After surviving numerous assassination and political coup attempts, the historical figure Fidel Castro died aged 90. Since the news broke out, many media reports and commentators, as well as political leaders around the world, have recounted conflicting versions of his legacy: Either a dictator who committed numerous human rights violations, or a hero for his country and the figurehead for social justice and armed struggles across the developing world. Between the Cubans who celebrated the death of a dictator and those who mourned a hero, the question is what will History retain of his legacy?
Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, after leading a revolution that toppled the corrupt and abusive government of Fulgencio Batista. During his near 50 year-old stay in power, Castro sought to convert the country from a capitalist system into his own brand of socialism. Important advances were made in the progressive realization of some economic, social, and cultural rights such as education and healthcare. Cuba is indeed regarded as an example worldwide because of its provision of free education and healthcare.
Beyond Castro’s positive influence, there is also, however, a dark legacy regarding human rights. During his rule, Castro is said to have built a repressive system that punished virtually all forms of dissent with prison incarcerations, harassments and intimidation; A system which has continued even when his brother Raul Castro took over as Interim President, in 2006.
Not sufficiently emphasised, however, is the fact that Castro’s ideology and influence extended far beyond the tiny island’s borders. There is indeed an untold story of Cuba’s support for African independence movements. Cuba sought, in Castro’s own words, to globalize its struggles in response to a globalized pressure and oppression.
In 1965, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Castro decided to send an expeditionary force to Eastern Congo to assist rebel groups operating in the area. This very group was headed by no other than Ernesto “Che” Guevara himself. The objective was to counter imperialism around the world — America’s imperialism, that is — even though, a few months later, Guevara would describe the whole operation as a failure.
In Angola, the transition from a Portuguese rule turned into a civil war and then into a major international conflict with the Soviet Union, Cuba, South Africa and the United States supporting opposing factions. In 1975, Cuba, who had been providing training to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), sent troops who, along with the Soviet Union, played a decisive role and enabled the MPLA to take the capital Luanda and proclaim independence on November 11th, 1975. Cuba’s involvement continued during the ensuing civil war and lasted until1988.
During South Africa ‘struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela’s thinking was strongly influenced by the underground Communist Party in the country. This very underground group held up as an example Castro’s revolution and Guevara’s detonator theory— a theory which states that armed action would create a momentum among the population and lead to an uprising. Cuba’s influence also translated into actual support for the African National Congress (ANC) and for Mandela, with whom Castro developed close ties. Cuba’s impact on Africa during the decolonization period was best summed up by Mandela in 1991, in his speech for the 38th anniversary of the start of the Cuban revolution: “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.”
Amidst such controversy, one question remains: what should History retain of his legacy? A fair assessment should portray the mixed narratives of a historical figure who, in spite of having had a positive influence in his country and beyond, ended up committing some of the very same things he fought against. Why was there such a non-sense from Castro? Admittedly, decades of United States ‘meddling and “terrorism” did not help. But Castro, while strongly defending his ideology and country, reached the point where the end justified the means, even if it meant completely undermining his very own ideology and beliefs.
Looking ahead, it is therefore crucial for Cuba, and for anyone who believes in social justice and fighting oppression, to find a way to reconcile the ideology with its practice.