Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Edward Seaga | Fidel Castro: last of the breed of relentless revolutionaries

Published:Sunday | December 11, 2016 | 12:00 AM
The motorcade carrying the ashes of the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro makes its final journey towards the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago, Cuba, on December 4.

Cuba was one of the participants in the Cold War between the East and West, manifesting the ideological divide. The United States, the Western power, was particularly concerned with the infiltration of communism, the ideology sponsored by the Soviet Union, the Eastern power, in the Western Hemisphere.

Cuba was the flag-bearer of this ideological advance because Cuban President Fidel Castro, who led insurgents to an overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, was strongly admired in socialist countries throughout the world for his defiance of American pressure to bring down his regime. With Cuba as a pivotal point of resistance to American imperialism, the radical Left in the region was greatly strengthened.

A Caribbean version of the East-West struggle was building up in the region, raising the ideological tension to a new level. The Organization of American States (OAS), comprising, at that time, all Latin American countries and the United States, passed a resolution at its meeting in Punta del Este, Uruguay, on January 31, 1962, excluding Cuba from the inter-American system of which the OAS was the political forum. The basis of the resolution was that Cuba had officially identified itself as a Marxist-Leninist (communist) government, which was incompatible with the principles and objectives of the inter-American system. Of particular concern to the OAS was the position of disrespect for human rights. The resolution was prompted by the United States. The decision did not expel Cuba from the OAS, but excluded the country from involvement in the agencies of the inter-American system: the OAS, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others.

On February 7, 1962, the United States announced an embargo on trade with Cuba. Later, on October 14, 1962, there was a frightening development. Washington disclosed that Soviet missiles aimed at the United States had been installed in Cuba. Washington demanded that the Soviet Union withdraw the missiles or face serious consequences. With both countries having their finger on the trigger to release missiles with excessive power, the world went through several days of gripping tension as it pondered the apocalyptic possibility. Eventually, Moscow backed down and withdrew the missiles after coming to a compromise with Washington that Cuba would not be invaded and in regards to US missile bases in Europe.

The real-life threat of potential annihilation exposed the Cuban role as a Soviet proxy in the area.

Jamaica, in 1962, was preparing to be an independent country on August 6. It was not involved then in either OAS decisions or regional big-power politics. In the Jamaican Cabinet, the decision to join the OAS and IDB was not meeting with smooth passage. Bob Lightbourne was a strong Anglophile. He objected to Jamaican involvement with Latin America in general because of great cultural dissimilarities and little trading possibilities. He complained bitterly that Latin conferences always started very late. Those in attendance would disappear for three hours at lunchtime, during which a lot of decisions on matters that were hardly discussed in the conference were taken. Deeper links with Jamaica's current trading partners was his proposal. This delayed the inevitable decision for awhile until his viewpoints had been heard and rejected.

Jamaica's entry into the OAS was not without difficulty. The government did not propose to support the resolution passed at Punta del Este, which would have positioned Jamaica in a confrontational role with Cuba. It was felt that it was in the interest of Jamaica to maintain friendly relations with Cuba, where many thousands of Jamaicans resided, having remained there after cutting cane in World War I. Besides, Cuba was the nearest neighbour, being only 90 miles distant.

Accordingly, the OAS was advised of the interest of Jamaica to become a member, providing that the OAS would not require support for the resolution against Cuba. After diplomatic exchanges and some futile pressure from Washington, pointing to a possible loss of US$9 million of aid if Jamaica proceeded on that course, the OAS agreed to the membership of Jamaica in 1969 without its compliance with the resolution.

This act of support and friendship by Kingston, however, was not reciprocated by Havana, as within a few years, the Cuban government became deeply involved with the PNP government that was newly elected in 1972. Cuba, it was obvious, saw Jamaica not just as a proven friend but now as an ideological fellow-traveller in the socialist movement.

Cuban missions visited Jamaica in 1973 as a prelude to the establishment of a Cuban Embassy in Jamaica. Diplomatic relations already existed between the two countries.

Jamaicans were uneasy with Castro following the success of the revolution in 1959. That unease had surfaced among the property-owning class in the referendum debate in 1961. It was intensified now with Cuban missiles pointing threateningly at the USA.

The uneasiness about Cuban-type socialist contamination of the body politic in Jamaica grew further when Prime Minister Michael Manley was invited to ride with Fidel Castro in his Ilyushin jet to Algiers for his first meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in September 1973.

