The death of the charismatic Fidel Castro at the age of 90 eight days back on November 25 signifies the end of an era. While defying the might of the US, he remained an undefatigable symbol of resistance till he breathed his last. As it turned out he lived long enough to see the rollback of Washington’s sanctions for 54 years that crippled the Cuban economy.
Spearheading the Cuban revolution, he played a crucial role in overthrowing President Fulgencio Batista in 1959 at the age of 32. Castro was an authoritarian who violated human rights, jailed his critics and remained highly intolerant. His die hard supporters found in him a person who challenged the US domination of Latin America while bringing healthcare and education to the poor.
Castro inspired socialist movements across the globe. He is believed to have thwarted more than 600 attempts to assassinate him by none other than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Attempts were made to even make his beard fall which made him popular along with trying poison pills and toxic cigars.
The Island nation of only 11 million people largely backed Castro. There is more to the Cuban icon or El Comandante as the people called him. He was much more than being the flag bearer of the underdog. At the same time those who opposed and despised him as a tyrant had to leave the shores of their country with most of them choosing the US.
Given his anti-US stance, Castro had no option but to join hands with the Soviet camp during the Cold War years. It was surprising that he overcame the Bay of Pigs invasion by the powerful US as well as the Cuban missiles crisis.
The revolutionary had to pay a telling cost for this resulting in an extraordinarily harsh trade imbargo against the tiny Island state isolating it economically. At the same time Castro supporters vouch for Cuba’s achievements in universal education and health care despite a debilitating resource crunch. This led to Castro being hailed by the Leftist movements globally.
What hurt Havana under Castro was that it could not become part of the international system. His defiance of the ‘Yankees’ for more than six decades while extending support to national liberation struggles in Latin America, Asia and Africa turned him into a Third World icon. He refused to give up his belief in socialism.
The clout of Castro’s global standing emerged from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It may be recalled Castro arrived in New Delhi in 1983 to hand over the Presidency of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to India. Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister then and the nation will never forget the bear hug the tall, bearded Cuban leader gave her spontaneously.
His slogan of “”socialism or death”” inspired the nationalisation of natural wealth by governments across Latin America as a counter to the appropriation of oil and mineral resources by multinational corporations.
The process of resumption of diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington under the leadership of his brother, Raul Castro, who took over in 2008 continues to be fragile. However, U S President Barrack Obama paid a historic visit to the Caribbean nation after a gap of 88 years earlier this year for a rapproachment between the two neighbours aimed at enlarging economic cooperation.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed Castro’s communist rule would collapse. On the contrary Cuba’s survived thanks to financial interventions by Venezuela now facing bankruptcy.
Cubans had to endure prolonged power cuts and shortages of food besides other basic items. Stubborn as Castro was, he asked the people to endure this “”special period”” which they did stoicly.
While undertaking some reforms he allowed the disgruntled to leave by makeshift boats that compelled US President Bill Clinton to agree to more orderly migration. Unlike other dictators he did not use power for personal gain.
With Fidel Castro no more, the challenge is immense for his brother Raul Castro who has announced stepping down as President in 2018. The question is will Cuba be able to maintain its egalitarian legacy while ensuring political and social freedoms. Havana desperately needs to recover from the past by giving a major push for integrating with the global order.
(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator. The views are personal.) ”