“Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.” – Henry Kissinger
With Fidel Castro’s passing last week, there has been a predictable line of obituaries from commentators (mostly in the West, but also from those in the global South who look up to the West as a saviour) denouncing him as a monster and a rogue, and expressing astonishment or sneering condescension that so many looked up to him.
In obituaries that would bring a smile to Henry Kissinger’s face, pundits decried Castro’s authoritarianism, his communism, his ‘isolationism’, and his human rights violations, while only making a passing mention (if at all) of his achievements and global impact. Fans of leaders with blood on their hands, wrote oblivious op-eds decrying the blood on his hands. This is addressed to them, and to those who wheel out those obituaries unquestioningly.
Needless to say, there is much to decry about Castro’s regime in Cuba. Coming to power in an armed revolution in 1959, deposing the United States-backed military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, the new government was immediately slammed with a comprehensive economic embargo by the only powerhouse in the region, the United States of America. This was followed by a Central Intelligence Agency-sponsored invasion and attempted regime-change that failed spectacularly.
Since then, the US has done everything within its power to crush Cuba and keep it under a state of near-permanent siege. This included innumerable attempts to assassinate Castro himself, as well as overt and covert attempts to effect regime change.
That led to Castro’s initial turn towards Communism. Unlike what many believe, he did not start off as an avowed communist, although he later claimed that he was always a Marxist-Leninist.
It also led to his reliance on the Soviet Union in an attempt to counter the US, and the implementation of an authoritarian regime that, often brutally, stifled dissent. In the early days, many Batista loyalists were tried for various offences and several were executed, and several more incarcerated for long periods. Homosexuals and other ‘deviants’ were sent to labour camps and subjected to a great deal of repression.
Even though homosexuality was legalised in 1979 and Castro himself expressed regret for these actions, Cuba is still a far-from-friendly place for the LGBTQI community.
So then why do so many look up to Castro as a hero? There are two broad reasons which I will cover below, but before that, a quick comment on the nature of heroes. It is the oppressed and subjugated in the world that need heroes the most. Those in positions of extreme privilege do not need heroes and can afford to sneer at those who do. Those who need heroes don’t have the privilege to only pick those without flaws, hence the very many imperfect heroes of the oppressed in the course of history.
Anti-imperialism and internationalism
Sitting in the Global South, it is Castro’s internationalism and anti-imperialist credentials that are most immediately compelling. From apartheid South Africa to Angola and Algeria, Castro inspired and provided support to countless movements that resisted Western colonialism and racism in the latter half of the 20th century.
The Cuban revolution served as inspiration for liberation movements across the African continent. In subsequent years, Cuba provided support — technical, military and medical — to these movements and to the fledgling governments that resulted from them.
In Algeria, Cuba supported the movement for independence from France, its resistance against Morocco’s aggression post-independence, and provided support for building medical infrastructure in the new country. Hundreds of Cuban doctors still work in Algeria.
Cuban armed forces resisted CIA and apartheid-Africa backed mercenaries to help deliver independence to Angola. Their victory over apartheid South Africa’s army in the Battle of Cuito Canavale was a pivotal event in the history of Southern Africa that led, among other things, to the independence of Namibia and the demise of the apartheid state.
As with any military intervention, this record is not without blemish, but Nelson Mandela’s quote about Castro sums up the view of the African liberation movements towards Castro’s Cuba:
“The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonisers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid.”
Castro’s Cuba also served as inspiration and support to the Palestinian movement, being one of the first countries to recognise the Palestine Liberation Organisation when it was founded in 1964, and provided logistical and vocational training to Palestinians. In the United Nations, Cuba sponsored the 1975 General Assembly resolution (since rescinded) equating Zionism with racism, and played a significant role in securing for Palestine the status of a ‘non-member observer state’ in 2012.
Cuban doctors are at the forefront of disaster relief work the world over, including the Kashmir earthquake in 2005 when they sent 2,400 doctors and paramedics and set up 30 field hospitals. It is also interesting to note that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the US government refused Cuba’s offer of sending over 1,500 doctors and medical aid.
It’s Castro’s socialism that’s the real ‘problem’
The chief reason that Castro is a villain in the Western imagination is not his authoritarianism, but his socialism. Those who swooned over Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while he was selling arms to Saudi Arabia now consider him a villain for speaking positively of Castro. Those who have cheered on countless American presidents (from John F Kennedy to Barack Obama) who have rained terror, bloodshed and human rights violations across Asia and Africa, have managed to summon up their conscience to condemn Castro. The American state that has backed brutal dictators from Saudi Arabia to Chile to Honduras and Haiti, develops reservations about dictatorial Cuba. It’s not hard to see that the main point of distinction here is Cuba’s socialism.
If you don’t already understand the value of socialism, then this piece is not going to change that. But there are a few facts that might be worth considering anyway. The US prefers its client states in the Caribbean to be ruled by their favoured dictators. One need look no further than Haiti, Honduras and the Dominican Republic to see evidence of this. The function of these rulers is to allow American-style capitalism to flourish in their states, and for American corporations to extract the maximum profit from their populations. This was also Batista’s function in Cuba, until he was thrown out.
Upon the culmination of the Cuban revolution, Castro’s government introduced a raft of progressive policies, including aggressive land reforms. At the time of the revolution, 75 per cent of Cuba’s agricultural land was owned by foreigners, mostly American corporations. This was expropriated and redistributed to the peasants who worked the land or restructured as co-operatives. Schools, hospitals and roads were constructed all over the country. Laws were passed to provide equality for Black Cubans and greater rights for women. Healthcare, education and housing are free for all Cubans, and are of a higher standard than in most of Latin America, especially compared to its neighbours.
Now whether you agree with these policies or not, you can’t argue with the results. Here’s a table comparing some statistics for Cuba with Honduras, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which have US-backed regimes and free-market economies:
*per 1,000 live births
So while it’s probably easier to get your hands on the latest iPhone 7 in Haiti or the Dominican Republic, in the statistics that matter (including that old neoliberal favourite, gross domestic product per capita), Cuba has a substantial lead over its neighbours. It is still, no doubt, a poor country, but one can only wonder how different the situation might have been if the US hadn’t imposed a comprehensive economic blockade (and coerced other developed countries to follow suit).
Castro’s socialism is deeply flawed, and there are valid criticisms about it. No true socialism can exist without civil liberties. But to endure a brutal blockade for decades and still deliver economic and human development statistics that handily exceeds its neighbours is no mean achievement.
That this forcefully-impoverished nation has a life-expectancy higher than the world’s richest and most powerful nation that enforces its impoverishment is among the sorest of sore points for Western commentators. Had it not been for the revolution, Cuba’s condition would have been similar to that of Haiti, where the elite prosper at the expense of a massive impoverished population.
There is much else to speak about Castro’s Cuba to dispel the monochromatic view that most of the world holds of it, courtesy the Western media, such as the vibrant arts scene including a cinema movement that is the toast of Latin America (including many films critical of the government), as well as the literature and music that emerged in post-revolution Cuba.
Even the culture of dissent (or lack thereof) is not as simple as one would imagine. This is a valuable read on the topic.
The idea of this piece is not to convince anyone that Castro is an unqualified hero, but to illustrate why there are categories of people the world over for whom Castro’s example and initiatives offered hope and support in the struggle against imperialism and racism.
It may be a while yet before neoliberalism and neo-colonialism are more universally recognised as structural, self-perpetuating evils comparable to patriarchy, racism or casteism. But until then, those that recognise it as such will value Castro’s contribution to showing some hints of what an alternative would look like, and the constraints it would need to overcome, both internally and externally.