I’m really not quite sure what to say about Fidel Castro’s death. The man was an absolute titan of modern politics and the modern world. He not only comprehensively reshaped his home nation from Mafia-run, economically colonized backwater to a vanguard liberation state with enviable first-world healthcare (because to simply say that that’s what he did would be almost to imply that it was done in a vacuum); but he also managed to do so despite the might of a superpower breathing both strenuously and semi-literally down his neck, and under the weight of a crippling international embargo.
Before we had the jokes about the “Curse of Assad” (wherein pretty much every Western politician who’s insisted “Assad must go” has, themselves, wound up deposed or otherwise dethroned) … it was a running sport to tally up the number of US Presidents he’d outlasted (particularly those who’d attempted to have him assassinated – the CIA’s Operation Mongoose racking up more than six hundred attempts against his life and featuring everything from exploding seashells to LSD-filled missiles).
And regardless of how you might feel about the man .. that sort of tenacity and indefatigability is certainly worthy of respect. As are, to my mind, the results which Castro’s regime achieved in comparison to many of its (still foreign-dominated) Carribean neighbours. Certainly, squaring up outcomes and quality of life for Cubans against the ordinary inhabitants of other (capitalist) countries of the Carribean does not necessarily cast Castroist Cuba in a particularly bad comparative light. (Although for reasons I’ll never quite understand, the default point of comparison for many commentators is, instead, living-standards in the US – and never, for that matter, the impoverished parts like Detroit)
But as with any ‘great man’, whatever he might have been and achieved in life, the serious intellectualizing of what he stood for almost inevitably comes predominantly after his death. This will be particularly the case with Castro, as there were simply so many sides to his political life – so many ‘fingers in pies’, if you will. I’ve already touched upon his specific role within the Cuban Revolution; and any serious student of the history of Latin America will also know of his incredibly broad-spanning role influencing and supporting the political developments of his neighbours (including considerable humanitarian assistance to Grenada, military aid to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, an attempt to help Salvador Allende in Chile, the ill-starred Cuban efforts in Bolivia which martyred Che Guevara, and longstanding and active comradeship and material support with the Bolivarians of Venezuela).
In addition to these, we also have his tireless advocacy for other marginalized and subaltern peoples (for example, with the ongoing crisis of third world foreign debt); and a broader military participation by Cuba in the overseas struggles of a bewildering array of other nations further afield.
This particular element of Castro’s contribution has been overlooked by many of the media accounts of his life which I’ve read over the past 36 hours; but it is no exaggeration to say that the massive scale of Cuban military intervention in southern Africa (with, at its height, somewhere around 55,000 Cuban troops plus air assets and other military hardware deployed in Angola) contributed to the ending of Apartheid in South Africa. It also occurs, on that note, that this is another mark of the success of Castro’s leadership – as over a three-decade period, Cuba had been transformed from a quasi-colonial island backwater ‘playground for the American rich’ into a regional powerhouse capable of projecting force to the other side of the world.
Still, it would be an exercise in hagiography (which is perhaps, at this early stage, somewhat unwarranted) to pretend that Castro’s reign was perfect. A number of commentators have pointed out the reality of prison camps in Cuba (although curiously, often without noting by way of context that the largest such camp on Cuba is, in fact, the Guantanamo Bay facility run by the Americans). And it is certainly true that in the 1960s, internment camps were set up for homosexuals on the island. Although those invoking this reprehensible part of his history rarely also deign to mention that it was Castro himself who shut down those same camps in 1968 (after visiting them incognito to see what conditions were actually like); or that homosexuality’s legalization there in 1979 beat us here in progressive New Zealand by nearly a decade.
With all of those facets to consider, we shall no doubt be continuing to debate what Castro’s contribution was to human history for many decades to come. (Indeed, the ripple-effects are such that one is put in the mind of Zhou Enlai’s famous rejoinder to a question asked by Richard Nixon in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution nearly two centuries earlier – “it’s too soon to say”)
Many political traditions, groups and movements will seek to claim both Castro and his legacy. This is understandable. Any figure which exerts such an impressive weight upon both the popular imagination and the very fabric of our global politics will, of course, have an almost gravitic attraction for all manner of figures and currents out there in the firmament.
But to my mind, the first and most enduring conceptualization of Castro’s politics are those of a Nationalist. We often obscure this when we focus upon the Cuban Revolution’s ensuing alliance with the Soviet Union, and attempts at ‘exporting revolution’ over the subsequent decades (although I’m not entirely sure why either of these factoids are thought to be in contravention of Nationalist proclivity – both are eminently defensible as the sustained participation in causes affiliated and acting in influence upon with national liberation struggles). But looking at what Castro said, did, and wrote in his early years, this Nationalist orientation is fairly incontrovertible (even down to his early attempts to seek peaceful coexistence with and work productively with the United States, until the latter made such a thing deliberately unworkable). Even looking ahead for the next thirty or so years, his record appears very much as a man interested in both Cuban and other nations’ self-determination.
In any case, I am not Castro. I cannot speak on his behalf. But if I were … I have little doubt that that’s what I’d wish for my legacy to be – acting as an ever-living and eternal (albeit supernal) beacon of both illumination and inspiration to those seeking to better the lot of their fellow man through national liberation struggles even far afield from Castro’s own island homeland.
As we say here in New Zealand: “A Mighty Totara Has Fallen”.
The serious question now is what grows up in its former shade – and, for that matter, what form of canoe is adzed out of its fallen trunk.
^The image above is, of course, of Fidel’s fallen comrade Hugo Chavez. But I do wonder if it also encapsulates the right feeling for the weekend’s post-mortem as well.