Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who led anti-imperialist revolution casting off U.S. hegemony and taking the liberated country to the path of communism, died on Friday at the age of 90.
While Havana and the rest of Cuba mourns for the death of their beloved revolutionary leader, the Cuban exiles in Miami’s Little Havana celebrates his death. For too long, the exiles in Miami had hoped for Fidel Castro’s death. They had chanted, “Free Cuba! Down with Castro. Down with tyranny!” They had seen him as a brutal dictator, a tyrant who banned free speech, freedom of assembly and a free press, abolished Christmas as an official holiday for nearly 30 years, and executed or jailed thousands of political opponents.
For nearly half a century, Fidel Castro had played an immense role in America’s political psyche. In the words of Karen DeYoung, “Even when his country ceased to be much of a policy concern — long after the memories of threatened nuclear attack and Third World adventurism had faded — Fidel Castro remained the nettlesome, living symbol of how a small island had thumbed its nose at the United States and survived.” (Washington Post, November 26, 2016)
Now Fidel Castro is dead. His younger brother Raul has been running the island nation of 11 million people for the last ten years after Fidel stepped aside in 2006 when a serious illness felled him.
Fidel, the son of a prosperous sugar planter, received his law degree at the University of Havana in 1950 and set up a practice in the capital city. Two years later, he ran for a seat in the Cuban congress on the ticket of the Ortodoxo Party, a reform group. His campaign was cut short on March 10, 1952, when Batista staged a coup and retook the presidency he first held in the 1940s. He and his revolutionary followers saw Batista as a U.S. stooge, and wanted to overthrow him from power. On July 26, 1953, he and many of his armed followers were captured in a failed assault on the Moncada barracks in Santiago de Cuba, and were put on trial. He was sentenced to 15 years but was released after less than two under an amnesty declared by Batista. He then moved to Mexico City, where he continued his work with a group calling itself the 26th of July Movement, commemorating the date of the Moncada assault, which became known as the opening salvo of the Cuban revolution.
On Dec. 2, 1956, Fidel Castro and 81 followers returned to Cuba from Mexico aboard a secondhand yacht called “Granma.” All but 12 in the landing party were killed or captured almost immediately. Fidel, his brother Raúl and an Argentine physician, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, escaped into the mountains and began organizing a guerrilla army.
Fidel Castro, the revolutionary who was destined to be his people’s savior, rolled into Havana on the afternoon of January 8, 1959 with 5,000 of his victorious rebels to receive a delirious welcome from the city’s populace. Batista had left the country on the eve of the New Year’s Day.
Amongst Fidel’s many intellectual supporters included famous writer Ernest Hemingway, a longtime resident of Cuba; authors Jean-Paul Sartre and Gabriel García Márquez; and Bob Dylan, the troubadour of the American counterculture, who recently won the Nobel Prize for literature.
In May 1959, Fidel Castro began confiscating privately owned agricultural land, including land owned by Americans. He nationalized the U.S. and British oil refineries and U.S.-owned banks, openly provoking the United States government. After President Dwight D. Eisenhower cut the American sugar quota from Cuba, Fidel Castro turned to the Soviet Union for economic aid and political support, further antagonizing the USA, and bringing in the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere.
He educated, fed and provided health care to his once highly impoverished people. Since the early 1960s, the United States government maintained a strict trade and diplomatic embargo against Cuba, hoping to drive Fidel Castro from power. It even tried to kill him and topple his regime since John F. Kennedy’s time. But all such moves, including the invasion by some 1,350 CIA-trained fighters in early 1961 at the Bay of Pigs, failed miserably.
As a true internationalist and revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro tried to export a Cuban-style revolution to countries across Latin America. His comrade, Che Guevara was killed leading an uprising in Bolivia in 1967.
In the mid-1970s, Fidel sent thousands of troops to wars in Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia in support of Communist insurgents. In addition, Cuban military training missions and thousands of physicians and teachers operated in more than a dozen other countries – from West Africa to North Korea.
Among Fidel Castro’s more successful efforts were universal health care and the near-eradication of illiteracy throughout Cuba. Thousands of classrooms were built in rural areas, and the country’s literacy rate grew to more than 95 percent. There were more physicians and hospital beds per capita in Cuba than in the United States.
Much in common with other communist and repressive countries in our world, Fidel’s government conducted surveillance on anyone suspected of dissent. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Cubans – branded as “worms” and “scum” by Cuba’s government – simply left, most of them for the United States, flooding mainly into Florida and creating a politically influential bloc of anti-Castro Cuban Americans in Miami. Among those encouraged to leave were convicts, AIDS patients, the mentally ill and other “antisocial” elements deemed undesirable by Cuban officials.
Fidel Castro condemned President Bush Jr.’s “war on terrorism” saying that it could turn into a “struggle against ghosts they don’t know where to find.” History has proven him true on this issue.
The U.S. government housed suspected terrorists at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which had been in U.S. hands since 1903. Fidel Castro, who had long demanded that the base be returned to Cuban possession, refused to cash the checks the U.S. government sent each month as rent for Guantanamo.
Unlike many other third and fourth world leaders of our time, Fidel Castro did not create monuments to himself or lend his name to streets and buildings. Instead, he erected billboards carrying patriotic slogans of the revolution. Under his reign, Havana eventually became something of a Marxist Disneyland, which outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union and even Albania.
Fifty years of isolation could not put a dent in either Cuba’s communist system or the control of the Castro brothers. He remained a fiery apostle of revolution. His defiance of American power made him a beacon of resistance in Latin America and elsewhere.
“His legacy in Cuba and elsewhere has been a mixed record of social progress and abject poverty, of racial equality and political persecution, of medical advances and a degree of misery comparable to the conditions that existed in Cuba when he entered Havana as a victorious guerrilla commander in 1959,” writes Anthony DePalma of the New York Times.
After Raúl Castro assumed power, he embarked on a plan of economic liberalization that has arguably been more symbolic than substantial. Private enterprise is permitted in a few small segments, but the military-led government still controls as much as 80 percent of the economy.
In 2014, President Obama — the first U.S. president elected in the post-Fidel era — announced plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Havana. During a visit to Cuba in March 2016, Obama met Raúl Castro but made no effort to meet his brother.
Well, although Fidel Castro is dead. His death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. As noted by Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator (FL-Rep.), “The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not.”
President Obama offered a bookend to one of Castro’s most famous lines — “History will absolve me!” Noting the “powerful emotions” Castro evoked and “countless ways” he had altered the course of lives and history, Obama said, “History will record and judge” his impact.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was mourning “a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century.” “While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for ‘el Comandante,’ ” Trudeau’s statement said. [It should be noted here that despite the United States’ hostile history with Cuba, Canada has maintained its relationship with Cuba since the 18th century. Mexico and Canada were the only other countries in the Western Hemisphere to continue diplomatic relations with Cuba in the years after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.]
The Cuban government has decreed nine days of mourning for Fidel Castro – ‘el Comandante’, the revolutionary leader. His body was cremated on Saturday. A state funeral will follow on December 4, Cuban state media reported.