With the death of Fidel Castro , the last of the iconic revolutionary figures of the 20th century is now no more. The word, “revolutionary” is a bit too easily bandied out these days to describe leaders, but there is no better description to encapsulate the 90-year-old Cuban leader’s life and achievements.
The son of a rich landowner, Fidel — as he has always been called by his compatriots, his fellow Cubans and many in the Third World — began his political career as a militant student leader committed to social justice and the establishment of a corruption-free government in Cuba. Later, he became part of movements that sought to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista who came to power in 1952 through a coup.
Batista was presiding over a system that promoted “casino capitalism”, and oversaw widespread corruption even as the country’s economy was dependent largely on one crop — sugar and had high unemployment and rural poverty. Fidel’s first foray into armed revolution was the attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba in July 1953, which failed spectacularly but set the stage for his future revolutionary movement that was named the 26th of July movement.
Soon, in the mid-1950s, Fidel, after his release from prison, along with his revolutionary comrades, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, brother Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Juan Almeida, among several others sailed from Mexico to the Sierra Maestra to launch a guerrilla struggle. It took them close to half-a-decade and several setbacks and victories later, Fidel was able to attain power after Batista went into exile in 1959.
While the Cuban Revolution was largely an anti-dictator and nationalist armed struggle, Fidel and his associates sought to gradually build a socialist system after coming to power, arguing that a thorough break from the past was only possible through recourse to anti-imperialism and state control of the economy. Ergo, Cuba began pursuing socialism in the early 1960s right next to the United States, which soon severed its ties with the regime after Havana nationalised all major foreign-owned assets in the country. It was the beginning of a long lasting enmity between the two countries as the U.S. sought to overthrow Fidel by instigating armed attacks such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, and to covertly assassinate him.
Fidel survived by rousing the Cuban people against the “imperialist” attacks, and the U.S. also retreated itself from overt machinations after the Cuban missile crisis invasion nearly brought a nuclear war as the Soviet Union got involved in the conflict.
After the success of the Cuban revolution, Fidel and his comrades sought to export the “foco” model of guerrilla armed struggle to other countries, both in Latin America and later in Africa. Most of these ended in failures — exemplified by Che Guevera’s lack of success in the Congo and later his death in the jungles of Bolivia.
Cuba also played a major role in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), having sent Che Guevara to New Delhi to discuss its formation and later when Fidel was the secretary general between 1979 and 1983. Fidel came up with the clearest enunciation of the NAM’s aims as an anti-imperial, anti-racist organisation. Fidel had re-invented himself as a Third World internationalist and an anti-imperialist who spoke for the developing world, inspiring anti-colonial struggles. He sent Cuban forces to participate in anti-colonial wars in countries like Angola (and resulting in the independence of Namibia – then South Western Africa) and was revered by leaders such as Nelson Mandela for these actions and his voice against Apartheid.
Fidel’s Cuba always enjoyed good ties with India, with both countries supporting multilateralism internationally and need for a more democratised United Nations. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described Fidel during his visit to Havana for a NAM summit in 2006, “I had gone there only to greet him, but he engaged me in intense discussion. We covered a whole range of issues, including the future of the international financial system, the future role of NAM, India’s development prospects and how we are dealing with our population, food and energy problems… I felt I was in the presence of one of the greatest men of our times.”
Fidel lived through a five-and-a-half decade-long Cuban economic embargo imposed by the U.S. Cuba’s socialist system emphasised investment in free education and health for its largely peasant population while discouraging free enterprise and nationalising most foreign assets in the country. This emphasis resulted in a mixed legacy. By the 21st century, Cuba had among the most advanced health care systems in the world, a largely well educated and socially conscious population, but a battered economy characterised by low wages and little diversification.
Partially, the collapse of the Soviet Union was responsible for the dire straits that Cuba found itself in the 1990s, resulting in severe shortages of essential goods and supplies, but Fidel refused to give up on socialism, persisting with the social development model till he stepped down provisionally in 2006 and handed over powers to his brother Raul in 2008.
In his last decade, Fidel was an avuncular figure who took to writing regular columns that were published as his “Reflections” in Cuban newspapers. He soon became a symbol of anti-imperialism in Latin America, which saw the rise of the “pink-tide” — a series of social-democratic and “new socialist” regimes across the continent — and which were inspired by the success of the “social model” in Cuba but remained politically liberal democratic systems. Leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa paid rich tributes to his legacy and sought to emulate Cuban successes in health and education while others such as Brazil’s Lula, Chile’s Michele Bachelet worked towards closer ties with Cuba. In many ways, Fidel’s greatest achievement was to inspire a truly independent Latin America that was no longer dependent or under the imperial sway of the northern behemoth, the U.S.
Fidel remained an old-school communist till the end of his life even as Cuba embarked upon gradual economic liberalisation under Raul’s rule, which eased restrictions on the economy and freed it up for limited enterprise led development. U.S. President Barack Obama, in the meantime, revived diplomatic ties with Raul’s Cuba, and even as the embargo continues, ties between the U.S and Cuba have been never better since the Revolution.
During Mr. Obama’s historic visit to Havana in March 2016, he harped on constructive dialogue between the two countries that represented starkly different systems – Mr. Obama called into question, Cuba’s policies on political prisoners, political dissidence and human rights, while Mr. Raul spoke about the U.S’s poor record on economic inequality, race relations and health care. Fidel’s response was an unapologetic defence of the socialist system and his country’s record during what the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm described as the “Age of Extremes”.
It was not surprising to see Fidel railing against the times that were changing. He was a revolutionary of the 20th century who achieved what he set out to do, knowing that “history will absolve him” as he de-classed himself from his roots and led substantial changes that benefited millions in his poor country. True to his self, he seemed to accept that the contradictions unleashed by the system’s very same policies had to bring about fresh change and some degree of reversal of state socialism but it was difficult for him to countenance that the state-socialist model was by design, flawed. At the same time, Fidel, the columnist, wrote about the dangers of unrestrained capitalism to the environment and need to arrest climate change.
Fidel lived a rich revolutionary life as a committed, “cultured” Communist, who offered a stark contrast to the later day apparatchiks of the Soviet Union, present day China or the closed minded dictators of the other surviving “true communist” regime, North Korea.
It is difficult to sum up his life in a few words. With Fidel’s passing away, the era of state-led socialism can now be called to have officially ended. But his ideas on internationalism: a truly democratic world order and solidarity among the people of the third world; a thorough reorientation of the state to promote overall human development; – hold true and important today and for the foreseeable future. The Cuban’s muerte (death) will not just be mourned in his patria (fatherland), but the world over. Fidel is no more, but the revolution he unleashed, persists.