By Emma Emeozor
“I was at death’s door, but I came back.” Those were the words of the former President of Cuba, Fidel Castro, on August 30, 2010, during an interview with Mexican daily, La Jornada, commenting on his illness in 2006. On Saturday, November 26, 2016, the 90-year-old revolutionary leader and Latin American icon of socialism was at death’s door again. This time, he did not come back. And for once, since the 1959 revolution that brought him to power, the lights went out in Cuba.
Castro was ever-conscious that there would come a day when he would have to say goodbye to Cuba and the world.
“I think that a man should not live beyond the age when he begins to deteriorate, when the flame that lighted the brightest moment of his life has weakened,” he once said.
Born on August 13, 1926, in Bira, eastern Cuba, Castro was the son of a Spanish immigrant who became a wealthy landowner. Records describe his father as “a hard-living, self-made sugar planter.” Following the successful overthrow of Cuba’s dictator Fulgenco Batista, he became the country’s Prime Minister from 1959 to 1976. He would become President from 1976 to 2008 when he voluntarily handed power to his brother and commander of the army, Raul Castro, 85. Fidel became a myth after surviving several attempts on his life by the United States government. It is also difficult to understand how he successfully stirred the socio-economic life of the island in the face of tough U.S. trade embargoes. At the time of his demise, he was the longest serving non-royal leader of the 20th century. As the country observes a nine day mourning for him, the question steering for many people is: would Cuba remain the same ideologically in the years ahead?
A life of turbulence
The revolution of 1959 was the climax of the life of turbulence that Castro led, having had radical orientation early in life. After graduating from a Catholic high school in Havana, he proceeded to Havana University, where he graduated in 1950 with degrees in international law and the social sciences. He would later set up a law firm. While at the university, he got involved in student union politics. He was among students who involved in a seaborne filibuster with the sole objective of overthrowing the government of the Dominican Republic in 1947. And in 1948, he was also involved the storming of Bogota, Colombia, during the Conference of American States to demonstrate against “non-Latin influence in Latin America.” Emboldened by the activities of student unionism, the young Havana law graduate ran for election into Congress in 1952. This would mark the beginning of his face-off with government following the cancelation of the election by a “Batista coup.” Not satisfied with the move, an angry Castro went against the Batista government. For a year, he plotted how to topple the administration in power, which landed him in prison after he unsuccessfully led a band of some 40 men in a frontal attack against Santiago’s Moncada barracks in 1953. He was arrested and put on trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison. But by providence, the government freed all political prisoners, including an unrepentant Castro, 19 months later. Curiously, his wife divorced him during the period. His brother, Raul Castro, was one of the plotters and was also arrested along with Fidel. His speech during his trial would become the hallmark of his revolution. He said: “Condemn me, it does not matter; History will absolve me.”
The Castro revolution
The attack on the Moncada barracks marked the beginning of the revolution that would eventually put Castro in the international limelight and, eventually, at the helm of the affairs of the island. After their release from prison, he and his brother Raul fled to Mexico from where they regrouped to plot the overthrow of Batista. The group got a boost from Latin America’s communism legend, Che Guevara, who joined them in Mexico. On November 25, 1955, they set out for Cuba in a yacht called Granma. Their sole mission, to topple the government.
Arsenio Garcia was one of the 82 expeditionaries. Here is his story of the attack as told in Aljazeera: They brought along little food other than 3,000 oranges. But many rebels were so seasick during the first days that they couldn’t eat. As they neared the Cuban coast, one of the men, Roberto Roque Nuñez, grabbed an antenna to steady himself, but it bent and he fell into the dark waters below.
Risking capture and running short of time, Fidel Castro ordered the boat to turn around to pick up the man. No one could be left behind, he said. Garcia said the incident showed how much Castro cared about his followers. “Really, Fidel always was a dreamer. I think history will remember him as a man who gave his life for the well-being and the benefit of others.”
Castro and the 81 expeditionaries reached Cuba on December 2. Batista’s soldiers killed 61 of them. If Castro made any mistakes, Garcia said, “they were made with good intentions. Fidel never sought personal benefit. Fidel is an extremely honest man.” Castro and two other fighters fled into a sugarcane field. They had just two rifles and didn’t know if any other rebels were still alive.
Despite their impossible straits, Castro whispered, “We are winning. Victory will be ours.” The Cuban leader had so much courage, “it borders on the insane,” the late Castro biographer, Tad Szulc, wrote.
The surviving rebels headed for an eastern mountain range, the Sierra Maestra, and waged a quixotic war against Batista’s U.S.-backed army of more than 10,000 soldiers. On May 20, 1958, Batista launched Operation FF, Fin de Fidel or End of Fidel. It was a 76-day campaign to kill the guerrilla leader.