By 1974, Jamaica had become sufficiently involved with Cuba that an exiled group, the Cuban National Front, living in Miami, bombed the Cuban Embassy in Jamaica.

Michael Manley was invited by Fidel Castro to visit Cuba on July 10, 1975, where he made a strong presentation on Jamaican-Cuba solidarity and friendship.

The Jamaica-Cuban relationship had entered a new phase by 1975. Under an agreement aimed at benefiting both countries, the Jamaican-Cuban Joint Commission on Economic, Technical and Cultural Cooperation prepared several projects to be implemented in Jamaica in areas such as agriculture, education, science, health, tourism, housing, shipping and the training of police officers. Many of these projects never materialised, but a project to build secondary schools was undertaken using Cuban manpower. The first school brought a contingent of 280 Cuban workers.

The Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) and The Daily Gleaner voiced their unease about Cuban presence in the island. The JCC warning that the entry of the Cuban workers could be like a Trojan horse.

 

BOMB EXPLOSION

 

A bomb placed in a suitcase to be loaded on a Cuban aircraft exploded at the Norman Manley Airport in Kingston on July 9, 1974.

On August 24, The Daily Gleaner reprinted an article published in Manchester, England, on August 6, stating that "an increasing number of Cubans are arriving in Jamaica to help the left-wing government ... and are arousing concern from the Opposition and middle-class residents ... . It is not clear how many Cubans are in Kingston; Newsweek Magazine says 300, but unconfirmed reports said nearer 3,000." The truth was nearer to 500.

From the end of 1975, there was less convincing required to identify the design of Manley's policy as one of establishing a deeper Cuban and Soviet connection. Those who cared little about such relationships, mostly among the working class and rural communities, welcomed the announcement of a visit by Fidel Castro to Jamaica.

The event was greeted like a visit by a great celebrity but with that special fervour reserved for a leader who was seen to be 'helping poor people'. Middle-class and business interests were not in that category. Where they failed to react promptly to the statement by Manley in the House of Representatives one year previously, November 20, 1974, from lack of understanding or a desire to wait and see, there was no need for further delay in coming to an understanding that Jamaica was being, or to be, radically reformed in the socialist-communist direction.

The sharp swing to the Left was not all that was causing deep anxiety among this influential group of opinion makers, employers and investors. The economy was rapidly reversing its path of strident economic growth, which it had experienced between the middle of the 1960s up to the change of government in 1972, and the settling in of the new government in 1973.

This swing away from economic to social development was characteristic of the socialist ideology. Not that it was deliberate, but it was inevitable under the repression that socialist countries had to use to keep the population in line while the economy deteriorates.

Castro's repression and detention of dissidents was what transformed his revolution from an escape to freedom to another dictatorship. This was a great disappointment to many countries and people who thought that once the corrupt Batista regime was overthrown, Cuba would be free.

The US embargo of trade with Cuba made life more financially difficult. Wages fell dramatically; the cost of basic items were beyond the reach of most Cubans; pork, cheese and beans were the monotonous diet of the people.

As the 'new Cuba' grew abroad, Castro succeeded in broadening education to encompass all students; likewise, he established a first-rate health system. Both were free and helped to modify the ugly image the revolution had developed as a state that imprisoned all dissenters, largely without trial.

 

CASTRO'S GIFTS

 

Nonetheless, despite the conditions in Cuba, Castro provided four high schools for Jamaica built by Cuban workers and sent doctors and nurses to bolster Jamaica's failing health system. Jamaicans were impressed and pleased. But they were also more and more displeased at the Cuban institutions of repression like the Home Guards and Pioneer Corps, which were established by its government for political control of the people.

The fear was that Manley, who had established himself as Castro's 'passero' with whom he would "walk to the mountain top", would try to replicate these political units of repression in Jamaica.

This was tried, as feared, but became limp and useless to the people who were paying less attention to Manley because of their preoccupation with the lack of food and other basic items, closed factories, higher costs and galloping unemployment.

Castro, though fighting greater travails, continued his revolution, which still thrived until he died at 90 years old, an unrelenting socialist revolutionary leader, arguably the last of his breed.

It is not for us to say his revolution was wrong. When there is no democratic system for change, revolution would be the only course, and he used it for good and evil purposes.

I was one of Castro's principal critics and adversaries in the region. I did not value him for his mind filled with false premises, but for the courage of his heart. His legacy is that history will never forget him.

- Edward Seaga is a former prime minister. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.