Fidel Castro, who led the Cuban revolution and transformed the tiny Caribbean island into a poster-child of the global Left, was the last representative of an era shaped by the Cold War. His defiance of the US for over six decades and radical postures in support of national liberation struggles in Latin America, Africa and Asia had turned him into a Third World icon. He was no Pol Pot or Kim Il Sung, but Castro’s record in suppressing dissent and free speech, discrimination against sexual minorities, was no different from that of many Third World despots. Cuba, after revolution, suffered from the many ailments that characterised communist dictatorships of the twentieth century.
Yet, Castro could convince Cubans that he — the commandant who always appeared in public in olive green battle fatigues and a beret, sporting an unkempt beard – was the sentinel of the revolution. He could not just arouse large crowds with impassioned rhetoric but also charm people with warmth and wit. Even after the Soviet empire, which kept afloat the Cuban economy after the US tried to crush Havana with a debilitating trade embargo, disintegrated and China embraced the market economy, Castro refused to recant his belief in socialism. Popular movements felled communist regimes in Eastern Europe, but Cubans trusted him. Under Castro’s leadership, Cuba, a dirt-poor country at the time of the revolution, had made rapid gains in education and health through state intervention. The plantations, the lifeline of the Cuban economy, were socialised and the state ensured that no citizen went hungry. His nationalism inspired by the writer-revolutionary, Jose Marti, was rooted in appealing to the self-respect of the poor and the colonised. Washington’s attempts to muzzle its tiny neighbour and rumours about the CIA’s many assassination attempts, built the Castro myth. With Che Guevara, Castro’s comrade-in-arms in the Cuban revolution, Castro came to espouse the spirit of the revolutionary for the global Left.
For its size, Cuba under Castro has had an exaggerated influence on the tide of 20th century history. Havana’s tango with Moscow led to the Bay of Pigs invasion and raised the alarm of nuclear armageddon in the 1960s as the Soviets and the US took the Cold War to the Caribbean. Despite the closeness to Moscow, Castro engaged with the Non-Aligned Movement, assuming its leadership in the 1980s. He remained an inspirational figure for the Latin American Left — the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Hugo Chavez-led Fifth Republic Movement in Venezuela acknowledge their debt to him. For post-Castro Cuba, the challenge would be to retain his egalitarian legacy while embracing social and political freedoms.