By then, Castro had set up a secret mountain command post called La Plata. He and nearly three dozen followers took refuge there. In June 1958, U.S.-supplied aircraft bombed the Cuban rebels. Castro wrote to his then-confidant, the late Celia Sanchez: “I have sworn that the Americans will pay very dearly for what they are doing. When this war has ended, a much bigger and greater war will start for me, a war I shall launch against them. I realise that this will be my true destiny.”
Batista’s forces never found La Plata. The revolutionaries prevailed, Batista fled Cuba and Castro declared victory on January 1, 1959. Certainly many Cubans who fought with Castro remain loyal. “I think Fidel planted the seed and the roots are there to continue,” said Osmani Dias Peña, 43, a guide at La Plata, which is now open to tourists.
His indelible footprints
Even with stiff opposition from the U.S. and some powerful Western nations, Cuba grew in strength under Castro’s rule. Though some critics insist the economy of Cuba was in ruins under his leadership, many Cubans resident at home were full of praise for him. They point to improved health service, with thousands of doctors produced. They also mention the education system, which also produced many teachers of different grades. Under Castro, Cuba “achieved some of the lowest infant mortality and illiteracy rate in the Western hemisphere.” Cuba offered scholarship to students of third world countries as well as deployed doctors to needy poor nations. “Today it hurts us if a Cuban is hungry, if a Cuban has no doctor, if a Cuban child suffers or is uneducated, or if a family has no housing. It hurts us even though it’s not our brother, our son or our father. Why shouldn’t we feel hurt if we see an Angolan child go hungry, suffer, be killed or massacred?” he told Cuban civilian and military personnel in Luanda, Angola, on March 30, 1977.
He once declared: “North Americans don’t understand… that our country is not just Cuba; our country is also humanity.” Will Cuban miss him? Hear what Cubans said as reported by foreign media.
Euxiquio Del Toro, 57, a farmer in Granma province, said: “Fidel is the father of all Cubans.” Del Toro, referring to the late Argentinean revolutionary Ernesto “Che,” said his “struggle for good and equality for all” makes him “one of the great ones. Fidel is like a myth. He’s like Che.”
Concepcion Garcia, 55, reacted thus: “What a rich experience we have had, to live the two periods of Cuba, capitalism and socialism,” she said. “Imagine how we Cubans feel. The most precious thing we have just died. I have the revolution and Fidel to thank for this cataract surgery,” she said, adding that she would not have been able to afford the procedure without Cuba’s socialised medical care. It did not cost her a cent, she said. “He put Cuba on the map,” Ms. Garcia added, “the world has recognised that.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, said Castro “led out his country from the (United States) blockade to the path of self-sustained and independent development.”
The importance of the Cuba he built in the American region came to the fore recently when the South American states threatened to pull out of the Summit of the Americas, led by the U.S., if the country were not included. This is not to say there are no critics. “In 55 years, the Cuban government has not done anything to help the Cuban people in terms of human rights,” said Hector Maseda, 72, a former political prisoner who lives in Havana. “I don’t believe in this regime. I don’t trust it.” It is of note that no fewer than one million Cubans, mostly Batista’s supporters, fled into exile after Castro came to power.
Castro, a thorn in the flesh of the U.S.
Throughout his time in power, there was no love lost between Cuba and the U.S. For Washington, Castro was an ‘untouchable’ with ‘leprous hands.’ And he had no apology for opposing the US. Castro’s revolution received massive support from Cubans because the Batista regime was allegedly corrupt, in addition to Castro’s “personal charisma” and “nationalistic rhetoric.” Even then, Washington opted to give Batista support as it was suspicious of the Castro group. Washington “feared that he might attack U.S. investment and properties in Cuba.”
Castro survived 10 U.S. Presidents’ attempts to liquidate him. According to Aljazeera, the U.S. “spent more than $1 billion trying to kill him or otherwise.” At the time, Castro insisted that Cuba was not a communist state. “I am not a communist and neither is the revolutionary movement,” he said. On Cuba’s relations with Washington, he declared that “Cuba is not opposed to finding a solution to its historical differences with the United States, but no one should expect Cuba to change its position or yield in its principles. Cuba is and will continue to be socialist. Cuba is and will continue to be a friend of the Soviet Union and of all the socialist states.” One reason he could not embrace capitalism and, therefore, the U.S., he said, was because he found “capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating… because it causes war, hypocrisy and competition.”
On April 16, 1961, while announcing his government, he stated that, “Workers and farmers, this is the socialist and democratic revolution of the humble, with the humble and for the humble.” He predicted the disappearance of capitalism from the U.S. “someday; the capitalist system will disappear in the United States, because no social class system has been eternal. One day, class societies will disappear.”
After 55 years of sour relations, the U.S. made a U-turn on December 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama announced plans to renew diplomatic ties with Havana and ease trade and travel restrictions. Interestingly, rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba happened not only under the presidency of his brother but in his presence. Castro was silent on the development, which was a tacit way of approval. Now, international affairs commentators believe, with Castro clearly out of the cards, the rapprochement will deepen and the U.S. will finally lift trade embargoes on the island.