The death of Cuba’s revolutionary leader Fidel Castro has provoked the usual praise of him from some and condemnation of him from others.
What no one denies is the colossal impact he has had, not just on his own country but on the world.
This fact bears repeating because it is so remarkable. Cuba – the country which Fidel Castro led – is small (its current population is 11 million) and relatively poor. It has no great wealth of natural resources, and no great industries. At the time Fidel Castro came to power its social services were primitive, its school and health systems hugely unbalanced and undeveloped, and much of its population was illiterate.
By no conceivable stretch of the imagination is Cuba a Great Power, and before Fidel Castro became its leader it occurred to no one to think of it as one.
That the leader of such a small country was able to have such an extraordinary impact on the world stage is little short of astonishing, and says a huge amount about Fidel Castro’s personality as incidentally it does about Cuba and about the revolution he led.
Suffice to say that by comparison the nations led by Mao Zedong, Ho Chih Minh, Ruhollah Khomenei and Nelson Mandela – the four other great revolutionary leaders of the post Second World War world – China, Vietnam, Iran and South Africa – are by comparison with Cuba all giants (in China’s case a titan) and it is not therefore surprising if their revolutionary leaders were therefore able to command world attention.
It is true but it is also trite to say that one reason why Fidel Castro and Cuba attracted so much attention was because in the 1960s they became the focus of the Cold War, with the USA and USSR almost going to war over Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis on 1962.
It is trite because Cuba only became so important in the Cold War because Fidel Castro made it so.
There have been many other left wing and revolutionary leaders in the Caribbean and Latin America before and after Fidel Castro. None of them – not even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez – have ever come close to matching Fidel Castro’s political stature, or managed to make their countries the centre of superpower conflict in the same way.
The reason Fidel Castro succeeded in doing this was because he was prepared to do things in the Caribbean and Latin America – the US’s backyard – that no other Caribbean or Latin American leader has been prepared to do. Unlike them he carried out in the 1960s a genuine revolutionary transformation of Cuban society, something that no other Caribbean or Latin American leader has ever done.
What that means in practice is that there is no institutional continuity between pre-Castro Cuba and the Cuba of today.
The army, police, state bureaucracy, media and judiciary, are completely different, the wealth – including the lands and factories – of the old Cuban oligarchy, has been subjected to a comprehensive revolutionary expropriation, and the economy, health and education systems have been entirely taken over and recreated in Fidel Castro’s own image.
To say that this was controversial would be a gigantic understatement. In fact it remains the main charge and grievance against Fidel Castro of the people he displaced to this day, and explains the relentless quality of their hostility to him.
It is also the reason for the US embargo.
The revolutionary changes Fidel Castro carried out in Cuba in the 1960s made it impossible for his government and revolution to be reversed internally – the fate of every single other Caribbean and Latin American revolution before and since – because it deprived the US of the usual tools it uses to reverse such revolutions.
The US – which never tolerates anything that remotely resembles revolutionary change in its Caribbean and Latin American backyard for very long – has been struggling to come up with a response ever since.
The embargo it imposed on Cuba was one such attempt at a response. Though it long ago visibly failed, the US’s habitual obstinacy and petulance and the powerful vested interests which support the embargo mean that it has continued ever since.
To say that it was the revolutionary transformation of Cuban society that Fidel Castro carried out in the 1960s that accounts for his survival and success however begs the question of how it was done?
Part of the answer undoubtedly lies within Fidel Castro’s personality. It is clear that he possessed to the highest degree the clarity of vision, the determination and the unsentimental ruthlessness that no revolutionary leader can succeed without.
It is however important to say that Fidel Castro was able to do it because of the support of Cuban society. The reason for that is in part because of a peculiar feature of the Cuban revolution, which is bound up with Cuba’s unusual relationship to the US.
