Fidel Castro: Soldier of socialism

Fidel Castro, who defended the values of the revolution that he led in his country and extended his moral and material support to the forces of progress wherever they found themselves up against dictatorship and imperialism, walks into history.

Published : Dec 07, 2016 12:30 IST

Students of Havana University pay tribute to Castro as they march to Revolution Square in the Cuban capital on November 28.

Students of Havana University pay tribute to Castro as they march to Revolution Square in the Cuban capital on November 28.

Fidel Castro made no secret of the fact that he led the revolution on behalf of the dispossessed not only in Cuba but all over the world. Fidel Castro’s heroism and revolutionary deeds before coming to power are now historic lore. The attack on the Moncada Barracks, his trial following his capture in which he declared “history will absolve me”; and the leadership he provided to the band of revolutionaries who accompanied him on the “Granma” and went on to achieve the revolution have continued to inspire revolutionaries and other progressive people.

Among his first moves after coming to power was the nationalisation of foreign-owned companies and comprehensive land reforms. The revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro wanted to once and for all end the domination of foreign powers and interests in Cuba. Under the cruel Fulgencio Batista dictatorship backed by the United States, workers had few rights and there was widespread unemployment. After the 1959 revolution, the real wages of workers saw an immediate rise and unemployment vanished. Within three years, the literacy rate in Cuba went up to 96 per cent, a figure which rivalled that of its next-door neighbour, the U.S. Education was made free, along with health care. The informal apartheid that had existed before the revolution ended. Cubans of colour were admitted to private clubs and beaches. Afro-Cubans were among the biggest beneficiaries of the revolution.

It was the expropriation of U.S.-owned companies and estates that led to U.S. hostility towards the Cuban Revolution from the very outset. The acute antagonism between Havana and Washington drove the world to the verge of a possible nuclear holocaust in 1962—in the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis. The year before, the Americans had failed in their attempts to overthrow Cuba’s socialist government. Fidel Castro had announced soon after the revolution that the government would adhere to the communist ideology. The Eisenhower administration had by then imposed economic sanctions on Cuba. After the defeat of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-led forces in the Bay of Pigs invasion, the John F. Kennedy administration imposed a full-blown economic blockade. In a 1960 speech, Kennedy said that Castro had “confiscated over a billion dollars” worth of U.S. property, underlining that the U.S.’ main concern was the protection of its financial assets in the island.

Standing up to the U.S. Fidel Castro literally played a hands-on role in the thwarting of the U.S. attempt at regime change through the means of an invasion in 1962. He was on the front lines directing the Cuban forces. “I took part in the capture of nobody knows how many prisoners,” he has recounted in his autobiography My Life . The prisoners were humanely treated and released after the Kennedy administration paid a token amount as war reparation to Cuba. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Kennedy administration made more plans to destabilise socialist Cuba economically and politically. Cuba thereafter was continuously in the U.S.’ cross hairs until the diplomatic breakthrough in 2015.

The U.S. persuaded most of the Latin American and Caribbean countries that were under American influence and tutelage at the time to economically and politically boycott Cuba. After the “Bay of Pigs” humiliation, the Kennedy administration announced “An Alliance for Progress”, earmarking $10 billion in development aid for the region and urging the governments there to institute agrarian reforms. According to Fidel Castro, it was the communist revolution in Cuba that made Washington reassess the concept of agrarian reforms. “The administration that had never wanted to hear the word agrarian reform, that had considered it a communist idea, was now suggesting that there was a need for agrarian reform in Latin America,” he observed in his memoir. He believed that Kennedy had realised that a radical revolution, much bigger than the Cuban Revolution, could occur across Latin America if the necessary reforms were not carried out. It is another matter that most of the money the U.S. disbursed was stolen by right-wing military dictators and oligarchs who ruled the roost in Latin America in those days.

Alliance with socialist bloc The Organisation of American States (OAS), which was under Washington’s thumb, was used as an instrument to destabilise the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban government had little option but to strengthen economic and political ties with the socialist bloc led by the Soviet Union, though Cuba’s natural trading and cultural partners were in its immediate periphery.

Cuba emerged strengthened from its alliance with the Soviet Union, despite the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis. The “October Crisis”, as it is known in Cuba, was one of the most dangerous events witnessed after the Second World War. “The world was on the verge of a thermonuclear war as a consequence of the United States’ aggressive brutal policy against Cuba,” Fidel Castro observed. The Soviet Union had placed SS-4 ballistic missiles in Cuba to protect the country from an imminent full-scale U.S. invasion. The crisis was ultimately resolved with the Soviet Union “blinking” and withdrawing its nuclear weapons. Fidel Castro himself was not too happy with Moscow’s action, as it was done without his consent. All the same, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev did get an undertaking from Washington not to launch an invasion of Cuba and also to stop the constant overflights of U.S. Air Force planes over the island. Moscow also got an assurance that the U.S. Jupiter missile aimed at the Soviet Union would be removed from U.S. military bases in Turkey.

