The endless stretch of the distraught Cuban masses who lined the streets in their millions to cheer Fidel Castro to his final abode is the last episode in the drama that was Fidel Castro’s life. The footage of excited teenagers celebrating Castro’s demise in Miami, Florida, United States, is also another part of his complex life.
The Commander of the Cuban Revolution died on November 25 at the ripe age of 90. He was Cuba’s prime minister for 47 years and president for six years. He was also the General Secretary of the ruling Communist Party for 50 years. He handed over to his brother, Raul, in 2008.
A nine-day mourning ends today, December 4, when Fidel Castro’s ashes are interred in Santiago de Cuba beside his hero, Jose Marti. Simultaneous 21-gun salutes in Havana and Santiago will hail the departure of the world’s most famous revolutionary.
Tributes had poured forth from all quarters of the globe. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe said Castro “was the leader of all revolutionaries.” A more nuanced French President Francois Hollande noted that Castro “embodied the Cuban Revolution, with the hopes it aroused and then in the disillusionment it provoked.”
Fidel Castro was the classic rich-kid revolutionary whose father was a rich landowner who sent his son to the University of Havana Law School. Castro spent his life fighting the bourgeoisie life his father represented. Years later, it was pay-back time as Fidel’s daughter fled to the United States, denouncing her father, Fidel Castro, as a “despot.”
Fidel Castro cared most about the ordinary people which is evident from the first things he did. He had the pay of judges and politicians reduced while low level civil servants saw theirs raised. In March 1959, Castro halved rent for those who paid less than $100 a month. In May 1959, he signed the First Agrarian Reform, which redistributed land and around 200,000 peasants received title deeds while large land-holdings were broken up. Healthcare was nationalised, expanded and offered for free. Same for education. Within six months, 600 miles or roads were built and $300 million spent on water projects. Some 800 houses were constructed every month. It did not seem as if Fidel Castro took a longer view of these laudable programmes and how they would be sustained.
And, therein lay the shortcomings of his economic policies. Soon enough, he found himself in conflict with the middle class, the rich, the professionals, engineers, doctors and others who migrated in droves to Florida, causing an economic brain drain. Was it possible to be a friend of the masses and at the same retain the faith of the upper classes? Only the Scandinavian model social democracy has been able to maintain that balance which has accounted for the success of those countries.
Fidel Castro’s quarrel with the United States was fundamental. Although Jose Marti had freed Cuba from Spanish rule, Castro found Cuba’s growing dependence on the United States intolerable. Finding it impossible to reach an accommodation with the US, it was quite natural that he would try to strike a new friendship —with the Soviet Union – which in return for Cuba’s sugar, fruits, fiber and hides, would deliver crude oil, fertilisers, industrial goods and a $100 million loan. But Shell, Esso, Standard Oil, under US pressure, refused to refine the oil from Moscow. Castro had to play the only card he had. He nationalised the oil companies and, in retaliation, the US cancelled its import of sugar, the country’s lifeline, pushing Castro into more desperate responses and even more nationalisations of American companies, including banks.
There can be no doubt that the United States was extremely overbearing in its dealings with Castro. Thus, Castro was barely a year in office in March 1960, when US President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to overthrow his government with a $13 million budget. Seven months later, on October 13, 1960, the US imposed an economic embargo which practically crippled Cuba and which has remained in force till this day. Six months later on the April 16, 1961, a brigade of Cuban exiles trained and equipped by the CIA attempted to take over the island in what is now notoriously known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. A nervous Castro, fearing a US invasion of the island, then authorised the Soviet Union to plant nuclear missiles near San Cristobal, Cuba, 90 miles from the US coast. When an American surveillance plane brought home the pictures, it became the most dangerous international situation since the end of the Second World War. It raised the spectre of a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union.
The hostility between Cuba and the United States has tended to cloud Castro’s successes in international relations. But, he was a well-loved leader of the Third World. He was for years the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. His contributions to African liberation are written in gold. Indeed, several African countries declared several days of mourning in his honour.
Fidel Castro’s Cuba had the best healthcare system in the world. It is not only universal, it runs from the cradle to the grave. The Cuban medical magicians, as the world has come to view Cuban doctors, have spread their knowledge and care across more than 100 countries and the Cuban “medical diplomacy” contributes on the average $7.5 billion to the country’s gross national product. The result is that Cuba has the highest life expectancy of any country in the world: 87 years for males and 90 for females. Its maternal and infant mortality rates are the lowest in the world. Its literacy level is the highest in the world, much higher than that of the United States.
We have no doubt that history will be kind to Fidel Castro, a man who spent his life caring about the poor and the downtrodden; who stood against imperialism and oppression. May his soul rest in peace.