of a new-colonial superpower, and one that reflects US fears that the threat of insurrection could spread to other areas in Latin America where they sought influence. These areas had been gained more often than not by aiding coups and supporting corrupt and tyrannical leaders who would allow US companies uninhibited access to key markets, strategic resources and energy supplies. It has ever been thus with US foreign policy since 1945 as Fidel knew only too well.
It is a fact that might surprise many Americans, with their fervent and irrational fear of communism, that Fidel was not a communist at the time of the 1959 revolution or after it. He was one of the pro-Martí faction of Cubans, which also included Che Guevara, who didn’t want their system to resemble the U.S.S.R. They wanted to remain true to Martí’s dream of a society constructed “with all” and “for the good of all.” Hence their hesitation in creating any permanent government structure.
Cuba’s decline is due in no small part to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the reduction in aid and assistance in infrastructure development. It is this and the continuing US trade embargo that led to the drastic downturn in the average Cuban’s standard of living. However, in spite of all these travails Cuba can hold its head high and point to an education system that has literacy rates equal or better than the US and a medical system that is one of the best in the world and certainly a fairer one that its huge capitalist neighbour to the north (Cuba has a doctor-patient ratio similar to Beverly Hills). Whilst many cite the rationing and chronic shortages, the standard of living in Cuba was much better than many of its Latin American neighbours – in spite of being surrounded by a US sponsored hostile climate.
So, Fidel, and the rest of ‘Las Barbudas” – the bearded ones – you stood up to an Imperial power and to a large degree you won. That you were not as adept in administrative or political positions as you were in liberating ones is a criticism and that you also did not enable the transition of a socialist democracy to the new generation of educated Cubans is a huge lost opportunity. The lack of a free press and any political parties has also been a weakness in the country’s social and political fabric. The revolutionary purity did become a little diluted as the years wore on.
Fidel’s agenda of wanting justice, equality, ending poverty and confronting the perils of environmental degradation were legitimate and so much more substantial than the ‘lite’ proposals of so many other heads of state. Cubans defended their revolution against a relentless US dirty war because they understood their cause and their enemy: an anti-imperial and a class struggle. Nowadays with 75% of the population lacking first hand experience of Batista’s death squads or US new-colonialism Cuba’s aspirations have evolved and many may hunger for the very capitalist dream that the US represents – no matter how ethereal that promise may prove to be.
Castro will also be remembered well in Africa. In 1993 at his inauguration Nelson Mandela greeted Fidel warmly and stated for all to hear “You made this possible” alluding to the Cuban military defeat of the apartheid South African forces at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Cuban troops also helped in Angola, Ethiopia and Algeria.
I would like to wish the vibrant, resilient, resourceful, artistic, warm-hearted people of Cuba the very best in the years to come. Now comes the real test, if young Cubans genuinely feel as though they have input, if they are sufficiently educated to withstand being bought off by foreign investors or seduced by consumerism as Che and Fidel envisioned, to the extent that a capitalist global economy permits, the revolution will continue and Cuba will have beaten all the odds again.
One thing that is certain, regardless of their level of dissatisfaction, not a single Cuban I’ve ever talked to wants to replace their system with the inequitable capitalist economic system that exists in the United States—provided Cubans are given a choice. Was Fidel’s the most efficient way, maybe the only way of keeping Cuba afloat in a sea of corporate greed?
Vas bien Fidel y Cuba. Patria o Muerte!
Postscript: Fidel Castro always said that he wanted to destroy the United States of America. On the 8th November 2016 Donald Trump, a true ‘fascista Americano’ won the presidential election with a campaign based on hate and fear. And on 25th November Fidel Castro died. Perhaps he felt his work was done.