Ian Boyne | Love him or loathe him
Today, the remains of one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th Century will be buried, but not his memory or the controversy which was his constant companion throughout his extraordinary life. No one can be neutral about Fidel Castro. You either love him or loathe him.
When his death was announced last weekend, there were outbursts of both jubilation and celebration on the one hand and intense grief and mourning on the other.
"Fidel Castro is dead. Yes, the communist sultan finally expired ... . Castro leaves behind a twisted legacy of communist tyranny and evil personal dictatorship that cost 40,000 lives in Cuba alone and millions of other countless victims of war, deprivation and suffering throughout Latin America and Africa," writes Miguel Faria in the right-wing Telegraph.
But South African freedom fighter Mac Maharaj writes feelingly in the op-ed pages of The New York Times on November 30 about 'Fidel Castro, a South African Hero'. Maharaj reflects on Castro's deep influence on the South African black liberation movement, stretching all the way back to 1956. (Yes, it has been that long). In that year, Nelson Mandela and 155 other freedom fighters were arrested on charges of high treason. During the treason trial, the freedom fighters drew inspiration from Castro's attack on the Moncada Barracks on July 26, 1953.
It was at that trial that Castro uttered his now famous words, "History will absolve me."
When in 1959 Castro finally dislodged the regime of the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista, a puppet of the United States, the South African freedom fighters were inspired to continue their own struggles against the seemingly invincible apartheid system. Says Maharaj: "It was thus the beginning of the love affair between Castro and the people of Cuba and Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters of South Africa, as well as across our continent, where he is today being mourned and celebrated as a freedom fighter himself." Small wonder that Quartz Africa could write a piece on Saturday with the headline, 'Africa is not conflicted about Fidel Castro's legacy'.
It is not widely known that in the same year Castro rose to power in Cuba (1959), he met with Algerian freedom fighters battling French colonialism. Before that, the Cuban freedom fighters had looked to the Algerian patriots for inspiration. While in French prison, Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria's first president who was socialist, said he was inspired by reports of the victories of Castro's guerrillas against a dictatorship backed by US imperialism. It is no surprise that last weekend, Algeria declared eight days of mourning for Castro.
From as early as 1961, Castro arranged for shipments of arms to be sent to Algerian rebels. When the Algerian liberation was won in 1962, Cuban doctors were sent to staff its hospitals. It has been a long time that Castro has been aiding black people in their struggles for justice and human dignity. Cuban military personnel also helped train the Algerian army.
DEFEATING COLONIALISM AND OPPRESSION
In 1966, Castro hosted the Tri-Continental Conference, where leaders of national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America gathered to swap ideas about defeating colonialism and oppression. He was also a principal force in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Castro aligned himself with whatever forces there were fighting against oppression. In 1973, he sent military personnel to Syria during the Yom Kippur war. Castro supported the 1979 Iranian revolution that deposed the US-backed dictator Shah Reza Mohammad Pahlavi. Cuba joined Libya and Algeria in supporting the Polisario Liberation Front in Western Sahara against Morocco, which had annexed its territory in the 1970s.
We can't underestimate Castro's role in the African liberation struggles and the toppling of apartheid in South Africa. When Angola gained independence in 1975, it became the place of choice for liberation movements persecuted in their own countries: The African National Congress of South Africa, the African People's Union of Zimbabwe and the South West African People's Organization of Namibia sought refuge there. Angola was a pivot.
When apartheid South Africa, aided by the US, attacked Angola to destroy the African liberation movement, it was Castro who came to Angola's aid, deploying 36,000 troops to repel the aggressors. Had he not done so, history would have been different. Cuban troops stayed in Africa until 1988 when South Africa granted independence to Namibia. Says Maharaj, joint secretary of the multi-parry negotiation process to end apartheid (1991-1994), in The New York Times piece: "The world will always know that there was once a man named Fidel Castro. Africans will never forget him. His unshakeable anti-colonial and anti-apartheid beliefs guarantee a revered place for him in the hearts of South Africans."
Fidel defies any one-dimensional assessment. He was neither demon nor saint. He fought for liberation abroad but suppressed his own people at home, denying them civil and political liberties that are universal rights. They were not simply "bourgeois rights", as the Marxists used to contemptuously dismiss them. I have often criticised Jamaican leftists like my friend, the late John Maxwell, who would make excuses for Castro's repression at home, citing his successes in health care and education, for example.
It was not enough for him to have provided good health care and good schooling while denying people the right to assembly, the right to form their own political parties apart from his totalitarian communist party, and the right to practise their religion openly. Man can't live by bread alone. Freedom is an inalienable right of all human beings. Castro executed and imprisoned dissidents. The press has never been free in Cuba and today Internet access is suppressed. All of this is a major blot on Castro's legacy. No amount of revolutionary action abroad, standing by the side of black people in Africa and the Caribbean, including Jamaica, can compensate for his suppression of the human rights of the Cuban people.
We must be balanced in our assessment of Castro and freely acknowledge his excesses and authoritarian rule, while pointing to US hypocrisy in its rhetoric about human rights. The US has a long history of repression and of supporting totalitarian regimes in Latin America and around the world. It has installed and been in bed with some of the most brutal dictators around the world and, therefore, has no moral authority to have lectured Castro about respecting territorial integrity and the democratic choices of people. Too many of America's own scholars, including Chalmers Johnson and Noam Chomsky, have documented US imperialism's abuses and atrocities.
The Economist magazine, no Left-leaning source, refers to "hundreds of attempts" by the CIA to assassinate Castro, in its December 3 issue. When people talk about Castro's bringing the world near to nuclear catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, they fail to remember it came on the heels of the 1961 failed coup attempt by the US with that Bay of Pigs invasion.
The Economist comments, giving an interesting historical background: "That was not the Americans' only mistake. In 1952, Batista, a former army sergeant, staged a coup that ended Cuba's experiment with democracy after just a dozen years. The Eisenhower administration, obsessed with an all-but-non-existent communist threat in the Caribbean, backed what would be a deeply corrupt and brutal regime. Batista's coup thwarted Mr Castro's certain election to Congress and a promising career in democratic politics." So America created the revolutionary Castro by supporting a cruel dictator who left no democratic space for action. That would be a recurring theme in the drama of US imperialism.
The US embargo only helped to keep Castro in power. The lifting of the embargo would have facilitated greater openness in Cuba. Cuba was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union, said to be supported by US$1 million a day during the Cold War. But the US blockade deepened its dependence on the Soviets. (Incidentally, while Castro generally toed the Soviet line, he had criticised their invasion of Afghanistan).
As President Obama said when he announced the restoration of US diplomatic relations with Cuba, "These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked."
Fidel Castro has made an indelible mark on history. I can't forget how I felt being in his presence on his first visit to Jamaica in the 1970s, and walking near him as he made his way to the National Heroes Park from the Cathedral at Michael Manley's funeral. A colossus.
Rest in peace, Commandante.