Fidel Castro: Revolutionary legacy

Print edition : December 23, 2016

One-year-old Eduardo Ribera after his heart operation at the William Soler Children's Hospital in Havana on October 7, 2013. Castro and his revolutionary government were able to show what socialism is capable of—abolition of illiteracy, universal education, a health-care system which compares with the best in the advanced countries, equal rights for women in all spheres and racial equality. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP

No other Communist leader in the post-Second World War period had such an internationalist vision as Castro.

Fidel Castro was a towering revolutionary figure of the 20th century. The revolution he led in the small island of Cuba had an impact over time which was magnified around the world.

The overthrow of the hated Batista regime led to the first socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere. Under Fidel’s dynamic leadership, Cuba emerged from the shackles of semi-colonialism and of being a playground for the mafia and the wealthy from the United States. At the age of 33, Fidel became the leader of the revolutionary government and under his leadership, Cuba made remarkable strides in creating a socially just society. Castro and his revolutionary government were able to show what socialism is capable of—abolition of illiteracy, universal education, a health-care system which compares with the best in the advanced countries, equal rights for women in all spheres and racial equality in a country which used to have slave plantation labour.

Cuba had eradicated illiteracy in one year in 1961 through a massive literacy campaign. Since then an educational system was developed which provided free education for all Cuban children from primary to secondary schooling and in universities. Cuba has also created a comprehensive health-care system with a network of primary health centres at the first level, hospitals at the second level and specialised institutes at the third level. Cuba has 6.7 physicians per 1,000 people whereas the U.S. has 2.4 physicians per 1,000 population.

Cuba developed an extensive public distribution system which delivered cheap food items to the entire population. Cuba became one of the least unequal societies in the world.

Ninety miles away loomed the U.S., the world’s most powerful imperialist power. For five decades, Fidel Castro led Cuba in fighting off various conspiracies to destroy socialist Cuba. As it was later revealed, the CIA had organised hundreds of attempts to assassinate him. Fidel survived 11 U.S. Presidents who tried unsuccessfully to topple him, starting with the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 by President Kennedy. Fidel was the David who challenged the imperialist Goliath and won.

The Cuban revolution became a beacon light for all revolutionary and progressive movements in Latin America and inspired the Left advances there. Fidel Castro along with his close comrade-in-arms Che Guevara became revolutionary icons for generations of young people. No other Communist leader in the post-Second World War period had such an internationalist vision as Fidel. He dispatched the Cuban armed forces to help Angola and Mozambique fight the depredations of the counter-revolutionary forces backed by the racist South African regime.

Little is known in India about the signal contribution of Fidel and the Cuban revolutionaries to the liberation of Southern Africa. It was Fidel’s decision to dispatch Cuban troops to Angola which saved the national liberation struggle there. In the decisive battle in Cuito Cuinavale in 1988, the Cuban forces defeated the South African army which had intervened to back the CIA-funded UNITA forces. This defeat led to the withdrawal of the army of the South African apartheid regime from Angola. It also had to withdraw its troops from Namibia, paving the way for its liberation. Cuito Cuinavale destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the army of racist South Africa and hastened the end of the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela, after the liberation of South Africa, publicly expressed his gratitude to Fidel Castro.

Fidel was a revolutionary who used Marxism creatively. He applied Marxism to the concrete conditions of an underdeveloped country, drew on its national-cultural resources and pioneered a path to socialism which had an enormous impact on the Third World.

His was a phenomenal intelligence with an unusual capacity to absorb and analyse vast amounts of information. Fidel was an extraordinary orator. No other Communist leader could make such powerful and incisive speeches which could move people to action, to revolutionary heights. His speeches, often ranging up to four hours, were not just empty rhetoric but filled with political analysis, facts and statistical illustrations which the people could grasp and understand.

Fidel used to quote Lenin to the effect that it is not enough to make a revolution, we have to learn to defend that revolution. For 47 years, Fidel led the defence of the Cuban revolution against all odds, against an imperialist power which was bent upon destroying it. The finest hour in this long defence, for Fidel, was the period from 1991 to 1999—the eight years—when Cuba was in severe economic difficulties and under siege. The Cuban economy was crippled after the rupture with the Soviet-led Comecon bloc of countries. It is utilising this difficulty that the U.S. stepped up the economic warfare against Cuba. The U.S. Congress adopted laws which aimed to penalise third countries which had economic and trade ties with Cuba. Fidel and the Cuban government refused to bow down to this blackmail. Fidel called upon the people to make sacrifices in order to defend the socialist system. In this “special period”, Cuba maintained its universal public distribution system, its free education and health-care systems, refusing to privatise them or succumb to the pressure to implant a free-market economy.

Fidel, above all, saw the fight against imperialist hegemony as a “battle of ideas”. Describing how the Cuban people overcame the imperialist assaults, he said: “However, it was unable to defeat a united people, a people armed with just ideas, a people endowed with a great political consciousness because that is most important for us. We have resisted everything and are ready to continue resisting for as long as need be thanks to the seeds planted throughout those decades, thanks to the ideas and the consciousness developed during that time.”

India and Fidel

In India, Cuba and Fidel have always had a special place in the hearts of Communists, progressives and democrats. One of the most extensive solidarity campaigns for Cuba was conducted at a time when the country was in dire economic difficulties after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the then general secretary of the CPI(M), a campaign was conducted in 1992 to collect wheat to send a shipload to Cuba. Also collected in this campaign were medicines. Eventually a ship with 10,000 tonnes of wheat was dispatched in December 1992.

At the function to receive the shipment at the Havana harbour, in the presence of Surjeet, Castro declared: “The 10,105 tonnes of wheat plus medications mean much more than a symbol, these are 10,105 tonnes of solidarity, 10,105 tonnes of moral support and make us not only more internationalist, but also more patriotic, more revolutionary and more determined to defend our glorious cause.”

For people of my generation, Fidel was the living embodiment of revolution. I first saw him at the World Youth Festival in Havana in 1978. Twenty thousand young people had assembled for the international event. When he appeared unannounced at Lenin Park where the concluding festivities were being held, there was a thrill that ran through the assembled participants and a scramble to shake his hand. Many of those young men and women, particularly from Latin America, went on to become leaders and activists of revolutionary movements and some became government leaders.

Twenty years later, in 1998, I attended a programme to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Che Guevara’s martyrdom. The speech Fidel made on this occasion at Santa Clara remains still vivid in my memory. It was a magisterial survey of the Cuban revolution and the worldwide struggle against imperialism.

Cuba has survived despite the longest economic blockade faced by any country in the world. In the face of unrelenting U.S. hostility, it has maintained its unique social system and refused to subject itself to the depredations of neoliberal capitalism.

Cuba became the source of inspiration for the Tricontinental—the people of the three continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America—to strive for national liberation, sovereignty, social justice and a life free from exploitation.

This is the revolutionary legacy of Fidel Castro.

Prakash Karat is a Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

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