The death of the Cuban revolutionary represents the end of an era, but his impact on the world is much more positive than his mistakes would suggest.
With the death of Fidel Castro, the first era of Communist leaders has come to a close. However, unlike Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong, the former Cuban president is unique in that the country he led is still very much socialist – and remarkably, it’s doing quite well for itself.
Cuba has a 99 per cent literacy rate and free education from primary school to university, the latter being something that many Western countries don’t have. In 2014, Cuba’s unemployment rate was 2.7 per cent and the next year it reported lower child mortality rates than the US. The country is very much a leader in terms of medical research, creating the first Meningitis-B, Hepatitis-B, Dengue Fever, and non-small-cell lung carcinoma (the most common type of lung cancer) vaccines, as well as becoming the first country to eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. Add the fact that Cuba has been embargoed by one of the best trading partners in the world since 1959, and that makes for some seriously impressive development. One could only imagine where Cuba could be now if the USA had made efforts to re-establish relations with them earlier.
Yet Castro has been criticised many times for his alleged human rights violations and crackdowns on free speech. The first few years after the Cuban Revolution were bloody, but it wasn’t civilians being killed – most of those executed were allies of former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. These may seem barbaric, and must be condemned (as should all killings) but it’s hard not to sympathise with the Cuban working class in this situation. After years under Batista’s despotic reign, where they were deprived of healthcare, shelter, and basic human needs and rights, why would they have sympathised with those who tried to hoard their wealth at the expense of the masses? As Mao Zedong said: “A revolution is not a dinner party”.
Not to mention the dangers of foreign intervention. After the failed CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, it was obvious that Castro was a target for the US – attempts on his life were made over 600 times, according to former Cuban counterintelligence chief Fabian Escalante – his paranoia is understandable. While it definitely doesn’t justify some of Cuba’s harsher laws, it does contextualise them. It’s easy to see Castro as a tyrannical despot killing anyone who dared speak up, but the reality is that he led a working-class revolution on the doorstep of a powerful country that was actively trying to overthrow this new Cuba. His killing of US operatives and establishment of Revolutionary Courts that were designed to purge counter-revolutionaries were simply self-defence against the US to ensure that Cuba didn’t go the way of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, et al.
For this, Castro should mostly be remembered for his outstanding efforts in the fight against imperialism. In a time of Operation Condor and US intervention, when US-backed dictatorships in Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile repressed left-wing organisations and killed 20-60,000 dissidents, Cuba stood out as a bastion of independence and internationalism almost immediately after the revolution, sending a medical brigade to Algeria during their war for independence even though half of Cuba’s doctors had fled.
Cuba’s international medical aid programme, active since the revolution, is renowned worldwide, with 42,000 volunteers active in 109 countries at the last count, more than the G8 countries combined. Whether sending doctors to aid anti-colonial struggles in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, sending them for humanitarian purposes after events like Hurricane Mitch and the Chernobyl disaster, or more recently the West African Ebola epidemic and the 2010 Haitian earthquake.
It should also not be forgotten how big of a role Castro played in ending apartheid and furthering the civil rights cause. There’s a reason that Nelson Mandela flew to Cuba in 1991 to personally thank Castro (and why Castro himself was greeted with huge applause when he travelled to Durban in 1998) and that’s because he had such a huge influence on ending apartheid. When apartheid-era South Africa invaded communist Angola, Cuban forces were there to beat them back, and Mandela himself said that Castro’s 26th of July Movement was the inspiration for his own militant group, the Spear of the Nation. Mandela, upon hearing that Cuban troops were in Angola, wrote “it was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help achieve their freedom”
While Castro was aiding third-world countries and fighting for civil rights (meeting with civil rights icon Malcolm X) other Western leaders were up to more questionable activity. Ronald Reagan, for example, was backing the apartheid-era South African government during their invasion of Angola and vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act. Across the pond, Margaret Thatcher refused to economically sanction South Africa and called the African National Congress party “a terrorist organisation” There’s a reason that Angola’s secretary-general called Castro “a son of Africa” and that’s because he was fighting for the voiceless when other countries ignored them. Whether in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, South Africa, Ethiopia, Cape Verde, Congo, or any of the 32 African countries in which Cuba’s medical volunteers work as of 2014, Castro was always ready to fight the forces of imperialism.
This is what Castro should be known for, problems aside. Unlike other dictators, Castro stood up against the US’ interventions on a world scale, and he should be admired for that. He may have started his life as a rich kid from rural Cuba, but he ended it as a man of people.
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