German-born diarist Anne Frank once said that “No one has ever become poor by giving”.
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Ironically, but not surprisingly, Fidel Castro’s greatest contribution as a revolutionary thinker and organiser was not to Cuba (alone) but to the world outside of Europe and North America that aspired to liberation from the theology of Adam Smith and Karl Marx.
Castro arrived and boldly, and at great risk to himself, his country and to his home region of Latin America and the Caribbean, proclaimed that the economic, political and military domination of the world by the US and Europe had resulted in dehumanising brutality and underdevelopment of people, and it had to be dispensed with.
“We want a new world order based on justice, equality and peace to replace the unfair and unequal system that prevails today under which wealth continues to be concentrated in the hands of a few powers whose economies…are maintained, thanks to the exploitation of workers and to the transfer and plundering of natural and other resources of countries in Africa, Latin America and other regions of the world.”—President Castro’s statement to the United Nations as head of the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam) October 1979.
Castro demonstrated that his was not empty political rhetoric. He placed Cuban lives and scant resources on the line to counter the underdevelopment of colonial rule, and deep and brutal racism in Africa, and he generously shared hard-won research in education and health with developing countries around the globe.
While the industrial world benefited from institutional and soul-destroying racism in South Africa and the exploitation of the mineral resources of southern Africa, President Castro sent troops to fight against Portuguese colonial rule in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.
He, Castro, “is a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people,” said Nelson Mandela on his trip to Cuba.
Mandela rebuffed the Americans who wished he had not gone to Havana: “We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid regime these last 40 years.”
In recognition of the courage and demonstrated brotherhood of Jamaica, T&T, Guyana and Barbados to enter (1972) into a trade agreement with Havana while most of the rest of the world joined the US in its economic blockade against Cuba, Fidel Castro contributed in health, education, and in support in the international system to Caricom.
Although many of the items on the Nam agenda are still outstanding, the international trading, economic and political agenda has changed. Countries such as China, Brazil, and India have arisen; Latin America has emerged from the tutelage and control of the USA.
Castro’s role in the Nam and the export of his brand of revolution have been part of the transformation.
At home, Castro focused on human development, on sport, on national pride, on culture and art, and did much to counter historical discrimination against black Cubans.
The full assessment of Castro’s legacy (and there have been a number of full-length analyses) must be grounded in the colonial history of the island going back to (19th century) domination by Spain, American intervention against Spain to preserve the Munroe Doctrine (1823), which decreed that European powers should stay out of the “backyard” of America.
The assessment of Castro and the revolution must be placed in the aftermath of dictatorship of Cuba, post-American occupation—Machado and Batista; the latter in 1952 carried out a military coup and took control of Cuba and with tacit American support.
Castro sought to remove his country from the corrupt and degrading control of a Cuba dominated by the mafia—an open brothel and playground for the filthy rich of America, and from the grip of exploitative American capital which had control of Cuba.
Cuba then was a country of extremes: the marginalised poor who answered the call of the guerilla fighters from the Sierra Maestra; and the wealthy land owners who dominated economic life and practised open racism against the black population.
Rejected and humiliated in his attempt to meet with President Dwight Eisenhower in Washington, eventually cut off from trade with the US, indeed dumped in an economic embargo which continues to this day, Castro turned increasingly to the Soviet Union and the embrace of Nikita Khrushchev.
Burdened by the task of running a country, developing an economy with only fragments of revolutionary thinking to guide him (them), Castro faced the expectant masses and a middle-class deprived of its privileges and antagonistic to any notion of rebalancing the economy and society. In the circumstances, Castro developed an intolerance of anyone and any view different from his; he adopted violence, incarceration, and deportation to counter the forces arraigned against him and the revolution.
That he did not live up to his first intentions to create a democracy was not surprising. He followed the path of “strongman” leaders in his execution of an estimated 15,000–33,000 people found guilty of attempting to “destabilise the revolution”.
In hindsight, Castro depended for too long and too exclusively on the Soviet Union as a market for Cuban sugar and for its generosity to the revolution.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s Castro had to find ways and means to replace the Soviet subsidy. Among other measures adopted, Castro opened the tourism industry and sought to attract investment capital from Europe and Canada in the attempt to build a resilient economy.
His is a legacy far from perfect, but one of solid achievement and commitment to an ideal.
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