Fidel Castro, a giant of 20th century history and mirror of U.S. excesses, died Nov. 25 at age 90. As a young lawyer, he led revolutionary insurgents who were instrumental in ridding Cuba of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was backed by the United States.
Castro was heir to the revolutionary movement organized by Cuban national hero Jose Marti, which beginning in 1895 fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain and the U.S. Castro identified with Marti’s dedication to fulfillment of human potential, social justice and Latin American integration. To this end, he promoted in Cuba the development of the arts, sports, sciences, culture and children’s education.
The Cuba with a low infant mortality rate, high life expectancy, shelter, jobs and education for all fulfills Marti’s dream of “With all, for the good of all,” and his championing of racial equality. Cuba’s hand in instigating regional alliances derives from Marti’s notion of “Our America,” which signified the entire region south of the Rio Grande River.
The revolution led by Castro ended near-total U.S. domination of Cuba’s economy and politics, which began with the Spanish-American War. U.S. emissaries and business owners readily accepted stark inequalities, racial oppression and corruption.
That revolution achieved much and did so despite terrible assaults from the U.S. Cuba’s northern neighbor resorted to military incursions, sabotage, deadly terror attacks and possibly even bacteriological warfare. Operatives tried many times to assassinate Castro. The U.S. isolated Cuba diplomatically and financially. Its cruel economic blockade still is in effect, half a century later.
But Castro stood up to the U.S. and defended Cuban sovereignty. For this, he became a hero throughout Latin America and the Caribbean — and he was a model for a new generation of Latin American leaders.
In 1953, Castro, on trial for an aborted rebellion that year, expressed admiration for liberal democracy. But with the revolution in power, he and his followers demanded economic and social justice — redistribution of wealth — and a socialist revolution was born.
But Castro’s Cuba was no paradise. Shortages of goods were longstanding problems due in part to the U.S. economic blockade. With curbs placed on alternative political views and organizing, charges of human rights violations have flourished.
Yet, many political prisoners have been released, including some 80 political opposition figures rounded up in 2003. The Cuban government alleged these prisoners had received pay from the U.S. government. The Cuban government has occasionally responded to street protests by jailing demonstrators for hours or days.
But a U.S.-imposed state of siege was always by its very nature an unlikely setting for a flourishing democracy. It seems here, everything considered, that Castro’s life was heroic. I echo what Latin Americans say when someone they admire dies: Castro is “Presente!”
In 1992, Castro warned that environmental disaster was a threat to human existence. On other occasions, the hazard was nuclear proliferation. He spoke for masses of displaced peoples and for the cast-offs. He championed peace and justice for Latin America. These problems haven’t gone away, and Castro is “Presente” with people trying to fix them.
Castro was with thousands of Cuban doctors working in dozens of countries, including 145 of them who fought the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It’s said that in Castro’s Cuba the children are the privileged class, so he is with children everywhere. He offered to send doctors to a New Orleans flooded under Hurricane Katrina. That never happened, but Castro was with people, even in the U.S., who are disrespected and abused.
Tom Whitney is a member of Let Cuba Live, a Maine-based group that promotes respect for Cuban sovereignty and independence. He lives in South Paris.