Updated: November 28, 2016 12:10:03 am
There is only one way to live life. To live it heroically. Any other way is a waste of an opportunity. Those who do so, including the many unsung heroes around us, inspire others in their own small circles. But there are, in every age, some superheroes who exert such influence on a grand scale. Fidel Castro, who passed away on Friday at age 90, was one such global icon.
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Very few leaders of the last century held sway over so many people around the world as the founder of the Cuban Revolution, along with his fellow revolutionary, Che Guevara, did. Also, none of them (with the possible exception of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh) earned a global profile so disproportionate to the size or the economic-military power of their country. Cuba, a small island with a population of only 12 million, did not — and still does not — have any of the symbols or sources of power that its northern neighbour, the US, loves to flaunt. The only power Fidel Castro and Che had was the power of their heroism and the idea of building a more just world order that animated it.
Unfortunately, the cruel geopolitical compulsions of the Cold War sucked Cuba into the Soviet bloc, leading the US to see it as an enemy. Right from the time Fidel Castro’s band of revolutionaries overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 till he voluntarily relinquished office in 2008, Cuba faced an existential threat from almost all the administrations in Washington DC. They also wanted him dead, which prompted him to remark: “If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal.” This was not empty rhetoric. Che was assassinated in a CIA-orchestrated plot in Bolivia in 1967.
Because Cuba used to receive a lot of economic and military assistance from Moscow, many pundits predicted the collapse of the Castro regime after the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991. Fidel Castro again proved them wrong. Even though the hardships of the Cuban citizens increased, and Fidel Castro further tightened the screws on political dissent, the country did not witness the kind of popular rebellions that pulled down communist regimes in all East European countries. This was not because Cubans liked everything Fidel Castro did. Rather, in their eyes, he — and his younger brother and fellow revolutionary, Raúl Castro, who succeeded him as the country’s president eight years ago — remained the symbol of their unbending national pride and uncompromising resolve to defend Cuba’s freedom.
No hero is perfect. Therefore, hero-worship is not a virtue. History will not judge Fidel Castro approvingly for his reluctance to introduce economic and political reforms. During a visit to Cuba last year, I heard many Cubans praise Raúl Castro’s reformist policies and his move to normalise relations with the US while blaming his predecessor for Cuba’s stagnation. “Fidel tried to fix the world, while Raúl is trying to fix Cuba,” is how Marc Frank, a Havana-based Reuters correspondent, and author of the highly acclaimed book, Cuban Revelations, compared the two leaders in a conversation with me.
Nevertheless, Fidel’s Castro’s internationalism was also an integral part of the heroism of his personality and politics. Like Che, he too believed, till the end of his life, that Cuba’s revolution was not only for the benefit of Cubans but also for the welfare of the poor and suffering people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. His success on both fronts was admirable. Despite its low GDP, Cuba’s achievement in ensuring high-quality education, healthcare and sports facilities for all its citizens, a clean and crime-free environment, safety and empowerment of women, and better race relations is globally acknowledged. This is a lesson for starkly iniquitous countries like India — also the US.
As a result of the humanitarian focus of Fidel’s Castro’s foreign policy, Cuba has sent as many as 60,000 doctors to serve people in over 100 countries. When Brazil needed doctors to serve in its urban slums because its own professionals refused to go there, Cuba sent 11,000 medical professionals. “It’s like an ant donating blood to an elephant,” C. Rajasekhar, India’s then ambassador in Havana, told me. When an ebola virus epidemic broke out in West Africa, a few years ago, most countries were afraid to send their medics. Cuba sent 500.
On the outskirts of Havana is the globally-renowned Latin American School of Medicine (LASM). When I visited its sprawling sea-facing campus, I learned that this was a naval base which Fidel Castro ordered closed for the purpose of building a medical school, mainly for students from Latin America. Why? Because in 1998, when a hurricane devastated the region and caused many health problems, he felt that Cuba should not only send doctors and paramedics, but also train students from the region in large numbers. The LASM was up and running in just one year. Today, it has over 20,000 students from 110 countries — unmatched by any medical institution in the world. Most of them pay a nominal fee. Many not-so-rich American students are now ditching costly medical education in the US to study at the LASM. At the entrance to the school building are large portraits of Fidel and Raúl Castro with the motto: “For the service of people around the world.”
Cuba, like most countries in the world, is bound to change in many ways. But a good part of Fidel’s heroism will endure. Because the 21st century needs many such heroes.
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