Fidel Cas­tro: A Latin Amer­i­can story His death is be­ing mourned, cel­e­brated in equal mea­sure

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Opinion/feature - Javier Farje

WHEN Fidel Cas­tro and his bar­bu­dos (the bearded ones) en­tered Havana on Jan­uary 2, 1959, hav­ing de­feated the dic­ta­tor­ship of Ful­gen­cio Batista, Latin Amer­ica was in tur­moil.

In the An­dean re­gion of South Amer­ica, a feu­dal sys­tem of land own­er­ship pre­vailed. Indige­nous peo­ple worked for very low wages and owed life­long loy­alty to their mas­ters. In Cen­tral Amer­ica, the United Fruit Com­pany (UFC), an Amer­i­can multi­na­tional, owned much of the land and rail­roads.

Any at­tempts to ad­dress such in­equal­i­ties were crushed in their in­fancy. In 1954, Pres­i­dent Ja­cobo Ar­benz of Gu­atemala tried to im­ple­ment a land re­form. A coup d’etat pro­moted by the UFC and Wash­ing­ton put an end to Ar­benz’s re­formist pro­gramme.

The United States also ac­tively sup­ported dic­ta­to­rial regimes in Paraguay, Gu­atemala, Nicaragua, the Do­mini­can Repub­lic and Haiti.

By the end of the 1950s, ac­cord­ing to the Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean De­mo­graphic Cen­tre, life ex­pectancy in the re­gion was 47 years.

Fidel Cas­tro was aware of the im­pact that his move­ment had in Latin Amer­ica. In one of his first ad­dresses to the Cuban peo­ple af­ter his vic­tory in 1959, Cas­tro said: “Com­pañeros, the rev­o­lu­tion is not our ex­clu­sive prop­erty, nor is it only here on the is­land. Our brothers in Latin Amer­ica can­not fail to join us.”

It was a call to arms that many mid­dle-class in­tel­lec­tu­als and ac­tivists took se­ri­ously.

In the mid-1960s, Latin Amer­ica saw the emer­gence of guerilla groups, many of whose mem­bers were trained in Cuba. In Nicaragua, Peru, Bo­livia, Ar­gentina, Venezuela and Ecuador, units of badly armed gueril­las tried to re­peat the Cuban ex­pe­ri­ence, mainly in the coun­try­side.

They were mer­ci­lessly crushed by na­tional armies, many of whose of­fi­cers had been ed­u­cated in the du­bi­ous art of coun­terin­sur­gency by the US at the School of the Amer­i­cas in Panama.

By 1967, when Che Gue­vara was ex­e­cuted in Bo­livia af­ter he failed in his ef­forts to form a guerilla group to in­vade his na­tive Ar­gentina, armed strug­gle as an in­stru­ment of change had fiz­zled out.

How­ever, some gov­ern­ments in the re­gion un­der­stood that the gueril­las were not a bunch of cat­tle rustlers; in fact, those rebels re­flected a gen­uine anger at the lev­els of in­jus­tice that ex­isted in their so­ci­eties.

In 1968, Peru’s mil­i­tary govern­ment led by Gen­eral Juan Ve­lasco im­ple­mented a land re­form. “If we don’t carry out this re­form, the Cas­troists will, and we don’t want that, do we?” quipped a min­is­ter in 1969. Iron­i­cally, Ve­lasco re-es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions with Cas­tro’s Cuba. The Gen­eral and the Co­man­dante be­came good friends.

In Panama, Gen­eral Omar Tor­ri­jos also took power in 1968. In 1976, dur­ing a visit to Cuba, Tor­ri­jos said that Fidel was “a sym­bol of the ef­forts for con­ti­nen­tal unity in the fight for its iden­tity and its fi­nal in­te­gra­tion . . . and a con­sis­tent, loyal and dig­ni­fied friend”. Mil­i­tary gov­ern­ments in Ecuador and Bo­livia fol­lowed the same pat­tern.

In 1970, a so­cial­ist doc­tor, Sal­vador Al­lende, was elected pres­i­dent of Chile. Al­lende wanted to prove that it was pos­si­ble to con­duct a rev­o­lu­tion within a mul­ti­party sys­tem. Fidel Cas­tro vis­ited Chile in 1971. He spent three weeks in the South Amer­i­can coun­try.

This was Cas­tro’s long­est ever state visit. The coup d’état on Septem­ber 11, 1973, dur­ing which Al­lende died de­fend­ing democ­racy, put an end to the pa­cific up­ris­ing that he thought was pos­si­ble.

In a trib­ute to Al­lende in the Plaza de la Rev­olu­cion in Havana, on Septem­ber 28, 1973, in the pres­ence of Al­lende’s wi­dow, Cas­tro ex­pressed, in the kind­est pos­si­ble way, his reservations about the peace­ful path to rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes. “[Al­lende’s vic­tory] did not mean a vic­tory of a rev­o­lu­tion,” said Cas­tro, “but ac­cess to im­por­tant po­si­tions by le­gal and peace­ful means.”

