The BBC’s coverage of Fidel Castro’s death was poor and predictable. It gave more coverage to his right-wing enemies in Miami wildly celebrating the news than to the 11m Cubans proudly commemorating his life. As is so often the case nowadays, it was left to Channel Four News to strike the right balance. It reminded viewers Castro was Mandela’s hero. The ANC leader was shown speaking in Revolution Square in Havana in 1990 thanking the Cuban people for the support they had given the anti-apartheid struggle. Mandela the revolutionary had made Castro’s Cuba his first port of call internationally after his release from jail.
In 1959, Castro and his small band of revolutionaries – Che Guevara and Raul Castro among them – toppled the brutal American-backed military dictator, Fulgencio Battista. US companies had owned everything, the sugar plantations and tobacco harvests, the zinc and copper mines, the banks, hotels and tourist industry. Millions of Cubans were pauperised, unemployed, living in ‘bohios’ or huts without electricity, water or sanitation. Half the children did not go to school. Racism was rife and so was the influence of the Mafia.
The revolution was popular but not with the Americans. They imposed an economic blockade, launched military attacks and plotted assassination attempts – 600 on Castro alone including exploding cigars. These have, until recently, been their hallmark response to Cuba’s existence.
But the Cuban people refused to give in and have much to show for their defiance. The average Cuban enjoys a health service as good as the average American. The same can be said about education, infant mortality and life expectancy. Crime is lower and racism rarer. Not bad for a small Caribbean nation. Remarkable for one subjected to constant threat from the world’s most powerful country for sixty years.
For Cuba to have survived is a miracle. Salvador Allende’s socialist regime in Chile did not survive US aggression. Neither did the socialist government in Grenada. Or Patrice Lumumba in the Congo or Mohamed Mossadeq in Iran. All were ousted by American imperialism. ‘Viva Fidel’ and ‘Cuba libre’ were chanted defiantly throughout the world upon news of Castro’s passing. Those simple slogans signify so much including that socialist revolutions are not simple; that Cuba’s has endured in the face of astonishing odds; and that liberating the oppressed was Castro’s legacy in Cuba, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. His enemies suggest his legacy was oppression and tyranny. Well they would, wouldn’t they?
Cuba’s existence taunts Washington still. This tiny island on America’s is literally on its doorstep, with Key West being just 90 miles from Havana (and Miami being less than an hour by plane from Revolution Square). George Bush’s infamous ‘Axis of evil’ speech in 2003 identified Cuba alongside Iran, Iraq and North Korea as America’s greatest enemies. It was designed to terrify the Cuban people but they were used to such threats. They had after all survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, they had survived the economic blockade, they had survived the assassination attempts and they would survive the military threats of George Bush in the way Iraq did not.
Supporting the Cuban revolution and defending its many achievements earns socialists the right to criticise. Cuba did not get everything right. The country’s political ‘succession’ for example has not been successful. The fact Raul Castro at 85 is President testifies to that. But those in the ‘post -1959’ generation identified as future leaders repeatedly fell short in displaying what was demanded of them. I recall Roberto Robaina, the Foreign Minister, being talked of as Castro’s putative successor in ‘Granma’, the state newspaper, when I was in Havana in the 1990s. But he fell from favour after accusations of inappropriate foreign business relationships were levelled against him. The same fate befell Vice President, Carlos Lage Davilla, in 2009 after he argued for capitalist economic measures and Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2013. All were seen as potential successors to Fidel Castro.
The Cuban revolution is not alone in facing such challenges. Chris Hani was seen as Mandela’s successor from the next generation of ANC leaders. But he was assassinated by an ultra-right-wing white supremacist before stepping up to that role.
Many questions face the Cuban revolution in this ‘post-Fidel’ era. Uppermost among them perhaps is what difference will Donald Trump’s election make to US/Cuba relations. It probably won’t be good.
Colin Fox is the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) national spokesperson