“Farewell Fidel Castro, revolutionary icon who brought free healthcare and education to Cuba. R.I.P.” That is how one of my friends reacted today to what is one of the most significant pieces of news in this past week. While Castro has been retired from active politics for some time, his influence was and will continue to be huge. He is a divisive figure that attracted loving and loathing in what seemed equal measure, depending it would appear whether one is more conservative inclined or socialist as well as some who are politically neutral who would cite his poor human rights record.
For me personally, this big, larger than life, cigar smoking, bearded figure, often dressed in military, revolutionary garb, has been a presence for much of my life. I can still recall the tension when in 1962 there was an impasse between the USA and the USSR over shipping nuclear weapons to Cuba (which the USSR backed and the USA opposed) which could have led to a nuclear war. As far as most of my biased news feeds were concerned, Castro was a commie, a thorn in the side of freedom loves and a bad guy, and it wasn’t until years later the light dawned that there was more to it (as is the case with most world event reporting I was to find) than meets the eye.
There are many worth reading articles already on the Internet about this remarkable man (see here, here, here), but let me quote at length an article from The Hindu, one of India’s newspapers (India seems to have a special fascination and relationship with Fidel Castro): “Castro brought the planet to the brink of nuclear war in 1962, sent tens of thousands of troops to aid leftist governments in Africa and nurtured guerrilla movements that fought U.S.-backed governments across Latin America. Communism had collapsed in Europe, and Cuba’s Soviet lifeline was severed. Food was in short supply. Power outages silenced TV sets normally tuned to a nighttime soap opera. Factories rusted in the tropical heat. The title of an American book seemed just right- “Castro’s Final Hour.” That was in 1992. Castro’s “final hour” became weeks, then months, then years. Even as China and Vietnam embraced free markets, Castro clung to his socialist beliefs and Communism’s supposed dinosaur went on to rule for another decade and a half. Along the way he became godfather to a resurgent Latin American left, mentoring a new generation of leaders- Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador. No other Third World leader prompted so much U.S. hostility for so long. Castro brought the planet to the brink of nuclear war in 1962, sent tens of thousands of troops to aid leftist governments in Africa and nurtured guerrilla movements that fought U.S.-backed governments across Latin America. He endured a crippling U.S. embargo and outlasted 10 U.S. presidents all of them preaching regime change in Cuba finally resigning 11 months before Barack Obama moved into the White House, not from U.S. pressure but because of serious illness. After Castro transferred power to his brother Raul, first temporarily in 2006 and then permanently on Feb. 19, 2008, he survived another eight years in quiet retirement before finally dying on Friday. By hanging on in the shadows, he helped his followers avoid political unrest and ease the island into a communist future without the only leader most Cubans had ever known. To the end, Castro remained a polarizing figure. For many he was a champion of the poor who along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara made violent revolution a romanticized ideal, a symbol of liberation who overthrew a dictator and brought free education and health care to the masses. To exiles who longed for Castro’s demise he personified a repressive regime that locked up political opponents, suppressed civil liberties and destroyed the island’s economy.” While fairly balanced, reactions have been polarized:
Franklin Graham posted on his Facebook page: “Fidel Castro has died at age 90. Loved by few, hated by millions, his communist revolution deposed a dictator, but ushered in a socialist police state that drove the entire Cuban nation into complete poverty and oppression. And to think that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Keith Ellison and others wanted socialism as a model for our country today! And why didn’t they win? God—that’s why. The church prayed and came out by the millions and voted. Praise God! And may we all as free Americans give Him glory, great things He has done! This is why it is so important to vote. There’s another election in just two years—Christians need to stay involved and run for office at every level. The socialists are regrouping in great number right now, and they will come back strong, organized, and more determined than ever. This battle isn’t over”. In regrettably revealing his true colours, what Graham epitomizes is the polarization of opinions on Castro.
It is a salutary thought that the man he deposed in 1958, Cuban President Fulgencio Batista, was corrupt, oppressed the poor and was in the pockets of America, more interested in its own agenda, who until recently did all they could to oppose and undermine him, including a number of assassination attempts, and of course the not to be forgotten “Bay of Pigs” fiasco. According to one report: “Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro was a “brutal dictator”, US President elect Donald Trump has said, hours after the 90-year-old’s death was announced”. Yet he had support from all round the world, including Russian and China and a number of South American countries. In the UK, people like Jeremy Corbyn, who sees Castro as a huge figure in modern history, national independence and socialism, and Ken Livingstone, who described Castro as an “absolute giant of the 20th century and a beacon of light” have applauded his achievements, especially in the area of social justice. Perhaps one of Castro’s most far reaching act was that of bringing down apartheid: “Nelson Mandela on How Cuba Destroyed the Myth of the Invincibility of the White Oppressor“.
The widely different way people see Castro’s achievements (or non-achievements) epitomize that this man does divide opinion and it would seem much of this aligns with people’s particular political outlook. I have no doubt he could be brutal and he oppressed many as this “show this list to anyone who says Fidel Castro was a champion of social justice“ article argues, especially those whose views differed from his own, and already we see how some of these have made their feelings well known already. But that he was an opposer of oppression too, especially those who were poor and disadvantaged, suggests that there is a lot more to ponder.
No doubt in years to come we will continue to see some of these ideological battles unravel. The way I see it, Fidel Castro, despite his questionable ideology, asked many of the right questions and championed many of the concerns of those who would not otherwise have people to champion their concerns, especially against powerful oppressors, and in his case he delivered, and is part of the legacy he will be leaving. Maybe, there is something Castro said in his early revolutionary career, when he struggled, that may prove a fitting epitaph: “Condemn me, it does not matter, history will absolve me.”