Af­ter a pe­riod of rev­o­lu­tion­ary stag­na­tion in Latin Amer­ica, Fidel Cas­tro’s in­flu­ence dwin­dled; but in 1979, his ide­o­log­i­cal stand­point got a new boost.

In Nicaragua, the San­din­ista Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front (FSLN) de­feated the dic­ta­tor­ship of Anas­ta­sio So­moza. Although the San­din­ista move­ment got its main in­spi­ra­tion from Au­gusto Ce­sar Sandino, a guerilla gen­eral who fought against the US-spon­sored dic­ta­tor­ship of Anas­ta­sio’s fa­ther in the 1930s, many of the FSLN co­man­dantes had trained in Cuba. Un­like Cuba, the FSLN ad­hered to the con­cept of mul­ti­party democ­racy.

The San­din­ista leader, Daniel Ortega, won a gen­eral elec­tion in 1984, at the height of rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vour. His govern­ment im­ple­mented a se­ries of re­forms mod­elled on the Cuban sys­tem: land re­dis­tri­bu­tion, na­tion­al­i­sa­tion of in­dus­tries, pop­u­lar par­tic­i­pa­tion.

How­ever, the proxy war ex­e­cuted by then US Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan against the San­din­istas had a de­mor­al­is­ing ef­fect on the pop­u­la­tion. A well-armed gang known as the con­tras con­ducted a vi­o­lent cam­paign against the govern­ment.

The US govern­ment openly sup­ported, armed and trained the con­tras. In the 1990 elec­tions, the FSLN lost power. Peo­ple just wanted peace and vot­ing the San­din­istas out of power was the best way to achieve that. And Cuba lost an ally.

Cuba paid a heavy price for the col­lapse of the Soviet bloc. The is­land could no longer rely on the sup­port of Moscow and by the early 1990s, the is­land ex­pe­ri­enced hard­ship and suf­fer­ing. Many fore­cast the end of the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion. They were wrong.

But by the mid-1990s, Cuba started to re­cover. In the rest of the con­ti­nent, the tra­di­tional par­ties that had dom­i­nated the po­lit­i­cal land­scape in Latin Amer­ica for decades be­lieved that their grip on power could not be chal­lenged. Then, in Venezuela in 1999, Lieu­tenant-Colonel Hugo Chavez, who had un­suc­cess­fully tried to de­pose the govern­ment of Car­los An­dres Perez in 1992, was elected pres­i­dent.

As a young of­fi­cer, Chavez had two big in­flu­ences: Si­mon Bo­li­var, the lib­er­a­tor of Venezuela dur­ing the anti-colo­nial wars in the 19th cen­tury, and Fidel Cas­tro. Af­ter­wards, a suc­ces­sion of left-wing gov­ern­ments was elected: Ar­gentina, Bo­livia, Brazil, Ecuador, Hon­duras, Nicaragua (the re­turn of Daniel Ortega), Uruguay. They all claimed to be in­spired by the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion and Fidel Cas­tro’s lead­er­ship.

The Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion has en­dured and Latin Amer­ica has learned to live with it. The same can be said about its leader be­cause Fidel Cas­tro per­son­i­fied the rev­o­lu­tion, its ac­com­plish­ments and also its short­com­ings.

In 2010, the coun­tries of the re­gion de­cided to cre­ate the Com­mu­nity of Latin Amer­i­can and Caribbean States (CELAC). They ex­cluded the United States and Canada. Cuba was in­vited to join.

For the first time since 1962, when Cuba was ex­pelled from the Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Amer­i­can States, the is­land be­came a mem­ber of a re­gional body.

In Jan­uary 2014, the is­land hosted the sec­ond CELAC sum­mit. In De­cem­ber of the same year, Wash­ing­ton and Havana an­nounced that they were go­ing to re-es­tab­lish diplo­matic re­la­tions. Ev­ery sin­gle govern­ment in the re­gion wel­comed the de­ci­sion. In March 2016, Barack Obama be­came the first Amer­i­can pres­i­dent to visit Cuba in al­most 90 years.

Fidel Cas­tro helped to shape the his­tory of Latin Amer­ica since the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury. For his fol­low­ers, he was a fa­ther fig­ure who in­spired the strug­gle for change.

For his en­e­mies, he was a com­mu­nist tyrant. Dur­ing his trial for the failed at­tack on the Mon­cada bar­racks in 1953, in his fi­nal plea be­fore sen­tenc­ing, Cas­tro ended his speech say­ing: “Con­demn me, it does not mat­ter, his­tory will ab­solve me.” His ab­so­lu­tion may be, for some peo­ple, de­bat­able. But the his­tory of Latin Amer­ica will have to in­clude chap­ters with Fidel Cas­tro’s name at the very top of the page. — Al Jazeera

Javier Farje is a Peru­vian-born Bri­tish jour­nal­ist based in Lon­don. He is an an­a­lyst with TV net­works from Latin Amer­ica and the Mid­dle East.

Venezuela’s Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, left, and his Cuban coun­ter­part Fidel Cas­tro joke af­ter join­ing their medal­lions, given by med­i­cal grad­u­ates, at Havana’s Karl Marx theatre. — Reuters

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