07/12/2016, by CLAS
Reflections on Fidel Castro’s death
Since January 1959, Cuba has generally been somewhat ill-served by the outside media, being so often the object of preconceptions, half-truths and superficiality. And never more so than in the media’s responses to Fidel Castro’s death (25 November 2016), responses which – ironically – were often stuck in the very ‘time-warp’ which, they repeatedly told us, Cuba still is and Fidel Castro always was.
Firstly, let’s be clear: however important he was (until his retirement in February 2008), it would be foolish to attribute to him everything in Cuba since January 1959: successive US presidents made exactly that error, the failure of the resulting policies confirming quite how misleading that reading was. Most obviously, the embargo which was eventually designed to end Fidel Castro’s rule and which – let us not forget – is still very much in place, whatever the media tells us, evidently failed in that goal. So focussing on ‘Fidel’ (most Cubans’ version) or ‘Castro’ (the outside terminology) was never accurate or helpful.
However, that said, the truth is that none of what happened in Cuba since 1959 would have taken the shape that it did without his judgement and leadership. Without his drive and political intuition, the original rebellion would not have followed the path that we recognise: the original audacious 1953 attack on the Moncada barracks, the successful guerrilla strategy and tactics (including the skilful use of propaganda), the key decisions and political alliances in 1959-62, the use of the radicalising and loyalty-inducing power of mass mobilisation (characterising the first decades). And probably only Fidel Castro dared to challenge both the United States (from 1960) and the Soviet Union (from 1962).
His stamp remained visible throughout the following decades: in Cuba’s unorthodox policies and interpretations of ‘communism’; in remarkably successful foreign policies (which saw Cuba punch well above its weight, including the crucial support for newly-independent Angola, against apartheid South Africa); in Cuba’s much-heralded emphasis on health, culture and education, seen as crucial to Cuba’s development and survival, and gaining many admirers and allies abroad. In the dark days after the Soviet collapse (1991), it was to ‘Fidel’ that many Cubans turned, seeking leadership to strengthen their morale in what was Cuba’s deepest crisis since 1962: his combination of determined resistance (to the progressive US tightening of the embargo), clever pragmatism (reshaping the economy to ‘save the Revolution’), and even charisma (e.g. in successfully quelling unprecedented public discontent in August 1995) proved successful in ensuring the system’s survival.
We could continue outlining his record, one which earned him widespread admiration and opprobrium, but lasting support at home, and which generated so much misunderstanding from so many outside. But, without doubt his contribution to the political shape of the western hemisphere, southern Africa, and the global Left – and also of US policy (and, frequently, of US electoral outcomes) – proved fundamental. So, while it may never have been ‘Fidel’s revolution’, its shape and character clearly showed, and still show, his stamp.
Professor Antoni Kapcia
Director of the Centre for Research on Cuba, School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies