While some of the mainstream media are unsuccessfully seeking to tarnish Castro’s image, thousands upon thousands of messages are pouring into Cuba from literally all over the world to pay homage to him.
The fact of the matter is that, after a long and grave illness back in 2007 when he was 80, Fidel realised that the inevitable was inscribed in the near future and, being the consummate political leader, always ahead of developments, he set about preparing the ground for his definite departure which, sadly, occurred on Friday November 25. In 2008 he resigned from all his official and political roles in the Cuban state, steering the revolution to a smooth transfer of political power. He did this to eliminate any possible disturbance or destabilisation his death may have caused to the revolution if he were to have died while in office.
Superficial right-wing pundits predicted the end of the revolution when he was gravely ill, and also when he formally handed over power. They were wrong on both occasions. And current predictions that his departure will lead to the end of Cuban socialism are also mistaken. Fidel’s 50 revolutionary years of defiance and resistance to US imperialist arrogance and aggression is his legacy to not just the Cuban revolution but to humanity.
In the contemporary world nobody else symbolised the modern revolutionary spirit better than Fidel. From his very first incursions into politics he seemed to have been imbued with an almost insane, verging on the irrational, faith in the victory of his undertakings, many of which were carried out against extraordinary odds. It was with this spirit that he organised and led the military attack against the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on the now historic date of July 26 1953 when he was not yet 27 years old. The attack was a huge risk, involving 137 badly equipped, poorly trained fighters against one of the largest and best-armed military garrisons in the country, housing more than 500 soldiers. Fidel’s insurgents faced far superior firepower and had a slim chance of success, but only if the surprise factor worked. It did not.
Following his capture after the attack, Fidel took the gamble to defend himself at the resultant trial, in a political context dominated by the intensely repressive Batista dictatorship.
In October 1960, Senator John F Kennedy said: “Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years — a greater proportion of the Cuban population than the proportion of Americans who died in both world wars, and he turned democratic Cuba into a complete police state — destroying every individual liberty.”
This frightening context gives a measure of Fidel’s audacity in undertaking his own legal and political defence.
His closing defence speech, “History will absolve me,” would go down as perhaps one of the most impressive political statements on why Cuba not only needed a revolution, but what the revolution’s intellectual, moral, historic, social and political foundations were. In his speech Fidel made the dictum that has informed his politics: “No weapon, no force is capable of defeating a people who have decided to fight for their rights.” Furthermore, we find a post-Batista programme of structural transformations to be implemented. It was a trait that was to inform his long political career: consistency between rhetoric, principles and practical action.
The Moncada adventure, and Fidel’s exceptional political performance at the trial, catapulted him to national prominence, from which he drew the key political lesson of his politics: audacity, regardless of the odds.
Hence the training camp in Mexico; his apparently ill-advised naval expedition to Cuba in the Granma yacht with 89 fighters; the establishment of the guerilla HQ in the Sierra Maestra with the 12 survivors of the disastrous Granma landing; and his unwavering conviction that Cuba was mature for revolution. This continued all the way to the October 1962 missile crisis, when Fidel skilfully steered his country through one of the most dangerous moments in the history of the 20th century.
It was under his political and military leadership that Cuba inflicted the very first defeat of US imperialism in Latin America on April 17 1961 at the Bay of Pigs — a battle he led as field commander from a tank in the theatre of war itself.
Fidel’s view of revolution is based on a Third World perspective of liberation against imperialism. Thus, Fidel’s internationalism was predicated on the need to build the broadest anti-imperialist unity in action in solidarity with the struggles of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America.
However, solidarity for Fidel went well beyond strongly worded statements and declarations of support, since he took it to unprecedented levels, which on many occasions involved the actual participation of tens of thousands of Cuban fighters in highly complex and dangerous undertakings.
Fidel shared Che Guevara’s dictum that to “always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world” was “the most beautiful quality of a revolutionary.”
US imperialism understood the highly emancipatory and contagious significance of the Cuban revolution and thus has sought to crush it ever since January 1 1959. Under Fidel’s leadership Cuba not only developed the most sophisticated knowledge of Latin America as a whole, but it also strongly influenced the healthiest political currents in the region.
Fidel’s Latin Americanist conviction led him to give political support to Salvador Allende, even when the Chilean road seemed to squarely contradict Cuba’s strategy of revolution. He understood the deeply revolutionary nature of Allende’s government and visited Chile in 1971, and his speeches still resonate as strongly as at the time. He steered the revolution to also lend support to both the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions, thus eliciting the wrath of the US.
From the 1960s, consistent with the revolution’s internationalism, Fidel gave Cuban support — usually soldiers and doctors — to revolutionary struggles in Africa, including national liberation movements in Algeria, the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Ghana, Ethiopia, Central Africa and Eritrea. After the collapse of Africa’s Portuguese empire, Fidel took the momentous decision to send thousands of Cuban volunteer troops to Angola, twice. Once in 1975, which decisively tilted the three-way anti-colonial struggle in favour of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), thus guaranteeing the country’s independence. Cuba’s 1975 intervention took place when apartheid South African troops were racing to crush the MPLA. By early 1976 Cuba’s contribution had helped both in pushing the South Africans out of Angola and in winning the war for the MPLA. One African newspaper wrote at the time:
“Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola. Black Africa is tasting … the possibility of realising the dream of total liberation.”
