The Legacy of Fidel Castro
11/26/2016 by Zaitouna Kusto
“Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”
Fidel Castro said these famous words at the end of a four hour speech while on trial in 1953. Now, the leader of the Cuban revolution, who survived upwards of 638 assassination attempts, will have his chance at absolution.
He was perhaps the most polarizing political figure of the 20th century. After the success of the Cuban Revolution against the US backed Batista regime in 1959, he quickly became a thorn in the side of the United States. Vowing himself a Marxist-Leninist, he cozied up to USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and made a series of trade deals that caused anxiety in Washington. In 1961, the CIA funded a failed coup of the revolutionary government in the eponymously named “Bay of Pigs” invasion. Following this blunder, the world found itself on the brink of nuclear war when the Soviet Union attempted to place a stockpile of nuclear armaments on the tiny island. Despite both sides eventually backing down, the Cuban Missile Crisis became the official breaking point of relations between Cuba and the US. It also became official beginning of the economic embargo against the Cuban people—one that still maintains to this day.
Castro remained in power through 10 US presidencies, leading many critics to call him a dictator. His vilification by the US media was relentless throughout his lifetime, despite being adored by the Cuban people (and elected by them). Many of his Cuban-American detractors, mostly descendants of landowning Batista supporters who fled Cuba during the revolution, will likely celebrate his death. But around the world, and in Cuba, he will be mourned as a champion of the people.
Under his leadership, despite decades of detrimental economic blockade, Cuba has established one of the highest literacy rates in the world and has a lower infant mortality rate than the US. The Cuban medical system has been consistently ranked amongst the best in the world according to the World Health Organization—in fact, as of last year, Cuba became the first country on Earth to completely eliminate mother-to-child HIV. Additionally, Cuba remains the leader in providing emergency medical aid around the world.
Fidel will be remembered for his support of oppressed people engaged in global revolutionary struggle. Cuba was the only country to send medical and military aid to help Angola gain independence and was instrumental in ending apartheid in South Africa. "The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa,” remarked late South African President and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela. “The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.”
At the end of the day, he was human—flawed and imperfect. "If anyone is responsible, it's me,” said Castro, on the rampant homophobia in Cuba during and after the revolution. Luckily things in that department have swung the other way of late, with Cuba having one of the best records in Latin America on LGBTQ issues (i.e. trans individuals can get gender confirmation surgery free of cost). This is in part due to Fidel’s admission of culpability, but most of the credit goes to his niece, Mariela Castro, who is one of the best known LGBTQ activists in the Latin America.
He is survived by a large family, including his brother, Raúl Castro, who will remain president of Cuba until 2018. His death will have many implications on US-Cuba relations. This year saw the beginning of a softening between the long-time adversaries, but Fidel’s death may prove to be a galvanizing moment for Republican party leaders. It is yet unclear whether the US will continue to soften relations under the Trump regime. Many imperialists would love to see a McDonald’s open up in Havana. However, many Republicans may use this moment as an opportunity to push for the continuation of the blockade. Whatever happens, the Cuban people will no longer have their biggest advocate fighting for them. Even with his weakened health, on his 90th birthday this past August, he publicly demanded the US pay reparations for the damages caused by the blockade.
Debates over Fidel Castro’s legacy will likely dominate media outlets in the coming days. Many are celebrating the death of who they believe was a tyrant, while many more mourn the loss of who they consider a revolutionary leader. Regardless, his legacy as a divisive political figure was further cemented by his death of natural causes.
Zaitouna Kusto is a writer, activist and Political Blogger for CSuiteMusic currently living Brooklyn, NY.