In Memory of Fidel Castro

Eleven days ago, one of the most remarkable leaders in modern history passed away, Fidel Castro. He was buried yesterday. Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba who ruled for 49 years, died on November 25, 2016. His death comes as the latest gripping news in a very eventful year. His rule, the longest of any contemporary leader save Queen Elizabeth II, is controversial and divisive, unique and complex, and was under a variety of extraordinary circumstances.

Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926. In the mid-1940s, while at the Havana University, he became politically active, making passionate public speeches that were often against the Cuban government under President Ramon Grau, who faced accusations of corruption. Castro’s revolutionary activities got an early start at the same time as he joined an international plot to overthrow the right-wing dictator of the Dominican Republic, Raphael Trujillo. The bid failed due to US intervention, but Castro remained active politically and turned increasingly to Marxism. He believed that Cuba’s economic problems were caused by unbridled capitalism. He participated in a number of protests.

In 1952, a general named Fulgencio Batista overthrew the government in a coup and established his dictatorship. He cancelled elections,  a move that deprived Castro of playing a part in politics. Castro was opposed to Batista’s suppression of socialist organizations and increasing ties with the United States of America. Cuba was under heavy US economic influence. America’s control over Cuba made the Cuban people bitter because of widespread poverty in Cuba. Not only was poverty rampant,  society remained in the grip of organized crime.  Castro founded a revolutionary group called the Movement which aimed to overthrow Batista. In July 1953, Castro tried to start an armed uprising by attacking an army barrack near Santiago in order to procure weapons. The attempt failed and Castro was arrested. During his trial, he brought to the attention of foreign journalists the atrocities committed by the Cuban army. His fame and stature grew after the trial. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he was in jail for less than two years, during which time he became more radical, before being released in a general amnesty in 1955. Batista continued to persecute opponents and Castro fled to Mexico. There, he met another socialist revolutionary named Ernesto “Che” Guevara and returned to Cuba with 81 revolutionaries in November 1956. There, he launched a two-year guerilla campaign against Batista from the Sierra Maestra Mountains, finally succeeding in overthrowing the government on January 2, 1959, and taking control of Cuba.

Castro’s government declared that it would work for the poor and give land back to the people. His first controversial move was executing hundreds of Batista supporters, accusing them of crimes. He imposed a one-party system and jailed hundreds as political prisoners. Thousands of people, mainly those from the middle class, fled the country as Castro introduced a socialist system. He said it was not communism but simply “representative democracy and social justice in a well-planned economy.” America became his enemy when he nationalized all US-owned businesses in 1960. The US  put Cuba under a trade embargo. Then, the superpower recruited an army of Cuban exiles to invade Cuba in April 1961 and topple Fidel Castro. The invaders were handed an astounding defeat at the Bay of Pigs, humiliating the United States. Around this time, Castro drew closer to the Soviet Union, which he said he was forced into because of America, bringing Cuba into the Cold War. In 1962, America discovered that the Soviet Union was sending missiles, which were likely nuclear, to Cuba. This put Cuba at the center of a crisis that was the closest humanity had ever gotten to full-scale nuclear war as America confronted the USSR. Fortunately, war was averted when the Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles on the condition that America withdraw its missiles from Turkey.

But America’s animosity with the government of the island that lay just a few hundred miles off its shores became intense and Cuba was besieged. The trade embargo continued, with Cuba finding relief only by trading most of the sugar it produced with the Soviet Union. The CIA began a campaign of covertly undermining the Cuban government, mostly by trying to assassinate Fidel Castro. Some of the more notable attempts were to make him light an explosive cigar, make his lover kill him, and make him put on a scuba diving suit infected with a deadly fungus. The CIA also tried to do other things such as give him a soap that would would remove his beard forever. All the attempts by CIA failed. The situation continued throughout the Cold War.

During this time, Cuba made strides in both domestic and foreign policy. The entire population had sufficient access to free healthcare and infant mortality was as low as in the most developed countries. Standards of living were maintained despite the suffocating embargo. Cuba became the head of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of countries that strove to be neutral in the Cold War, despite Cuba’s ties to the Soviets. Fidel Castro became involved in African affairs, sending troops to Angola and Mozambique to support Marxist uprisings. This brought Cuba into conflict with South Africa, in which South Africa was defeated. This is widely believed to have contributed to the demise of apartheid, and Nelson Mandela gave Castro credit for it.

