Fidel Castro’s Legacy
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 26th November, 2016
Fidel Castro, who died yesterday at the age of 90, was one of the political giants of the 20th century. That does not mean that I revered him — his record on human rights and curtailing freedoms precluded that — but I did admire the way that he stood up to pressure from successive US Presidents, some of whom wanted to have him assassinated. For decades the island of Cuba was under a strict trade embargo operated not just by the United States but also by many other countries, under pressure from Washington. The Cuban revolution of 1959 led to some truly fine achievements, such as free health care and universal education, putting Cuba way ahead of its regional neighbours in terms of basic services. But that was at a high price in terms of political control, as the system mutated from homegrown socialism to outright Communism as part of the Soviet bloc, and the Argentinian Che Guevara moved to South America to try to foment revolution there. Cuba actually did very well out of a barter deal that it had with the Soviet Union, exchanging sugar for subsidised oil, but the island’s agriculture suffered badly under collectivisation. When the Soviet Union collapsed its aid to Cuba dried up and Cubans went through several extremely difficult years. Though there was so starvation as such there was widespread malnutrition; the state ration of basic products was just about enough to keep people alive but most Cubans literally shrank in size and few earned more than the equivalent of US$10 a month.
When I first went to the island in 1994, flying in from Venezuela, there were power cuts for most of the time, only a few buses were running and I used to smuggle food out of my hotel to give to people loitering outside. I went back six times during the 1990s, culminating in my making a radio documentary for the BBC in 1999, marking the 40th anniversary of the revolution. Many people still felt great affection for Fidel Castro, but for others, especially the young, the socialist utopia had gone sour and they only dreamed of getting away. The cases of political prisoners started to get wider coverage and as the number of European tourists increased so did a greater awareness abroad of the shortages and constraints suffered by ordinary Cubans who did not have relatives overseas sending hem dollars or who did not work in the tourist sector. The first tentative steps towards opening up the economy were made, such as allowing people to run tiny private restaurants in their homes, but often the steps forward were soon countermanded, reportedly at Fiel’s behest, even after his younger brother Raul took over. It is of course grotesque that the top leadership of a so-called Communist state should be in the hands of one family and paradoxically the Castros have almost ensured the overthrow of the system when Raul Castro dies as they failed to train and encourage a new generation of competent politicians. Cuba won’t change immediately now that Fidel Castro is dead, but it is bound to change quite soon and fast, especially after Cuban exiles based in Florida return to the island. They will not be kind about Castro’s legacy, but much of the world will doubtless continue to regard him as a charismatic even unique figure who helped shape the geopolitical landscape of the 20th century, warts and all.