Fidel Castro, a tall man from a tiny island towered over international politics – and most of the politicians of his era. It was a remarkable feat, facilitated by the geopolitics of the Cold War period, but no one can seriously doubt that his personality was crucial to his stature.
Of course his significance on the world stage also had a great deal to do with the attitude that Cuba’s North American neighbour – the United States – adopted towards the island once it became clear that the revolutionaries who had overthrown the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista at the beginning of 1959 had no intention of reinforcing the status quo – with cosmetic modifications – under a different figurehead.
Less than six years earlier, a ragtag bunch of revolutionaries under the guidance of Castro, already well-known in his country as a student leader, had stormed the Moncada Barracks and been foiled. Several of them were even killed. Castro survived but was eventually captured, and a sympathetic military officer ensured that he wasn’t summarily killed.
He was put on trial and, damagingly for a corrupt regime that maintained Cuba as a US colony that, above all, served mafia interests, he was permitted to make a speech in his defence that turned out to be a powerful indictment of the Batista dictatorship.
At the conclusion of a four-hour oration, he declared: “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Whether or not it did, may be argued. But, in terms of its own interests, the regime certainly erred in including Castro in an amnesty a few years later that enabled him to make the journey from the Isle of Pines penal colony to Mexico, where he met with comrades who by then had included a restless doctor from Argentina by the name of Ernesto Guevara – known to intimates as Che, the term he used to address comrades.
Legend has it that Fidel and Che spent a night in conversation and by dawn, Guevara had signed up to the Cuban cause. “Come, fiery prophet of the dawn,” Che wrote in one of his very few poems, “Let us go to free the Verdant Isle you love.”
And they did, 70 years ago, on a rickety boat called Granma. They were betrayed to the authorities and came under attack on landing. A dozen or so of the would-be-guerrillas survived. Yet, Cuba was clearly ripe for revolution, because in less than three years they captured Havana with overwhelming popular approval.
The United States’s feral response – initially under Dwight Eisenhower – to the efforts by the revolutionary administration to nationalise the local holdings of exploitative multinationals such as United Fruit persuaded the bearded young men who were newly in charge of Havana to look elsewhere for overseas support.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion plan was something John F. Kennedy inherited from Eisenhower. He was enthusiastic about it, but in his first few months in power, he was not prepared to call it off. It entailed a CIA-backed invasion of the island by recalcitrant emigres based on the absurd assumption that it would spark a popular uprising – as well as on the idea that, if push came to shove, the US Air Force would chip in. Kennedy kiboshed the latter plan, and may well have paid for it with his life.
Kennedy, thankfully, was also reluctant the following year to respond immediately with force when it turned out that the Khrushchev administration had ensconced nuclear missiles in Cuban silos. The Cuban Missile Crisis was arguably the closest that the opposing sides came to a direct confrontation during the Cold War.
Both Castro and Guevara, alarmingly, were prepared to countenance a nuclear exchange. Wiser counsel prevailed at the US-USSR level. History generally has it that the two sides were eyeball to eyeball, and Moscow blinked first. In fact, Khrushchev agreed to pull Soviet nuclear warheads out of Cuba only after Kennedy promised not to invade the island and, in addition, to dismantle the US missiles in Cuba.
Uninformed of the details, the Cuban government was mightily miffed by what it saw as Khrushchev’s betrayal, and it was a while before Castro was prepared to embark on a conciliatory visit to Moscow. During which, I was informed long ago, students at the People’s Friendship University on the south western outskirts of Moscow – an entity mainly populated by students from the Third World – were surprised to find the Cuban leader strolling along the periphery of the hostels, warmly engaging with all interlocutors.
The Cuban Revolution alarmed the US because it was the first of its kind in the western hemisphere, and set an example inimical to the imperialist outreach of transnational capitalism. Even after Kennedy’s avowal to desist from attempts to invade Cuba, the CIA persisted well into the 1970s with its attempts to assassinate Castro – more than 600 by one count. He survived them all and, furthermore, remained far more accessible to his citizens than any other communist leader since Vladimir Lenin.
Guevara, the eternal revolutionary, was considerably more sceptical about the Soviet Union than Castro – who in fact was drawn to Marxism later than either Guevara or Raul Castro, his brother, a companero from the very beginning and the current president of Cuba. Fidel, too, had his moments of doubt, but Washington’s unremitting hostility persuaded him to embrace Moscow with increasing fervour, which even entailed approval of the disastrously misguided conquest of Prague in 1968.
By then, the Cuban Revolution had gone through several phases. Castro, who was initially the prime minister, eventually became president. Cuba had its ups and downs under him, and the downs were particularly ponderous during what was known as the ‘Special Period’ that began after the Soviet Union could no longer afford to sponsor the Caribbean outpost.
Something remarkable had occurred in Latin America, meanwhile, where Castro had always been revered on the left as the one leader who never hesitated to stand up to Western imperialism. Cuba had been vociferously reviled by the US and its acolytes precisely because it stood out as a counterexample to capitalism and, eventually, the so-called Washington Consensus. When Chile showed signs of democratically going Cuba’s way in some respects, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon sponsored a coup. Under Ronald Reagan, the same objective was accomplished in Nicaragua by somewhat different means.
Castro remained steadfast, though, and was rewarded at the cusp of the 21st century when Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela, presaging what has been described as a pink wave across the South American continent. Castro was proud to be viewed as a father figure by the likes of Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
In the interim, Castro gathered kudos from Nelson Mandela for his nation’s crucial military role in thwarting a South African-sponsored invasion of Angola in the 1980s, in the face of Moscow’s reluctance to chip in.
Mandela informed Castro that he deserved considerable credit for the demise of apartheid during a visit to Havana frowned upon by his new Western fans.
Cuba meanwhile, for all its flaws, drawbacks and inadequacies, has managed to maintain systems of health and education that are the envy not just of the Third World, but also of many Western nations, including the US – where considerably higher per-capita costs yield a far poorer medical service.
An ailing Castro had the good sense to resign in 2008, passing on the baton to his brother Raul –which may seem like nepotism, but the latter had always effectively been second-in-command.
Fidel wasn’t thereafter pulling the strings from behind the scenes. He didn’t always agree with his younger brother and made his views clear in a sporadic series of articles he contributed to official organs. His opinions were sometimes bizarre, yet his verdicts on Barack Obama tend to be sensible, thoughtful, and relentlessly anti-imperialist.
There will, no doubt, be rejoicing in Miami tonight – at least in Little Havana, particularly among the emigres who voted for Donald Trump. There may even be some rejoicing in Havana and elsewhere in Cuba. But the overwhelming sensation on the island – and perhaps in much of the world – is likely to be of an inevitable, but nonetheless irreparable, loss.