I discussed all this two years ago in an article I wrote for Sputnik, and I will set it out here again
“The breakdown in relations between the United States and Cuba was the consequence of the Castro Revolution of 1959. This was a revolution launched from the countryside against a corrupt oligarchic elite based in Havana.
That elite in turn had extremely close connections with the United States. These extended back decades to Cuba’s liberation war against Spain in the 1890s. The United States intervened in that war in a manner that achieved for it a dominant position in Cuba right up to the point of Castro’s revolution in 1959. It would not be an exaggeration to say that throughout this period Cuba was essentially a protectorate of the United States.
It should be clarified that this was a relationship that differed significantly from the one the United States has with nearly all other Latin American countries. The United States has been the dominant political influence — in effect the not so silent partner — in the political system of every Latin American state for most of the last century. However in no other Latin American state or country, save Panama and Puerto Rico, has US political engagement been so direct and open as it was in Cuba.
This form of US domination had important practical significance. Not only did the United States acquire a major military base at Guantánamo Bay (which it retains still) but it achieved total domination of Cuba’s economy and political system in a way that made both in effect appendages of the economy and political system of the United States.
As is well-known Cuba gradually evolved into an important playground for the American rich and not so rich. From the 1920s to the 1950s Havana became a US holiday and gambling centre to rival Miami and later Las Vegas. Moreover, many wealthy Americans had second homes there. These included the writer Ernest Hemingway and the wealthy Dupont family whose former villa Xanadu was one of the inspirations for the palace of that name in the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. It remains a landmark in the holiday resort of Varadero to this day.
This was the period when the Tropicana nightclub in Havana achieved its heyday, when the Capitolio building in Havana was built in direct imitation of the Capitol in Washington, when the US Hershey chocolate company built an electric railway to service its sugar plantations and when Havana became a byword for tropical hedonism and vice.
This US political and economic control went together with considerable corruption. Its status as a protectorate was incompatible with democracy and at no time before the Castro Revolution in 1959 was Cuba in any true sense one. At the time of the Revolution Cuba was actually a dictatorship led by a former staff Sergeant Fulgencio Batista.
Behind the facade of a dictatorship the true power in Cuba actually rested, as it had always done, in an oligarchy of wealthy families (some tracing their origins back to the period of Spanish rule), the military, the US embassy and US businessmen, several of whom were well known gangsters.
The two key figures amongst the latter were the mobsters Meyer Lansky and Santos Trafficante, with the former often regarded as the true ruler of Cuba during this period.
The immediate pre-revolution period in Cuba was one of chronic impoverishment and neglect of the Cuban countryside combined with a frenetic construction boom in Havana itself.
This period when the Tropicana nightclub in Havana achieved its heyday and when Havana became a byword for tropical hedonism and prostitution was also a period of growing inequality and of social unrest.
In fairness it was also a time of considerable cultural achievement, of the emergence in Havana of a substantial middle class and of the construction of a highway system of a sort unknown at this time in other Latin American states.
These intense connections between Cuba and the United States explain much about the subsequent period of protracted hostility.
For the Cubans many of their societal problems became explicable by reference to their subordinate position to the United States, which to a proud people was humiliating and exploitative. The Castro Revolution was in a sense Cuba’s declaration of independence from the United States.”
(Bold Italics added)
In the same article I discussed the various US attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro and how – precisely because the Cuban revolution was effectively Cuba’s declaration of independence from the US – they actually consolidated support for Fidel Castro and his revolutionary government
“The consequence has been five decades of struggle by the United States to bring Cuba back under its control. This has involved an economic blockade and unrelenting attempts to destabilise and overthrow the Cuban government.
On occasion this had had its farcical aspects such as the plot to murder Fidel Castro with an exploding seashell or the recent attempt to recruit Cuban hip-hop artists in a plot to overthrow the government. This should not however detract from the enormous material and psychological damage done to Cuba.
The US economic and political war against Cuba has been further extended by the powerful vested interests in its perpetuation.
