By Raffique Shah
November 28, 2016
IN response to a request from one young reporter for me to comment on Fidel Castro after the legendary Cuban leader died last Friday, I blurted out: he was a colossus of the Caribbean who walked the world stage tall like a giant.
I don’t know if my one-sentence summary of the complex character that was Fidel was original, but I certainly think it was accurate. Never before in the history of the Caribbean had we seen a leader of his stature. And, like him or loathe him, the titans who straddled the world stage during his 50-year tenure at the helm of Cuba dared not ignore him, with many of them grudgingly respecting him.
To paraphrase Shakespeare in (and of) Julius Caesar: his life was not gentle, but the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to the world, this was a man.
In his early years, the tenacity with which he fought and liberated Cuba from the clutches of the brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista (Donald Trump should read up on this monster before he opens his unschooled mouth) and the American mafia made him and his revolutionary comrades youthful legends. No one believed the “rag tag rebels”, as they were described, could wage and win a protracted war against a military dictator who was backed by the mighty USA.
But they did. And Washington, which had hand-made some of the most savage despots throughout Latin America and even the Caribbean (“Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic), spurned Fidel because he refused to be their puppet.
Thus began the alienation of Castro from the Americas and his drift towards the Soviet Union and communism at a time when the Cold War was very hot. This would lead to many confrontations, the most perilous being the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Suffice it to say that Fidel had no choice but to align with the Soviet Bloc, which led to Cuba being isolated in the West—no trade, no aid, no diplomatic relations, nothing.
It was as if the largest island-state in the Caribbean did not exist. It was during that dark period of Cuba’s history that Fidel’s leadership counted for just about everything. He hurdled past enormous obstacles as he pursued the revolution’s goals of first, literacy, then universal education, and a health system that provided for all.
He would, in the ensuing years, surpass those goals, making Cubans among the most literate people in the world. The health system not only delivered to citizens of that country, but through research and development, transformed Cuba into one of the few countries to offer revolutionary procedures for dealing with a range of ailments, from cancer to diabetes, eye surgery to neurosurgery.
Cuba has exported teachers, nurses and doctors to countries across the world, and has itself become a prime health care destination for patients seeking superior services at affordable prices. Many people from Trinidad and Tobago, among them former prime minister Patrick Manning, have been to Cuba for medical attention.
Such astounding achievements did not happen by accident: there was vision and teamwork that involved many Cubans, maybe even professionals of other nationalities who gave generously to Cuba. Then there was inspiration that came from one man—Fidel. He had that aura, that charisma that earned him the title “Comandante”.
His critics and detractors will argue that these and other achievements came at a high cost in human rights violations, the suppression of dissent, the primacy of the Communist Party and draconian laws that spelt death or imprisonment for those who dared to disagree with the leader or the government.
These charges are true, although I’m sure the numbers have been exaggerated. But consider this: with the US next door sanctioning hundreds of attempts to assassinate Fidel, conducting scores of deadly sabotage-attacks, and launching an invasion that was repelled, can you blame Havana for dealing drastically with suspected traitors?
Moreover, critics conveniently ignore draconian laws in countries they favour, such as Singapore (spitting on the pavement, chewing gum) and Saudi Arabia. Washington insists that Cuba must allow a multi-party system as a pre-requisite to normalising relations, but it dare not demand that of China.
While it is true that many Cubans are poor, it is also true that Cuba is possibly the only Third World country that has no stinking slums surrounding its cities or vagrants sleeping on the sidewalks. It is one of the cleanest countries in the world, and the safest, because of an enviably low crime rate.
Many Trinis might queue up to surrender some of their rights and freedoms if, magically, our country can be transformed into the haven that Fidel left as his legacy.
As for free elections, look at what America got—Trump! And we got Bim and Bam-Bam!