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A polarising leader

A woman holds a child beside an image of Fidel Castro in downtown Havana, Cuba. Photo: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

A woman holds a child beside an image of Fidel Castro in downtown Havana, Cuba. Photo: Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

The reactions to the news of the death of Fidel Castro were mixed. In Havana, the Cuban government declared nine days of national mourning. In the days leading up to his funeral, the Cuban flag flies at half-mast, public performances and activities have been postponed and television stations transmit patriotic programmes.  They are marking the death of a revolutionary.

In Miami, the situation is radically different. People of Cuban descent poured into the streets cracking open bottles of champagne and chanting “Satan, Fidel is now yours”. Here, the atmosphere was that their oppressor is finally gone.

The casual observer would be hard-pressed to form an opinion. Can one simultaneously be an oppressor and a liberator? How does one assess a historic figure who can elicit feelings of admiration and revulsion in equal measure?

Castro’s style was typical of a man of his era. His rhetoric was unquestionably anti-imperialistic. His style was revolutionary. The change he wanted to bring about was at once massive, rapid, violent and all-encompassing.

He sought to export such revolutionary fervour beyond the borders of the island-state of Cuba – in Angola, Eritrea, Somalia, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua among others – generating the opprobrium of many. Such revolutions plunged these countries into prolonged periods of violence and civil strife.

Despite vociferous opposition from the United States, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the numerous assassination attempts, Castro stayed on and resigned in February 2008 after periods of prolonged ill health. He left office at a time and in a manner of his choosing after appointing his younger brother Raul as his successor. He became a symbol of revolution, resistance and resilience.

Castro’s original formation was, unsurprisingly, in the hands of the Jesuits. His ideals were shaped by those of the Cuban national hero José Martí. Initially, his relationship with the Communist Party developed out of necessity rather than out of conviction. Indeed, Castro himself would claim that he was “first a Martian and then a Martian, Marxist and Leninist”.

The Communist Party of Cuba was also initially dismissive and distrustful of Castro. Castro campaigned for radical national independence. His opposition to President Fulgencio Batista centred on the links he had forged with various American businessmen.

The five-year revolution was, initially, a humble affair. Castro was arrested in October 1953. He only served one year and seven months of his fifteen-year sentence after a timely intervention by Archbishop Enrique Perez Serantes. He gradually gained the trust and support of various key segments of society including the impoverished rural population.

His personality was central to the success of the revolution. During an interview with the New York Times, Herbert Matthews noted that Castro’s personality was overpowering. He observed the respect he commanded among his comrades and noted that it was easy “to see why he has caught the imagination of the youth of Cuba all over the island”.

It was easy to see why he caught the imagination of the youth of Cuba all over the island

Matthews described Castro as “a man of ideals, of courage and of remarkable qualities of leadership”. His style even earned the admiration of the then British ambassador to Cuba. After Batista had fled Cuba, Castro addressed thousands of jubilant supporters in Havana. Ambassador Fordham remarked that Castro seemed like a mixture of José Martí, Robin Hood, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Jesus Christ.

Cuba’s progress in the health and education sector is often cited as an example of the success of his revolution. Cuba provides a considerable number of medical personnel to the developing world, while it spends approximately 10 per cent of its national budget on education.

However, while preaching the language of liberation and social justice, Castro practised methods of subjugation and repression. He adopted a curious mix of Marxism-Leninism and Cuban nationalism. Cuba became a one-party socialist state – the first of its kind in the Western hemisphere.

In the first two years following the revolution, he executed approximately 582 supporters of the former government. The independent media was suppressed. Priests and homosexuals were sent to camps for “re-education”. Censorship became commonplace and political prisoners populated several prisons. The fundamental freedoms of assembly, expression, movement and worship were curtailed.

Castro defiantly claimed that “revolutionary justice is not based on legal precepts, but on moral conviction”.

Economically, Cuba relied heavily on the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the latter, the economy ground to a halt. The GDP collapsed, fuel shortages became common, and food scarcity necessitated the introduction of food rationing.

Castro, however, was a survivor. In his advancing years, he became increasingly resilient and adaptable. His approach softened too. He rescinded his active persecution of the Catholic Church and homosexuality. However, his human rights record remained inexcusable and horrifying.

His modest ways and the lack of significant corruption scandals surrounding his persona made him somewhat more credible than some of his contemporaries. In the post-Cold War world, he championed himself as an environmentalist and an anti-globalisation activist.

At the time of his death, many leaders praised the former Cuban president for his commitment to social justice. This, perhaps, was a rushed assessment. His record needs to be assessed holistically.

Castro once told those who sought to condemn him to prison that history will absolve him. However, ‘history’ has no power to absolve or condemn – the study of history is primarily concerned with presenting the facts as they happened. It is up to those who have experienced Castro’s rule to decide whether he deserves absolution or otherwise.

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André DeBattista holds degrees in public policy and international relations and is a member of the Political Studies Association (UK) and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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