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Will history absolve him?

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Someone said of Fidel Castro that ‘he was as loathed as he was beloved’. Reaction both in Cuba and Miami is testimony to this. He was one of the iconic figures of the latter part of the 20th century and early 21st century. What is of interest is that many of those who abhorred his Communist path and what they regarded as his repressive policies nevertheless admired the man and what he stood for. He was clearly a polarizing figure, but unfortunately, our image and understanding of him have been shaped by America, which loved to hate him.{{more}} He emerged during the early part of the anti-colonial struggle and Cold War and his relationship with the Soviet Union naturally brought strong condemnation from the US. This was reinforced by the presence of hundreds of thousands of exiles who found a home in Miami. There was in the American attitude an element of hypocrisy. They dealt with strong men and autocrats in different paths of the world, but could not stomach the fact that this leader of a country of just over 10 million, situated 90 miles from their shore, could challenge the so-called leader of the free world.

Cuba under Batista was the playground of America, which had been directing operations there since 1898, intervening officially on at least two occasions. The revolution aimed to change that. The nationalization of property and businesses owned by Americans, the arrest and execution in the early years of persons hostile to the revolutionary government, the opening up of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and Castro’s option to follow the Communist path poisoned any chance of normal relations with the US. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban missile crisis, the breaking of diplomatic relations, the economic embargo imposed by the US and CIA directed efforts to overthrow Castro muddied any chance of a restoration of normal relations.

Castro’s defiance of the US, his readiness to escape that country’s dominance, and to persevere, despite their hostility, in fact what can be called his obsession with the US, marked his period as leader. The exodus of large parts of the population reflects the failure of his Soviet inspired economic policies and his harsh treatment of persons opposed to his regime. His control of the media and indeed generally tight control, his human rights record and holding of political prisoners over the years were negatives to his period of administration. Despite what is often said, he seemed not to have enriched himself, certainly did not build monuments to himself.

As I reflect on things over the years, it is clear that the economic embargo and assassination attempts would have forced him to continue in the direction he was going. He was not the kind of leader to have cowered to those pressures, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union robbed him of valuable subsidies. I have often wondered what would have happened if the US had heeded the continuing request of the UN general assembly to end the economic boycott. The Obama led efforts to normalize relations are beginning to have some impact on the path Cuba is taking, though not as quickly as some had hoped, but one can detect movement. One must understand that Cuba has defied America since 1960; why should we expect that the olive branch thrown out by Obama would witness an instant dismantling of the nature of the Cuban regime, especially when the embargo remains. The opportunities now being opened for foreign investment, the operation of private businesses by Cubans and the spread of technology, as seen for instance with the growth of Wi Fi and the Internet generally, are beginning to shape the future of Cuba.

While Americans were critical of what they considered Castro’s adventurism overseas, we should pay tribute to his support to the anti-apartheid movement, to the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and aid to Latin American people fighting brutal dictatorships. Cuba’s assistance to countries facing emergencies and unable to provide adequate health care must be commended. Despite its poor economic state, its acceptance of students from all areas of the world, particularly from Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and even the US, has been astonishing. Americans mock the inadequate wages offered to workers in Cuba, but pay no regard to the fact that many of their services, including housing, are subsidized and that education and health care are free. Castro was no saint, but he must be seen in the context of what was happening within the Americas, including the determination of Miami hardliners, with CIA’s support, to crush his regime. Under those circumstances any opposition was considered to be American inspired and supported, and some undoubtedly were.

The global impact of that small impoverished country of 11 million is remarkable. At the centre of all of this is that bearded revolutionary, who in a battered and overloaded yacht, ‘Granma,’ forced the strongman, but darling of America, Batista, to flee the country. Despite his many negatives, Castro was an outstanding leader, certainly a friend of the Caribbean, four Caribbean leaders having gone against the wishes of America and established diplomatic relations in 1972. We see the rejoicing of his death in Miami, but in Cuba, even those seeking new directions would forever remember Fidel, many positively.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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