Fidel Castro, the Cuban communist and revolutionary who defeated a dictatorship, confronted an empire and inspired millions across all continents in their struggle for a better world, died in Havana on Friday night at the age of 90.
Castro was the last of the internationalist icons that dominated the world for long or short periods during the tumultuous years of the Cold War and after, when mass movements for national liberation, social dignity and economic justice erupted all over the world. Inspirational figures like the Congolese patriot Patrice Lumumba, the Chilean socialist Salvador Allende or the North American civil rights activist Martin Luther King fell victim to assassins at the height of their political influence but if Castro lived longer than these contemporaries or others like Yasser Arafat or Nelson Mandela, it was not for the lack of attempts on his life by United States intelligence operatives – a fact well documented in declassified official files.
The bare facts of Castro’s life are well-known. Born in 1926, he was a law student who saw revolution and armed struggle as the only way to oust the hated dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista – kept in power by the patronage of the US and by North American Mafia and business interests, particularly in the entertainment industry. After an unsuccessful attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, Fidel retreated to build a revolutionary movement from outside the country, returning a few years later to launch an armed struggle that eventually led to the overthrow of Batista in 1959. He was only 33 at the time. Almost immediately, Castro became the target of US-inspired subversion. As a communist, he gravitated towards the Soviet Union and soon found his island nation caught in the middle of one of the Cold War’s worst moments – the Cuban missile crisis.
In looking back on Fidel Castro’s life and the astonishing impact he had on not just Cuba or Latin America but the whole world, it is useful to segment the half-century of his leadership into five phases or aspects.
I: Building socialism in Cuba
With the support of the Soviet Union, Cuba managed to overcome the isolation and sanctions imposed on it by successive US administrations. The country was a part of COMECON, the economic community of erstwhile socialist states that traded with each other in a form of barter that allowed the weakest among them to overcome their own inadequate reserves of hard currency. As in the rest of the socialist bloc, living standards were not high and shortages of one sort or the other were a regular and oppressive part of life. But what the Cuban system denied its people by way of ‘market opportunities’ was made up in ample measure by public investments in education and health. The foundations Fidel and his comrades laid in these fields delivered prompt and enduring results. The Cuban healthcare system is the envy of most of the world, it has an innovative pharmaceutical industry and infant mortality and maternal mortality rates that are comparable to those in the first world.
Like other socialist states, the political system was not plural; unlike them, however, the popular base of Castroism remained intact. Despite the best efforts of Cuban exiles and the United States, the Cuban system has survived.
II: Building Cuba as an internationalist power
For Fidel, however, socialism was never going to be about transforming one or just a handful of countries. He was an internationalist and a revolutionary who recognised the importance of solidarity with people fighting for their rights against oppressive regimes and with peoples and states defending their national sovereignty in the face of pressure from the big powers and foreign capital. If the initial phase of Cuban internationalism took the form of Guevarism – supporting disparate insurgent movements in different Latin American countries – the Cuban state assumed a more formal internationalist role when Fidel Castro decided to deploy Cuban troops alongside the guerrillas of the MPLA that were fighting for the liberation of Angola in the 1970s.
When the Angolan government later came under attack from UNITA, the rebel group that was supported by the US and apartheid South Africa, Cuba stepped up its military engagement. With Cuban help, Angola scored a major victory over the South Africans in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. Cuba also extended military assistance to the FRELIMO revolutionary movement in Mozambique and helped defend it against Western-backed subversion. Some scholars believe that the apartheid regime’s humiliating defeat at Cuito Cuanavale put in motion a set of political and strategic dynamics that led not just to the independence of Namibia but also to the end of apartheid itself. Nelson Mandela said so in as many words.
Cuban internationalism, was, of course, not just military. Cuban medical missions have operated all over the world whenever medical emergencies have occurred. When the deadly Ebola virus struck West Africa in 2014, Cuban doctors and nurses were among the first to arrive and provide treatment to the victims.
III: Fidel as mover of Latin American integration
An important aspect of Fidel’s revolutionary leadership was his vision of Latin American integration. This he envisaged as proceeding on two tracks. The first was the strengthening of revolutionary or patriotic trends within individual nations in the region and the second, the creation of pan-continental initiatives that would allow states in the region to work together in the field of the economy, culture and media. The US had managed to get Cuba expelled from the Organisation of American States way back in 1962 but the 1980s and 1990s saw Washington make renewed efforts to try and isolate Havana from the Latin American region, including by threatening sanctions on third country companies that traded with Cuba. Castro successfully resisted this pressure.
The rise of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela, which Cuba strongly backed – the late Hugo Chavez had a very close relationship with Fidel – as well as the emergence of left-oriented governments in Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Argentina and China led to a new sense of solidarity in the region – and the creation of ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America. Even though the progressive political trend in many Latin American countries has since reversed, the momentum of integration that Cuba was instrumental in pushing during this period continues to endure.
IV: Shepherding Cuba through the difficulties of the ‘periodo especial’
The collapse of the Soviet Union presented Fidel Castro with arguably the greatest challenge of his political career because of Cuba’s heavy dependence on the eastern bloc for its international trade. The 1990s was a difficult period for the Cuban economy as foreign exchange dried up and imports, including fuel, were slashed. The administration of George Bush added to the pressure by tightening the US embargo. With a view to the chaos and dislocation that privatisation and market reforms had generated across much of the former Soviet bloc, the Cuban authorities decided there would be no major market reforms. Gradually, however, the situation improved, helped in part by strict rationing, a shift to organic rather than industrialised agriculture and favourable political shifts in the Latin American region.
Just how successful Cuba’s recovery eventually proved to be – and how dismal a failure Washington’s tightening embargo – is demonstrated by the US to end the its long-standing policy of trying to isolate the proud island nation. The restoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba may have taken place only recently, and owed much to the pragmatism of Barack Obama as US president, but the stage was set by Fidel’s ability over five decades to stare down the American blockade.
V: Fidel as philosopher, guide and conscience-keeper of the world
Unlike other revolutionary leaders, Fidel had the wisdom and foresight to step down from power and supervise an orderly succession within his lifetime.
At the first signs of ailing health, Fidel stepped down as president. His brother, and fellow revolutionary from the earliest days, Raul Castro took charge, first temporarily in 2006 and then formally in 2008. But Fidel continued to remain intellectually active, using the time he now had to write a series of “reflections” on the problems confronting the planet – from climate change, the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the West’s military interventionism in the Middle East, to the struggle for rights and justice in different parts of the world.
Earlier this year, Cuba celebrated Fidel’s 90th birthday with a massive outpouring of affection for the old revolutionary. If that event was a show of strength for the government, the system is bound to be tested again when the inevitable transition from Raul Castro to the post-revolution generation of leaders begins.