Then again in 1987, Fidel, at the request of the beleaguered MPLA government of Angola, which was facing an all-out military assault and invasion by tens of thousands of apartheid South African elite troops, took the extraordinary decision to send 50,000 troops. They defended Angola at the invasion of Cuito Cuanavale, in the country’s south-east. Fidel himself explained the significance of the undertaking:
“The Cuban revolution had put its own existence at stake, it risked a huge battle against one of the strongest powers located in the area of the Third World, against one of the richest powers, with significant industrial and technological development, armed to the teeth, at such a great distance from our small country and with our own resources, our own arms.”
“We even ran the risk of weakening our defences, and we did so. We used our ships and ours alone, and we used our equipment to change the relationship of forces, which made success possible in that battle. We put everything at stake in that action.”
The geopolitical impact of South Africa’s defeat was so huge that it would substantially contribute to the end of apartheid, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the independence of Namibia.
No other political leader outside of Africa has contributed more to the liberation of Africa from colonialism and imperialism than Fidel, using the meagre resources of a small but great Caribbean island.
A scholar wrote with a great deal of justice:
“Cuba is the only Third World nation with the foreign policy of a world power.”
The defeat of the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions and the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading to the eventual disappearance of the socialist bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, left Cuba severely isolated and the revolution faced extreme danger.
The US sharply intensified the blockade seeking to strangle the island. Cuba’s eastern bloc former allies turned into nasty enemies. With the economy almost in a state of collapse, Fidel defended the socialist nature of the revolution at whatever cost:
“Cuban socialism was not constructed after the arrival of victorious Red Army divisions, our socialism was forged by Cubans in real struggles.”
Fidel’s unique ability to combine hard principles with a pragmatic nimbleness led Cuba to adopt the “special period.” Although this permitted small elements of capitalist entrepreneurship and joint ventures with foreign investment, it allowed Cuba to reinsert itself into the world economy, pretty much under its own conditions. It took the country away from the economic precipice in barely five years.
Fidel was the only political leader to realise Hugo Chavez’s political significance and invite the then Venezuelan presidential candidate to Cuba to engage in discussions and explore ways of collaborating with what at the time was a foggy thing called the Bolivarian revolution.
A young Chavez visited Havana and was warmly welcomed by the Comandante. It was there that he made one of his best formulations of the Bolivarian project. It was also the first sign that the three-decade neoliberal nightmare in the region was on the wane, that Cuba’s isolation was coming to an end, and that Fidel’s vision of a radical, united, independent and integrated Latin America could become a reality. This was in 1994, four years before Chavez became Venezuela’s president and well before there was any inkling it would inaugurate the “pink wave.”
Fidel’s vision and Cuba’s example, after half a century of resistance and adherence to socialist principles, had not only paid off, but the emulation of Cuba’s policies by the pink wave governments ensured that tens of millions of hitherto impoverished and marginalised people began to experience the fruits of a better world.
The United States’ 50-year campaign of aggression against Cuba was defeated by Fidel’s nimble political leadership on a large number of occasions.
It began in 1960 with President Dwight Eisenhower’s attempt to humiliate the Cuban delegation to the UN by throwing them out of the Manhattan Shelburne Hotel. Fidel turned this into a sensational political victory by staying in Harlem’s Theresa Hotel and receiving a rapturous welcome by African-Americans. Ever since, Fidel has inflicted defeat after defeat to imperialism, not only by defending Cuba’s revolution but by also providing tangible material support to anti-imperialist struggles around the world.
No wonder they hated him so much and that the US tried to assassinate him at least 638 times. US efforts to assassinate Fidel are the clearest manifestation of its utter failure to counteract, let alone defeat, the attractiveness of Cuba as an example to imitate and emulate.
Confirming Fidel’s understanding of the imperialist structure of world politics, the state messages paying tribute to his legacy originate overwhelmingly in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. There have been a few from Europe but the response from the US has been at best equivocal and at worst hostile.
The United Nations general assembly observed one minute’s silence for Fidel’s death, requested by UN president Peter Thompson, who highlighted his legacy in which his “dedication to [Cuban] advancement, especially in the fields of education and health, would be long remembered,” adding that his tireless struggle for equity in the international arena made him an “inspirational figure for developing countries in particular.”
In Latin America, the 1959 Cuban revolution showed that a better world was possible. It triggered a colossal historic movement that, despite ebbs and flows, began the long march of the people for their liberation, as was aptly captured by the Revolution Second Declaration of Havana (October 1962) declaring the revolution’s socialist nature.
Fidel’s words in reading it resonate as true today as they did then for Cuba, as for the whole of Latin America: “For this great humanity has said: ‘Enough!’ and has begun to forge ahead. And in its march as a giant will not stop until they conquer true independence.”
We will be faithful to your legacy, Comandante Fidel Castro.
Dr Francisco Dominguez is head of the Latin American studies research group at Middlesex University, London, and is an executive member of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.