Fidel Castro: Titanic revolutionary or brutal dictator?

Many in Cuba still feel affection for “El Jefe Maximo” despite his damaging economic policies because he is being assessed more for his nationalist achievements than his communist debacles

Cuba's former president Fidel Castro, one of the world's longest-serving and most iconic leaders, has died aged 90. His younger brother and successor as President Raul Castro announced the news on Cuban state television on Friday.

My friend Javier who is an anti-Castro living in Cuban exile community in Miami told me this morning about the death of Fidel Castro through a proverb from Bible which was “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy”. I asked him “Which wicked person you are talking about?” He replied “Castro is dead”. I wasn’t much astonished by the news as I knew he had been ill for a decade and was not seen since August after his birthday, which was celebrated across Cuba. As time went by, we had been hearing less and less from Fidel Castro. Castro's death hardly came as a surprise for me, though his death is going to have an immense poignant impact on a good majority of Cubans. Javier further told me how Castro’s death has prompted jubilation and not grief in his part of world. He told me how he along with other exiled Cubans in Miami popped champagne, clanged pots, cheered and waved the Cuban flag in jubilation on the news of Castro’s death. He said “This is a celebration of the beginning of liberty that we've been waiting for many years.”

Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba in a 1959 revolution and transformed the country into a communist state while ruling for five decades with an iron hand. He defied a US economic embargo intended to dislodge him. I argued with Javier about how “Children in red neckerchiefs scampering to free schools, pensioners enjoying free medical treatment: all in some way bear the stamp of one man and that one man is Fidel Castro.” I even quoted Dan Erikson in my argument, who is an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank and author of The Cuba Wars. He said “When Fidel took power in 1959 few would have predicted that he would be able to so completely transform Cuban society, upend US priorities in Latin America and create a following of global proportions.” After listening to sharp criticism of Castro by Javier I replied that “Cuba boasts first-world levels of literacy and life expectancy because of universal and free education and healthcare. It was Castro who ensured that the state reached the poorest, a commitment denied to many slum-dwellers across Latin America.” Javier replied to my argument that “Castro’s death means a lot for Cubans living in U.S. He spewed odium, planted spies in every corner of Cuba, divided families, executed thousands and forced millions out of Cuba.” I ended my argument with Javier with some facts to argue that the Castro government wasn’t all rigid and they provided ease to Cuban populace too “Under the Economic Modernisation Plan of 2010, the Cuban state shed 1 million jobs, and opened opportunities for small private business, such as paladares – family-run restaurants – and casas particulares, or home hotels. Farmers have been given more autonomy and price incentives to produce more food. The government has eased overseas travel restrictions, loosened pay ceilings, ended controls on car sales and tied up with overseas partners to build a new free-trade zone at the former submarine base in Mariel. ”But I agree with many critics of Castro that economic change has been delayed in Cuba. If Fidel and Raul had acted earlier, many of Cuba’s today’s economic problems would already have been solved.

Many in Cuba still feel affection for “El Jefe Maximo” despite his damaging economic policies because he is being assessed more for his nationalist achievements than his communist debacles. Castro’s primary source of influence was not Karl Marx, but Jose Marti, the 19th-century Cuban independence hero. While the latter fought to expel Spanish colonisers, Castro ended US neo-imperialist rule by ejecting US corporations and gangsters. The former banana republic is now insolently sovereign. Camilo Guevara, the son of Castro’s comrade-in-arms Ernesto “Che” Guevara said at the Che Guevara Institute that “The revolutionaries changed the status quo and established a base for this nation that is independent, sovereign, progressive and economically sustainable. That’s how we got where we are”. Slightly positive perception of Fidel Castro in my mind  altered greatly when I read about (I was prompted by the sharp criticism of Castro I had from Javier in morning) a Cuban citizen Rosa Maria Paya who grew up watching her father fight against and suffer from a system that tolerated little dissent. This Cuban girl told a British media outlet how “the Cuban people haven’t had a choice since the 1950s.” She further told the media that “My father spent three years in a forced labour camp because he was Catholic. Others were imprisoned with him because they were homosexuals or dressed the ‘wrong’ way. The reality is that you can’t be alternative to the line of Fidel and Raul.” She said that Castro has left a legacy of despotism that is unaltered despite the cosmetic reforms and diplomatic deals of recent years. While Castro became a figurehead for revolutionary armed struggle throughout and beyond Latin America, the former guerrilla was far from universally popular in his home country once he turned his hand to government. Property appropriations, restrictions on religion and clampdowns on suspected dissenters left many, particularly in the old middle class, loathing him – a sentiment that has spanned the generations. "In 55 years, the Cuban government has not done anything to help the Cuban people in terms of human rights," said Hector Maseda, 72, a former political prisoner who lives in Havana. "I don't believe in this regime. I don't trust it." From the 1960s onwards, the Cuban Intelligence Directorate intrusively monitored opponents, many of whom were beaten by police or spent years in jail. Despite the release of dozens of political prisoners in the wake of the 2014 Cuba-US agreement, many activists were detained or harassed ahead of visits by Barack Obama in 2016 and Pope Francis the previous year.

Yet, compared with the past, there is a little more latitude for freedom of expression, a lot more opportunity to travel, and slightly less of a sense of crisis. Cuba may still be more closely aligned to Venezuela than the United States, but it is distinctly doing circumspection more than it used to do under Fidel. Today the country is different from the one that confidently erected a now-fading plaque on Avenida Salvador Allende with a quotation from Chile’s socialist leader: “To be young and not to be revolutionary is a contradiction, almost a biological one.” Instead, on Avenida G, an eccentric hub of cafes and street corners for Havana’s teens, the talk is not of politics but iPods, fashion, movies and Major League Baseball.

Doubtlessly, Castro leaves a legacy that will be hotly debated for years to come. Cuban blogger Harold Cardenas said “What's needed is an honest debate about Castro's legacy. But for now, we don't have the maturity to speak objectively about Fidel."

Sarmad Iqbal is a writer, blogger, columnist and a student at FC College Lahore. He can be followed at Twitter @sarmadiqbal7.

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