To understand Castro, his enduring legacy and popularity within his own country and the uncertain future Cuba faces, one has to also look at the history of the island itself and those around it.
Since being colonised, Cuba had endured literally centuries of instability, war, civil war, piracy and violence. Looking through the history books, it had failed to make it through a single decade without some form of death or destruction raking its shores. Smugglers, gangs, governments, rebellions. You name it, they came to the island at one time or another and wrought havoc. And as for democracy? Up until the 1940s that was simply a word.
Then came Batista – a general but one who, at first, won a Cuban election in 1940 through a democratic mandate. Yet this benevolence lasted a matter of months and before long his regime became a brutal, nasty and corrupt dictatorship – taking from the poor to give to the rich. To line his pockets still further he did shabby deals with American multinationals that exploited everyone except his coterie and became so cozy with the American mafia that guns, prostitution, drugs and violence were all part of the post WW2 Havana scene. To this day there are still pictures of Frank Sinatra and mob bosses hanging on the walls of the Nacional de Cuba – the most famous hotel on the island.
America loved it. Their companies were getting great deals and massive profits whilst their crime syndicates were encouraged to go and do their dirty dealing offshore. By the time the revolution came, Americans owned almost all major companies on the island – the sugar, drug, prostitution, rum, minerals, oil and cattle industries were all in the hands of USA corporations or gangs.
Yet all the while Cubans were being shuffled into poorer jobs, unemployment or prostitution. Their island was being systematically raped by American business and mafioso via a corrupt dictator who had the support and ear of President Eisenhower.
It was under these circumstances that Fidel launched his operations to overthrow Batista. Understandably from local people he gained popular support. Once victorious he returned what Batista and the Americans has appropriated back to the islanders. Is that stealing or reimbursing? Is that communist ideology or of simply giving people back what had been stolen from them in the first place?
Having tweaked Americas nose with taking their companies back under Cuban ownership, Castro brought further ire to his regime from Kennedy when he forced all the American mafia to bugger off back to where they lived. Now JFK had US big corporations angry at losing their gargantuan and illegal cashcows and the rest of the country narked that it has so many criminals and underworld bosses back on the scene.
Yet despite all the bad blood between the two nations, Castro knew America really should be his ally and to make bygones become bygones he popped over to the States to discuss the future with Washington. He was greeted with stony silence followed by sanctions.
How could the new nationalist President/dictator keep his revolution afloat if the main marketplace for the wares of his newly formed Republic had been shut down? He had a popular mandate with his people and he was damned if the same bullyboy tactics that kept Batista in power would drive him out of power. In the 60s the Cold War was as at its peak and there were only two sides. If the USA would not do business with Castro, then the Soviets sure as hell would.
And so they did. So soon after the launches of sputnik it was a propaganda gift from heaven for the USSR. A country just inches from Americas doorstep driven into their hands by a government too proud to realise that Batista had been a scumbag and the deals done with yanky companies had been a disaster for the Cuban people and economy. Castro was not a communist – he was simply a pragmatist who needed cold hard cash to make sure that his people had a better life than what had gone before. And he had no issues with America as long as it played fair with Cuba and Cubans.
The States still didn’t get it and in their vanity JFK et al launched the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. Then, when the States bunged nukes in Turkey, right next door to the Soviet border, the USSR felt compelled to do the same in return by dumping a load in Cuba. These two events led directly to the long term legacy and enduring appeal of Castro. Not only did the defeat of the American backed invaders ensure popular support for his regime but the deal struck between the USSR and USA to end the missile crisis included an agreement than whilst Fidel was alive no American President would ever invade the island again.
That deal has been adhered to ever since and is primarily the reason why nine American Presidents never reinvaded but also why they resorted to numerous terrorist style assassination attempts like exploding cigars and the like.
Yet for all the lack of cash, democracy and at points, brutality, the Cuban regime has been tremendously successful in supporting large swathes of the population. It still is the only developing world country to have 100% literacy rates. The average life span is equal to the USA. It has exported aid, development and support across large areas of Africa and South America – sharing expertise in medicine and education. Cuba didn’t just tolerate homosexuality, it celebrated it. Women were, and are, equal to men. Where murder rates in Jamaica – one of Cuba’s nearest neighbours – is 58 per 100,000 and America 6.2 per 100,000, Cuba is almost zero. Drug addiction is almost zero and Cuba has become a model for how developing nations can tackle major epidemics like HIV/Aids and the Zika virus. Despite 50 years of sanctions from the richest nation on earth and theoretically her main trading partner, in many ways Cuba and Cubans haven’t just survived but have actively thrived.
I spent three weeks taking busses from Havana through to Baracoa and all the while a debate raged in my head. Which is better – security over democracy or democracy over security? Is it better to have the freedom to vote but a higher chance of being randomly murdered or be unable to have freedom of political expression in exchange for feeling safe on the streets and in your house? If we go into psychology and look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs democracy comes way later than security on what people desire from a government. Yet many feel that the reverse should be true. And I am still only convinced that dictatorship is only good if it is benevolent. Whether Fidel fits that model I am still unsure.
And now there is a massive irony going on. Trump described Castro as a ‘brutal dictator’, yet neither he, nor Castro, have ever won a popular vote of their people. And early next year Trump will also take charge of Guantanamo Bay – not just an illegal detention centre for untried and alleged terrorists that has used torture to try and elicit confessions, but a American detention centre that resides in Cuba.
With Castro dead and Trump in power, the future for Cuba probably hasn’t looked as bleak since the early years of the revolution. With the deal not to effectively annex the island now defunct and the right wing binary simpleton of foreign affairs set to take charge in January, will the end of the Fidel era be completely whitewashed from history with a rapid invasion? Reagan, another binary right wing simpleton did it to Panama and the Caribbean island of Grenada to boost his ailing popularity. There is no reason to think Trump won’t do the same.
For all his frailties, Castro brought peace to the island which now may not last. He brought stability and equality and security in ways that many western leaders could only dream about for their own nations. He had enduring love and popularity from vast swathes of the nation. That is one hell of a legacy, but may be swept away in just a few months. Like all these things, time will tell.