“I think that a man should not live beyond the age when he begins to deteriorate, when the flame that lighted the brightest moment of his life has weakened.” - Fidel Castro
On Saturday morning we woke up to the devastating news that Comandante Fidel Castro, is no more. Castro was one of the great figures of the twentieth century. He came to us from the age of the black and white photograph and the shaky newsreel and left us in the age of the meme and the tweet. He came to us as a soldier and left us in his old age, a frail man.
In the time of leaders as tawdry as Trump, Modi, Temer and Zuma, our own crushing disgrace, Castro strode the global stage as a grand figure, an icon. In a time when, across the world, the left is weak and in retreat, and the grotesque passions of the right are in full flame, Castro was a living symbol of courage, fortitude and revolutionary internationalism.
The Cuban Revolution of 1959 has become a mythic event. Generations of young people have learnt the story that starts with 80 or so men on board a rickety boat, the Granma, then moves to the ambush at the beach of Playa Las Coloradas, which only 19 men survived, and into the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and concludes with victory in Havana. The revolution that Castro led against a rapacious dictator backed by the United States was, along with the anti-colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam, one of the great events of the time. It galvanised a generation around the world.
When Castro travelled to New York in 1960 to address the United Nations he caused a sensation when he decided to stay at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem. Crowds chanted his name in the streets. He met Malcolm X and Langston Hughes. In the same year Frantz Fanon put in a request to become the ambassador to Cuba for the revolutionary forces in Algeria. In 1963 when CLR James added a new appendix to The Black Jacobins, his classic book on the Haitian Revolution, he titled it ‘From Toussaint L’Ouverture to Fidel Castro’. For James, Castro was the contemporary inheritor of the revolutionary legacy in the Caribbean. After the Haitian Revolution, many of the planters had escaped to Cuba where they constructed a brutal regime of racial exploitation on the sugar plantations. Castro’s revolution was a significant breach against racial domination. The children of people who had laboured on sugar plantations became doctors, diplomats and generals. It was Castro who offered shelter to Assata Shakur in 1984.
In Southern Africa we usually start our recollections of Castro with the Cuban role in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in Angola, in 1988. This battle, as we all know, was a decisive moment in the breaking of the military supremacy of the apartheid state across the region. Reagan and Thatcher were on the side of our oppressors. Castro was on our side. This is not something that we will forget. We will teach our children his name.
Globally Cuba is recognised, even by much liberal opinion, for education and health care systems that are far better than those available to working class and poor people in the United States. The Cuban achievements in these areas are simply remarkable. They show, above all else, how central political will is to addressing social issues. They throw the abysmal failures of our own, much richer, government in terms of education and health care into stark relief.
Since the revolution Cuba has been under sustained siege by the United States. During the Cold War ruthless kleptocratic anti-communist dictators like Mobutu in the Congo, and the Duvaliers in Haiti, received consistent support from the United States. At the same time Cuba was isolated and subject to endless machinations. That isolation and harassment continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. A total of 638 plans by the CIA to kill Castro have been recorded ranging from poisoned cigars, exploding seashells to a plain old-fashioned mafia style shooting.
Lumumba, Cabral and Sankara were all murdered. But Castro survived. His maverick spirit and tenacious determination led a small island 89 times smaller than the United States to stand up to the most powerful imperial power of the 20th century. After the Cold War Cuba remained committed to internationalism. Cuba exported doctors and teachers around the world, and supported progressive social movements and governments in Latin America. As Angela Davis noted: “Fidel is the leader of one of the smallest countries in the world, but he has helped to shape the destinies of millions of people across the globe”.
We don’t know what form the Cuban revolution would have taken if it had not been subject to constant threats and pressures. The form that it has taken has certainly included missteps. These must be confronted openly and honestly. As Amilcar Cabral famously insisted political seriousness requires that we: “Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories . . .” But when the Cuban revolution is reduced to these missteps, and when they are held up as evidence of unique evil while nothing is said about the carceral archipelago and relentless police violence within the United States, both deeply racialised phenomena, and its catastrophic wars abroad, we are dealing with propaganda rather than serious critique.
Cuba remains poor. But it is considerably better to be poor, and especially to be black and poor, in Cuba than in the parts of the Caribbean that, like Haiti, are fully subordinated to the political and economic hegemony of the United States. Indeed it is better, in many ways, to be poor, and especially to be black and poor, in Cuba than the United States – or, for that matter, South Africa. These facts are not trivial.
Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro first met in 1959 and remained close. Marquez advised the Cuban state on the literature syllabus in high schools. Marquez came under huge pressure to renounce Castro and his involvement with Cuba after the revolution but refused to be cowed. He wrote, of Castro, that:
“When he talks with people in the street, his conversation regains the expressiveness and crude frankness of genuine affection. They call him: Fidel. They address him informally, they argue with him, they claim him. It is then that one discovers the unusual human being that the reflection of his own image does not let us see. This is the Fidel Castro that I believe I know. A man of austere habits and insatiable illusions, with an old-fashioned formal education of cautious words and subdued tones, and incapable of conceiving any idea that is not colossal.”
Castro will take his place in history as one of the remarkable individuals who became a flame that lit up new paths, revealed new possibilities and demonstrated, in the most concrete way, that another world is possible. Our world is very different in some ways to the world in which Castro made such a dramatic breach in 1959. But capitalism and imperialism, both raced phenomena, continue to wreak devastation. Castro himself asked a question that remains eminently contemporary: “They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?” DM
Vashna Jagarnath is a senior lecturer in the Department of History. She writes and researches on Indian Cinema, the colonial public sphere and the History of Africana Intellectual Thought with specific focus on Marxist ideology within Pan Africanism. She is associated with Numsa Movement for Socialism Task Team [MFS] and Numsa Research and Policy Institute [NuRPI].