THE phrase “larger than life” does not begin to describe the deeds and times of Fidel Castro, the legendary founder of modern Cuba who passed away last week. Fidel, as Castro was affectionately addressed by many of his countrymen, was not just the absolute leader of a developing island nation. For more than half a century, he was the preeminent symbol of defiance of, and resilience against, American hegemony not only in the Western hemisphere, but also perhaps around the world.
Fidel was born into a well-to-do immigrant planter family.The Cuba of Fidel’s youth was arguably the epitome of what has come to be called, sometimes literally, a “banana republic.” At the time, a few large American companies had planted large stretches of fertile lands in Central and South America totropical fruits. Their resourcefulness meant that they exercised enormous political and economic power in these developing countries, sometimes manipulating local politics to their advantages, much to the detriment of the poor and destitute.
Theyoung Fidel was apparently much affected by the plight of the many downtrodden segments of Cuban society, although Cuba was then by comparison a leading economy in the region. Barely out of university, Fidel led an armed putsch, failed, was arrested, then pardoned and exiled. He regrouped with his supporters abroad, landed back in Cuba, launched a guerrilla movement, and was soon at the head of a powerful rebel force.
Fidel’s armed movement was not even the biggest or best equipped among the many anti-government forces in Cuba. But in conjunction with his almost equally renowned comrade, the young Argentine doctor-turned-revolutionary Che Guevara, Fidel was extraordinarily skilled at grabbing worldwide media attention, arranging interviews with reporters from major newspapers deep inside their jungle base, both being strikingly dashing figures, lighting up the famous Cuban cigars in between directing battles. Fidel soon emerged as the main figure of the Cuban armed opposition.
By the time his guerrilla army marched triumphantly into the Cuban capital, Havana, Fidel was apparently still searching for the best administrative model for his newly “liberated” country. He even visited the United States shortly after to cement continuing bilateral economic cooperation. But then things turned sour on both sides. Many an American business was nationalized in Cuba, and in retaliation Cuban sugar was barred from import into the US, a huge blow to a limited-crop agricultural economy like Cuba.
From then on, relations between the US and Cuba began to unravel and spiral out of control. Fidel turned to the Soviets who in the thick of the Cold War with the US were more than willing to pick up the US economic slack in Cuba. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis, where a Third World War over Soviet deployment of nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, less than a hundred nautical miles from the US, was only narrowly averted, as well as the Bay of Pigs incident, where Cuban dissidents tried and failed to set up an anti-Castro bridgehead on the island, bore ample testimony to the animosity between the American behemoth and the resolute Cuban regime.
The result was a Cuba whose economy was very much constrained by the ever stricter American embargo as well as a lack of trading in goods and services, and was thus unable to live up to its fullest potential. Over the years some reconciliatory moves were undertaken by either or both sides. But they were often overtaken by whatever more pressing developments in world affairs necessitated everyone’s attention elsewhere.
Under President Obama, the US finally decided to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, and to revoke some of the strictest embargoes against the latter. Obama’s official visit to Cuba was not only the first by a sitting US president, but was touted as one of the major foreign policy victories of the Obama administration.
It was reported that Fidel at most only grudgingly agreed to Cuba’s rapprochement with the US. In the earlier years of his revolutionary victory, Fidel famously chanted the slogan “socialism or death!” Perhaps in the arguably ideological predominance of left-wing social and political thought half a century ago, Fidel did have a point in trying to free his people from the shackles of economic dependence by practicing socialism. But socio-economic developments since then have changed tremendously, with even the staunchest socialist countries undertaking some form of market economy. Yet the practice of market economy is still very much restricted in Cuba today.
Fidel’s and his country’s survival after more than half a century of revolutionary victory in a sense personifies the indefatigable spirit and will of a leader doing what he considered best for his country. The fate and future of Cuba after Fidel’s passing will surely be carefully studied in the coming months and years.