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obituary: Fidel Castro: 1926-2016

In Obiturary, S. Richardson, Uncategorized on April 24, 2017 at 12:15 pm

“HISTORY WILL ABSOLVE ME”
by Sarah Richardson

Fidel Castro’s death in November last year was an event which made me remember and reflect on my time in Cuba. I have been interested in Castro, and the Cuban Revolution, since 1986 when I went on a brigade there with the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. The experience impressed me deeply and helped to shape my outlook on life.

Castro was born into a wealthy farming family in Oriente Cuba in 1926. He grew up to become a young idealistic lawyer, much like Nelson Mandela whom he later much admired.  However, after several setbacks and a clampdown by the authorities he came to believe, like Mandela, that change would only come through armed struggle.

In 1952 a right-wing army general, Fulgenico Batista staged a military coup in Cuba. The country had become a playground for rich Americans with casinos, prostitution, bars and drugs.  Money was siphoned off overseas and little profit went to ordinary Cubans.  Castro recruited a group of revolutionaries to storm the Moncada Barracks on July 26 1953. The attempted coup failed and the leaders, including Castro, were imprisoned.

After his release in 1954 he travelled to Mexico and formed the 26th July movement with his younger brother Raul and Ernesto “Che” Guevara. They landed their boat, the “Granma” with around 80 revolutionaries  on the coast of Cuba in 1956. After three years of fighting from their base in the Sierra Maestra mountains, the rebels won and Fidel Castro was proclaimed President in 1959.

AMERICAN HOSTILITY:
Although initially non-aligned, Castro was rebuffed by the US when private property was nationalised in Cuba and Marxist-Leninists appointed to the Government, notably Che Guevara. Then in 1961, the CIA backed an invasion of Cuba by Cuban dissidents and exiles at the Bay of Pigs. It failed.  But probably the biggest test for Castro’s leadership was the 1963 Cuban missile crisis. By then, Castro had made trade deals with the Soviet Union, notably that the Russians should take most of the island’s sugar harvest in the wake of the US embargo.  In return Kruschev wanted to site nuclear missiles on Cuba, 90 miles from the coast of Florida.

This sparked a major diplomatic incident between America and the USSR. Those who lived through this time remember thinking that it could mean the end of the world. Fortunately a peace deal was brokered and agreed, the weapons were removed from Cuba and an uneasy truce began. The CIA continued to mount attacks on Castro’s life throughout his time in office – which were eventually turned into a book and a film, “634 ways to kill Castro.”

POSITIVE REFORMS:
Domestically, during the 1960s and ‘70s, Castro established the positive reforms which improved living conditions for ordinary Cubans and made the Cuban model desirable internationally, particularly among countries in Africa and Latin America. Universal free health care and education were established as well as subsidised housing.

As well as strengthening relations with the Soviet Union, Cuba supported many leftist and democratic movements worldwide. Sadly, Che Guevara was murdered by the CIA in Bolivia in 1967 when he was supporting the struggle there.  Castro was a leading figure in the non-aligned movement and sent 40,000 troops and medical staff to Angola in the 1960s which helped the country gain independence. In Latin America, Cuba supported the revolution in Nicaragua and the war against the Contras (who were also CIA backed) from 1979 to 1990. It’s unfortunate that, like Cuba, Angola and Nicaragua have retained the same presidents for several decades – Dos Santos in Angola  and Ortega in Nicaragua.  Perhaps less controversially, Castro supported the leftist governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuala and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. As one young Cuban remarked, “when Fidel came to power we were a pebble in the ocean. Now everyone knows about us.”

BREAK UP OF SOVIET UNION:
In 1989, Gorbachev began reforms  which would lead to the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of  the special relationship with Cuba by the end of the 1990s. Castro stepped down as President in 2008 due to ill health, and his brother Raul has led Cuba through some cautious changes, notably the reopening of of the US Embassy in Havana in 2015, Obama’s visit to Cuba in 2016 and the beginning again of direct flights between the US and Cuba.

When Castro died, everyone agreed that he had made a mark on history – his detractors that he repressed opposition and free speech, supporters that his struggle for an egalitarian society in Cuba superseded this. When I visited in 1986, the links with the Soviet Union were still in place. I was staying in an international camp with those from other European countries as well as young Cubans.   In our brigade there was a young miner and a miner’s wife. The Miners’ Strike had finished the year before. We had many conversations with Cubans, and their understanding of international issues, despite never leaving the island, was deep and reflective.  I was impressed by their knowledge and understanding of the Broadwater Farm Riots, which had recently taken place in London.

We visited the prison where Castro had been placed after the failed Moncada coup. The island where the prison was had been re-named “Isle of Youth” and it welcomed students from around the world, including Angola and Mozambique. We sang and danced with some of these students . We helped to build homes on a building site and in the evenings listened to political talks and sang “The Internationale” together, each in his or her  own language.

There was very limited choice of products in the shops and Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) were flourishing. These encouraged people to spy on their neighbours and report “un-revolutionary” behaviour. I am more critical of Castro’s Cuba now than as an idealistic 25 year old. However, I would agree with the final line in Simon Tisdall’s obituary on Fidel  (Observer, 27 November 2016): “For the most part, Castro, iconic figure of the left, was on the right side of history”

SARAH RICHARDSON