As the dark shadow of death enveloped Fidel Castro at age 90, as it inevitably does with all mortals, a moment of reflection is due for a figure of such striking historical stature.
An immortal icon of the ideological struggles of the Cold War, old Fidel came into the night of his days as the survivor of a confusing period, where liberal democracy and capitalism triumphed over totalitarian Communism, and the world was no longer in a serious contest as to what was the ideal socio-political arrangement, if only for a while.
Many commentators have offered their thoughts on the man’s significance, either vehemently repudiating him or lionizing his leadership of Cuba. I have no need to add to these debates, which often come down to interminable conflicts. My main interest is to contemplate the life, and dream of the man, Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz.
Like many revolutionaries and those alienated by the surrounding political environment, Fidel was born into a relatively affluent family, received a privileged education under the Jesuits, and for all intents and purposes, was not in the demographic he grew to champion, desired to radicalize and ultimately lead.
It’s important to reflect on this, on what kind of vision inspires a man to think beyond mere self-interest to contemplate broader horizons of opportunity and potential, not only for himself but for his entire nation and even the world. This same hunger for a different world, this thirst that gazed beyond what was apparent, similarly was the kind which profoundly seized the mind of others who hailed from relatively privileged environs, like Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, another alienated middle-class South American who went on to be forever associated with the event that consolidated Castro’s entry into the pages of history- the Cuban revolution.
The importance of Fidel Castro, I’d venture to say, lies more in the parable offered by his life story, which is the ultimate source of both the fascination and hatred he inspires in so many. It is an existential challenge for all of us, whether in the face of intolerable injustice one should fight, or accommodate it; whether to accept the ease of conformity in line with one’s personal fulfillment or risk it all for an idea; whether to be magnanimous once in power or seek out revenge for past wrongs; whether to revise one’s deeply held convictions or march blindly towards one’s conception of justice, come what may.
Fidel in his answer to all these questions was an heir to a long tradition of caudillos that have enchanted Latin American peoples, and in so far as he is an indelible part of the continent’s collective consciousness, he stands alongside such 19th century liberation leaders as Simon Bolivar, or Jose de San Martin. After all, it is worth recalling that Cuba’s liberation from Spain only meant, in practical terms, a switching of imperial rule from Europe to the US- who according to Cuba’s 1902 constitution, had a right to intervene in internal affairs whenever deemed necessary, a right which the US used quite liberally.
It can be said that the Cuban revolution was in a way merely a much delayed independence movement, which as a historical accident, coincided with the Cold War and hence communism appeared as the conceptual justification which most conveniently served the interests of the nationalist struggle.
My comparison of Fidel with other anti-imperialist liberators is not mere rhetorical flourish, for as he shared in their nobility of purpose, equally, Fidel shared the fate which befell so many, namely that of authoritarianism and frequent overreach of power. It is also the case that, as with the 19th century liberators, Fidel’s struggle took on dimensions that expanded beyond the island of Cuba, the promise of national sovereignty for all those who labored under the yoke of foreign domination. It is no accident that Cuba’s foreign policy under Fidel, remarkably for such a small island traditionally at the periphery of world events, undertook to participate in the independence struggles that swept through Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet as much as communism served as the fuel for the revolutionary fire of the Castro brand, in equal measure it eventually served as the undertaker of Cuba’s future. As ideological dogmas came to increasingly smother the prospects of a free public sphere, leading to countless instances of abuse and repression, it became clear that Fidel’s fate was sealed with that of his only and most generous benefactor, the Soviet Union.
It is too easy, of course, to retrospectively condemn the man for his association with a political program that inherently entailed oppression. However, not many commentators have had the courage or the honesty to recognize that, given the unfortunate geopolitical circumstances, and particularly the intransigence of America at the loss of one of its hitherto most subservient vassal states, Fidel’s turning towards an equally aggressive superpower was the only way of asserting Cuba’s fragile independence.
And it is Cuba’s fragile independence that for all its faults raised Fidel into the heights, because ultimately, the hope, even if now soiled and battered, had at least for a moment been a glimmer of light for the peoples of the Americas.
As the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once put it:
“because they know that Man is struggling
to reach the amplest clarity.
And Cuba is seen by the Southern miners,
the lonely sons of la pampa,
the shepherds of cold in Patagonia,
the fathers of tin and silver,
the ones who marry cordilleras
extract the copper from Chuquicamata,
men hidden in buses
in populations of pure nostalgia,
women of the fields and workshops,
children who cried away their childhoods:
this is the cup, take it, Fidel.
It is full of so much hope”