"Condemn me. It is of no importance. History will absolve me." Fidel Castro
For over 50 years he led a communist state a stone’s throw away from the citadel of capitalism. After a lifetime of rebelliously holding aloft the red banner of communism and defiantly waving it in the face of ten US presidents, many of whom sought to topple his government, and some to have him assassinated, ‘El Comandante’ Fidel Castro of Cuba is no more.
Announcing Castro’s death on Friday at the age of 90, his brother and Cuban President Raul Castro said on national television, "Today, November 25, at 10:29 pm, the Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz passed away. He will be cremated on 26 Saturday; the funeral organizing committee will provide our people with detailed information about the organization of the posthumous homage that will be offered to the founder of the Cuban Revolution.” The government also announced nine days of national mourning throughout the country.
Born on 13 August, 1926 in Biran, eastern Cuba, to a Spanish immigrant who became a prosperous landowner and a Cuban mother, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz grew up to become a young lawyer. However, witnessing the social injustices and poverty around country under the US-backed, Mafia-supported dictator Fulgenico Batista, the lawyer soon became a rebel.
In 1953, following a failed attempt to assault an army garrison in Santiago, Castro was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. But two years later, a general amnesty saw the young rebel being released from prison and seeking exile in Mexico. It was from Mexico that Castro cobbled together a small tag-tag rebel group to take on Batista's powerful army.
Returning to Cuba and taking refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra Mountains in 1957, Castro and his guerrilla force of several thousand fighters, along with urban rebel groups, eventually defeated Batista's military and seized power in 1959. Castro aged 32 was appointed as prime minister in the new revolutionary government, which aimed to transform Cuba from a land of Mafia-run casinos and a playground for rich Americans into an egalitarian socialist state.
The young Prime Minister Castro was initially seen as being easily pliable to American political and economic interests. However, his revolutionary zeal and commitment to communist ideologies made Castro a bête noire to the United States and a thorn in the paw that the US tried in vain to remove for more than 50 years.
A look-back over the past 55 years, on how relations deteriorated between the two neighbors separated by less than 150km of the Florida Straits, show that in 1960, following the Cuban Revolution, the United States refused to import sugar or export oil to Cuba. Seeing an opportunity to spread its influence in the area, the Soviet Union then stepped in to buy the sugar and provide oil to Cuba. But the US-owned refineries in Cuba refused to refine Soviet oil and in retaliation the government nationalized all three American refineries. This led US President Dwight Eisenhower to impose a trade embargo on all products, except food and medicine, to Cuba.
The Cubans responded by nationalizing all American businesses and properties on the island. The second wave of nationalizations prompted the Eisenhower administration, to sever full diplomatic relations with Cuba. This resulted in Castro turning his country into a Marxist-Leninist state and seeking support from the Soviet Union and other Eastern-bloc countries during the Cold War.
The tit-for-tat commercial retaliations and hostile bilateral relations were ratcheted up under US President Joseph Kennedy. In 1961, President Kennedy authorized the invasion of Cuba by nearly 1,500 Cuban exiles, trained, armed and supported by the US-Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Castro and his fledgling government managed to successfully thwart what became known as the Bay of Pigs invasion and tensions between the two countries went up to a feverish pitch.
In an indirect response to the foiled invasion, Cuba permitted the Soviet Union to deploy missiles on its soil. This controversial decision then spiraled into the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where the United States and the Soviet Union became embroiled in a standoff that saw the world on the brink of a nuclear war.
Luckily, saner wisdom prevailed and the Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles in exchange for the US promising not to invade Cuba and to remove its own missiles from Turkey. A peeved United States responded by ordering a total commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba. For more than five decades, the illegal embargo, which has been overwhelming condemned by almost all members of the United Nations since 1992, has subject the Cuban people to one of the most crippling economic sanctions in modern times.
Despite the US embargo and hostilities, the Castro’s government sought to transform Cuba into an equalitarian society. Over the years, the authorities worked to improve living conditions of the poor, enhance quality of life for ordinary citizens and develop healthcare and education levels on par with rich developed countries.
For over 50 years, Castro was demonized by the United States and its allies, and despised by his detractors. But as much as he was reviled by enemies and critics, Castro was also admired and revered by legions of supporters and followers in Cuba and around the world. From the Sixties, Castro’s form of communist revolution, which was able to successfully stand up to a bigger more powerful neighbor and fend off capitalistic aggression, was the poster-picture for leftist-revolutionaries across Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Throughout the 70s the Cuban government under Castro provided controversial support to left-wing governments in Africa; it sent Cuban troops and military hardware during the 1975 civil war in Angola and provided support of the Ethiopian government in 1977. Cuban influence also played a significant role in the independence of Namibia and in helping end apartheid in South Africa. Cuba also wielded its soft power by sending tens of thousands of Cuban doctors and other medical personnel to various countries abroad in times to medical emergencies and to treat the poor. In addition, the government also brought many young people from developing countries to Cuba to train them as physicians and medical technicians.
In the end, it was not assassination attempts, invasion or embargoes, but age and ailing health that resulted in a change of government in Cuba. In 2006, diagnosed with an intestinal ailment, Castro first temporarily, and two years later formally, ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro.
Since taking office, Raul Castro has slowly but steadily worked to change Cuba by introducing market-style economic reforms and agreeing with US President Barack Obama in 2014 to re-establish diplomatic ties and to end decades of hostility between the two countries. The reforms have led to more private enterprise and greater personal choices for many Cubans.
Acknowledging that 50 years of US sanctions had failed to bring about the desired regime-change in Cuba, foster democracy or introduce Western-style economic reforms, President Obama said it was time to change track and extend the hand of friendship to the government so as to help the Cuban people. In the final analysis, a political standoff that hurt the lives and livelihood of millions of people for over five decades cannot be claimed by any stretch of imagination as a victory by both sides.
As the world bids farewell to this polarizing icon of communism, who strode the global political arena for the past 50 years, steering and stirring the lives of millions of people everywhere, he will always be remembered by the ordinary people who loved him most as ‘El Comandante’ the commander, or simply as ‘Fidel’. To those millions everywhere, Castro was Cuba and Cuba will always be Castro.