Beyond Cuba But Cuba under Fidel Castro was not in any way cowed down by the U.S. As Fidel Castro told his biographer Ignacio Ramonet: “They internationalised the blockade; we internationalised guerilla warfare.”

Che Guevara, his trusted comrade-in-arms, decided to go to Bolivia to fight against the corrupt, U.S.-backed regime there. Che already had secretly been to Congo in 1965 with a group of fellow Cubans to help guerilla fighters there to defeat the Western-backed government that was installed after the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic left-wing Prime Minister. Though that initial Cuban foray into the African continent was not very successful, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution were determined to play a proactive role to thwart the West’s imperialist and neocolonial designs in Africa and Latin America.

Soon after the revolution, Raul Castro and Che visited Cairo to establish contact with African revolutionary movements. They also visited Gaza to express solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Close relations were established between Cuba and the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria, which was fighting a bloody war of independence. Cuba trained FLN fighters and sent arms to Algerian guerilla fighters through Morocco. Cuba also provided medical aid and shelter for wounded Algerian fighters. Fidel Castro says in his memoir that the first group of Cuban medical doctors to be sent overseas was sent to Algeria. Today there are more than 190,000 Cuban doctors working selflessly in underdeveloped areas all over the world. When there was a devastating earthquake in Pakistan, Cuba was among the first countries that dispatched doctors and medical aid. Cuban doctors also work in war zones, saving lives.

After Algeria won independence from France in 1962, close military and security ties were established between Havana and Algiers. Cuba even sent in some troops to Algeria in 1963 when the country came under attack from Morocco, a close ally of the West. Cuba also actively helped progressive republican and left-wing governments in the Arab world, in Syria, Iraq and South Yemen. South Yemen in the 1970s had a socialist government. Cuban forces helped the Syrian army in the 1973 war with Israel. Cuba’s military ties with Iraq were cut after Saddam Hussein went to war with Iran in 1980.

Decolonisation in Africa From the very outset, solidarity with forces that were in the forefront of the decolonisation struggle in Africa was a hallmark of the revolution. Cuban forces intervened on the side of the Ethiopian government under Mengistu Haile Merriam, a self-proclaimed socialist. Somalia, under Siad Barre, launched an invasion of Ethiopia in the late 1970s with Western encouragement. Cuban intervention was crucial in the defeat of the Somali army in the “Ogaden war”, as the conflict was called. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise and consolidation of many left-wing movements on the African continent, many of them inspired by Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Political movements such as the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) in Angola and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in Mozambique had close links with Havana.

The Cuban contribution to the decolonisation struggle in southern Africa was especially crucial. Many historians concede that but for Cuban military intervention at a critical juncture, the decolonisation struggle could have taken a different and unwelcome turn. In Angola, Mozambique and other countries, renegade counter-revolutionary movements could have emerged triumphant, as they were backed by the West and apartheid South Africa. South Africa had the most powerful army in Africa. Its forces had entered Angola to support surrogates like Jonas Savimbi in a bid to oust the ruling MPLA soon after the country gained independence. The MPLA at the time was a left-wing party inspired by the Marxist ideology. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a close friend of Fidel Castro, has described Cuba’s contribution to the decolonisation struggle beautifully and graphically in an article titled “Operation Carlotta”, the code name for the Cuban military expedition to Angola. The MPLA leadership, just after taking power, faced a concerted military attack backed by South African forces and supported by the U.S. The Angolan government appealed for urgent help from the only country it knew would be willing to help at short notice.

“The MPLA leaders, who had been prepared for guerilla struggle rather than full-scale war, then understood that only an urgent appeal for international solidarity would enable them to rout this concerted attack by neighbouring states, supported by the most rapacious and destructive resources of imperialism,” wrote Marquez. The Cuban Communist Party, fully aware of the risks involved, acceded within 48 hours to Angolan President Agostinho Neto’s appeal for Cuban troops to help the beleaguered Angolan forces. By the time the decisive battle of Cueto Cuenavale was fought in 1988, there were 40,000 Cuban troops in Angola. Fidel Castro was personally involved in overseeing minute aspects of the battle, which saw the defeat of the mighty South African army.

