Having arrived in Washington for a meeting with then-vice president Richard Nixon, a 33-year-old Fidel Castro was introduced to several officials including one described as “the man in charge of Cuba.”
Mixing his trademark humor and wrath Castro retorted: “I thought I was in charge of Cuba.”
No one doubted that aspect of the revolutionary firebrand’s eventful 90 years, which came to their end last week.
Next Sunday, the world will turn its eyes to Santiago de Cuba, the town where the communist revolution’s first celebrity and last torchbearer launched his march from rebellion to power, and where his ashes will be interned along with the idea, struggle and epoch that dominated his career.
THE FLAMBOYANT Castro’s 47-year incumbency ended formally a decade ago, when he handed over power to his brother and confidant Raúl, yet the Castro- era’s causes, impact and meaning still radiate and stir debate.
Domestically, Castro’s eradication of the private sector, and the consequent condemnation of his country to poverty – have been cited as proof of his project’s failure. Yet things were more complex than that, as Castro compensated for his economic deprivation with social delivery that made most Cubans’ lives better than most other Latin Americans’.
A legally trained and Jesuit-educated son of a Spanish-born landowner, Castro took over a largely illiterate nation and made it fully literate after abolishing taxation, making all education free and creating a universal and free health care system.
Moreover, after overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, Castro evicted the American underworld, which had cultivated a gambling-and-prostitution empire that abused Cuba morally and disfigured it economically.
Castro would, in due course, debilitate the economy no less, but the American underworld’s defeat would remain a feat that the US itself could only envy.
Castro started off as a freedom fighter.
Communism became a major flag later, a byproduct rather than a cause of increasingly strained relations with the US, as Castro became an oppressor in his own right. While opponents were sidelined and also jailed, and as freedom of speech and association were banned, Cuba’s communists were given a free hand.
At the same time, the anti-communist governor of the central bank, a professional economist, was forced into exile and replaced by the fabled Che Guevara, a physician by training and a guerrilla by conviction, but an economic ignoramus.
The ousted governor, Felipe Pazos, had joined Castro’s rebels in the mountains after having been an official in the International Monetary Fund. His quest was freedom and justice, not a workers’ revolution, not to mention Soviet tutelage.
It took middle class liberal democrats like Pazos several months to understand that their war aims were entirely different from Castro’s.
Chief among these aims was an anti-Americanism that surfaced quickly, twice: First, when Castro forbade a protesting Pazos to seek US aid during a visit to Washington, and then when Castro forced American-owned oil refineries to buy Soviet crude, in violation of corporate freedom and in disregard of economic logic.
It was a sign of things to come.
Economically, Castro’s Cuba relied on the production of sugar, of which it was the world’s largest exporter. That alone was woefully misguided, as other countries that relied on one commodity would later learn, from Zambia before copper’s price collapse, to Venezuela in the face of the current oil glut.
These market dynamics would come to play later, but before that president Dwight Eisenhower responded to Castro’s blow to American oil producers by cutting Cuban sugar imports.
Castro’s sugar was thus steered away from its dominant and most natural client, the US, and soon landed in the Soviet Union, a destination that was economically absurd, but to Castro was politically opportune and diplomatically priceless.
In an arrangement that was part of the way Soviet foreign trade was managed, Moscow paid for Cuba’s sugar well above market prices, just like it sold its oil well under market prices. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Castro’s provocation of American oil producers came the year before the rise of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War was at its height and, having just demonstrated his eagerness to join it, the Cuban guerrilla would soon emerge as one of its major warriors.
Half a year before the wall’s emergence Castro unilaterally cut the American embassy’s staff by 70%. Eisenhower responded the way he responded to Castro’s commercial provocation – now severing diplomatic ties with Havana.
Eisenhower’s legacy passed smoothly to John Kennedy, who authorized the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion by CIA-backed Cuban exiles.
Castro’s waltz with the Russian bear now became an open love affair, with Russian arms and advisers converging on the island that is but a short cruise away from Florida, while Castro himself was celebrated as a gutsy anti-American crusader.
From there the road was short to the 1962 missile crisis, when Castro let the Soviets plant nuclear missile launch sites this close to the US. Facing the second of his career’s 11 American presidents, Castro now provoked the US in a way no one would do until the September 11 attacks four decades later.
That the missile crisis ended in total defeat for the Soviets was immaterial from the viewpoint of Castro’s career. On the contrary, at 36, he was now an idol of revolutionaries and romantics, and the hero of the entire Eastern Bloc and much of the Nonaligned Movement as well.
Castro was thus the first world leader to fuel his career on hatred for and confrontation with the US, an example that was later followed by Iran’s ayatollahs and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Yet Castro’s game could only be played that long.
The corruption of the Castro revolution became glaring already in mid- 1970s, when he sent thousands of young Cubans to fight in Angola, and then also in Mozambique ad Ethiopia.
Castro insisted they were fighting for socialism’s local forces, but others thought he was serving his Soviet masters and effectively turning his countrymen into mercenaries, 10,000 of whom reportedly died in Angola alone, mostly fighting, but also of AIDS.
Then again, the African warring was but the prelude to the seminal crisis Castro would face three decades after rising to power.
THE DISSOLUTION of the Soviet Union constituted a double blow – economically and ideologically.
Economically, after having previously lost a bankrupt USSR’s handouts, Havana now also lost Moscow’s artificial trade. Cuban exports and imports thus plunged by 80%, the overall economy shrank by one third, and some parts of Cuban society were on the brink of famine. At the same time, Castro’s longtime allies abandoned the ideology he and they had shared.
With democratic revolutions sending to history’s dustbin personal friends like East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, and with Lenin statues busted while privatizations, stock markets, currency flotations and business schools proliferate from Minsk to Hanoi, Castro’s thunderous downfall seemed but a matter of time.
Yet the downfall never came.
Castro maneuvered economically, legitimizing usage of the US dollar and also licensing some private enterprise, but he never embraced the economic heresies that reinvented China, Russia and the rest of the communist world. Castro’s economic concessions were tactical. Strategically, he remained the die-hard Marxist who shunned nearby capitalists’ oil in order to ship it from distant communists.
Communism’s odd survival in Cuba may have been assisted by geography, as it was the Eastern Bloc’s only island state, a helpful condition for a police state. Then again, even Castro’s enemies would agree that his personality was a factor no less.
That is indeed why his funeral will be attended not only by deputies from diplomatic outcasts like North Korea and Syria, and by aging rebels from Ireland’s Gerry Adams to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, but also by Spain’s former King Juan Carlos as well as representatives from each and every government in the western hemisphere, a telling contrast to 1959, when all of the governments in the Americas, except Mexico, severed ties with the rebel who took on Uncle Sam.
Yet most proverbially, Castro will be laid to rest just when a perplexed West awaits America’s first post-Castro president’s arrival in the White House.
Donald Trump’s presidency has yet to unfold, but the social and economic ailments that led him to victory now loom as proof that what led the West to victory in the Cold War was only that deep and durable.
The corrupting arrogance with which Western statesmen and pundits emerged from communism’s downfall has given way to a crisis of faith in capitalism, underscored by last decade’s financial meltdown and a growing social insecurity that is clouding America’s politics and threatening Europe’s cohesion.
It took 25 years, but Castro lived to see all this, as if to vindicate his quip, that revolution is a struggle between the future and the past – to the death.
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