Anti-Castro groups managed to achieve political control of the Cuban community in the United States in the 1960s and the perpetuation of the US’s undeclared war against Cuba served both to cement their control of that community and their political influence within the United States. Allied to various political and economic groups in the United States that were also opposed to reconciliation for ideological, economic or political reasons, they formed a powerful political lobby resisting any rapprochement between the two countries.
However, the conflict between Cuba and the United States also serves as a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable obstacle.
Precisely because the Cuban revolution was in a sense Cuba’s declaration of independence from the United States, US political pressure upon Cuba in the end served to consolidate support for the Cuban government rather than undermine it.“
(bold italics added)
It is of course also true – as I also discussed in this article – that Fidel Castro and Cuba could not have won through without the critical support in the 1960s and 1970s of the USSR.
However saying this, though true, is also trite, because the reason the USSR was willing to commit itself to Cuba in the way it did – and which it never did to any other Caribbean or Latin American revolution – was precisely because of the comprehensive revolutionary change that Fidel Castro carried out in Cuba, which showed to the USSR that Cuba’s revolution would be lasting and was for real.
Fidel Castro’s genius was that he was not only able to secure this Soviet support to carry out revolutionary change within Cuba, but that he was also able to leverage the USSR’s support to carry out revolutionary change in southern Africa.
The importance of Cuba’s involvement in the wars against the apartheid regime in Angola and Namibia has always been recognised by the leadership of the ANC (including by Nelson Mandela himself), though in the West it has gone completely unacknowledged, and is disputed by some people in South Africa itself.
My opinion, having personally discussed this issue with eyewitnesses of the fighting in Angola and with people involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, is that its importance cannot be overestimated, and that the Cuban victory at Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 was crucial – as Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and many others have always said it was – in acting as the catalyst for the end of the apartheid regime.
To be clear that regime would sooner or later have fallen anyway. Fidel Castro’s and Cuba’s intervention were however decisive in causing it to fall when it did. Given that the apartheid regime’s further perpetuation into the 1990s would have been a total disaster for the people of southern Africa, that is something that they – and the rest of the world – have huge cause to be grateful to Fidel Castro for.
As Fidel Castro on numerous occasions admitted, Cuba’s intervention in the wars in southern Africa could not have happened without the support of the USSR. It was Fidel Castro’s brilliant skill in obtaining that support, and the outstanding use he made of it, which was however decisive. Since the USSR was a superpower, it was Fidel Castro’s skill in leveraging its support which for a time made Cuba a Great Power.
In recognising the colossal scale of Fidel Castro’s achievement, it is however also necessary to admit that his revolution has run its course, and that it did so some time ago.
Though the revolution has transformed Cuba – especially its formerly impoverished countryside – and has provided Cuba with what are by any standard exceptional health and education systems, the degree of political and social control Fidel Castro was forced to impose on Cuban society in order to safeguard his revolution has by all accounts been causing increasing frustration within Cuba itself, as an immeasurably better educated, healthier and far more self-confident generation of younger Cubans increasingly feels – whether rightly or wrongly – that the existing system does not give full scope to them to develop their abilities.
Despite perennial Western criticisms of Cuba’s human rights record, Fidel Castro never carried out the sort of Terror in Cuba that has been such a feature of other revolutions carried out elsewhere, and in a region where political repression continues to be common, and where life is still cheap, life in Cuba under Fidel Castro has been immeasurably safer and more secure for the vast majority of Cuba’s people than it has been in any of Cuba’s neighbours.
Nonetheless the great challenge for Cuba today is to move forward, despite likely continued US hostility, in order to make Cuba a freer and less controlled society – one better adapted to the present needs of its people – whilst preserving its independence, and the massive social gains of Fidel Castro’s revolution.
That is something that Cuba almost certainly can achieve but which – as Fidel Castro always knew – given Cuba’s vulnerability and limited resources, it can only achieve with external help.