“There was not a single dot on the map of Angola that he [Castro] was unable to identify, nor any feature of the land that he did not know by heart. His absorption in the war was so intense and meticulous that he could quote any statistic relating to Angola as if it were Cuba itself,” wrote Marquez. The Cuban leader would often spend 14 hours at a stretch in his command room, sometimes without sleeping or eating, overseeing the military moves, according to Marquez. “Six thousand miles from home, the Cuban army entered into combat with the armies of South Africa, the largest power in the continent, and Zaire, the richest and best armed of Europe’s and America’s puppet regimes,” Fidel Castro reminisced.

The Soviet Union was not consulted when Cuba decided to send troops to Angola. The Soviet leadership, in fact, had let it be known that it was not too happy with many initiatives the Cuban leadership took to shore up national liberation movements in Africa and Latin America. At the same time, it should be acknowledged that Soviet help in the supply of arms, along with the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and financial support, played a key role in the decolonisation struggle in Africa. In Fidel Castro’s words, Cuba’s contribution was “decisive in finally bringing independence to Angola and in doing the same thing in Namibia in March 1990. It also made a significant contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe, and to the toppling of the apartheid regime in South Africa”.

Mandela’s tribute It was no surprise that Fidel Castro got the loudest ovation on the historic occasion of Nelson Mandela’s swearing in as the first President of a democratic and multiracial South Africa. When Mandela visited Cuba in 1991, he delivered a moving speech thanking the Cuban people: “We are humbled and full of emotion here. We have come here today recognising our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has a history of selfless behaviour as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa?” Mandela said. “The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuinavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuinavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and to establish its sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their peace and independence.” Mandela went on to emphasise that the defeat of the racist forces in Cuito Cuinavale “made it possible” for him to be a free man and visit Cuba.

An inspiration to Latin America Fidel Castro, along with Che, will of course forever be in the hearts of the people of the Americas. Che did not die in vain in the jungles of Bolivia. Neither was the sacrifice of Salvadore Allende, who died fighting with the AK-47 that Fidel Castro had presented him, in vain. Today, the political map of the region has undergone a dramatic change. Many of Fidel Castro’s disciples and admirers are in power. The first thing that Hugo Chavez did after being released from prison in 1993 was to visit Fidel Castro. Venezuela and Cuba today have a close relationship. Fidel Castro and Chavez together played a key role in building alternative regional groupings free from the meddling of the U.S. The Bolivarian Alliance for the People of our Americas (ALBA) is one such grouping, which includes countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Even before Fidel Castro demitted office, the U.S. efforts to keep Cuba diplomatically isolated had failed. In fact, it was the U.S. that became friendless in Latin America as many countries looked up to the Cuban model for inspiration.

Fidel Castro saw to it that the Cuban people had the freedom to live without worrying about access to food, shelter, health care and education. Cuba’s “prevention-focussed holistic model” has helped it achieve one of the best health-care systems in the world, with the highest ratio of doctors per capita. Cuba under Fidel Castro emerged as a “sporting superpower”. Until a decade ago, Cuba figured consistently among the top 10 medal winners in the Olympic Games. Even today, Cuban boxers, wrestlers and athletes are counted among the world’s best. Cuba has shared its expertise in sports with many countries, including India. India’s success in boxing can to a large extent be attributed to boxing coaches from Cuba.

Fidel Castro had a special place in his heart for India. Almost immediately after the revolution, he sent Che to New Delhi to establish contact with the Indian leadership. Cuba became an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). His electrifying presence at the Delhi NAM summit was one of its highlights. He struck up a close friendship with Indira Gandhi, who was the Prime Minister at the time. In Cuba, many girls born in the 1980s were named Indira. He would have been disappointed in his last days when India started distancing itself from NAM and moved closer to Washington. Cuba, however, still attaches particular importance to its relationship with India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was one of the few leaders who were allowed to visit Fidel Castro after he fell seriously ill in 2006.

Until the very end Fidel Castro remained suspicious of the U.S., though he accepted the Cuban government’s decision to restore diplomatic ties. His distrust now seems justified. Donald Trump, the President-elect, has threatened to reverse the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to Cuba. He has said that he wants a “better deal” to be negotiated with Cuba. On the campaign trail, Trump promised the rabidly anti-Castro Cuban American community concentrated in Miami that he would scuttle the deal signed by Washington and Havana. Anyway, Fidel Castro has had the last laugh: he always maintained that U.S. democracy was a sham. What better illustration could there be than the election of Trump as the President, and that too with a two-million-vote deficit?

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