On July 26 1953, a small band of Cuban revolutionaries, led by a young lawyer – Fidel Castro Ruiz – attacked the Moncada prison in eastern Cuba with a few vehicles and rudimentary weapons. They sought to depose the former army sergeant, Fulgencio Batista, who had taken power in a military coup backed by local elites and the US in 1952. The attack left six dead and 45 captured, tortured and shot. Fidel was captured and tried. His five-hour defence titled ‘History will Absolve Me’, became the touchstone for an ideology-driven generation.
Sentenced for 15 years, he went into exile in Mexico with his younger brother Raúl after an amnesty. They returned from there with 80 faithful, including the legendary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, on the 12-metre longboat Granma, to the southeastern coast of Cuba on December 2, 1956. This attempt also ended badly and Fidel found himself “commander in chief of two men”. Sheer conviction, fortified by revolutionary tenacity, drove them triumphantly into Havana on January 1, 1959. The rest is history.
Fidel did not start out as a communist. The Cuban Communist Party was founded only in 1965. He visited the US soon after the revolution but was told President Dwight D. Eisenhower was out playing golf, so he met a sceptical vice-president Richard Nixon. US suspicion collided with Castro’s refusal to surrender a hard-won victory over a regime that had turned Cuba into an offshore casino. The 1902 Platt amendment to the constitution of a Cuba ‘freed’ from Spain in 1898 had subjugated the island to US policy. Within months the breach was complete. The US broke off relations and put in place an economic embargo on Cuba, which by then had nationalised US-owned businesses and other interests.
Fidel survived several assassination attempts by the CIA and plots against his regime. He managed relations with the communist world without surrendering his room for manoeuvre. He never forgave the USSR for removing the missiles from the island in 1962 without informing him of its deal with the US. He maintained Cuba’s dignity despite the economic disaster in the 1990s after the fall of the USSR. On certain social parameters – education, health, sporting talent, among others – Cuba ranks among developed countries.
Popular protest is not unknown in Cuba. Thousands of Cubans succeeded but many perished trying to make it to the US across the Florida Strait as political refugees. In 1994, at the height of a protest in Havana, Fidel, unarmed and without security, confronted a crowd which reportedly melted away. Even cynical Cubans would not criticise Fidel. Those who opposed his policies were aware of the futility of condemning him personally. His aura was immaculate and his persona towered over the regime well after he handed over the reins to Raúl in 2006.
Within the region his prestige was unparalleled. He was physically present in Bogotá, Colombia in 1948 when Gaitán was assassinated and in Santiago, Chile in 1973 when Salvador Allende was deposed and killed. His interventions in Africa against the apartheid South African regime in Namibia and Angola and in Ethiopia; his abrupt de-recognition of Israel, at the Non-Aligned Summit in Libya in 1971, elevated the stature of Cuban diplomacy well beyond its natural capabilities. The advent of his protégé Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela, gave Fidel new lease of life. Together they launched the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, a grouping of nine Latin American countries that continue to confront the US on many issues.
Fidel’s manipulation of symbols and history, combined with indefatigable diplomacy, almost eclipsed the reality of a political economy in decay. While the US embargo certainly played its part in depriving Cubans of opportunity, there is no doubt that Cuban communism suppressed the very talent it helped to create. Layers of vigilant, orthodox bureaucracy put paid to any profit that Cuban doctors, bio-technologists, educationists, cineastes and sportspersons could realise.
Till a few years ago, the Cuban regime refused to recognise the essentiality of incentive. Salaries for waiters and scientists still range between $25 to $50 a month. Cuban cigars and rum are sold in markets created and managed by foreign companies. Local private enterprise was practically restricted to ‘paladares’ – household kitchens – the only alternative to mediocre state-run restaurants. A flourishing black market in cosmetics, cigars, ice cream, almost any product ordinary Cubans could lay their hands on, demonstrated indigenous ingenuity and a determination to ‘resolve’ daily hardship.
After Fidel handed over the presidency to Raúl in 2008, the inexorable tide of globalisation was channelled into selective allocations to enterprises from friendly states like China, Russia and Brazil. In retirement, Fidel continued to serve as a beacon for the revolutionaries. His periodic ‘Reflections’ were articulate expressions of credible views on nuclear weapons, climate change, foreign intervention, et cetera. With Raúl having declared he will step down as president in 2018, and no nominated successor, the post-revolution generation seems all set to take over in a Cuba already looking very different from what this writer saw in 2012.
Fidel may not have been absolved by the US but certainly felt vindicated in December 2014, when the historic Obama-Raúl phone call eliminated several of the travel and financial restrictions between the two countries. US President Barach Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016, however, was not welcomed by the ailing patriarch, who inter alia continued to demand the lifting of the embargo and the return of Guantánamo.
Fidel’s dalliance with India, reciprocated by fawning Indian leaders mostly eager to shake his legendary hand, was a romance doomed to fail. The phasing out of India’s non-aligned imperative, its emergence from the nuclear closet and its pragmatic recognition of the need for a closer alliance with the US, were bound to disappoint the archetypal revolutionary, though he politely received M. H. Ansari in 2013, a rare honour for a vice president.
One can perhaps empathise with the refusal of Fidel and the faithful to acknowledge that the regime – if not the revolution – had failed to deliver what had been envisioned. For too many the parlous lifestyle of the average Cuban dwarfs the achievements of the past 57 years. It is nevertheless difficult for most of us to condemn Fidel for what Cuba has become.
Interestingly, this writer found not a single bust or statue of Fidel anywhere in Cuba, a country where iconography reflects the raison d’être of the regime. Even if he is not enshrined posthumously, he has earned his place in history. Whether history will absolve him will continue to be a matter of debate and individual choice.
Deepak Bhojwani, a former diplomat, served as India’s Ambassador to Cuba 2010-12