Fidel Castro was one of the most towering and influential leaders of the Twentieth Century. Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez saw him as a friend and an inspiration, and people around the world, particularly in the Global South, viewed him as powerful symbol of resistance against imperialism, exploitation, and oppression. It is not coincidental that his death has been met with almost universal grief, with accolades pouring in not only from those on his side of the ideological divide, but also from leaders and others who did not agree with his politics. The exception to this is, of course, the United States, where a stream of leaders has jumped at the chance to welcome the possibility of a new, ‘democratic’ era in Cuba.
As always, the sheer chutzpah on display by the United States is unbelievable. It is astounding that a country which supported the tyrannical Batista regime overthrown by Castro in 1959, and which continued to back a who’s who of Latin American dictators during the Cold War, could have any moral standing by which to demand that Cuba democratize and respect human rights. When the military junta that ruled over Argentina from 1976 to 1983 presided over the death and disappearance of thousands of activists and dissidents, the United States uttered nary a word of criticism, just as it stood by and applauded the Pinochet regime in Chile when it imprisoned, tortured, and killed its opponents.
The contrast with Cuba is telling. As opposed to the United State’s erstwhile partners on the continent, Fidel Castro’s Cuba proceeded to show how it was possible to build a different world, premised not on the rapacious exploitation of the poor by corporations and gangsters, but on the principle of equality and opportunity for all. While the United States and many parts of Europe continued to oppress racial minorities at home and indigenous people abroad, Cuba championed the principles of self-determination and equal rights for all races, actively supporting movements for national liberation across the world. Indeed, one of the less-remembered chapters of Cuban revolutionary history is the way in which it provided anti-colonial movements around the world with material and military support, sending troops, doctors, and other forms of aid to places as far apart and diverse as Algeria, Angola, Ethiopia, and Vietnam. Cuba actively fought against apartheid in South Africa when that regime was still reaping the benefits of Western support, and supported Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, even as he was beset with opposition from the military and its backers in the Belgium and the United States. Always fighting on the side of the oppressed, despite its own limited resources and capabilities, Cuba shone as a beacon of inspiration and hope for oppressed people everywhere.
Fidel Castro’s commitment to solidarity with progressive movements around the world was matched by a desire to undertake a radical transformation of society within Cuba itself. The figures speak for themselves; despite being a small, relatively poor country, Cuba enjoys levels of healthcare and literacy that compare favourably with those of the advanced industrialised nations of the West. With one of the most extensive welfare systems in the world, and extremely low levels of inequality, Cuba stands out as an outlier in the developing world, punching far above its weight in terms of social and human development.
This does not mean that Cuba does not have its fair share of problems, or that Castro and his regime did not make mistakes. For example, Fidel Castro himself took responsibility for the inexcusable crackdown on homosexuality (eventually legalized in 1979) that characterized the early years of the revolution, apologizing in 2010 for what he called, ‘a great injustice’. Similarly, it would be incorrect to suggest, for example, that the government did not crack down on dissent in the past, or to argue that Cubans experience a standard of life, in terms of consumption, that can be compared to other parts of the world. All of this, however, has to be understood in the context of the challenges faced by Cuba since 1959; from the very outset, the United States made it clear that it would use any and all means at its disposal to eliminate the fledgling socialist state being built by Castro and his comrades. Thus, the CIA reportedly made no less than 600 attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, and continues to actively fund and encourage local movements and individuals committed to the overthrow of the Cuban government and the system over which it presides. Similarly, throughout its existence, the post-revolutionary regime in Cuba has had to contend with a brutal and relentless economic blockade imposed by the United States, severely limiting the country’s capacity to trade with the rest of the world. The strains imposed on the Cuban economy were only exacerbated by the collapse of the Soviet Union which had, until the late 1980s, been Cuba’s major economic partner and sponsor.
Despite all of this, Cuba has managed to protect and build upon the achievements of Castro’s revolution, safeguarding the rights and welfare of its people which gradually implementing a process of incremental reform aimed at addressing the country’s economic problems. It has done this without succumbing to the demands or machinations of the United States, and continues to assert its sovereign right to determine its own destiny. Indeed, it is often paradoxical to find that many observers decrying the allegedly totalitarian tendencies of the Cuban government nonetheless manage to find respondents in Cuba willing to document that failings of the regime and the system at length; contrary to mainstream opinion, there is room for debate within Cuba, and its people and government are both cognizant of the challenges they face and capable of dealing with them.
It is ironic that Castro, routinely pilloried and slandered as a dictator, does not have a single road or street named after himself in Cuba. Instead, he has left behind a legacy of hope, and an enduring belief in the possibility of building a truly radical and transformative alternative to the status quo. With his unabashed commitment to socialism, his championing of racial equality and national self-determination, and his support for progressive movements around the world, Fidel Castro will long be remembered as one of the most visible and potent opponents of imperialism and the capitalist world order.