Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, the former Prime Minister and President of Cuba who ruled the island state from 1959 to 2006, remains controversial even in death. A brutal dictator for some, a God-like leader for others, there is much debate about the life, policies and ideas of this revolutionary who rose from the gang politics of the University of Havana to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. A full history and assessment of this person is beyond the scope of this post, the goal of which is to throw some light on some of the allegations which has subjected him to much criticism. Of course, the list of controversies and criticisms is not going to be comprehensive but some important ones should be known in order to make an opinion of him are mentioned.
Fidel Castro was not a communist to begin with. An early history of his life would reveal that he was involved with a number of outfits to begin with with – most importantly the Partido Orthodoxa which had conservative nationalist leanings. While he did study the works of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin during his youth and some leftist ideas did affect him, he was not a communist per se.
In the life of young Castro, the main trend that needs to be noticed is that of the disgust and hatred of American imperialism and its control over Cuba. Since the Spanish-American war of 1898, Cuba had become virtually a dependent state of the USA. One after the other, the US installed juntas and regimes which facilitated American economic interests. Castro took part in many political activities right from his student life. He was involved in attempts to overthrow rightist governments and dictatorships in the Dominican Republic and Colombia.
It was only after meeting Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (then an exile in Mexico) that Castro was seriously affected by Marxist ideas. In fact, the revolutionary movement which was led by Castro – the 26th of July Movement was a mixture of Cuban nationalism, Latin American solidarity, socialism, anti-imperialism and the Christian left (liberation theology). When Castro seized power in 1959, he did not declare Cuba a communist state. Castro appeared on several television interviews including this one where he doesn’t talk about Cuba being made into a communist state.
However, what Castro did, making himself radically different from previous juntas and dictators was, making it clear that he would not be another pawn under the fingers of the Americans. He clearly made it apparent that USA will not be calling the shots in Cuban politics. Castro nationalised several industries and threw out vested interests. This led USA to force Cuba to capitulate.
In this scenario Castro had to turn to the USSR for help. Castro exploited Cold War politics and declared himself to be a ‘Marxist-Leninist‘. What followed is history – USSR bailed Cuba out economically, USA tried to oust Castro through the Bay of Pigs invasion but failed, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the continuing hostility and economic blockade of Cuba by USA. It was in the vortex of the Cold War that Castro turned to communism.
This bears similarity with a large number of postcolonial third world movements which started off as national liberation movements and sought the support of the USSR and socialism for political advantage. An example can be Dr. Julius Nyayere of Tanzania. Another comparison can be made with Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam where the communists led a movement of national liberation. What is ‘true communism’ or ‘ideal socialism’ is a matter of much debate.
What is undeniable is, despite his nationalist background, since the revolution, Fidel Castro created a solid leftist opposition to capitalism and imperialism. In Cuba, a large number of socialist reforms have brought enormous benefits to the people. There are valid criticisms that he promoted a brand of caudillo socialism instead of a people’s democracy type of socialism but his policies were definitely to the left.
There is little doubt that Fidel Castro was an anti-imperialist. He was a politician of great courage who dared to look at the US in the eye. Before Castro, it was unthinkable that a tiny island like Cuba could survive without the patronage of Big Brother Uncle Sam. Castro survived despite the economic blockade, 600+ assassination attempts and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Castro was a dedicated supporter of anti-imperialism world wide. It is little known, thanks to pro-Western hegemony worldwide that Cuba has supported a large number of national liberation struggles worldwide. This commitment of the Castro regime has been largely ignored and the knowledge hidden from the people. The small state of Cuba sent money, relief as well as soldiers to liberate many African countries, most notably in Angola and Namibia. Fidel Castro has been a constant supporter of the ANC and the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. Cuba under Castro has been a dedicated member of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM).
In 1959, Cuba was a poor and impoverished country. Castro had to seize the country by the horns to develop it. There were many obstacles in his way. However, Castro has succeeded in achieving 100% literacy and a decent standard of living for most Cubans. There is an excellent healthcare system which has been funded by the Cuban government. The economic blockade on Cuba by USA has been a terrible impediment on the island. What is miraculous is that despite the crippling blockade, Cuba has been able to survive, the socialist state able to deliver social goods and services. While capitalist detractors compare the lack of consumer goods in Cuba with that of Western societies, it must be noted that Cuba had been an underdeveloped society.
Compared to that, it is much better off today. Cuba has the highest HDI in all of Central America. Compared to other Latin American countries which went through numerous rightist dictatorships and pro-American capitalism, Cuba stands head and shoulders above them all – despite the blockade. An important quotation of Castro seems to be relevant here, “They say socialism is a failure but where is the success of capitalism in Asia, Africa and Latin America?”
It would be wrong to say that Castro’s Cuba has been a paragon of free speech and liberty. Castro’s Cuba has been unable to deliver on the front of democracy and free speech. It has developed into a one-party state. The 26th July Movement developed into the Communist Party of Cuba in 1965. Till 1992, it was the only legal party. After 1992, opposition parties exist but only in name. There have been reports of crackdown, killing and torture of political opponents and dissenting voices. This is something which is alarming indeed. From a democratic point of view, this cannot be condoned. But it must be remembered that there have been dictators who have been far more ruthless and supported by USA and the West.
Despite being a small country with limited resources, Cuba has contributed to the development of Third World countries. The Castro regime has not only sent doctors and other expert personnel to Third World countries and massive amounts of aid and relief during disasters. Cuba trains thousands of doctors from developing nations every year free of cost! The total amount of medical personnel sent by Cuba to the developing world is more than that sent by all the G8 nations combined!
Fidel Castro was definitely a homophobe. After the revolution, the Castro regime continued the homophobic policies of the Batista regime. This has been one of the saddest aspects of the Cuban revolution. While there was state-backed homophobia in Cuba in the 60s and 70s, after 1979, sexual relations between members of the same-sex is no longer illegal in Cuba. While it is still a long way to go for queer people, there has been a massive improvement in this front in Cuba. In fact, Fidel Castro has himself written in one of his books that ‘machismo’ in the Latin American society is dangerous and this idea of machismo must be discarded. However, on many other fronts there is much more progress to make.
As far as women’s rights are concerned, Cuba has not been able to eliminate patriarchy as a whole. However, compared to most other states, it has done a fair job. Almost half of Cuban legislators are women.
Finally, Fidel Castro was no angel, nor an avatar of socialism of divine perfection. Like many leaders, he was a man of many mistakes and shortcomings. However, what is unfortunate is the fact that the capitalist media just cares about highlighting one aspect of his rule. Many aspects of his regime are simply ignored. An economic blockade is not adequate but an intricate web of slandering and knowledge hiding is also required. However, it is not possible to black out the truth constantly. People of underdeveloped nations and many people elsewhere know, despite the slander, the contributions of Castro to world politics. The reality which cannot be ignored, despite a thousand dishonest attempts is that Castro left Cuba a much better place than in 1959 – even by Western models of ‘development’.