As the Cold War drew to a close, many changes came to Cuba, which were for the worse. Under Michael Gorbachev, the Soviet Union stopped trading in Cuba’s sugar, abandoning Cuba to the US embargo. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba completely lost its only lifeline while the US, still being a bitter enemy despite the end of the Cold War, continued the blockade. Where the Cuban people were once relatively prosperous, now the country sank into conditions of poverty. Despite this, Cuba continued with some achievements. It continued to give free healthcare and its doctors even continued to go abroad to care for people in developing countries, especially during times of disaster. In was not until 2014 that change came to US-Cuban relations. President Obama announced that the embargo would be progressively eased. The two countries are continuing along a path towards cooperation, but with the coming presidency of Donald Trump, it seems that it could be reversed, as Trump is a strong opponent of Castro.

Castro continued to remain in power as he grew old. In 2006, just before turning 80, he temporarily gave power to his brother Raul after having emergency intestinal surgery. His health continued to deteriorate afterwards and it was in 2008 that he stepped down from power, putting Raul, even though he was not much younger, in charge of the government. He then largely disappeared from public life. In 2010, he started to make public appearances again and later approved of Obama’s proposed thaw in US Cuban relations, while at the same time expressing distrust of America. It could be said that Fidel Castro continued to exert considerable political influence.

Fidel Castro’s death had a big impact in Cuba and abroad. In Cuba, there was widespread mourning and opposition to the government was put on hold. The exiled Cuban community in America celebrated Fidel’s passing. Among many observers, especially those who were opposed to Castro’s government, there was the perception that his death could lead to change in Cuba. He after all was the face of the revolution and wielded considerable influence up until his death. But I believe that it is unlikely. After all, nothing changed when Castro stepped down from power. The government he left behind still exists. And nobody said that apartheid would return to South Africa after Mandela’s death or that communism would collapse in Russia after Lenin’s death. Perhaps it is just that Cuba’s socialist system is transforming itself and Castro’s passing would nudge the trend. The celebrations are too optimistic. The event in 2016 that is more likely to lead to change in Cuba in the future is the election of Donald Trump, although it is impossible to say exactly what would happen. It could be that President Trump pressures Cuba to liberalize more and become friendlier or it could be that Trump’s animosity puts Cuba off and makes its government more hard-line.

Fidel Castro’s passing is the end of a remarkable life and a marker in Cuba’s history. Even as the man behind modern Cuba is dead, his legacy still remains. Because of his animosity towards the US, his legacy is extremely controversial to different people. Let us first say that the circumstances in which Castro ruled was complex and so his rule was complex. As he was a socialist, it is people on the right who oppose him the most. Castro can be said to be a dictator. He did not put Cuba under a democracy with elections but instead continued ruling for decades and was very powerful. Freedom of speech and other freedoms were suppressed under his rule and continue to be suppressed, although his rule was never harsh. Tens of thousands of people fled Cuba and have continued to live in the USA ever, since, being cut off from their former homeland, although most of them were not forced to leave.

Castro’s achievements have been absolutely extraordinary. He gave his people high standards in education and healthcare, and this was despite extremely harsh circumstances due to the American blockade. The entire country has basically been under a siege lasting half a century. Under his leadership, the tiny nation stood up to the most powerful country on Earth, resisting every attempt of America at undermining Cuba’s government and its integrity. Castro exerted great influence in international affairs, bringing change to Latin America and to Africa. Cuban doctors still continue to go abroad, helping out in such events as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the 2014 Ebola crisis free of charge. Outside of Cuba, much of the criticism of Castro is about the lack of freedoms he has created in Cuba. But one should take into account how precarious the existence of his government was and what he did may have been what he had to do. Within Cuba, people blame him for the low standards of living they suffer. However, they seem to ignore the role that the American blockade plays in the deprivation of the Cuban people. Indeed, the standards that Fidel Castro maintained under such circumstances can be considered commendable. All of this is Castro’s multi-faceted, complex legacy.

I believe the best future for Cuba is one in which the policies of Castro go hand in hand with the opening up of ties between America and Cuba, for Fidel Castro’s legacy is so great that it will always continue to influence Cuba for the foreseeable future.

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