Fidel Castro: The revolutionary outlived his revolution

Che and Fidel. Photo: AFP

A tyrant to some and a liberator to others, Fidel Castro of Cuba died on November 25, a decade shy of a century. While his own countrymen stay divided on his legacy on two sides of the Straits of Florida, the revolutionary icon was a towering figure for the rest of the world. The cigar chomping, fatigues-clad, bearded man, who famously survived more than 600 assassination attempts, was the last stalwart defending communism to his last breath.

Eight years before Castro took power in 1959, French philosopher Albert Camus had differentiated a revolutionary from a rebel. He said that while the former kills men and principles in the process, the latter only kills men. When Fidel Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista from power, more than 5,000 lives were lost. And that bloodshed was justified to eliminate greed, corruption, despotism, and American hegemony. Critics complain that Castro's principles were long dead after which he only killed men.

The man, whom the Cubans endearingly called Fidel or Elcomandante, remained an island of ideology unto himself in an island nation ensconced in a continent submerged in antithesis. He never openly renounced Communism, even though it kept his country almost frozen in time. He never changed his mind, even though his own life and his country were constantly targeted by imperialist plots, hatched not too far from the Cuba's coast.  

Fidel Castro's Cuba survived like a fading picture in a shining frame. Any picture of Havana befuddles imagination. The stricken faces of its inhabitants against the background of shabby roads, houses and dinosaur cars conjure the image of a country that stands still in a time warp.  

The frame around Cuba for more than a half-century was the charisma of Fidel Castro. The man and his country remained synonymous, and if one sifts through the archives, one will find that most of the news about Cuba has been news about Castro. It was Castro threatening the United States and the United States threatening Castro that made countless news headlines. It was Castro visiting foreign leaders and foreign leaders visiting Castro that appeared in most of those pictures. 

Like Yaseer Arafat and Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro's popularity was rooted in his appeal that transcended other considerations. The world seldom bothered to ask if he was right or wrong in the way he ruled Cuba. Teeming millions, who admired him across the world, were clueless how his own people suffered under his regime. Nobody questioned how it was justice to hand over power to his own brother!

The abiding mystery is how none of those diminished his aura that inspired many in the world. He remained a father figure for many politicians, athletes and writers, particularly in Latin America and Africa. Poor in quality assurance of the revolution in his own country, he marketed that product like an adept salesman. In the words of his friend Ernesto Che Guevara, he was the man who had made revolutions sexy.

It was Camus who also wrote that a rebel always rebels for freedom, whereas a revolutionary can suspend freedom in order to demand justice. One of the criticisms levelled against Fidel Castro is that he had turned into an autocrat himself, who killed his enemies, threw them in jail, and asked those who condemned his regime to leave the country. If every revolution devours its children, it also devours its ideas. It's a matter of debate how much Castro adhered to the ideas that catapulted him to the world stage. 

Poverty and unemployment persisted in Castro's Cuba, but his health and education initiatives earned praise worldwide. Gun crime is virtually nonexistent and murder rates are below those of most Latin American countries. If Cuba under Castro didn't make great strides towards improving the economic indicators, its social indicators didn't slide much either. 

Nobel Prize winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote on the eve of Castro's 80th birthday that Castro's attitude would seem to obey a private logic: he didn't even admit his failure, and didn't have a minute's peace until he succeeded in inverting the terms and converting it into victory. Sadly, Castro made a cryptic confession in the end. He had once said that he would not shave his beard until Cuba had a good government. Pogonotrophic to the last day, he must have subliminally affirmed that in his subconscious mind he had accepted defeat.

Cuba will change now that the wizard and his spell are gone. Friends and enemies will debate over Fidel Castro's legacy long after his ashes mix into the soil. But he will be remembered by the downtrodden, the oppressed and the deprived whenever they look for an icon to invoke courage. Because he was the last relic of a bygone era, when it was still honourable to fight against injustice and exploitation.

The writer is the Editor of the weekly First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star

Email: [email protected]


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