In the days since Fidel Castro’s death, there has been no shortage of reaction and comment from around the world.
World leaders have been split: Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, sent a telegram to Fidel’s brother, Raúl Castro, hailing Fidel Castro as a “symbol of a whole era of modern world history”, saying he was “a wise and strong person” who was “an inspiring example for all countries and peoples” and a “sincere and reliable friend of Russia.”
Donald Trump, president-elect of United States, commented: “Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”
“Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights. While Cuba remains a totalitarian island,” Trump continued, “it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”
Other world leaders sent condolences and support to the Castro family including: US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, Pope Francis, Chinese President Xi, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, President of India Pranab Mujherjee, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, many citing that he was ‘beloved’ and ‘a true leader’.
Ban Ki Moon commented that Castro made improvements in Cuba in building up the education, literacy and health systems.
With a Marxist-Leninist ideology, Cuba became a pro-soviet, socialist state, the first and only in the western hemisphere.
Castro concentrated on expanding healthcare and education, he introduced an educational establishment on an island in the Cuban archipelago, which was renamed the ‘Isle of Youth’ in 1978.
With Castro’s education reforms the attendance rates rivalled that of even the US.
So, if Fidel Castro was such a great leader, why have celebrations broken out in the Cuban communities of Miami, and why is the world so split?Looking in detail at Castro’s leadership of Cuba, one must start at the beginning.
Whilst studying law at the University of Havana, Castro gained a strong interest in socialism.
At that time, Cuba was under the regime of Fulgencio Batista, who himself had overthrown the previous authoritarian ruling, supported by a populist vote, before becoming a dictator, much like Castro did later.
Castro also implemented a ‘central economic planning’ model, to order and direct the way economy is run and controlled to use in production, very differently to the market economic model of capitalism.
These changes were put into action using state control of the press and suppression of others views.
As a Leninist, Castro opposed religious freedom, he marginalised groups that disagreed with his ideologies and placed them in forced labour camps, euphemistically named “Military Units in Aid of Production’.
In these camps were people who refused to take part in the ‘volunteer’ work in aid of the regime, Jehovah’s witnesses, homosexuals and anyone in general who disagreed with Castro.
A 1966 article in Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, described the start of the UMAP’s:
“Still left to consider was the case of misplaced elements, deadbeats, those who neither studied nor worked. What can be done with these people? This question was the worrying concern for the leaders of the Revolution. One day in November of last year, 1965, a group of military officials met to discuss these questions. They spoke with Fidel, who shared these concerns and proposed to him the creation of the UMAP.”
In these camps, along with forced labour, there was ideological ‘re-education’; beatings, malnourishment and death were also very common. 30,000 people went through the UMAP system.
“We execute! And we will continue executing as long as it is necessary.”
Castro along with the help of Che Guevara also carried out 3,615 executions by firing squad after he came into power in 1959.
These executions were carried out without any judiciary process, a show-trial with a pre-destined decision, Guevara once quoted by Fontova: “To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution. And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.”
And to the UN General Assembly in 1954: “We execute! And we will continue executing as long as it is necessary.”
If all these atrocities are true, why is Fidel Castro still viewed by most of the left-wing as a benevolent leader who helped an oppressed country rise up and become a caring and balanced socio-economic climate?
The answer perhaps lies with Castro’s anti-imperialist views, with much of the heavily socialist/communist world being affected by America’s imperialism and their attempts to stop the spread of communism around the world.
Castro’s backing of the building of Marxist governments in Chile, Nicaragua and Grenada, sending troops to aid in the Ogaden War, the Yom Kippur War and Angolan Civil War meant he had a wealth of support.
The idea of a small country standing up to the US’s imperialism and on some level getting the upper hand is inspiring to the ‘socialist underdog’.
Despite being placed under embargo by one of the world’s leaders in production and trade, the country still managed to rise in many ways.
The question now is whether Castro’s ‘socialist utopia’ survive or will it mould into a pluralist democracy with a market-based economy and the ability to own private land that was seen after the fall of the Soviet Union?
With Raúl Castro, (Fidel’s brother) being the hand-picked successor, but known for alcoholism and a general lack of charisma, it is unlikely he will be able to keep the support of the regime for much longer.
In the latter half of Castro’s rule, Cuba’s material issues were forced to a breaking point by the regime: food, housing, drinking water, transportation, electricity, communications, and clothing are needs that cannot be compensated for by a large but very poor educational and health system.
The death of Castro illustrates perfectly the political climate of the last century, with the varied and dramatic views coming from each political side, from Hitler to Stalin through to North Korea’s current regime.
Dictatorships can come from either political side, as evidenced by Hitler’s hate of communism and Stalin’s love for it.
The death of Castro for politics means an experiment in a socialist regime in the 21st century, with the world watching, we shall see if it can flourish without repression and censorship.
If Castro’s Cuba was really one of equality and a voice for the people, which a ‘socialist utopia’ would suggest, the direction of what happens depends on the strength of the Cuban people’s support for a communist state, or perhaps a new formation of government different to that of the pluralist Soviet state, that we haven’t seen before.
With Raúl heading a more open approach to the US, with the travel ban being lifted and President Obama reopening diplomatic relations, the next step is looking to see if the embargo will be lifted.
With Donald Trump’s recent comments it will be an interesting journey to watch.
Eva Gollinger, author and lawyer told Russian TV channel RT that Trump’s recent statement “certainly was in no way sending an olive branch over to the Castro government. In fact it was doing the opposite by referring to Castro in such harsh and aggressive terms.
“It is certainly something that will offend and insult the Cuban people in Cuba, as well as the Cuban government,” she said.
“Trump has also said he would roll back most of the agreements and the initiatives that Obama has achieved so far working together with the Castro government,” said Gollinger, adding “it is not a result of Fidel’s passing.”
“I think Fidel was right though, and I agree with his analysis. We know the position of Raul Castro, because he has been the one heading that drive towards a better and more open relationship with the US. The problem here is not the Cuba side, it is the US,” she added.
Tariq Nasheed, documentary filmmaker and activist also pointed out that it is very contradictory for president-elect Trump to make a statement about oppression.
“We’re living in a system of complete white supremacy here in the US, where black people are totally and completely oppressed. Especially now under Trump, it is going to get more intensified,”
It seems the ironic cycle of political figures on both sides pushing for power by pointing out each others flaws, and then in end, repeating those failures, is still alive and well.
Featured image by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA