Fidel Castro, Cuba’s bearded, cigar-smoking, controversial, maximum leader has passed away after the long goodbye of a prolonged illness during which he had transferred command to his brother Raul. He was 90. His great personal power over his country for such a long period of time is virtually matchless.
Back in the sixties, he became an incredibly consequential international figure for the Head of State of a small Caribbean island nation of 11 million people. Castro was best known for prevailing in trenchant defiance of the United States — surviving an astonishing reported 638 CIA-backed assassination attempts. This is what made him a beacon of resistance in Latin America and elsewhere. Under Castro, who was a great admirer of Ho Chi Minh, Cuba’s friendship ties with Vietnam were also forged, which was then embroiled in a harrowing war against the United States. Hugo Chavez, the socialist late President of the Venezuela, considered Fidel Castro to be his ideological godfather. That is about when Castro’s persona began to become larger than life, which in turn coded his long beard, smoking cigar and green fatigues into universal symbols of revolution and guerrilla-style resistance.
He had espoused the socialist ideals of fellow rebel Ernesto “Che” Guevara and in many ways, came to embody the Latin American Machismo that has been the hallmark of dictators in the region. Once Castro was popular at home and eliminated threats to his rule, he aspired to be a global player in the Communist struggle. The strain on Cuban society and treasury notwithstanding, Cuban troops were sent to Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia in support of communist insurgents. At home, he first rose to power in 1959, overthrowing the oppressive, corporate-friendly, US-backed Batista regime and transformed Cuba into a communist country in the western hemisphere.
Anthony DePalma masterfully describes a powerful scene right after Batista regime’s defeat in the New York Times: “A spotlight shone on him as he swaggered and spoke with passion until dawn. Finally white doves were released to signal Cuba’s new peace. When one landed on Mr. Castro, perching on a shoulder, the crowd erupted changing “Fidel!” “Fidel!”. To war weary Cubans gathered there and those watching on television, it was an electrifying signal that their young, bearded, guerrilla savior was destined to be their savior.”
A powerful orator with a strong understanding of the power of televised images, Castro masterfully incited the Cuban masses even through the roughest periods of isolation and deprivation. In long, marathon speeches, he laid out what he considered to be the evils of capitalism in general and of United States in particular. This, in addition to some of the reforms he brought early on upon his establishment: his greatest legacy has been implementing free healthcare and free education, which has given Cuba some of the best human development statistics in the region. His image as the guardian of Cuban dignity and sovereignty was bolstered further when he beat back the US-supported Bay of Pigs invasion by the Cuban exiles in 1961.
As he aged, the one thing that did not change was Castro’s ability to turn opportunities to his advantage. Even as an aged autocrat, at 74, when Cuba’s economy was ailing under the trade embargo, he wielded it as a sign of strength, stating that Cuba “is the only country that does not need to trade with the United States.” Till the very end, including when President Obama made his highly publicised visit to Cuba this year – the first visit of an American President to Cuba in 88 years – Castro, by now rarely seen in public, belittled his overtures, insisting that Cuba did not need anything that the US had to offer.
For millions of Cubans and Cuban-exiles, his death will be a reason to celebrate – the beginning of a new era, a time to modernise Cuba with a renewed vigour. And for fewer, but still considerable older Cubans and the Latin American leftist leaders, Castro’s death is likely to ensue mourning for the passing of a nationalist leader, who, like David spat at the “Yanqui” Goliath.
Tad Szulc, his late biographer, who wrote Fidel, A Critical Portrait, noted “He will go down as an absolute dictator, but one who mattered enormously in history. People who suffered under him say he’s a tyrant, and he is. But his impact on Latin America and the Cold War was huge. He’s not a guy who will be forgotten.”