Remembering Fidel Castro

Castro’s rise is one of the most amazing success stories of the (20th) century. Historian Hugh Thomas

A towering figure in recent history

By Roger Childs

A revolutionary who had a great impact
A revolutionary who had a great impact

The news of the Cuban leader’s death has been greeted with both sadness and delight.

What is not in dispute, is that he freed his country from a ruthless dictator and American economic imperialism, and remained in power for over 40 years.

However his lengthy rule in Cuba was a mixed bag: there were huge improvements in social development, but also economic failings and restrictions on people’s freedoms.

Fidel Castro had a huge impact on the planet from the late 1950s. “Inspired revolutionary” or “brutal dictator”, these are the edges of the opinion spectrum. Objectivity on Fidel Castro is difficult!

The road to revolution

The Spanish colony of Cuba was captured by the USA in 1898 and the conquerors promised the Cubans independence. This was eventually declared in 1902. In line with their Monroe Doctrine, which basically aimed to prevent European interference in the Americas, the US reserved the right up until the mid 1930s, to intervene in Cuba if civil disorder was threatened.

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara
Fidel Castro and Che Guevara

While there was no direct political interference, the Americans dominated the economy, especially the key sugar industry, and controlled casinos, hotels, night clubs, brothels and restaurants. They also supported right wing dictators, including Fulgencio Batista, who seized power in 1952 and rigged an election in 1954.

Former lawyer, Fidel Castro arrived in eastern Cuba two years later with guerrilla fighter Che Guevara and a small group of loyal followers.

They based themselves in the high Sierra Maestra and successfully opposed the corrupt and unpopular Batista regime.  In 1959 Castro entered Havana to form a government of all opposition parties.

A communist regime on America’s doorstep

President Kennedy's actions averted a war
President Kennedy’s actions averted a war

At the time, Cuba had the wealthiest economy in Latin America, but there were huge disparities in income.  The US government had not supported Batista from 1958 and hoped that they might be able to live with the new regime.

However the nationalisation of all US businesses without compensation in 1960, led to the severing of diplomatic relations in the following year.

Hundreds of thousands of wealthier Cubans had fled to America, especially to nearby Florida, and harboured hopes of overthrowing the Castro regime. In 1961 President Kennedy unwisely gave support to the Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban rebels, and the resulting fiasco was a great triumph for Castro.

Without aid and investment from the US and no access to its markets, Castro formed an alliance with the Soviet Union which proceeded to establish missile bases on the island. The subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of war, but in the end pressure from Kennedy and the United Nations  resulted in Russian President Khrushchev backing off, and the danger passed.

In the years following Castro’s assumption of power, the Cuban revolution became a great example to would-be revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa. Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, became cult figures among leftist groups around the world.

Changing the face of Cuba

On the domestic scene Cuba developed excellent medical services and their education system eventually produced the highest literacy levels in the Third World. There were also improvements in housing, but the economic reforms were a disaster.

Thousands of business people and entrepreneurs had fled to Florida, and nationalisation, plus failed attempts at central planning and diversification, left the country dangerously over-dependent on the sugar industry.

Pope Francis the intermediary
Pope Francis the intermediary

Per capita income dropped and the country became an economic basket case. It would not have survived without huge amounts of Russian aid, and trade with Communist countries around the world.

On the political scene, all opposition groups were ultimately banned, and many opponents were executed or imprisoned for their political beliefs.

Cuban-American relations remained frozen, along with an American trade embargo, until 2015, when through the good offices of Pope Francis a rapprochement was achieved. The economic boycott was lifted and in March 2016 President Obama visited Havana.

Fidel Castro retired from the presidency in 2008 and was replaced by his brother Raoul. Some economic and political reforms followed, and many political prisoners were released. Fidel did not oppose these changes and retained his interest in politics to the end.

A wide range of reactions

Around the world, everyone agrees that Fidel Castro was an influential figure on the world stage. But there is huge disagreement about his legacy and impact.

A great man has gone. Fidel is dead. Long live Cuba! Long live Latin America! Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro,

There will never again be a man or comrade like Fidel, who devoted his life, his knowledge and his struggle not only to the Cuban people but to all the people of the world. Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia

We extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him. President Obama

Today marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. President-elect Trump

A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr Castro made significant improvement to the education and health care of his island nation. Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau

The Chinese have lost a close comrade and sincere friend. China President, Xi Jinping

In Miami, home to the largest diaspora of expatriate Cubans, people took to the streets celebrating his death, singing, dancing, and waving Cuban flags. As pots and pans were banged in jubilation, there were chants of “Cuba libre!” (Cuba is free) and “el viejo murió” (the old man is dead). The Guardian